You’re walking through the grocery store. Or you’re letting loose at the bar with some friends. Maybe you’re stopped at a red light and a song coming from the car stopped next to yours wafts through the window.
Wherever you are, you’re immediately transported. Because that song tells a story — a story you’re so familiar with and so moved by that you can’t help but revisit it.
Music is a powerful thing. Even a single note can move a listener to tears of joy or sorrow. Unlike a written story, which relies solely on words, the meaning of a song depends heavily on what’s unspoken.
Singer-songwriter Don Watson’s newest album is a tribute to the people, places and events of New Hampshire. When writing a song, Watson almost always gets the melody first. That’s where the story begins, and sometimes the wait for the accompanying lyrics can be like waiting for a frozen lake to melt.
“Sometimes melodies will sit with me for years until there’s a topic that seems to fit well with that melody, or a hook or a refrain or a phrase that just fits,” he said.
Getting all the pieces at once is a rare and coveted gift.
“Friends of mine, and then to think of, say, John Denver for example, would get the whole thing as a package in the shower or riding a chairlift skiing, and in 10 or 20 minutes the whole song would write itself in their mind,” Watson said.
Local music sensation (and multiple-time Hippo Best of Readers’ Poll winner) Alli Beaudry thinks of songs as stories when she’s writing them, but the story comes in the form of emotion rather than plot. Early in her career, she would write lyrics first and develop the music around them, but “lately everything has been either like a hook, or, like, groove-oriented, or I’ll think in a key first.”
Beaudry said listeners also bring their own stories into a song, so the more powerful the hook or the groove, the stronger the story will be, regardless of the lyrics. She ranks the groove (or the rhythmic quality) as the most important storytelling tool. It sets the tone completely, draws listeners in, and sets them off on the emotional journey, she said. Melody comes next for its haunting, lingering quality.
It works a little differently for Joel Mercier, who’s a regular renaissance man when it comes to musical theater — he wears artistic director, music director, and composer hats for a variety of musical theater venues across the state. He says in musical theater, actors break out into song at moments of heightened experience, when something is so important words alone would fall short.
Still, he always starts with the lyrics, “because what is the point of a song unless it actually has a story to tell you? There has to be some story being told. Of course, in musical theater, out stories tend to be more literal, but if you spoke to some pop singer today, I bet every song had some kind of story behind it,” he said.
When it comes to crafting the perfect lyrics, “You’re really stuck with rhyme and meter,” Watson said. “That story you’re telling, you only have so many beats, so many syllables that need to fit in that phrasing and it can be a puzzle and a challenge.”
Forming the lyrics is the toughest part of songwriting for Watson — to the point where it sometimes takes the fun out of the process. So for his New Hampshire album he brought in Stephen Redic, a practiced poet from Candia. But he had never written song lyrics before, and it wasn’t an easy task.
“He would have some lines on paper they would look pretty good and they would read pretty good. I would get the guitar and try to sing those lines, and a lot of times they didn’t work — they didn’t sing well. And so we had to restructure the wording, the phrasing, and move things around,” Watson said.
It helps to have some literary tricks up your sleeve, and Watson has picked up a few. You don’t need to tell a story sequentially, he said. You can begin at the end of a story and move backward, like a crime novel, or start smack in the middle and jump forward and backward. This shuffling can even work on a line level, if the rhyme and length of lines needs tweaking.
Using alliteration (i.e., the crazy cream cows collided) and strong imagery (“rocks like thunder crashing round, trees uprooting crushing down” instead of “There was a pioneer family living in the White Mountains of New Hampshire”) are other ways to create a more impactful story in song. Pulling out the thesaurus to find the most economical and powerful words works for some songwriters too.
“Just having fun with words and taking the image somewhere else is where I come from,” Beaudry said. “I’ve always liked the funkier approach, using 75-cent words versus using penny words.”
Sometimes, beginning songwriters try to stuff too much into their songs because they are so excited about their ideas, said Beaudry, who teaches young songwriters at Berklee College of Music in Boston. When she identifies this dilemma, she can only tell them one thing.
“I say, simplicity is a beautiful thing,” Beaudry said.
As seen in the April 3, 2014 issue of The Hippo.