I’ve talked about about writing in quite a few interviews now, both writing lyrics on my own and collaborating with my esteemed co-writers. This post is about some of my own particular writing habits at home, little problems I come across or things I obsess about. Okay, that was one. I could have said “about which I obsess” but it sounded pedantic to me. It was my father, Leonard Feather, who first told me Winston Churchill’s quote: “The rule which forbids ending a sentence with a preposition is the kinds of nonsense up with which I will not put.” My dad, btw, made more of a living as a songwriter than he ever did as a journalist. His blues tunes were recorded by B.B. King, Aretha Franklin and a host of others.
I don’t have one.
Physical vs Virtual
If I have an idea for a song, I usually just start a Word document. Sometimes, though, I like to sit in a comfy chair with a spiral notebook and a Pentel Rolling Writer (medium point). It creeps me out when the notebook has too few blank pages left and I get a new one, though of course I use the blank pages for something or other rather than wasting paper. I prefer a physical thesaurus or rhyming dictionary, though Visual Thesaurus is kinda cool. I’m fond of my paperback thesaurus, the front cover partially eaten by one of our dogs. The rhyming dictionary I use now is The New Comprehensive American Rhyming Dictionary. It has a lot of slang, and phrases one might not think of. A search for a rhyme for “braver,” yields “little shaver,” rant and raver,” and “hemidemisemiquaver.”
Dueling Style Guides
When to use a hyphen, whether to capitalize after a colon, how to use ellipses … Please drop me a note if I did the ellipses thing wrong there, because I just can’t bear to look it up one more time. The rules are not always definitive, and sometimes the most-used style guides (see how I hyphenated “most-used?” There’s a rule about that) are at odds with each other. My new album is called Flirting with Disaster. Do you think the “with” should be capitalized? The Associated Press says to capitalize all words longer than three letters. Chicago style says five or more for prepositions. I’m going with Chicago, because I like the way the titles looks abbreviated with a small W, FwD. I often refer to Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips when I’m confused.
Matters About Which a Songwriter Might Be Concerned
I saw a great quote I can’t remember exactly, but it was something like “Being a writer is like having your browser and 150 different tabs open.” There are so many things to think about when you’re writing lyrics, but I don’t “think about” them per se, they’re just always floating around. Some of these are:
“Is that the way people use that expression?” For example, I wanted to say “amble on” or maybe “amble onward” in a lyric. I haven’t heard anyone say “amble” out loud in some time if ever, but “amble on” did get 55,110 hits, “amble onward” 844. 844 is not good, when you consider that “party on,” for example, yields around three billion—as if it were some freakish anomaly that “amble onward” was ever used at all, possibly not by anyone whose first language was English.
“Is this an original title?” If you search on BMI, you will often see that 10-12-1000 songwriters have already had your clever title idea, though it’s certainly possible no one has ever heard the songs you find listed. You have to factor in cues, also. A cue is a piece of music for a film or TV show, and it will have a number and a title, no matter how short. I always keep in mind that the Eagles and the Emotions both had hit songs called “Best of My Love” out at the same time.
“How many times have I used that adjective in the course of my writing life?”
“Was that line too sarcastic/humorous for this song?’ An example of this is “I Hope I Never Leave This Place,” written with Eddie Arkin for Attachments. The first verse originally went
I can’t recall a winter
So long or so severe.
A tree came through my trailer,
Narrowly missing my ear.
I’d heard someone describe a winter storm on our island, during which a tree came through her trailer and almost clipped her ear. This did not fit with the rest of the lyrics, though, which were dreamy and contemplative, so I changed those two lines to
The snow piled ’round my cabin,
Taking me hours to clear.
When writing, I also mull over whether the song has a good “payoff” at the end. That might be in the form of a surprise, or a restatement of something I said earlier. “The Veil,” also written for Attachments—this one with one of my other ongoing co-writers, Shelly Berg—centered around a kind-hearted gesture my mother made when we were eating at The Good Earth in Studio City in the late ’90s. The song moves around in time, and leads up to the description of this compassionate act in the last two lines. Sometimes, though, a song just trails off at the end … like this post …
P.S. Yes, I know there’s a typo 🙂