Monday, July 14, 2008

The True Character's Voice

The true character has a voice. I don't mean simply male or a female vocal chords saying something. I mean a voice as distinct as one human being from another, no two the same. The voice will ring genuine.

Today the Voice has largely disappeared in the Nashville commodity song. We hear tune after tune featuring the same indistinct characters; the one-size fits all "proclaiming her independence" diva, the bad-ass southern boy...

I can always tell whether a writer is inhabiting his character or not. He will discover things that can't be discovered any other way. If you find yourself thinking about words rather than digging into your character, you're too much at a distance. Your character will be weak, and your song will be less because of it.

The character is revealed by how he says what he says, by how he does what he does, by how he appears to himself in the lyric. Small words can make a huge difference. The art operates on many levels:

"Well I woke up Sunday morning
With no way to hold my head that didn't hurt

And the beer I had for breakfast

Wasn't bad so I had one more for dessert

Then I fumbled through my closet for my clothes

And found my cleanest dirty shirt

And I shaved my face and combed my hair

And stumbled down the stairs to meet the day"

(Kris Kristofferson "Sunday Morning Coming Down")

We must become the song we're trying to write. We must find the voice.

Forget the superficial "commercial" goals if you want a true character. These calculations only enter the picture after the hard work is finished. You can always back away from a risky proposition in a lyric, but if you don't allow yourself to
find that proposition first, you aren't really writing.

"Just like the sun over the mountain tops

You know I'll always come again

You know I love to spend my mornings

Like sunlight dancing on your skin

I've never gone so wrong as for telling lies to you

What you see is what I am

There is nothing I could hide from you

You see me better than I can

Out on the road that lies before me now

There are some turns where I will spin

I only hope that you can hold me now

Til I can gain control again"

(Rodney Crowell "Till I Gain Control Again")

The true character's voice will speak distinctly; he will be three dimensional; he will come to life for a three minute duration and be unforgettable afterwards.

At times it can be hard to hear the character's voice. It will be drowned beneath the voices of the commodity music industry, or by the advice, the endless well-meaning advice and criticism. Sometimes 16th Avenue itself seemed to have a voice when I was writing in Nashville. I had to learn to turn it off and find the essential voice, the only one that knows what the lyric must say if it's to be an honest song.

If all of this seems abstract to you, perhaps you haven't considered what a character is. A character is not an exterior creation. You don't picture someone leaning on a lamp post and say,"Ah, a character!" You must go inside and find someone you know, an alter-ego of sorts, someone drawn from accumulated observation and experience, but not the Ambassador you present to the world. The Ambassador isn't very interesting. He's safe, smooth and packaged to prevent the need for damage control.

"Pack up all your dishes
Make note of all good wishes
Say goodbye to the landlord for me
That son of a bitch has always bored me
Throw out them LA papers
And that moldy box of vanilla wafers
Adios to all this concrete
Gonna get me some dirt road back street"
(Guy Clark "LA Freeway")

We must be more than keen observers. We must absorb life in order to embody a true character.

"Mansion On The Hill" (Bruce Springsteen)

"Millworker" (James Taylor)

More than anything I can think of, it's the voice of the character that defines the great songs. Are you censoring that voice or allowing it to speak?

copyright 2008 by craig bickhardt


Tim Wheeler said...

Great post. Its a constant battle to smuggle truth past the censor.


Nathan Bell said...

You tell the truth, grumpy old bastard

Tim McMullen said...

That persona of which you speak has at least two rather different forms. It can be centered in the persona of the performer like Loudon Wainwright does. His songs, though brilliant, are rarely recorded by others. They have such a specific character, and the details seem so specific to Loudon, that although he has created a persona, it simply feels like the author and his unique life: his wife(wives), his kid(s), his career. Randy Newman, on the other hand, although he, like Wainwright, uses irony and satire, creates personas that are clearly and obviously not Randy Newman himself, but characters he has created: rednecks, American xenophobes,haters of short people, etc. John Prine tends to use this approach as well—"I am an old woman...," "There's a hole in Daddy's arm...."

Unfortunately, as in most other pop entertainment, country music has turned to simple stereotypes rather than "real" people to create their connections. It is the real of "reality" television: not everyman, but a hackneyed caricature of an unreal person that gets attention. As you point out, finding that clear voice of the speaker in your song, has the potential for elevating it from cliché to classic.

Finally, for the last twenty years or so on the first day of my creative writing class, the only piece of advice my students find writ large on the board are the three words: Stifle the Critic! We spend the first half hour or so talking about what that might mean, and then we begin to write.

Thanks again for your consistent dedication to this blog. When school begins, though I do not explicitly teach songwriting, I do intend to steer my students to this blog. Much of what it has to say is relevant to every kind of writing. Keep fighting the good fight!


chromehead said...

Thanks Tim (both of you actually, but this comment is for TM). Your remarks are always enlightening. I agree with your distinction between the persona of the artist and the persona of the artistic creation. If Loudon chooses to leave out some personal details, his songs suddenly become full of "character" while not being so full of autobiography. His song "Daughter" is an example of one of his more coverable songs(admittedly written for a film).

The persona of the artist needn't always preclude covers-- James Taylor lamented some of the autobiographical aspects of his early work, and yet those deeply personal songs, full of artist persona, get covered by others. Some contemporary artists reveal almost nothing BUT their own persona in a body of work over a long career (Jackson Browne and Joni Mitchell come to mind) and still get covered. It may simply be a question of where the line is drawn-- how deep into autobiography you want to go.

If we take the song character at face value, one song at a time, he or she can be either a supremely honest (and specific) revelation of the songwriter, or a wonderfully drawn CREATION of the songwriter, and if it's done well we will be interested either way. What seems important to me is that the song HAS "character", and is not merely as you say a "stereotype" or a "hackneyed caricature". I will take either the persona of an interesting artist, or the persona of a good artistic creation over the repetitious and bankrupt commercial country "voice" any day.