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Write a Song About Someone Else’s Life

6:44 am Songwriting

Every songwriter has a treasure trove of ideas for song lyrics all stored up and ready to be tapped, namely his or her own life story! Most of us have written songs about specific things that have happened to us, like falling in or out of love, or specific situations we have been in, like feeling trapped in a dead-end job or relationship. We can summon forth the emotions we felt at the time and capture them in lyrics that have the ring of truth.

The problem with using your own experiences and your own feelings when writing lyrics, though, is that you are not really using your imagination. You are mostly using your memory. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with musically documenting events and emotions from your own life. But imagination lies at the heart of creativity, and the more use you can make of it in your lyric writing, the better.

Another problem with writing about your own life is that you are just too close to it. You know too much! Not only that, but you are ego-involved in the situations in question (otherwise they wouldn’t seem important), which can prevent you from taking a broader view that would make for much better lyrics. Writing about someone else’s life removes the subjective element that can easily result in whiny-sounding, self-indulgent lyrics. (Do I need to name names here?) The desired result: less autobiography, more imagination.

One way to increase the IQ (Imagination Quotient) of your life-story lyrics is to practice (or at least think about) writing songs as if you were that person in the newspaper article you read this morning, as if you were that homeless man over there or the woman who had that problem in that movie. Whoever! Just so it’s not you again.

As a songwriter, you must always be aware of the life stories being played out around you. Put yourself in the place of the guy who’s looking worried as he waits for the bus. Snag some details. Is he smoking? Has he shaved? Make up a story for him that would explain what you’re seeing. Then write a song about that story, from his point of view. Now that’s using the old imagination!

Honeymoon Daze

I often get ideas for song lyrics from historical personages or events. Some years ago I became interested in Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson and his wife, Fanny. I found that as I read about Stevenson’s life I was constantly thinking of new song ideas based on the events and people I was reading about. I finally decided to actually write a bunch of these songs as a long-form project and then to record them as a concept album. (I love concept albums.)

One of the songs I wrote for the RLS album is “Silverado” (audio, chords, lyrics). I am including it with this article mostly as an example of a song written from someone else’s point of view, but also because of some interesting musical elements. The lyrics to the song are based on Stevenson’s actual writings about his honeymoon with Fanny in 1880, spent in an abandoned mine called Silverado in the hills above Monterey, California. The lyrics in the bridges are virtually verbatim quotes from RLS’s journals and letters of the time.

Notice the way the chords in the “such a lovely view” section of each verse are clustered into groups of three. You have G, D, C, then you have C, Em, D, and finally you have Am, Em, D. I don’t mind telling you that the hardest, most time-consuming part about writing this song was getting those three sequences just right. (I hope I succeeded!) And did you notice that the chords from the last line of the verse are also used in the intro and the tag?

Also notice the complete change of musical style from the rather bouncy verse and solo segments to the reggae-ish sound and odd structure of the bridges. The idea was for the verses to be about how exciting it was to be there (very) and for the bridges to reveal what it was actually like (not so hot). Since the tone of the lyrics changes so drastically at that point, I felt that the music should change as well.

A final point of interest is the solo segment. The first and second halves of the solo use completely different chord sequences! I sometimes do this with 16-bar solos to avoid a loss of song momentum at the middle point. (Other possibilities are to change instruments or bring in some backup vocals for the second half.)

The brief guitar solo was made up in advance, unlike my usual improvise-and-hope approach. I don’t normally think of a guitar or other solo as something the songwriter necessarily writes or specifies, but for “Silverado,” I wanted the solo to be especially good.

I came up with the guitar solo by singing along with that part of the song over and over, imitating a guitar, until I had something that would be a really nifty guitar solo if it were actually played on the guitar instead of being sung. Then I recorded myself singing the solo and used the recording to learn how to play it on the guitar. Then I erased the singing and recorded the guitar part. How cool is that?

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Silverado (Bendig) (audio, chords, lyrics)
Mark Bendig: vocals, guitars, keyboards

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