Writer’s Room: Honesty and Poetry in Song

Written by Eric Earley of Blitzen Trapper

Videos by American Songwriter

Writing songs started for me at the age of six or seven. It was always like chasing a unicorn in that every song I wrote seemed to satisfy for a moment and then I would glimpse a hint of some other grander configuration of melody and story and chase after that, a successive kind of writing that was continually shifting and morphing depending on what records I was getting my hands on. 

I had this stack of notebooks I’d carry around in a backpack. The early nineties was the era of kids with backpacks. We all had them. Mine was invariably stuffed with books of poetry by myself and others. And always a paperback sci-fi novel. These were where I would grab rhymes and grab ideas and play with creating worlds in music. Poets like Dylan Thomas and Sylvia Plath, Rod McKuen and Allen Ginsberg, random paperbacks picked up at used books stores and thrift shops. 

Songs were like these slippery puzzles with relatively rigid rules of formation. So I sought out lyricists at the time that bent the rules. Michael Stipe and Stephen Malkmus were favorites because of their ability to make seemingly cryptic sentences come alive and speak more clearly than the more straightforward musicians of the era. 

It’s this idea of the song as a riddle or puzzle that sticks with me. I wrote a song called “Lady on the Water,” a sort of ode to the muse of songwriting. I say: My lady on the water / place your thumb upon my tongue / weave a song no one has sung / lady on the water / with your jacket blue and strange / change these rivers in my veins / into wine, learning, burning / driven deep into this maze / all of my days. Our lives and our relationships often appear puzzling and indecipherable; songs can exist as a key of sorts. When the puzzle of the song—by that I mean the arrangement of words, images, melody, mood and feel—comes together just right, a song can act as a key to this puzzle of everyday life. That’s part of the power of music, part of its mystique and one of the more difficult things about writing. Capturing that perfect combination of elements that speaks through the haze of living, through the confusion of loss and joy is not always easy, not necessarily instinctual. I’ve spent most of my life writing songs, without interruption, using the process as a kind of internal journal of the doors I’ve gone through, the changes I’ve passed through. It’s like a massive structure full of rooms and each song is a door to the next, pulling me forward. 

I think the main element that runs through my most successful songwriting is self-honesty. By that I mean, when I come to a piece I’m working on with total self-honesty with regard to the words and sounds and their interplay, when I let the music mirror myself and my emotions with total honesty, that’s when I end up with something I’m happiest with. Those songs don’t lose their shine with time. They don’t feel derivative or forced, even after the initial excitement of writing wears off. Over the years, and I think this goes for most people, I’ve had differing levels of self-honesty present in my writing. There have been long stretches where I was trying too hard to be something or write like someone or come off as a certain way, and those songs feel thin to me. They feel disingenuous, which is a terrible feeling for a songwriter. In that sense, they fail as a way to document or realize that internal journal of self-movement. 

There’s also an element of magic involved in writing a song, and by that I mean incantation. Songs generally are, by their nature, repetitive and can seem to conjure emotions and realities internal to the listener. I think that magic is in direct proportion to a writer’s ability to disengage from learned constructs, to let go of all attachments and to construct something new. We’re all used to turns of phrase and learned ways of speaking, but magic only happens when those familiar lyrical conceits are forgotten and the mind is allowed to pull them apart and reconstruct them in a different shape. It’s like the subconscious has its own way of speaking and things it wants to say but our conscious mind impedes it, and I think it’s these attachments that get in the way. That’s why it’s common for songwriters’ earlier works to be their best. They have yet to codify the writing process and are working from a place of magic and free floating detachment. It’s our job as writers to remain in that place between the lyrics we’ve heard and already written and the lyrics that are unexpected and give rise to new images, new magic.  

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