This week, my long time friend, cowriter and performing partner, James, and I were sitting round, trying to write a song and, as usual, getting distracted by the fascinating and insightful conversation we create around the act of writing. It's our preferred form of procrastination.
In so doing, we began to talk about whether it is ever particularly successful for songwriters to put too much of their own stories into songs. And more specifically, should writers ever sit down to write a song directly about an incident in their lives.
For the non-writers amongst you, this might come as a bit of a shock. Don't all “good" songwriters write about their own life experiences?? Aren't those songs that move us and speak to us deeply just that powerful because they're actually written about real events and experiences??
It's almost a disappointment, almost a lie, if it's not, right?
Except that the answer is probably yes and no.
There's definitely benefit in drawing on ones own experiences when filling in the colours of your song. Your own experience can create beautifully meaningful lines and phrases, pictures and moments.
But the drawback of writing a whole song from your own experience is that you get caught up in telling the story as it really happened, instead of writing a good song.
And that become problematic. What you're doing, when you sit down to write, is to write a good song. Not a true song. Not a factually accurate account of an event.
I had a poetry lecturer at University who would say “Never let the truth stand in the way of a good story". And I struggled with that a lot. Perhaps it was because I deeply believed all my true stories were good.....but then, maybe I just had an issue with lying, even in songs.
....at least for a while. Then I started to realise my songs weren't that good.
So, the lesson here is that truth comes in different forms. And capturing which truth you're going to frame in a particular song is what's important. The decorative frame in which you place it, that's the art and skill of songwriting, and whether or not that frame “actually happened" is of little value at all. The emotion you're producing in the listener is the measure of the truth of the song.
And isn't that why we love the songs we love the most? They create an emotion in us.
Would love to hear your favourite, emotion-creating songs - which artists seems to be able to make you feel things easily? Does it make a difference to you if the actual story of the song isn't “factually" true?