• Category Archives inspirations & influences
  • where do lyrics come from?

    with history now briefly covered, and a few pondering posts to test out how i like pondering on here, it’s time to get back to music as a current topic. kind of.

    as many have learned, i’m not really planning to explain my lyrics to anyone. i can’t tell you the number of times jason has asked, as we work a song, “what’s this one about?” only to have me shrug and say, “what do you think it’s about? all that matters is that the music fits it.” there’s only one person i’d make exceptions for, and that’s because i know he won’t tell anyone at all and because he’s got every bit of my trust. and, you know, that’s probably not you. sorry.

    why won’t i tell you what the songs mean? well, there are a number of reasons. for one, not everyone who hears a song will have the luxury of reading or hearing an explanation from me. that song needs to stand on its own, without extra words. also, i can’t tell you the number of songs that were totally meaningful to me, that i made completely valid analyses of, that were then soured when i heard what the writer meant. okay, fine, to the writer that song is about something entirely different, but there’s no need to rob me of the emotional connection i had with the song for my own reasons. additionally, i don’t want people who might have influenced a song to either see it as an attack or as an ego builder. that’s not why i write. and, finally, as you’ll read, most come from too complex a place to really sum up.

    but i can tell you where lyrics come from. and, unlike when you learned where babies come from, i don’t care if you tell your little sister. in fact, please, do tell her.

    the lyrics come a few ways. most just sort of fall out of me and onto the paper, quickly. i feel really blessed that it works that way. every so often, something falls out in pieces. i try not to force it when it goes like that. try to just meditate on what’s at the root. the few times i’ve forced it, the lyrics have been shoddy and needed rewriting. so, better to get it right the first time.

    but at the root, no matter how they come out, is always a mental collage. and the collage isn’t built by effort or always around a clear theme. it’s a mix of memories, of story ideas, of possible futures and missed pasts, of smells and sights and emotions, of other people’s experiences, of individual words or phrases that feel good on my tongue and rolling across my brain. sometimes, there’s almost a physical sensation or two that comes along with it. it’s usually something of a chaotic mess, really.

    if the lyrics just fall out, the mess seems to settle into something i can look at and benefit from once i’m finished writing. until then, it’s almost like the whole mass of the thing is pushing the words out.

    if the lyrics come slowly, the mass starts settling as i regard it. i write what comes easily, and then i sort of let the whole thing shift a bit. i close my eyes and just watch it. sometimes i poke at it. i ask it, “what’s this piece doing here? it’s totally unlike the others.” and as pieces fall together, the words fall out of me.

    even in a situation where i could probably say, “this song is about this person / this event / this theme / this emotion,” there’s always something more going on. that thing has drifted through my heart and my mind and other bits of what’s inside of me have caught onto it. so that even if i told you and tried to explain, there’d still be some line or verse that wasn’t quite that thing. but, hopefully, that still fits.

    of course, a close friend recently noted that a lot of my songs seem to be written before their time. that they are all clearly about things that happened after i wrote them. and when i tried to protest, some pretty uncanny things were pointed out to me. but i think i’m going to chalk that up to the fact that time isn’t linear; we just see it that way through our limited brains. which means that i’ve got endless years of images to throw into those collages. so i don’t expect to understand word-by-word either. and maybe that’s the real reason i can’t explain myself. heh.

  • who put that hope in here?!?!

    like many people i know, i use art as a way to work through intense emotions. and, like many of them, a lot of those emotions are not pleasant ones. one well of emotion and imagery for a lot of my songs is all the rubbish i’ve been through thus far. so, you know, safe to assume that the songs are generally not happy songs.

    lately, there’s been a lot not going awesomely in my life. in most every area. but, somehow, i recently had a very beautiful moment where i realised that i am at peace with my past. in some cases, it’s a general peace, and in others more specific, as i see how things i have been through that were not pleasant have led to good now.

    today, with no external reason or obvious improvement in my life, i have actually been feeling very calm and hopeful. odd, but cool. and perhaps that’s why i got a random urge to flip through all the songs i’ve written the last two and a half years or so and see which of them had hope.

    see, i think that even music that’s not happy can give you hope. i know that the songs that made me most sure i wasn’t alone and was going to make it through dark periods in my past had no hope in them. but just knowing someone else had felt as i was feeling and was still around and was turning it into good music? that gave me hope. but that’s not the hope i was looking for here. i wondered if i could give or was giving hope of another sort in those lyrics.

    at this moment, i have lyrics for 108 songs finished, and am one verse shy of finishing number 109. i can be a bit prolific sometimes. it’s been an artistically dense two and a half years…of those, i found messages of hope in 53 songs.

    do you need a moment to pause, process, pick your jaw up off the floor? because i did. even songs we’ve been playing and actively working on all this time that i didn’t think of as having hope.

    but as i flipped through, i saw bits of hope, here and there. sometimes, the whole song was encouraging to me. sometimes, it started poorly but ended well. sometimes, it’s just a line in there. some of the hope is pretty straight-forward hope, like songs where i say i know i can make it or i know the relationship will make it. some of the hope is more sideways, like songs where i’m encouraging someone not to give up or i’m realising that, yeah, i want you and i can have you. really, i count anything where, if you’re paying attention, you see it’s not all just wanting and lacking and broken.

    because sometimes hope is just that there is something good in all the mess. at least to me.

    so when you’re having a listen or singing along, feel free to take comfort in the bits that aren’t hopeful, in knowing someone else made it through all sorts of unpleasantness (lots of someones, really, as it’s not all always about me). but be sure to know there’s hope in there. and it’s okay to hope.

  • 25 albums

    yes, i’m compensating for quietness with a second post today. however, this one is a bit of a cheat. one of the memes going around facebook is:

    “Think of 25 albums that had such a profound effect on you they changed your life or the way you looked at it. They sucked you in and took you over for days, weeks, months, years. These are the albums that you can use to identify time, places, people, emotions. These are the albums that no matter what they were thought of musically shaped your world.”

    and because this is about me and music, i thought i’d cross post. but here are a few disclaimers:

    • i wrote this over a few days, so it’s a bit dodgy in quality.
    • i just took the first 25 albums that came to mind, so this isn’t a complete list of albums that fit the criteria or even necessarily the top 25 in said list.
    • some of this stuff might show up again in later entries. i’m not going to apologise.
    • this is all about whole albums, not about individual songs. that’s a different list. and just having one song that owns me on it is not enough to make this list.
    • these are not in any particular order. just the order they fell out of my brain.

    that said, here’s my rather verbose response. feel free to share some of your own albums that fit this criteria in comments. you might even inspire me to drag out something i had forgotten about or to find something new.

    1. david bowie – the rise and fall of ziggy stardust and the spiders from mars. first album i recall hearing as a kid. first record i owned (still have the vinyl). probably did a lot to shape what i think of as great music and attractive men…plus, before itunes, this was the album i put in when i was trying to decide what i wanted to listen to. it is always the right choice.
    2. placebo – placebo. in actuality, it was a crappy bootleg recording of a show in late 1995 that my mate went to. he mailed a copy to me, sure i’d love the music and–though there were not yet pictures–the singer. oh. my. stars. this was the best thing i got out of that friendship.
    3. nine inch nails – pretty hate machine. it was really the first of its kind. and i still think it’s his bet work. it so clearly expressed the anger and betrayal i was feeling when it came out. and the live show when he toured in 1991 was intense.
    4. the cure – disintegration. i’m a huge cure fan in general. and if this hadn’t come along, i’d be listing some other album by them here. but there were a few weeks when i listened to this and pretty hate machine over and over…i was a mess and i really felt like all the depression and loss and longing i was feeling were adequately summed up here.
    5. manic street preachers – generation terrorist. i feel really lucky that i had mates in the uk years ago so that i didn’t miss out on all the good music. this was just one of those albums that spoke to me. yeah, it sounds cheesy, but that’s the way it was. and this was before i saw richey. yum. even now, i listen and i remember that moment of feeling like, yeah, someone understood. i mean, the punks got my anger and the goths got my depression…but the manics just got the jumble of all that together.
    6. ac acoustics – victory parts. i don’t just like them because they share my love of lowercase. i am a fan of the poetry and the fuzziness and the way that sometimes it builds and crashes around me. this was their first album that i heard. again, bless the mates in the uk…it echoed both the issues i was going through at the time and the way that they felt…like everything else on this list, i still listen to it loads and find it’s great for listening to as i fall asleep. kind of settles me deep into who i am and have been and still has songs that are too relevant to where i am now…
    7. lamb – lamb. i got this in the mail from one of my oldest friends right after he got it. he knew it would connect with me as it did with him. and the track he pointed out as amazing was the first to put hooks in me and leave marks. but the whole album is that way now. it very quickly became that, in fact. the drums are amazing. and the lyrics…man, some of these songs still make my throat get tight after all these years…
    8. placebo – black market music. i’m going to feel bad for only pointing out a couple of the placebo albums, because i really did listen to each way too much when it first came out. and continue to do so. i just found this one striking because it was still clearly placebo, but there was this updated and danceable twist on some tracks. whilst other tracks carried through the brooding tones that let me know that this band might just understand my damage.
    9. pj harvey – dry. i know that a lot of girls will note sonic youth as what blew their mind in terms of how they saw women in rock. for me, it was this album. this girl was raw and open and saying things i totally got. she was the one who pushed my whole concept of women in rock over the edge. i mean, sure, there was patti smith. but that was punk. this wasn’t quite punk, so i hadn’t suspended my expectations and such for this one…and, really, every album she has put out has kept pushing at my ideas.
    10. yazoo – upstairs at eric’s. long before alison moyet became how i taught myself to sing, this was a staple of my youth. it had everything….i could dance, i could cry, i could lie on a friend’s bed as he clicked the lights off and on to “i before e except after c” and i tripped out without drugs. (thanks, phil.)
    11. peaches – the teaches of peaches. first, i laughed. not because it was funny. wow. the mouth on this broad…i think it was the audacity of her, though she wasn’t saying anything that hadn’t been said. but, you know, women still seem to pull back from being this…blunt most the time. the first track on this album has been stuck in my head the last few days, so that may be why this is bumping out other albums that could be on this list. but, yeah, i listened to it over and over and never grew less delighted.
    12. amanda palmer – who killed amanda palmer. i love dresden dolls, but this solo album really caught on me. it started with a few songs that really dug in and can still make me choke up, but the whole thing eventually owned me for a few days. hmz…i’m actually kind of surprised and pleased to see that there are recent things on my list.
    13. ours – distorted lullabies. i was blown away when i first heard this. the boy has range (when i saw him in the fall, it was insane to see it live) and writes great lyrics. and the music has this sort of anthemic quality for me. it is far too often relevant to where i am, keeping it in regular rotation when i’m not just using shuffle to decide on music. for added points, when i saw ours in the fall and they played my favourite song–which is on this album, it’s the only time i’ve been standing next to someone who was singing along and felt like my experience was better because i could hear the person singing along.
    14. portishead – dummy. admittedly, the first time i heard portishead, i turned on the radio in the middle of some girl whining “nobody loves me” and i quickly switched channels. but soon after i was having tea and talking deep stuff with a friend and this album was on. and i could barely pay attention to the conversation. too many songs to past hurts and present hopes for me to just listen once.
    15. nick drake – five leaves left. this was the first nick drake i heard, and it sort of wound its way into me. i can’t easily say which my favourite nick drake album is. but this was sort of a timeless melancholy. and we all know i’m a fan of that sort of thing. and yet, there was a sweetness. i think i loved that. so often, people miss that there can be a sweetness in all the downs.
    16. the sugarcubes – life’s too good. before everyone knew bjork, some of us got an earful of the sugarcubes (her band prior to going solo, just in case you missed it). it’s a much rougher, rawer version of her. she yowls and yodels and shrieks….i was just so intrigued by her technique, or lack thereof. i felt like she was improvising in the studio, like they’d never played these songs before.
    17. patti smith – horses. i feel like this is one i shouldn’t even need to explain…
    18. the velvet underground – the velvet underground and nico. i had this on cassette and had to replace it often. it isn’t just considered an essential and standard album that all us non-normal kids ought to check out for nothing. this isn’t hype. this is the root of a lot of where we went with underground music. also, it got back into heavy rotation when i was 16 and a boy that i was all unrequited for cruelly wrote me a love letter he didn’t mean (though i didn’t know it at the time) that included lyrics from the album.
    19. tricky – pre-millennium tension. this album made me feel dirty, in a really good way. it made me (and often still makes me) want to shag someone. and i don’t mean tenderness or making love. i mean steamy, sweaty, moan-filled, filthy sex. and then sometimes it makes me want to cry. none of the other albums that make me want to grab someone and get dirty make me want to cry….weird.
    20. siouxsie and the banshees – the scream. at this point, we didn’t have goth. this was punk. and this broad was one of the few female voices that stood out to me. and one of the only ones where i liked a whole album and not just individual songs. i was so used to music that i liked, that was strong, having male voices. or, like patti smith, feeling more like poetry to music….this kicked my bum.
    21. the stranglers – black and white. what can i say? i am a little punk rock girl at heart. this album was one that made me bop around as i listened. and, you know, not all the albums i listen to over and over need to make me cry.
    22. johnny cash – american. yeah, it was multiple cds. but it’s all one piece of work, so shove it. i always dug on johnny cash. the original man in black. the “country” singer who was punk in his attitudes. but this set of cds that took songs from others and gave them the johnny cash treatment…wow. i admit freely that i sobbed my way through “hurt” the first time i listened, for instance. it just proved his continued relevance and talent, that he could be himself and so clearly connect with these songs.
    23. sinéad lohan – no mermaid. stumbled across her the first time as i walked in to the first lillith faire. yeah, that’s right, i went to the first and second lillith faires. suck it. as i recall, i was in the midst of some hurt and her songs spoke to that. and this album was hypnotic when i got it. everything just felt like…wheels turning. like on a train where it seems slow and steady and lulls you into peace. the lyrics aren’t always easy, which leaves room for my current troubles. i like that.
    24. the sex pistols – never mind the bollocks here’s the sex pistols. yes, yes. it’s a cliché for a girl with punk roots. but if you were there…you remember how it just ripped through things. no, they weren’t the best or anything. but this was great when you were pissed and just wanted to kick things. or those moments you thought maybe all the world needed was to be shocked out of complacency. plus, if johnny rotten could be a singer, so could i….
    25. falco – 3. yeah, i know, you only know rock me amadeus and der kommissar. but this is one i really need to buy, instead of just having the greatest hits. he wasn’t just humorous. jeanny always stabbed my heart, for instance, even though i didn’t understand much of it. (i asked my mum to translate once, and that only made it ache more.)

  • thanks, amanda palmer

    there are loads of people who have influenced or inspired me, but the first one i’m going to talk about is miss amanda palmer. because she has had the most recent impact and really changed my attitude about some things.

    for those unfamiliar with afp, she’s one half of the dresden dolls and has also put out a really outstanding solo album, complete with tour. i have considered her a genius for years now, but only started following her blogs and such this year. not sure why it took me so long to get around to doing that. and the woman is an inspiration.

    she’s clearly hard working. not just living the easy life. when her foot was broken toward the start of her european tour, she did all she could not to let that change her stage show or interrupt any of the dates or signings. from what i can tell, no one got a lesser experience due to this. if someone runs over my foot with a car, i can’t say i’ll do so well…

    also, her current record company are not being supportive. they don’t understand why she isn’t toeing the line for maximum fame, they don’t think people will get her odd album and they don’t want to promote it, and they can’t imagine why she won’t let them cut out parts of one video where you can see that she has an adorable and normal-girl belly instead of starvation abs. she is keeping things honest, even when it won’t get her pop stardom. she is promoting the tour and album herself online and in person. she is busting her bum.

    part of how she does this, i believe, is that she clearly loves and appreciates her fans. she totally gets that the reason she gets to live off music is that her fans support her. and she is overwhelmed with gratitude. seriously. the woman tears up when talking about this.

    the other thing you get from her blogs is a lot of openness. a lot of us artistic types are torn between our desire for privacy and protecting our internal and personal lives and the desire to put it all out there in our art and show it to you. i never feel like afp is giving us everything, but she isn’t hiding either. if she has had an emotionally rough day, she tells us. when she gets hurt or happy, we often know. and that, i think, fosters a connection with us and gives us a better glimpse into the place from whence the songs we love are coming.

    ah, the songs we love…i waited around after the afp show in seattle because i wanted to give her a note about a song of hers that is saving me right now. i knew she was planning a signing, so i figured i’d hand it over and move on. what really happened was that she stood in front of the table, instead of sitting behind. and things were physically arranged such that each person could have a moment of quiet near-privacy with her. and she gave each person a few minutes if they wanted. so that i was telling her what the song meant to me and thanking her for being such an inspiration to me as she held my hand and hugged and kissed me. no joke. and i saw tears in her eyes as we talked about some things…

    so, thank you, amanda, for teaching me about being gracious and grateful with fans, about the value of being open, and about working hard and having joy even when the world seems against your art. if i turn into one of those nasty diva types, i hope you’ll pull me aside, rockstar to rockstar, and smack me. and not in a sexy way.