Written for The Essential Secrets of Songwriting Blog by Markus Rill.
Here’s age-old songwriting advice: Every now and then you are going to have to abandon or change a line that you really like for the greater good of the song. But here’s the kicker: Every now and then you are going to have to trust your instincts and stick with something even if – at first – it may not be exactly what you’re looking for or seem nonsensical. It is your job as a songwriter to make it make sense.
Here’s what I mean. Almost every songwriter has noodled around on their guitar (or piano – if the term “noodling” applies) and stumbled upon something they like. And then, following their instinct, they’ll sing just anything off the top of their head.
More often than not this “anything” will have just the right cadence to fit the melody and, more specifically, just the right sound.
Legend has it that Keith Richards found a few chords on acoustic guitar once and started singing “Angie”. The Stones liked the musical idea but they did not want a “chick name” (as they call it) as their song title. But try as they might, they could not find any other word that had the right sound (although, clearly, they could have found a different two-syllable word with iambic cadence). So they wrote the song around that title phrase – which was the right decision in hindsight.
I’ve seen John Fogerty explain in an interview that he sings “toining” and “boining” instead of “turning” and “burning” for the same reason – that’s how it came out when he was making up the song and that’s how he felt it had to go. One might argue that “turning” and “burning” would not have ruined the song but then again you can’t argue that there’s anything wrong with “Proud Mary” as is.
One last anecdote: Tom Petty had a riff-rocker and heard himself sing ”You rock me, baby”. Well, it sort of sounded good but he found himself unable to go through with it – he felt it was really a very lame line. So he rolled it over in his mind for weeks trying all kinds of different one-syllable words but they just did not have the right sound. Until he found “You wreck me” which had the sound he needed but was much more original. The song was easy to finish after he had found the key to it.
Intuition is essentially unteachable. It is something that you (hopefully) develop as a songwriter with growing experience. Without trying to compare myself with these legendary songwriters, a little while ago I found myself in a similar situation. Along with playing a simple guitar lick I sang – off the top of my head – “I can walk on water”. I really liked how it sounded but was at a complete loss as to what to do with it. I thought there is only person who could rightfully sing that line and I didn’t see myself with an opportunity to pitch him that song. But my efforts to change the line or find other words with the right sound were fruitless.
And after much deliberation I found a way to make that line make sense. The song is essentially a guy’s come-on to a woman in which he brags about himself (but also kind of betrays himself).
“I’m not the kind to brag, I’m not the kind to boast
I’ve loved a million girls but I love you the most
I never tell a lie, you get just what you see
I never make a promise that I can’t keep
I can walk on water unless I sink
I promise to stay sober unless I need a drink
I can walk on water, skip across like a stone
I’ll love you forever unless I don’t”
(From “Walk On Water” – Markus Rill)
Now, irony is risky business in songwriting (that may be a blog post for another time) but people get this. It is regularly a song that I get a big reaction for. (And it’ll be on my new album that’ll come out in spring on Blue Rose Records.)
So I’m glad I trusted my intuition on this one. But there’s no guarantee that any off-the-cuff idea is genius. So my songwriter’s version of the serenity prayer goes like this:
Grant me the strength to hold onto a line worth keeping,
the courage to change one that could be better,
and the wisdom to know the difference.
It seems to work for Keith Richards, John Fogerty and Tom Petty.
Markus Rill is a singer-songwriter from Germany. He tours all over Europe and the US, has won a few songwriting awards and is currently working on his 10th studio album of original songs.