Unzipping a Song
A few days ago, on the bus home from the grocery store, I was absorbed in a book: The Argonauts, by Maggie Nelson. A passage in the book struck me by reminding me of a recent situation in my own life, so I paused my reading to think. (I do a lot of my best thinking on the bus.) As the bus approached my stop, I put a bookmark in the book, grabbed my journal from my bag, and scribbled down a few sentences – just enough to ensure that I’d be able to jump back on my own train of thought when I got home. As I wrote, I realized that there might be some song lyrics hidden in there too.
Many songs begin this way, with an inspiring experience or piece of art that leads to reflection that leads to writing that leads to a song. Songwriters keep their brains constantly scanning like a radio dial, trying to tune in and collect these moments of inspiration. Once that happens, the lyric writing is often a process of distillation: sifting through a soup of ideas and words until only the most elemental necessities remain. The day after the bus ride, I read an interview with Gillian Welch (by ND’s own Stacy Chandler!) where she spoke about the realities of this process. Welch names literature and prose writers as some of her inspirations, but she notes that songwriters have the difficult task of fitting the equivalent of 10 chapters into two lines of lyrics. I’ve often labored over lyrics, knowing that I’ve only got a few syllables to express the idea I need to express and feeling like I’ve been asked to fully describe a Van Gogh painting in three words or less.
Speaking of Van Gogh, though, I find songwriting gets easier when I can draw upon many varied sources of inspiration. I think a songwriter who only listens to music, who never goes to art museums or reads novels, is probably going to write derivative and uninteresting songs. Drawing lyric ideas from prose is a good way to give yourself lots to work with in the distillation process, but it can be an uphill battle, as I’ve learned from trying to carve a song out of my long-winded, meandering journal entries. Looking beyond words and music altogether can provide yet another route.
I asked my friend Aurora Birch for her thoughts on this – she’s a songwriter and a multi-talented, generally creative person whose capacity to take in art I admire. She had this to say: “I see art as a reaction, and something I make is merely many disparate reactions to my world arranged in a manner that is logical to me. So if I fill my world with bullshit, I might make a lot of bullshit. But if I’m continually seeking new ways to be moved, and expanding myself and my capacity for wonderment, then my art will grow beyond my limited conception of what I’m capable of.”
This is why I always feel more inspired to write music when I go to art museums or watch movies (and why I feel creatively blocked when I’ve been doing nothing but listening to music). Since I don’t work with film or visual art, those forms can allow me to connect and feel something in a different way, separated from technical concerns. Then I can return home and ask myself, “How can I translate the ideas of that painting onto the guitar?” or “How could I render the feeling of this story without being able to watch the characters interact for two hours?” Those questions usually don’t happen quite that literally and directly, but anything that has an impact on me will eventually bubble to the surface of my writing, one way or another. Aurora and I agreed that this process is roundabout and subtle, but she did tell me about two of her songs that were directly inspired by non-musical sources: Neil Gaiman’s book American Gods and an episode of Blue Planet focusing on sea lilies.
My poet friend GennaRose Nethercott recently sent me a link to a fascinating article by another poet, Steven Leyva. He writes that the malleability of faces and bodies in anime (“large eyes become mere dots when a character is surprised; whole bodies become chibi, or childlike, versions to suggest playfulness; facial features become more realistic and detailed when the characters are angered”) was liberating for his poetry writing because it inspired a broader understanding of how physical forms can be represented, whether in visuals or in words.
One of the main concerns of The Argonauts, the book I was reading on the bus, is the limited ability of words to express truths. On the first page of the book, Nelson says “I had spent a lifetime devoted to Wittgenstein’s idea that the inexpressible is contained — inexpressibly! — in the expressed … Its paradox is, quite literally, why I write, or how I feel able to keep writing.” I can’t remember the last time something resonated with me quite that much. It’s difficult to feel like I haven’t quite expressed what I was trying to express, but I’ll never stop trying.
GennaRose described it in this way: “The job of the poet or the lyricist is to take a leviathan, amorphous truth and distill it into an object that can fit on a sheet of paper or be tucked into a pocket. And if that weren’t challenge enough, this object, when read or listened to, must expand in the mind back to its former size and meaning. It’s like a .zip file— able to be compressed and then unzipped.” I don’t really know much about computers, so I am baffled at how it’s possible to compress an entire album of gigantic audio files into a tiny .zip file and then re-expand it to its full size. But I suppose GennaRose is right – songwriting is kind of the same thing. I compress whatever I’ve managed to collect on my way through life, and the listener unzips.