Writing Lyrics

The more I am involved with Chico Chica, the more I learn that my time with the band is best served writing lyrics. This aspect is difficult and slow and lags behind the production of melodies. When musicians listen back to their CDs they know there is nothing they can do – but they can learn so much.  Others may think of the reverb setting on the piano or the perhaps the mike should have been an inch to the left of the snare drum. My focus is on the words as I believe it is the area where so many projects go wrong. Musicians, unsurprisingly, are obsessed with music. An unwelcome side-effect of this can be a severe under-estimation of how much importance the general listener gives to lyrics. With Mélangerie, Chico Chica was finding its way. Even now, so soon after, there are lines which I’m not happy with but – as I’ve said before – it’s a snapshot.

The reader may have noticed I have not littered these blog posts with aphorisms – there are plenty of other places you can find those. There is, however, one I must include. What I like about this one is that I didn’t understand it at first – I had to think about it for a few weeks before I realised how true it is. It is from Evelyn Waugh, a writer I admire deeply, and it is about style.  He said “style is not just about the avoidance of cliché, it is also about avoiding those places where cliché has been avoided.”  The way I like to apply this to Chico Chica lyrics is to feel comfortable with common themes such as love – the important thing is to say things in a fresh way without being over-quirky. Joseph Conrad said art has to ‘justify itself in every line’, and it should  ‘render the highest kind of justice to the universe, by bringing the light of truth, manifold and one, underlying its every aspect’. Will Chico Chica will achieve this? You bet.

Several years ago, I found a rhyming dictionary in a second hand book shop. I rarely use such books but what interested me in this volume was the introductory essay by a lady called Frances Fulton, which took up nearly half the book. Now I vaguely remember hearing words like iambic, pentameter and prosody at school, but it was only by reading this that I started to read verse in an entirely new light. I still struggle with writing verse and I still have a long way to go. Already, what I am writing is better than that found in Mélangerie so I hope the reader will join me in this journey.

Like any art, writing verse is full of difficult decisions to make. And even once made, they have to be adjusted if they don’t happen to sing well. The first is subject. Some say there are two subjects: death and sex. These are certainly the most popular. Larkin wrote of little else but death. And love songs, in their painful yearning or celebratory joy are, the cynics say, really about sex. In which case the eight songs of Mélangerie, in order of track listing, are about: sex, sex, death, sex, sex, death, death, sex. And I am the one who sings about death – perhaps it’s because my parents are dead – or perhaps it’s because I like Larkin. Barbara, in our discussions about subject, feels uneasy about death as a subject for a band like Chico Chica which embraces a Southern European way of looking at things. They don’t do angst – not when they’re dancing anyway. So I have decided that for the next album there will be more love and less death. I am happy with this and the constraint is, in a peculiar way, quite liberating. However, for verse which is light-hearted and takes a quirky view of the world, reciting it to a beat is something we will be introducing to the live shows though I yet to decide whether to record this. At the risk of sounding frivolous and uncaring, I will stay well clear of serious and political subjects. I remember reading a review of a band who do this and the the writer described them as: ‘a band that makes you dance and think at the same time.’ I imagined people on the dance floor scratching their heads and stroking their chins. I have yet to decide on the best way to recite – should I stick to the rhythm and weld it to the beat? This does not always sound good. Or should I be like an modern Shakespearean actor and loosen up the rhythm to make it sound like prose. This seems a pity when the writer has gone to so much trouble in making the words rhythmic.

All verse-writing is a perennial struggle between sound and sense. It seems to parallel the struggle in our minds between lightness and darkness. The Beat Poets such as Kerouac, Ginsberg and Dylan, have had an enormous effect on modern lyric-writing, and since then, sense and darkness have been in the ascendency. Obscurity is a useful and interesting literary effect only if it obscures and interesting or beautiful idea. If it doesn’t then it is best to be clear – and while you’re at it, make it rhyme. This thinking may be a reaction against the over-riding influence of lyricists such as Dylan.

Just as water flows along the way of least resistance, so does music. As a result the English-speaking world has been too introverted in learning languages and in listening to foreign-language songs. Chico Chica hope their clumsy Spanish and French would sound quaint the way Abba lyrics sound to English ears.

I love rhyme. There’s no point hiding the fact – sometimes I wish I didn’t love it so much I just can’t help it. And I don’t mean consonant rhymes, vowel rhymes or half rhymes – I mean proper old-fashioned rhyme like Irving Berlin, Cole Porter and Lorenz Hart used and Stephen Sondheim still uses. I also like triple-rhymes – in fact I have one song already written, and which I will present for inclusion in the next album, and this is a triple-rhyme fest. But I am out of step with the times. People seem to be more relaxed about half-rhyming songs – so it’s fine to rhyme together with forever – but it’s not for me. However, I have learnt to relax the rhyming schemes I used in my Music Theatre days. I don’t use internal rhyme so much – I do recognise that rhyme can be overdone – and I am acutely aware of the need to avoid sounding like McGonagal or composing the dreaded contrived rhyme (example: ‘I just had to look having read the book’). Rhyme is fun so it will always lighten the mood of a song and Chico Chica look to explore the lightness of life.  With lightness comes an imperative to keep everything really tight – the meter, rhyme and prosody. In this way, lightness is harder than darkness. In Paradise Lost, Milton decided that the fall of man was a serious matter so he decided not to rhyme and the poem does not suffer for it but Milton was an exception. I have not resolved always to use rhyme. In An Unfamiliar World, I could not find an obvious rhyme scheme that suited the melody so this song does not conform to type – I dispensed with rhyme altogether – the idea being to give the song a mock-epic mood.

For a lyricist, there comes a time when a line falls at the last hurdle – singability. The line can have everything: rhyme, sense,  originality, alliteration and beauty – but if a singer finds it hard to sing, it has to be discarded. Singability is impossible to define and there were lines I had to rewrite because they contained a word the singer thought unsinkable. Two examples I can remember are map and lunch.

Prosody is another element that occupies my attention. Van Morrison’s Moondance is an immensely popular song for Jazz musicians to perform because it swings and has a great open solo section. But for me, the song is ruined by the first syllable of October falling on a strong beat. How could he get away with it? Well he did – and people don’t seem to mind. I wonder why I bother – but I do and I always will.


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