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By James Pew

Music Production Specifics – Pre-production – Lyrics

A great singer/songwriter I worked with once told me that their music teacher suggested that they revise their songs a minimum of seven more times at the point they feel the song is finished. Have you ever tried this? It can seem really difficult at first. You have these lyrics that you feel are perfect, but you need to find imperfections and, um… perfect them. We all know that nothing is ever really perfect, and if you keep in mind that there is always room for improvement, then it seems a little less daunting to under go further re-writes. Trust me once you start revising your “perfect” lyrics, and you keep in mind some of the things I talk about in this post, I’m sure you will find that it is actually not that hard to find little (sometimes big things) to improve the sound and/or message of the lyrics.

Before we dive into the nitty gritty of the lyrics. I always ask the artist to describe to me in as much detail as possible what the song is about and what is the message they are trying to get across. Once I know what the intention of the tune is, I constantly refer back to that as I’m analyzing each word and line. This is the central theme of the song and every line and word should re-enforce that somehow. That is one of the main goals.

Woes has a hook and two verses. Asher wrote the hook first I believe and we felt the lyrics were strong so we spent a bit of time developing the melody. The chorus came together pretty quick. But both verses were subject to 7 or 8 revisions each (we worked on the verses for weeks). My process for revising lyrics goes something like this:

I ask for a copy of the lyrics. The artist (usually a singer or rapper), performs the song for me in the control room (no microphones yet, we are no where near recording). What I’m listening for mostly is the sound of the verses. This means both the rhythmic (flow) aspects and the phonetic content. Those are most important to me. But the substance of the lyrics is also important (what is the song about? Does every line and word help paint the picture?). This process of lyric revision is kind of intense and requires a lot of concentration. As I hear the lyrics being performed (sung or rapped) I circle words or lines on the lyric sheet that I think could be stronger, or I circle words that I think should be eliminated all together. Sometimes words in a verse are kind of gratuitous. Words like “very,” “and,” “but,” “I,” “If,” “then,” – just a few examples. I consider weather the elimination of a word alters the meaning of the line. If it doesn’t, then I consider if it improves the sound of the line (flow and phonetics). Its difficult to always be double checking the sonic qualities of each line, while at the same time making sure the substance of the lyrics (the story) is together.

A note on phonetics. Remember its not poetry or prose. This medium is meant to be heard, not read. It has to sound good. Hard consents often sound more aggressive (like they have more conviction) than words with softer sounding letters (like pretty much any word that starts with an “H.” I challenge you to try and sing or rap an “H” word and sound tough doing it…not easy).

When it comes to the substance of the lyrics. I look out for a number of typical problems. One really common issue is saying the same thing, in a different way, more than once (either in different verses or sometimes even in the same verse). I go through the verses line by line asking does each line (and word) add a new fragment to the story (I really feel it should). If you only have two or three verses to tell a story the goal should be to get as much detail across in those verses as possible. The goal is to paint the clearest picture you can.

I will also look out for patterns and themes in the lyrics (like metaphors that recur for example). I love that kind of stuff and want to make sure that these types of devices are fully developed. Sometimes we fix things on the spot (come up with new words, lines, rhymes), but most of this work is done by the artist on their time (in their personal writing environment where they feel the most inspired).

Rhyme schemes are key too. Sometimes I hear a line or two and I think of two or more strong rhyme words that make sense to what is being said, so I’ll suggest to the artist that they try and work them in (hopefully creating a more sophisticated rhyme pattern). Sometimes it just won’t work though, so I don’t force it. Ideas come pretty quick when you are working on music, the goal is to work each idea a little and see how it feels – if it feels to contrived or forced we move on to the next idea.

Asher was so great to work with because he is a refinement junky (like me). Our first pre-production lyric session was brutal. More than half of the words and lines were circled (this is typical of most of my projects). Asher took all my criticism and direction to heart. He would go home (and back to the drawing board) and come back a few days later with a re-write. With each new version we would start the process over, but less and less would get circled. Until finally I can find nothing left to circle. It is not a straight line to get there. It takes a lot of discipline to fully commit to a such a rigorous process of revisions and iterations. The tendency of artists is to want to get the song finished (and “get it out there”). Its a cathartic thing for an artist, which can lead to them rushing it out the door before its the best it can be.

So what methods of writing and revising lyrics do you use when producing music?

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