How Lyrics Work - by Carly Simon
Some of the first lyric writing in America was words put to dance tunes. The dance craze began in 1911 and hooked the population. There was "The Hucklebuck," "The Continental," "The Varsity Drag," "The Carioca." Irving Berlin wrote "Everybodys Doin It"and what everyone was doing was the "Turkey Trot." The composer wrote the melody to go with the dance, and the lyricist fitted his words to the music. Because that was so successful, more dances were created just to sell a song (why am I not surprised?): "Mississippi Mud," "The Jersey Bounce." Everything comes this way again, and there was another round of dance songs in the late 1950s: "The Hullygully," "The Mashed Potato," "The Monkey," and maybe one of the all-time waist-cinchers, "The Twist."
When the beat, the particular rhythm, is an essential ingredient, its easier and more expedient to fit the lyric to the melody. Usually (and normally, for me) it is the other way around: I write a lyric first and then fit the music to it. A lyric doesnt always originate in a particular "form." Often I will put down the words as if I were telling someone a story. Prose. Two of my own songs that come to mind are "Two Hot Girls" and "In Honor of You, George."
The story of "Two Hot Girls" is that of a girls night out on the town. My friend Jenny and I got dressed to the nines and went into Oak Bluffs, on Marthas Vineyard, to see and be seen"More for a drink and to have a few eyes on us," as the lyrics go. During the evening out, we were joined by my friend Dwight (a pseudonym for all the guys who have ever crushed my ego!), who concentrated so immediately and ardently upon Jenny that I became invisible and, as a result, began resenting a great friend with whom I had had no prior rivalry. Its a complicated emotion, and one that needed to be looked at and felt for quite some time before being hooked up with anything as confining as an intro, a verse or three, a chorus, and a bridge (transition between verse and chorus). A few days after writing down the episode as it happened, I noticed that the words "Me and Jenny, twinkling like crystal and pennies" had a natural rhythm integral to the words. That led the way to the songs chorus: "Me and Jenny, twinkling like crystal and pennies, two hot girls on a hot summer night, looking for love."
I wrapped the story line in four simple verses (ABAB) with a bridge just before the last chorus. Its a narrative story form, and one that Im very attracted to. Its like the ballads I used to sing that reach a climax somewhere around the fourth stanza, and then the final chorus has a kind or irony, meaning something different when all the facts are on the table.
The song "In Honor of You, George" began as a letter written to George Gershwin. I had decided not to be a songwriter anymore after a lengthy spin into self-doubt (probably after my night out with Jenny). I sat in a bar/diner in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, waiting for the ferry to Marthas Vineyard. Gershwins "Embraceable You" came on the jukebox. Putting together a few of the facts that I knew about him, I fantasized what it must have been like for George some seventy years ago in New York. As if he could hear me, I asked questions: "Did you buy your house in the country? Did you wait for something that never came? Did you die still waiting for your train?" Every time I asked a question, the refrain "Embrace me, my sweet, embraceable you, embrace me, you irreplaceable you" kept hitting, and as it kept hitting, I repeated it in my letter. It became a quoted chorus in a bed of my questions and observations. At the end of the letter, I vowed to go home and sit at the piano and try to write songs again. "In honor of you, George, in honor of you . . ."
Several months later, my friend Teese Gohl and I were working on another piece of material in my barn, and I asked him to put up a click track (an electronic beat used for reference in studio recording); I wanted to sing my letter to George. I did, without changing anything I had written on the original piece of paper I had come away with that night after waiting for the ferry. As in the original letter, I used the chorus of the Gershwin song "Embraceable You" as a chorus to my new song, the melody for which I was improvising on the spot. Because of this new (for me) technique, there was no form to the song whatsoever. It was, and is, a letter put to melody. No part of my own words rhymes, and none is ever repeated. The only consistent element in the song is the chorus. And I, of course, give an enormous tip of the hat and thanks to Ira, Georges brilliant brother, who wrote the lyrics, for Gods sake.
The song works because the form is so odd. If there had been rhymes (or reason), it wouldnt require the listeners attention. A lot of rhyming, both interior and at the end of a phrase, lulls the listener into a sense of "everythings all right with the world," and sometimes you dont want your audience to feel quite that comfortable. Some emotions are better left unrhymed.
My best songs are the ones that are closest to the moment of writing them, as well as singing them. When words work with a singers affirming voice, a song is born that can last, that will be played year after year on the radio. I dont often write a singable melody, because I am hard on myself. Im the only one who can complain to the composer! The mistakes Ive made have largely been ones where I get carried away with how "interesting" I can be. Not wanting to bore myself or repeat myself or duplicate anybody, ever, I get into the human predicament of wishing to set myself apart by being "different." Often it diminishes me, because I dont write a melody that everybody can sing, and as a result no one gets to hear it anyway.
I am continually asking myself, "Who is my audience?" If I am writing only to please myself, then why bother to record a song and then try to sell the recording? I think there needs to be a balance between writer and audience. A kind of compromise, a complicity, a nod and a wink. My best songs have an inherent, tacit understanding of this compromiselike the yellow line down the middle of a country road: you dont watch it, but you know its there. Most of the artistic decisions I make are not on a conscious level. Some lyrics I have written should have stayed lyrics only, or I should get a new shot at writing the melodies. And why not? The best marriages arent always the first ones.
As I grow up and experience levels of successand its seeming opposite, failureI gain an insight that the two are more interconnected than I previously thought. The commercial failure of a song may have to do with its timing, or with some problem in the production of the record (for example, if the music or the words are rendered less accessible because of too much instrumentation), or there could be some other difficulty with the mix.
Ideally, I would like to produce multiple versions of the same song, each recorded in a completely different wayten cuts of "Coming Around Again," say, in different languages, with varying tempos and instrumental settings. By process of elimination, I might come up with the perfect version of "Coming Around Again." It might sing better in Portuguese or might come alive as salsa. When I write a lyric, I now know that I dont give it enough twists, enough possibilities. Most often, words suggest a rhythm, but with a little exploration and imagination, I might have come up with so many other interpretations. Some might have been far more intriguing and exotic, even more personal. I like to read a lyric out loud before a melody is added. I think of myself as Dylan Thomas sitting in a rustic little shack in Wales, reading my poetry aloud to make sure it sounds good when read, as poetry should.
I would like to go over all my lyrics and write them again as new songs. Not later, but now. Me at fifty and ready for fun. My favorite songs, of course, are ones I dont think I could change or even have fun changing. "Orpheus" is one of them. Even though its not a well-known song of mine, it has a magic for me: it is the right marriage of verse and melody and rhythm. The "right marriage" for me means that the singer, whoever she (or he) may be, is in complete harmony with all the elements. Frank Sinatra, as a singer, is in a kind of romance with "One for My Baby." There is never a stretch. You know he owns the song.
There are songs of mine I dont own yet. I will someday. I will rewrite and resing them, and I will make a whole new set of mistakes on the old songs as well as the new ones I write, but each set of new mistakes will be more and more sensitive to the person (heart, soul, singer: the whole package that is me) and will come closer and closer to the truth. All that sounds ridiculously serious, I know. I hope it is also musical and reflects the enormous influences of the artists I downright worship. There are so many of them.
Tonight I listened five times in a row to Otis Reddings version of "Try a Little Tenderness" by Harry Woods, Jimmy Campbell, and Reg Connelly. I had previously been addicted to Frank Sinatras version of that song. It may be the perfect song. The Otis Redding version makes me know Ill be all right. It does all the things that a great (not a trace of hyperbole in that adjective) song does: it allows both sexes to identify with it. The man wants to start learning to tell the woman she is adored; the woman feels as if she should be adored (and if not, she is now adored by Otis); and the saxophone player agrees in a non-gender-specific way. It has the soulful repetition of the word weary. It has the simplicity of every word being attended to by every line of the melody and rhythm. None gets the least in the way of the others. If I could urge anything, it would be for every reader to go out and buy a copy of this song. Its in the Otis Redding anthology, among other records of his (but get the studio version: its luxurious and sparse at once in its production by Jim Stewart). If you have the Sinatra version, compare the two and you will learn more than I could ever tell you about what makes a lyric work.