Songwriting Prose and Con-cepts


( This article first appeared in Songwriter Magazine in the UK Summer Edition 2016 )


Prose and Cons

I’m in Nashville; and although my coaching clients are all over the world these days, there are a couple things I focus on with my lyric writers that are uniquely Nashville.

One is to write prose first, the other is to think of a concept (and even better, a second concept). I know that not every type of song you’re writing is story-driven, but we’re talking Nashville. Much of what comes out of here is still about the story and the concept. So many times I’ve gone into a good co-write with an experienced songwriter and we’ll sit down and talk. Then talk some more…and more…until something starts to sounds like an idea that would be worth writing about. Relatable, interesting, unique, or at the very least, a new way to say something old!

Let’s take a minute to focus on prose first. All this means is to write a very brief overview of what your lyric is going to be about. Why bother? It's a great tool to keep you on track. You may have worked on a lyric that looks great on paper, even sounds good when you talk it out loud, (another tool I recommend). But by the third verse, some of those clever rhymes might not be supporting your idea anymore. Going back and going back often to make sure everything still points to the hook is huge. This doesn’t need to be anything other than you describing what the song will be about. No rhymes, just a short synopsis.

Title Writing

I love title writing. I’m not talking about gimmicky ideas but more about a fresh take. Coming in with more than a few lines that might become titles. Something I can throw out to a co-writer to see how they take it. One of the beauties of co-writing is sometimes that line that's been sitting around takes on a whole new life when your co-writer tells you what the line means to them. This can be the beginning of your concept but not the end. A second concept might be the money idea, the one that's not the first thing off the top of your head.

30 Seconds...

I’ll give you a great example. I was coaching a client who had done her homework of intentionally finding some lines that might be worth considering. I asked her to read a few. A couple were ok, a few predictable. Then she said, “What about thirty seconds from religion?” I asked her what the concept for this title might be. She thought it could be about someone who’s on death's doorstep and would be meeting their maker soon. Yep, I got it. But it also seemed a little predictable. Maybe relatable, but not the most upbeat idea for her lyric.

I asked her to think about another concept or angle and let me know in our next session. Not only did she come up with one, but she had a whole lyric written! This time it was a story about a long-suffering wife whose husband is cheating on her (c'mon, it’s Nashville after all!) and she’s had it. He used to be a God-fearing man, sat beside her at church every Sunday, but now had lost his ever loving mind and was living like he was single. When I say she’d had it, I mean to the point of taking this guy out.

So her lyric tells the story of what he’s been up to and the chorus comes to the point. He is going to straighten up and be sitting in their usual spot next to her in church this Sunday, or he was going to the service in a pine box. Either way, he was going to be seeing his maker…30 seconds from religion. Great second concept, and way more interesting and unique than the dying man version. Don’t you think? 

The  Little Big Town hit “Girl Crush” is another great example of a second concept. Most people who heard the title (and the song) assumed it was going to be about a woman falling for another woman. In truth, the song is about jealousy. A woman whose guy has left her is now with another woman. The woman in the song just wants to be next to the other be close to her ex. Fantastic concept and one that made the song something way more than novelty. That kind of concept is sometimes the idea that takes a song from good to great.

There are times when your first instinct is the best one and the one you go with in the end. But I would always push the idea of taking your time and letting your sub-conscious work at that other, outside-the-box, second concept.

Have some fun with it!

Mark Cawley

Nashville, Tennessee

Aug 8, 2016

Image: Shutterstock


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About Mark Cawley

Mark Cawley is a hit U.S. songwriter and musician who coaches other writers and artists to reach their creative and professional goals. During his decades in the music business he has procured a long list of cuts with legendary artists ranging from Tina Turner, Joe Cocker, Chaka Khan and Diana Ross to Wynonna Judd, Kathy Mattea, Russ Taff, Paul Carrack, Will Downing, Tom Scott, Billie Piper, Pop Idol winners and The Spice Girls. To date his songs have been on more than 16 million records. Mark’s resume includes hits on the Pop, Country, R&B, Jazz, and Rock charts and several publishing deals with the likes of Virgin, Windswept Pacific, and Steelworks/Universal. Mark calls on his decades of experience in the publishing world, as an artist on major labels, co-writer with everyone from Eliot Kennedy and Burt Bacharach to Simon Climie and Kye Fleming, composing, and recording to mentor clients around the globe with iDoCoach. He is also a judge for the UK Songwriting Contest, Nashville Rising Star, a contributing author to  USA Songwriting, Songwriter Magazine,  , sponsor for the ASA, judge for Belmont University's Commercial Music program and West Coast Songwriter events , a popular blogger and, from time to time, conducts his own workshops.Born and raised in Syracuse, NY, Mark has also lived in Boston, L.A., Indianapolis, London, and the last 20 years in Nashville, TN.