by Moe Berg, Canadian Musician, February 1987
First off, just about any way there is to write a song, I've probably done it. I've written the music first, the lyrics first, fully dressed, completely naked, while drunk, while in a laundromat, while drunk in a laundromat, etc., etc. However, having said all of that, the general procedure tends to be as follows...
I'll be walking down the street or riding the subway and something will occur to me. Now, I don't mean to sound cosmic, but I then begin to think in 'song,' which is to say, the structure of my thoughts will be in verse instead of images. Or, more appropriately, the images will become lines with words that rhyme, which are then scratched onto whatever available note paper I might have. About every week or two I gather up all of the unfinished bits I have and go sit in a coffee shop where there isn't much distraction, and cut and paste them into a song. (This last part works particularly well in the summer when it's really hot and the coffee shop doesn't have air conditioning. After my third cup of coffee the combination of the heat and the caffeine starts to make me delirious and all manner of strange things begin occurring in my songs.)
When I'm writing lyrics I am also thinking about how they will sound musically - how I will sing them, because ultimately, I don't think my lyrics (or most other songwriters', for that matter) stand up as poetry. However, a line that might not seem particularly interesting lying flat on a piece of paper can have incredible power if it is delivered properly in a song. That's why I'm of two minds about lyric sheets. While it's nice to have people know the words to your tune, I hate the thought of people reading the lyrics before they hear the song.
If there is a theme running through my writing it might be Dealing With a Troubled and Unsettled World. The way people treat each other is truly shocking to me, so it's really easy to be another 'angry young man,' but not very original and not much fun. So when I'm writing about the world, relationships, my life, etc., I try to approach it from a wacked out, off-center or even slightly infantile angle, because ultimately, I think it's better to laugh at them than cry. Which is not to say that all of my songs are funny; in fact, most of them aren't, but I try to have a sense of humour about almost everything. Also, I consider myself to be a romantic, both in the literary sense and in my relationships with other people, so except for those rare occasions when I feel like exploring the 'dark side,' most of my stuff tends to be fairly positive.
"I'm An Adult Now," the current single of The Pursuit of Happiness, is a fairly good example of everything aforementioned. Someone else, when writing about the loss of their youth and the prospect of growing old, might decide to present it in a morose, reflective or melancholy way. I chose to concentrate on the more base and reactionary aspects of the subject (read: sex, drugs and rock'n'roll) because I thought this would make the most interesting song. The line of the song that got the video 'banned' from MTV ("I'd sure look like a fool, dead in a ditch somewhere with a mind full of chemicals like some cheese-eating high school boy") contains a lot of the spirit of the song. If a 15-year-old dies sniffing glue - that's a tragedy. If a 30-year-old dies while on acid - that's a joke, a dark joke, but still a joke.
The song was born while walking down the street one day. It was a sunny day and I had nothing in particular to do. At the time I was having a lot of trouble dealing with the very issues "I'm An Adult now" is about. I was thinking about teenagers and how different their lives and motivations were from mine and the song just revealed itself to me. I took a couple more 'walks' over the next day of so, then sat down and arranged the lyrics in a logical order and because, as I mentioned earlier, I conceive the lines of a song musically, the whole thing was finished.
If I might change the subject briefly, one other thing I enjoy doing is shocking people, though not gratuitously. I just feel that if you really want to nail a point home you should use the biggest hammer you can find. In fact, that's the general approach of the Pursuit of Happiness. We're the last people who are going to stand up around a dark stage and moan about how awful things are. We like to stand up there and figuratively slap the audience in the face in the hopes that they'll loosen up and try to have fun.
Of course, everything I've said in this column is, in a general sort of way, beside the point. I think that how or why a song is written doesn't matter much to the person listening to it. Ultimately, I believe people relate to music aesthetically, meaning they like the sounds or attitudes of a piece or their musical education predisposes them to a certain style. Some people, for example, don't care for loud, distorted guitars and even though the guitarist might be involved in something that is artistically viable, someone who isn't into that sort of thing won't likely care much about it. So if I had to say why people like "I'm An Adult Now," I'd say because it's funny, it has a good beat and you can dance to it.
Finally, if I have any advice to songwriters starting out, it's don't take any advice from other songwriters. That might sound glib, but I think that songwriting is a very personal and individual thing and you really have to find your own way to make it work. Also, and this might seem too obvious, the only thing that matters is writing a great song, not what you say, how modern you are or what style you're working in, but that the song is as perfect as you can make it.
Copyright © 1987, Canadian Musician, Norris-Whitney Communications, Inc.