The American-Canadian alt-country singer-songwriter who performed as Oh Susanna offers advice on how to write about deep or hard subjects
I‘m a singer-songwriter. I write and sing stories as if they are my own even if they are not. When I first started writing, I was suffering from bouts of depression, feeling very lost in the world and grappling with my purpose. In the beginning, I wrote songs about murder, violence, suicide, abuse, rebellion and finally survival. These were not literally my stories but they spoke in metaphor about my emotional states of guilt, punishment, shame, release, survival, re-birth and transformation. While standing under the stage lights I often glibly said, ‘I am here to sing you songs about love and death.’
Writing these stories was cathartic for me. It allowed me to explore and process things that seemed hard to talk about. It was a strange feeling to feel so bleak and yet to know that nothing really terrible or traumatic had happened to me. So, I sang songs about situations that I imagined, researched or heard about from other people’s lives. By singing these songs I started to feel more connected to others and to become the thing that I longed to be, a writer and a singer. I now don’t always sing about hard or terrible things but I am still interested in using music as a way to speak about or process deep feelings or experiences.
Over the last 10 years, I have had the good fortune to teach people how to write songs – some with no experience and some with a lot. When I teach, no matter how experienced the students are, this is my goal: to get people to tap into their stories that are literally true or emotionally true for them.
Here are seven tips that are important to think about when writing about deep or hard subjects.
1. If you are writing about your lived experience, be careful with yourself and see what you feel okay about revealing.
It can help to take time to reflect on the subject matter, so consider writing versions that you can revise and/or discard. Perhaps write a version just for yourself and then figure out what feels right when you sing it out loud. Also, there are ways to write about something without talking directly about it. Using metaphor is a powerful way of speaking about difficult subjects without having to expose yourself too much. So you can release the story and keep your privacy at the same time.
2. Realise there may be a shelf life as to how many times you are comfortable performing the song.
If the song is activating something in you that is difficult to re-live every time you perform it, this can take a toll. So, check in with yourself to see how performing the song makes you feel and if it is helping you or other people process difficult experiences, then keep singing it. If it is not, then put it away for a while.
3. Consider that the press or a fan might ask questions about the song so practice in advance how you are going to talk about the subject matter on and off stage.
I sometimes regret how I have talked about a song because I have revealed more than I really wanted to or because I didn’t phrase something properly and it gets misinterpreted.
4. Try writing the song from the point of view of different characters in the story.
This can reveal or heighten one particular theme or event in the narrative or it can create sympathy or antipathy within the listener. Experiment with first-person narrative and third-person narrative. See how this changes the impact of the song. This is also a good way of writing about something but not revealing everything. You can let the listener fill in the holes with their own ideas and then it really becomes a “dialogue” between the listener and characters in
5. Journaling your thoughts can be a useful tool, especially when creating metaphors.
I find that the act of writing brings forth images and thoughts that are in your head but of which you might not be conscious. Sometimes the most powerful imagery emerges this way. It doesn’t have to make rational sense just poetic sense. We are sometimes trying to describe the ineffable. Also, make your images sensory, something you can smell, touch, see, and hear.
6. If you are inspired by a subject but haven’t necessarily lived it yourself, you can still write about it.
Art is created through one’s imagination so it doesn’t have to be autobiographical. Furthermore, music creates empathy for experiences that are not your own. So, in general, I believe that it is ok to write about experiences you have not lived through but you need to do this carefully and respectfully. These days there is much discussion about cultural appropriation so one should be sensitive to this. I wouldn’t say there are any subjects that are off limits but I think one needs to be careful about the perspective or the message you are conveying and consider if you could be seen as stealing other people’s stories.
7. If a fictional song is really effective, it will feel as if it is something you have lived.
If that happens, you should be proud, it means the song speaks a kind of truth that makes it feel palpably real. Often people expect songwriters to write their lives into their songs. Listeners conflate the singer of the song with the main character of the song. However, someone might pass judgement about you and your past that is based on this false impression. Again, congratulations! You created a song that feels so authentic that it made the listener believe it truly happened and that is what powerful storytelling is all about.