Vern's Verbal Vibe

Singer-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist and purveyor of folk 'n' roll: spirit-filled sad songs made better.

May 03, 2016

Writing Song Lyrics

In a previous post on songwriting, I walked you through my typical process, from chord sequence to melody to finished song. This time we'll take a closer look at the final stage, writing the lyrics, using the example of my just-completed "Luminous Morn." I should point out that my process for this one was quite unusual, as you'll soon see. When it comes to lyrics, the way I write varies widely and I have no standard method. This is how it went down this time.

As usual, I started with a complete chord sequence and hummed melody. As occasionally happens, a plausible first line popped into my head straight away, so I went with it, figuring I could change it later if need be (I didn't). That first line:

Come to the water's edge, come now, my love

Sometimes the music itself will suggest a lyrical tone. This tune was a slow, minor-key progression that was clearly in the vein of traditional British folk. So I knew from the off that I wouldn't be writing lyrics like "me and my bros chillin', yo." This song wanted formal, almost archaic language—something a 15th-century troubadour would use to beckon his love hither while strumming his lute.

Earlier today I was reading Psalm 98, a great place to hunt for archaic if that's what you're after, and came across this:

Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre,
with the lyre and the sound of melody.
With trumpets and the sound of the horn
make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord.

I liked "lyre" and "horn" both, so I plopped them into my first verse like so: 

Come to the water's edge, come now, my love
Come let me sing you the song I dream of
Strum of the lyre and breath of the horn

Great! But I needed one more line, and it had to rhyme with "horn." I thought of "morn," which seemed to fit, and that mutated into "[Something] the [something] miraculous morn." Pretty nice, sang well, needed the blanks filled in, but still, "miraculous morn" wasn't quite what I meant. So, I went to, typed in "miraculous" and checked the alternatives. "Numinous" came up, a word for which I liked the sound and meaning ... once I looked it up. And that right there posed a problem. I have a songwriting rule that says you shouldn't use any word in a song you'd never ordinarily speak, and that goes double if you have to look it up. So "numinous," lyrical though it may be, was out. The next step was immediately obvious: what rhymes with "numinous"? Well, luminous, right? Sings well, sounds good, sounds a bit archaic, makes sense and passes the familiarity test. So, the first verse became:

Come to the water's edge, come now, my love
Come let me sing you the song I dream of
Strum of the lyre and breath of the horn
Herald the dawn of this luminous morn

I sing as I write, because as mentioned in my earlier post if a line doesn't sing well, I don't care if it's better than Will Shakespeare; it's gone. And "herald" didn't sing well. I began searching for related words and came up with "summon." This required a change in the preposition, but that's fine. The changed line:

Summon the dawn on this luminous morn

Good, but still needed work—that second line wasn't up to snuff. I tinkered and tinkered till I found something I liked better. The final first verse:

Come to the water's edge, come now, my love
Come hear the serenade sung from above
Strum of the lyre and breath of the horn
Summon the dawn on this luminous morn

Because this tune has a fairly simple structure—three verses, two choruses—it occurred to me that "Luminous Morn" was at the very least a strong contender for song title. What I'll usually do at this point is google my would-be title to see if anyone else has used it. Google returned 1,290 results, which I took as a good sign. I was, however, drawn to an entry labelled Current Literature, Volume 5 from Google Books, so I clicked on that. Evidently the phrase appeared there. It turns out that Current Literature, Volume 5 is from August 1890, and as far as I can tell was some kind of Reader's Digest for Victorians. My title was found in a section entitled "Choice Verse from Books and Magazines." It's in a poem called "The Song of the Sea" by one Harriet Whitney which originally appeared in Belford's, whatever that was. Here's Harriet's line:

Their world was a world of enchantment;
And they laughed with the laughter of scorn,
When I turned me away from its beauty
In the light of the luminous morn.

Now, here's where it gets interesting. Quite by accident I'd stumbled on a sample of Victorian poetry. No idea if these folks were esteemed poets of their day or amateurs writing for local newspapers. I suspect the latter (no offence intended, dear Harriet). Anyway, I moved on to my next task: hunting for additional material to, well, steal. Not all from Harriet's poem; I also picked through the choice verse in the surrounding vicinity. Here are the phrases I wrote down:

take cheer
song of the sea
sun-beaten land
vine-tangled valley
steal away
tranquil, I brood
mend broken strands
grassy slope
dwell in the stillness

Meanwhile, a few pages back, I found a reference to a Mrs. E.J. Nicholson (I rarely see my surname in print, so it caught my eye) who wrote under the pen name of Pearl Rivers. That struck me as mighty evocative, something I could use for sure. Swipe!

To give you a flavour of this publication, here's an excerpt from that section: "She was born on Pearl River, Mississippi, and thus she constantly associates the scenes of her childhood with all her literary productions." Yes, "born on." How quaint. Also noted were the frequent use of "to-day," "to-morrow," "good-by" and so on. (This is what "me and my bros chillin', yo" will sound like in 125 years, friends.)

During my dinner break I was listening to a podcast called "The Soul-Directed Life," and kept my ears primed for words I could pilfer from there. Here's what came up:

leading me on

I wrote these down on a separate sheet, then set both lists aside to start work on the chorus. For that, I had an elongated "ooh-ooh" in the earlier demo I'd recorded, and I liked the sound of it so much that I decided whatever word went over that bit, it had to rhyme with "ooh." I started with soo-oon, we can go but didn't like the rhyme scheme it suggested or the meaning, so I chewed on it a little more. The line morphed into soon, we are near. Wrong tense. Soon, we'll be near—better tense-wise but kind of blah. I finally settled on soon, we'll draw near. "Draw near" struck me as a more Victorian turn of phrase, so I went with that.

I finished the rest of the song using the lists, my rhyming dictionary, and yes, several words I came up with all on my own. Compare the finished version to the lists above and you'll see how the element of chance enters the songwriting process and how, in the end, my stealing isn't stealing at all. "Luminous Morn" reads nothing like Harriet Whitney's poem, Psalm 98 or The Soul-Directed Life, but I thank them all for their help.

Luminous Morn (Vern Nicholson, © 2016 SOCAN)

Come to the water’s edge, come now, my love
Come hear the serenade sung from above
Strum of the lyre and breath of the horn
Summon the dawn on this luminous morn

Sun-beaten gardens will show what’s in store
Rivers of pearl lead us on through the door
Steal into gladness, bid farewell forlorn
High on the stillness of luminous morn

Broken hearts mended in times of good cheer
Soon, we’ll draw near
Love is the sacrament by which we’re born
Here on the cusp of our luminous morn

Come to the water’s edge, come now, my love
Come hear the serenade sung from above
Strum of the lyre and breath of the horn
Oh, summon the dawn on this luminous morn
Hasten the dawn of this luminous morn

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