Get Me Rewrite

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As with most creative endeavors, there’s no one surefire formula when it comes to rewriting.

By Kevin Zimmerman

Few things can be as frustrating as rewriting. Oftentimes a songwriter feels he’s hit the nail on the head with a particular lyric or melody, only to be told by his or her publisher, songwriting partner, or some other interested party that “it’s not quite there yet.” More often, the songwriter himself feels that his work is missing something, but may have a hard time putting his finger on just what that “something” is.

For those and other reasons, “song rewriting” can be a crucial step in seeing a composition through to satisfactory completion, or in finally giving up and moving on to another idea. Rewrites can occur at any point in a given song’s life cycle, and for a multitude of reasons: What seemed a good idea for a male vocalist may evolve into something that works better for a female singer, for instance; a decision may be made to try and make a song skew to a younger audience than originally planned; or, given the transient nature of pop culture, a key line using a particular bit of slang may find itself hopelessly outdated.

Most writers are open to rewriting something if they firmly believe that a realistic goal is in sight. “If a songwriter has a guarantee from a label that the artist is actually going to cut the song and/or he wants to make it a single, that makes it more credible,” remarks Carol Spencer, Senior Creative Director at Famous Music Publishing. “But if it’s just rewriting for the sake of rewriting, or at the direction of a&r with no guarantee that it will ever be recorded, it becomes more of a shot in the dark.”

Jennifer Blakeman, Vice President of a&r at Zomba Music Publishing, agrees. “Most of the horror stories will be told by writers about a&r reps that have them rewrite a song multiple times only to not use it,” she says. “Imagine back to high school when you had to write a theme paper. Sometimes the biggest battle was coming up with the theme, and once that was established, the outline became a little more obvious.

“Now imagine you’ve finished the most brilliant theme paper you think you’ve ever written,” she continues. “You’ve turned it in to the teacher and it comes back marked with a big red ‘D’ and a note to ‘rewrite it.’ The obvious questions are, ‘What didn’t you like about it? Rewrite what? What do I need to fix to get an ‘A,’ because I thought it was brilliant as it was?’ I think a lot of non-writers can relate to that.”

“If you can give songwriters directions that they can understand, that’s the best way of going about it,” adds Spencer. “If all you can come up with is, ‘Oh you didn’t really nail it’ or ‘You need to work on the chorus melody,’ that doesn’t give them much to go on. You need to be more concrete about why something isn’t working - the lyric is too clichéd, or you need a twist, or there’s no bridge.”

Once everyone is on the same page, being able to tell when a song is “done” can be tricky, the publishers say. “When I hear it one or two times and I can remember it, that’s when it really hits me,” says Spencer. “It’s the same for anybody, really, not just a publisher. We hear so many songs every day, and a lot of them are good, certainly cut-able . . . ‘B-plus’ or ‘A-minus’ songs that are maybe not the single, but something you can immediately remember.”

“For me, I think it’s done when the original writers of the song proclaim it done,” Blakeman says. “It’s their creation and it’s up to them whether they choose to rewrite it or put it on a shelf, sing it to themselves in the shower or give it to an artist to release to the world.”

Is it possible to over-rewrite a song - in cooking terms, to bake it until it’s a rock? “Absolutely,” Blakeman says. “In my opinion a song can be so dissected by good intentions that the initial glimmer of something you found in it is completely lost. You can only re-cut a flawed diamond so many times, in an effort to get rid of the flaws, before you lose its ultimate value.”

“Some songs are just not meant to be,” Spencer concurs. “Usually in those cases the songwriter himself isn’t feeling very confident with it, and it becomes obvious that the song doesn’t really work for who you’re writing for - or for anybody you can imagine, really.” As to how often she personally would ask a writer to try again, Spencer says, “I would certainly not ask a writer to revisit a song like that more than three times.”

As for the concept of lightning striking the first time out with a particular song, that’s not as rare as you might think. “Oftentimes the first pass is successful for sure,” Spencer says. “Sometimes they’re just inspired or on a good direction with a co-writer and they nail it the first time out.”

“I had one writer who would stand in front of a microphone and sing words over a track,” recalls Blakeman. “Whatever came out of his mouth the first time was what the song became, almost as if he believed in some sort of divine intervention feeding him the lyrics that were ‘supposed to be with that music’.”

As with most creative endeavors, there’s no one surefire formula when it comes to rewriting. “Some lyricists can deliver a brilliant lyric in five minutes,” Blakeman says, “while others will craft it over time . . . take a piece of music away and get to know it, realize it, let it breathe, test a line or phrase and change it a few times to make it just right. They’re essentially rewriting it before ever delivering it to the publisher.”

Posted Mar 07, 2006

Member Comments

Posted by Thomas Strickland on 2006-03-10 at 12:11:04 pm

Rewriting is a definite brain freeze. I am my own worst critic,if a line doesn’t work I know it when I hear it. Which is frustrating sometimes but you just have to remember what made you excited about the idea in the first place and build off of that. Over rewriting will burn you out on your song fast so you may have to lay it down for a while and work on another until you have found the answer to what is missing. Patience is the key. If you have a good strong title you can approach it a thousand different ways. Stay sharp,stay creative. 

Posted by James A. Farrell jr. on 2006-04-13 at 5:45:31 am

This…. This is the hardest to deal with. Many times I have found I’m just exercising on a “so what” song. The final effect of the piece must stir emotions to the point of action. (buy the CD) Writing it to the wall is a skill that’s learned. First by rejections and then by an unstoppable drive to find THE combination(s). It’s a true gift from God to hit it the first time.  Most are a learning ,growing, grasping, gasping and finally grinning experience. Go for it..

Posted by ivy landsman on 2006-10-31 at 7:05:19 am

it’ s funny, i love rewriting lyrics. i have found that if I just let whatever comes out of me hit the paper and then go back over it, I’ll keep finding better ways to say what it is I’m trying to say, paring down until I have the fewest, most powerful words and phrases to work with a melody. It’s easier for me to do that with lyrics than with music, but I guess it should work the same way. I’ll have to think about that one!

Posted by Erik on 2006-12-13 at 10:59:21 am

I definently work that way with music. You make for example a melody and rewrite parts that you realise can be better. To know when you think it’s finished you have to try it on friends and yourself. When both you and your friends/the one you try it on, think it’s great and perfect it’s done.

Posted by Frances V. Long on 2007-05-01 at 10:15:14 pm

Rewriting can be fun.  Lately I have been working on some songs I wrote over
30 years ago.  The lyrics aren’t all that great but the melodies are. Now I’m able to improve the lyrics. If I can’t after 30 years I never will. Writing what is selling has never appealed to me.  I write the kind of music I enjoy. If someone else appreciates it fine .... if they don’t
it doesn’t bother me at all.

Posted by Veronica on 2008-01-10 at 4:24:17 am

MUSIC TITLE; “LIVING OUT OF SIN”        BY J. S. HATHAWAY


  ———————————BEING a married woman, O LORD,—————and a ring on my hand————-oh please forgive me when I leave it home————and enter the freeze of the night -when he believes h’m always right there besides him————-mmmmmmmm, Instead I’m living out of sin—————-Keep it quit LORD , for he’s been good to me,————But once in a day I caught an eye on an other.—————O LORD, how can I be faithful to one and love another———————————————————YOU LORD KNOW I’m a honest woman—————but now I’m a woman living out of sin.—————loving another, and once was so faithful to the man I where this ring.—————————-. THIS day I saw a beautiful diamond flash in the mirror full of gold———————-suddenly, I realized it was the ring on my hand, LORD, it was the band my man had married me with,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,I see me now,———I’m no longer a woman living in sin.      END J AND R MUSIC.

 

Posted by Edward Sacher on 2009-03-03 at 5:22:32 am

What about the idea of editing other people’s published work to make them better?  Some older tunes often don’t make sense lyrically—they use cliched phrases just to make a rhyme—not really saying what needs to be said.

Posted by James Roberts on 2011-06-24 at 5:58:36 pm

I have always written for myself to perform. I don’t even know where I would start to try and fit a song to another performer. The prossess is so intimate most of the time. Also, I have only found one time some lyrics that were written by someone else that I could be in touch with in such a way to perform as one of my own. And that time I wrote the music to it. That would be a whole new world for me. Anyhow, on topic, for me the rewrite takes place mostly during its construction for me. Generaly By the time I have the riffs and the words where the deliver my intent and flow the song is done.  Of course there are exceptions and they will instinctively evolve on their own mostly by happy accidents.  I generally only have to adjust acompanyment and arrangements.

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