Writer’s Room: The Long Story by Kristian Bush

Written by Kristian Bush

Videos by American Songwriter

Every story has a similar shape: The beginning, middle, and end. The beginning sets a goal. The middle includes attempts to achieve that goal. And the end reveals whether or not the goal is reached. Also, like life, during the middle, we just don’t know what is going to happen. The more we care about the middle, wonder about the middle, and get wrapped up in the middle, the better the story.

I want to talk about the importance of the story in song-making, in career-making, and in artist-making. First, you must understand the importance of a story in a song. No one has ever begged their friends to, “Please turn that up! This is my favorite singer!” They always say, “Turn that up! It is my favorite song!” The song comes first, long before you even know the name of the artist or band. The song sticks around the longest. That’s because the song tells a story that we feel connected to.

In Sugarland, our first single was “Baby Girl.” It is structured in a fairly traditional way where the lyric reveals the narrator is writing a letter home to assure her parents that she is fine, still chasing the dream of making music but needs just a little bit of cash to keep the dream alive. The middle of the song expands the troubles in the second verse, sends a second letter in the second chorus, struggles in the bridge, but concludes with the last chorus by revealing that she has finally made it, and that this last and third chorus/letter contains money to pay them back for everything she borrowed to get there. The story structure successfully moves the listener from beginning to middle to end and leaves the character and anyone identifying with that character changed.

I’m not sure we really knew that is what we were doing when we wrote it, but it sure felt good. We did, however, realize very quickly the reaction it was having when we played it.

The first Billy Pilgrim song on the radio was “Get Me Out of Here.” It had a similar traditional structure in that the narrator is stuck in a city in an apartment with people on all sides, and spends the duration of the song dreaming of escaping the concrete and crowded urban pressure.

Having recently gone through the writing, development, and staging of three musicals, I noticed how intentional story is in the art of theater and songs for theater. So much so that the song has to have been earned by the time it is sung, and even has its own function in the greater story of the entire piece as well as its own internal story function. It became very clear to me how each song fit into a larger tableau, almost the way I put together albums as a recording artist. 

I look at the Sugarland singles that were released as well as the albums in sequential order. I came to realize that we were telling a longer story. “Baby Girl” as a song, as a story, could not happen on album No. 3 because it is the origin story of a girl with a dream. It had to go first. I remember the way we approached writing the second Sugarland album with awareness for what we wanted to say and why. This was repeated each time. Blending the stories of our own lives into the larger story of a woman growing up, coming of age, having sex, falling in love, moving out, falling out of love, getting betrayed, finding her way back, getting married, getting divorced, losing herself again, realizing there is a bigger plan, never giving up on herself … all the way to our Bigger album in 2018 where the grown woman is a parent. The story of Sugarland has been told in the albums themselves in sequence all the way up to now.

Think about it like a Netflix series; each album is a new season. Each song, in the order that they appear on your album, is each episode. What story is each telling? Is there something changed by the very end?

We are living in a time where I can be in five active bands at the same time, where artists can have 40-60 song albums, where small eight-second clips of a song you made can land you a record deal, where record companies can sell records they never have to manufacture, where entire bands can be animated, interchangeable, or even AI-generated. Though no matter how dizzy all of this progress might make you, the truth that never changes is that the well-told story will always communicate, no matter what container it goes in.

Simply looking at your career as a long story can help put your choices into perspective long enough to maybe keep you from putting out something that doesn’t really matter and give you the spark to create what really does.

Photo by Joseph Llanes

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