One great way to stir or develop lyrical ideas is to make lists—of related words, phrases, images, names, facts, whatever you choose.
I have a number of songs that have grown thanks to list making. "Almost There" is one example. As recounted in this post, I initially wrote a couple of lines that happened to repeat the word almost, so I decided to make a list of every phrase I could think of using almost (almost heaven, almost dead, almost famous...). Looking over that list I found my story line as well as a lyrical motif that ties the song together.
Now comes "Shoulda Coulda," just released on the album Live and Listening: a song composed entirely from a list.
The inspiration for "Shoulda Coulda" came to me on a road trip. I was driving east on the New York Thruway, with my partner, Wendy, asleep in the passenger seat, and somehow the phrase "shoulda coulda" popped into my head. The rhythm of those words got my internal drum machine going with a kind of '50s rock 'n' roll beat. And I started riffing off the phrase, thinking about decisions that people look back on and regret, and quietly spoke the resulting lines into the voice recorder on my phone.
It wasn't until hours later that I was able to sit with my guitar and try adding chords, but when I did, the first thing that came out was a groove similar to another song of mine—"Enough About You (What About Me)." I felt a little like I was ripping myself off, but decided not to worry about self-plagiarism for the moment and just kept rolling.
Later, on the highway again, I brought Wendy into the process, and we made a much longer list of regrets (shoulda been a better friend, been a ski bum, taken more chances, been more grateful, etc.). All these brainstormed phrases gave me lots of raw material to rearrange and rewrite into the lyrics. That's the beauty of list making: rather than self-consciously trying to create something out of nothing, you collect a bunch of stuff and then look for patterns and themes within it.
Once I had two verses and a chorus, I knew the song was incomplete, but I still had a lot of outtakes from my list. I'd been wanting to add another audience participation song to the repertoire, so I decided to do something I'd never tried before: I wrote a whole section of the song around a call and response with the audience. That proved to be really fun at shows, but potentially hard to translate to a studio record, which is why it worked out so perfectly to release "Shoulda Coulda" on a live album.
At the Live and Listening release show, I invited the audience to submit their own "shoulda coulda" entries on little slips of paper. Wendy organized these phrases and subbed them into the closing section of the song—our first experiment with crowdsourcing lyrics at a show.
So what about the question of the music sounding like my other song, "Enough About You"? Initially I tried altering the feel of "Shoulda Coulda," but nothing really felt right. This song just wants to bop along in the way that it does. Usually when a song wants to be a certain way, the songwriter's best move is to let it happen. So far, I haven't received any legal threats from myself.
Words and music by Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers
Shoulda coulda kept up with my lessons
I would be a master by now
Shoulda toured the world when I was younger
Shoulda done what mama don’t allow
Shoulda seen exactly what was coming
Shoulda known the honeymoon would end
Shoulda stopped the bully on the playground
Shoulda coulda been a better friend
In the rearview mirror, it is all so clear
Just where the road not taken would have gone
Giving so much care for the then and there
We’ve got no clue what’s really going on
Singing I...shoulda coulda
Should coulda picked a different major
Mighta made a stinking pile of dough
Mighta had the luxury and leisure
To wonder what I ever do it for
Shoulda let you how I was feeling
All the things that needed to be said
Mighta had the crucial conversation
Scripted out so clearly in my head
Said I love you (shoulda coulda)
Flossed my teeth more
Gone to grad school
Joined the Peace Corps
Seized the moment
Wrote the novel
Told the whole truth
Cut my losses
Spoken up more
Hit the road, Jack
Learned a language
Said thank you
Quit the damn job
I shoulda wasted way less time
Singing I...shoulda coulda