Even An Old Dog Can Learn New Tricks

© 2011 Rand Bishop

Evidence that we (or more specifically I) never stop learning…

Recently, in a writing session with two of my favorite writers and good friends, I was reminded of one essential lesson, and I learned what to me was a fresh approach to the craft of writing lyrics.

I had been saving a certain song title for months, waiting for the perfect female perspective to help me pull it off (I am reluctant to write something from a female perspective without the aid of a female co-writer). I will not reveal the actual hook at this juncture, for fear that some unscrupulous member of the creative community might just borrow it. (Paranoid? Not usually, but this happens, and it’s happened to me. Once burned, you know the rest.) Suffice it to say that the title is one of those juxtapositions of verbiage that are curiously contradictory: as in “Beautiful Mess” and “Favorite Mistake.” It’s always tricky trying to find a spin on these kinds of ideas that will be attractive to a recording artist.[private_freebie]

I’ve written extensively on the vanity and ego of stars, and how so few of them dare to portray themselves as anything but heroic. Self-deprecation, sarcasm, the revelation of any character flaws are rare, particularly in the country music world. Oddly, some of country’s newest superstars regularly exhibit a sense of humor and even dare to share some less-than-admirable personal quirks in their lyrics (Brad Paisley and Miranda Lambert come to mind). However, over the last 20 years or more, most in the country pantheon have taken themselves all too seriously and always want to come out smelling like a rose. (Remember Roger Miller? He never worried about such hogwash and had hit after brilliant hit.) Lately, the vast majority of country artists have been like the actress Claudette Colbert, only allowing the camera to shoot “the good side” of their faces. They never want to raise the curtain on their human frailties, only to spotlight their gallantry and beauty.

Anyway, I digress. Back to my writing session. Irene Kelley, who has had cuts by Trisha Yearwood, Alan Jackson, as well as the new single by the reigning female bluegrass vocalist of the year, Claire Lynch, was in da house. The third writer was Irene’s daughter, Justyna, a beautiful and talented singer/songwriter in her own write. Both Kelley girls have been long-time collaborators of mine, but we had only written as a trio once before. So, I unveiled my title and a chorus sketch. The Kelleys’ body language didn’t demonstrate spontaneous enthusiasm. There was intrigue, yes. However, no one was doing flips of joy over what I thought was a pretty dang great, potential hit idea. We opened the floor to a brainstorming session. The ladies began giving me the perspective I needed to make the idea work. We discussed every angle we could find. Nearly every remark began with “What if…?” Finally settling on a lyrical attitude and a musical style, we set out to re-write my chorus. After an hour or so, it was beginning to take shape. We recorded a tentative little sketch. It wasn’t thrilling, but it sounded okay. Then, I left the room for 15 minutes or so to take care of something personal (none of your cotton-pickin’ bizness!).

When I returned, Justyna had intuited an entirely new musical approach. It was hip and magical, and we all agreed that this was a far better way to go. Now, after two hours of battling away at a challenging idea, there was some genuine excitement in the room. We spent the next hour or so finishing off the chorus, always questioning our choices as to how the character of the singer was being portrayed. Remember, we want to write a song that will attract performers, not one that will scare most of them away — not because it’s a crap song (I don’t write those. LOL), but because the lyrical attitude might reflect negatively on the artist’s precious image. We recorded the new chorus. The lyric was solid and spunky. I loved it.

I looked at Irene, and she had a very sour expression on her face. “Are you grimacing?” I asked. She nodded. “Well what’s that about?” Successful co-writing requires that we respect our collaborators, and body language sometimes speaks louder than words. Even if one writer prevails over the other in terms of the direction of a song, he should encourage his creative pals to speak up. We don’t want to leave any point of view on the table, unexpressed.

“I was just wondering if this approach would really attract an artist,” Irene said meekly, as if she was afraid that I would yell at her (something I would never do… although, as Irene well knows, I will voice my opinion persuasively and with vigor). Anyway, had I not noticed the skepticism on her face, Irene might not have said anything. But, I saw, I inquired, and encouraged her to give voice to her scowl. As a result, we talked about it some more, examined it, and adjusted the chorus to open up a whole new posture for the singer. This new, improved approach we all agreed would be much more attractive to more artists, without losing any of the song’s spunk and strength. Irene’s grimace had been replaced with an ear-to-ear grin, and the room was electric with enthusiasm. That’s the lesson I relearned: ALWAYS OBSERVE BODY LANGUAGE.

Then we got busy on the verses. I’m a nut for opening lines, and Irene came up with a doozy of a couplet. Then she said, “I look at lyrics like I’m taking steps. Left, right, left, right.”

“What do you mean by that?” I didn’t quite get the analogy.

“Well,” she explained, “if you use the word ‘black’ in the first line, then try to use ‘white’ in the next. You know, opposites.” Wow! After having written songs for more than 45 years, I’d never thought of lyrics in that way. Irene’s theory was a revelation to me. We applied her step-by-step technique to the verses, and the song began to fall in place. By the end of the day, we had two dynamite verses and a powerful chorus, with a bridge to go.

“This is ‘country strong’!” Justyna exclaimed, doing a seal clap with her mittened hands. This is an example of true collaboration, three writers all checking their egos at the door and endeavoring to communicate constructively. We’ll get back on the song asap to write the bridge and do final tweaks, because we all feel strongly that we have a potential winner on our hands.[/private_freebie]

About The Author

Vinny Ribas

Vinny Ribas is the founder and CEO of Indie Connect, an artist management, consulting and training company. The company also hosts networking and educational events and has published an app that connects people to the Nashville Music Industry. During his 40+ year career, Vinny has been a full time musician, artist manager, booking agent, songwriter, studio owner, producer and the Entertainment Director for the NV State Fair. He has also coached over 1000 artists and songwriters. He is a sought after speaker and has authored over 400 music industry articles. Vinny is also the CEO of Top 4M Entertainment, an independent film and television production company.