For as long as I can remember, I have pawed over album covers/liner notes and put my ears to the speakers to decipher song lyrics. A good lyric is something that never fails to captivate me. So, I thought I would ask Brisbane singer/songwriter The Stress of Leisure where he finds the words.
Obviously, I’m influenced greatly by other musicians, mainly interesting lyricists. My list of influence is vast; from the Arcade Fire to Warren Zevon. I think that’s where the longevity is in the music game, being able to write a good lyric. Writing a catchy guitar riff or instinctive melody is one thing, for the long term you need to keep marrying it with a suitable lyric, or keep up the interesting lyrical ideas. It’s not often discussed, in fact I’ve read several artists I like dismissing the lyric as being unimportant to them. I don’t buy it however, because I do believe they pay particular attention to how the words sound first and foremost. And sooner or later they’ve usually contradicted their dismissive statement anyhow. So for myself, I’m constantly noting an artist’s skill in marrying great lyrics and at the same time I guess, deciding how I’d adapt it to myself.
Brisbane is a big influence on what I write too, in particular New Farm. It’s a place I know well. If you think filmic you can make any place look great, it’s all about what you capture in the frame. And there’s always that artistic license to change a few details. So everything I come across is as relevant as it would be if it were set in the East Village, New York. Why shouldn’t it be? This may not be revelatory for poets or filmmakers I guess, but I think it’s important to have an establishing shot for people to drift into. I really dig using the words; park, apartment, river, street.
The Writing Process
My musical output far outstrips my lyrical output. I wish there wasn’t such an imbalance. But I have a lot of songs sitting around that may have one verse or one chorus in terms of the lyric but are fully formed songs in all other respects. So really, I have this big block of musical spare parts, a lot of incomplete ideas. In rare cases I have fully formed ideas with melodies and they just happen to form as songs. I don’t like to attack things too hard, one out of laziness and two; I don’t want to scare off the idea. But mainly it’s laziness. Usually I don’t like to pursue a song because I feel contented that I have a great idea and that feels good in itself and spurs me on. If a song feels like a winner however, it appears in a kind of phonetic form within the melody and keeps pulling me back. I may then chance on a few key lyrics or phrases and try and form some direction from them. To this end, I’ve found the biggest help for me is deriving titles. Lately, I’ve been getting into the habit of thinking of a title a day and it has really helped me. So if I have this chord progression and melody I like and then have a look at what titles I’ve generated it just may be all the process needs. In the last week I’ve generated two titles driving to band rehearsal which have subsequently become songs – ‘People in Plastic’ and ‘Death on the Magic Mile’. This doesn’t normally happen, so for the moment I believe in the process. I think people should give me titles as a form of a gift actually. I’d appreciate that.
The importance of voice
Over time I’ve grown to appreciate my voice and what its capabilities are, and I realize that for people hearing me for the first time it’s the make or break factor. I’m really big on defining a character when I do vocals, and that it has a particular consistency. I know it sounds absurd, but I became fascinated a while back with the various characters Peter Cook could take on and how he would vary his tone and pitch to suit each one, and all the time stay in character (apart from some mirth). I was already fully aware of my own rock n roll stylings and phrasings, and the approaches of various singers, but this was something different. So I guess I started listening to my own voice by doing some spoken word stuff (In Derek and Clive mode) on my recording equipment at home, listening to the way I’d phrase different words. It’s completely barmy, but I gained a lot of confidence from this. In songwriting this is really important, listening to how it comes out. I’m pretty down on a few songs I did on my latest album phrasing wise, mainly because I’m so particular. I guess when you record you have the luxury of picking your best performances, but also the torment of wanting to get it right. And again, I guess you can over think these things. Anybody now wanting to listen to my music and pick out the Derek and Clive influence will be sorely disappointed though, I can assure you of that.
Lots of singers just do this instinctively though, the way they inhabit character. I’m not saying anything new. And they actually do it naturally, because you know, you’ve got your naturals and then you’ve got your peoples like myself who have to plant it cognitively. Nick Cave for instance, and I’m not sure what category he fits into, successfully portrays his characters. From reading about his recording process, it’s usually all captured in the first or second take and I’m sure most would testify he gets it right; it’s definitely not over thought.
An English friend of mine remarked on my first album – “one word that comes to mind is ennui”. Another friend noted “I think you need a girlfriend”. So I guess that’s a good starting point for my recordings thus far. I think however, a lot of my music has presented characters that believe “the grass is always greener”. There’s always something better. We’re surrounded by this stimuli – surely that shampoo you’re using isn’t as good for your hair?, look at this drink it’ll cure your loneliness, try this cereal you’ll be friendlier to your work colleagues, are you sure you don’t want to know what’s happening in the world?, naked people look this good but here’s some chocolate, I think you should shave like this, you’re pretty fat compared to me on this poster……..etc. Obviously, it’s not just advertising, it’s TV, Film and whole gamut of pop culture. I’m affected by it and I notice a lot of others are as well.
I’ve always been caught up in the idea of the weekend too. The time to cram in all your leisure pursuits, whatever’s your bag. So I love taking snapshots of people on the weekend, doing whatever. The days themselves have a different energy, especially in the area where I live. I’m not being judgmental when I say this, but some characters almost seem pious with their newspapers spread out in front of them at the local café. And well, you also have the flight of tropical birds in their dazzling array of lycra whizzing around the streets and cafés. It’s like a migration of the species! So yes, I love capturing the weekend and how it brings its various fruits to different peoples.
And as I stated before, I really dig using the words; park, apartment, river, street.
How have my feelings about lyrics changed since I started writing?
Listening to more and more musical artists and taking in more influences, be it a movie or a piece of art continues to broaden my approach and ideas to lyric writing. It has been interesting going to a lot of poetry readings as well in the past three years to note the different approaches to poetry. Somewhere along the line I assume all this information will appear somewhere in my work. I’ve always been conscious of a good lyric though, it’s just I started off really bad and now I feel I’m on the verge of being alright at it. Words have come a bit easier with practice and allowing myself a bit of time. Right now I have the luxury of time and I think it’s starting to reap its benefits in terms of I’m writing the sort of fruity stuff I like. You need time, but what a drag. I wish it all happened quickly for me lyrically and I could just move on to the next song. This is pretty much the way I felt when I first started too.
The Stress of Leisure plays Livespark at the Brisbane Powerhouse on Sunday, March 22 start time around 3pm. It’s a free event and all ages.
Find out more:
The Official Site: http://www.thestressofleisure.com/
Jennifer Sharp Film Clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xd184CMF4xc