Question 2 – How important is it to you to communicate something specific with your lyrics or are they just a vehicle for a lovely voice?
Jeremy Warmsley: Utterly, utterly important. Words carry meaning. I think artists actually have a moral fucking reponsibility to their audience to spend as much effort investing their words with meaning as they’d hope their most rabid fan would spend deciphering them. Otherwise it’s just a waste of everyone’s time. (Caveat: sometimes effortless is better and effort is a waste of time). Now, sometimes, a song is about a vague kind of expression. If that’s the point, then great. But if you’re just stringing a bunch of words together ‘cos you can’t be arsed, you don’t deserve to waggle your vocal chords.
Mat Riviere: It’s not important for me to communicate anything specific. What I’m interested in lyrically is ambiguity. I like it when you can’t really tell what a song is about but you are still left with an idea or a feeling from it. I like the idea of there being a story in there somewhere or a snippet of a story you don’t really understand.
Hannah Miller: I have a great love of words, and the complexity and subtlety of meaning, as well as the sounds of words in themselves as rhythmic, percussive and melodic tools. I also think that lyrics, as opposed to, for example, poetry in a book, have a distinct advantage in the great battle of communication since you are able to put stress where you will, choose the tone, pitch and emphases and so shape the meaning more fully. Despite their expressive quality though, since they are condensed, they have their limitations. I think it is impossible to communicate exactly what you mean since everyone interprets according to their particular set of convictions, beliefs etc.
Also, sometimes I simply decide that a word sounds to me like it means something other than its definition and use it accordingly. But I really relish a degree of ambiguity and mystery, and tend to put forth any agenda or comment though some veiled analogous story. Also, I find that I tend to add meaning in degrees after the writing if that makes sense. Quite apart from all this chat, it is a pleasure to sing, especially in harmony, and it is a fine thing to sing a lovely melody, and for me, the melody often sculpts the words, they take their shape from it.
Spencer McGarry: I think within a pop song the sound is often more important- if the chord of ‘A’ means nothing then why should the vowels and consonants that go over it mean anything either? That said I can’t seem to bring myself to write about nothing, I usually find it more interesting for me to write about something, although what I have found is the constraints of a 2/3 minute song work against total meaning being conveyed, there’s not that much room for lyrics that both sound good and can illustrate what you’re trying to say, especially if you keep having to go back to a chorus. This doesn’t really mater if the song does not have to function in a meaningful setting e.g- as part of a musical/song cycle, and when we consider that most pop lyrics are banal, (one can almost write/sing anything as long as it has that elusive quality of sounding ‘good’ next to the music), it maters not.
Paul Hawkins: I think it’s probably a compulsion with me. I’ve no idea what’s gone wrong where and when but I think at some point in my teens I realised I found it a damn sight easier to communicate my emotions in songs than it was to actually apply them to genuinely real world situations. As a result of that whenever anything dramatic happens to me pretty much my first thought is “how’s the song about this gonna go?” It’s not something I’m proud of, and Christ knows it’s not in a practical way to live your life, but it makes me a damn prolific songwriter!
As to whether I’m trying to communicate anything specific, I’m probably trying to figure myself out as much as anything. A while back I was talking to a clinical psychologist about his work and he described his job as “trying to help people find a narrative that helps them to understand their lives and their emotions”. That’s basically what songwriting does for me.
Ill Ease: Communicating something specific and expressing a specific view or just a momentary vision or revelation about the world is very important to me. I think what is being communicated goes hand in hand with how it is communicated: how something is sung I think is an essential part of how the listener understands what is being said.
I think that’s part of what keeps sampling and dj-ing, mash-ups and cover songs interesting…. I don’t think performing or sampling a song that was written by someone else is any less original than performing your own composition because every new performance is a new interpretation. It’s a pretty recent change in our culture that so many people both write and perform their own music – it used to be either you were a writer or a performer, but hardly ever both. I remember trying to explain to my grandfather, who was a musician, that I both wrote and performed my own music and he was really surprised and actually a little confused by it.
I think the fact that now that the expectation is so much more that musicians both write and perform their own music has confused the issue — and the fact that (I think partially due to the interests of the recording industry) over the past 50 years, the perceived importance of recordings and music as a recorded, final product has obscured the fact that, up until the 1940s or 50s, an essential part of what music was was the performance of it, and that a new interpretation, a cover, a live performance or even a sampling of a ‘standard’ was just as creative as a new composition.
Napoleon IIIrd: No matter if I discuss issues of social importance or I am simply trying to make someone smile, if I am to create something then I must try my hardest. For me lyrics are as important as the music that surrounds them, there are many songs that I can not stand.
Capitol K: I can’t force lyrics out, i read a lot and follow a line of interest, develop some concepts and then when it’s right i have moment of clarity and i can write lots in my note book – which i then plunder good moments from. I became a singer accidently and then just accepted what my voice would do and started writing around that..
I was uncomfortable with heart on the sleeve type lyrics for myself and now think of writing more like working on a fiction, a story, a film… It dosn’t have to be about your own kitchen sink it can be total fantasy.. If you can however write a brilliant lyric with your closest friend or lover as the subject matter, and watch their jaw drop when you sing it to a crowded room then great.
Laura Wolf: As long as I have been listening to music I have been more interested in lyrics than any other part of a song; I have to consciously make myself pay attention to other things in order to have a more ‘musical’ experience. When I write a song the lyrics are definitely the most important part to me. I don’t always take ages writing them or agonise over them but they normally come first and will be what I am most proud of when a song is finished. I like lyrics that are honest and emotional or ones that tell a story. Almost all of my songs are based on real events or feelings.
Spencer McGarry: Most lyrics however seem impossibly cumbersome and have a detrimental effect on the music. Coldplay for example have lyrics that seem to come from house music- they would be fine within that genre, acting as just a sentence here and there to punctuate the music “I will fix you” “singing ohh” they don’t seem to work quite as well within the torch ballad especially within an album of mid paced rock, it this intentionally subversive?
Overall it seems a lot of pop music is illiterate to an alarming degree- I’ve lost track of the amount of interviews I’ve read and of conversations I’ve had, where an individual can’t seem to find anything to write about, not even in a sense of providing vocal sounds that would suit the music. I’ve almost given up listening to lyrics in new music after a lifetime of disappointment.
It can be annoying though if you find (as I often do) that there’s not enough room for the listener to understand what one is trying to say- although I’m also aware that this perceived ‘listener’ probably doesn’t care or just like me, is not listening either.
What’s this all about?
links to other questions in this conversation are here
Tags: capitol k, hannah miller, ill ease, internet forever, jeremy warmsley, laura wolf, mass interview, mat riviere, modernaire, napoleon iiird, pagan wanderer lu, paul hawkins, spencer mcgarry season, the moulettes