How I Write Song Lyrics: 49 Years - the making of a murder ballad

photos by Kevin Stiffler

Have you ever wanted to write an original song, but found yourself stuck?  I've developed several tricks to get my own creative mojo flowing.  Today is my 49th birthday, so I thought I'd divulge the process behind how I wrote the song, "49 Years" (from the album Holler.    Purchase here.)  

Hit play below and listen to the actual song...

Step 1 - I Sometimes Use Writing Prompts:  "49 Years" was birthed during the time I ran an open mic in a little dive bar.  Each week, I would challenge the participants to show up with original material.  (In fact, the crowd at this bar demanded originals!  It was awesome.)  Because many musicians had trouble writing originals, I challenged them to write "shitty first drafts" of a song using a theme.  Each week, I'd give a new theme.  If the musician showed up at the next week's open mic and had even the start of a new song that used the theme, I'd put their name in a hat for a prize.

Some themes were simple, such as "heat" or "dispair" or even "write a theme song for this open mic." 

"49 Years" came from a very specific writing prompt I invented: The prompt is, "You're sitting in prison, falsely accused by the one you love."  Such a scenario really paints a picture in your mind.  What would you say?  What would you do?  For me, I wanted to take a villain's point of view.  (It's so much fun to be a villain in fiction!)  

If I'm a villain in prison (even falsely accused), what would be my mindset?  This is easy:  REVENGE!  With that choice, I knew this would be a tongue-in-cheek song about getting back at somebody.  

Note:  I'm a nice guy.  I have a great life with a beautiful wife and two awesome sons.  I'm not murderous!  However, I enjoy writing fiction in my lyrics and taking the murder ballad concept to its illogical conclusion.

Step 2 - Choose a Title:  I always like to choose a title for the song before writing the lyrics.  Some people may thing this is putting the cart before the horse, but for me, it gives me a focus for where the lyrics need to go.  In this case, I chose "49 Years" because it made me think of people getting 99 year sentences for murder.  Secondly, the number 49 seems very specific and tickles the brain a little more than 50 years.  And lastly, it has a rhythmic quality.  FOR-TY-NINE-YEARS. 

Step 3 - Open Up a Rhyming Dictionary:  When it comes to lyric writing, I cheat by using a rhyming dictionary.  (Is it actually cheating?  Hmm...)  I personally use Rhymezone.com, a fantastic online resource that allows all kinds of rhyming possibilities.  

For this song, I started with an opening line: "I got 49 years left inside this jail."  I knew I needed a line that rhymed with jail, so I went to Rhymezone and typed it in.  The dictionary gave me 570 different words that rhymed!  So what next?

I went through the rhyming words to see what would make brain-popping second line.  Bail?  Nah, too obvious.  Every blues song about jail has the word bail. There were many suggestions, but I needed the one that would hit like a ton of bricks.  That's when I saw the name "Abigail."  Wow!  What a unique name.  I also love using women's names in my songs because the band Morphine had a full catalog of songs with women's names.  It just makes lyrics specific when you use a proper name.

With Abigail as my "victim," it was time to come up with the second line that would grab the audience by the balls:

I got 49 years left inside this jail

Just long enough to plan your murder, Abigail.

BAM!  That was the line.  In fact, when I sing it in concert, the second line always grabs the audience's attention and keeps them listening for the entire song.  

Step 4 - Write a repeating line to end each verse section:  Before I write the third line in the song, I need to know what the ending line will be in this verse section.  This is more of a technique for blues songs that don't have a chorus.  You write three lines and then the fourth is song foundation.  (Robert Johnson's "all my love's in vain" verse is a perfect example of this.)   

For this song, I decided on the absurd end line, "I got 49 years until I see yer ass again!"  

Step 5 - Fill in the third line:  So far I have the following lyrics written:

  1. I got 49 years left inside this jail
  2. Just long enough to plan your murder, Abigail
  3. ________
  4. I got 49 years until I see yer ass again!

To get that third line, I simply go back to Rhymezone.com and look for a word that rhymes with "again."  In order to fulfill the songwriting prompt, I simply re-wrote it to say:

You were once my lover, but you turned me in

Yeah, "in" and "again" aren't perfect rhymers, but it's close enough for rock n roll. 

Step 6 - Rinse, repeat:  Now that I know "I got 49 years until I see yer ass again" is going to be my verse end, I fill in the story using Rhymezone.com to help me.

You were stepping out the backdoor with a man named Willie Brown

That simple little prick, I should have gunned him down

You got together and you got away with sin

I got 49 years until I see yer ass again

---

I'll be old and gray when I blow this joint

I might get a butcher's knife to make my point

Might shoot you once, and shoot you once again

I got 49 years until I see your ass again

Yeah, I know I repeated "again" twice instead of rhyming in that last verse.  It still works for the storyline.  Sometimes the story is more important than the laws of rhyme.

Step 7 - End with a plot twist:  A story worth telling will rattle your mind.  The last thing an audience wants is a predictable ending.  For this song, my plot twist had me tweaking the fourth verse from "49 years" to "49 minutes."  Here's the last verse:

When I first wrote this song, it was ten years ago

Just this morning, the warden knocked upon my door

He said, "you done yer time, it's time for parole"

I got 49 minutes until I'm at your front door!!!

One cool thing about this verse is the first line breaks the "fourth wall" separating the actor from the audience.  In it, the singer talks about writing the actual song he's singing.  The verse also gives the surprise of the villain getting out of jail early.  And finally, the number 49 is repeated, but in a threat:  "I got 49 minutes until I'm at your front door." 

In conclusion:  These techniques are simply helpful tips to spur your songwriting.  You can use all or none of them.  There are infinite ways to get to the end of a song, but the ones above are things that I frequently run back to as I write.

Got tips of your own?  Post them in the comments.

Shane

 

 

 

1 comment

  • Eric Shaffer

    Eric Shaffer

    Happy Birthday!! You aren't quite old as dirt but you're getting close.. Thanks for sharing your gifts! Many happy returns and Stay Primal!

    Happy Birthday!!
    You aren't quite old as dirt but you're getting close..
    Thanks for sharing your gifts!
    Many happy returns and Stay Primal!

Please or register to post.

Add comment