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Songwriters' Rule No. 1: There are no rules

By DENNIS McCAFFERTY, USA weekend, January 27th, 2001.

Performers as different as rapper Fabolous and Steven Page of the Barenaked Ladies tell us you can't force the creative process. Just be prepared when inspiration strikes.

Thankfully, musicians are hardly a homogenous bunch; witness the infinite variety of their songs. So it's especially amazing we found something on which so many of them agree: The most rewarding part of creating a song often is not composing the music; it's writing the lyrics.

"Lyrics are the personality of a song," says Steven Page, songwriter-vocalist-guitarist for the Barenaked Ladies, whose new greatest-hits release, "Disc One", is now in stores. "It can make a song seem real or abstract, straightforward or a concept in disguise. We may take a song with a completely depressing lyric, for example, and wrap it up in a happy tune just to catch people off guard."

Says Fabolous, the hip-hop performer and songwriter whose latest release is Ghetto Fabolous: "I love it when I'm out in public and people see me and quote my lyrics to me. It means they're listening and they really like what I wrote." Even more satisfying, he says, is writing words (in his case, often profane ones) that may stand the test of time. Like those of one of his influences, Marvin Gaye. "It's so relevant today. 'Mother, mother/ There's too many of you crying/Brother, brother, brother/ There's far too many of you dying...' Thirty years later, everything he wrote about is still going on," Fabolous says. "I use a lot of current events to inspire my lyrics. Anything that's going on."

USA WEEKEND, in partnership with the John Lennon Songwriting Contest, an annual international competition, has launched a nationwide contest in which young people ages 13 to 18 will submit their own best lyrics. Participating teens can get a lot of helpful insight from today's top songwriters, many of whom are happy to offer some valuable insider advice.

If the entire concept of a song doesn't seem clear at once, says Page, don't give up. A song often arrives in fragments, little turns of phrase or memorable descriptions that trickle in from day to day.

"One day, I was just walking along the main square in Copenhagen, and a sentence just seemed to fit: 'In the momentary lull before the band begins to play/There's an overwhelming stench of alibi.' I used it for the song "Humour of the Situation". I don't try to make sense of how it happens. You just accept it."

The "rules" for good lyrics are much like those for short stories or poems, Page says: Show, don't tell. Use vivid images and compelling human subjects. "I've been influenced by many people," he says, "from Paul Simon and the interesting characters in his songs to George Orwell and his essays on writing."

Singer-songwriter Larry Cordle, who co-wrote the Country Music Association's 2001 Song of the Year, "Murder on Music Row", says the best lyrics usually require as much perspiration as inspiration. "You gotta keep working at it," he says. "When you have someone take a look at what you wrote and they say 'I don't like it,' it's like a slap in the face. But you get over it and move on, and when you finally get there, there's nothing better." Cordle says he has spent up to 10 years working on a single song.

And with their hectic travel and touring schedules, songwriters say you never know when inspiration will strike, so be prepared. "I've succumbed to jotting on napkins or anything else I can get my hands on to keep the thoughts together," says singer-songwriter Michelle Branch, 18, whose recent hit, Everywhere, has been featured on the TV show "Gilmore Girls". "Sometimes people look at me a bit strangely on the plane..."