Someone once told me that all songs are either about love or death. Ok, I’ll take that. It applies to me to some degree, as my writing as drifted across both of these subjects. Sometimes, the idea isn’t obvious as I really like to bury things in metaphor. It is a challenge I like to present the listener with. Can you figure out what this song is really about without me painting some sort of obvious narrative?
As I posted in a previous entry, I really like ciphers and codes. Many times, all the listener needs to properly interpret my lyrics is the proper key, cipher or code to get into the metaphorical meaning. Or maybe, it is a really direct song lyrically, but I didn’t take the time to say “The setting is a hospital room” or whatever. If the listener were to have this little bit of information, perhaps they would truly understand the song.
Usually, I am loathe to offer up this information. It’s a Michael Stipe way of thinking, where I do not want to take from the listener any of the constructs they may have already developed about the song by imposing my ideas on it. Maybe you think the song is about some lost love when it is really about polar bears on a glacier. I don’t want to be guilty of stealing that idea from someone.
But alas, this is 2009, the internet and blogs and everything is interconnected. People want to know everything about everyone, or at least people are willing to offer up everything. Favorite albums, 25 Random Things, etc. So I guess the time for that Stipe mindset has passed. People want to know more about each other, the thought processes and creative flow behind their art. So with that in mind, I am going to open up and give you a look behind the machinations of a song from my latest album, a song called “Winter”.
Well, it is about death. Who woulda guessed? But I didn’t start out with the idea in mind. My process is probably a little different than most songwriters as music comes first, lyrics second. The music usually guides the theme of the lyrics by its mood and tempo, the chord progression and melody forming up first. It is usually in this part of the process that a hook forms up, usually around a line that often is cast aside in the process. Think of the McCartney explanation of “Yesterday” initially being “Scrambled Eggs”. But in “Winter”, the words came out like from a faucet:
Mother said that life on the moon must be an awful lot like winter
Father said that life on the moon must be an awful pretty sight
I was stunned by the power of the melody and words in concert. In a million years, I couldn’t tell you where things like this come from. It is not something analytical in nature. It streams forth, like I said, from a faucet.
This is where the challenge begins. What does that mean? What can that possibly be about? Where does one start on a theme or story that has that as its core?
I was brought back twenty years to the memory of my dying mother, in a hospital hooked up to all kinds of machinery. She was dying of lung cancer, only days left. Conversations with her at that point were nonsensical, a sort of word salad spewing forth from her brain, a marriage of memories long past and fears and hallucinations. Many of the things she was saying made no sense what so ever. And I remember my father, a stoic man of intelligence standing there helpless, unable to engage her in any real conversation, only comforting her. Painful memory. But there was my answer, my metaphorical code. The song would tell that tale, the tale of that hospital room and the wordplay of word salad.
In “Winter”, I chose a memory theme set in the Cold War 1950s, where the memories of the mother would be from her teenage years. A harkening to a simpler time, but one with fearful overtones, the kind of fears imprinted so solidly on one’s psyche that they would last a lifetime. Memories and fears that naturally would come out in a word salad of death. Fears of the Soviets, fears drawn my Joseph McCarthy, mixed together with space race imagery and the like. As this goes on, there is a family in the background, a father, son and daughter watching and listening in horror as this fountain of madness cascades before them.
One of the most satisfying parts of the song for me is the following stanza:
She’s out of order
Senseless and repeating
The first thing is the metaphor where she is the object in orbit, and “breaking orbit” refers to the fact that she is actually in the process of death itself. I know, real uplifting. But I also find it kind of clever to repeat a rhyme using the word, well “repeating”. I dunno. Maybe I’m the only one who gets it. That’s the best part of being your own band, producer and label 🙂
The thing about this song is that I think it is a real experience, one that many of us unfortunately will go through if we haven’t already. In fact, one of the stranger experiences I had was that soon after writing this song, I met a guy who would become one of my best friends. In an unfortunate twist of fate, this song became his reality, down to the family structure. We speak often about how creepy it was. He is an artist and a writer and we had poured all over this song and its meaning, the word salad, everything. Then, 2 short years later, he is living it. I always found that darkly strange.
So hopefully, you have a cipher to work with now when listening to “Winter”. I promise you, the next song I choose to lay out there for you won’t be so sad. But chances are it will be about either love, or death.