Stories about songs

I’m not much of a songwriter. Inspiration seldom comes to me in that shape, and I tend to be too wordy – it’s a very specific skill writing lyrics, and I haven’t got it. Nor am I a natural tune writer. However, I’ve sung and played music since childhood, and this means I spend most of my time with other people’s work. Picking material is a major process for anyone in my situation. So, what to pick, and how? These questions don’t have to be tackled in order.

I tend to look at traditional folk music, rock and pop for my source material. A song therefore has to work stripped down. It needs enough melody to work with me signing it, and must not depend on complex multi-instrument arrangement. Many pop songs, deprived of their backing, sound like nothing at all, so for me the first measure of a song is whether I can sing it unaccompanied.

Question two is, does it make sense if I sing it? Is it personal to the singer – again often an issue with pop – or is there something universal here that makes sense. Is there a story, or a message, a mood or a concept that I can express? Do I like, value, engage with those things such that it makes sense for me to sing them?

I then have to ask if I have the vocal range, technical skill and playing ability to do the song justice. I might well not know until I try. I did, once, sing the entirety of Meatloaf’s ‘Bat out of hell’ unaccompanied in a folk club. Mostly for giggles. It’s surprising what can be got away with. I know the entire song because it is such an excellent vocal workout, I use it for exercise.

There will be other factors – how the song makes personal sense to me. Who wrote it. Who I first heard singing it, and where that was. Every song acquires a story about who I’ve sung it with and why. There’s also an arranging process of figuring out how to make it mine. There is a difference between ‘doing covers’ and singing someone else’s song. Here are three I’ve recently put on my youtube channel.

Hazard, by Richard Marx was around in my teens. The original sounded like a pop song, but it strips back to something that’s pure folk – a strong narrative with much of the plot implied but not present, a strong melody, powerful emotions. That ticks all the boxes for me. It was written for a guy to sing. I like the way that my singing it with a couple of minor word changes turns it into a different story. I’m not usually at all visible in my bisexuality, music is one of the places that gets expressed.

Elation, a Levellers album track. This was a struggle to learn because the original isn’t in a key I can sing in. It’s goddessy, and there are so many people it needs singing to, who are heart-sore and need hope. Every time I sing it now, there is also a pang of missing the chaps I used to sing it with, and hearing where they are not. This arrangement always sounds a bit thin to me, because I know what it’s missing. Some losses we just have to carry.

Sit Down was at number 2 in the charts when I was 14 and Chesney Hawkes was at number 1. And although I adored young Mr Hawkes, this was always the better song. I’ve only been able to sing it since acquiring the bouzouki – it just doesn’t work for me unaccompanied. everything this song says has always been true of me, it is how I feel, it is the song I would have written if I could. I have yet to sing it in person with all the people I most want to sing it to, but I know who they are and they will almost all be at Druid Camp.

If you sing something frequently, it becomes part of your life, and part of who you are. It’s worth choosing carefully.

About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, wife to the most amazing artist -Tom Brown. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

2 responses to “Stories about songs

  • Faemon

    I so agree. There’s a reason why “Let It Go” became so popular: it can mean something outside of the context of the Frozen film, and the chorus is cathartic. Lorde’s cover of “Everybody Wants To Rule the World” compared to the original shows how much a difference the backing arrangement makes, so the tune ought to stand on its own.

    That said, for something like Emilie Autumn’s “What If” or the entire Broadway musical version of The Secret Garden (which in my opinion is the most underrated Broadway musical of all time ever,) I tend to listen more to the strings than to the voices.

    Lately I’ve been getting into Kate Covington (stage name Erutan, which is Nature spelled backwards) and her Court of Leaves album is folk instrumentals, which is making me want to take up the ocarina or the recorder flute or something because it’s not all hummable.

    That said, there is definitely something to be said for context, which is why I’m such a fan of Broadway musicals and opera and video game music, because those also come with stories. I think Kerrigan-Lowdermilk songs really keep the balance well.

  • angharadlois

    This is one of those wonderful posts that manages to express an idea I didn’t quite know I had 🙂 I’ve started singing and reciting poetry a lot more in recent years; it used to be something I would never do, even in the shower, if I thought another person might be in the building to hear me. I don’t know why – people have always been quite complimentary about my singing – except… I think I do know why: that voice (which seems to come from somewhere different from my everyday voice) *is* me, on some deep important level, and for a long time I was very wary of letting that show. Songs are incredibly powerful, they get inside you and as you sing them they express something from deep within you. Singing helped me reclaim a sense of my heritage as a Welsh-speaker; it has also helped to root me in the landscapes of the places I have made my home (I’ve recently been learning Shipbuilding, written by Elvis Costello who grew up around the shipyards I can see from my window). I have yet to sing much in public, but back in December I recited ‘The Ancients of the World’ and then (with a little Dutch courage) sang a beautiful Welsh folk song, Ym Mhontypridd, to a friendly collection of randoms in Northumberland. And I didn’t burst into flame, and the ground didn’t open and swallow me whole, and I’ve even started thinking that I might risk doing more of the same…

    I will certainly be checking out those videos on youtube 🙂

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