Songwriters on songwriting

I’ve been baffled lately that there aren’t more songwriters in the world who write about writing. Luckily, there are centuries worth of novelists, essayists, and other author types who have written so lucidly and honestly about the craft of writing, its messiness, its need for discipline. (Some of my favourites are On Writing by Stephen King, Daemon Voices by Philip Pullman, and The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr.)

There is, of course, the classic ‘Songwriters on Songwriting’, which I dip into a few times a year, and has given me almost a decade of interesting insights. With that said, it also reveals the ways in which songwriters are much more oblivious to their craft than their counterparts in prose or poetry. There are so many references to being a ‘channel to the muse’ that it makes my muse want to shrivel up and take up chain-smoking.

With all of that said, there have a been two delightful books that came out in 2020 that are, I hope, forging a more honest and fertile ground for other songwriters to share the details of their practice.

One is ‘How to Write One Song’, by Jeff Tweedy (which I discovered reading Austin Kleon’s blog, one of my faves).

I loved, and tried, his ‘word ladder’ exercise, which reminds me a lot of Pat Pattison’s metaphor collision exercises. The exercise basically involves having a column of nouns that are drawn from one area/field/room, and another column of verbs that are drawn from something totally unrelated. What I like about Tweedy’s version is the sense of freedom and experimentation in how to simply mix and match, with a loose brain:

“…take a pencil and draw lines to connect nouns and verbs that don’t normallyw ork together. I like to use this exercise not so much to generate a set of lyrics but to remind myself how much fun I can have with words when I’m not concerning myself with meaning or judging my poetic abilities.”

My go at the word ladder!

The exercises are fun, creative, and specific. But the real gems in here are the stellar insights into the creative process:

“One of the reasons I advocate so strongly for maintaining some creative pursuits in life is my belief that not knowing exactly how something like a finished song comes together creates an incredible magical feeling that always leaves me satisfied and full of wonder. There’s really no exact way to do it—it’s not like putting together IKEA furniture. It’s just about getting started on the right path.”

What I love about the book is that Tweedy is all about the wonder, but also about the nitty gritty of HOW you go about putting yourself on that path. I’m so glad he wrote it.

The other book that came out this year is Anais Mitchell’s ‘Working On a Song: The Lyrics of Hadestown’, but more about that later…!

Metaphor in songwriting is alive and well, thanks.

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Many years ago, while living in LA, I heard a Big Shot Industry Dude (cue Beethoven’s 5th…) say:

“Songs shouldn’t have metaphors in them. I can’t think of a good song that has a metaphor.”

To my great relief, and with a giddy sort of rebellious delight, all of us songwriters gathered afterward, as if we all had sticky, sweet metaphors stashed in our pockets the whole time, and murmured things like “What was he talking about?”, or more generously, “Maybe he doesn’t know what a metaphor is…?”

I have come to think that it’s probably the latter. Metaphor, I am happy to report, is alive an well in songwriting, whether we’re talking about popular contemporary writing, or just beautiful writing in any era, any genre. Metaphor can be gently weaved into the fabric of a song, giving it glimmers of certain colors and textures as the song turns in the sun; or a song can be entirely based on one central metaphor, whose imagery completely defines the entire song.

For brainstorming metaphor ideas, I know no better resource than Pat Pattison’s ‘Writing Better Lyrics’ as an introduction, followed up by ‘Songwriting Without Boundaries,’ which contains a few months’ worth of writing exercises to help you generate interesting, fresh, and unique metaphor ideas.

But once you have an interesting metaphor idea, how do you flesh it out into a song lyric?

I’ve been looking at metaphor-based songs for a while now, and it seems to me that there are 3 distinct ways to use metaphors as the basis for a whole song:

  1. Direct Metaphor
  2. Symbolism
  3. Allegory


Right now, I’m going to focus on Direct Metaphor. So what do I mean by Direct Metaphor? A Direct Metaphor is when you clearly say that ‘X is Y’. ‘Love is Rocket Science’, (Rocket Science, Lori McKenna), ‘Love is still a magic act’, (Smoke and Mirrors, Sweet Talk Radio), ‘Belief is a beautiful armor’, (Belief, John Mayer).

Let’s take the first example here, ‘Rocket Science’, by Lori McKenna (and I could honestly talk for hours about the songwriting craft of Lori McKenna—she is amazing. If you want to know an album to ‘study’ the craft of songwriting, listen to ‘Numbered Doors’. Holy moly.) Here are the lyrics to the chorus:

Love is rocket science
What comes up it must come down
In burning pieces on the ground
We watch it fall
Maybe love is rocket science after all


The chorus itself starts out with the most direct statement of the central and primary metaphor of the whole song: love is rocket science. The first thing to note is that all the language in the chorus is related to rockets and science; every line here is an extension of that central metaphor. Once we’ve noticed that, we end up seeing it woven through the entire lyric. Here are the first two verses:

They say it ain’t complicated
Any fool can understand
Until the fuse is lit and
It blows up in your hand
It all looks good on paper
Step by step, you follow the plan
In the sky watch the desperate vapor
Til it blows up in your hand
The language in bold here is what Pat Pattison would call language ‘in the key’ of the metaphor. And the rest of the song has the same quality; the verses and bridge all contain language drawn from the palette of rockets, space, and science gone wrong.
But the far more important thing to notice is the very first line of the song, because it is the connection point between the metaphor and what the song is really about: “They say it ain’t complicated”. The point of the song is that love IS complicated, just like rocket science. This is where all the magic of metaphor happens: in the overlapping area between rocket science and love: IT IS COMPLICATED. IT CAN GO TERRIBLY WRONG. And finally…it’s still worth it in the end.
The reason this metaphor song works is because there is enough material in the overlap between the metaphor (rocket science) and the topic (love), and that is the key to a metaphor idea that has enough DNA to be the basis for an entire lyric. Some metaphors do not; they are interesting, descriptive and colorful—”her haircut was a church; she became sombre and restrained under its angles and spires”; “the conversation was a river; it flowed on the surface, but I was drowning in the undercurrent of tension”—but not expansive enough to describe a theme or topic for a whole song.


1. Pick one of the following themes or topics (or choose one of your own):


2. From the following list of nouns, try a number of ‘X is Y’ combinations.

For example:
Love is a traffic jam. Growing up is a spaghetti western. Climate change is a language.
Already your metaphor brain is buzzing with possibilities and ideas.

3. Taking your one metaphor, spend 5 minutes generating at least 5 different ‘connection points’, or ‘linking qualities’. That is: what are 5 different ways that your metaphor connects to your topic?

For example: Growing old is a church.
1. It is dark, empty, moldy, lonely…
2. It is bright, full of friends, and sacred…
3. It forces you to examine the life you have lived…
4. It becomes a mere recitation of habit…
5. It has a complex architecture…
A good metaphor song will have ONE MAIN connection point. There may be other related ways that you explore the connection, but they should be related to each other. So I wouldn’t be trying, in the same song, to say that growing old is both ‘dark and lonely’ as well as ‘bright and sacred’. I would pick one—the positive or the negative—and focus on that for this one song.
And then write another song that does the other one (!).

4. Create a word palette for the metaphor.

Pro tip: you can use the ‘related words’ filter in Or even better, get yourself a Roget’s International Thesaurus (it is one of my go-to reference books!).
For example:
Church: heaven, gates, communion, waifer, church, cathedral, spires, gothic, priest, nun, god, gods, myth, prayer, bible, sabbath, holy, chapel, parish, worship, monk, confession, pews, vows, evangelize, preach, baptize, condemn, ordain, reform, convert, revelation…
Pro tip: What you decide your ‘connection point’ is can help you to filter the language of the metaphor. For example, if I were using ‘ocean’ as a metaphor, with the connection point of it being ‘open, wide, adventurous’, then I might end up with words like:
Horizon, tides, sailing, swimming, treading, lapping, splashing, breeze, open sea, navigate…
But if my connection point is the idea of it being ‘terrifying and unpredictable’, then I might prefer language that paints with that color:

crashing, rips, undercurrent, tidal wave, dumped, drowning, thrashing….

5. Spend 10 minutes exploring your topic (growing up) using language in the key of the metaphor.

Try to explore the nooks and crannies of your topic by being specific, situational and personal. You are on the lookout for unusual and unexpected ways that connect your metaphor and your topic, so go exploring!
For example:
Growing old is a church—as my grandmother grew into her last years, her body became a complex architecture of illness; its sharp edges thrusting through her veins and cells; her mind became a dusty hallway that echoed with ghosts…etc. But the building is not the belief. Her body was sick, but she was more than just the creaking doors and echoing halls. The knowledge, wisdom, and experience of her life had been transmitted out to us, her family, and I can still recite the lessons learned, like passages from a sacred text…etc

6. Build a Chorus idea, using an ‘X is Y’ statement. 

It may turn out that your ‘X is Y’ metaphor statement is not your first, primary metaphor that you started with, but something more interesting that emerged in Step 5. For example, my chorus might be built on this ‘X is Y’ idea (or in this case ‘X is NOT Y’):
She is more than creaking doors
Her life is louder than these empty halls…
A great example of this is Belief, by John Mayer. The primary metaphor of the song is something like “belief is a war,” but we never hear that statement. What we do hear are the secondary, or related, metaphors that use language ‘in the key’ of war:
Is there anyone who really recalls
Ever breaking rank at all
For something someone yelled real loud one time?
Belief is a beautiful armor
But makes for the heaviest sword
Like punching underwater
You never can hit who you’re trying for
[belief is] the chemical weapon
For the war that’s raging on inside

Note that these are mostly verse lyrics, but the idea can be applied to verses or choruses.

I will also write another post soon that gives a lot more detail about writing great Choruses, as well as what makes chorus lyrics and ideas different to verses. Speaking of verses…

7. Build Verse ideas.

Use your favorite ideas and imagery to construct your verses. Just remember: The key to great Direct Metaphor songs is that the metaphor is clear. We know what the metaphor is, and we know what the topic is too. Metaphor isn’t an excuse to be vague. It’s a way to be even more specific and clear about how you want to explain how something feels. So make sure that you are still being clear about what the situation is, what you’re actually talking about, and how you feel about it.
Enjoy 🙂