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Thread: Literature for a Songwriter

  1. #1

    Literature for a Songwriter

    I'm a songwriter who has trouble with lyrics, although I've always been interested in words and the way they are written. It was very interesting when I found out that some of the Beatles' words came from newspapers. I like the lyrics of The Beatles, Stones, ELO, Genesis, Yes, Tull, and Bob Dylan to name a few. My question is, what literature or authors would you recommend to inspire a songwriter? Thank you
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  2. #2
    After focusing on instrumental music for almost 30 years and not writing any lyrics, over the past couple of years I've had an outpouring of lyric writing. It's surprising what might inspire song lyrics. I was reading Russell Shorto's "Island at the Center of the World," and in it read the story of Henry Hudson's last voyage in search of the Northwest Passage. That inspired the lyrics to one song, but wouldn't exactly be a book or author one would immediately think would be inspiring to a songwriter.

    My lyric style tends to be very "overt," so authors who have a more direct style can sometimes help me turn a phrase. Hemingway is one of my favorites, and in a totally different genre P.K. Dick. But I don't tend to look to them for subjects, but rather inspiration on how to say something succinctly. I've quoted Mark Twain and Jack Kerouac in some of my lyrics, and certainly their writings have inspired me at some level. But most of what I read is history, which doesn't always lend itself to song lyrics (Henry Hudson's tale being something of an exception).

    So I'd say it depends on what kind of inspiration you're looking for. If you're looking for themes and language, you can't really go wrong with the classics; Joyce, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Hemingway, Steinbeck, etc. Other authors might give you subjects, like some historical or social event. Even newspapers or magazines can serve that purpose, or the news.

    Of course, poetry might help as well, but I really dislike most poetry and find it unhelpful to me personally. But it might help you. It's a big question and depends a lot on what kind of inspiration you are seeking and what kind of lyrics you want to write. Maybe if you can narrow down those questions, it would be easier to identify authors or books that would help you achieve your goals.

    Bill

  3. #3
    Thanks Bill for the response. I've found some poems that were very inspiring. I like writing that makes you think and leaves a lot to the imagination. I like authors who develop new words and phrases. Also abstract writing. I guess I'm not looking for specific subjects or stories, but more of words in general.
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  4. #4
    Quote Originally Posted by CarvinAbuser View Post
    Thanks Bill for the response. I've found some poems that were very inspiring. I like writing that makes you think and leaves a lot to the imagination. I like authors who develop new words and phrases. Also abstract writing. I guess I'm not looking for specific subjects or stories, but more of words in general.
    James Joyce then, without reservation. Stream of consciousness, portmanteau, multilingual puns, literary allusions, and abandonment of traditional plot. Reading a book like Finnegans Wake requires time to review and research nearly every sentence. Because nothing can be taken at face value, nor does much of it make sense unless you have the wherewithal to know where to look for the allusion or pun being made. Critics hated it, one stating: "a 628-page collection of erudite gibberish indistinguishable to most people from the familiar word salad produced by hebephrenic patients on the back wards of any state hospital." However, Ezra Pound, Samuel Beckett, T.S. Eliot and William Carlos William loved and championed the work as a milestone in modern writing. You also might try the avant-garde and absurd writing of Beckett.

    I'd also suggest the poetry of T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats (for its beauty alone!) and Dylan Thomas. Speaking of Yeats, Mike Scott of the Waterboys was so enamored of the Nobel Prize winner's poetry, he composed accompaniment for Yeat's poem "The Stolen Child":

    "And your little sister's immaculate virginity wings away on the bony shoulders of a young horse named George who stole surreptitiously into her geography revision."

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  5. #5
    Quote Originally Posted by CarvinAbuser View Post
    Thanks Bill for the response. I've found some poems that were very inspiring. I like writing that makes you think and leaves a lot to the imagination. I like authors who develop new words and phrases. Also abstract writing. I guess I'm not looking for specific subjects or stories, but more of words in general.
    A pleasure! I'd second Elf's suggestion of Joyce, right up your alley in terms of what you're looking for. I'd also suggest Faulkner. For a more modern author, you might try Junot Diaz, who plays with language in creative ways, or maybe some of the magical realists like Marquez, Morrison, or Esquivel.

    Keep us posted, I'll be interested in what you discover!

    Bill

  6. #6
    'The Stolen Child' is well done, song and video. I'll investigate the suggestions. Thanks again, very helpful.
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  7. #7
    I was going to make a snarky recommendation for Tolkien, then I thought better of it.

    Quote Originally Posted by The Dark Elf View Post
    I'd also suggest the poetry of T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats (for its beauty alone!) and Dylan Thomas. Speaking of Yeats, Mike Scott of the Waterboys was so enamored of the Nobel Prize winner's poetry, he composed accompaniment for Yeat's poem "The Stolen Child":
    The German band Sirius made two albums worth of progressive rock Yeats adaptations. Interesting stuff:



    This seemed to be a German—or Germanic, for a few of the below examples are German-Swiss—thing. Novalis are the big example, for a large percentage of their output was dedicated to their 16th century namesake. They threw an adaptation of Friedrich Schiller’s “Hoffnung” in there for good measure. Flame Dream’s Elements is an album of classic poetry adaptations*. The title track of Ivory’s Sad Cypress is adapted from a Shakespeare sonnet. Tyburn Tall did a song based on Langston Hughes’ “I Am America Too.” Ikarus did a song based on Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven,” while Agitation Free threw in some more Poe on “Haunted Island.” And so on and so forth, etc. etc.

    *except for “Sun Fire,” which was written by John Wolf (Brennan), brother of singer/saxophonist Peter Wolf. The rest are adaptations of Edmund Spenser, Ralph Waldo Emerson and John Davies.
    Confirmed Bachelors: the dramedy hit of 1883...

  8. #8
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    This may seem a little circular, but if you're looking for lyrical inspiration and you cite some of the bands you did, why not look to those lyrics themselves (and others like them) and use them as a prime source? I say this because I'm decidedly no lyricist, but a recent obsession with Mike Keneally's music has shown me that there are really no rules (lyrically or musically), and it has inspired me to begin a notebook of phrases, words, stories and ideas that, even if they don't ever amount to a set of lyrics in the traditional sense has given me a nice creative outlet.

    FWIW
    David
    Happy with what I have to be happy with.

  9. #9
    That's good advice proggy. I often wonder where those lyricists get their inspiration.
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    Member Emeritus (A.M.P.) rcarlberg's Avatar
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    Anšis Nin. Very lyrical prose writing. Start with her short story collection “Under a Glass Bell.”

  11. #11
    I once read that some guy wrote a song only using phrases he got from bumper stickers on the back of cars......SO, inspiration can come from anywhere I guess...

    ...I too can not for the-life-of-me write a lyric.....I do come up with the occasional poem but even those are hard to put to melody.
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  12. #12
    Why not go to the source and instead of looking for something to 'inspire' you, read how lyricists work. Writing lyrics is a profession and the masters work at it every day so you might want to look into the tools of the trade and see how these tools are used. I can think of no better living lyricist than Stephen Sondheim, and he has written two volumes which not only collect his lyrics from a lifetime of work, but also provide anecdotes about how a line came to him, how he structured this or that line and much more. He is a true craftsman and a national treasure - you need only look at the lyrics to the songs in West Side Story to see he is not merely a tin-pan alley hack. The books I refer to are these:
    https://www.amazon.com/Finishing-Hat...ishing+the+hat
    https://www.amazon.com/Look-Made-Hat...ishing+the+hat

  13. #13
    Quote Originally Posted by Supersonic Scientist View Post
    I once read that some guy wrote a song only using phrases he got from bumper stickers on the back of cars......SO, inspiration can come from anywhere I guess...

    ...I too can not for the-life-of-me write a lyric.....I do come up with the occasional poem but even those are hard to put to melody.
    I recall an interview with Chris Squire about 20 years ago (on the radio, Mitch Albom Show in Detroit), where Chris said "I've Seen All Good People" was just a bunch of phrases they put on scraps of paper and drew from a hat. Jon Anderson claimed the game of chess in this song as a metaphor for life's spiritual challenges. One of them is misremembering.
    "And your little sister's immaculate virginity wings away on the bony shoulders of a young horse named George who stole surreptitiously into her geography revision."

    Occasional musical musings on https://darkelffile.blogspot.com/

  14. #14
    Thanks again for all the info, very intriguing.

  15. #15
    Member hippypants's Avatar
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    I'd recommend Joni Mitchell for lyrics. But also just about any of those 60s folk singer up to the present are good: James Taylor, Simon & Garfunkel, Dylan, Neil Young, and on and on. One folkie that's unique is Daniel Johnston. He uses a lot of internal rhyme rather than rhyming on the end of his phrases.

  16. #16
    Man of repute progmatist's Avatar
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    Or just about any Rush song with lyrics penned by Neil.
    "Well my son, life is like a beanstalk, isn't it?"--Dalai Lama

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