I was watching this excellent interview with the amazing Chris Whitley (RIP), who as an aside, is truly one of the greatest unheralded songwriters of the last 25 years, where he talks about certain aspects of the songwriting process. In particular, he was addressing the creation of lyrics, and I couldn’t help but think about what that process is like for our songs and how it has changed over the years.
He says a couple of things that I really like and identify with- I was comforted to know it was a challenging and complex process even for someone of his pedigree. I think the most interesting point he makes in the interview is how lyrics of songs are really different from other types of writings, whether it be poetry or prose. He argues that lyrics- where they come from, how they are connected to the music- stand as a truly unique form of an expression of words.
Essays in a lot of ways are the antithesis to lyrics. They are a prime example of proper rational thought. Using words to illustrate an idea and supporting that idea with clear, logical arguments. Frankly, the clarity of thought reflected in good essays has always impressed me tremendously.
Poetry…poems…they are much closer to lyrics. Many feel that songs are really just poetry added to music. It’s a nice explanation, but like Chris Whitley argues, I think it’s much more complicated than that.
The reason lyrics are different from other expressions of words is exactly because of the music they live in. They don’t exist on pen and paper (even though at one time they may have). They are truly embedded in something completely different; they co-exist in a sort of dynamic equilibrium with the music they belong to. As a result you can’t just throw the two (words and music) together. It’s really a journey of discovery of two parts living in the same whole. These two parts DO NOT exist independently. Where A is lyrics and B is music, we are not talking about the application of the linear equation ‘A + B = C’. We’re talking more about finding the A within the B, and finding the B within the A, and somewhere down the line without knowing it, you have discovered C to exist.
That’s why I really like Chris Whitley’s analogy of painting to songwriting. Painting, mentally, seems to be a much closer exercise to writing lyrics (rather than other types of writing) because it seems to be a little less rational than many of the approaches of putting pen to paper. Even if one is creating something fairly straightforward and isn’t delving into the abstract, at some point, colours and ideas on a canvas blend together. So it would seem that the painter, like the songwriter, naturally has to loosen the reins a bit in order to nurture his creation.
I find it hard to believe now, but I remember many, many years back when I first started writing songs, just how consciously I applied logic and reason to the lyrics. I wanted lyrics to flow like an essay. I wanted to be articulate. I wanted to communicate an idea as clearly as possible. Yes, I wanted it to be conveyed in an interesting manner and I wanted it to have that poetic quality, but I still really wanted the audience to understand my point. In my head, I was almost adamant about making sure I was able to communicate the point across. And so I think I chose lyrics that I thought were more clear and succinct. Now I think…maturity is a very nice thing.
There is no right or wrong approach to songwriting or writing lyrics, but over the last seven or eight years I have definitely moved more and more clearly to the other side. I have fallen in love with the world of ambiguity that lyrics can live in. It’s a world of limitless freedom that has plenty of room for interpretation, and none for deduction. In the last several years, this approach has increasingly shaped the way that I write lyrics.
Chris Whitley says something similiar in the interview about this. He talks about the idea of tapping into the subconscious and “automatic writing”. Again, I felt like I could really relate to this concept. I think what he was getting at is freeing your mind to really accept whatever idea or ideas come to actualization. Letting the ideas themselves do the work instead of trying to control and manipulate them with your brain. This is fully in line with the notion that the song is already there- we just have to release our minds enough to let the discovery take place. I agree with this concept totally. Shite, it’s too damn difficult to try and control things. You have to swim with the current, not pretend that you’re really on land. I love the idea that by letting go, we can arrive at the truth.
The real benefit of this is that you get truly honest songs. Even if people may not like them, you can really feel good that you made a discovery. Too often, earlier on, I would get frustrated with a song and stop working on it because “the words just weren’t coming together”. It was like I knew exactly what I wanted to say, but it was the words that kept failing me! No wonder it felt like such hard work. It would be like trying to paint with the other end of the brush. Looking back, I feel that early on, at those times, I just wasn’t letting the brush do its work.
I think when you do let the brush do the work, it says whatever it is supposed to say. If that means you drift into the absurd, nonsensical, or surreal, all the better. Lyrically speaking, I think some of best ideas are expressed through the most irrational of metaphors.
The other thing this does is it ultimately gives the listener a lot of freedom as well. Using this approach sometimes leads to lyrics that don’t make total sense or that leave an idea not fully explained. Great! I feel like with this approach you can really build a song into a playground for the listener. It invites them to step into the world of possibilities that has been created by the song. It gives them the ability to play in it for as long as they would like, and take whatever and how much ever they want from it. It leaves something to be desired by the listener and spurs them on to make their own discovery. I think that’s why people turn to music. If they wanted something more direct, they can read an essay, or a book, or whatever else. A song never has to, and often never does, mean the same thing to the listener that it did for the songwriter. And thank God for that.
Why? You see, listeners own songs too. As a music fan, I am terribly proud of and passionate about the songs out there that Im crazy about and what mean to me. Whether they give me a lift, offer me advice, or just make me want to party, at the end of the day they understand me. That’s why they are MINE. As a listener you can truly make a song your own- even if you weren’t the one to create it- just by way of what it means to you…the freedom of interpretation and love of music really truly gives you that right. There ain’t too much out there that can give you such a strong sense of ownership of something without legal documentation in place. That’s why music is so cool.
To see the Chris Whitley interview I’ve been referring to, you can follow this link: