Songwriters’ block

August 12, 2010 at 11:47 am (Music)

I love music…admittedly, not creating or performing it myself, but talking about it, listening to it, criticising it and philosophising about it. I obsess over reading lyrics (the digital revolution, while so good in so many ways is not helping my liner notes addiction!), hearing the stories behind the songs and picking up the cultural references.

I think that like most first loves, a love of music originates in adolescence, when identification, understanding, belonging and, well, let’s face it, other desires are so pressing and important. Professing fandom of a particular band or song is one of the quickest ways to identify yourself as part of a certain group…whether it be the cheerful pop princesses, the shoegazing indie crowd, the outrageous metal fans or even the intellectual classical collective. Sure, given most of our first CD purchases or first concerts, our tastes take some refining before we finally find the genre or the scene that truly ‘gets’ us, but I’d bet that most of us will always have a soft spot for that first embarrassing LP, tape, CD or download (age dependent) that made us leap around our bedrooms like a crazy thing.

The thing about music is, there are so many good songs out there, so many things that make you listen and hear the passion that went into writing it. But what is it that elevates a song into an obsession, into something that makes you hit repeat as soon as the closing chords die down? I think when it comes down to it, it has to have a certain frisson, something that hits a nerve, evokes a memory or desire. This can come from a particular chord change, a certain gasp or breath in between the words, a set of lyrics that put things just so…anything that causes a physical reaction in the listener. A lurch of recognition in the stomach, a thrill of pleasure in your chest, a pang of sadness in your eyes.

The glorious joy of it all too is that you can’t necessarily break it down and separate the elements that make it great. It has to have that magic combination of lyrics, melody, and that old indefinable cliché ‘soul’ as well as hit that personal spot in your heart, or come along at a particularly memorable point in your life to work…no wonder songwriting is such a difficult business. I’ve long admired anyone who can cobble a song together, words and music, who can orchestrate something original, yet familiar, something you can anticipate yet still be surprised by.

I must confess, as a writer, I’ve been tempted to try and bottle words into a song structure, but for me it’s like trying to trap a firefly in a jar. Bad teenage poetry was the only inevitable result. I may have once compared my broken heart to a flaccid beach ball…and then Tim Rogers steals my idea and puts it poignantly, perfectly into his simple, naked folk song. I love that I have learned words and concepts like leit motif and epiphany from songs, just the same way that books have taught me things or changed the course of my referencing and reading.

My CD collection is almost a barometric chart of my life. Like Rob in High Fidelity, I can sort it biographically and tell you that I was going out with a sweetly sensitive soul at the time I got into Weezer, with an apparently 12 year old skater boy who bought me Limp Bizkit’s disc for some reason (is it surprising that relationship didn’t last?:)) and that I was dedicated to RRR while driving to university when I found The Posies, Manic Street Preachers and even Soul Asylum. I can always predict writers block or a bout of depression when I find that I have not thrilled to any new songs or bought an album for a while, or made a mix tape for someone who I am eager to share my discoveries with.

And I love hearing about other people’s song stories, no matter the genre, age or sort of song. You can’t criticise someone’s musical taste when it’s something they love, something they are passionate about and something that means something to them (well, I know people do, but they are the oft-bemoaned music snobs and I have no time for musical snobbery…I know too well that you can’t help what you like sometimes, even if you suddenly realise you’ve been caught lip-synching to Justin Timberlake*)

So with that…my top 5 songs for lyrics, stories or educational value :)…a little mixed tape to get you started…will try to resist the urge to add and edit this madly after hitting submit. Mixed tape regret is a music lover’s constant companion!

Rolling Stones: Wild Horses

Placebo: Nancy Boy

Brand New: Play Crack the Sky

Manic Street Preachers: From Despair to Where

Maximo Park: Graffiti

*Note,  example only 🙂

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