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Do you have to be sad to write a sad song?

Do you have to be sad to write a sad song?

This question was asked at the end of the movie Almost Famous (one of my favourites), when William finally gets his interview with Russell. The answer is that for any song to feel authentic the writer has to be feeling those same feelings. You can write a sad song without being sad, the same way you can tell people you love a gift that you don’t. The lie gets told, but it’s not felt and believed.

I had a friend who once maintained that you had to be miserable to write good music. I don’t believe this. But I do believe that you have to have genuine empathy.

Does anyone really want to write a sad song? I think you do have to be sad to write a sad song, but you don’t have to be a sad person. If you have ever been sad in your life, you can recall those circumstances and those feelings and draw upon them in your writing. If you are good at putting yourself into someone else’s place, good enough that you can feel what you would feel in their situation, you can draw upon those feelings. If you respond viscerally to art, whether it’s poetry, paintings, movies, or music, you can draw upon those feelings. But you do have to go there and you do have to feel it. That’s what makes your song authentic. That’s what makes it true.

I started If I Had Never one morning when I was particularly missing my wife, but she was only away for the weekend. I was feeling lonely ­– feeling it physically, right between my stomach and my chest. Sometimes I like to be alone, but for some reason this weekend was different. I knew I was lonely, not just alone, and inspired by it. It caused me to pose the question in the very first line and that, in turn, caused me to go deeper.

Why do they say it is better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved before?

The originating sentiment is from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem In Memoriam A.H.H.:

I hold it true, whate’er befall;
I feel it, when I sorrow most;
‘Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.

Tennyson’s poem is so heart wrenching, I may not have written this song if I had gone back to read the poem at the time the first line of the song occurred to me. He really says it all. But it seems to me that despite the widely accepted, oft-quoted, time-honoured truth of those lines, at a time of great loss they may, and perhaps should, be questioned, if only for each person to find their own personal truth within them.

Tennyson’s lines are now most often invoked at the end of a romantic relationship, but the poem from which they were drawn was written upon the sudden death of a lifelong friend, Arthur Henry Hallam. If I Had Never, could likewise be interpreted as the end of romantic relationship, but the circumstances in mind during writing were the death of a loved one.

It was a hard subject to explore, but life is such that there are so many places to draw inspiration from—the more personal the better.

There was a scene in the movie Indian Summer, where the character played by Diane Lane shoves pictures of her late husband into a drawer as she leaves her home for a trip, only to return and replace one of them back where it belongs. I filed lots of letters and photographs away after the end of an engagement, which while significantly less tragic than a death does bear some similarity of feeling and ties in with the option for the listener to interpret and feel the song at that “death of a relationship” level.

There are friends and relatives who have tragically lost spouses, children, and siblings. Even the loss of a dear pet can be devastating. And there was the morbid exploration of what if…

In retrospect, I think the song hits most of the stages of loss and grief, which somewhat validates the final product. I don’t think that I could have just decided to write this song. And I don’t think researching the song from sites like the one linked above would have led to the same results. You’ve got to feel it, even if you get there through an exercise of thought.

Nevertheless and the truck driver’s gear change

The song, Nevertheless, is a prime example of taking some everyday inspiration and ramping up the drama through extrapolation and imagination.

The phrase, nevertheless she turns and walks away, was something I once said under my breath when my wife, who was no doubt distracted at the time, totally ignored me while I was trying to engage her in conversation and left the room. As soon as I said it I saw the possibilities and wrote it down. It sets up a great opportunity to juxtapose opposites. Basically, despite what I do, what we had, etc, etc, you turn and walk away.

So the song is mostly made up, but even in a made up song, one can draw from one’s own life experience to ground the song. While I have had a few break ups of my own to draw upon, this song is not based upon any one of them in particular. Remembering back to those feelings is what inspires. My wife and I did once lose each other at the Eiffel Tower in Paris and although I can’t recall dancing in the rain with her, I do remember a wonderful rainy day that we shared at an amusement park (Canada’s Wonderland) early in our marriage. Those memories found their way into the choruses of Nevertheless.

When you do any kind of writing you are going to find that Oscar Wilde was right about life imitating art. This song was already completed, or nearly complete, when I learned of the end of my sister’s marriage and I think that my reaction to the news was tempered by my experience writing this song. Some of the re-writing was informed by this event and the civility that I witnessed in the midst of life-changing turmoil.

The song is presented as direct address with the phrase nevertheless you turn and walk away saved  for the choruses. The verses progress through the story of a break up. Each verse focuses on the questions being asked by the singer and ends with a “nevertheless” phrase.

  • Nevertheless, the whole world sees you’re blue.
  • Nevertheless, I’m right here by your side.
  • Nevertheless, the question still gets asked.
  • Nevertheless, I’ll help you pack your things.
  • Nevertheless you might come back some day.

I’ve always loved the word nevertheless and its cousin nonetheless, because of their total disregard for spaces, or hyphens.

Despite the up tempo musical feel, the lyrics are quite melancholy. She’s leaving and nothing he can say or do is going to stop her, but he recognizes this. He doesn’t understand why she’s leaving, but he’s resigned to letting her go, even helping her, while still holding out hope that someday she’ll come back.

The song is punctuated by a guitar riff with a slap-back reverb on it at the end of the first two lines of the verses (the voicing on the riff is varied slightly for use in verse two) and then switches to a simple interval drop, reminiscent of a doorbell punctuating the questions. The slap-back reverb imparts a retro feel that I felt suited the song.

The bridge offers the possible explanation for her leaving, but the explanation seems to come from elsewhere, maybe the singer’s subconscious. The style in the bridge is driven by a synth pad that gives it a more ethereal feel than the verses or choruses.

Here’s a previous incarnation of the bridge:

Find your neutral corner,
Although it’s filled with doubt,
But you can’t stay there forever,
You’re gonna have to punch it out.

It is often said that writing is re-writing, and I’m learning that lyric writing is no different. I’m sure the lyrics above would not have ended up with the same melody. Luckily I came up with a better pass at the bridge and it came at time when I was away from the house, which I know because it’s separate from all the other lyrics in one of my trusty Moleskins. I think you will agree that despite how far we’ve come, the starlet/stage/spotlight metaphor in the final song is much more suitably feminine than the boxer/corner/punching metaphor.

The new bridge also has more truth in it. My wife is amazing and in many ways I do feel like she gave up the spotlight (and many other things) to raise our children and take care of almost all the household duties. She is a busy, hard-working person and to bring us back full circle, I will tell you that she has every right to turn and walk away when I’m blathering on about something inconsequential.

The truck driver’s gear change

Coming out of the bridge we have what is sometimes referred to as the truck driver’s gear change. The key goes up one tone, from A to B. I’m rather proud that this is done in what I consider, an unobtrusive manner. Did you even notice that it went up?

This is a tool often used to introduce a change in energy as the song repeats a chorus. Barry Manilow was a master of this modulation, or a master perpetrator (depending on how you look at it). But in the case of Nevertheless, the modulation occurs as we go from the bridge to the final verse, so we are coming out of new lyrics and melody, into new lyrics, and although the song likely benefits from a little artificial increase in energy, the more objectionable observations made about such modulations are masked.  Nevertheless, you might want to check out The Truck Driver’s Gear Change Hall of Shame for more information.