Understanding Your Work – Song Crafting Session # 2

When I complained to someone who worked up a symbolic meaning of my story “Nightfall” that made no sense to me at all, he said to me, haughtily, “What makes you think you understand the story just because you’ve written it?”
(…) Sometimes it is quite demonstrable that an author inserts a deeper symbolism than he knows-or even understands.

Isaac Asimov, Symbolism, from Gold, © 1995 by Nightfall, Inc.

Words to the wise from the wise. What was the meaning of that line? Have you ever looked at your lyrics and wondered what exactly it was that you meant? I’m not talking about writing a song using formulas and trying to make it commercially acceptable, I mean writing artistically.

If you’re anything like me, when you start writing you fall into a sort of second state. This is quite common for artists, whatever art they do. If you think of people like Beethoven, Da Vinci, Mozart or too many others to mention, and who created without the assistance of drugs or alcohol, it’s surprising how much, through their art, they had an understanding of the world around them. Yet, in their personal lives, this is often not the case.

A couple of years ago I was going through some old lyrics and in one of the songs I went, “Oh, that’s what I meant!” I don’t remember the exact details, but I had written about a particular situation that I was faced with only fifteen years later. Meaning that at the time I was writing the song, I understood how to deal with that particular situation. When it happened for real, I didn’t know how to deal with it.

Often I’ll look at songs I wrote and don’t understand how it is I did write them. I have a hazy memory of writing them, but that’s it. I’m sure I couldn’t write the same song again if I wanted to. But I do know I wrote them, however. Usually, these songs are among my best.

But let me give you a more concrete example about understanding what you just wrote. Here is a song I recently wrote and call “Jasmine Scents”. You can click here for a MIDI of the song or the GuitarPro 4 file. The MIDI is just an export of the GuitarPro file. Please understand that this version is meant for demo purposes only. It contains the basic guitar, piano, hammond organ, bass, drums and vocal tracks. These are used to illustrate where the tempo changes, key changes, punches, etc. go, and where each instrument belongs (not all instruments are present throughout the piece). The drum track is simply an indication of the kind of drum patterns I’m looking for during each section. The vocal track is the one that sounds more or less like a synthesized flute (the MIDI instrument is “Lead 6 (voice)”). This track is not quite precise, the first chorus should be, then it’s more or less a cut and paste. Basically you’ll know where each verse starts and by using just a little imagination, you’ll be able to figure it out. The lyrics are below.

Jasmine scents
A J Charron

Up and down this crazy sea
Wasting all my energy
As I watch the sun comes out
A mystic call for remedy

All around me every day
Talking crazy people talk
Borrowing my sanity
Abandoning my right to be

Wheel goes ’round beyond my grasp
Spinning yarns of fantasy
Calling out to catch the creep
Burrowing within my reach

Jasmine scents
The tea leaves dried
I wait for you
By the begging moon

A mandolin
Plays a cheerful tune
Like a jest
Toward my silly mood

The orchestra
Begins at last
The maestro nods
I finally get that solo right

Through the glow
I call a name
The audience
Acclaims my feat

The music stops
The players rest
The crowd goes wild
I take a bow

The laughter starts
I turn around
It follows through
My final breaths of sanity

© A J Charron, 2003

This song is about an artist who has attained perfection, leaving everything else meaningless. And no, it’s not autobiographical.

The crazy sea simply means refers to daily life. Watching the sun come out means going through a sleepless night. I still don’t know what mystic call for remedy means. The second verse is pretty much straightforward: people talk and, to the character of the story, don’t make much sense. They are lost in their day to day lives which, to him, are meaningless

The image of the wheel going round, I know from experience, to me is a reference to the passage of time; I somehow associate time to a wheel going round. The yarns of fantasy means adding more to the previous silliness. Things happen to him which feel unreal as compared to that perfect moment in time.

We’ll skip the next verse. The final verses refer to a live performance where the character loses his sanity. The performance is absolutely perfect (I finally get that solo right and The audience acclaims my feat and the crowd goes wild/I take a bow).

It’s all about finally attaining perfection and knowing it probably won’t happen again, therefore, all the day to day stress is worthless, everything is worthless compared to this one moment in time. It may not be obvious, but everything above the verse that starts with Jasmine scents is in the present, while everything else is in the past.

This verse is the key to the song:

Jasmine scents
The tea leaves dried
I wait for you
By the begging moon

After I wrote this, I had no idea what I meant by it; it just sounded good. When I wrote the words Jasmine scents I immediately copied them to the top of the sheet, knowing this would be the title of the song as it is the key to the song. The following line about the tea leaves made even less sense.

After a while, I finally figured it out. I don’t believe in clairvoyants, but they made this whole image clear. From what I gather, to read the future in tea leaves, you place the tea leaves in hot water, then have the person who’s future you will read take a few sips. If the tea leaves are dry, then this implies that all the water has evaporated from both the cup and the leaves, therefore, that the reading was made a long time before; the passage of time. Hence, the moment of perfection, mentioned later had been predicted. Not necessarily by a gypsy fortune teller, but maybe by some other artist who knew that this character was bound to achieve perfection at some point due to his talent.

Then, Jasmine scents makes a lot of sense. It’s a known fact that our sense of smell is the one that is closest to our memory. Certain smells trigger certain memories. Which is why you sometimes wonder why you’ve suddenly thought of something that happened twenty years ago. The best way to illustrate this is, if you haven’t been in school for years, to step into an elementary school. You nose is instantly assaulted by the smell of sweat from hundreds of kids blended with the smell of industrial cleaners. Immediately your brain is swarming with memories of childhood events. Things you thought forgotten for ever. There are so many of them that at first you find it hard to think clearly. I’ve always wondered how teachers manage it. They are probably people who had happy childhoods.

In this song, the scent of jasmine was present, for whatever reason, at the moment the prediction was made. Over time the prediction, probably not taken seriously, was forgotten. Now that the performer is living a life in which he finds everything and everyone meaningless and wonders why, the smell of jasmine triggers the memory of the prediction, which brings him to the event, the perfect performance, and explains his current predicament. I still don’t know what I meant by I wait for you/By the begging moon, except that at the time, it seemed extremely important.

OK, so it’s taking the long way about. However, I wasn’t consciously in control of what I was writing at the time.

All this to say that you’re often faced with lyrics you’ve written and which don’t seem to make much sense. We sometimes have the reflex to toss them out and replace them with something simpler. I suggest you don’t do this. Instead, look into the symbolism of what you’ve written. Try associating your strange lyrics with things that don’t seem related. Sometimes it doesn’t work, sometimes you’re simply dealing with fillers: words that are needed in order to fit the rhythm of the song. However, most of the time you’re subconscious mind has taken over and inserted images which, to it, at least, makes sense. It’s left to you to decipher them. And this can take years.

The best way to know if this is what you’re dealing with is to “feel” the lyrics. Do they seem right even if you can’t explain why? If that’s the case, then they probably are right. If they just seem like meaningless fillers, then that’s probably what they are.