Break down the walls between words


As an arts practitioner – a singer-songwriter specifically – who is pretty much self-taught (and there are many more of us out there than you think), I had to be observant and quick to adapt, learning and trying out things that worked for me.

When it comes to creativity, one thing I have found interesting is that most of the time we are not taught how to be creative.

One aspect of songwriting I really enjoy is composing lyrics. As a singer-songwriter, words are everything to me – and if I get them wrong, it wrecks everything, not just my songs. My persona and the consistency of my stage and recorded character would all seem shallow if the words don’t match up.

So here are a couple of simple tips to help you work on ideas for lyrics if you’re an aspiring singer-songwriter who may be facing the dreaded writer’s block.

Shut up and listen

People generally have poor listening skills – but they are so eager to be heard without listening to others. It’s little wonder people are so frustrated and take to social media to rant! In school, we’re taught to shut up, listen and not question our teachers. So the root of this collective impediment runs deep.

Good artists are observers; they don’t seek to be the centre of a conversation party. Instead, you are researching society and your subject of choice is people. If you find yourself in a group and conversations are running into fifth gear, remember to really listen. Tune in to what people are excited over, afraid of, or complain about. Song ideas are literally floating in the air, waiting for you to pluck them out … but only if you pay attention. So, level up on your listening skills. What’s next?

The next time you’re at your favourite café or restaurant, go alone. Pull out those earphones and turn up your ears! Listen in to the hushed (or sometimes loud) conversations around you. It could be the barista or waiter casually commenting on something with their colleagues or bosses. It could be the couple or family beside you arguing over which large frappuccino to order. It could be a digital nomad maximising on free Wi-Fi while pitching something to an overseas client on Zoom. Sometimes good stuff resides in the mundane. It’s not what they say but how they say it that counts. Pay attention.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio/

Write dialogues

I often joke that as a songwriter, I don’t write lyrics, I write dialogues. There’s truth to that because my training was in filmmaking and journalism, so I’ve been made aware of how people talk and have honed the skill to listen to people. Don’t just listen to songs, but pay attention to the dialogues in your favourite films or TV series, or like I said before the conversations around you.

Good lyrics are authentic – they should not sound forced, nor should they be run-of-the-mill. But don’t fret, you don’t have to be a poet to be a good lyricist. (Although, in my opinion, poets make great lyricists!)

Think about your own background if you aren’t trained in music. Are there common words and phrases that are used in your field of work? Don’t choose bombastic terms just for kicks, although sometimes seemingly out-of-place phrases make the best lyrics (check out the late great rocker Meatloaf and his unique turn of phrases).

While these tips refer specifically to the “songwriter writer’s block”, you can still try it out even if you write in other mediums since the condition is primarily a productivity issue – not being able to compose or write over a period of time. Things will also depend on which school of songwriting you’re from – generally there’s two: the Bob Dylan school – “I wrote this in three minutes” a.k.a. “First thought, best thought” philosophy; or the Leonard Cohen school – “It took me six months and several drafts to finish this song” a.k.a. “Writing is a laborious process of revisions and rewriting” philosophy. I’m from the former.

Develop a love for language in all forms and mediums – I personally like to seek out everyday or colloquial language styles because there are unlimited resources all around you and it also is a great way to connect with your audiences because of its familiarity and daily use. Don’t be narrow minded.

Songwriting is a craft, and you’ll get better at it the more you do it. Happy songing!

Azmyl Yunor is a bi-lingual singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, producer, gig organiser and published academic in the field of cultural studies and popular music studies. With prolific output (both solo and with his various band projects) ranging from folk to punk to noise rock since the late 1990s, Azmyl's articulate observations on the cultural politics of contemporary Malaysia set him apart from his peers in the Malaysian music scene. He tours the region regularly and is also active as a freelance columnist, speaker and radio host. Azmyl also sits on CENDANA’s Industry Advisory Panel.

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