There is a famous quote by Michelangelo that says “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” That is a beautiful description of what songwriters must learn to do. We get an idea and we see the “angel” inside it. So we carve and carve until the whole world can see (or hear) what we saw from the beginning.
This line of thought can be particularly helpful to aspiring songwriters who are just learning how to craft a masterpiece song. The most common problem when I mentor people through SongTown is that they include lots of information in their songs that don’t really support the big idea of the song. They are leaving lots of “non-angel” pieces of granite attached to the angel.
This results in songs that aren’t clear and that obscure the view of the angel that the songwriter saw originally. Usually, when I see one of these lines, I ask the writer “How did you see this line supporting your big idea in this song?” Generally, the response is something along the lines of “I don’t know, but it rhymed.” Or “We thought it was a cool line.”
These are the songwriter equivalent of Michelangelo being asked why there was an odd lump of granite on the angel’s head and answering “I thought it resembled a squirrel, so I left it.” Settling for “non-angel” lines will KILL your song just as they would mess up your statue if you were a sculptor. These kinds of lines take the listener out of your song, which usually means that they move on to something else. If you couldn’t see the angel well enough to clearly carve it out, neither will the listener.
So, how do you reveal the angels in those song ideas? I start with a laser focus on exactly what it is I’m trying to say. I do a blueprint of what I intend to communicate in each section, with the chorus and my title being the core of my blueprint. (I went into detail on my blueprint technique in an earlier American Songwriter issue. And I wrote a book on it called “Song Building: Mastering Lyric Writing”) Basically, a blueprint is an outline that contains one complete sentence that communicates what you want to say in each section of your song.
So, if my title was “Let Me Down Easy”, (Which was a #1 song I wrote with Mark Nesler and Jennifer Hanson), I might blueprint the idea this way:
Verse 1 – Girl I’m on the edge of going over this cliff.
Chorus – If I fall, will you let me down easy?
Verse 2 – Once I kiss you there’ll be no going back.
Looking at the lyric, you can see how we carved the angel out in this song. Look for the big idea (the angel) for each section:
Let Me Down Easy
There’s a little moonlight, dancing on the sand
There’s a warm breeze blowing by the ocean as you’re taking my hand
You need to know where I’m standing now
That I’m right on the edge of giving in to you
And baby it’s a long way down
If I fall, can you let me down easy
If I leave my heart with you tonight
Will you promise me that you’re gonna treat it right
I’m barely hanging on
If I fall, can you let me down easy
The scent of your perfume, floating in the air
You’re looking like angel lying on a blanket with your halo of hair
Those lips look too good to be true
Once I taste that kiss, I know what’ll happen
I’ll be at the mercy of you
Can you see the angel in each section? In this song, we built up to the big idea in each section, so you will see the angel emerge in the last line or two of the verses and the chorus. In some songs, I start with the big idea and then flesh it out. Either way works, but in this song, we wanted to set a scene with lots of visuals and then bring in our “angel”.
So, how do you apply that in your own songs. If you have done a clear blueprint, it’s easy to take your first draft of a lyric and compare it to your blueprint. Mark each line that doesn’t directly set up or support your big idea. If it’s heading off on a tangent, it’s not part of the angel and it needs to go.
Be especially careful that you don’t let desperation for a rhyme cause you to leave a big ugly lump of granite on the angel’s face. If you can’t say something that reveals the angel, then change your rhyme to something that works better. And learn to let go of lines that might be great or clever, but don’t give you a clear view of the angel.
If you can learn to clearly see the angel you are writing about and convert that into a blueprint, you’ve won half of the battle. The other half is simply staying true to the blueprint and carving away things that don’t contribute to or support it. Happy writing!