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DeeDee

How personal are your song lyrics?

I've been wondering about the nature of people's song lyrics.

Although I try to write songs about universal experiences that many people can relate to, most of my songs are autobiographical. Others describe feelings, or situations that I have experienced at some stage (although not necessarily at the time of writing and not necessarily in the exact way described), and then there are those which describe other people's experiences as I imagine them to be.

I feel that my best songs are those that are most personal to me. For instance, I have never experienced a serious relationship that hasn't ended in either mutual dislike, if not loathing, or disaster. :D And yet, from time to time,(so as not to focus entirely on the negative!) I will write a happily-ever-after love song. They always seem to come across as cheesy and insincere.

How many of your songs are personal? To what extent are they personal? Do you feel that a song needs to be personal in order for it to be genuine and so connect with the listener?

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I think a song can't help but be personal.

I've written a bunch of tunes for corporate shows, theme songs rted to hammer home the central message of a conference or just get the troops cranked up at a kick-off breakfast. When I look back at them, they almost I always ended up, in addition to doing their job, containing the feelings associated with something I was living at them time.

I just finished a song that was intended to be a goofy trifle, written specifically for a music supervisor for an American network TV show, who asked for something fun, playful, and childlike that was as open, universal and generic as possible. It still is, to me, a song about my wife and I on vacation in San Francisco. I took out the references to the Bay and that breakfast place we love (Rigoletto, in Laurel Village), but it's still about that feeling.

So I guess I'm saying that they are highly persona even when I make sure that nothing really personal remains in them. Which is a good artistic goal, in my mind: to erase every trace of the author, so that only the feeling you hope to create in the listener remains.

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Most all of the truly great songs should have a personal element in them. In my teaching lessons, I always try to get the people to see things in their own lives that can fill in the details or visual furniture for each song. And the emotions are usually played through that song. When you take their emotions and their visual backdrops it makes the song have a more realistic feel. And if you are going through it in life, chances are many more people are going through the same thing.

To me, one of the best compliments in songwriting is when someone comes up and says "You are writing my life" or "that is EXACTLY what happened to me!" We are trying to write things about life that are instantly relatable to other people. When you "say the same thing but different" and create a way people have never really thought of in that way before, you have succeeded as well as you can.

This is not to say that every detail has to be exact. Never let the facts get in the way of a good story. Much in the country music industry is one third personal experience, one third craft, and one third "Just making stuff up!" But you will find in most country songs reality in the details and a narrative that most people can see in their mind's eye without having to think about it. And you can also take details of other people's lives to make it work. I have not had anyone yet to die the long slow agonizing death of Alheimers Disease. But I have had plenty of friends, ex girlfriends, extended relatives, and several songwriting co-writers who have. I know by talking to them somewhat of the pain, the constant care, the uncertainty and feeling of hopelessness that comes with that. Coupled with my own relatives having to deal with other health issues, and it is not too much of a stretch to be able to put all those emotions into a storyline of a song.

So I would say they all need to have some element of personal relationships to the subject. In most hit songs that I know the writer on, there is usually a part of the writer in there. At least that is my experience.

MAB

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Having a personal connection, sympathy or empathy with what you are writing about is most likely imperative. Songs can very easily, however, become TOO personal. What I try to do is examine personal emotions or thoughts that I have and try to think of way to write them in the most universal way possible. Merle Haggard wrote a song years ago called "Seashores Of Old Mexico". I'm reasonably certain Merle never actually slept on the seashores of Mexico (or probably anywhere else) but he had enough life experiences to be able to convincingly imagine what it would be like. An example I use when I work with aspiring writers is this: I had a dog I loved as a kid who died very suddenly and unexpectedly. I was crushed. Now writing a song about that particular story and that particular dog might strike a chord with some people, but others either wouldn't get it or wouldn't care. But everyone can relate to the feeling of LOSS. Drilling down the base emotions is where the accessibility comes from.

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Or into most of the Rap world, where Roger usually is, he is quite emmersed into the bling, chains, and his teeth grill, riding around his "hood" and playing his rap demos very loud, so loud that he rattles the neighborhood, particularly the retirement home where I live.

Just kidding. He is not into Rap. More hip hop.

MAB

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To pick up on what Roger said: I once had a songwriting class from Tom Paxton, and he talked about constructing a fictional scenario on top of a genuine emotion. He used as an example his song "Homebound Train." Homebound Train lyrics. Tom said that even though people often took the song as true, the story was entirely fictional, except that his father really did die when Tom was 10.

For a long time, most of my songs were more or less about my own life or people I knew. More recently, I've tried to use the "fictional scenario-genuine emotion" approach.

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Mine are very rarely (but occasionally) personal. I make them up.

But the feelings are real. I think they have to be real if they are to be recognisable to both singer and audience.

Even the personal ones are often embellished (or dis-embellished). Even the "non-personal" ones can't escape my DNA and some of my perspective/experience.

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But everyone can relate to the feeling of LOSS. Drilling down the base emotions is where the accessibility comes from.

But the feelings are real. I think they have to be real if they are to be recognisable to both singer and audience

Totally...Thats definitely the way i approach it..But most of the power n feeling comes from the music n changes for me..Its finding a way to graft lyrics on top of that to make it seem seamless n natural with the reality n drama of the music..

I find it very difficult to be overtly 'personal ' with my lyrics -and try to shroud n cloak things in multiple meanings that can be taken lots of ways...

Its an extremely vulnerable thing putting your personal emotional life on the line for others to read like a diary (especially people you know ) and i've got alot of admiration for people who can do that and be comfortable with themselves doing/performing it..

Like you get in alot of country n singer/songwriters

I just can't do that tho..

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I'm pretty sure that just about everything I write is autobiographical when you drill down to the bone. You have all the same emotions that everyone else has, just at different times in different situations. You could write about being a matador in a bullfighting ring, but you bring to it your own experiences of heat, dust, fear, activity and so forth. You have enough raw material to make that scene work. Part is the ability to have empathy, to see the world and feel the world through the eyes of another (or at least feel as if you do).

I've written things that were insanely personal, but nobody hearing the song or reading the lyric would know it had anything to do with me unless I told them. I take out identifying details, or mix a few false details in with the true ones, or just change the whys and wherefores and write about something that happened, in the guise of something else.

You put on a mask, but under the mask you're still you. If every relationship you have ends up in bitter recrimination, and you want to write something happy, just take yourself back to the early weeks of the relationships.

My bottom-line rule is "Always tell the truth, but lie about it."

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I agree with the key importance of empathy in writing song lyrics, so that even if you haven't experienced a situation directly, you can still convey a sense of what it feels like to be in that situation.

I love the 'fictional scenario-genuine emotion', 'one-third personal experience, one-third craft and one-third just making stuff up', and 'tell the truth, but lie about it' guidelines. These, I will remember...Great stuff!

I know what you mean, Steve, about the layered meanings. I have done that too so as to not reveal too much personal information, while at the same time giving expression to my feelings.

I guess I'm wondering about all the hit songs over the years that haven't necessarily been about deeply held feelings or even universal feelings. How about the nonsensical and meaningless songs? For some reason, the songs 'Splish Splash I was taking a bath' 'Jailhouse Rock' and 'Tutti Fruiti' come to mind, but I'm sure there are many more modern equivalents. :lol: Or are these songs, when stripped down to their bare bones, about universal feelings too?

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i'm with alistair on this one, i am fairly detached from my songs

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How about the nonsensical and meaningless songs? For some reason, the songs 'Splish Splash I was taking a bath' 'Jailhouse Rock' and 'Tutti Fruiti' come to mind, but I'm sure there are many more modern equivalents. :lol: Or are these songs, when stripped down to their bare bones, about universal feelings too?

Well, when you come right down to it, those songs were really about sex, whatever the lyrics were - that's as universal as it gets. :P That's why early rock 'n roll was considered so dangerous.

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Hi

Ive never gone out of my way to try and write personal songs. I may express a viewpoint or two, but haven't sat down and thought,"this is what people need to know about me" in a song. It's funny though, one of the few songs that I wrote about such a partial personal experience got published and was going to be featured on my yet to have been released cd back in 1994 (but never was released) song called "Vain".

Its funny how sometimes you write a song about a feeling your having under the surface, but haven't acknowledged it yet. The song "You and I " actually was written months before I broke it off with a girlfriend of 4 years back in 2001. I was having second thoughts about continuing the relationship and strangely enough the lyrics mirrored my indecision and where we were at in our relationship.

Whats strange sometimes is writing a song and then later living it. The song "Isn't She Beautiful " was just such a song where I dated a girl that as I got to know her, I found her to have rather dark life experiences and she seemed alright talking about them like they were normal happenings.LOL Again, I wrote that song a couple years before meeting this girl.

As had been mentioned by others, depending on subject matter, I try to take an emotion or plot and try to write them into a fictional story. The point is to try and take the listener somewhere where they might have been or where they've never been before for those 3 or 4 minutes with a melody to help paint that back drop or feeling.

I guess if I lived a life like the Mexican beer commercial guy, I would have plenty to write about as far as personal experiences...lol

just my two cents worth

R-N-R Jim

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If I were autobiographical, I would have to write about craving rib sandwiches from the local mini-mart.

While I can empathize with what I write, it is all made up.

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My songs are intensely personal.

They not only reflect my reality but for the most part my conscious and unconscious dreams and desires.

…… Do you feel that a song needs to be personal in order for it to be genuine and so connect with the listener?....

Let’s put it this way. Perception is 9/10s of the law of reality.

If your listener thinks you are not being genuine, you won’t have many listeners for long.

I will always say to anyone interested in doing anything in life is to find their passion and be honest about expressing it. Period.

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I've been wondering about the nature of people's song lyrics.

Although I try to write songs about universal experiences that many people can relate to, most of my songs are autobiographical. Others describe feelings, or situations that I have experienced at some stage (although not necessarily at the time of writing and not necessarily in the exact way described), and then there are those which describe other people's experiences as I imagine them to be.

I feel that my best songs are those that are most personal to me. For instance, I have never experienced a serious relationship that hasn't ended in either mutual dislike, if not loathing, or disaster. :D And yet, from time to time,(so as not to focus entirely on the negative!) I will write a happily-ever-after love song. They always seem to come across as cheesy and insincere.

How many of your songs are personal? To what extent are they personal? Do you feel that a song needs to be personal in order for it to be genuine and so connect with the listener?

I don't think I could write about a feeling I'd never had,and I used to write very autobiographical songs. But really... if I had to rely on my own life for ideas I'd never write anything (or I'd write "Woke up, got out of bed, dragged a comb across my head" no, scratch that, I haven't used a comb in years...) I make up stories that evoke an emotion in me. Or I steal stories from other people.

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"Never let the truth get in the way of a good song."

My songs run the whole spectrum. Some are personal. Some are about people I have met in my travels. Some are about historical or current events. Some are about imagined people, imagined events. Some are about nonsense. For songs about people I know, I tend to nudge the story line so it isn't directly about that person. That way if the person hears the song, they won't immediately think "that song is about me." Instead, the person might think that song is about someone like me, and that can be more powerful because it might connect with more people than the one person the song was originally about.

For hard to tackle emotional subjects, metaphors, or even a lie in the form of a happy ending when the real life story was beyond tragic can take a too-heavy-to-perform-song to where the song may still be emotionally moving, but avoid the black hole of being a total downer for the audience.

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Just as a correlary. I once read an article about many of Shakespeare's great plays being re-writes of other people's plays. If you extrapolate that to songwriting, then it is possible to write great songs based on other people's experiences.

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Hi Dee Dee,

I think the more personal a song is the more universal it is. If you can describe something absolutely unique to you that you feel you experience alone. Then for some reason it creates a universality. Don't ask me why I just notice it does.

And it can be something so simple as Adele's "someone like you". Just that phrase "someone like you" I have never heard that said before but it just rings of the desperation of a true broken heart.

Or off the top of my head Prince's "Maybe you're just like my mother, too bold". Had not quite heard that before. But wow it pulled me in and made me sympathize with the guy.

Or way back to the Kink's Lola. A song about a guy that finds out he picked up a female impersonator. Yikes what an admission. But that honesty whip lashed me right into that song.

I guess the song can be about something real or imagined but it better have something real personal and deeply true about it.

And by the way Dee, I am with you on happy songs sounding completely forced. But that may just be me as I specialize in "slit your wrist" sad songs. . . Oh well we each have our niche.

Good topic,

Tom

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I think I probably run the full gauntlet of experience in what I write. Some of it I write for specific individuals and build it so that they are the only one who knows it is about them. Some, I write about my own experiences ... some I write a story and put myself in the narrator's shoes/mind-frame to get a better feel for the story. In some I am making a statement, some I use to make a statement that I heard someone else express. Some I use to help a friend get through a life experience they are having a problem with, some I use to let a friend know that I'm on their side and understand what they are going through. Some that I write (ok ... a lot of what I write) is because I felt that someone challenged me in some way to write it (weather they did or not).

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Just as a correlary. I once read an article about many of Shakespeare's great plays being re-writes of other people's plays. If you extrapolate that to songwriting, then it is possible to write great songs based on other people's experiences.

The songs I am most proud of, have always been written from the point of view of my very personal experience or a third party's experience that I imagine myself in. I'm not generally an aggressive person but I have been able to write aggressive songs that I connect with by understanding what makes other people angry. This is a completely subjective topic though so I fully recognize that my opinion on the matter isn't about right or wrong, but what really speaks to me.

Some of the artists I have the most respect for, write about incredibly volatile topics; religion, politics, etc... but do it without letting on if it's their opinion or the opinion of the fictional narrator. Art gives you the freedom to be yourself, your enemy, your lover, or the inanimate object that sings about how much you need it.

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In all honesty i believe that a song/poem/etc is only as good as the amount of yourself you put into it. And like i tell anyone that hates a certain song or loves another, you can only learn to really appreciate a song when you can actually relate to it! Like for instance i always thought puddle of mudd's song "better place" was a good song but after my dad passed that song became a real tear jerking mood changer for me. I think every song should carry your emotions within the lines and be true to yourself. But to consider the universal...i usually like to take universal things and bring them to a real personal level. That can be looked at as a grain of sand to the entirety of the world or anything.

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Most of my tunes have a bit of my personal truths to them at the beginning but as they grow I just let the song write itself and try not to fit a particular story line until it comes together..

My 1+1 this month.. The inspiration was my son and his friend Henry told me how they caught Coach Aikens at his secretaries house late at night while her hubby was out of town.. Coach Aikens was a Deacon in the largest Church of Christ in the city and the President of the largest Church of Christ High school in the area which my Son attended, it was known for it's strictness and if you don't see it our way you are going to hell.. My boy wound up there due to his football skills ,if your a good athlete you can get forgiveness and do not have to have their beliefs.. :D We went to the State championships 3 years in a row and won it once .. You only found out which player knocked up which girl after football season.. Then they thru them out of school.. Win @ football 1st follow the rules later :D

The end result is an entertaining song which is not a true story from my side, although it is a true story everyday in America...

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All my songs begin from a personal perspective either 1st, 2nd or 3rd hand experience. From there I try and I do mean try to move the lyric over into the universal zone. Easier said than done. For the non-performing unsigned songwriter it's almost a must.

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I always try to put a bit of my own experiences into my songs (although I don't really have to try, it just kind of happens anyway), although I try to keep the lyrics abstract enough that others could listen and draw their own conclusions, or find an event in their life that it seems to describe. I know sometimes I'll listen to a song, and fall in love with it because of my interpretation of the lyrics or because I can connect it to something going on in my life, when the songwriter had something completely different in mind when they wrote it. So, in that sense, I guess I try to put more of the emotions that events in my life cause me to feel, into my songs, than the actual events themselves (if that makes sense?). Although there's always the odd song where I get pretty blunt (by my standards at least).

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I think writing personal music is what songwriting is all about. Why get into writing music if you aren't going to go all out and express what you have inside :D

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