Diversify your lyrics

By AZMYL YUNOR 

Diversity is such a buzzword nowadays that we tend to forget what it means: variety. Even though as Malaysians we pride ourselves with our “diverse cuisines and cultures”, there is unfortunately one area where we still lag when it comes to diversity, and that is songs.

I’m not interested in different types of music genres. Instead, I’d like to give some attention to diversifying your subject matter when it comes to songwriting.

With online streaming platforms creating so-called “curated” playlists by robots based on your listening habits, it’s really tricky as a songwriter to think outside the box and not fall into complacency. Like eating the same dishes everyday, one needs to think of your diet: add variety or else end up soulfully malnourished.

Here are some tips on how to add diversity in your songwriting (or even any other creative writing) aside from the usual - yawn - love songs.

Photo by Calum MacAulay/Unsplash


I read the news today, oh boy

Confession time: I’m a news junky. I love news because it gives you a condensed version of everyday life. Everyday life is more interesting than any piece of fiction! I stand by this mantra.
In fact, every person is interesting in his or her own way once they are put under the microscope.

A lot of great songs, stories and films have been made based on a piece of news that seemed mundane at first glance. Given some creative imagination, one can harness news as a creative starting point to start an internal conversation or query to create a momentum for you to discover a new topic that may be of some interest.

It might be politics, it might be an environmental issue, but whatever it is, these songs tend to be called topical songs since they address a specific event that happened in a particular time and place. This will give the song some added resonance with your audiences and also make for more interesting banter than “...so I wrote this song after I broke up with my boyfriend/girlfriend….”

Plus, news is free. We love free stuff, don’t we?

Hard habit to break

Humans are creatures of habit and while habits comfort us and give us a sense of routine (which are important), if you’d like to open yourself to new experiences and ideas, just break those habits once in a while.

Your habit might be writing love songs in minor chords or writing lyrics in English – challenge yourself to break these and try something new or different and you’ll be surprised with the results.

English was the language I began composing songs when I began but when I started writing in Malay, I realised my topics also changed and some fans even said these songs resonated with them on a different level than my work in English.

Since as Malaysians we are polyglots (a person who knows and is able to use several languages) because of our diverse cultural backgrounds and experiences, you have all the more reason to mix it up! Why not have two or three languages in one song just like how we speak naturally in everyday life? Don’t let music industry or “professional” standards or norms restrict what a song should be or not be about – kick this habit out the door.

Listen to what the man said

One cliche perpetuated by the media and popular culture about being an artist is that we like to be at the centre of attention. Most of the time, it’s the nature of a lot of artwork or performances that demand the need for attention, not the innate desire of the artist themselves.

Good artists need to be good listeners – they don’t butt into conversations at parties to prove something like most mortals, they should remain silent but interested to observe how and what people are talking about. Notice the topic, how they react to talking about it, how they respond to it, their expressions, body language.

There’s positive side effects too: You’ll seem like you’re genuinely interested in the conversation (you don’t have to be) and you might learn something new or even the latest gossip about town (even if you didn’t want to know!). Listening to others will also make you more empathetic – and empathy is the lifeblood that connects an artist with his or her audience.

Next: Check out what Azmyl says about “Keeping it real in your storytelling” 



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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