In my previous post I concluded that what makes songwriting worth while is an expression of feeling that is specific and personal and that if, in the process of expressing that feeling, you end up nicking bits of other peoples songs, that’s ok because The Beatles did it. However, since writing that I’ve remembered some other things I’ve concluded about song writing in the past, so I want to reconcile these new and old thoughts now.
I suppose what I’m really interested in is the concept of honesty in songwriting. I’ve always sort of assumed that music that is derivative lacks honesty and that honesty is one of the most important aspects in making art. But all writing has that element of fiction – of creativity that makes it inherently dishonest. I think the tension between these two values in songwriting – the inventive and the honest, are something I’ve sort of half thought about for years, in lots of different aspects but it seems like something worth getting to grips with, if possible.
Saying that something fictional is dishonest may be a bit hysterical, but I think that in the arena of the singer/songwriting which I inhabit there is an expecation of honesty created by the position of one person singing lyrics they wrote. As a listener you can’t help but assume that all the lyrics sung are a direct expression of that persons interior life. Even if, like me, you write songs so you know that songs aren’t 100% the truth, you still hear Beyonce songs and think THAT’S ABOUT JAY-Z. And she didn’t even write the whole song herself. Similarly when I listen to the songs on ‘Have one on Me’ by Joanna Newsom I think they’re about Bill Callahan and the Dick in a box guy even though I know its a concept album.
The notion of honesty underpins a lot of song lyrics as they are often so confessional and this means that when a song lyric is in fact doing something different – taking on a character or experimenting with imagined feelings there is an element to which that lyric becomes dishonest. Dishonest in the same way theatre is dishonest – but also more so because I think the perameters are sometimes less understood by the audience.
I suppose what I’m wandering here is whether songs should be honest or not. It seems like there is value in only expressing what you beleive to be true. And I think it is true that how much truth a song holds depends on how honestly you create that song. If you write songs that are consciously rip offs and are not open about it, if you are dishonest then that will be a detriment to your song writing and to your sound. However if you you try so hard to not be derivative that you limit your ability to express anything close to honest about you then, again I think your songwriting will suffer. The worst of course is when you unconciously write songs that sound exactly like someone elses. That is literally the worst.
And that is why I’ve been thinking recently that the most important thing a songwriter can do is listen to music and loads of it. This is pretty obvious but its something I have been pretty terrible at doing – sticking with my same favourite albums for years at a time. But the more music you listen to, the more it is subsumed by that amazing bit of your brain that chucks out these songs then the less likely your songs are to be derivative and dull and hopefully the more likely they are to be beautiful organically created works that hover somewhere between truth and ficiton.