Storytelling is a key to great songwriting.

I was chatting on Facebook with someone I barely know. I humbly offered that Joni Mitchell’s album Blue should be mandatory listening for any songwriter (male or female) who wants to write personal, emotional songs. My “friend” pointed out that storytelling is, for the most part, a lost or at least underappreciated art. I concurred and said the following:
Even the most abstract, avant garde music only really develops a huge cult following or better, if there’s a story. Radiohead’s Thom Yorke has stories, Nick Drake has stories. There’s no shame in being understood, but in the post Michael Stipe world a lot of people missed that point, emotional mumbling became vogue. Which is not to say the Stipe didn’t tell stories, but his mumbling was the impediment to his art not the sole cause of it. Notice that he soon developed a skill for articulate imagery and story telling.
My own earlier songs were all “clever” sometimes at the expense of emotional resonance because a lot of the bands and artists that I liked during the “irony age” of the late seventies and early eighties were all intellectualists. I actually stopped writing songs for a while, I believe, because I had realized that bringing another cold and clever lyric into the world was like having an unwanted pregnancy. I think I’ve evolved however, now the trap to avoid is thinking that (to quote Dennis Hopper in Search and Destroy) “just because it happened to you, doesn’t make it interesting.”

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2 Responses to “Storytelling is a key to great songwriting.”

  1. funny, this thing moves fast!! maybe one day i’ll lose the quote marks… 😉 i’ve always wanted to start a music blog… well done!

  2. Beatnik Hillbilly Says:

    Maybe in pop music you’re right. But in folk and country, storytelling has always been the main standard and even the worst “new country” songs that are the biggest hits tell stories, whether they’re tragic, sad or happy. There’s a slew of incredible storytellers out there even now if you know where to look – Tom Russell, Robert Earl Keene, Joe Ely…even some old guy from Jersey named Springsteen for the most part tells stories in most of his songs.
    As for pop music, “Blue” is a great album, and a benchmark in confessional songwriting, but it’s not the Rosetta Stone and even Ms. Mitchell, in last month’s MOJO has a problem with that album, and her songwriting in general, being labelled as such.

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