Lyrically Minded…

Gift Horse

Gift Horse recording in Wales

Poet and Pen Pusher contributor Alex Fry considers the art of lyric writing, and what he’s learnt by writing lyrics for his band, Gift Horse

I was beginning to tentatively write lyrics with an old school friend Rob during a lull in one of his own projects. It started off as a bit of fun – belting out songs on his old Atari – but we both soon got completely lost in it. Having written prose and poetry for a while, I saw that this was a way into something I had admired from a distance. I had always had a strong feeling for music but had been the child who mimed recorder furtively at the back of the class; I couldn’t play a thing.
I have developed a working process over time: I tend to make a loop of a section I’m writing to and then just wait for some words to form in my mind. Often I don’t know what I’m going to write about until the first lines are on the page; sometimes a rough melody will take shape and something will emerge out of those sounds.
It took me a long time to accept that lyrics usually have to be simpler than poetry, and that some words just don’t sound right in a song. In earlier tracks I would write huge swathes, which looked more like prose, but by working with the other musicians I learnt to tailor the words more to the melody, also to pare it down conceptually and let the music do the talking. After a while I found that simplicity could be a strength.
Gaps in intelligibility between words and sentences can create new imagery and new meanings. In a way the things not said or the running together of disparate themes can compensate for the restriction of having to get something across in a very limited number of syllables. Music can also really electrify language that on the page seems fairly colourless – I still don’t fully understand how or why this works.
Our song ‘Lantern’ is a classic example. If you look at this early version it bears little resemblance to the final lyrics (thank God)…
First draught:

drop down over the Westway
October sun filtered in dirty glass and memory

slip through tree lined avenues of Lancaster gate
Every white house a invitation with no date

creep out to Hillingdon

Friday dark falling across each car

hopeful dark hiding each minds bright spark

i can’t get you off my mind
you have been so hard to find

huddled in a motorway cafe
drinking cheap coffee, looking at naked girls in a magazine

Lost and lonely at midnight
being lost never felt so right

Screaming over the foggy lanes
Oak and rubber singing in Welsh light

put the cold key in the cold lock
strike a match and reveal a life never lived but hot to the touch

i can’t get you off my mind
you have been so hard to find

Final version:

Drop down
Over the brow

October sun filtered in
Dirty glass and melody

Her breath lit up
In the haze of the squall

Her picture burned
At the back of the draw

Lost and lonely at midnight
Losing never felt so right

Lantern on the fourth floor
Tracing the wonder of it all
Lantern on the water
Blinking a secret call

Shuffle down
Her street, that house, her mouth

You hid it for her, the face

The Face Erased
Re-drawn again, and again

The Face Erased
Re-drawn again, and again

Lost and lonely at midnight
Losing never felt so right

Lantern on the fourth floor
Tracing the wonder of it all
Lantern on the water
Blinking a secret call
Lantern on the water
Revealed, then forever withdrawn

I think often what I do is to obscure the original sentiments in a sort of linguistic fogging of the glass. Often things I’ve been struggling to say will emerge after several versions. The chorus of ‘Lantern’ was written half an hour before it was recorded – there’s nothing like a deadline to focus the mind!
Our singer Amy and I have an ongoing joke about what you can get away with lyrically. She takes issue with some of the more obscure material I have written. God knows I’ve made her sing some strange lines! Nevertheless it is interesting to see how far you can push it. In the song ‘Nothing I Guess’ there is a spoken section, which seemingly has very little relation to the rest of the words. However I think it works because it’s really integrated sonically with the music so it becomes more like a texture. There is also a sense of narrative but it’s ambiguous and that keeps me intrigued.
We began an album in February 2008, which we are just finishing. Having driven a truckload of equipment to a cottage in Wales, we spent ten days doing initial recordings of the amassed collection of songs. It was an amazing experience and I got to work with some great people. I think we all learnt a huge amount from it, but most of all we had a really good time. We have had some real highs over the last two years when things have gone well, but we’ve also had some huge rows and big doubts about our ability to finish the work. But now it’s almost done I think the result is far more interesting than we could have hoped for.
For me it all comes down to that amazing intersection between language and music. Music is a language that I’ve never fully understood, but speaks to me so strongly I feel compelled to pursue it, wherever it leads.

3 responses to “Lyrically Minded…

  1. Beautiful track Al, clearly worth everything it took to get to this. Really mellowing me out I’m listening to it right now. Where can I buy the album? Keep at it bro.

  2. Really enjoyed reading this Alex, particularly as I already know the music and know how good it is. Look forward to your next project soon!

  3. Hi, Just came back from Hampstead party, and already listening to it! It is 3am! I like it! It is great! Good luck with it all! XX

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