While I haven’t ever thought of myself as a lyrical genius, or even master, I have sometimes been quite proud of the verse I may have been able to craft through a particular song. And since I have been writing creatively for over twenty years, I think it’s fair to expect I have learnt enough to craft at the very least, an occasional great lyric.
And while I may be no Paul Kelly – one of the worlds greatest ever lyricists and songwriters, no Ben Harper – another honest and incredibly gifted songwriter, my words do pertain to ‘REAL’ life. They reflect what is going on around me, or what I am thinking about – remembering maybe. Like Paul Kelly’s amazing body of work over near forty years, my twenty year compendium is relative to where I was emotionally and sometimes physically at the time, and where I thought I was or wanted to go. So that you can look through all that work in chronological order and see a variety of experiences including realtionships, love, hurt, withdrawal, fear, imaginings, hope, and laughter. You essentially, can see me.
And while I am not here, writing this or any other ‘piece’, in order to bag out any person’s opinion, or similarly make my own somehow right, I don’t mind sharing that I have been amazed by some of my studies into this idea of lyric writing and its apparent segregation from life. Sometimes I fall upon heavy critique because in my presentation work, I refuse to talk about mental health without a context of life. But I can’t fathom how they are separate and yet, certain authoritarians disagree.
One of the ‘rules’ of lyric writing is to keep pronouns consistent and so that you do not have “I was” in the same verse as “I am”. In my 2014 song ALL OF THEM recorded for songs from THE SATURNINE PROJECT, 2014, it argues strongly:
There’s a darkness welcomed me, and it squeezes like a belt
Another apparent rule is perspective consistency. In other words, “I am standing here” doesn’t go with “there I was standing”. Yet again ALL OF THEM defies these rules:
Eighty cigarettes a day, coloured in my skin. Living in a smoke house, saw no challenges for him
This is a dark and solemn song which I really like and am privileged to sing for people either when they ask or, as part of a particular presentation. And so, if I knew the rules, why did I break them? Does it mean the lyric is badly written or not up to standard? It may do, but do I care? My songs, my writings, have always been and I expect, will continue to be, something much more important – honest. And that is why the lyrical ‘bloopers’ in ALL OF THEM remain. Because, it’s about the past and the darkness that “welcomed” me in at the time, but it is also about the ongoing challenge which we need to recognise and embrace therefore “it squeezes like a belt”.
Further along, there is an insinuation of two personalities which we can call bipolar, or split, or label in other unimportant ways if we choose. There is “my skin” and then there is “challenges for him” almost as if “we” are not the same person or at least, it was when “I” was different. It’s purposeful, it’s supposed to be a little confusing and leave the listener wondering.
In a recent manual on lyric writing I read never to sing about your depression or sadness, if you have nothing else to share, to wait until you do. Is this to insinuate all songs must be happy or uplifting? This is an author who has written over 300 recorded songs and one wonders if they are all positive? I have built much of my work on the power of dark songs, the capacity to safely engage with people on a level that would generally go unrecognised in life because that’s what we do. Would I want to be able to write only about one ‘side’ of my experience or life?
The soul presents itself in a variety of colors, including all shades of gray, blue, and black. To care for the soul, we must observe the full range of all its colorings, and resist the temptation to approve only of white, red and orange – the brilliant colors. Melancholy gives the soul an opportunity to express a side of its nature that is as valid as any other, but is hidden from our distaste for darkness and bitterness
The song ONE LAST PIL, an orginal song of THE SATURNINE PROJECT but which didn’t make the final cut on the recording for various reasons, is not an easy song to listen to for some people. In fact, I have had people in audiences in tears afterwards, shaking, and very upset. Here’s a snippet
In the morning time, it doesn’t matter now. I’ll sleep in for ever and ever and, I guess you’ll find me somehow. I can feel the dizziness, the confusion it’s coming on. Behind my eyes, I can feel the flies and, I know it’s nearly done
But that is no different to the reactions which often present from a rendition of FLOWN, a song about grief and loss. This is why safety and collective care is necessarily encouraged and agreed upon before any of these performances take place. But would I prefer that people did not cry, did not get upset, did not face their own fears? In fact, it is a privilege with which I take seriously and approach with great humility because in everyday life, in modern society, we are increasingly moving toward painted smiles, bright colours, and wrinkle free lives of eternal youth and one-sided happiness. BUT – it isn’t real. Imagine if we were to never have experienced the heart-wrenching lyrics of Johnny Cash’s rendition of the Nine Inch Nails song, HURT?
I hurt myself today, to see if I still feel. I focus on the pain, the only thing that’s real The needle tears a hole, the old familiar sting. Try to kill it all away, but I remember everything
Of course that surely, is what it’s all about? REAL? If I can’t be real, how can I reach people at that level? How can I talk about it with people? How can I be genuine? Empathetic? Honest? If I cannot get in touch with my own demons, darkness, yang, then how can I hear about others and relate? And yet here I am arguing with a professional songwriter and lyrisicst who, in my estimation, is proposing we do not make it real but rather, continue the façade. This façade which says I’m ok and you’re ok, and the worlds ok, and buying a new car will make it all better. How about the tranquil sadness elicited through Jeff Buckley’s rendition of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah?
Maybe there’s a God above, but all I’ve ever learned from love was how to shoot at someone who outdrew you. It’s not a cry you can hear at night, It’s not somebody who has seen the light, It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah
I won’t make any apologies, not because I am self centred though, If it was just about that, I wouldn’t care how the songs were received or felt. No, it’s because they are honest and real AND because of how they are received. The feedback confirms that safely, people are able to cry, connect, feel, a level of hurt and sadness that sometimes isn’t possible while we go busily about our daily tasks and action our lives away. Perhaps as Elton John once wrote,
Sad Songs Say So Much
I used to work with an older man at a busy drive through bottleshop on a main road somewhere in Melbourne. He was around 75 years old and a wonderful man. Cynical yes, but humerous too. While my age was around forty at the time, the other staff were all in their twenties. Gordon (name I will use) was influenced by younger people and trends and though he would take on the phrases and ideas to try and keep ‘hip’ he would sometimes misunderstand their meaning. Gordon would often have an issue with customers changing their mind or taking long times to choose what they wanted and would say
“Are you real mate?”
I used to crack up but he would do it with the right intent. No matter how often I would explain it as
“Are you for real?”
He would continue to ask it in his own way. Perhaps he was writing his own lyric about his own life experience with little to no consideration for the rules and regulations? Perhaps instead, he had one puropose only – to be honest and to be genuine and in doing so, maintaining the most important factor of all
KEEPING IT REAL
Cash, Johnny, http://www.johnnycash.com/, viewed 2014
Cohen, Leonard, http://www.leonardcohen.com/us/80, viewed 2014
Harper, Ben, http://www.benharper.com/, viewed 2014
John, Elton, http://www.eltonjohn.com/, viewed 2014
Kelly Paul, http://www.paulkelly.com.au/news, viewed 2014
Moore, T, Care of the Soul, 1994, Harper Collins, USA
Nine Inch Nails, http://www.nin.com/, viewed 2014
Songs From THE SATURNINE PROJECT, 2014, NYP, johnny inc, http://www.johnnymackay,moonfruit.com