Fiction and songwriting

Fiction and songwriting

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.

Flash fiction: Window shopping

Photo by K. Burnley from the New York Windows series.

Photo by K. Burnley from the New York Windows series.

She’s on the corner gazing into the wig shop, first the window on Haywood Street and then the one on Battery Park. No doubt all the wig mannequins are jealous, under their stony stares, of her own smooth black bob. It’s a work of Louise Brooks perfection. She’s less vampy, less bowed of lip and smoldering of eye than the silent film star, but still able to convey an entire screen play in a few movements.

Her walk is quick but fluid, pulling the bulk of her ankle-length coat closer to her frame, blocking the glinting cold of the morning. A ragged tail of skirt drags behind as she progresses up the sidewalk. Handle of a half-round frame purse in one chilly grasp, cigarette holder gracefully balanced between two fingers of the other hand. She exhales fog skyward and peers around, wondering how she got here. It’s apparent she took a wrong turn somewhere and wound up a block over and a world away from her intended destination.

But this will do. Surely there is coffee somewhere on this street — and a splash of whiskey, if there’s any kindness in the universe — so she hurries on. Wigs already forgotten. Trail of smoke like a fast-fading apparition.