Andrew Hamm: the Bipolar Express

Ruminations on theatre, music, and just about anything else that crosses my bipolar brain.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Trouble With Love Songs

I wrote a song last month that I'm exceedingly proud of. It's called "...And Feast Upon Her Eyes," and it's inspired by the experience of doing Measure for Measure.

The chorus, in fact, is lifted directly from a soliloquy about Isabella by Angelo:

What, do I love her
That I desire
To hear her speak again
And feast upon her eyes?

I was telling my wife about it (I'm not even sure she's heard the whole song at this point) and she remarked that everyone would likely think it was a song about her.

I've been thinking about love songs ever since, partly due to this and partly because I'm using a lot of love songs for the current production of As You Like It. In fact, I'm finding myself writing a boatload of love songs over the past several weeks. This is quite unusual for me; I have scores of songs in my catalog but very few of them could be qualified as "love songs," and precisely two of them are about my wife ("A Simple Man" and "You Are Home").

It's actually problematic to be married or in a committed relationship and write love songs, for a couple reasons: 1) Not a lot of great music comes out of being happily in love, as opposed to the brilliance that often arises from conflict, frustration, and unrequited attraction, and 2) Everyone assumes everything you write is about your current significant other. There's a third, universal problem with love songs, as well: 3) It is also assumed that your love song is about a real person or situation in your life.

This last is a particularly baffling issue. Peter Gabriel was able to write "Intruder" without actually breaking into somebody's house; John Lennon wrote "Norwegian Wood" without being an arsonist; none of the Who were deaf, dumb, and blind like Tommy; and Harry Chapin was a bit too young to have the adult son of "Cat's in the Cradle." Yes, I'll concede that most of the greatest art is created from a place of honesty and personal experience. But an artist who can't add a substantial element of pure invention is less a creator and more of a diarist, isn't s/he? Isn't making stuff up most of the fun of being an artist?

Tennessee Williams used to refer to his plays as "emotional autobiography;" the events weren't from his life but his feelings about the relationships in his life fueled the stories. I've held to this theory in my playwriting in particular: the guilt-ridden heartbreaker in The Blizzard of '93 and the son who fears that he and his father have nothing in common in Awake in Pennsylvania. It's much more prevalent in my songwriting, and in my love songs in particular. I have written songs and plays that are inspired by real people and events in my life, but I'm generally not telling, unless it's funny (Michelle Kwan in "Hero") or very important (Steve Irwin in "Unafraid").

Perhaps no kind of writing can be as stream-of-consciousness as lyrics. Often I'll just come up with a turn of phrase, like "Stream of Conscience," which ended up being a song about accepting guilt, or "She Is a Match" (another new song, just finished yesterday), and the rest of the story will flow. "She Is a Match" is a great example; it's got some really specific lyrics (again, more than a little bit inspired by Measure, but taking off quickly in another direction) that certainly bear a scent of reality. It doesn't necessarily follow there's a "she" in the world that correlates with the song; in fact, the first-person voice certainly doesn't have to be me specifically. Of course, there might be a she, and I might be the me; that's the mystery, isn't it? Maybe the real trick is to see if I can write something honest enough that you're fooled into believing it must be autobiographical. And at least some part of it always is, or else I wouldn't care enough about the subject matter to write the thing in the first place.

What may be more important is trying to capture the spirit of the experience of someone who might hear your song or see your play. After all, it's for the audience isn't it? My actual romantic life has, with a couple exceedingly painful exceptions, been quite tame. I dated my high school sweetheart for three years until she dumped me, then I rebounded for a few months with a younger girl with the same kinky hair and same first name. I left my college girlfriend because I met Karen and it was pretty obvious the way that had to go. Everything has, for the most part, been tales of long-term commitment; I never dated around, and I seldom pined for someone I couldn't have. I've had my heart broken a couple times, and I severely broke one myself. In other words, I'd pretty much mined the depths of my ability to write autobiographical songs of heartbreak by age 30.

Which brings me back to the original question: why the sudden flux of love songs? I blame Shakespeare. Measure for Measure was a pretty hot show, and As You Like It is absurdly romantic, with four couples getting married at the end. I guess I'm just feeling amorous about love in general.

Of course, everything I just wrote could be a pack of lies, as well... ;^)

If you love love, then love loves you, too. --Bruce Cockburn.



  • At 3/12/2008 6:25 PM , Blogger Frank Creasy said...

    Man, Andrew...where to start? Random thoughts on this posting:

    - Thanks for being so open and self revealing. Very brave.

    - "So, I lit a fire, isn't it good, Norwegian Wood"'s about ARSON? Why did I never catch that before? WOW! I thought it was about hooking up in the 60's! My mind is BLOWN!

    - Great insights into a composer's mind here, overall. I remember in college a pretty (though simple minded) gal or two I was pursuing (READ: Trying to get in their pants) complaining that they didn't believe they could trust me, because I was an actor and they couldn't tell if I was acting. Honestly, though I wasn't. I REALLY, REALLY wanted to get in their pants!!!

    - What is it about Shakespeare that gets into your freakin' blood? I never thought I'd be a "Shakespearean actor", or love seeing Shakespeare. But I see it. You can't keep seeing his shows, PERFORMING his plays without his words and his spirit sinking into your heart and soul. It is powerful, powerful stuff. I'll be at a party or in an office meeting when a quote will pop out of my mouth. I'm sick. Very sick.

  • At 3/12/2008 7:51 PM , Blogger Andrew Hamm said...

    Yeah, that's what you get for making John Lennon sleep in the bathtub, lady!

  • At 3/13/2008 8:27 AM , Anonymous Phil Hamm said...

    Nice insight. Thanks for sharing.

  • At 3/13/2008 8:28 AM , Anonymous Phil Hamm said...

    You should write a song about LOVING BART.

  • At 3/13/2008 9:16 AM , Blogger Andrew Hamm said...

    It's just too obvious to write a song about loving Bart.

  • At 3/14/2008 8:36 AM , Anonymous Phil Hamm said...

    You'd think the people would have had enough with silly love songs. I look around me and I see it isn't so. Oh no.

  • At 3/14/2008 8:51 AM , Blogger Andrew Hamm said...

    Some people (myself included, apparently) want to fill the world with silly love songs. What's wrong with that? I'd like to know.

  • At 3/23/2008 12:22 PM , Blogger Brad said...

    I've been thinking about these ideas a lot lately. Here I am out of relationship and usually in this times of conflict I've gone to songwriting. But I resolved that I would not write any songs about my literal situation. I'd likely write a depressing song I'd get stuck in my head and create a vicious cycle. If "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" gives life to the subject "so long as men breathe", I had to ask myself if I really want to immortalize this pain?

    So I haven't. I've been tempted. Instead I've written some creative songs that harness the energy to create something much different. I've written that will worry people if they think it's strictly autobiographical, in particular one song with teh phrase, "It's a beautiful day for a suicide." But for the listener who stays engaged they will find the second chorus counters this statement with, "It's a beautiful day to be alive." It's all about the choice we really have on days to curse the darkness or to turn on a light.

    I've also been thinking about this because I organized a house show recently and played an hour of music. I really grasped how depressing (and even a little draining) hearing all of my songs about heartbreak can be. I had to work some jokes into my act, which I thought was pretty necessary. But in my set was perhaps the only ligitimate love song I've written, lacking any cynicism toward the relationship. It's posted on MySpace. Check it out:

    The song is "Cold City, Warm Heart." The song was written about a year ago, recorded after the break up, and posted online yesterday when she and I are barely in communication. I planned on giving her the song on CD as a birthday present when it was looking like we might get back together. Instead, thinsg went downhill and she's never heard it. Meanwhile, more than one person has told me it's perhaps the best song I've ever written.


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