It’s my theory (and probably not mine alone) that whatever you search for, that’s what you’ll find. Teachers are everywhere. Since I’m interested in the craft of fiction, and my day job involves many interviews with musicians, I learn a lot about writing fiction from songwriters.
Creativity is transmutable. (Technique is another issue, but there are probably YouTube videos for that.)
Still, I was surprised by a recent interview between Lord Huron front man Ben Schneider and NPR reporter Melissa Block. Schneider, who got his start as a visual artist and now lives in L.A., approaches his musical project from a very literary point of view. The first Lord Huron album, Lonesome Dreams, is a collection of songs inspired by Schneider’s youth spent near Lake Huron. The characters are all fabled and mist-enshrouded and could have been be culled from folklore.
The new album, Strange Trails — which the singer-songwriter discusses with Block — is a series of post-apocalyptic shorts and ghost stories, each sung from the perspective of the song’s central character. It’s flash fiction at its finest: poignant and palpable, brief yet complete.
I love this for a couple of reasons. First, many musicians say they don’t want to share their song inspirations for fear of altering the listener’s perception of the song. And that’s valid. I understand the sentiment from the perspective that songs hit on an emotional level as well as an intellectual one (and often the former more than the later). But as a person who loves words and listens to lyrics first, I want to dig into the songwriting process. That Schneider’s is so closely linked to the process of writing fiction is intriguing.
Second, I’ve felt disappointed, in the past, by songwriters who get too invested in creating a fictional world for their songs. Telling a good story: yes. Creating a persona and a fictional voice and a world for those to inhabit: no.
Case in point: Father John Misty. Now, I have friends, whose opinions I respect, who like Father John Misty. I get that the songs, albums and stage shows are the fiction created by Joshua Tillman. But I don’t think the fiction works because the character is pretty much a jerk. And, while he crafts a world of his own, it’s ultimately not one that anyone else can inhabit. It’s a world of flash and catchy hooks, of smug insider jokes and brash dismissals.
But there’s no mystery, no room for the listener to live within the idea, no secret doors left to open or curtains to peer behind.
Lord Huron, on the other hand, is all mystery and doors and curtains.
That’s what I want in the books I read and, apparently, in the songs I listen to.