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.