Last week I mentioned that with this post I’d begin talking more directly about the basic elements of songwriting and depart from the esoteric discussions of inspiration, imagination, and all that “unteachable” stuff. Then again, isn’t the whole idea of songwriting unteachable by nature? You can be taught chords and clefs, technique and perhaps even touch, but who can teach you to be you? A song that is authentically yours--one that you’ve poured your heart into--is like a fingerprint. By definition that song is something only you could create, and no one can teach you that. That is a journey every writer makes alone. Perhaps that’s why it’s so rewarding when a writer starts to hit their stride?
So maybe this week’s post is a little esoteric…it’s all about perspective.
The art of forgetting yourself: Who's this song all about anyway?
I always try to leave room for other people in my songs, avoiding topics that subdivide or otherwise limit the listener’s ability to see their own life experience reflecting back at them in the lyrics. That’s what I do, but it all comes down to why you’re writing music and what your goals are I suppose. Music is by nature without boundaries, it recognizes neither citizenship nor border. Yet this fact is easily subverted when songwriting is undertaken with a closed approach. For example, if a song is written extolling the virtues of a particular religious or political viewpoint it, by definition, ceases to be without boundary: it’s drawn its own cage. You may see this as laudable if you harbor strong, divisive views. You may even consider the espousal of those views to be your highest musical calling. If that’s the case than by all means have at it. But understand that in doing so you’re limiting the appeal of your song by orders of magnitude. Expressing views that are central to your life is important, in the end what else have you got to express? But proceed cautiously in this regard and whenever possible use subtly and craft to weave your beliefs into the fabric of your songs, rather than making them the the point of a song. Beliefs best serve a song when they inform its journey, rather than dictate its destination. Listeners don’t generally appreciate music that directly preaches at them, but there are exceptions, as with everything else in this universe.
The meaning of life aside there are more subtle ways in which songwriters alienate potential listeners. I notice this often because I love to get lost in music--I want to lose myself in other people’s songs--I live for it. So when I hear a song that makes it difficult for me to do that it’s disappointing, and I take notice. More often that not this is the result of an artist framing their song lyrics in an overly, or overtly, personal manner. Including specific names or other details about a writers own life can box a listener out before a song even gets rolling. A strong, honest, song is typically the result of a writer’s willingness to express true vulnerabilities using carefully crafted generalities. Make it all about you, but in doing so don't make it about you.
The art of forgetting yourself: this is no laughing matter
Sad to say, but in their own way humorous songs are divisive by nature as well, this is because to one degree or another they script audience reaction. Does that mean that writing or playing humorous songs is bad? Of course not. Humor plays a critical role when considering stagecraft and the art of conducting a multi-song set. Whether it be playing funny songs or telling funny stories, that humor gives the audience respite from your weightier material and plays an important role in crafting the total audience experience. But if you primarily write and perform songs that ask the audience to participate in a specific way, such as to laugh or act on cue, do so understanding that whenever you request an action from the crowd you’re tailoring the experience you think they should have, rather than creating a space in which they feel free to decide how to best to experience and connect with your music.
The art of forgetting yourself: there's no need to explain, right?
Explaining a song before playing it runs the risk of pushing the listener away. If you detail for your audience exactly how a song relates specifically to you and your life experience, you're by definition detailing how that song does not relate to them and their life experience. You've limited their ability to read themselves into the song, essentially wedging them out before playing a note.
When telling the story of a song I often choose to share details about my life surrounding the songs writing. What was the weather like? The season? Were you on a trip? Were you happy? Sad? How did inspiration find you? If you explain to the audience how inspiration was able to find you in the most mundane or elaborate of circumstances each person has the opportunity to relate in their own way, everyone has experienced this. In displaying honestly and vulnerability you may just create an honest curiosity about the song in the listener's mind, "what was it that inspiration wanted to say on that sunny day in that forest cabin, anyway?" Writers who are confident that their songs are able to speak for themselves feel no need to vouch for them. Providing context for a song is great, and so is the sharing of certain details, but be mindful of placing limits of the listener’s imagination when doing so.
Next week we’ll examine one of my songs and explore how it attempts to walk the line in this regard, being both very personal and very general.
To watch the accompanying video for this post follow this link.
Americana Singer Songwriter Ed Dupas’ lived-in melodies unwind with reflective lyrics that speak to the current state of the human condition. Soothing where possible, agitating where necessary, and calling for change where appropriate. Ed Dupas creates and shares well worn wide awake music.
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