Songwriting and storytelling

We’ve focused a lot on movies and novels in previous posts, but there’s another kind of storytelling that drives a lot of what we do: songwriting.

Writing a song

We love all kinds of music, whether it’s the beautiful inventive craziness of pop, the gritty edge of rap, the straight-up epic-ness of soul, or the gorgeous storytelling and soul-baring of country music. The through-line for us is songs that tell us stories, whether it’s a verse by verse evolution of things happening, or the evocation of an emotional moment in time. That kind of songwriting is a very precise form of storytelling, even more so than a short story, which is one of the most precision-based ways to get a story across, given the lack of time and space. Characters, situations, emotions, arcs, set-ups and pay-offs all need to happen immediately. Just as with short stories, there’s no runway with a song; you need a vertical take-off for the tale you’re telling. You have to grip the listener from the start with vivid, specific imagery that resonates. You need to use whatever tools you can to grab us and hold us close. Clever analogies, innovative wordplay, a flow; there’s a lot more in common with rap and country than you’d think.

FGL and Nelly

Florida Georgia Line and Nelly, rapping and… country-ing?

For us, the nexus of this kind of songwriting is Nashville. Dive deep into country music, and you’ll find everything you need to know about songwriting. It’s no coincidence that Taylor Swift, who has spent the last 15 months dominating the world with the epic, glossy, futuristic, confessional pop of the 1989 album and tour, learned how to get there by writing country songs.

Taylor Swift

Great country songwriters transport you from the first line, and grip you until the last (and beyond): Eric Church, Mark Irwin, Shane McAnally, Kelley Lovelace, Miranda Lambert, Jessica Roadcap, Kacey Musgraves, Chris Stapleton, Ashley Gorley, Chris Dubois… They tell heartfelt, vivid tales, wrapped up in hooks and melodies. Here are two examples of how to tell a story through verses and choruses (listen to the way these songs are constructed, the way they phrase the things they say, the way imagery is set-up and paid-off):

Miranda Lambert, “Automatic” (written by Lambert with Natalie Henby and Nicolle Galyon). This digs deep into a nostalgic vibe, and does so by brilliantly layering meaning upon meaning on the word ‘automatic.’ The theme of the song is yearning for a time when you had to work for what you got, whereas now everything’s just automatic. Analogies flow fast and smartly, as do memories of taking the long way around (ironically, given the speed with which they poetically hit the theme). Driving stick, taking photos (“the kind you gotta shake”), writing letters… very specific experiences become universal as Lambert reaches out for a time “back before everything became automatic.”

Tim McGraw with Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, “Highway Don’t Care”, (written by Mark Irwin, Josh Kear and Brad Warren). Irwin and his co-writers do something very smart here, taking the chorus of a song that the character is listening to on the radio, and making it the chorus of the song itself. It adds another dimension to this story of someone driving angrily away from a row with their loved one, which is already made unusual by being from the POV of the person being driven away from. It’s a flawless example of how to take a story, and tell it in a fresh way, from a fresh angle. Irwin and co.’s approach gives the song life and heart; using the highway as the anchor for the song (“the highway won’t dry your tears, but I will… the highway don’t care, but I do”) makes it grab you. It’s not just someone telling you they care; it’s poetically constructed, which gives it more impact.

Smart analogies, vivid imagery, clever, complex and concise phrasing and construction: these themes reverberate through a good story and make for great music. It sounds analytical, and maybe even cold, but all this is the foundation on which beautiful, rich, heartfelt and soulful art is made.

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