An email exchange about lyrics

From: h
To: Cory
Subject: another easter egg

remember have you gave me the phrase “broken land” for “goddamn” on Boots?

i think i’m going to call back to it in the last song on the mars lights double LP. really now that i think about it, that song could happen in the same universe as all of Boots. lyrically it totally fits in. cool. -h

From: Cory
To: h
Subject: RE: another easter egg

I do remember that! That’s awesome, I love that!

How would you describe the tone of ML lyrics? To me, they’re abstract enough that I hear them poetically, but have never tried to dig TOO deep, because sometimes I think it ruins the fun :)

From: h
To: Cory
Subject: RE: RE: another easter egg

Drew’s gotten so good at lyrics. The early ML stuff was his first lyrics/vocals ever, and he was good and has only gotten better. He’s good at talking about growing up in small town culture and his insecurities and stuff but making it sound like it’s about aliens. And his stuff is always super fresh and in his own voice, never cliched. (Sometimes it really is about aliens.). Over time he’s let his guard down some, gotten more emotionally raw, without losing any cool. Lyrically sometimes I still feel like it’s 2002 and he’s a cool kid in a killer punk band and I’m a total square lame-o.

For me, it was really hard at the beginning. We had Tim guest write some vox (Break This Dollar, All Tied Up are his vocal ideas. Straight Shots and Damn Hell Yes are mine for reference. The bandcamp page is pretty clear about his contributions I think). I really needed his work to get me started and get me thinking about vocals in a different way to match the music, he was key.

Chrissy H and the first two Pretenders records were a big influence on my early ML vox, too. So at first I was thinking up topics like John McCain’s media-created maverick reputation or America’s general military hawkishness and then writing abstractly about that, trying not to be polemic.

I think Cold Burn was kind of the breakthrough. It was melodic in a way that felt right, and lyrically it was sort of this scenes-from-a-comic-book thing – I had Sin City type imagery in mind – and that’s been my main approach since. The experience of Boots became instructive, though each Mars Lights song is its own world, unconnected. What I hope I accomplish through that is a larger-than-life sense that touches on rock/metal tradition while still being emotionally real for me and fresh to listen to, not a historical reenactment or a parody or genre exercise.

I still do topical/personal stuff, too, but it emerges on its own, I don’t force it. (Forcing it at first was part of the learning process, though!). And I try to fit well with Drew’s world in terms of imagery/metaphor. I don’t know how to describe it but science fiction, space, horror type things are in bounds / encouraged.

Oh, and all along I’ve tried to avoid “I” and “you” as much as possible. I found this made space for and encouraged me to find more interesting words, and positioned us as far as possible from mad-at-dad Papa Roach-type music within the realm of loud guitars. I’ll break it if needed but it’s been a really useful standard to measure my work against.

How does all that strike you?

What’s your lyric-writing journey been so far?


From: Cory
To: h
Subject: RE: RE: RE: another easter egg

This was a super fascinating read, my dude! I loved hearing about Drew’s journey with ML/DS, lyrically, and about your own with regard to the (roughly) 17 music projects of yours over the years :)

I concur on Drew’s ability. If DS was his first time fronting a project, then F him for being such a terrifically unique and authentic (and unaffected!) singer whose lyrics are WAY better than any first-time lyric-writer’s should be. And he’s only gotten better. Somehow he’d instantly mastered the lyrical restraint and abstract poeticism necessary for writing lyrics that aren’t schlocky, which is really hard to do. Although leaving out “I” and “you” does a lot of this work, maybe like 50% of it!

And his melodies are terrific, WTF! You can’t be that good at guitar AND good at creating weird catchy melodies, GD it. DEY TUK ER JABS!

Please name something “Mad at Dad” or “Songs for When You’re Mad at Dad.”

I think my lyric-writing process went something like this:

Ages 14-17: Try really really hard to emulate (Am You-Lade) bands I really liked in such a way that it was almost like an homage, like one of Weird Al’s pastiches. Bands included Weezer, Pixies, Reel Big Fish, Phantom Planet, and some terrible shit.

Ages 18-21: Got a little better at writing lyrics with my own voice. A little less cheesy, but also a bit more overwrought. This is when I was listening to a ton of DCfC, Elliott Smith, Nada Surf, and that sorta thing. Also, going through an (at-the-time) devastating break-up meant that these bummer lyrics were super sincere and were coming from the bottom of my being. So while they weren’t technically the best I’ve done, I’m still kind of impressed with them in that when I hear them, they are super accurately reflective of what I was going through, which is a pretty powerful thing that I bet most people don’t get to experience in almost any way.

Ages 22 through late twenties: During this time, I tried to have more fun or get weirder with lyrics. RCC! wasn’t the kind of band that was well-served by songs about resentment and heartbreak and all of that… plus, bummer lyrics wouldn’t have been genuine from me at that time. It was hard to break out of in a way because that’s the first kind of lyrical theme that worked for me, yeah. So these songs were ALSO about drinking way too much, but in a fun / rowdy / violent sorta way that was always, 100% meant to be fun/funny. For RCC! that is. My solo stuff was more like… Well, the “Beach Puppy” EP, that first one, is maybe the thing I’m happiest about, solo-wise. And that was a (for me) fresh take on trying to navigate adulthood with a drunken-college student operator’s manual. I tried to continue that a little bit with the other Ben Axeface thing, but I am not particularly proud of those songs or those lyrics. They were too much. “Where Did I Go Wrong?” is the least overwrought song on the album, and it’s still pretty wrought. But most of that stuff was raw, and not in a good way. Like writing a letter to someone you’re really angry at, but instead of waiting a few days and editing or just not sending it at all, you click “send” right then in the heat of it, and then you’re like “ew, I hope they don’t read this part too closely.” But I got to stretch out a little bit and try out diff. themes that I’d never really dealt with before, lyrically.

Late twenties through early 30s: This is when I got really into storytelling, because if I’m honest, the story is always what hooks me, lyrically. If it’s good. But I had to write a lot of bad story-songs before they became any good! There are a few good sets of lyrics on “Lonely Lumberjack,” but some of those songs are SO GD CHEESY OMG. But I wrote a few story songs I was happy with during the end of RCC’s run, and eventually parlayed that into some (pretty good, I think) narrative songs for Sleepover. One of my very favorite Sleepover songs is “Flawed Autonomy,” because the lyrics are 100% fiction and totally creepy and pretty and a good representation of what I was aiming for. “Built for It” is also a story-song in my book, because even though it’s sung in first person, it’s def. a fictional persona (kinda). During this same time, the solo stuff I was writing vacillated between writing personal songs on someone else’s behalf (“It’s the Only,”) and just straight-up joking and having fun (“You Call To Me Softly,” “When I Was a Young Girl”). I believe these funny/dark songs are my best, lyrically, and the best representations or examples of my unique authentic voice. I don’t think anyone else writes lyrics like that and sings them in that way. Or if they do, they better not be better than me! :)

Early 30s through now: There’s less to draw from, material-wise, but I’ve done some stuff I’m pretty proud of. There have been intensely personal songs, like “Days & Weeks” from Demos, in which I was able to talk about REALLY heavy stuff from a first-person viewpoint without being cheesy, allegorical, or shitty. It’s hard to do so I was proud of getting to that really real spot that was also technically good. And there were songs based on Twin Peaks of course. The latest is the tune for Shaun, and that was a rewarding challenge: To write about perseverance and loss and death and attitude by writing about something else completely (in this case, ocean tides and tide pools and their relation to the moon’s cycle).

My favorite lyrics I think are “When I Was a Young Girl,” which reminds me that I need to write more songs like that!

From: h
To: Cory
Subject: RE: RE: RE: RE: another easter egg

i loved the thread of your lyric-writing where you’re trying to calibrate getting your work to be * correctly-wrought. *

this conversation prompted me to listen to the mars lights eps for the first time in a long time. the mixes and vocal production haven’t aged the best (not bad, just wish they were clearer) BUT everything sounds great on nice headphones! if you ever want the full picture/intention, try that :)

From: Cory
To: h
Subject: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: another easter egg

Yeah, for me the constant challenge is trying to say something real, emotionally, while not being too earnest OR too mystic, all while making the lyrics sound cool. And for me, the coolest lyrics have a special kind of unanticipated consonance, which I love! An example off the top of my head is in “Pretty Pimpin'” from Kurt Vile, where he says,

“Saturday came around and I said ‘who’s this stupid clown blocking the bathroom sink’ ”

I love that whole album a lot, it was a pretty cool breakout record for that little feller!

From: h
To: Cory
Subject: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: another easter egg

I think with Drew, there’s the obvious hard work and talent, but he also has incredible taste. He was listening to weird punk bands when we had Boyz II Men and, IDK, The Offspring. So listening to or making something that isn’t at least partly art-damaged just isn’t in the cards.

I think dad-mad is a genre. You know exactly what I mean.

I need to revisit all the Sleepover stuff, 1.x and 2.x both. I’ll queue that up for today.

I found my original literal Axe-face sticky note sketch recently, do you remember that? It might date from St. Peter’s times, hot damn.

(Is “hot damn” working as my signature profanity? I got it from a biography of Chuck Yeager that my mom gave to me to read when I was in 5th or 6th grade, something like that.)

Can I blog this?

“Young Girl” is definitely a highlight. It’s 110% a song only you could write and sing, and it’s good, and that’s a huge achievement. I don’t know if it could be your primary mode over the course of a record (prove me wrong!) but it seems like there could be more in that vein.

Prosody is probably my top priority with lyrics ( ). Works that stick out awkwardly can really diminish my enjoyment of a song I’d otherwise like a lot. Then avoiding cliches and being trite (avoiding being trite), then what I want to say. For as much work as I put into them, I view them pretty functionally, and when I have regrets/self-criticism it’s always that the prosody isn’t smooth enough.

From: h
To: Cory
Subject: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: another easter egg

Oh here: I went through the Mars Lights double + duo LPs and tallied up the lyrical approaches I took for my songs:

comic book – 3
personal – 3.5 (sub-set: Bear/cancer songs obscured with semi-genre-conforming metal imagery – 3)
topical/political/social – 2.5
??????? – 1

The half is a CA / nuclear war tune, very peppy!

From: Cory
To: h
Subject: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: another easter egg

??????? – !

You can totally blog this, and yes, I remember recording BAF at St. Pete’s in that room full of robes!

I’d never heard the name for prosody, but it’s so cool to know there’s a name for this idea! I mean, of course there is, but I don’t think I’ve ever actually talked about it, so that’s cool. Thanks for sending the link! Because, yes, that’s a top priority for me, too. I try to be genuine in lyrics, but the #1 thing I worry about is, “does this sound cool?” It HAS to sound cool. If it says something meaningful, that’s great, but dorky / off-rhythm / too-earnest / too-abstract lyrics stress me out and piss me off. There are bands that I would otherwise really enjoy, but the lyrics take me out of it and I can’t do it. Mostly the sound of them, but also word choice to a lesser (but still high) degree.

Ben Kweller is my #1 example of this. His songs are good and sometimes his lyrics are terrific, but mostly they’re stupid. Check this out.

I just want to belong.
First I’m gonna sing my song

I try to do what is right,
I try to win without a fight.
From time to time I turn around
To their gun on the ground.
I try to seek more than this…
A nice smile, a wet kiss.
Don’t want to miss what I’m looking for,
But it’s behind your door.

“Behind your door”??!?!?!??!

Spoon is a terrific example of the lyrical styling I love. I think Brit spends a lot of time making sure the words sound cool, both alone and in combo. And he changes up the cadence to give your ears a sexy surprise. “a-like-i’m-a-gonna-ignite!”

From: h
To: Cory
Subject: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: another easter egg

??????? – it’s “sides”-style cool-sounding (hopefully) stuff that doesn’t really have a meaning or a story. i suppose it could be a comic thing in a really abstract way. the chorus, such as it is (the song has a weird arrangement but this part happens twice so…), is “you wanna roll!?!??!?!?!” like you want to fight and/or you want to get out of here?

so, yeah, mostly cancer & crime fiction, with various disasters (nuclear war, solar flares, aliens/God is dead) a distant third. fun times! it sounds like a downer when i put it that way but the basic attitude is defiance of these things so it’s not that bad. kinda bleak but with an underlying fighting spirit. which is fitting for me, i guess.

prosody / yeah, i just discovered the word fairly recently, within the past year. it was pretty weird to learn at thirty… seven? that a thing i cared so much about had a special word *that i didn’t know about.*

i’m not much for kweller but to his credit i think he *knows* he’s being stupid.

spoon’s effortless cool 4eva. i started working backwards through their catalog recently, and of course it’s wonderful, but They Want My Soul stood out to me in a way it hadn’t before.

i wish hot thoughts had one more song, and that the transition in “WhisperI’lllistentohearit” was… different. i like both parts of the song, but the transition loses energy for me, and i’m not quite sure what could be different but i think it’s sub-optimal haha.

From: Cory
To: h
Subject: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: another easter egg

Oh, for sure Kweller knows he’s being stupid! Even so, it comes across to me as 100% stupid. Maybe he’s joking and I appreciate that, but the punchline is real bad and falls flat. If he were a novelty act or the music itself was super stupid, like sloppy three-chord punk, I would be less annoyed by it. But I know what an excellent songwriter and lyricist he can be when he wants to be, so it comes across as laziness, rather than as a tongue-in-cheek thing (because the message seems sincere) or as a joke (because it seems like real lazy thing!).

Again, to his credit, the only reason it bothers me so much is because he’s capable of so much more. It’s like going to the French Laundry and finding out the pre-fixe menu is potato salad and corndogs. I love those things, even, but if you’re a top rated chef and you hand me that, I’ll flip, even if you’re winking when you’re doing it. The people who came in the night before got whole roasted snapper and coq-au-vin!

Interesting thoughts on Spoon, and I agree on Hot Thoughts. It’s a cool record, and for a band whose members are pushing 50, it’s pretty inventive. They could have done the same old shit over and over again and been fine, but I like that they tried something new. That said, there’s some essential Spoon-trait that isn’t there. Something minimal and understated and restrained and unassuming but totally fucking cool in the “sunglasses” way. I enjoyed listening to it when I did, and I haven’t listened to it since, I guess.

Who are some of your favorite lyricists? We kind of talked about this but not quite. And don’t say Dylan, or else I’m calling the ASPCA.

From: h
To: Cory
Subject: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: another easter egg

kweller / +1, comes off as very half-assed, i wasn’t saying it was working! :-)

spoon / yeah, britt could make a record with a single snare sample, four notes, and a pair of ray-bans and it would sound rad as af.

i’m going to have to really think about fav lyrics, because i just don’t think about them a ton; if the prosody is there, i’m good, and i’m not super-paying attention to them! I love Jets to Brazil’s “Perfecting Loneliness;” though it’s kind of an oddball, everything comes together perfectly on that record. I love Jeff Tweedy. St. Vincent. KC’s The Architects, “The Hard Way” and “Vice” especially. Dessa. Oh, Nick Lowe & Elvis Costello. Nilsson, of course. Springsteen. Aesop Rock. Neko Case.

We’ve already talked about how I feel about the Pretenders, mostly the first two records, not to take anything away from Chrissy & the band’s later stuff but the records with Scott are so fucking incredible. I guess the lyrics aren’t incredible standing alone but the way they function playing against the music in the context of the song, and the way Chrissy uses her voice and expresses this huge range of emotion in a totally unique way is genius. I think if Scott had lived we’d talk about the Pretenders as a top-20 all-time rock band 1950-present. I mean you have your Beatles/Stones/Zep/Queen/Springsteen/Bowie tier 1… that’s not exhaustive, but how many of those artists are there, 10-15? The Pretenders, *as they are* are in the next tier for sure. A couple more early records would put them near the top of the next tier. IDK, I have devolved into a very wanky record nerd tangent, and I should probably delete it but I won’t. tl;dr – THE PRETENDERS ARE UNDER-APPRECIATED

I’m just flipping through iTunes, it’s hard to come up with stuff on the spot. I wouldn’t put Bully/Alicia or Jim James on the level of Nilsson or anything, but I paused when I ran across those records, they definitely punch above their weight lyrically I think.

Flipping through iTunes is kind of hard because it makes me want to listen to so many records right now; I want to make a list of stuff to listen to, but it would just be half my library! So I gotta work out instead. byyyyeeeeeee <<<<<<<333333333

From: Cory
To: h
Subject: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: another easter egg

Hoooooooooooomie!  I remember you being super into The Pretenders back in your carriage-house days, and I still haven’t given them an honest listen… but now I really want to! I’ve gotten to the point where I’m looking for musical joy in unexpected places (i.e bands that I hadn’t previously considered), and one of my favorite things about life is clicking with a new (to me) band. Your passion about them makes me want to like them a whole sexy lot.

Nilsson is one of my favorites as is Elliott Smith, and I often think about them as two sides of the same coin. Except Nilsson ended up happy with a wife and children and died from natural causes, whereas my buddy Steven took the other route. But they’re both funny brainy guys who were absolutely COMMITTED to song craftsmanship. I feel like they never, ever mailed a song in—not with regards to lyrics or melody or structure or theme or anything else. Just brilliance.

Other favorites lyricists are Frank Black/Kim Deal, Steve Malkmus, and Doug Martsch. Doug’s probably got the lyrics I identify with most. He’s funny, grumpy, hopeful, cynical, honest, weird, all of it. And he is impeccable at naming the things that get you down, and how they feel. And I like that, like anyone else, he vacillates between optimism and (pretty severe) pessimism.

When things are all you think of
And plans are all you make
And thoughts are all you dream of
And falls are all you take
Look out, the world’s destroyin’ ya
Relax; it isn’t fair
Mother Nature’s disposition
She don’t mind, she don’t care


You were right when you said you can’t always get what you want
You were right when you said it’s a hard rain’s gonna fall
You were right when you said we’re still running against the wind
Life goes on long after the thrill of living is gone

But then songs like “Twin Falls,” even though they kinda seem sad on the outside, sound optimistic to me. Plus, most of the songs on There’s Nothing Wrong With Love are hilarious.

From: h
To: Cory
Subject: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: another easter egg

you’re right arm that doug m is underrated.

do you like the new breeders record? i do, a lot. seeing them on friday!!

From: Cory
To: h
Subject: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: another easter egg

This is weird: I saw the Breeders a few weeks ago and even bought “Pod” on vinyl, but I am not sure if I’ve heard the new record! I’ll check it out this . morning, I love them tunes they do. They’re so good at that 90’s alternative thing of writing a straightforward pop-punk kind of song and adding a few really weird chords/notes in there to give it an edge. And it never feels like a gimmick for them, Kim Deal just fucking slays at writing songs. She’s got one of my very favorite voices in rock n’ roll. It’s breathy and tough and angelic all at the same time. You’re going to LOVE the way you go to that show; I guarantee it!