I’m jealous of songwriters. Cheap rhymes, pointless repetition, clichés, word choices simply to fit the metre: they get away with all of the poetry sins. Worse than that, some of my favourite musicians do this and still surprise and convey powerful emotion.
Of course, compared to poets, songwriters have the advantages of music, voice and performance to convey meaning. As a spoken word artist, I try to capture this intersection of words and delivery, and emulate these advantages without losing the power of poetry.
I listen to a lot of music. While I always have a book on the bedside table, music is with me constantly. These are some of the artists I am listening to right now.
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The National, a band from Ohio, have produced six studio albums over a fifteen-year career. Singer and lyricist Matt Berninger sings emotive lyrics in a powerful baritone. Reportedly, he takes the melodies already written by other members of the band and crafts words to fit.
While working within this framework, Berninger still manages to write stirring, layered lyrics. A key theme for him is, as a song titles denotes, ‘Terrible Love’. Berninger often explores the twins of love and loss, how the ecstasy of emotional connection must be matched by the heartbreak of separation and how a relationship can be both essential and harmful to those involved.
As he sings in ‘I Need My Girl’:
Davy says that I look taller.
I can’t get my head around it
I keep feeling smaller and smaller
I need my girl
I need my girl
The simultaneity of looking taller but feeling smaller captures the Janus face of love. Whether the singer is feeling this way because he is with his girl or because he has left her is not clear. Nor is it relevant. Love can be like this either way.
I find powerful images and a poetic use of ambiguity in Berninger’s lyrics. Backed by his depth of voice and the music of the band, these lyrics carry strong emotions. Having avoided love as a topic for a long time, I am now exploring similar themes in my poetry. I didn’t specifically decide to listen to The National as ‘research’, but naturally gravitated to it.
As a performance poet, I try to achieve musicality in my words, to build the layers of performance that carry and reinforce a theme or an emotion, much like music does. The idea of taking sounds and rhythm first, as Berninger does, and then writing lines to fit, fascinates me.
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Sticking to the themes of love and loss is London-based trio, Daughter. I frequently have their 2013 debut, If You Leave, cued on the iPod. If You Leave. I guess the title says it all. Many of the album’s songs examine relationships about to end, ending or having ended.
Singer Elena Tonra writes the lyrics based on real-life experiences. She has said in interviews that she is often motivated to write when she is down and the album shows it. Like Berninger, she often dwells on the pain of love.
The song ‘Still’ holds ambiguity; it reflects on a relationship that is both continuing (still exists) and is motionless, paused:
It’s spiralling down
Biting words like a wolf howling
Hate is spitting out each other’s mouth
But we’re still sleeping like we’re lovers
Still with feet touching
Still with eyes meeting
Still our hands match
Still our hearts beating
The song leaves us with a powerful feeling of tension, wondering what happens next. The rawness and focus on emotion, rather than message, inspire me in my writing. Being able to evoke strong responses in an audience is something I aspire to.
Thematically, Tonra’s song writing has similarities to Berninger’s. Moreover, the voice of Daughter’s lead singer, Tonra, as well as the ethereal music, carry the emotions of their songs, a similar experience to The National. Appropriately, Daughter is supporting the National on a US tour as I write these words, something I didn’t realise when I picked both bands to write about.
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On a lighter note, I’m learning to swing dance. I’m getting to know my body better, to move more instinctively and to embody emotion without thinking about it. This helps my performance, but also helps my writing. The better I know me, emotionally, spiritually, intellectually and physically, the better I write and connect with others.
Louis Prima was a US musician, singer, songwriter and leader of swing and big bands. His music is popular with swing DJs and is frequently used by beginning dancers. Prima is best known for his medley of two other composers’ pieces: ‘Just a Gigolo’ and ‘I Ain’t Got Nobody’. The combination is clever, giving lyrics that convey an overall feeling of loneliness. The opening of ‘I’m just a gigolo/and everywhere I go/people know the part I’m playing’ is matched by the chorus of ‘I ain’t got nobody’.
Although the lyrics are quite simple, the poetic element comes in the juxtaposition with the music and Prima’s delivery. He sings the medley with great joy and gusto, to an upbeat, swinging tune. Is his enthusiasm just covering his loneliness or is he truly happy to be a simple gigolo?
All of Prima’s performances are full of joy and energy. He was the voice of King Louie from The Jungle Book, singing ‘I Wanna Be Like You’. He is playful, irreverent and fun. While I am writing serious poetry about loss and separation, I don’t want to forget how much fun writing and performing can be. Prima helps me remember this.
I listen to a lot of music. I enjoy finding the poetry in lyrics but I also love simply losing myself in a song. All of this informs and helps my writing. Music reminds me that words do not just have meaning. They also have sounds, shapes, rhythms and emotions.
CJ writes poetry from his home in Canberra. He won the 2013 Australian Poetry Slam Championship, and has performed at a number of festivals including the Bookworm International Literary Festival in China, and Canberra’s You Are Here Festival and Art, Not Apart Festival. He has also performed in cities across Australia and the US.