Why I don’t write personal songs

My dad died when I was fifteen. Cancer. In my memory it was a few short moments from him complaining of chest pains in our kitchen, to him being close to death in King George’s hospital. It was only a few months. I remember it as being both instantaneous and lasting forever.

At the time I wrote some songs about it, but ever since I’ve held back from that sort of writing.

My lyrics are not about me. There’s a style of lyric writing that is ultra-confessional and sometimes it’s brilliant – Tori Amos has some amazing songs that are all about the most painful, heartbreaking moments in her life – but I can’t do it. I tried when my father died and for a fifteen year old I think I did the experience justice, but now I can’t imagine singing songs about such personal episodes of my life.

For me music is transcendent, which is just a pretentious way of saying escapist. Escapism gets a bad rap in art, as if it’s somehow shallow, but I absolutely don’t think it is. I want songs that tell you a story along to a rock drum beat with some funny chords and silly solos. I want to do – in a different style – what Iron Maiden do. Cos singing songs about dreams and monsters and science fiction stories and taking lots of other people of a journey is more fun, more mature and more of a challenge than writing about your own feelings.

I’m sure I read once about Bjork telling Thom Yorke that he should be less self-indulgent. That the audience matters more than his feelings. I’m not sure if he ever really got that, but it’s something I’ve always felt pretty keenly. The point of music is to evoke emotions in others. Going around emoting is doing exactly the opposite.

To be honest, because of that I find confessional writing a little dishonest. You can’t feel heartbroken all the time. That break-up from fifteen years ago can’t possibly feel as raw now, as you sing it for the thousandth time, as it did when it was an open wound and you happened to grab your guitar. Whereas that fictional story? That’s true every time you sing it.

Having said that, here’s a recording of a song from when I was 15 and all emo. It’s not a bad song in my opinion, despite the obvious influences and lack of singing lessons.

My songs aren’t about me, and how I’m feeling. They’re about the audience and how we can all feel something joyful and silly and escapist together.

We recently marked the 20th anniversary of my father’s death, which is why it’s on my mind. I’ve lived more of my life without him than I lived with him and I am sure all my memories are more than little inaccurate.

My mother was a music teacher, but actually my dad was just as much an influence on my music as my mum. During the period when he was ill I borrowed a four-track recorder from my school and started to figure out how to record songs. Our bathroom was next to my bedroom, and it was when my mother was helping my ill father in the bathroom that he heard me messing about with this four-track recorder and suggested to her that they buy me my own four-track. So in more ways than one, all this music is his fault.

But I don’t write lyrics about myself, and I certainly wouldn’t write a blog post about anything so personal. So you didn’t read this, it isn’t here.

2 thoughts on “Why I don’t write personal songs

  1. Don’t worry, I haven’t read it. I agree, though. Lyrics about personal trauma really don’t interest me (even if I have compassion and empathy for the person suffering). They always strike me as being disturbingly voyeuristic as a listener. Give me songs about murder, proscribed species-conjoining experiments, time-travelling alien invasion and incursions by extra dimensional godlike beings etc. any day.

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