I want to start this week with some beautiful insight on writing songs from my former roommate Audrey Assad. – Lisa Garcia
“How do you write songs?”
In my travels and my meetings with people along the way, it’s one of the questions I am asked the most. Songwriting is hard to explain. I’ve shaped songs like clay pots, molding them on the wheel of my mind slowly and deliberately; other times they’ve shot like bullets out of my pen in a frenzy of inspiration; and some I’ve spent more than two years on, and still haven’t finished. Like children, every song is different, and they are birthed with varying degrees of struggle and joy. So it’s a tough thing for me to write about, because I am still figuring it out myself. How do you answer a question you are still asking?
That being said, within the ever-changing boundaries of songwriting, lay a few rules of thumb. I share them in hopes that they will be a help to any who seek to write and sing songs that communicate with music what the heart sees in silence.
1. Lyrics and music can be equally important.
My Protestant background was very focused on words–the words of Scripture, the words of the sinner’s prayer, the words of a testimony; we had some understanding of Incarnation, but truthfully, the Bible was all we had when it came to a source for doctrine, practice, or devotion. So—if you had asked me fifteen years ago, I would likely have told you that lyrics were always more important than music, because they and they alone could effectively communicate Truth. As a Catholic, my feelings on that have changed dramatically. Little w “words”, as extensions of the capital W “Word” (the Person of Christ), are certainly important and have great potential to be life-giving, but they are not the only tools God uses, nor the only instruments He plays. Writing excellent music is potentially as much an act of worship as writing thoughtful lyrics. I think 1 Corinthians 10:31 can be applied here; “So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God.” Music communicates things about God’s beauty that mere words cannot. So, framing beautiful words in terribly composed music is sort of like storing a fine wine in a tin can. You just don’t do it.
2. Serve the song.
Sometimes there is a temptation for us songwriters to force things on our poor defenseless songs; that crazy guitar solo or that one brilliant phrase. When adding anything, from words to music, the question should always be asked, from songwriting to production, “does this serve the song?” Am I diluting the impact by repeatedly piling on the slide guitar or always using the same rhyme scheme? The fun thing about this one for me is that sometimes it gives me license to break the rules. I don’t always have to put an instrumental section in a worship song or write a chorus that gets gigantic. I try to listen to the song and find out what it needs, and then quit while I’m ahead.
3. Less is more.
Simplicity is the hardest thing to achieve sometimes, and songwriting is no exception. Communicating the most that you can with the least that you can is a skill we all should work on. Songwriting is a craft, and like any craft, it should be honed and whittled to a place where you are speaking from the depths of your heart with both raw honesty and real humility; often, this results in simplicity. A couple of examples of this are “Blowing In The Wind” by Bob Dylan and “I Will Exalt You” by Hillsong United. Both of these songs communicate maximum meaning with minimum verbal output.
4. Get a second opinion.
I have had to learn this the hard way. Before I moved to Nashville in 2008, I had hardly any experience with co-writing, so all the songs I’d ever written were pretty much all my own handiwork. It wasn’t until I was around other writers and artists more that I realized that I needed an editor. I know I have talent, but that doesn’t change the fact that once in a while I get so caught up in a concept, a melody, or a direction, that I get stuck in it and can’t progress, and the song suffers. It’s hard on the pride, but good for the art, to accept outside opinions and even contributions from other writers.
As time has gone by my skill has increased because I’ve listened to other people’s perspectives. Now, when I do write songs alone, they are much better than they used to be.
Friends, keep writing. There are songs yet to be composed that will be gifts to both the Church and the world.