songwriting

  • Behind the Scenes
  • 5 Things That Make for Awesome Lyric-Writing

     “It’s only words, and words are all I have, to take your heart away.”
    (‘Words’, The Bee Gees)

    Music has always been a big part of my life – there’s usually a tune of some kind in my head no matter the time of day. But melody aside, it’s the lyrics of any song that really sticks with me even for years. Whatever the mood of the day, there’s always a good lyric to express and bring clarity to what’s really going on in our hearts, and this is all the more so when it comes to songs of praise and adoration unto God.

    So, for all you aspiring songwriters/wordsmiths, here’s a list of ‘5 things/steps’ you can take to hone your craft and make your lyrics awesome: 

    (1) What’s the Big Idea?

    As with all things, perspective is important. With each line or completed verse, ask yourself how it addresses, contributes to, or propels the main message/idea of the song. Each lyric is like a brush of paint on a canvas – how does it add to the picture you are painting? If there is one image or phrase that you want to leave your listeners with by the end of the song, what would it be?

    If you find yourself struggling to answer these questions in a sentence or two, chances are that you might need to spend a little more time reflecting on what you are really trying to say.

    (2) Go Back to the Source

    When you seem to have hit a roadblock with what you are trying to say through your lyrics, go back to the source of inspiration what was it that caught your attention and inspired you in the first place? Whether a picture, phrase, passage of scripture or moment of revelation, return to it and take the time to unpack your thoughts slowly. Linger there and invite God in, asking Him: “Where are You in this?”

    Chances are, no one is really pushing you to finish your song (unless it’s an #AwakenGen Songwriting assignment!), so converse with God over it and listen in closely. What is it that you have heard from the heart of the Father and what is it that you really want to say in response? I do believe that God is speaking to us all the time, but we need the discipline of slowing down to listen closely with intent (“Speak, for your servant is listening.” – 1 Sam 3:7-11). 

    (3) Write Relationally

    Once you’ve sorted out your big idea, put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard) and write. Write down everything that comes to mind first – there’s always time to edit it later, so don’t curb your creative expression by pre-judging yourself and cutting off the flow.

    I find that it helps tremendously to also be clear who you are writing to. As you write the verses, chorus, bridge, bear in mind: who is this really directed to? (check out Deuteronomy 31:19-22 for a great example) Be specific – it is for the Church? The broken and hurting people? Is it a reminder to yourself, or perhaps, a love note to God? If it is a prophetic word that’s meant to be like a wellspring to dry bones, who should it be channeled to (Isaiah 50:4)?

    We write to express ourselves and have that desire for expression only because we are made to be relational. Understanding who you are speaking to/writing for will help shape the words you choose, and the way you structure them.

    (4) Metaphorically Speaking (Show, Don’t Tell)

    Now, for the nitty-gritty. Once you’ve got a working draft down (remember, it doesn’t have to be perfect!), examine each line closely and consider whether there is a better way to express it. A fantastic rule I’ve learnt from AG Songwriting mentor Ian Chew, is “Show, don’t tell”.

    There are myriad tools you can use to achieve this purpose – alliteration, contrasts, rhyming, symbols, metaphors, description of sensory experiences, wordplay, etc. Experiment, and don’t be afraid to try new methods that are out of your comfort zone; get into the habit of re-examining your creative inclinations/idiosyncrasies and challenge yourself to express things in a fresh way. One of my favorite things to do is write down a sentence and flip the keys words in that sentence to explore if they somehow bring a different angle to what I’m saying. For instance: “Do you know who I really am?” vsDo you really know who I am?

    I believe that good songwriting is oftentimes about laying hints and teasing a listener into exploring and unfolding the mystery themselves. Like a cat with a ball of yarn, release just enough so that the listeners pull on it and unravels the rest on their own. And guess what? It’s totally biblical! Jesus was always speaking in parables. For instance, in Matthew 20:1, Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven is “like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers” – what on earth does that mean??

    He’s always leaving some kind of mystery for us to discover. If the most Creative Being in the universe adopts these methods, count me in. 

    (5) There’s Always Time for Rhythm and Rhyme

    At different points of the writing process, stop – look through what you’ve written and read it out loud. Songs are meant to be auditory so don’t just look at it on a piece of paper or laptop.

    Does it flow well, or does it somehow feel choppy and misaligned? You will have a sense of it somehow. While our lyrics don’t always need to have rhymes, it should carry an inherent rhythm (or meter). The internal rhythm of the words that we write and the flow of our expression is very much the heartbeat of the song, and this especially true whenever we endeavor to write lyrics from the heart.

    It’s like the principle of ‘Selah’ in the Psalms: Pause. Listen. Realign.

    Lastly, (‘bonus’ point, yay!), our input almost always equals our output. I find that the more widely I read and listen, the more inspired I am to write. Build into your life the discipline of writing and create space to do it. The pen is not just mightier than the sword – it is a different kind of sword that requires sharpening as well.

    As you write, keep your ears, minds, and hearts open to how God might be moving all around us. It’s a great discipline to have a notebook at hand, just to make sure we don’t fail to capture the things that God is showing us. He’s always speaking – even singing – around us, and I believe that our role as songwriters is merely to listen in and be a scribe to the songs that He’s hidden all around us.

    The Sovereign Lord has given me a well-instructed tongue,
    to know the word that sustains the weary.
    He wakens me morning by morning,
    wakens my ear to listen like one being instructed.”
    (Isaiah 50:4)

    Click here to find out more about Awaken Generation’s Songwriting stream!

  • Blog
  • Worship & Songwriting: An Interview with Dan McCollam

     

    Dan McCollam empowers worshippers worldwide to understand and release the transformational effect of worship on individuals, families, cities, and nations. As director of Sounds of the Nations, he trains thousands around the world to write and record worship songs using their own ethnic sounds, styles, languages, and instruments. Awaken Generation has had the honour of hosting him at Singapore’s first-ever Sounds of the Nations conference in 2017. Dan plays over 40 instruments and is a director and teacher at The Mission School of Supernatural in Vacaville, California. He also serves on the teaching faculty of Bethel School of the Prophets and Bethel School of Supernatural Worship in Redding, California. Dan and his wife, Regina, have been married for over 30 years and have four children.

    AG: For someone whose life and ministry involves a lot of music, what kind of music do you personally listen to? 

    Dan: For pleasure I mostly listening to World Ethnic music. Also, I like a lot of nice acoustic guitar or piano pieces. It’s usually original melody instrumental pieces. I like bands that combine electronic sounds with earthy, acoustic, ethnic instruments. But we always have worship music on in our home. Honestly, we love the Bethel and Jesus Culture stuff because the message reinforces our values. So I really like that.

    AG: We heard you have a supernatural grace to pick up any stringed instrument and play it immediately, do you have any favourites?  

    Dan: My favourite instruments to play, as far as ethnic instruments, are the Chinese instruments. And that’s because they’re tuned to the pentatonic scale, and so you can’t hit a wrong note, which is really cool because then the creativity that flows out of that is just super. Like the ‘ruan’ – the round banjo – and the ‘guzheng’. So I play those and I really, really enjoy playing them. So the pentatonic instruments are some of my favourites. They just immediately take me somewhere.

    AG:  Okay, onto some questions about worship! During the Sounds of the Nations conference, you were talking about releasing the atmosphere of an attribute of God that you’ve gotten a revelation about. Some people may be new to this concept, so what does this look like?

    Dan: Before you can change an atmosphere, you have to carry one. So if you wanna release peace in the room, then go to the hardest place there is for you to have peace, and retain your peace; keep your peace. And you do that, again, by just tapping into the presence of the Lord, acknowledging Him as the Prince of Peace, letting the peace of God rule and reign in your heart and mind.

    A lot of people try to start changing atmospheres before they really become a carrier of an atmosphere, so it’s really practical first to meditate on that attribute and then embody that atmosphere. Let the word become flesh in you. Let that song that is focusing on that attribute take you there. Get really accustomed to that level of personal breakthrough, and then you can start pushing it out into the room.

    AG:  And this will happen naturally? 

    Dan: It will, but intention is really important. So that’s the other thing. You know, there’s really only four scriptures in the New Testament on worship:

    1. John 4:23 – the Father is seeking worshippers,
    2. Colossians 3:16 – teaching one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs,
    3. Ephesians 5:19-20 – being filled with the Spirit, then speaking to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, and
    4. Revelation 4, where we see the four living creatures around the throne.

    Two of those are about singing over other people, or creating atmosphere over other people. And I think it’s a real missing gem; a real missing understanding in worship. Obviously, singing over one another is creating an atmosphere of encounter.

    So you see this in the Old Testament – Samuel said, “Listen, Saul, when you come into the atmosphere of these prophets who are prophesying on their instruments, your heart will be changed into another man. The spirit of prophecy will come on you.” Then later in 1 Samuel 19, where Saul is trying to capture David, and he sends the armies to Naioth, the whole armies come under the influence of the atmosphere that these prophets are creating. So we see that people are creating atmospheres through their worship.

    AG:  Which starts from a place of meditation and cultivation in the secret place. 

    Dan: Yes. And we parallel it again to the Isaiah passage, that God sends forth His word to accomplish His purpose. So He doesn’t just speak it; He sends it to accomplish a specific thing. In the same way, when you start singing atmospherically, you’re not just singing the song; you’re sending the song to accomplish a kingdom purpose.

    AG:   Do you believe that everyone who is musical has the potential or grace for songwriting?

    Dan: I actually believe that everyone on earth should write a song, and the reason is: Scripture repeatedly says, “Sing a new song to the Lord, all the earth”; “Sing a new song to the Lord, all the people”. And some people take that as, “Everybody, sing the new song.” In Psalm 40, David said, “He pulled me out of the miry clay, He set my feet on the rock, He established my goings and put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise. Many will see it and fear and trust in the Lord.” I feel like God actually gives everyone a new song when they’re born again, and that song doesn’t always manifest as a song, you know what I mean? But He re-tunes us; He changes the song in us; He changes the heartbeat in us, so to speak. And I think out of that place of encounter, that everybody can create and sing something original.

    I think the spiritual song is, in a way, creating or songwriting, and I think that’s very, very important – putting your own vocabulary to your worship.

    AG: I think that gives a lot of people hope and encouragement. So what would your advice be to people who are new in their journey of songwriting in general?

    Dan: When I first started writing my songwriting books, there weren’t any out there for worship. There were none. And as soon as I put my first book out, three other famous people put books out on worship writing – Matt Redman, Paul Baloche, and different ones. At first I was really frustrated, like, “God, why did you have me write this? These guys were gonna do it anyway!” And He’s like, “No, I need a lot of voices for what’s about to happen. I don’t just need one voice.” But there are good tools out there for songwriting.

    Take a class in Awaken Generation! Yeah, really! Seriously. Because you’re getting songwriting plus song-mentoring… I know a lot of people who have read songwriting books but what they’re crying out for is some critique on their songs. And having a song mentor like that who can critique your songs? Man, that’s worth a fortune!