Q- Can you talk about how you experience the relationship between music and lyrics? Reading the lyrics to songs (anyone’s), some stand on their own as poetry. For other songs, upon simply reading the lyrics, the words can seem trite, ridiculous, or even boring…yet once they are put within the context of a song they seem to make sense, to resonate, and a new level of beauty emerges… I suppose that in many ways this is just part of the mystery of songwriting and we should not try to over think it too much, but do you have any thoughts about this as a writer? Is this any different when you are co-writing?
A- I always think the best songs come as a piece of lyric and a piece of music at the same time. It doesn’t have to be a huge chunk of the song but there seems to be something more natural and more instinctive and more elemental when the lyric informs the music and the music informs the melody.
I notice there is no struggle with phrasing when you receive a song this way. There isn’t the tendency to over write when you get a song this way. It feels like a song “comes to you” when you get a piece of the music and lyric simultaneously as though you have an antennae waving in the air and you “caught” a song. This doesn’t answer your question in itself but it plays in role in the answer.
There are lyrics that don’t read well but sing wonderfully. There are different reasons for this with different songs. Sometimes songwriters are just looking for words that phrase a certain way, where the emphasis of syllables falls where they want them to fall on the melody. Some writers will work this way instinctively and make brilliant songs from it. The Beatles have a lot of songs that work this way. McCartney in particular seemed to have a knack for wrapping his incredible voice around a phrase that didn’t make sense on it’s surface, and sort of wringing emotion from it. In a way it’s sort of what someone like Ray Charles might do with a wordless vocalization. It’s taking a sound or a word and infusing it with emotion so you give it more meaning that it has on it’s own. When Little Richard sings “Tutti Fruiti” you’re completely aware what he’s getting at even with the nonsensical lyric. It really depends so much in what the musical setting the song is sitting in.
Other writers work from almost exactly the opposite direction. Leonard Cohen’s songs, to me, sometimes read even better than they sing. They sing wonderfully but they are such masterfully assembled poetry that I actually get more from the lyrics just reading them through.
There are other angles as well. When I’m writing in character the lyric sometimes will read with a different depth than it sings. When you are writing in character you have to stay true to the language of that character. Sometimes this means you have to limit your vocabulary in the same way Tennessee Williams gives Stanley Kowalski his limited sense of language. Steve Earle does this really well. Steve can tell a great story with very ordinary, almost boring language. He has a way of inhabiting a song when he sings it that makes you believe him as the character so that the ordinary language is compelling as someone’s story.
This is one of the things Slaid Cleaves and I wrestle with from time to time in our co-writing. I’m very sensitive to a character’s use of language.
In our song “Black T-Shirt,” the narrator is not the character in the song but I felt it was important that the narrator had the same language and came form the same place. In other words you don’t want to sing in the voice of a bank president when you are describing this broken world this character lives in. You want to sing the song from “inside” so that, as a singer, you can sing as though this character could conceivably be you. You’re not trying to trick the listener. You’re trying to give the character a believable narrator.
Some songwriters don’t think about this stuff at all. I obsess over it. Bringing a character to life is the part of the art that I’m most excited by. There’s no right or wrong to any of it. Little Richard probably wouldn’t sound believable singing “Black T-Shirt” and I sound ridiculous trying to sing “Tutti Fruiti.” Trust me, I just tried it. You sort of answered your own question in a way. It’s part of the mystery of songwriting – trying to get all the different elements to align into something believable.