I am so excited to introduce you to Justine Perry. She is a full time lyricist and, you’ll see from her answers, is just an incredible writer in general.
Justine and I met through a mutual client and project: “Conscience/Cape Understand” by M L Dunn. Check it out here:
Justine contributed to lyrics and yours truly made the BGVs, and the incredible M L Dunn was the mastermind behind it all (and the lead singer). I was so intrigued that Justine makes a full time living solely off of lyrics that I just had to interview her, and she interviewed me as well here!
Justine Perry, Professional Lyricist
So let’s start with the standard/boring questions first: How did you get started in lyric writing? Do you sing or write melodies as well?
I’ve always loved writing lyrics. I wrote lyrics as a child without anyone suggesting it; this has always made me think it’s my calling, but maybe that’s too serendipitous.
I pursued singing as a teenager (ten years ago) but found it wasn’t for me. I don’t enjoy singing anymore. I sometimes sing the vocal melody for clients to demonstrate how the lyrics fit. My love is for lyrics. I don’t feel any mad passion for singing.
I think you have to love something with an almost delusional passion to keep going. When I’ve had negative comments about my lyrics, although it can hurt, I’ve never given up. With singing, rejection wore me down. I think that’s because I didn’t love it enough.
I was telling someone on Instagram about a hellish audition I had as a singer. The judges stopped me a couple of lines in. The other 3-4 people I was brought in with did at least a verse and a chorus. This really knocked my confidence. I did a similar audition the following year and got a more positive response. They said my style was better suited to the other audition company and suggested I apply with them. I was thinking, “not after last time!”
I guess that’s the reality of the industry. You have to believe in yourself enough to get back up. I’d encourage people not to let experiences like that get you down, if you’re pursuing what you want to do. Using that example, don’t be afraid to ask why they stopped you. Perhaps there’s some constructive feedback you can use to better yourself (but don’t make changes if you strongly disagree with what they say, your own gut is a better guide than anything else.) If you want to go back in and tell them how rude they are, I think that’s okay too! I was close to doing this but was too shy.
They were charging for auditions if I remember correctly. It wasn’t much, about £10, but I feel this gives them an obligation to listen to everyone. I had also prepared the song and travelled a long way, so to humiliate me in front of the others auditioning like that, today I’d have put them in their place! They’d have probably said it’s a brutal industry, but I feel the industry can only be blamed to a point. We can all make the industry a better place by treating others with kindness and respect. (Sorry that was a long-winded answer!)
Haha no problem! I’ve had my own terrible auditions so I can totally relate. When did you first realize you had a talent for lyrics?
When I was about ten, I sang my lyrics to the leader of a music group. He didn’t believe I wrote the lyrics and thought I must’ve stolen them from a song he hadn’t heard of (he believed me in the end – I think!)
When I was at college, I had a particularly supportive tutor. I’ll always remember him saying he believes my place in the music industry is writing lyrics. This meant a lot to me coming from someone who had written for well-established rock bands.
I remember this, as well as lovely comments I’ve had from clients, when I get negative comments online. It’s important to give the positive more headspace than the negative. Facebook ads can be a magnet for negativity, so remembering the positive is crucial.
Who are some of your lyric writing inspirations? (Mine are Joni Mitchell, Maria Mena and Stevie Nicks for example)
People are usually surprised by my answer to this. They expect me to say Paul McCartney or Bob Dylan (both great writers.) But my biggest inspirations growing up were Eminem, Diane Warren, Ina Wroldsen, and Pink. More recently, I love Lauren Aquilina, Ella Eyre, Molly Kate Kestner, and Catherine McGrath.
Haha Eminem! That’s so interesting. Is this your full time job? If not, what do you do also?
It is, but it was only last year I gave up other businesses I was running. Running a business involves A LOT. There’s marketing, accounting, website maintenance… to name a few. I was spreading myself so thinly that the phrase, “jack of all trades, master of none” felt applicable.
I started other businesses because I feared lyric writing would never be profitable on its own. I enjoyed the other work, but I wasn’t deeply passionate about it. I learnt that it takes a lot for ANY business to be profitable; I was wrong to think other things were more realistic. Lyric writing is niche but selling a common product or service doesn’t guarantee ease or success.
I have a few side hustles. They can be loosely applied to my work as a writer and blogger, so I can run it all from my lyric writing business. They are work-from-home jobs with part-time hours that vary month to month, so it can be worrying in the financial sense but I enjoy all the projects I’m involved in.
When do people usually hire you, and what is that process like?
It’s usually done online, and can happen anytime. I specialize in pop, country and folk lyrics.
Pre-written lyrics can be licensed from my website and on Songbay. This is ideal for songwriters who like to start with lyrics, setting words to music. The licensing process is quick and easy, so you could be putting the lyrics to music the same day you license them. Each lyric is licensed exclusively. Once you license a lyric, nobody else can use it.
I also write on commission. Commissions can be ordered via my website. This is when lyrics are written from scratch to suit the client’s requirements. This includes topic ideas and the artist’s individual style and/or vocal range. I always listen to the client’s previous work (if they have any) because this gives me an idea of their sound and style. I also ask for reference tracks. These are songs by other artists that reflect what the client is looking for lyrically. This helps me understand what the client is expecting, and reduces the number of drafts needed.
With commissions, 1-4 drafts are standard, but I’m happy to go beyond this if necessary. (The only time I would charge for additional drafts is if the client were constantly changing their mind, dismissing drafts they had previously approved. Luckily, this hasn’t happened yet.)
I’m sure we all have written awful stuff when we were first starting out (I know I did, haha). Did you go through a cringey/awkward lyric phase? How did you get out of it?
There was a lyric in my childhood years about burning someone’s house down! There was another about our family dog after he passed away, which included the line, “He was more than a dog, I was more than a frog.”
I’ve lost most of my early lyrics, which is a shame because I’d love to read them back. Sometimes one good line in a terrible lyric can be the foundation for a new and better lyric.
I think creatives naturally get better over time, with practice and as we discover our individual voices. I specialised in lyric writing during my final year of university. I learnt a lot about the craft of lyric writing during this time, and my writing greatly improved.
A professional lyricist knows their craft in the same way a session musician knows their instrument. I’m glad I took the time to learn and grow as a writer. This is something I continue to do.
Ahaha I love the frog line! Do you have any other lyrics from your younger days?
My mum and sister would say the answer to this would be the following, which I sent to Simon Cowell! (Please note this was over ten years ago. I was seventeen.)
“Rain on me, yeah, yeah, yeah / Rain on me, yeah, yeah, yeah”
I think the full lyric was okay but not brilliant. (I’ve lost it so can’t check). It’s from the phase when I tried to be like other people – hence the yeah, yeah, yeahs. I never write like that anymore. I never use the word ‘baby’, unless it’s a commission and is relevant to the brief. I’ve become more confident in my own style.
On the flip side, there is one early lyric in particular that gets positive feedback to this day. It’s called ‘Commotion’ and is available on Songbay. It’s a reminder not to completely dismiss older works, even if your writing has improved. It is another example of when to trust your gut. Some older works should be put in a box and remain there forever!
One of my biggest songwriting pet peeves is when people write nonsensical lines just because they rhyme (for example, “I’m in love with the shape of you, you push and pull like a magnet do.” ugh). Do you have any songwriting pet peeves you wish people would stop?
It drove me up the wall at university when some lecturers would heavily criticize a piece because it wasn’t “original” enough. They didn’t want you to reinvent the wheel, but smash it to pieces.
I’m not saying having an individual sound isn’t important, but there are subtle ways to do this. I think people were made to feel they had to create weird or obscure music that didn’t represent them to be good enough. Sometimes your voice, lyrics, or production ideas are unique enough to make you stand out. You don’t need to have giraffes farting in the background as well!
How do you deal with creative blocks, when the words just aren’t flowing?
Taking a break can help. I often get ideas when cleaning or walking the dog. Also, planning the lyric beforehand, for example plotting the storyline, can make it easier when you start writing.
I have a giveaway that covers finding inspiration and dealing with writer’s block. You answer four questions and I send you feedback based on your answers, so you get the feedback most relevant to you. You can take the quiz here.
If someone is already a writer but wants to start with song lyrics, how do you recommend they get started?
I have a giveaway for this too! (I’m a shameless plugger!) It’s a free guide called Six Ways to Improve Your Lyrics.
What types of people make the best clients for you? On the other side, who would NOT be a good fit for you as a client?
My best clients love collaborating. I think as humans, we often create better work together than alone. Some people prefer to struggle rather than hire someone because they think their music won’t be authentic if they haven’t written it themselves. I always say collaborating with a lyricist is similar to recording a cover. Although you didn’t write the words, you probably chose the song because the lyrics speak to you. Because of this, you give an authentic and emotional performance.
I had a nightmare client in a previous business. The client ignored all my messages, didn’t acknowledge the work I sent over for months. Then didn’t pay. I was supposed to be paid in the summer but this clearly wasn’t going to happen. I texted a friend, “On the bright side, perhaps it will be helpful to be paid near Christmas.” He replied, “Which Christmas?” I laughed at the time but it’s funnier in hindsight because it was Christmastime the following year that I got paid. (And not the full amount). I think the best client/entrepreneur relationships are when respect goes both ways. Luckily, I’ve not had anyone like this with my lyric writing (at least not since I started charging. I got taken advantage of when I worked for free or “for royalties only”).
I think charging upfront where possible is wise because chasing money afterwards can be incredibly stressful. If you have to hire a mediator or solicitor to help you, you lose a percentage of your earnings. Some businesses even end up closing because of cash flow problems caused by unpaid invoices.
I also write best in the pop, country and folk genres. This is why I market myself in these genres. If a client were looking for a rap lyricist, I’m sure there are lots of writers out there who would do a better job.
You also have a great blog. Obviously writing comes naturally to you! Do you do any other types of writing?
Yes! I’m an avid reader and writer. I have one project in particular but it’s primarily a hobby at the moment – I want to enjoy it for that at this stage and not promote it online. I once received a nasty email from a troll about a side project, so I prefer to keep things private unless they’re part of my business.
Keeping parts of my life offline has worked wonders for my mental health. I made the decision this year to use social media just for work. I don’t post when I’m out with friends or baking at home anymore. I’m happier using social media as a tool, not something that’s ingrained in every aspect of my life.
What is your goal as a lyricist or writer, and how are you taking steps to make that happen?
Listening to other people’s lyrics has helped me through tough times. My main goal is to be able to help others. This is what keeps me going.
As a secondary goal, earning a living from my own business has been an ambition since a young age. I had a hellish job interview when I was seventeen. It’s a funny story.
I grew up in a small town, so it was necessary to expand the job search to the nearest city. There were more opportunities here but the buses weren’t that regular and stopped early in the evening. My dad lives near the city, so I’d often stay with him when I needed to go there (my parents are divorced).
This meant that when I noticed my tights were laddered, I didn’t have another pair. (I had about eight pairs back home frustratingly). I was going to wear the lovely shoes I had packed for the interview anyway, but my step-mum said I should wear my boots to cover the ladder. The boots were VERY casual. They were edgy and not interview appropriate. Perhaps we should’ve tried to buy new tights but there wasn’t much time.
My top was also slightly sheer and my bra ill fitting – not the best combo! I had nothing else suitable for an interview with me. I wasn’t too worried but then my dad started commenting on my bra, not something any girl wants under any circumstance! Between the boots and the bra comments, I didn’t feel confident before I even got there.
When I arrived, I was led to the interview room through corridors beneath the shop. It felt like a maze. The previous applicant looked smart in his suit, so I felt worse about my appearance. (I guess the moral of the story is when travelling for an important meeting, try everything on first and/or pack a backup outfit).
One of the interviewers asked about where I live, and got strangely hostile when I said the buses were reliable (they weren’t regular but it was unusual for them not to turn up). I felt I couldn’t fully argue with her in an interview, so I just said my dad lives nearer.
I was young, shy and inexperienced, so I struggled through the questions. The worst part was when one of the interviewers (the hostile one) was laughing at me. Like literally laughing. I was quite shocked; I wanted to walk out but was worried about finding my way back through the maze!
I endured the rest of it and left feeling very small. I pretended to be ill for the second interview I had that day because I was absolutely crushed. I think my dad knew I was pretending but called in sick for me because I was so upset.
It was unpleasant but I don’t see it as a negative experience because it was life changing for me. I walked away from that interview determined to start my own business. I didn’t want to do an interview ever again! I’ve had the odd interview since but kept them to a minimum. I’ve had to present myself at business networking, so it was naïve to think avoiding interviews would mean I wouldn’t have to sell myself, but it was a pivotal point in my life regardless. (Plus it’s easier to talk about topics you’re knowledgeable and passionate about).
I think networking, either online and/or in real life, is a good way to go about any goal. It doesn’t have to be expensive and people buy from people. Letting people get to know and trust you is a great way to find new clients and get recommendations.
I started real life networking about four years ago and it really helped with my introversion. I can walk up to someone and introduce myself without difficulty. Five years ago, I’d have never thought that possible.
Lastly and most importantly, where can people find, follow and hire you?
Here are my main links: