Bob Dylan won the Nobel prize. But is it really literature? Here’s songwriter and BBC Radio 2 Folk Award winner Josienne Clarke on the literary art of song.
A friend of mine is an author and I was saying to her that I loved the idea of writing a novel, but how do you make an idea last for hundreds of pages? She countered, “How do you manage to say anything in so few lines?” I realised at this point she considered my art no less worthy than hers on account of its brevity. That economy is key to my approach in songwriting.
My own preferred subject matter is existential despair, the passing of time and the general agony of existing, seemingly large topics for maybe 20 lines of text. But that is the art of song as I see it: to distil an idea down to only its most vital components in both melody and word.
I have attempted this on my new single Something Familiar, which is about the evocative but elusive nature of memory.
It’s my attempt to condense humanity’s infinite quandary into four verses.
But how do you capture the zeitgeist of an entire generation in five verses? Well, Bob Dylan did it with The Times They Are A Changin’ and that surely is an art form.
Songwriting is not poetry with a tune, it’s a different medium of literature but, I believe, done well it is as artistic and intellectual.
In contrast to poetry, a songwriter is simultaneously both constrained and liberated by music. Standard song form brings certain restrictions on meter, but with the addition of melody you have an extra tool to bring emphasis and intensity to lyrical content.
The particular skillset of the songwriter exists in the gap between poets and composers; you need bits of both those skills but not necessarily all of either. Great poets will not automatically make great songwriters or librettists. The skill comes in the – more often than not instinctive – understanding of how one combines words and melody with meaning.
It is hard to analyse songwriting and even harder to be empirical. All is theory and liable to a great degree of subjectivity. As a songwriter, so much of what I do is instinctive in its execution and when asked to describe how I wrote a specific song I struggle to analyse my own creative processes. It becomes an uncomfortable retrospective post-mortem, so it is easier to do it with others.
One of the main exponents of this songwriting craft for me is Don McLean. He serves as my stock example of how to place words upon a melody with all their spoken emphasis retained and melodic intensity added.
His popular ballad Vincent is a classic example of this. The lyrical content is certainly poetic but the addition of the melody compounds the meaning of each phrase.
The last line serves as a simple example: “perhaps they never will”. Its melody rising upward as it disappears into the ether like the notion it expresses. The song is as beautiful, artistic and well composed as the paintings it describes.
Chris Isaak’s Wicked Game is another. It’s a classic heartbreak song, with all the required stomach-punch of potent melancholic brooding. The main chorus hook makes for a clear example of great songwriting craft.
“No I don’t want to fall in love, with you.”
The panic-laden shift from chest voice to falsetto at the beginning of this phrase somehow captures the desperation and turmoil at the heart of its sentiment. This is then followed by a resigned descending line that tumbles away with the inevitability of his falling in love, “with you”.
As a songwriter that’s what you’re aiming for – to make the most of your words musically.
Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker’s new album Overnight is out now on Rough Trade Records.
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Josienne Clarke. Singer and Songer, BBC Radio 2 Folk Award winner, committed harbinger of melancholy. ‘Sings like a haunted angel’ – Financial Times. New album Overnight out on Rough Trade Records. Photo by Jenna Foxton.