Can I call myself a lyricist?

It’s odd to call myself a playwright, let alone a lyricist even though I have been working on an original musical for almost two years now. I didn’t set out to be one, and to be honest, I’m not sure if I want to be one.

I look at Asian and Asian American playwrights I know or have read and I could never be on par with them. And that’s ok! There are plenty of writers, poets, and performers who are better than me. Poets and writers who have an extensive vocabulary, a way with imagery and metaphor I can’t replicate, and a discipline and persistence I’m trying to find for myself. Despite all that, I remind myself every day that I still have something to say and only I can say it in my style.

So when I joined the Yappie the Musical project back in July 2019, I was nervous and excited. I also felt a sense of freedom because I didn’t know any of the rules about theatre and musicals and songwriting so I wasn’t bound to them. One of the most emotionally draining lessons was learning about syllabification. I smile at the memory of that moment now.

I finished the lyrics to the tracks of our concept album months ago. I usually don’t have such a long period between “finishing” a piece and sharing it with the world on the blog, on social media, or in a performance (except for when I’m working on a chapbook). So I feel somewhat distanced from these songs. Did I really write them?

I try to remember what the process was like writing the lyrics. Sometimes it took 2 hours just to write one line. One line! When I felt an inkling of a line forming but it was still an amorphous blob, I learned to surrender to it, to not think too hard, and the words appeared. It was like that with part of the second verse of our single track, “One Path.” I was trying so hard to find a word that rhymed with “design.” Armed with my rhyming dictionary gifted to me by my sister when I was still in high school and several rhyme websites, I could sense I was close and the moment I let my guard down, the rest came to me, as they say. Because of that, these four lines are my favorite part of the song.

What if I try to go off-script?
A blank sheet with no design
How can you tell if you succeed
Without a course, a trail outlined

Throughout this process I’ve asked myself if writing songs is easier than writing poetry. (To be clear, I think lyrics are poems, too.) I think poems are harder to write because you can’t hide behind the music and you can’t waste words. I love so many songs more for the music than the lyrics, which may seem odd as a writer, but it’s true! My musical collaborator, the brilliant composer, Bobby Ge, and I have had several conversations about how some lyrics on their own don’t make any sense. But they sound good with the music. Some are super catchy and it sparks an internal battle of “The beat is so good but the lyrics are wack. Can I still love you?”

You may feel the same way too once you hear the rest of the concept album. And you know, that’s cool. I don’t mind. I did the best I could in that moment. I’m proud of the work we’ve done and how we managed to pivot the project. I’m grateful to the creative team, the vocalists and musicians, the sound engineers, graphic designer, and video editors for sharing their talents and time and for believing in the project (see here for a complete list).

At one of our last in-person meetings as a creative team, I shared with one of the producers that I wanted to record the songs. Not necessarily to share with the world (at this point we thought we’d have a workshop premiere in May and had yet to seriously think about its future), but something for us. A souvenir, another thing to add to our artist portfolios, proof that it happened.

The idea of a recording transitioned into a concept album that will be streamed, downloaded, and shared for who knows how long. It’s surreal to think of it that way. That even though the musical itself is still a work in progress–and it will be for a long time (Hamilton took 7 years? Hadestown took 10?)–a little piece of it is preserved in this moment. A testament to our creativity and adaptability in a time of global crises. To the enduring power of the arts.

The full concept album will be released on bandcamp on Friday, May 28.

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