The idea of a songwriting team – a lyricist and a composer – seems anachronistic, an artifact of the past. Tin Pan Alley, the glory days of Broadway musicals, the American Songbook. Since the rock era began, it’s much less common to find songs written by structured partnerships in this way.
I’m a member of one of these quaint collaborations, though. I have been a lyricist for more than forty years for my very good friend C.P. Butchvarov. Some of the best creative experiences of my life have been wrapped up in collaborative songwriting.
Both C.P. and I write songs without each other, as well. As a musician and composer, I’m barely competent; as a lyricist, C.P. is damn good. But we don’t suffocate ourselves by trying to make every song dependent on each other.
As the person who writes the words, I’m aware that lyrics are the least important aspect of a song. For most songs, I believe that the lyrics carry less than ten percent of the impact for the listener. The words can be stupid, they can be nonsense, and the song can still be great. In my opinion, the primary responsibility of the lyricist is to make vocal sounds that fit the melody and the arrangement. That’s the fundamental logic behind my preference that the words should be written after the music.
The perfect musical setting can make a line of lyrics vault into the realm of greatness. Here’s an example from a music-and-lyrics songwriting team, Elton John and Bernie Taupin: “I’ve finally decided my future lies beyond the yellow brick road.” I’m fairly certain the lyrics were written first and put to music in this case. The song has a beautiful melody with an unpredictable chord progression. When it comes to this final line, the vocal takes on a march rhythm, then unexpectedly and brilliantly soars into a different key. That moment brings chills, and as lovely as they are, it isn’t Bernie’s words that do that to me.
A flawless line of lyrics can make a song more memorable. Another composer/lyricist team I admire is Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter of the Grateful Dead. I confess that I get impatient with some of Jerry’s slow, trudging melodies. I’d probably skip over the song “Candyman” every time I listen to “American Beauty” if it wasn’t for this gem of a couplet: “Good morning, Mister Benson, I see you’re doing well. If I had me a shotgun, I’d blow you straight to hell.”
Songwriting is a process with magic and alchemy involved. There is no thrill greater than listening back to a powerful song and feeling I can’t believe I wrote that! C.P. Butchvarov wrote a song called “Mountain Country” that was amazing, but I lobbied him over a barroom table in Grand Teton National Park to let me rewrite the lyrics. Thanks, C.P., for letting me have a little piece of the credit for this great song. Listen to the result here.