One of the most common questions that I see from lyrics writers (and from writers generally) is ‘How do I overcome writer’s block?’ There are huge quantities of articles devoted to overcoming writer’s block but one instant source of creative inspiration is to return to poems or song lyrics that we wrote months, years, or even decades ago. In this post I’ll explore that and illustrate it with an example from my catalogue of published songs.
Your writing backlog is a gold mine
Obviously it depends on how new you are to writing but many lyric writers will have indulged their passion for putting words on a page long before they strike up the courage to put their lyrics in front of the world. Or they will have many orphan pieces of writing, where a partial lyric or poem was created but they never quite managed to finish it to their satisfaction.
Either way, going back and revisiting those previous pieces after some time has elapsed can be very rewarding. The chances are that there are some real nuggets in there that just need to get polished up. And if you’re going back far enough in time you may find that your knowledge of how to structure a song lyric may have hugely advanced in the intervening time period.
Ghosts – a case study in how to refine an old lyric
Back in 2006, long before I had really started to study the art of lyric structure, I wrote a piece called Ghosts. It was what I referred to as a pop poem, or in this specific instance it might have been more apt to refer to it as a rock poem. It wasn’t set to music but I felt it could either by spoken as a poem or sung.
It was one of those poems/songs that had its foundations in real life events that play out on our TV screens. Sometimes we see stuff, or hear or read stuff, that moves us and we feel compelled to get our thoughts and emotions out on a page.
The context in this instance was revelations around horrendous war crimes that had taken place during the Balkan War. Evidence was being unearthed (literally) that sadly corroborated reports of ethnic cleansing during that bitter war. For anyone who doesn’t remember or know the Balkan War was fought out between neighbouring Croats, Bosnians, and Serbs in what had been the former Yugoslavia. There were no doubt wrongs on all sides and I’m not going to fall into the trap of labelling one side goodies and the other baddies. Life (and war) is seldom so black and white.
What struck me though was how nationalism and tribalism had been allowed to lead to a position where horrendous crimes were committed, sometimes against folk who had been near neighbours. And that was the thought that I explore in my original rock poem.
Ghosts 1st draft – no chorus
Unfortunately I don’t have the early iterations of the original poem but after some fine tuning I ended up with the following four chunks of words. I was pretty pleased with it but it was going nowhere, just gathering dust.
With hands crossed on chests
In coffins of wood,
In graves marked and honoured
Buried in their best suits.
That is how we bury our dead.
That is how we buried our dead
When they came to our town.
With limbs bloodied flung
In a pit in the ground,
Spat on and pi**ed on
Piled high in a mound.
That is how we bury their dead.
That is how we buried their dead
When we came to their town.
We trusted to silence
But the dead would not lie,
They invaded our nights
And pervade in our minds.
Now they’re raised from their slumber
With names on their lips,
Teeth and bones marked out in trays
Which speak of our guilt.
Over the brow of the hill we crept
Oblivious to the idyll of the moon-lit surround.
With guns clenched in fists,
And hate in our hearts,
We lay ruin to more than their lives
As we tore our damned selves apart.
Written by Simon Wright (January 2006)
Converting Ghosts into a song
Fast forward to 2016 and I had got hugely into writing lyrics and had already had the pleasure of seeing some of my lyrics turned into songs. Although I was still producing a lot of new lyrics every month, I decided that it would be interesting to look back at my back catalogue of historic pop poems. Maybe there was something there that could be worked on and converted into a song?
My eye quickly fell upon Ghosts and I realised that it had potential to be quite an interesting and hopefully powerful song. Looking back at it, I realised that effectively what I had was three verses and a poetic bit at the end that could be either a bridge or an outro. To turn it into a song I felt that I needed to add a chorus.
Of course not all songs need a chorus but I felt that adding one would be beneficial and would help the piece of writing fully cross over from poem to song. My first go at writing a chorus resulted in this:
Ghosts that haunt us
With whispers at night,
Ghosts that reproach us
With innocent eyes.
I posted the updated lyric with this chorus on the Musesongwriters website. You can see it here. The lyric got a mixed review. Some didn’t get it or perhaps had reservations about the topic’s suitability as a song. And one musician commented that he thought it would be difficult for a singer to sing.
However, I was still confident that it would work as a song and I was pleased to see that there were also some very positive comments. One reviewer (jaysays) in particular commented ‘I’m not going to lie. This moved me. It moved me as a literary work more than as lyrics. Like many, I tend to read-sing, even tap my foot or finger as I’m reading lyrics to see how things fit and what might work – and it was not easy with this piece… but from a literature standpoint (which btw is also my background), I liked it very much. I almost don’t want it tweaked to a song, but expanded into prose because the subject is so powerful and your visuals clear.
But… I do want it made more into lyrics for selfish reasons. I want to sing this song. I want to lament for the ghosts while forcing the listener into war and hopefully restore compassion for ourselves and our “enemies” by the final lines. I’d fight tooth and nail to sing the syllables somehow, but it’s true that it would be very difficult to sing’
It was great to read those words and it made me more determined to find a way to get the lyrics converted into a powerful song. So I posted them on the Kompoz website and waited hopefully for a musician to pick it up. And then I struck gold!
Ghosts becomes a song!
I was incredibly lucky that a really talented guitar player called Billy LeCoq-Mauvais saw Ghosts and had the vision to put music to it. I’d stated in my creative brief that I saw it as a metal song, possibly along the lines of System of a Down‘s excellent Holy Mountains. Billy created a music only version of the song and then later added a rough vocal demo. I thought the vocal demo sounded pretty good (especially the awesome spoken bridge) but Billy was adamant that he wasn’t a singer. We embarked on what turned out to be quite a long journey to find the right vocalist for the track but the wait was worth it.
Billy mentioned a singer called Doug Schlimmer and that he’d been in a rock band that had supported the likes of Dio. It sounded very exciting and the quality was evident when he uploaded his first vocal. We had our singer! We also had a drummer, Andrea Spaziali, from Italy – another high quality recruit. Now it was just a case of refining the song a little. Billy had created a cool gentle intro and Doug worked on different iterations of the vocals until we were all happy that we had the finished song.
And on the point about the lyric possibly being difficult to sing, Doug confirmed that it was indeed challenging and, in particular, would probably require the help of backing vocalists if performed live. However, I think my learning from this is not to just go for what is easy. If you believe in a lyric, then stick with it, find the right people to work on it and hopefully you’ll end up with a song that is powerful and interesting and fun.
Check out and buy the final version of Ghosts. I hope that you will like it!