Lyrics by free association

I’m sick of politics – let’s talk about something else today. Like, for example, the craft of songwriting, and the soulful, uplifting tunes of Radiohead.

Every once in a while, I’ll take a fitful stab at writing my own songs – occasionally I would even post them on the Internet, until my sense of shame would kick in and I would take them down again. The problem with my songs, I decided, was that I couldn’t write songs. I can’t really write instrumentals or sing either, but I looked at geniuses like Bob Dylan and that seemed like less of a hill to climb. The lyrics were the key, and my lyrics sucked.

Radiohead got me thinking about that again recently. Specifically, their song “Optimistic.”

To me, this is one of the best songs Thom Yorke has ever written. It’s just opaque enough to be interesting and warrant many repeat listenings, but at the same time the lyrics are evocative enough that you get the general tone he’s going for on the first listen. When I tried to write lyrics, on the other hand, they always came out seeming flat and lifeless – all my songs ended up being way too wordy and way too literal.

So how does Thom do it? I vaguely remember reading an interview somewhere a couple years ago when he said that he likes to introduce a little bit of randomness to his technique, to the point where he’ll literally throw scraps of lyrics in a hat, jumble then around, and then see what he pulls out. When I first heard that, it sounded weird and kind of lazy. But look at the above video again. Why question it if it obviously works?

Meanwhile, my approach of trying to know exactly what the song was about before ever setting pen to paper obviously wasn’t working. And I eventually realized that’s because it showed a basic lack of confidence in the creative process. When I sit down to write a story, I may have different plot points sorted out in my head, but I’m not going to adhere to an outline, and I’m not going sacrifice the moment for whatever I think the theme is at the time – especially because stories are rarely solely about what you think they’re about when you start writing them.

With that in mind, I decided to try some free associative song writing today. I started with one line I thought sounded kind of cool and a key that set the right mood (C minor) and I just sort of fumbled my way through until I hit the last chorus. It wasn’t until around verse three or so that I even knew what the song was about.

And you know what? It’s not a very good song – it sort of sounds like someone trying to do a bad acoustic impression of The Bends-era Radiohead. But it’s still an improvement over what I had before. And it doesn’t sound like some overly earnest jerkoff on the guitar trying to club you over the head with meaning. So I feel like I learned something today.


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