Music and Lyrics

by Zoë Sharp

Last weekend I attended the CrimeFest convention in Bristol, which was great fun, with some highly entertaining panels, not least of which were given by the guest of honour, Jeff Lindsay – he of Darkly Dreaming Dexter. I was particularly interested to hear of the initial reaction from publishing professionals to Jeff’s serial killer anti-hero protagonist.

It also made me realise there’s another point I should add to my DO/DON’T list for conventions: ‘If you spot someone you want to talk to, and they’re in the midst of a conversation with somebody else, DON’T just barge in and start speaking. It happened several times over the course of the weekend, and I can’t tell you how annoying it is.

The final panel of the event, – Laurie R King moderating Simon Brett, Natasha Cooper, Jeff Lindsay and Ian Rankin – included in the title ‘Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll’. Laurie dispensed with the first two items on that list fairly smartly, but the third has stuck in my mind, mainly because two of the panellists said that music played no part in their writing at all.

Now, I can’t help thinking that’s a great shame, because it plays a huge part in mine, even if it never appears on the page. I’m not just talking about having the characters sitting around listening to blues, or jazz, or country and western, come to that. My characters very rarely get the opportunity to relax enough to do so. I’m talking about the actual business of writing.

For me, nothing creates mood or atmosphere faster than music and I exploit this phenomenon to its fullest extent whenever I sit down to write. We have a huge collection of CDs – everything from Gregorian chants to Zydeco, via Philip Glass, Linkin Park and Goldfrapp. I finally dragged myself into the twentieth century recently when Andy bought me an iPod. All I have to do now is work out how to download all those CDs onto it. Instinctive? Hah! Mind you, this comes from a person who can re-plumb a bathroom or dismantle an engine more easily than she can add a new programme to her computer …

But the prospect of being able to take most of my music with me when we’re on the road, which is when a fair amount of my writing is done, and simply plug the iPod into the car so as to have the right music for any given scene, is a very tempting one. To me, it’s like poetry that plugs straight into your nervous system, with added visceral effect. The hairs are up on the back of your neck, the lump is in your throat, before the poet opens their mouth and delivers that first line.

In my youth I played guitar – classical mainly, and none too well. But I was always trying to write songs. Now, these were usually the kind of angst-filled dirges, the equivalent of teenage poetry, and I cringe to think of them now. But I find the music that lingers, the artists I keep coming back to, are the ones where the lyrics are as evocative as the melody. Examples? Here are just a few, and I apologise if I’ve only listed the singer, rather than the lyricist in all cases.

"I am breathless from the mercy of a smile" Jann Arden, ‘Saved’

"Oh, I really should have known … by the vagueness in your eyes … by the chill in your embrace" Jann Arden, ‘Insensitive’ words by Anne Loree

"Do you keep the receipts / for the friends that you buy?" Oasis, ‘Where Did It All Go Wrong?’

"If you were to kill me now … I would burn myself / into your memory … I would live inside you / I’d make you wear me / like a scar" Suzanne Vega, ‘In The Eye’

"Just three miles from the rest stop / And she slams on the brakes … She said – while you were sleeping / I was listening to the radio / and wondering what you’re dreaming when / it came to mind that I didn’t care" Matchbox Twenty, ‘Rest Stop’, words by Rob Thomas

"The night is my companion / solitude my guide / would I spend forever here and not be satisfied" Sarah McLachlan, ‘Obsession’

"You know if I leave you now / it doesn’t mean I love you any less" Sarah McLachlan, ‘Wait’

In fact, just about any song by Sarah McLachlan has the most fabulous lyrics.

"It’s rising at the back of your mind" Vertical Horizon, ‘Everything You Want’, words by Matthew Scannell

"Step out the front door like a ghost / into the fog where no one notices / the contrast of white on white" Counting Crows, ‘Round Here’, words by Adam Duritz

"In the middle of the night, there’s an old man threading his toes through a bucket of rain" Counting Crows, ‘Omaha’, words by Adam Duritz

"A struck match faded like a nervous laugh / beyond the halo of a naked bulb … eventually your world will shrink within four walls / of neglected debts and stolen stereos" Del Amitri, ‘Move Away Jimmy Blue’

"I turned on a TV station and / lip-read with the sound turned down / it was pro-celeb mouth-to-mouth resuscitation / with Esther Rantzen / playing the one who’s drowned" Del Amitri, ‘You’re Gone’

Country singers are a whole different ball game when it comes to clever lyrics, and Brad Paisley is among the best, IMHO, showing quiet wit and a sharp insight:

"I work down at The Pizza Pit / And I drive an old Hyundai / I still live with my mom and dad / I’m five foot three and overweight / I’m a sci-fi fanatic mild asthmatic / never been to second base / but there’s a whole ‘nother me / that you need to see / go check out MySpace" Brad Paisley, ‘Online’

I’m sure everyone has their own examples of lyrics that get inside their head and won’t let go. I happened to catch a snippet of a Take That reunion concert on the TV in a hotel over the weekend, and even their popcorn fare contained the words, "In the twist of separation / you excelled in being free" and I thought, what a great line! That’s a lesson to me never to dismiss anything, isn’t it?

The Brad Paisley is a great example, though, of telling a story in a very sparse number of words. You know everything about that guy from those few lines. Pages of description seem very unnecessary in the face of that honed little character sketch.

So, what are your favourites? Do you listen to music while you write, or do you have to have silence? Do you have your characters listen? Does it work for you when other writers mention what their characters are listening to?

After all, someone’s choice of music can be made to say a lot about them, both good and bad. A documentary I saw a few years ago about SS General Reinhard Heydrich, who was one of the masterminds of Hitler’s Final Solution, showed the man calmly discussing the practicalities of genocide, but becoming strangely sentimental about the Adagio of Schubert’s Quintet in C major.

Sometimes it seems to be those little touches of humanity, as evinced by their taste in music, that can really give a character depth and texture. Villains don’t have to lack culture in order to be truly nasty pieces of work, and it can be that refined edge, that appreciation of the arts perhaps, that brings the depravity of their actions into sharper focus. It makes them jump off the page, all the more shocking, and turns them from men into murderers.

This week’s Word of the Week, is seric, meaning silken, or with a silky sheen.

33 thoughts on “Music and Lyrics

  1. billie

    Great post – I loved reading all your examples, many of which are favorites of mine as well.

    I make CDs for every novel I write, with the songs that particularly bring that work to mind. I don’t always listen to just that music when I’m working, but use it as needed to get back to the flow of the story.

    I listen to Loreena McKinnitt quite a lot while I’m writing. And sometimes George Winston or Liz Story if I’m wanting piano and no lyrics. I can get completely caught up in scenes inspired by a line of music.

    And the word of the day – lovely!

  2. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Oooh, some great quotes there, Z! I have to agree – Counting Crows and Sarah McLachlan are just amazing lyricists (as well as artists who push all my pleasure buttons, musically).

    Whether or not I listen to music while writing has everything to do with the project. Some absolutely yes, some absolutely not. I never know until I start writing. In retrospect my more fantastical efforts (more overtly supernatural) are the ones that need the most music).

    I always consider my characters’ relationship to music and their musical tastes – it does say SO much about who those people are. In my new book I have a character who has been so damaged by a relationship that she can’t listen to music – it hurts too much. Obviously that sets up the moment that she’s forced to listen to music…

  3. JDRhoades

    I listen to music a lot while writing, because something about music seems to stimulate the same part of my brain that creativity comes from. Also it drowns out the distraction of two noisy teenagers in the house.

    I’m a Brad Paisley fan, too. My favorite line: “He put that bottle to his head and pulled the trigger.”

    One band whose lyrics I absolutely love for their dry wit, story telling, and perfect attention to detail is Fountains of Wayne. Like this one from their latest album:

    “Beth McKenzie got the job of her dreamsRetouching photos for a magazineaimed at teensIt’s Thursday night she should be out on the sceneBut she’s sitting at home watching “The King of Queens”

    There’s something wrong that she can’t describeShe takes the contacts out of her eyesSets the alarm for 6:45So she can get a little exercise…”

    I mean does that give “Eleanor Rigby” a run for its money or what?

    And this:

    “Well it was Saturday night, I was sitting in the kitchenChecking out the women on Spanish televisionGot a call from Paul who was just let out of prisonHe said hey listen, there’s something I’m missingI said I’m on it, honest, it’s on its wayYou’re gonna get your money in a couple of days, okay?”

    Of course, you’ve got to love Elvis Costello:

    “I said I’m so happy I could dieshe said ‘drop dead’ and left with another guy.”

    And Lucinda Williams:

    “Cotton fields stretching miles and milesHank’s voice on the radioTelephone poles trees and wires fly on byCar wheels on a gravel road…”

    I could go on for hours. I often do.

  4. R.J. Mangahas

    Great post, Zoe.

    I usually need the music so I can keep my focus. Although once or twice, without realizing it, I have typed the lyrics to the son I was listening too at the time. As for the type of music, it really does depends on my mood.

    But even background noise can be considered music. Take for example the sounds you hear in a city. In it’s own way, that too can be music.


    What do we think of when we think of music?Horns, strings, wind.Melodic voices in a place like Symphony Hall.Or the songs on radios, IPOD’s and computers.

    But there is another kind of music.Take off the headphones and listen.

    Breaks hissing. Horns blaring.The pounding of feet.The sound of the wind through a tunnelThe sound of vendors yelling.Many call this noise.But to the city, this is it’s music

  5. JT Ellison

    I find great inspiration in music, and it translates to a post-book CD that we make for fans. For 14, we’re actually creating a download to iPod or disc from my website. I love sharing the impetus for my work. And almost every short I’ve ever done is inspired by a song title or song. And each book has a classical music theme — Edge of Black is Dvořák’s New World Symphony, and this time it plays a part in the actual story. Fun!!!

    My big inspiration right now is a fantastic singer named Tift Merritt. So unique, so different. Here’s the chorus from her latest hit, Broken:

    But I’m broken and I don’t understandWhat is broken falls into place once again.Hand of kindness, come and gather me in like a rainstorm,Again and again and again,I think I will break but I mend.

    Gather me in like a rainstorm just gets into my head — I SEE exactly what she’s talking about. For more Tift, go here:

  6. Louise Ure

    Great post and great examples, Zoë. I’m going to download a couple of them I hadn’t heard of before.

    I can’t listen to music while I’m writing, but like Billie and JT, I seem to have a compilation tape in the works by the time I’m done with a book.

    JT, I love the idea of a downloadable CD on your website. How do you handle the payments/royalties for the songs?

  7. Tammy Cravit

    I don’t usually listen to vocal music when I’m writing, mainly because I have an unfortunate habit of instinctively typing words that I hear. I listen to a lot of instrumental and classical stuff while I’m writing — Josh Bell’s “Voice of the Violin” and David Arkenstone’s “Sketches from an American Journey” are on my playlist at the moment.

    As far as songs with stories go, two artists that come to mind are Tori Amos (“It was me and a gun, and a man on my back, but I haven’t seen Barbados, so I must get out of this…”) and the group of women who call themselves Antigone Rising (“She was born to the son of a mini van salesman on an early August morning under clouds. Sweet romance, like her dreams came in Spinster Magazine. Her Romeo was on page 33.”)

  8. JT Ellison

    Louise, I’m not sure exactly about the licensing issues, but there are several “Mix Tape” websites out there that allow you to do this. My indispensable web designer/partner for life is the brains behind this outfit, so when he says pick the songs and give them to me, I say okay. I haven’t seen the finished version yet, but I’m told it will be rockin’: )

  9. JT Ellison

    Billie, isn’t Tift wonderful??? I’m in love with the name as well. We’ve been following her for a while — I am there the moment she comes to Nashville.

  10. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Billie – sorry not to get back to you sooner. Had to post this morning and then rush off out, so I’m only just back at my computer.

    Making a compilation album sounds like a great idea for each book. Something I used to do back in the good old days of cassette … I’m planning on doing the same thing again as soon as I’ve mastered this iPod. Perhaps I ought to list the songs that ‘go’ with each book on my website?

  11. Zoë Sharp

    Hey Alex – I LOVE the idea of a character who can’t listen to music. That just sets up so many ideas. Can’t wait to find out how that one turns out.

    And yes, Sarah McLachlan is just superb. I often have her Afterglow Live concert DVD running downstairs while I’m working, because it’s longer than a CD and I don’t have to go and change it so often. The opening track, ‘Fallen’ gets me every time. And her version of the Beatles’ song, ‘Blackbird’ is breathtaking. Another one with a great opening lyric: “Blackbird singing in the dead of night / take these broken wings and learn to fly”

  12. Zoë Sharp

    Hi JD – how could I have missed quoting from Brad Paisley’s ‘Whiskey Lullaby’? Argh! One of my favourite of his songs. And it features Alison Krauss, which is even better. And how about “you had some of the best times / you’ll never remember with me” from, of course, ‘Alcohol’.

    Love the Lucinda Williams track, too.

  13. Zoë Sharp

    Hi RJ – never found myself typing the lyrics to the song I was listening to, but there’s a definite optimum volume, though. Too high and I start listening to the music too much. It has to be just low enough to go in on some kind of subconscious level.

    And yes, people walk round with their eyes – and their ears – shut all too often ;-]

  14. Jake Nantz

    I can’t listen to music when I write. I’m one of those “it’s gotta be graveyard silent” when I write, which can be a problem sometimes. At the same time, when I am going back through and editing (read: hacking to pieces) a chapter or two, I find that AC/DC and others of their ilk get me in a rip-and-tear frame of mind.

    As far as my characters, I have a female assassin (former Desert Storm sniper the gov’t doesn’t tell the world about) named Jamie Videtich who is waiting for me to finish my WIP so I can begin to tell her story. She of course needs her ears so she can hear anyone sneaking up on her, and also so the soft buzz of her iPod won’t give away her hide while she’s stalking/scouting. Instead, she recites lyrics in her head when she has someone in her proverbial crosshairs. Things like:

    “Medallion noose, I hang myself./Saint Anger ’round my neck./I feel my world shake/Like an earthquake/Hard to see clear/Is it me? Is it fear?/Madly in anger with you,/I’m madly in anger with you.”-Metallica, “St. Anger”

    “This world can turn me down/But I won’t turn away/And I won’t duck and run,/’Cause I’m not built that way/When everything is gone there’s/Nothing there to fear/This world cannot bring me down/No cause I am already here.”-3 Doors Down, “Duck & Run”

    “I’m goin’ home, gonna load my shotgun/Wait by the door and light a cigarette/If he wants a fight well now he’s got one/and he ain’t seen me crazy yet.”-Miranda Lambert, “Gunpowder and Lead”

    “Got a criminal record,/I can’t cross state lines/First on the bad list,/and you’re last on mine/Lookin for a scapegoat,/long past due/Walking down the aisle,/staring straight at you/I still hear him screaming where do I hide?”-Nickelback, “Where Do I Hide?” (Mr. Rhoades, this one has a bounty-hunter feel, kinda reminded me of Keller. G.D.I.H. was a KICK ASS book, btw)

    And finally:”Open doors as I walk inside/Swallow me so the pain subsides/And I shake as I take this in/Let the show begin…/The higher you are/The farther you fall/The longer the walk/The farther you crawl/My body my temple/This temple it tilts/Yes this is the house that jack built”-Metallica, “The House That Jack Built”

    You know, I’m actually really excited to get into her story and let her start the bloodletting. I think she’s gonna be a lot of fun. Gotta finish the first one before I get to start the second, though.

  15. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Tammy – I love Tori Amos, too. I’ve just dug out a couple of her CDs from my shelf and am alarmed to see the older of them is dated ’92. Seems like yesterday.

    And also around that era, Tracey Chapman? The words to ‘For My Lover’ are great: “Two weeks in a Virginia jail / for my lover for my lover / twenty thousand dollar bail / for my lover for my lover … everyday I’m psychoanalysed / for my lover for my lover / they dope me up and I tell them lies / for my lover for my lover”

    And ‘For You’ – “Safe from the guards / of intellect and reason”

    And, finally, ‘Behind The Wall’, which begins, “Last night I heard the screaming / loud voices behind the wall / another sleepless night for me / it won’t do no good to call / the police / always come late / if they come at all”

  16. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Jake

    Great examples – I think I have all those albums except possibly the Miranda Lambert. I think the anger in certain types of music just sums up certain characters and the mood you have to be in to write them. Your female assassin sounds like someone I’d like to know … ;-]

    And she’d also probably really like Staind’s ‘Outside’ – “But I’m on the outside / I’m looking in / I can see through you / see your true colors / ’cause inside you’re ugly / ugly like me / I can see through you / see to the real you”

  17. Zoë Sharp

    Ah, just realised something as I pressed the ‘post’ button. I’m not trying to say your character is ugly … but there has to be something slightly amiss in order to be able to kill people. My main protag definitely has that broken aspect to her.

    Sounds like an intriguing set-up, though. And being around firearms in the field will have done nasty things to her hearing, so she’ll want a decent stereo system where she can wind up the treble to put back those shifted frequencies … ;-]

  18. Jake Nantz

    Ms. Sharp -Wow, you NAILED it. I hadn’t even thought of Stain’d (love the live version with Fred Durst, btw), but Jamie did something she hates herself for overseas, and figures she’s already damned and may as well send the rest of the damned ahead of her. “Outside” sums her up more perfectly than anything I’ve come across yet. Thank you. Heh, sounds like maybe you already know her a little…

    As far as Miranda Lambert’s “Gunpowder and Lead”, that’s a brand new single. I’m not one for country, that’s my wife, but I LOVE the attitude in the song. It reminds me of the fiesty side of Jamie. I hope you do like her (should she ever make it past the query stage). She’s a badass, and I think it’ll be more fun–an adventure for me–to write a badass woman (as opposed to the stock-character tough guys that keep floating through my head). Of course, my wife may have to clue me in when Jamie’s thoughts/dialogue sound too male….

  19. Zoë Sharp

    Jake – sounds great. Just do me a favour will you? Don’t use the word ‘feisty’ in relation to your main protag. Charlie Fox has been stuck with that label many times and as I’ve no doubt bored everyone witless by mentioning before, its original meaning is actually a cross between ‘a small yappy dog’ and ‘to break wind’. Not atributes you want for Jamie, I’m sure ;-]

  20. Jake Nantz

    Oops. You’d think an English teacher would know that, huh? Consider it done. Or undone. Or no longer done. Well, you get the idea.

  21. Fran

    Ah, you know Del Amitri and Tracy Chapman! How cool is that? And yeah, Sarah Maclaughlin and Counting Crows get me every time.

    So does Billy Pilgrim, with “I do my best singing when I’m all alone, and the blood comes down like sweat from my bones,” from “Too Many People”. They have a truly creepy song, “Watching”, that I think is the stalker’s anthem.

    Great post!

  22. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Fran – I think I’m just showing my age with some of the bands! If you want a stalking song, how about Kirsty MacColl’s ‘Treachery’, which goes “wherever he goes, I won’t be far behind / just hanging around driving him out of his mind”?

    But I think her best line comes from ‘In These Shoes’ – “I said ‘In these shoes? I doubt you’d survive’. / I said ‘Honey, let’s do it’.”

  23. Jake Nantz

    Just out of curiosity for you pros, what hoops do I face trying to publish a short story that uses someone’s copyrighted lyrics (as in the character is singing along to very specific words on the radio, as they apply to the story itself)? Am I most likely S.O.L.?


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