Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Is it the singer or the song?

I’ve been thinking a lot about music lately because it’s a terrific way to procrastinate  because creating a musical setlist is a crucial part of my professional writing process when starting a new book.

My latest musical fixation kicked off last week when author Trisha Leigh – who shares my great passion for singer/songwriter Matt Nathanson – tweeted me a link to his newest release.

After I finished   swooning   panting   touching myself inappropriately   taking a cold shower  listening to the song, I downloaded the whole album and skimmed online for information about the story behind it. Modern Love has a decidedly different vibe than his previous albums, and I was curious.

I soon found an explanation on his website:

Um, yeah. Doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why an album with that theme might appeal to a romance author beginning a new book. At heart, aren’t most romance novels about struggle and transition and the urge to love and find love?

Of course, this raises the question of how much attention I should pay to the literal meaning behind songs when it was simply the tone that piqued my interest in the first place.

I’ve grappled with this a lot when it comes to connecting the songs I listen to when writing with the scenes they end up inspiring.

When I wrote my March 2012 release, Believe it or Not, I spent a lot of time listening to the album Break Up, which is described thusly on the website:

A truly one-of-a-kind album, Break Up brings together critically acclaimed singer/songwriter Pete Yorn and the multi-talented Scarlett Johansson. In this deeply emotive yet hook-filled song cycle, Yorn and Johansson reenact the tempestuous course of a love affair on the rocks.

The tempestuous course of a love affair? That’s Believe it or Not in a nutshell. Of course, as the album title suggests, Pete and Scarlett's story doesn’t have quite the happy ending Drew and Violet's does in Believe it or Not.

When I wrote the final love scene for Mad Crush (my September 2012 release) my brain latched on to Patty Griffin’s song “Change” and wouldn’t let go. It’s a dark, gritty song about abuse and the unhealthy urge to alter yourself to fit someone else’s notion of what you should be.
Change (Album Version)
I listened to the song several dozen times while writing what turned out to be a rather aggressive love scene, and I remember reassuring myself the song’s message and lyrics had nothing to do with the story I was writing – I just liked the vibe.

It wasn’t until months later when I took several steps back from the manuscript that I realized the song’s theme actually did fit what I’d written – in fact, both the hero and heroine grapple throughout the book with whether or not to shape their lives to please or emulate other people.

Did my brain gravitate toward the song because I subconsciously realized that's the direction the story was headed, or did the song influence the story somehow?

Or – more likely – is it all a dumb coincidence?

How much attention do you pay to the literal meaning of song lyrics? Are you intrigued by the songwriter’s behind-the-scenes story, or do you prefer to just listen without the baggage? Please share!

I need a few minutes alone in a quiet room with a glass of wine and that Matt Nathanson song.


Wendy said...

Just followed you from Kristen Lamb's blog. I'm just hopping on the blog wheel. I've got 3 whole posts.
Your sense of humor jumps off the page and I love it. I started reading through your posts. Now you are 1 of 3 sites I'm following.
I had a question about your 'Tricky Undertaking'- do you consider self publishing online? You may have been asked that a million times. But I'd buy it.
I used to live on Orcas Island but am now living in Germany and thought you might like to know that amazon.de is stocking 'Making Waves'- so I "jetzt mit 1-Click kaufen" .....bought it.
PS - Hope you feel better

Alexa O said...

My husband is a musician and a song writer, and whenever I listen to his pre-me music, I get a teensy bit huffy with him about the love songs. And the heartbreak songs. Just the teensiest of weensy bits... but I do give him the 3rd degree: "Who is *this* one about? How long did it take you to get over *her*? Are those *still* the most beautiful eyes you've ever seen???"

He always laughs and kisses me on the nose in a very patronizing fashion and says, "They're all fiction, honey. Just songs. They aren't REAL."

Pah. I soooo do not believe him!

So I take his songs literally. But most of the time, I put myself in the songs and make the lyrics work to fit whatever I'm going through. Because it's all about ME.

Patricia Eimer said...

I use songs as much as I can in my writing process so I totally get where you're coming from. I have a whole playlist for each book and I agonize over every selection on it.

Sarah W said...

Some songs resonate with me because of the lyrics, some despite them --- and I'd rather not know the reasons behind a song before I listen.

The music and lyrics of "Catch & Release" by the Silversun Pickups mesh beautifully into one of the sexier songs I know.

But I like Pink's "Oh My God" despite the rap.

Summer Frey said...

For me, it depends on the song. Generally it's a sound that attracts me first, but sometimes a song that I enjoy just for listening grows deeper when I understand the lyrics.

For instance, the Muse song "Undisclosed Desires" doesn't have the best music, in my opinion, for writing passionate scenes of angst, etc, but I love the lyrics.

On the other hand, the Deftones song "Passenger" always instantly teleports me into the manuscript, no matter what kind of scene I'm writing--and it's a song about having sex in a car (I'm convinced, anyway.)

That's why sometimes I just have to listen to Christmas music or movie soundtracks...

Patty Blount said...

Ironic that you'd post this particular essay just as I am compiling "Dan's Playlist." Dan is the MC in my YA, SEND (coming Sept. 2012!!). He's a teen tormented by a suicide he caused. He listens to some dark metal, which is unfortunate, as I DON'T LIKE DARK METAL and we share a brain.

I digress.

My point is that getting into Dan's mind required music and the music, in turn, became cathartic.

For both of us.

Also interesting, I also hate rap music but the Eminem/Rhiannon duet was also important for this character.

As for paying attention to the behind-the-scenes story, YES! I confess to searching for the back story to Let Me Sign, a song Robert Pattinson recorded for the first Twilight movie. I just don't understand what it means. Stone Sour, one of those dark metal groups I don't typically like, did a song called Zzyzx Rd that brings me to tears every time I play it. Not sure what it means yet, but am researching.

BTW, I ADORE Matt Nathanson. You should listen to Ron Pope, too. Similar styles. *swoons*

Skye said...

Come Away With Me, by Norah Jones. I'm still trying to find a scene for that to go with, or maybe it's own book. But it makes me want to dance close and want a man who'll run off with me just because.

Delia Moran said...

I need lyrics and vibe. Always. I've tried writing with songs whose music fit but lyrics didn't, and the lyrics always intrude.

Danica Avet said...

I need music when I write. I have to have some background noise, but it has to be something that fits my personality. A lot of times, I'll dial up my hard core metal music and jump into a story. I find when I do that, my action scenes are faster paced, my love scenes harder (pun intended) and more aggressive, and the story pacing is better. I tend to write at the rhythm of the music and use the tone of the lyrics and singer give my story edge.

But, there are times when I listen to the actual words and brainstorm from the song, letting it sink deep in my brain and stew until I have a plot.

Patrick Alan said...

I got hooked on a song that I am pretty sure is about getting stoned when I was working on a medieval fantasy.

The beat of the song just makes me think of soldiers marching. It doesn't quite fit the lyrics, but the mood is there.

"Feelings in my mouth
You breathe in but can't breathe out"

Sometimes I am curious about the literal meaning or intended meaning rather, but I associate my own feelings with a song.

lora96 said...

For me it's the singer and the tone of the song. Otherwise I don't know what Champagne Supernova (chorus: Where were you while we were getting high) has to do with the romantic comedy I'm writing that is quite drug free.

Matthew MacNish said...

For me a song is a lot like a story - what the author meant is far less important than what it means to me. And that meaning can come from tone, lyrics (literal or metaphoric), melody, harmony, beat, energy, just about anything.

Jenna said...

I can't write to music. Need silence. Absolute silence. Or white noise. But nothing with words. Words are too distracting.

I have to admit to a fondness for Kris Kristoffersen. We have an album - yes, an actual album; vinyl - he released in 1971, that I play once in a while. (On my honest-to-goodness turntable.) Every song on the album is heartbreaking. At the same time, he's an incredible songwriter, and I just sit and marvel at the way he can turn a phrase. Let's face it, it isn't everyone who can rhyme "ain't" and "saint" in the same song and make it work.


Wendy, isn’t Kristen Lamb fabulous? I adore her! To answer your question, nope, I’ve never considered self-pubbing TRICKY UNDERTAKING. I adore the book, and both my agent and I are confident it will eventually be a big, breakout novel for me. I can be patient ‘til then! Great to know the book is stocked on amazon.de!

Alexa, that’s so fascinating! I was doing a speaking engagement recently where my gentleman friend accompanied me and was introduced to the audience by the MC. During the Q&A session, someone asked him about my inspirations for the love scenes. Without missing a beat, he grinned and said, “well, since she wrote all the ones in that book before we started dating, I’d kind of like to know that myself!”

Patricia, I once reviewed a playlist months later and realized it was no wonder the book had such a grim tone – that’s exactly what the songs were like!

Sarah W, I’m going to have to look up both those songs!

Summer, great point about things evolving when it comes to song appreciation. Kind of like relationships, eh?

Patty, I’ve had several people recommend Ron Pope, so I’ll have to look him up. Thanks for the tip!

Skye, that’s a beautiful song!

Delia, very true about the lyrics always intruding. Happens that way a lot for me.

Danica, that’s a great idea about listening to the words and using that to brainstorm plot ideas. Thanks for the tip!

Patrick, you’d make an excellent English Lit major!

Lora96, I love that song!

Matthew, very true, it is kind of a package deal.

Jenna, I can beat the vinyl Kris Kristoffersen – I owned Kenny Rogers on 8-track!

Thanks for reading, guys!

Ali Trotta said...

Matt Nathanson has always touched a nerve with me. His latest album reminded me of so many people I've known; it's almost startling to find old ghosts in those lyrics. He really captured the essence of love, in its many phases, with that CD.

Like you, I researched the story behind that CD. I find it fascinating to find the backstory behind things like that -- novels, poems, or albums. It is another level of meaning.

Great post!

Michelle M. Jones said...

The tone of music is SUCH an influence on what I'm writing. I just did a blog post on the soundtrack for a novel I recently completed. When I listen to it now, I'm INSTANTANEOUSLY back in that space.
Patty Griffin is probably one of my all-time favorite singers. Every one of her songs tells a story. Usually a gut-wrenching one at that--especially her first album, which is basically the soundtrack for my life in my twenties.