1) What comes first, the music or the lyrics?
2) Are Song Lyrics Poetry?
All art aspires to the state of music. May be a cliché, but it’s the truth. And, in the 1940s, before I wrote or published anything, I’d make up songs, awful, by any standard, awful. But songs… and am fascinated by the connection between music, songwriting in particular, and poetry. I interviewed poet-singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen years ago for CBC Radio and was especially interested to hear what he had to say about his origins—as poet, songwriter… [Leonard Cohen interview on my website, www.robertsward.com]
My journals, my blogs, are scrapbooks—among other things—places to keep and, hopefully, organize so I can find what I’m looking for later. Blogs, I find, way better for finding things than paper notebooks. Hundreds and hundreds of paper notebooks. But now I have only to search “Rosanne Cash” or “Leonard Cohen” or (songwriter) “John Stewart”, and I have what I’m looking for.
So, Saturday, April 12, 2008, reading the NY Times… Rosanne Cash in feature titled “Well, Actually, It Is Brain Surgery,” I light on some of her remarks. She begins by saying, “I haven’t written a song in about a year.” And goes on to say of her songwriter mentor John Stewart (”Daydream Believer,” “Gold,” “California Bloodlines”), he used to say to me, upon hearing a new song of mine that he thought might be too perfect or careful or contrived, either lyrically or structurally, ‘But where’s the madness, Rose?’
“His belief in songs, and his sense of liberation and expansion when he approached writing, was deeply inspiring. John showed me that songs were the expression of the essential language that all other languages hinged upon. When I first began to know him, I felt that I had been speaking with a vocabulary of 200 words, and in a few months he taught me 10,000 more…”
I like when she says next, “the level of my attention has increased, when I have broken free of chord-progression ruts, when a burst of inspiration propelled me an inch or two forward in my own evolution — but “Dance With the Tiger” was an important moment.
“People always ask me, “What comes first, the music or the lyrics?” I don’t know why people are so fascinated with the answer to that question, and the question always makes me slightly nervous, as if I should have an expert opinion or a backlog of statistics on my own songwriting to give a definitive answer. I can’t…
“Often, it’s true for me that the lyrics come first. I seldom find just melodies on the guitar that come out fully fleshed, and add the lyrics afterward. If I start on the piano, it often happens that the melody will come first, of a piece. The instrument has a lot to do with the order of inspiration. Sometimes. And sometimes the fragment of a conversation, the color of the sky, the image in a dream, has everything to do with where the song begins. My song “Seven Year Ache” began as a long poem, several pages of rambling, and I distilled it down into a lyric. The melody came last.
“On vacation recently, there were some Christian fundamentalists at lunch at the next table and I felt the tension and constriction of their religious beliefs wafting off them like a perfume. That is my own projection, I’m sure, but I thought of something a friend used to say about that particular brand of religion — that it was like “looking at the ground with a flashlight when the whole universe was around you waiting to be noticed.” Walking to the beach later, I was thinking about how my own idea of God was so mutable, and that even though I pray, most of the time I haven’t a clue to whom I’m praying.
“And I like it that way. Sometimes God is Art, Music and Children and that is more than good enough. Ruminating on these things, I thought of a phrase — “the pantheon of my religious desires” — and I wrote it in my notebook. That line is probably too sophomore-English-major precious, but this is how songs begin for me. Sometimes.”