5 Songwriters Who Bared Their Souls in Lyrics

It sounds like a simple job: just tell the truth. But a songwriter’s task is much tougher than it seems. Would that it were as simple as fashioning rich, varied characters from whole cloth, but that’s a rare gift. Most artists find parts and pieces of themselves or others from which to build their characters and stories, but the most powerful songs are often testimonials and autobiographical. Nothing beats the honest truth, artfully told.

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All five of these artists work in different genres, but achieved their most riveting work not fashioning their departing lover a withering portrait or lauding love with breathless metaphor, but by turning the mirror inward.

1. Ani DiFranco, “Lost Woman Song” (1990)

On her self-titled 1990 debut, Ani DiFranco kicked off a career of revelation and earnest soul-searching with a song about her abortion experiences at 18 and 20. Her fine craft is already apparent in how the lyrics, while specific to the event, also speak to the trials and tribulations young people endure while seeking to find their own way.

They gathered when they saw me coming
They shouted when they saw me cross
Yeah mine was a relatively easy tragedy
The profile of our country looks a little less hard-nosed
But you know that picket line
Persisted and that clinic’s since been closed

DiFranco started her own label, Righteous Babe, at 19, back when such a thing was unheard of. She’s released her own music and others’ across a 30-year career.

[RELATED: Ani DiFranco’s ‘Little Plastic Castle’ Reissue Revisits Her Rise to Fame]

2. Suzanne Vega, “Luka” (1987)

One of the biggest hits of the Eighties, “Luka” came out the same year as 10,000 Maniacs’ “What’s the Matter Here,” and both elevated the issue of child abuse to a point where audiences collectively got more serious about it. The track was an international hit and went to No. 3 in America. Vega soon downshifted her pop ambitions; she’s pursued other interests like theater instead, releasing just five albums over the past three decades.

In the last several years, Vega has confessed that Luka was her. In an interview with NJArts.net, Vega explained that while her stepfather, writer Ed Vega, could be supportive and provided a creative environment, he was also angry and unpredictable. In one instance, when she failed to count by fives he flew into a rage.

“I don’t remember exactly what followed, but what usually followed was some form of physical violence,” Vega said. “He would hit. He would sometimes throw food or overturn the soup on your head…these kinds of things.”

3. Atmosphere, “God Loves Ugly” (2002)

Sean Daley, aka Slug (one-half of Atmosphere with producer Ant), started his career in the Midwest in the late ’80s by turning rap’s braggadocio on its head; he brandished not his brio but his weaknesses. This introspective style pierced gangsta rap’s invulnerable Nineties stance without surrendering its working-class origins.

No song better exemplifies this than “God Loves Ugly,” which begins with a fan waiting for him to come out after the show. “You’re waiting for Slug?” her friend asks incredulously. “He’s so f-ing ugly!” The song embraces its black-sheep status: Abandoning the norm and handlin’ the harvest, measurin’ the worth by the depth of the hardship…when the dam starts to overflow, I’ll float atop the flood, holdin’ on to my ugly.

4. Mary Gauthier, “March 11, 1962” (2010)

This heartbreaking true story of Mary Gauthier’s solitary phone conversation with her birth mother some 40 years after she was given up for adoption is every bit as raw and harrowing as you could imagine—the lyrics hit like bare wires to a transformer. It’s the centerpiece of The Foundling, Gauthier’s extraordinary album dedicated to her experiences growing up adopted and gay in the deep South, conveying a profound sense of dislocation and wanderlust.

After struggling to explain why she called in the first place over three passes through the chorus, the track closes with bleak intensity: I’m not lookin’ for ‘I’m sorry’, I’m not lookin’ to lay blame / I guess I had to thank you once, before this life went by / Yeah, that’s why I called, goodbye.

5. Titus Andronicus, “Fatal Flaw” (2015)

Just like Slug from Atmosphere, there’s a powerful pathos present as Titus‘ Patrick Stickles embraces the facts he must—in this case that he’s waiting for the drug man, a tradition nearly as old as rock. But the context matters. The concept double album from which “Fatal Flaw” is taken, Most Lamentable Tragedy, is about manic depression: the places the sickness takes you, and what you have to do to restore equilibrium.

In the song, Stickles must share his unbalanced secret with the woman in his life, which he does with vigor if not exactly confidence: Let me show you my fatal flaw, it’s the best thing you never saw / Hey! I’ve always been this way, and I ain’t proud, but I might go insane if I can’t say it out loud.

For its part, the album features a five-act structure whose tone corresponds well to stages as Stickles vacillates between his bleak reality and bouts of dream-like mania before learning to accept and validate himself. 

Photo courtesy of All Eyes Media

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