Music as Muse

After reading the fascinating article on Joanna Newsom on the New York Times this weekend, I was reminded of the many artists I listen to because of the excellence of their lyrics. Joanna Newsom is definitely on that list, as is Nick Cave, Neil Hannon of the Divine Comedy, and Pavement frontman Stephen Malkmus.

Some writers have go-to tracks that influence them when they are trying for something angsty, hyperactive, full of longing, and so on. In these cases, the music is only there for atmospheric purposes and the lyrics fade into unimportance when compared to a throbbing bass line. But for me, I listen to music because I enjoy it, not because of what it brings to my writing.

Well, that’s a bit of a lie, because in examining song structure and lyrics — in experiencing them — you are looking at just another form of storytelling. Word choice, rhythm, beginnings and endings.

With Newsom, looking past the beauty of her harp playing and the intricacies of her compositions, you are left with her lyrics that range from the plaintive to the playful, along with soaring flights of fancy full of highbrow referents. The breadth of the vocabulary she employs, their placement in a song, is awe-inspiring. Don’t believe me? There’s a book published by Roan Press called ‘Visions of Joanna Newsom’ full of essays exploring her work. Here’s ‘Sawdust and Diamonds’ from Ys:

There are other songwriters out there, of course, who are just as amazing with three and a half to five minutes of music. But these are the ones I keep returning to.

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