"Every song you writer makes you better." Elizabeth Eckert is a classical pianist and teacher turned pop singer-songwriter based out of Nashville, Tennessee. Her debut EP, "Bloomington," is available now on iTunes.
In the Musical Exchange Songwriter Series, we explore the craft of songwriting through regular interviews and short videos with songwriters who share inspiration and advice, from professional songwriters who reflect diverse musical styles and approaches to the art of songwriting.
Carnegie Hall: Do you think it is important that song lyrics rhyme? Why?
Elizabeth:You know, mine almost always do. I love the way rhymes drive the listener to the next line, or even intentionally leave the listener on edge when a rhyme is imperfect or delayed! But anyone who tells you that lyrics have to rhyme needs to take another look at Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm,” an amazingly hooky and satisfying song that doesn’t rhyme at all.
Meet Elizabeth and hear one of her original songs.
Carnegie Hall: Do you think song lyrics must conform to recognized song structures, or can songs also be like free verse?
Elizabeth: I think this is one of those “you have to know the rules to break them” situations. Our ears are so trained to hear pop song structure that we naturally expect it. There’s a lot of satisfaction in knowing what’s coming and being right! A deviation from that form can be a strong tool to get the listener’s interest, but without any form, most people will just be confused.
Carnegie Hall: Where do you draw inspiration from when you write songs, and what’s your favorite part about the process?
Elizabeth: There’s a moment of inspiration when an idea comes, and you have to jump on it! It can be a turn of a phrase, a picture, a story. You have to be listening for moments all the time, not just when you sit down to write a song. Think of yourself as a professional songwriter at all times. I used to carry a little notebook everywhere with me—now I just use the notes and voice memo tools on my iPhone!
Carnegie Hall: How do words and music develop through your creative process?
Elizabeth: This is such a great question, and it’s one I get asked all the time. It’s never easy to answer, though! I typically start with a small lyric idea. A “hook” or story. Then I take it straight to the piano and find a melody to match. From there, music and lyrics sort of come together. Writing with other people can be fun in that it mixes up the process. Any way to stretch the songwriting brain is a good thing. So my advice is that if you have a regular routine, try something else. You’ll get a song you never knew was in you!
Carnegie Hall: How do you know when you’ve finished writing a song?
Elizabeth: I usually have to live with mine for a few weeks (or months) before I feel ready to let them out into the world. I’ve heard that songs are like children. You love them but also have to let them go. When I first started writing, I was really attached to each song and felt like it had to be perfect before I could move on. Now I try to focus on my overall development as a songwriter. Every song you write makes you better and better equipped to write the next one! Practice really does make perfect...
Carnegie Hall: How do you know if your song is a good one? Why does the song work?
Elizabeth: When songs move people, you can’t argue with that! It doesn’t matter how good your rhymes are or how clever your lyrics and chord progressions are. The last album I put out, Bloomington, had five songs that were produced in the studio with loops, horns, amazing players, etc. I put a bonus track on the album that was just me and a piano. That song, “Shake,” has gotten through to more people than any of the fancier ones.
I think "Shake" is powerful because it's so raw, both in music and lyrics. The chords are not typical "pop" chords, at least not ones I typically use. The lyrics are intended to be stark too. The song opens with "You make me shake inside; you make me tremble for the truth; whether it's wrong or right; you make me question what I thought I knew."
It's not a normal story song - there's no background on either character, no explanation of their relationship, whether they're together or apart. No setting of the scene. It jumps straight into the deep end. The good stuff.
Carnegie Hall: What advice would you give to other songwriters about collaboration?
Elizabeth: Collaborating with another writer is like dating! You have to have just the right connection. You might go on some first dates that don't work out, other times there will be 2 or 3. Some "dates" seem promising but there's only one song that ever comes out of it... Ultimately, to get the best stuff, you have to have a lot of trust and not be afraid to blurt out your bad ideas in front of the other person. They get it, they're writers too.
There are no golden words of wisdom that I know to make the process easy, but more than anything it should be fun! You'll always get material that neither of you could have written by yourself (even if one of you more ideas that day). So take a chance and ask somebody to write with you. What's the worst that can happen on a "first date"...?!
Carnegie Hall: Are there any songwriters you go back to for inspiration?
Elizabeth: The most inspiring live and recorded performances I listen to are simply the songwriter and his/her instrument. I love the stripped down, naked truth you can find in the way a writer delivers an original song. I find this to be true across genres. Any live recordings from the Bluebird Cafe (in Nashville) get my mind turning. This town is a constant inspiration. Check out Don Schlitz, Marcus Hummon, Darrell Scott, and Mary Gouthier.
Carnegie Hall: What’s your first tip for songwriters?
Elizabeth: Take in more than you put out. That means real life experiences as well as books, poetry, art, songs, and movies. Song ideas are everywhere. Nobody cares how well you can write a song if you don’t have anything to say!
Carnegie Hall: Do you recall what your first song was about and why you wrote it?
Elizabeth: Absolutely! I wrote lots of love songs when I started out. Mostly stuff I couldn’t say in real life! It’s an amazing outlet for whatever is going on in your heart and head—especially if you are a little shy like I am.