When I sit down to write a song, I approach it the same way most songwriters do — with a world-changing idea in mind I want to get across to the listener.
I want the song to have a specific meaning yet hide it behind poetic verbiage. I want the listener to be like, “Woah! These lyrics are blowing my mind!”
But, thanks to Paul Simon, I’m trying to move away from that approach.
Paul Simon On Discovering vs. Inventing
In the book Songwriters On Songwriting, Simon talks about how he likes to “discover” songs rather than “invent” them. He doesn’t set out to write a song about THIS or THAT.
He just writes.
During a 2011 interview for American Songwriter, he talks more about this idea.
“It’s like you’re wandering down a path and you don’t know what the destination is,” he says. “Somewhere, toward the end, you can sort of see what the destination is and you can understand what the journey is about.”
He likens it to being a listener of his own song who’s hearing it for the first time.
“[The song] usually just goes along as a story that I’m telling, and I’m a listener, and at a certain point I say, ‘Oh! That’s what it’s about.’ But that part of the process, I really can’t explain it.”
When he gets an idea, it’s like he found something buried underground, not as if he built something from the ground up.
Like he pulled it out of a pile of doodoo.
“I don’t really know why an idea comes to me,” he says. “But all of a sudden, an idea comes and from experience I can intuit what something means when an interesting line pops up. Or I can intuit what an interesting choice might be. And I can try a couple of different choices, and see which one feels right, and then continue the song to see where it goes.”
Songwriting, for Simon, is like hopping in the car with no map and no ETA.
Paul Simon Doesn’t Think About Meaning Too Much
While he does give some thought to the meaning of his songs, he says he doesn’t think about it too much.
When you read Songwriters On Songwriting, you hear him say things like “I don’t really know what that song is about” or “yeah, I guess it could be about that.”
It’s like he has no definitive meaning for any given song — just his own interpretation. Other listeners can take it how they want.
For example, in the book, he says he knew people would incorrectly assume the meaning of his song “Graceland” to be about Elvis Presley’s property. But he accepted that as a part of being a songwriter.
To me, that’s an inspiring way to view songwriting.
“The only thought that I give to it is: ‘Is that something that I really believe?'” he goes on. “It doesn’t have to be insightful or anything. It just has to be not a lie. I can’t say, ‘I’m setting out to write a really deep, philosophical song.’ I would never say that. I have no idea.”
And that’s why his songs don’t sound contrived. They don’t sound forced.
Listen to any Paul Simon song and you’ll hear him sing as if he’s just talking and making it up on the spot. He even says “most of the songs have some kind of joke in them,” like in real life.
But you know he’s thought through and arranged the lyrics just so.
He may not know what all of his songs mean, but they mean things to his fans.
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How Can This Help Your Songwriting?
Yeah, okay. This is interesting and all, but how can we apply this to our own songwriting? Like, how can I write a song as good as a Paul Simon song?
Well, you can’t. And neither can I.
But…I did compile a few questions you can ask yourself the next time you sit down (or stand up?) to write a song:
- Is this lyric/title/chord progression interesting to me?
- Does this lyric feel true to me? Or is it a lie?
- Is this something I really believe?
- Would other people believe these words if they heard me singing them?
- Which direction feels right for this song?
Try asking these questions during your next songwriting session and see how it changes things.
And let me know how it goes!