Sunday, March 30, 2014

Music & Lyrics (But Without Hugh Grant)

No, not that Music & Lyrics ...
Music plays a huge part in my writing, even if it never appears on the page. I’m not just talking about having the characters sitting around listening to blues, or jazz—or country and western, come to that. My characters very rarely get the opportunity to relax enough to do so. I’m talking about the actual business of writing.

For me, nothing creates mood or atmosphere faster than music and I exploit this phenomenon to its fullest extent whenever I sit down to write. I used to have a huge collection of CDs—everything from Gregorian chants to Zydeco, via Philip Glass, Linkin Park and Goldfrapp. Since moving, however, finding room for all those CDs was going to be a problem, so I uploaded them all onto an external hard drive and some onto my smartphone. It’s been an operation of partial success, but I’m working on it.

The prospect of being able to take most of my music with me when I’m travelling is a very tempting one. To me, it’s like poetry that plugs straight into your nervous system, with added visceral effect. The hairs are up on the back of your neck, the lump is in your throat, before the poet opens their mouth and delivers that first line.

In my youth I played guitar—classical mainly, and none too well. But I was always trying to write songs. Now, these were usually the kind of angst-filled dirges, the equivalent of teenage poetry, and I cringe to think of them now. But I find the music that lingers, the artists I keep coming back to, are the ones where the lyrics are as evocative as the melody. Examples? Here are just a few, and I apologise if I’ve only listed the singer, rather than the lyricist.

“I am breathless from the mercy of a smile” Jann Arden, ‘Saved’

“Oh, I really should have known ... by the vagueness in your eyes ... by the chill in your embrace” Jann Arden, ‘Insensitive’ words by Anne Loree

“Do you keep the receipts / for the friends that you buy?” Oasis, ‘Where Did It All Go Wrong?’
“If you were to kill me now ... I would burn myself / into your memory ... I would live inside you / I’d make you wear me / like a scar” Suzanne Vega, ‘In The Eye’

“Just three miles from the rest stop / And she slams on the brakes ... She said, ‘While you were sleeping / I was listening to the radio / And wondering what you’re dreaming when / it came to mind that I didn’t care’” Matchbox Twenty, ‘Rest Stop’, words by Rob Thomas

“The night is my companion / solitude my guide / would I spend forever here and not be satisfied” Sarah McLachlan, ‘Obsession’

“You know if I leave you now / it doesn’t mean I love you any less” Sarah McLachlan, ‘Wait’

In fact, just about any song by Sarah McLachlan has the most fabulous lyrics.

“I’ve felt the fire and I’ve been burned / but I wouldn’t trade the pain for what I’ve learned” Pink, ‘Crystal Ball’
“Step out the front door like a ghost / into the fog where no one notices / the contrast of white on white” Counting Crows, ‘Round Here’, words by Adam Duritz

“In the middle of the night, there’s an old man threading his toes through a bucket of rain” Counting Crows, ‘Omaha’, words by Adam Duritz

“A struck match faded like a nervous laugh / beyond the halo of a naked bulb ... eventually your world will shrink within four walls / of neglected debts and stolen stereos” Del Amitri, ‘Move Away Jimmy Blue’

“I turned on a TV station and / lip-read with the sound turned down / it was pro-celeb mouth-to-mouth resuscitation / with Esther Rantzen / playing the one who’s drowned” Del Amitri, ‘You’re Gone’

Country singers are a whole different ball game when it comes to clever lyrics, and Brad Paisley is among the best, IMHO, showing quiet wit and a sharp insight:

“I work down at The Pizza Pit / And I drive an old Hyundai / I still live with my mom and dad / I’m five foot three and overweight / I’m a sci-fi fanatic mild asthmatic / never been to second base / but there’s a whole ‘nother me / that you need to see / go check out MySpace” Brad Paisley, ‘Online’

“She put that bottle to her head / and pulled the trigger” Brad Paisley, ‘Whiskey Lullaby’

I’m sure everyone has their own examples of lyrics that get inside their head and won’t let go. I happened to catch a snippet of a Take That reunion concert on the TV in a hotel over the weekend, and even their popcorn fare contained the words, “In the twist of separation / you excelled in being free” and I thought, what a great line! That’s a lesson to me never to dismiss anything, isn’t it?

The Brad Paisley lyrics are a great example, though, of telling a story in a very sparse number of words. You know everything about the guy in ‘Online’ from those few lines. Pages of description seem very unnecessary in the face of that honed little character sketch.

So, what are your favourites? Do you listen to music while you write, or do you have to have silence? Do you have your characters listen? Does it work for you when writers mention what their characters are listening to?

After all, someone’s choice of music can be made to say a lot about them, both good and bad.  I remember seeing a drama about SS General Reinhard Heydrich, who was one of the masterminds of Hitler’s Final Solution, showed the man calmly discussing the practicalities of genocide, but becoming strangely sentimental about the Adagio of Schubert’s Quintet in C major.

Sometimes it seems to be those little touches of humanity, as evinced by their taste in music, that can really give a character depth and texture. Villains don’t have to lack culture in order to be truly nasty pieces of work, and it can be that refined edge, that appreciation of the arts perhaps, that brings the depravity of their actions into sharper focus. It makes them jump off the page, all the more shocking, and turns them from men into murderers.

This week’s Word of the Week is anomie, which is a useful word to know if you’re stuck with a load of vowels in a game of Scrabble. It means social instability or resulting from a breakdown of standards and values; personal unrest, alienation, and uncertainty that comes from a lack of purpose or ideals; general lawlessness.


  1. So many to choose from but Squeeze 'Cool for cats' always makes me smile...- "I fancy this, I fancy that, I want to be so flash. But all I get is bitter and a nasty little rash....."

    1. That sounds not very cool for anyone, least of all a cat, Caro. Trip to the vet's anyone? Zxx

  2. Z, the first thing I do on starting any project, be it writing a book or just making dinner, is put on music. Every book has its own playlist. The African series has Afriancan music, as you might imagine, but also a lot of movie sound tracks, including just about all of Ennio Morricone's. The lyric that popped into my head as I read this was from Dylan, "...on a bad motorcycle with the devil in its seat, goin' ninety miles an hour down a dead end street."

  3. I don't just steal from novelists. I steal from Warren Zevon and Richard Thompson.

  4. I was lost in a time warp for the last few days, and found my way back by following your music, Zoe. Honest. Yeah, sure. I can't believe this subject. I've never written listening to music; I always found it too distracting, but just a week ago, as I was struggling to come up with an idea for a new book, the music playing through my headphones (I was on a plane) gave me this fantastic idea for a character. One I believe will drive the book, a real anomie no less.

    And the eerie point about it was who composed it. Drum roll please: Annamaria's very own Ennio Morricone! I guess I'm now a convert.

  5. How have I only just found your blog! Hangs geeky head in shame ;) I love all kinds of music, especially songs that tell a story like some you mention above (Suzanne Vega, Counting Crows) Grew up listening to my Dads Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, The Clash and Tom Petty and my Grandads Johnny Cash and Dire Straits. Other favourites these days are Ryan Adams, Jesse Malin and The Wallflowers (Bob Dylan's sons band). So much good music out there. Glad to hear you are converting your collection to MP3 so you can take it with you and enjoy it everywhere you go :) I've just finished reading "Absence of Light". Loved it and couldn't put it down. Looking forward to reading what happens next in Fox XI :)