The experiences of a non-singing songwriter and his vocalist collaborators

 

‘I seek and find myself in another’s emotional-excited voice; I embody myself in the voice of the other who sings of me; I find in that voice an authoritative approach to my own inner emotion or excitement’ (Bakhtin 1990: 170)

 

After many years of trying different vocal styles and techniques, and watching people flinch when they heard me perform my own songs, I finally came to the heartbreaking conclusion that I just wasn’t a singer. For someone who had long thought of themselves as a singer/ songwriter, this was a bit of a blow, and I essentially had to completely overhaul the way I thought of both my songs and myself, in order to face the fact that I was now just a songwriter. After the initial panic that I was now akin to a painter without a brush, coming to this realisation was actually quite liberating; I was now free to write expansive, flowing melodies instead of sticking with ones I knew I’d find easier to sing, and it allowed me to be more personal and autobiographical with my lyrics as I knew they wouldn’t so easily be traced back to me. The facelessness gave my writing a new lease of life and I began writing much more ambitious material.

I’m extremely fortunate that, during my time at The University of Winchester, I have come across a number of extremely talented vocalists, and I have worked with two of them, Hannah Jacobs and Madeleine Vaughan, on numerous songs over the last three years. This paper will refer to a selection of these songs, discussing my experiences in writing for others, and their experiences in singing my words in order to bring my songs to life.

Music, involving as it does a listener and speaker, involves a process where the writer (the speaker) allows an outsider (the listener) access to our inner selves. This process is even more intensive when giving something you’ve written to someone else to sing, a process Hannah Jacobs likens to ‘reading a page out of [the writer’s] diary’ (Jacobs 2017), and relies on a great deal of trust between both parties. The singer, in essence, becomes the first, most important listener, and makes the writer even more aware of the fact that ‘even the inner utterance (interior speech) is social; it is oriented toward a possible audience(Medvedev 1985: 126). Far from being a negative, this thought has always given me the incentive to create work I am proud of, because I’m acutely aware that my collaborators, all people for whom I have enormous respect, will be hearing it, and I have no desire to offer anything except my very best.

‘The Road’

The song ‘The Road’, one of the tracks from the album This Changes Everything: 11 Songs about Climate Change aimed, like the Cormac McCarthy novel which inspired it, to paint a picture of a worst-case scenario future that may become reality if our present lives don’t change.

The characters in this song (the father and the son from the novel) have undergone the following process:

  • They have moved from inside Cormac McCarthy to outside him following their conception.
  • They moved inside the reader (me) at the point I read the book and are subsequently altered based upon my interpretation of them. They are altered further during my writing process due to considerations of the song’s length (and therefore how much narrative I can include), how the lines scan from an aesthetic perspective, rhyme schemes and types, and trying to include a verse/chorus structure.
  • Once the song is completed the characters move back outside me as I have finished ‘altering’ them.
  • On handing the song over to Hannah, the characters then move inside her as she sings in their voices.
  • After recording, they move outside Hannah and inside the listener who internalises them and creates their own versions.
  • With each step the characters are moving further away from McCarthy’s original vision and they are re-born and re-imagined with every listen.

The process of bringing one text into another is described in more detail below (lyrics in italics).

‘The Road’ (Fosbraey 2016) - Hannah Jacobs and the Django Black Ensemble

On and on this road go on and on and on this road
From hills of fire
‘We are the good guys’
On and on the road, don’t stop, go on and on this road
We are the good guys

The line ‘From hills of fire’ was not inspired by the book itself but from an interview with Cormac McCarthy, recalling a trip to El Paso, Texas, where he looked out of his hotel window and imagined what the city might look like fifty years into the future and ‘just had this image of these fires up on the hill’ (Oprah 2012).

Throughout the novel, the father refers to him and his son as ‘The Good guys’. Within the song’s transcript, this is put in speech marks to show it’s the father talking, but when sung (particularly in a female voice), the ‘we’ could be interpreted in a number of different ways, e.g. ‘we’ being as narrow as 2 people, one of which is the singer, or ‘we’ being as broad as everybody living in the world today.

Graveyard-ruined towns
Two rounds to see us through
Go on and on go on and on the road

The line ‘graveyard ruined towns’ is my own imagery but it’s designed to reflect McCarthy’s descriptions of the landscapes they pass, many of which refer to death and ruin.

The line ‘Two rounds to see us through’ refers to the gun the father and son own, which contains only two bullets (or two ‘rounds’).

Those shelters underground
So stifling, sad and old
Carrying fires, go on and on the road

Again, ‘those shelters underground’ is my own phrasing but it refers to the bunker they find, which although helps them, is a sad reminder of a bygone time.

The line ‘carrying fires’ refers directly to a number of passages in the book, including the following:

‘Are you carrying the fire?
Am I what?
Carrying the fire.’ (McCarthy 2010: 303)

A Wake for three days straight
Young eyes have seen too much
A heart beats on, no matter how it burns

‘A Wake for three days straight’: after his father dies the boy stays with the body for three days. This is designed as a bit of a play on words, for without the transcription of the lyrics it could be heard as either ‘a wake’ (to hold a vigil beside his dead father) or ‘awake’ (an inability to find peace through sleep).

The ‘young eyes have seen too much’ line is a reference to the son having experienced so much hardship in his life, and ‘A heart beats on, no matter how it burns’ describes the pair’s determination to stay alive.

This won’t be right again
they hummed a mystery
the road will stop
eventually but you

‘This won’t be right again/ they hummed a mystery’ is a re-interpretation of this passage from the novel:

‘Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery. (McCarthy 2010: 307)

Dead-eyed dreams play out
to ghosts in the asphalt
to shards of men, forever frozen, posed

Dead-eyed dreams play out’: In a dream, the man sees ‘…a creature that raised its dripping mouth from the rimstone pool and stared into the light with eyes dead white…’ (McCarthy 2010: 2)

The wording of ‘…ghosts in the asphalt/ to shards of men, forever frozen, posed’ was inspired by ‘The Official Web Site of the Cormac McCarthy Society’, where their synopsis of The Road includes the potent wording ‘Mummified corpses…rise in frozen poses of horror and agony out of congealed asphalt.’ (Wallach 2008)

I’m worthy of my name
My father told me so,
Don’t mean a lot, but keeps me on the road

None of this is explicit in the book, but I’m ‘textually intervening’ with the original text to imagine a conversation between father and son, and how his past and ‘name’ gives the boy the motivation to keep going.

 

‘Dixon James’

‘Dixon James’ is a song that I wrote based upon someone I knew who had spent his childhood as a very shy, introverted character but then evolved into an outgoing personality obsessed with his appearance and image. This, like the rest of the songs I will be referring to from here on, was released under the moniker ‘Oslo Iversen’, an imaginary band with ever-changing members, that provided a ‘front’ for the music and allowed me to be even more open in my lyrics due to its anonymity.

‘Dixon James’ (Fosbraey 2015) – Oslo Iversen

Overnight, upgrade, unveil the chrysalis with this pretty boy inside
Heavy glasses stay at home
‘Oh well, he's on a promise.’
Oh how things have altered
Childhood collections cast aside 
‘I don't care, take them all to charity;
I've much better things to do with my time- more worthwhile past-times, 
stop me, and say that I'm gorgeous.’
Your recognition provides
Attention craved since play school
‘I am NOT strange, just look at my clothes, look at my biceps; queue up to see the rest of me 
I’ll hide this magazine in case she sees who I’ve copied 
Whilst others drank I stayed at home and studied 
To hell with that now I want Playboy Bunnies to indulge me, and say that I’m gorgeous.’

The first line of the song attempts to give a potted account of the whole story, with the change (symbolised by the chrysalis) seen by this character to be an ‘upgrade’, and ‘pretty boy’ a term that describes a male who is ‘very aware of his hair, skin, etc… [and] constantly looks in the mirror to look perfect from head to toe’ (Urban Dictionary 2017). The rest of the song adds more backstory, character development and context to this theme, exploring the juxtaposition between the ‘childhood collections’ (in my mind, this was Star Wars and Doctor Who memorabilia, but the image itself can be attached to anything) and Playboy Bunnies and the constant desire to find acceptance, attention, and recognition.

On Tori Amos’ 2001 album Strange Little Girls, where she recorded ‘twelve covers of songs written by men — mostly for or about women, mostly without happy endings’, she ‘sings from the other side of the anxiety and sorrow’ (Fricke 2001) that is present within the songs. Getting Hannah to sing ‘Dixon James’ allowed for a female perspective to enter into the narrative, and almost gives the effect that the protagonist is being evaluated by someone he was seeking to impress. In the transcript, the protagonists’ lines are placed within speech marks, offering a separation from the third person narration, but when listened to they blur together, offering the potential to hear the whole song as a third person narrative where the narrator (Hannah) is paraphrasing and mocking the protagonist’s attempts to conform and fit in.

What can’t be ignored is my own position within this song and my influence over the actions of the protagonist (or what Bakhtin refers to as the ‘hero’) where ‘the independence of the hero and of his directedness in living his own life is minimal: he does not really live a life of his own, but only reflects himself in the soul of the active author — the other by whom he is possessed.’ (Art and Answerability 172)

So, even when we don’t think we’re writing personally, our characters can never be fully removed from ourselves because we can see the world from no-one else’s perspective but ours, and our characters’ world views have all been filtered through our own before hitting the page. Everything within the song ‘is seen and portrayed in the author’s all-encompassing and omniscient field of vision’ (Bakhtin, 1984: 71). The outside is much closer to the inside than we might think or wish.

 

Careys Manorr’

‘Careys Manor’ is the most emotional song I have ever written and I could never have sung it in my own voice, not least because I wouldn’t have been able to do the melody justice. Described, accurately, by reviewer Edmund Scrivens as ‘a meditation on the difficulty in living with depression despite the positive aspects in life’ (Scrivens 2015), I wrote the song’s melody back in 2005, shortly after my wife and I were married at a place called ‘Careys Manor’. Despite numerous attempts, I couldn’t write lyrics that I was satisfied with. Fast-forward to early 2014, when I was struggling to deal with a number of things in my life, and the mood I was in suddenly fitted perfectly with the somber tone of the music. Add in Hannah’s vocal, and it’s one of the songs I’m most proud of, because it means so much to me personally, even if I did take a step back at times and shroud some of the images in metaphor so the specifics would be known only to myself.

I try never to give the singers any backstory to my songs or reveal what they’re ‘about’, preferring the lyrics to speak for themselves, and to see what the singers themselves bring to the words. In the case of ‘Careys Manor’, I particularly didn’t want the baggage I brought to the song influencing Hannah’s delivery.

Hannah Jacobs said:

I wonder, had I known at the time what the lyrics meant to him, if that might have had
any impact on how I performed the song. However, perhaps that sense of detachment
added to it, in some way, because all I had to go on was what Glenn had given me, and
I didn’t consciously try to put too much of my own voice into the song. (2017)

 

‘Careys Manor’ (Fosbraey 2014) – Oslo Iversen

My head is a blood test
buzzed up, so dazed
Yet I still remember how you lit up my life
But now for my General
I would be gone
So very dearly do I want this done

We were as clear as youth
And just as stupid, too
Dark circles are just rings
Of apathy, of hurt
This has to continue
This has to continue
This has to continue
But I want it to end

I pulled out a number
He threw it straight back
Said ‘no win’ too loud
Drank my eyes to their holes
To rely on ‘sorry’
Would be to admit
I didn’t lose my mind, I was pushed out of it

Into the night ablaze
I smash up every place
We go to reconcile
Bonded now through hate
This has to continue
How can we continue?
We need to continue
Though it has to end.

To hear Hannah inhabit the song and sing something that had come from very personal experiences in my life was a hauntingly beautiful experience. I could listen to Hannah sing all day long, whatever the songs were, but to have her take a step inside something so close to me was like an out of body experience. Even now, three years on, I shiver when she delivers the line ‘I didn’t lose my mind, I was pushed out of it’, because, even though I wrote it, it feels as if someone else is having the same experience as me, which is incredibly comforting. When speaking about the time he first listened to Johnny Cash’s version of his song ‘Hurt’, Trent Reznor said that ‘Hearing it was like someone kissing your girlfriend. It felt invasive’ (NME 2008), but he sang the original, so had already built up that relationship. Knowing that I wasn’t going to sing the song when I was writing it meant that I could be inside it, but outside at the same time; personal and impersonal; subjective and objective. As a teenager, I, like many others, used music as a kind of therapy, something to support me when I needed it. Being a songwriter that doesn’t sing allows me to go one step further than that. It allows me to write specifically about my life and then hear it back, in another voice, allowing me to build two separate relationships with the song: one as writer, and one as listener.

 

‘Staplehurst’

‘Staplehurst’ was another personal song, one which I began when I was 14, on the day my Grandmother died, then re-wrote 17 years later.

 

‘Staplehurst’ (Fosbraey 2014) – Oslo Iversen

The first few hours of morning disperse

This last day of your life

You awake, then freeze in time

We all bow and pay our respects

 

No, absence doesn’t make the heart fond

It tears apart, makes wretched and cold

 

Because now I see there will always be a space where I’m missing you

And I know I never, ever really got over losing you, losing you

 

Staplehurst behind us

We all grow apart, not thinking why

Ignorant, not blissful,

You are a simple man with a complex mind

 

In the empty house, my father and I,

Kept and threw out each part of your life

 

Because now I see there will always be a space where I’m missing you

And I know I never, ever really got over losing you, losing you

This is the longest I’ve left a song to ‘gestate’, but I always felt that the initial lyrics, as heartfelt as they were, were very basic and one-dimensional (no real surprise, given I was only just in my teens when writing them), and it needed the perspective of my older self, and enough distance from that initial reaction to the event, to draw out maximum emotional impact. In effect, I felt that I needed to be able to look at the situation from outside to offer a broader perspective, flitting between second person utterances to bring my Grandmother into the song (‘your life’; ‘you awake’), first person plural to bring my father in, and my relationship  with him (‘we all bow’; ‘we drift apart’) and first personal singular (‘I see’; ‘I know’) to reflect my initial 14-year-old reaction, combined with my reaction now. Being too close to the subject matter was restrictive to my creativity in this instance, as I found my authentic emotional language was too basic. This distance also allowed me to think about the intervening years, and the song became just as much about the impact death has on a family’s relationships with one another than the impact of the death itself, and a chance for me to look back over those years to evaluate my own opinions. In our family’s case, my grandmother was a matriarch figure who essentially held the family together in spite of some very big, disparate personalities, and following her death we did indeed, as the lyrics say, ‘drift apart.’

Madeline Vaughan, who sang the final version, said this about the experience of moving inside the song’s content to give the best possible vocal performance:

for me to perform it with the sensitivity and raw honesty that it deserved, I had to draw on my own experiences. For a brief moment, Staplehurst was my story too, and I think the song’s ability to touch people in that way, to be so emotionally relevant, is why it’s so powerful. These are lyrics that can’t be sung half-heartedly, each performance has to be a little cathartically painful to be true to the song. (Vaughan 2017)

‘Music can arouse deep and profound emotions within us, and these can be shared experiences between people from quite different backgrounds’ (Hargreaves & North 1997: 1). This was certainly the case with ‘Staplehurst’ where, despite having little shared personal history, Madeline and I were able to tap into similar emotions, with mine feeding into the lyrics themselves, and Madeleine’s resulting in such a beautifully emotional vocal performance.

Being a non-singing songwriter has brought new dimensions and possibilities to my writing, and allows me to maintain a distance from the lyrics that I simply wouldn’t have were I to sing the words in my own voice. I would strongly recommend the experience of writing songs for someone else, even to those who can sing, and even if it’s just as an exercise. Many thanks, as ever, to Hannah and Madeleine for continuing to bring my songs to life. Without you, I am indeed a painter without a brush.

 

Works cited: 
 

Bakhtin, M 1990 ‘Author and Hero in Aesthetic Activity’ in M Holquist and V Liapunov (eds), Art and Answerability: Early Philosophical Essays by M.M. Bakhtin, Austin, TX: University of Texas Press

Bakhtin, M 1984) Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics (edited and translated by C Emerson), Manchester: Manchester University Press

Fricke, D 2001 ‘Tori Amos: Strange Little Girls’, available at  http://www.rollingstone.com/music/albumreviews/strange-little-girls-20010904 [accessed 7 October 2017]

Jacobs, H 2017 personal communication, 22 October

Hannah Jacobs and The Django Black Ensemble 2016 ‘The Road’, in This Changes Everything: 11 Songs About Climate Change. Splendid Fred Records. SF002. Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NN78YLYSc6c&index=8&list=PLrnNjrut2xT5odf5tStLq_wvcO9YUrnZo [accessed 21 October 2017]

Hargreaves, D J & North, A C (eds) 1997 The social psychology of music, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Vaughan, M 2017 personal communication, 21 October

McCarthy, C 2010 The Road, London: Picador

Medvedev, P N 1985 The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship (trans. Albert J Wehrle), Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

NME 2008 ‘Trent Reznor: Johnny Cash cover felt ‘like someone kissing your girlfriend’, available at http://www.nme.com/news/music/nine-inch-nails-149-1326704 [accessed 19 October 2017]

Iversen, O 2015 ‘Dixon James’, in Pariah, Beloved, Pariah. Available at https://soundcloud.com/oslo-iversen/sets/pariah-beloved-pariah [accessed 21 October 2017]

Iversen, O 2014 ‘Careys Manor’ in Pariah, Beloved, Pariah. Available at https://soundcloud.com/oslo-iversen/sets/pariah-beloved-pariah [accessed 21 October 2017]

Iversen, O 2014 ‘Staplehurst’ in Pariah, Beloved, Pariah. Available at https://soundcloud.com/oslo-iversen/sets/pariah-beloved-pariah [accessed 21 October 2017]

Scrivens, E 2015 ‘Oslo Iversen: Pariah, Beloved, Pariah’, available at https://guestlist.net/article/87292/oslo-iversen-pariah-beloved-pariah [accessed 1 October 2017]

Wallach, R 2008 ‘The Road’, available at http://www.cormacmccarthy.com/works/the-road/  [accessed 21 July 2017]

Winfrey, O ‘Oprah's Exclusive Interview with Cormac McCarthy Video’, available at http://www.oprah.com/oprahsbookclub/Oprahs-Exclusive-Interview-with-Cormac-McCarthy-Video [accessed October 19 2017]