4 Songwriting Tips from Cory Asbury

Clock Icon 4 min read

Cory Asbury, Grammy-nominated songwriter of “Reckless Love,” gave us four tips for songwriting last year at WorshipU On Campus, and shared part of his story behind “Reckless Love.” Read more to learn how to find your story and express your heart honestly through song.

God made us in His image, with the purpose of partnering with Him and taking on His nature on the earth. When we create, we are participating in something supernatural, by putting things into existence that weren’t there before—just like when God spoke and there was light.

This beautiful process of creating can be intimidating to try and take something that came from our hearts and present it to the world. Everyone has their own opinion of what sounds “good” or “bad”.

“When I first started writing I was so insecure. I remember being swayed by other people’s opinions that my song wasn’t cool enough.” – Cory Asbury

We all know that feeling when you’re in the middle of writing a song and you suddenly hear your friend or pastor’s voice in your head, telling you how to write it or that you shouldn’t say that. The truth is, our pastors and leaders are much kinder than what we think, and the beauty of your song is that it is coming from you and your perspective.

“The most important thing about songwriting is honesty.” – Cory Asbury

Oftentimes we look at big songs that come out on the radio as formulaic, and think, “Maybe if I do it like that my song will go big too.” Instead of following a formula, a song has to start in our hearts. Are we chasing fame and recognition, or are we expressing ourselves and who we are through music and creativity? Your story, how you experience life, and how you encounter God are the most unique things you possess. The world needs you to be you. You bring something to the table that no one else does.

“If it isn’t born out of a place of honesty in your heart, it will fall to the ground. Even if it’s scripture, if it’s not alive in you, it will go nowhere.” – Cory Asbury

So how do we find and express our stories? How do we get what is going on internally into a song that makes sense and relates to people? Here are some steps from Cory Asbury on personal expression and translating our inner narrative into a song.

Tip #1: Ask the hard questions

Maybe you’ve just walked through the most difficult years of your life—that’s a story you can tell through song. Cory Asbury shares that his song “Reckless Love” came out of a hard time in his life when he found his daughter lying limp and lifeless in her crib more than once. During those drives to the hospital, Cory started asking God hard questions.

“I began to wrestle with the question, ‘Are you good? Why would you take my daughter from me?’ I finally got honest with God, because I grew up believing that I couldn’t be.” – Cory Asbury

Maybe you’ve never actually gotten honest with God about some hard things that have happened in your life. God isn’t afraid of our questions, so we shouldn’t be either. Just like David in Psalms, when we are facing conflict and despair, God invites us to go deep into those moments and ask Him, “Where were you? What were you doing and saying at that moment?”

Ask Him those questions and wait. He will speak to you, and songs will come from your dialogue with God as He reveals more of His nature to you. These are the moments that as songwriters, we can give new language to people who are going through similar experiences.

Tip #2 Seize the moment

Inspiration strikes at the most inopportune moments. Most of us see making time for creativity as something that we should put on the bottom of our list of things to do. We don’t see it as a priority. God made us to be creative, it’s part of our nature. Passing up opportunities to create causes us to only operate out of half of ourselves, while we shove the other parts of us away for another day.  There is beauty in stopping to honor a moment of inspiration when it comes and allowing creativity to have a priority in our lives.

“I got the idea for ‘Reckless Love’ in a dream I had one night. I woke up at 3 in the morning, went into my closet whispered it into my phone so my wife wouldn’t wake up.” – Cory Asbury

Pull out your phone or a recording device and record whatever it is you have. Maybe you have a melody but no words, it’s okay to sing gibberish if you have to. Don’t be afraid to sound silly, it doesn’t have to be perfect. Take what you have and invest in it until it grows.

Next time inspiration comes, seize the opportunity, no matter what. If we want more creative capacity, we have to honor what we already have. The more you honor those moments of inspiration, the easier it will be to get into a flow next time you sit down to write and create.

Tip #3 Stream of Consciousness

This is a style of writing used in literature but can also be used as a technique for processing what’s inside. When writing songs, our goal is to be honest and authentic, but sometimes we aren’t fully aware of how we feel about things or how they affect us until we start talking freely about it.

A stream of consciousness creates a space for the unlocking of our hearts, to process what is going on without interruption or constraint. You can utilize this tool along with took #1 Ask The Hard Questions. Turn on some instrumental music, take a pen and paper and start writing whatever comes to your mind—or use your phone and record yourself talking. Some people like to do this as soon as they wake up in the morning, when their minds and hearts are fresh. Express yourself freely by letting go of all filters, imagining that no one is listening and no one is correcting or disapproving of what you’re saying. If you have a strong inner critic, this would be the moment that you let go and let yourself be.

This technique bypasses all filters and gets straight to the heart of what is going on inside. After doing this and going back to read it, you will find a line or two that sticks and could be the bedrock of your next song.

Tip #4 Speak to this generation

Songs have the power to shape culture, even more than legislation. In the 1960s, The Beatles wrote songs about peace during the Vietnam war, and an entire “hippie” culture came from that concept. When writing songs for the church, we are given the ability to shape how an entire generation sees God.

Amanda Lindsey Cook’s song ‘Pieces’ is a modern-day version of 1 Corinthians 13. She took that scripture and delivered it to a younger generation in a way they can understand it.” – Cory Asbury

Language that relates to people and meets them where they’re at can bridge a gap and allows them to begin a new dialogue with God. Amanda took the verses, “Your love is patient, your love is kind,” to a whole new level and presented the Bible to people in a way that they could understand and relate to. In her song “Pieces” she uses the words “Your love is not passive, it’s never disengaged, it’s always present, it hangs on every word you say.” So many people can relate to these words; most of us have experienced parents or family members who seem uninterested in knowing us, and are passive in their pursuit of our hearts. When we grow up experiencing this kind of “love”, we automatically project that onto Father God as well. These lyrics opened the eyes of a generation to see the Father in a whole new way.

Matthew 13:52 “Therefore every teacher who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who brings out of his treasure something old and new.”

As master songwriters and musicians, God is challenging us to take the ancient truths and treasures written in the Bible say them in a new way, that expounds on them. God has given us imaginations for a purpose, to dream explore Him and His nature. When we lean into the Holy Spirit, we can write books on just one scripture of the Bible. We are being given an opportunity to make God’s nature accessible and understandable to our generation.

Maybe you have a story to tell but aren’t sure where to start. Take some time to ask the Lord what He’s been teaching you during your journey. Ask Him the hard questions, and listen for what He has to say. As you consistently go to the Lord and document His voice, a song of redemption will come out of your relationship with Him that will bring hope to the world.