Musicians Writers Should Know

23 Mar

So I started this 30 Day Song Challenge over on Tumblr.  I post one song a day using these guidelines:

  • Day 01 – Your favorite song
  • Day 02 – Your least favorite song
  • Day 03 – A song that makes you happy
  • Day 04 – A song that makes you sad
  • Day 05 – A song that reminds you of someone
  • Day 06 – A song that reminds you of somewhere
  • Day 07 – A song that reminds you of a certain event
  • Day 08 – A song that you know all the words to
  • Day 09 – A song that you can dance to
  • Day 10 – A song that makes you fall asleep…


It got me thinking about music, which I usually think about a lot, but haven’t been doing as much of lately.  Usually I’m the type of person who considers it like a hobby to find new music to listen to and collect and share (mostly for free because I’m poor).  I enjoy reading music criticism and just going on random Internet searches for new stuff.  Me and my sister have an unofficial competition to find new bands before the other does.  She might even be more intense about it than I am.

Paige, if you see this, don't be mad at me.

She’s a snob.  It’s adorable.

THE POINT THAT I AM GETTING AT IN A ROUNDABOUT WAY IS:  I think music is hella important to a writer’s life and career.  I think if you ask most writers about their writing process, it is probably going to include music somewhere along the line.  I know people who listen to jazz when they write, people who listen to movie soundtracks, people who listen to folk.  Some people use songs as jumping off points or inspiration for their writing.  For example, the first real poem I ever wrote was about Joni Mitchell’s “River” (I think I’ve mentioned that on here before and I thought about posting it but I just now read it again and realized that it SUUUUUUCKS).

But more importantly, I think we should acknowledge musicians as storytellers.  Well, some musicians more than others.  I think there’s characterization and story in almost every song if you look for it, and obviously someone had to write it.

So today I thought I’d compile a list (“We get it, Lora, you like lists”) of musicians who blur the lines between writer and musician.  It’ll probably be a short list, but we’ll see.

Joni Mitchell

Shocking, I know, but Joni is a songwriting master.  She is one of the few people who has written songs that make me bawl like a baby.  I remember when I first came up to Ball State, I would walk around campus and listen to “California,” and when the lyrics, “Oh, it gets so lonely/when you’re walkin’/and the streets are full of strangers” came on, I would be thankful I was wearing sunglasses because I would totally be tearing up.  It’s so simple, yet so pretty.  Besides her lyrical and emotional beauty, she is a legitimate storyteller.  “The Last Time I Saw Richard” is basically a short story set to song.  And like almost all writers, she writes what she knows.  Her songs are about hippies and friends and warm California days and bumming around Europe and skating on rivers.  She has made a world in which her songs and the people in them live.

The Mountain Goats

The Mountain Goats (particularly frontman John Darnielle) specialize in character-driven songs.  They’ve been an embarrassingly volatile couple (“No Children”), a bunch of dudes in a death metal band (“The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton”), sailors (“Sax Rohmer #1”), a kid listening to a record player to escape family problems (“Dance Music”), and countless others.  Plus, they write some astounding lyrics that are just packed with subtext, characterization, and story.  The opening verse of “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton” goes, “the best ever death metal band out of Denton were a couple of guys, who’d been friends since grade school. One was named Cyrus, and the other was Jeff, and they practiced twice a week in Jeff’s bedroom.”  It’s so simple, but says so much.  The vitriol they infuse the unhappy couple in “No Children” with is so raw, it almost makes the song hard to listen to.  “In my life, I hope I lie/and tell everyone you were a good wife/I hope you die/I hope we both die.”  Ouch.


Bet you never thought you’d hear Jay-Z compared to Joni Mitchell, but here goes:  like Joni, Jay-Z’s music takes place in a very specific world.  His lyrics are personal and seething.  They’re about people struggling against the system, struggling to make something of their lives, struggling against oppression and prejudice and racial and class differences.  His music can be angry, and it has every right to be.  He details his own journey, literally from rags to riches, and in songs like “99 Problems,” examines just how similar and how startlingly different those two worlds are.  I just really enjoy the honesty of Jay-Z’s rhymes.  If I had to characterize his music as a writing style, I’d say it’s a great example of creative non-fiction.  That’s not even addressing the lyrical complexity and aesthetics of his rhymes.  That’s like poetry.  He’s a master of words, the rhythm and flow of them.  However, I would still like to know where he found that 54 mph speed limit.

Bon Iver

Bon Iver (which sounds like a band name, but it’s really just Justin Vernon, by himself) is the musical equivalent of Henry David Thoreau.  Not because of lyrical style, per se, but because they both secluded themselves in cabins in the woods and created masterpieces.  Thoreau’s was “Walden,” Vernon’s was “For Emma, Forever Ago.”  I personally am in awe of Vernon’s lyrics, and see no difference between them and some highly lyrical poetry one might see in almost any lit journal nowadays.  Take “Flume,” for example:

I am my mother’s only one

It’s enough

I wear my garment so it shows

Now you know

Only love is all maroon

Gluey feathers on a flume

Sky is womb and she’s the moon

Seriously, what is the difference?  It’s all very strange, but in a beautiful way.  Also, like many of the other artists on this list, Bon Iver’s music is deeply emotional, especially on “For Emma,” which he recorded alone after he broke up with his band and his girlfriend.  So not only do his lyrics indicate that he’s a writer, his creative process does, too.  Holing yourself up, alone, in a cabin, to create?  What writer hasn’t wanted to do that, honestly?

Stephen Sondheim

This wouldn’t be a Lora Blog Production without some Broadway.  Sondheim is both the master composer and lyricist of Broadway.  He is a master storyteller, and he just gets character.  If he were a non-musical writer, he’d be king of persona fiction.  He can be a murderous barber, a remorseful witch, an aging actress, artist Georges Seurat, and a litany of successful and unsuccessful Presidential assassins.  There are few lyrical frills, just simple and beautiful, emotional and honest words.

So that’s all I’ve got for now.  Sure, there are more, like Carole King (“Smackwater Jack” is another short story song), various other Broadway lyricists, and even Kanye West (yeah, I said it.  Kanye is adept at lyrical voice).  But I’ll give you an opportunity to speak.  Who are the musicians you think all writers should listen to?  Who are the musicians who could easily be masters of the written word, sans music?  Who are the musicians you could see published in a lit journal?  Who are the musicians who simply inspire you as an author?  Let’s get some comments, yo.  And maybe this list of “26 songs that are just as good as short stories” will get you going.


21 Responses to “Musicians Writers Should Know”

    • leeraloo March 23, 2011 at 10:21 am #

      Rebecca Black is more like the preschool teacher of musicians. She taught us the days of the week, her next song will be about colors. Maybe shapes.

  1. Lindsey.p.LaVal March 23, 2011 at 12:31 pm #

    Well, no one wants to talk about Joanna Newsome, especially me. But now that we’re here—

    even the length of her songs has moved from being convenient for radio/mtv and has focused more on story, less on melody or…delightful singing. Still, I like it sometimes.

    • leeraloo March 23, 2011 at 1:39 pm #

      Yeah! I didn’t even think about Joanna Newsom. I usually get more distracted by the complexity of her music, but she has some very pretty, poetic lyrics, and I know she tells stories in them. Good one. I don’t really listen to Iron and Wine, but I think that folk/acoustic music in general is predisposed to poetic, story-like lyrics, and because there’s less instrumentation (fewer bells and whistles than you get in pop music, etc.) it adds another level of complexity.

    • Layne Ransom March 23, 2011 at 10:58 pm #


      Seriously though, her language is elegant, witty, and marvelously untamed in a way that I haven’t seen quite from anyone else, musician or otherwise. And this is getting off the word-writing part, but her music? My god. It’s much the same thing, the grace of classical composition grounding this Appalachian folk-informed wildness that is incredible to me.

      I’ve been learning Cosmia intermittently on keys and there’s one part that makes me want to cry it sounds and feels so beautiful under my fingers.

    • ce. March 24, 2011 at 9:00 am #

      I second Newsome, or rather, it looks like I’m 4th’ing her.

  2. Lindsey.p.LaVal March 23, 2011 at 12:45 pm #

    also, Iron & Wine, at times.
    This is an example of one of those times. It’s from their ep Woman King, where he follows stories of women (mostly scandalous) from ye ol’ bible.
    It’s the good.

  3. thenerdynegress March 23, 2011 at 2:29 pm #

    I’m a big fan of Electric Six and They Might Be Giants as lyricist. Both of those bands have songs with fantastic stories. Especially, They Might Be Giants.

    • leeraloo March 23, 2011 at 3:31 pm #

      All I know of They Might Be Giants is that worm video we watched at Lindsey’s, but based on that alone, I’d agree. That was definitely a story and a great character.

  4. Peggy March 23, 2011 at 3:24 pm #

    You should totally be a professor with your interesting, if not off-beat, assignments!

  5. tlgobble March 23, 2011 at 3:53 pm #

    I love your choices for Least Favorite Songs. That Plain White T’s song used to play at the gym all the time and the DOOODZ around me would sing it and I couldn’t help but sing it too and it was weird.

    That’s a pretty sweet challenge. Some serious CNF possibilities there.

    I gotta check out DEM GOATZ. People keep talking and I keep not listening. I think I’m listening now.

    Jay-Z is a must.

    I know it’s gonna sound like I’ve been hanging with Todd too much, but I think Dylan gotta get some nods.

    Do you have a notable mentions list?

    My influential musicians on my writing list would include: Away With Vega, Modest Mouse, The Promise Ring, and Bear Vs. Shark. Also recently: Japandroids and State Champion.



    • leeraloo March 23, 2011 at 4:12 pm #

      Yeah, there were a few artists I thought were just a given. Like Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan. Besides, I don’t know enough about them to really do them justice in a write-up, I’ll admit. And you would probably really like The Mountain Goats. “Tallahassee” is a solid album.

      • Layne Ransom March 23, 2011 at 11:00 pm #

        yeah, Tallahassee’s where it’s at.

  6. Layne Ransom March 23, 2011 at 11:38 pm #

    oh, and I also think Yoni Wolf of Why? is a lyrical badass.

    • Layne Ransom March 23, 2011 at 11:39 pm #

      that top comment with 44 likes? yep, just noticed; that’s mine.

      • Layne Ransom March 23, 2011 at 11:40 pm #



  7. ce. March 24, 2011 at 9:06 am #

    For some geezer indie cred, I’m going to have to toss some Mineral out in the mix along with Modest Mouse and some Appleseed Cast.

    Also, mewithoutYou almost can’t be topped when it comes to incredible lyrics. Exhibit A:

    A fish swims through the sea
    While the sea is, in a certain sense
    Contained within the fish.
    Oh, what am I to think
    Of what the writing
    Of a thousand lifetimes could not explain
    If all the forest trees were pens
    And all the oceans, ink?

    Exhibit B:

    Wearing black canvas slippers
    In our frog-on-a-lily-pad pose
    We sewed buttons and zippers
    To chinese pink silk
    And olive night clothes
    If you can someday stop by
    Somehow we’ll show you the pictures and fix you some tea
    (see, my dad’s getting a bit older now and just unimaginably lonely).

    • Layne Ransom April 4, 2011 at 12:51 pm #

      All of the post-rock alarms in my head just went off. Haven’t listened to Appleseed Cast or Mineral in a while. I would agree most with Modest Mouse and mewithoutYou, both bands I’ve known about for years but have only become familiarized with in the past several months or so. I’m biased toward mwY especially, being easily endeared to biblical language that is vibrant and aware, never cliched.

  8. Steven March 29, 2011 at 5:21 pm #

    Elliott Smith inspires me constantly. One of the best and most haunting lyricists I’ve ever personally heard. Nom nom nom.

    • leeraloo March 29, 2011 at 10:23 pm #

      Good one! I definitely agree.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: