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Renowned Australian
guitarist singer/songwriter, Mike McClellan
answers the following question...

Mike McClellan

February 2011

The Question:
Words? What words?

by Mike McClellan share this - email, favourites, social bookmarks and more

I went to see Leonard Cohen recently. I had seen him in concert on several occasions in the past and always left feeling deeply touched. It was no different this time. I walked out of the auditorium surrounded by others who were clearly very moved. Remarkably, the audiences for this and the concert I saw last year were much broader than I recall them being in the past. Sure, there were plenty among the audience who had grown up on his music and bought his albums when audio was analog but their kids, with their kids, went in great numbers and, to judge by the conversations around me as we left the venue, were no less enthusiastic.

But it was not the enthusiasm that spills out of the arena after a Kylie Minogue or AC/DC concert. It was quiet, almost reverential, perhaps best exemplified by one of those rare moments in his concert (a moment that every performer treasures) when at the conclusion of A Thousand Kisses Deep, which Cohen recites, the audience collectively held their breath for what seemed an eternity, almost as though they never wished to break the mood, before bursting into prolonged applause. There were people around me with tears welling in their eyes.

It left me wondering why it was that a songwriter, who for so many in the past had been regarded as too depressive ("music to slash your wrists by" was the phrase) should return, in his 76th year, to such an extraordinary reception. The reviews for his performances around the world have been nothing short of rapturous. There's a gravitas to his voice that has come with age, deepening the timbre of what was always a limited vocal range but beyond that, and a band of exceptional musicians (although he has always employed great players), little has changed. We've witnessed a resurgence in his music prompted by others covering some of his best songs – notably Hallelujah – and a couple of years ago the Sydney Festival staged a concert of Cohen songs performed by an eclectic mix of singer songwriters paying homage to a writer whose work they have long admired. People who once had only a passing interest in Cohen now declare themselves long time ardent fans. Others have gone in search of his back catalogue quietly lamenting the fact that they tossed out their vinyl copy of his first album Songs of Leonard Cohen many years ago – probably the only album of his they bought.

So where does the answer lie? It's too superficial to say, as I heard one radio presenter recently remark, it's just the baby boomers reliving their youth. The audience mix at the concerts quickly dispels that notion. He's never been a chart topper and his performances have always been understated affairs, enlivened by a wry, intelligent, self-deprecating sense of humour. It lies in his ability to speak to us in words that reveal himself, and us, in equal measure. What might at first appear in his songs to be intimate and intensely personal reveals itself to be open and universal for, in the end, he draws from the common well of human experience, finding words to express what most of us struggle to articulate, even clumsily.

And that brings me to the point of this article, one that I keep bashing away at during the song writing course I teach at The Australian International Conservatorium of Music – it's about the words. It has been prompted by a comment from a student who determinedly declared, "I'm not worrying too much about lyrics, I'm trying to write hit songs." We debated the point for some time, he producing any number of examples of hit songs whose lyrics could at best be described as adequate and at worst as simply awful, while I trotted out the usual suspects – Dylan, later Beatles, Paul Simon, Don Henley, Leonard Cohen, Bacharach and David, etc, etc – all the while mindful that I was once very envious of the success the late Billy Thorpe had some years ago with a song called Mashed Potato whose lyrics consisted entirely of the title with "yeah" tacked on to it.

I doubt I made much headway for he, like so many others, doesn't really listen to the lyrics. He had only a vague notion of what one of the hit songs he quoted was about and entirely missed the irony in another. And that for many is how they listen to music. It's background to what ever else they might be doing in their life at the time. Not many of us, particularly the young, put on a CD and sit and really listen to the words. Now we listen via ear buds while working out in the gym or in the train to work. Music is entirely portable, instantly downloadable and instantly disposable – Don't like it? Wipe it. I don't have an argument with those that enjoy music that way – at least they are listening. But I do struggle with those who are writing songs who conclude, as a consequence, that lyrics are far less important than the production and the melody.

Of all the attributes required to create good lyrics there is one that to me stands out – bravery. It is a characteristic of all our great songwriters of the last 50 years or so. It's the ability to open their lives to unflinching self-examination and express their findings in language that illuminates their conclusions with great clarity. It's ultimately what gives their careers longevity and sustains them creatively. It's a quality that can be found in abundance in Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon and Paul Kelly (listen to his song If I Could Just Start Today Again if you need confirmation) among many others. And of course it's there in Cohen. He and his music have survived and prospered for so long because of the quality of his lyrics; because he has brought insight and a willingness to explore his own life with such honesty, and hence our lives, that when tied to the elegant simplicity of his music touches us emotionally in a way that only the best creators, in any art form, succeed in doing.

So where does that leave us? Is there a great divide between those who write to create hits and those who write to illuminate our lives? No, not at all. The craft is no different. The work required to write finely tuned lyrics for a good pop song is as demanding as that undertaken by any of the writers I may have nominated during this essay. The evidence can be found in the lyrics of any number of beautifully crafted songs that have become hits. And for most songwriters, whether they be singers or not, a hit gives you instant credibility and a base upon which to build a career. However, and this was the heart of my argument with my student, if all you ever aspire to write are hits, and you assume that hits don't need much in the way of good lyrics, you run the great risk of not growing as a writer – and not sustaining a career. Working within the confines of what you perceive to be currently popular requires no bravery and rarely demands innovation. Additionally, most current hits are as much a product of the marketing campaign as they are of the creativity in the song writing – and frequently the writing has nothing to do with pop success, it's all about the marketing.

And, of course, even if you do write what you and others might believe has "hit written all over it" there is no guarantee that it will deliver. No one has the magic formula – there isn't one. Often those who have been fortunate, or gifted enough to put together a string of hits concede that they never fully understand the process. They understand the mechanics of a good song but the creativity that turns inspiration into a piece of magic can seem quite mysterious and, as I frequently point out to my students, cannot be taught. You can teach techniques that help them go in search of inspiration but it's a journey that all writers undertake alone. And if you're only ever travelling in the middle of the road you might never find the sidetrack that leads to genuine inspiration, or you'll get stuck in a traffic jam of creative stagnation or run over by a B-double in a hurry.

To conclude - artistic longevity demands bravery. For a songwriter bravery finds its expression in the lyrics. It is what has sustained Leonard Cohen's career for so long and it is what will sustain the careers of the young writers whom I see each week at the course I teach. The best writers explore the darkness within themselves and within us, searching for illumination. The search is what drives them and the journey never ends. As Cohen so eloquently put it:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in

© 2011 Mike McClellan

Have Your Say
Scroll down to the bottom of the page to post your comments.

Thanks for the feedback folks, much appreciated. I relation to your thoughts Bill I couldn't agree more that the best songs have a synergy between lyric and melody the outcome of which is greater than the sum of the parts. I often tell my students that in writing a song you may well throw out some of your best lines simply because they don't work within the context of your melody. (I have done it frequently when writing for myself.) Song lyrics are not poetry, they have neither the freedom nor complexity of the best poetry which frequently demands that you re-read in order to absorb what may be several layers of meaning and are not bound by the rhythm of a specific piece of music. I agree entirely that the lyrics of some songs, which we might all consider outstanding examples of the songwriters craft, when separated from their melody can appear bland and simplistic. But on the other hand much of the writing of the great poets wouldn't work as song lyrics either. Not that I would class Cohen as a great poet (very good without doubt) but his poetry is very different in structure to his lyric writing which I guess is no more than an acknowledgement of the difference in the two crafts, or arts. And as a PS - I am familiar with Elizabeth's writing and it's lovely, and also with Tony's but not Sharon's (if she is indeed a songwriter).

Posted by Mike McClellan on Sunday 27 February 2011

Thanks Mike for your insightful article. I agree with most of what you say about writing but I have to add that a piece of music becomes a piece of art when the music says what the lyrics say, and when they are interwoven so that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Clearly writing is a skill in itself, and perhaps Leonard Cohen can write as well as W.H. Auden, but Leonard Cohen puts his poetry to music. Sometimes lyrics of a song appear on the surface to be as good as a well written poem, until you take the music away, and a vacuum reveals itself. I needed to make this distinction, and also add that two of your previous commentators on this article have this songwriting skill in spades.... Perhaps when the simple lyrics (or even vocal sounds) of a song perfectly compliment the lollipop nature of a simple song, then we have art in the form of a pop song?

Posted by Bill Risby on Sunday 20 February 2011

Greatly enjoyed reading your thoughts, esp the difference or not between those who write to create hits or otherwise.  I  thought the Brill building writers (Carole King and Gerry Goffin amongst them) were a great example of what you were saying.

Posted by Sharon Thompson on Thursday 10 February 2011

Lovely article Mike. Those Cohen lyrics are some of my favourites of all time. Tom Waits also has an inhuman command of language and imagery and has always inspired me. Long live the lyric!!!

Posted by Tony King on Wednesday 2 February 2011

great thoughts Mike. I did not listen to lyrics until I was about 30 but since then lyrics are everything! Thanks for such an insightful article.

Posted by Elizabeth Geyer on Tuesday 1 February 2011
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