In 1968, The Velvet Underground released its second album, White Light, White Heat, which contains a generous gift to literary-minded music nerds, aptly titled “The Gift.” Throughout the unique song, a steady stream of slightly sinister, unmistakably groovy rock instrumentation flows out of the right speaker; while out of the left one, John Cale simply recites a short story written by Lou Reed. This tale of a desperate lover who physically mails himself to his lady’s apartment is a marvel of compact, efficient storytelling. Musically, however, it’s a bit of a cheat. Spinning a yarn becomes a whole lot simpler when unencumbered by traditional song structure.
Writing a song that tells a story involves a different set of skills than just writing either a story or a song. Musicians like Neil Young and Bob Dylan, and also Nas and Biggie, have mastered the art of factoring in rhyme and meter and choruses on top of their narrative elements. Songs like theirs–and, it should be said, many songs penned by Reed–have the lyrical impact to snap listeners out of a passive aural stupor and pay attention to the words. One of the most literary songwriters of them all is The Mountain Goats founder John Darnielle.
In addition to a deep catalogue filled with tunes that feel like prose set to music, Darnielle has written a 33 1/3 book on Black Sabbath, and he’s working on a novel for Farrar Straus and Giroux. The famously lo-fi folk songs of the Mountain Goats range from autobiographical elegiac tales to song cycles about organ harvesting on the moon. What they share is an ear for detail, pace, and melody that is raw in both lyricism and overall musicality. Co.Create spoke with Darnielle recently about songwriting, creating narratives, and what’s wrong with Genesis’s concept double-album The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway.
There’s this famous Joan Didion line–“We tell ourselves stories in order to live”–so I think narrative instinct is innate. Stories pre-date all the ways we express them. There’s a very strong human need for things to have a story.
The first songs that I wrote back in high school didn’t have much in the way of narrative. These post-punk instincts led me to try and sort of pile on evocative phrases that don’t actually tell a story, but just conjure images. I didn’t look to tell stories, but I always found songs collapsing into some narrative event. I was sort of just putting poetry to music because I was sort of unsatisfied with how we treat poems. But even the poems that are hardest to understand tell stories.
When you start to tell a story, it’s an artificial thing to do. The film people I know are great at this, but if I’m pitching a story to you, “Let’s say there’s a family of vampires” and I start to think out loud. I’m gonna feel like I’m not getting at something that’s true, until I start relating it to my own life. But people who work on scripts can go directly into the story and start talking about it as if it were true, which I think is the absolute key to telling good stories is to go into that–to NOT think, “I’m making up a story.”
Science fiction, fantasy, and horror are the most far out iterations, but you have to be able to think, “No, no, this is a real thing with people in it who will be affected by what goes on.” When you think of that, it really helps to remember that one way of interpreting dreams is to consider every character in the dream is you. And when you are telling a story, you have to understand that you’re in there somewhere. One of these characters is the one you love best, and that’s you, even if you don’t feel so great about yourself.
I just write. There is no pre-starting. Outlining for a bigger project like a novel makes sense, sure. But outlining for a song makes it feel like treating it like a business meeting. Musically, you might, if you’re attempting something ambitious, but lyrically, it’s a short space. It’s going to be five verses at the absolute max. I don’t outline anything. I may have a stray phrase tucked around that will sort of be pointing me in the way, but because songwriting is a process of discovery for me, if I have too much of an idea of what I’m trying to say, I don’t think it will come out in an authentic way.
I’m ad-libbing when I write, half the time. I’m playing something on the guitar and just barking stuff out loud. Singing stuff, whatever comes to mind, and when something grabs me, I’ll grab a notebook, and keep the guitar on my lap and start jotting things down. But I can’t imagine going “Well, let me tell the story of a guy who owns a grasshopper,” or whatever. If I did that, it would feel forced, and the whole point of what I do is to sound spontaneous.
I start writing and I write a song, and then I focus on the song. Then when I have a number of songs, like six, I’ll look to see whether I’ve written any songs on the same theme or with similar characters. I have to be guileless to some extent. I have no desire to sit down and plan. When a concept develops, it has to feel natural. Because there are so many thematically linked albums that people call concept albums, where you can hear the songs that are only there to get people from point A to point B.
In [Genesis concept album] The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, there are all these lyrical sections that are like blocking, where you move a character from one side of the stage to the other. You don’t want to see the blocking. You don’t want to see somebody saying, “You need to be over there because something’s going to happen over there.” That’s the major risk of setting out to tell a story in a song cycle. So I write in a state of ignorance until I know what it is that I seem to be writing. Then I might do some research. It’s important to not be thinking too hard, to be mainly just doing.
Some songs just come out fully formed. I was looking through the Tallahassee notebook and, God, some of those songs–10 or 11 verses that got narrowed down to three. When I look at it later, I realize it’s a miracle I didn’t abandon the song because there will be two to three verses that sound really false and just don’t work at all. It’s like sculpting. You realize there’s a good figure in there somewhere and you just have to carve off the parts that don’t fit. You generate a great deal of stuff and get rid of the stuff you don’t need. The longer you do it, the more you know when to throw away your bad ideas before you waste time on them.
One important thing when telling stories is keeping yourself interested. You have to be doing stuff that you didn’t think you’d be doing. You have to be crossing your own boundaries. Because I think that’s where the stories get flesh on the bone, is when you’re a little outside of what you’d normally do. Otherwise the story can be a story that you tell that doesn’t really hold the campfire’s attention. You’ve got to really believe it.
I’m always puzzled by the rhetoric of excellence. If I think about improving, then I feel bad about where I’m at. I don’t ask myself what I’m doing. I just do. It’s sort of a meditative discipline. I don’t ask myself what could be better because then I would just focus on what’s wrong with stuff. I just do and assume that the more you do something, the more you practice the tools you’ve acquired, the better you’ll get.