Songwriters from killer Nebraska bands like UUVVWWZ, Conduits, Ideal Cleaners, Her Flyaway Manner, JV Allstars and others tell Lincoln musician Tim Scahill where their lyrics come from.
by Tim Scahill
There's a box in my room that includes every poem I've ever written, since my brief stint with insomnia in high school — about 13 years worth. I've gone through most of my life processing the world around me by breaking it down and making light of it, even if I’m the only one who understands it.
My writing process after high school can be summed up by bands I’ve been in:
Rent Money Big started in about 2002. At the time, I wrote long, bantering lyrics about politics, morals and religion. I just assumed I could change the world and that everyone was going out of their way to read my clever thoughts. I was deeply mistaken. Then, I had a wicked Harry Nilsson phase and thought simpler structures with deeper metaphors with sharp punch-lines were the easiest way to reach the crowd. Then, I had a Mike Patton phase, developing sounds from the guitar hooks and rythms and writing lyrics into those sounds later on.
I had to twist some arms but I got Drew Rudebusch (who wrote the songs "The Fucking Smash" and "Where Are the Cars of the Future?"), Will Holmes ("Monkey Steals the Peach," "Igriega Satan"), and Nate Bicak ("Paying Bills") to write out a whole idea in those songs. But in the end, I made the final lyrical arrangement and melodies while jotting notes down during practice or quick recordings.
In 2008, Nate Bicak, Zach Abresch, Kayleigh Speck and I formed Knots. Call and response allowed Kayleigh and I to bring different parts of the song to life in different ways. It was more fun to sing and easier to remember than the long-winded R$B stuff. In my songwriting I gave the lyrics room to breath and made it easy for live improvisation within the general idea. I'd sometimes even interact with the crowd during a certain part of a song. I was more free to just let loose and not worry about anything but belting it out.
Now, in Irkutsk, http://www.howjsay.com/index.php?word=irkutsk&submit=Submit it’s a team effort with Courtney. It’s been really fun bouncing ideas off one another trying to complete one whole idea. If either of us comes up with an idea, we will text it back and forth or send a Facebook message. She does most of the arrangements and I let her know what I hear. It works out great.
Thinking about my evolution through the writing process made me curious. I wanted to hear how other artists broke down the lyrical process. I asked some talented Nebraska songwriters to give us some insight into how they do it.
Artists and bands (past and present):
Becky Lowry — All Young Girls Are Machine Guns
Brendan McCauley — Husbands, Thunderstandable
Brendan McGinn — Her Flyaway Manner, Thunderstandable, MWMBLES
Bryan Klopping — Two Black Cats, Luminoso Lashkar, Bryan Klopping
Cooper Moon — Filthy Jim, Dim Light
Dan Jenkins — Ideal Cleaners, Drive-By Honky, Dr. Dan Medicine Woman
Django Greenblatt-Seay — Down with the Ship, The Answer Team, Grandpa Science
Jason Meyer — Talking Mountain
Jenna Morrison — Conduits, Son Ambulance
Nick Tarlowski — JV Allstars, Good With Guns, Heat Machine
Orion Walsh — Orion Walsh, Slow Coming Day
Teal Gardner — UUVVWWZ, Crumbs, Ingrid Blood
Tell us how you write lyrics. What's the process? Is there a routine? Do you use a keyboard, pencil, pen?
Lowry — I'm really fond of Sharpie pens and either my Moleskine or graph paper. I really enjoy graph paper.
McCauley — When Husbands began and it was time to start writing lyrics I pulled them all from the notebook. However, starting with “Sex Desert,” I have begun not writing anything down, but rather writing the music and then mumbling on top of the music until something comes up. I feel this way is much more honest to the particular song. I’m not going back to ideas that are separate and trying to make them fit. So you could say I do my best “writing” in the practice room with Devin (McCauley, bass) and Dave (Ozinga, drums) standing around.
Meyer — I usually have some sort of interaction with a friend or whoever and decide to write a song about it. I don't like to write very literally, so I'll pick a theme (space, trains, wizardry, etc.) and write about the interaction in a roundabout, abstract sort of way. Sometimes I'll have some sort of dream or just suddenly come up with a line or two. I try and figure out what my brain was trying to tell me and then write around it. Like a spiral, spinning from the middle on out. Usually just keep everything committed to memory, though I'll jot things down with a pencil on whatever I can find.
Gardner — There are many approaches. It is useful to have a beat in my head. I used to listen to a song and then use the momentum of the memory of it to encourage an outpouring. Lately I think of an image. The keyboard has become a useful tool for getting into the space of my own thoughts. I start typing and am guided by what appears there. I move from the screen to paper once I understand what I’m saying. Images let themselves become symbols when I push them out of me. I pull them back in with a pen.
Where do you do your best writing?
Lowry — I do my best writing in my car. The problem is I also do my best forgetting in my car.
Jenkins — A lot of it is done in the car, listening to practice recordings, then jotting down lyric ideas in a notebook. Probably not a good idea as far as safety is concerned, but when I'm excited about something my priorities are often out of order.
Greenblatt-Seay — Basements and cars.
Walsh — I think I have done some of my better writing when I was homeless and living out of a van. I literally had no computer, TV, or anything to keep me busy other than my guitar and the thoughts in my head. I have written other good songs while on the road traveling or at home as well though. I think a change of scenery always inspires me to write.
What is your favorite topic to write about?
McCauley — It would be dishonest for me to answer that because I’m not completely in touch with the place my lyrics come from, but my favorite lyrics have always been lyric-writers who themselves grapple with contradictions. One of my favorite lyricists is Marvin Gaye, who was really spiritual, but also really sexual, and also really a troubled man of the flesh. I learned a lot about writing lyrics from Justin Kohmetscher, when I was in Thunderstandable with him.
He demystified the process for me, because he would draw lyrics from anything and everything. He took lyrics off of warning labels on furnaces, from other people, from other songs, from conversations he had hear and from jokes we made in band practice. He was totally open. I like to think I inherited that openness from him. He is my all-time favorite songwriter. Period.
When I write a lyric and I didn’t have a conscious meaning behind it, I tend to go back and analyze what it does mean, so I can understand it better, and know what I’m singing about.
McGinn — I used to write about the "everyday" situations. The "not-so-spectacular" type stuff. Lately, I have been more spurred on by learning about misdoings of corporations like Monsanto and finding that what I learned about my country doesn't always jive with reality. Noam Chomski and the like have been really inspiring over the past year or two.
Walsh — I use to write a lot of songs about my personal life, lost and love or the lack there of. I got into storytelling songs as well that tell either partially true stories or are completely fictitious. I also write songs about politics, mone, and the government. Who knows what's next?
Do you like writing about love or heartache, or do you stay away from it?
Lowry — That's all I really ever write about in one way or another. I'm kind of a sap, a lump of schmoopy goodness.
McCauley — I don’t like to talk about love in any obvious way, and if I do, it has to be steeped in some kind of irony. It’s a topic that has been touched on so many times, and rightly so. It’s a big deal to our culture.
However, I don’t want to be caught writing about it and meaning it. I don’t know why. I’d rather sing about sex, anyhow. And I do. A lot.
Klopping — No. Embracing that sort of thing is so 1990s.
Greenblatt-Seay — I used to write a lot about my personal relationships. It's simple. It's easy. It's good, too. Everyone can relate to it. It's also the stuff my friends/band mates make fun of me the most about.
Over the past year or two, I've been writing more about social issues. These days, if I write about love and heartache, it has more to do with friends' experiences. If you have an empathic personality, then you'll never run out of things to write about.
Gardner — I can’t anymore, and that makes me sad, to think that something is lost now, like my ability to just be totally in love and in love with that so much to have to see it... to hear it in a song. I think about different things now through the language I use to write music. It is tragic that I’ve lost it. I don’t write about that, either
Any politics or satire?
McCauley — I try to avoid politics in my songwriting, at least consciously, but they do sometimes come out anyway.
McGinn — Definitely becoming more political ...
Klopping — Very little.
Moon — Oh yeah.
Jenkins — Politics will peek in sometimes, but I try to avoid specifics. Getting specific can date a song immediately.
Greenblatt-Seay — Irkutsk sucks.
Meyer — No political. No real satire either. Sarcastic observations of normal situations wrung through an absurd filter.
Tarlowski — Not so political with the bands I play in now, but I enjoy music with political themes.
Walsh — Definitely.
Gardner — Substance.
Do you prefer to write your lyrics in front of the rest of the band, later by yourself, or with one member of the group?
Lowry — I'll admit, I've never tried writing a song with the band because I started writing before them. It might be something to try, but for all the truly embarrassing stuff I've written, I feel like it's safer to write in private.
McCauley — It’s really funny for me to have Devin and Dave tell me what they think I’m singing, because it isn’t always clear to them.
McGinn — I write alone, and when I feel comfortable with the lyrics, I'll share them with the guys.
Thunderstandable was more of a group process, more open to suggestions from everyone. If one of us said something silly, or misspoke - garbling up our words usually made for some fun lyrics. Elements of conversations taken out of context worked wonders for us.
Klopping — Self with possible modification upon presentation.
Moon — Lyrics, for me, just come together. Be it with the band, by myself, at work with friends, wherever.
Jenkins — By myself, although in practice I'll make up lyrics on the spot, as we're learning a song. Lots of times I end up keeping those lyrics because they usually make us, or at least me, laugh.
Greenblatt-Seay — It depends on the band. If I have a well-formulated thought, I'll run it by the band. Normally it would be within the context of the writing process as a whole, so we can talk about syncopation and such.
Meyer — I write them alone. As a band, I think we've refined a line or two here and there. If I have to sing them, I want to write them.
Morrison — I think, collaboratively (Conduits), we all have different approaches, but inevitably, ride on similar emotional waves, which allows working together to be pretty fluid. Generally, when someone else brings something (lyrics, music) to the table, the rest of us tend to say "Hm... Yeah. I like that. Let's see where we can take this." We are all pretty open to suggestion, and are happy to change something if it helps the song paint a more fitting picture to match the vision. Everyone usually ends up pretty happy with the final product.
Tarlowski — It used to be very hard to show my lyrics to people or to try to explain them in detail. I got over that though. The mere fact that you write is a form of reaching out. I don't go around saying to people, "Hey, read these new lyrics I wrote!" But I do post them on the web and have no fear of showing them to my bands. Most of the time they come across just like I want them to. Sometimes they suck and need fixing. I trust my friends and band mates to give me some of their input, plus more than one brain on a song can make a good song great.
Walsh — When I was in a band I very rarely wrote lyrics with the band around. I always write better alone and would bring the lyrics to the band once we had a song idea worked out.
Gardner — I generate a lot of words. Editing is done solo, but I write around anyone. It is fun to tell Jim what I am writing about. He’ll sit down and really take it in because he really cares.
What do you use as inspiration? (members the opposite sex, dreams, refrigerator magnets, Internet memes, etc.)?
Lowry — When I am between muses (as I am right now), I rely on stories, be it books I'm reading, stories from my friends, memories of good times or sad times gone by. Mostly though, and honestly, there will typically be a muse involved (someone who I want to say things to or write things for that I have no gumption to do in reality) and that usually carries me pretty well.
Klopping — This is a hard question. I bet most people agree. I've been focusing on art lately with a keen eye for abstraction. Maybe my art is influencing my music? I want things to get weird.
Greenblatt-Seay — Normally, it's through something I read or a song someone else wrote, or through a conversation.
Meyer — Dreams. Interactions. Situations.
Tarlowski — My inspiration is a desire to play. I love playing live. I need songs to play, therefore I need to write. I write enough about myself on Facebook and whatnot ... people can access each other so effortlessly now ... Songs are a statement. When I have something to say, I generally do it song-wise. It serves two purposes: I feel I have figured myself out a little better, in a way; and I have more material to jam with my bands.
Walsh — I would say I use my personal life and the people and experiences around me for inspiration for writing. I find that real events and circumstances make for better songs.
Gardner — Inspiration is in everything. It is trying to pare down the subjects which takes the most discipline.
What are you going for in your writing (ex. clever lyrics, word play, irony)? Is there anything you avoid? Any rules you abide by?
Lowry — I aim to write things that make me happy or excited to sing them. I also try so hard to avoid self-deprecating stuff. It's real easy to get down on myself. As far as rules though, I don't really have any. Mostly just the more corny or the more sentimental, the better.
McCauley — I don’t think lyrics are all that important to the listener, especially with the kind of music I’m making. It’s more important to get lyrics I can be pumped about singing. Husbands isn’t a lyric-driven experience. It’s about the band. The lyrics are just another piece of the puzzle.
McGinn — I try to be direct, yet aloof enough to be open to interpretation. I like to avoid sing about "that" or "this" or "it." I need to be more specific than that.
Klopping — After nearing the completion of an English degree in creative writing, I realized I really can't stand contrived lyrics etc. I avoid cliches, cursing and venting. Maybe I don't want words in music. I think someone once said that real music has no words. I'm starting to agree.
Moon — Just trying to explain myself.
Jenkins — I really just want to entertain myself. I pepper the lyrics with inside jokes, lines that are funny to me for unspecified reasons and things that might seem nonsensical to others. Sometimes they are, but I've usually included everything for a reason. And I love to switch pronouns— Write something with "I" and then change it to "he" or "you." That's my big secret. My rule is that if something seems slightly embarrassing or corny to you, it probably seems that way to other people, too. So eliminate everything that seems embarrassing or corny.
Greenblatt-Seay — I probably don't use a formula. I like to keep things vague enough that I can change my mind as to what the song is about, as I experience new things in the future. Having said that, some of my shit is straight to the point and, well...inherently, it's shit.
Meyer — I certainly try to mask what I'm writing about to avoid any confrontation about it. Other than that, I try to write timelessly for myself so I won't hate something down the line.
Morrison — I tend to take a poetic approach - trying to use metaphors and textures to help whoever is listening create their own vision of what the song is about, rather than forcing on them personal thoughts or experiences from which the lyrics have stemmed. I like to play with emotions, be vulnerable, and try to open up the listener. Often, the lyrics take on darker tones (much like some of our music, itself), but I work to make them vague enough to where the listener might not realize the song they are listening to is about a murderer, or someone I've lost, or the state of the world. Hopefully, this allows the person to have their own meanings and experiences that they share with the song.
Tarlowski — I really try to avoid tired metaphors and genre-specific cliches. For example, how many pop-punk bands have described their lover's power over them as having a 'gun to their heads?' Answer— Tons of them. This metaphor would be something to avoid.
Walsh — My goal when writing a song is to impact the listener and to make him or her think. There is not a whole lot to my music and the words are definitely and always will be the focus. I find that I am usually a better lyricist than a musician.
Gardner — I am trying to evoke concepts that are intriguing. I am trying to create spaces and images where the listener can linger, like in a museum or an alleyway or at the foot of a tree. I want there to be small treasures. Nothing should be immediately categorical. It is not intentionally elusive, but it asks for a creative contribution from the listener. Imagination is a creative act.
Where do your ideas come from?
McGinn — Over the past few years my ideas come from being educated on issues or why things, possibly in the news, etc- have happened. There's a song about the fact that I had some dream... There's a song about how interesting cats are. It's been more difficult to write, or to be inspired to write now that I am content in my life.
Moon— Day to day life.
Jenkins — My magical brain.
Greenblatt-Seay — Irkutsk. That band is amazing.
Tarlowski — The song fairy. Oh, and experience too. Sometimes not though. I’ll tell a story now and again.
Walsh — Real-life experiences.
Gardner — Experience of the world, curiosity, sensitivity to surroundings, media, readings, art.
Do you like writing sober or not-so-sober?
Lowry — I don't know that I've ever sat down to write a song after drinking.
McGinn — Both have worked well. No big preference there.
Klopping — The latter. My self-censor is on overload if I'm completely sober.
Moon — Spontaneous glory.
Jenkins — Either will do. Not-so-sober writing will often times seem like it's the best writing you've ever done, but then you read it when you're sober and the truth is revealed. But like most not-so-sober activities, it's still fun.
Greenblatt-Seay — I've only ever been sober.
Meyer — I'll occasionally write stoned, but I don't really care one way or the other.
Tarlowski — Both. Writing not-so-sober can be really quick and easy or really bad and pointless. Writing sober is generally the clean-up stage after a night of drunken rambling, although I have a tendency to over-think sometimes.
Walsh — I have written most of my songs sober, but some have been written while under the influence.
Gardner — All is good as long as it’s truly productive. I don't want to come back to a work and hate it later because I made it while drunk. To me that is a waste of time.
Sum up your writing style.
Lowry — I write precious lyrics about un-ironically enjoying the human experience. Even the sucky parts of it. And Sharpie pens rule my life.
McGinn — It's a fluid and dynamic process. It varies, and could be witty at times or angry and aggressive. Writing lyrics tends to follow the creation of the song but needs to be able to stand by itself.
Klopping — How many words do I get? One? Hopeful. Two? Feel good. Three? Talking beats singing. Four? Words are not necessary. Five? Now I'm just getting redundant.
Moon — Either/or — some of my faves have come when blackout wasted. Lucky I had a pen. I like to rely on what I call spontaneous glory.
Jenkins — Something I have to do so I have something to do while I'm playing the guitar.
Greenblatt-Seay — I guess I've never really thought specifically about my writing style. I just write about what's important to me. That's usually friends, family, social issues, logic and reason.
Meyer — Things that seem important to me abstracted and messed with so no one else can figure it out.
Tarlowski — In a word? Selfish.
Walsh — I would say my current writing style consists of personal, political and storytelling lyrics laid out in the traditional folk format which is generally verse, verse, verse for a song. Though many of my songs do take on a traditional pop format song structure which is verse, chorus, verse chorus. The difference with my writing is I usually leave out the bridge section which is used in most pop songs. I have always liked to keep things simple and to the point. The most important aspect of a song to me is the lyrics and what is being portrayed through those words to the listener.
Gardner — Impressionistic and honest.
* Image reprinted courtesy Ben Fredericson (xjrlokix) via Flickr.