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The first ‘song’ I ever wrote was ‘Baby.’ Inverted commas because a) everyone else does, the fools, and b) it’s got a verse, a chorus, and a second verse and chorus and a bridge and final chorus, so I guess it must be a song. Except, to me, it’s a poem. Of course it’s a poem. It’s a poem with sing-y bits. And a sing-y chorus. And a bridge. All my ‘songs’ are poems.
I feel this way because I’m a poet. It’s how I started; I got into poetry because I didn’t think I could sing and at the time, the idea of being a Hip Hop artist in the UK was like, lol, UK Hip Hop sucks, yo. I know better now, but for my money (not a lot of course cuz, lol, I’m a poet) nothing gives you as much control over your art as poetry. All you need is words, and something you want to say. How you choose to say it, what conventions you want to employ, is up to you: free verse, spoken word, blank verse, limerick, rap, prose… and even ‘song,’ or as I call it: poem with sing-y bits. I say it’s up to you when really it’s up to the bloody poem; Baby, for example, came to life as a chorus one night, in between a Gods of War 3 session and listening to the next door neighbours argue over who cares the least. Lovers being mean to each other for what seemed like hours, with me on the other side of the wall, asking why, eh? “Why You’d Have To Be So Cruel?” Voila.
I craft most of my sing-y poems like the normal, less sing-y ones: start with a line I really, really like, which will probably make the chorus and determine the narrative/mood of the piece and expand from there. I love to hear and write spoken word with a strong story to them; third person narratives or monologue pieces like Musa Okwonga’s Cooper Chimonda, The Roots’ Return to Innocence Lost, Polarbear’s Jessica, Faithless’ I Want My Family Back and Shane Koyczan’s Crickets Have Arthritis. Nina Simone’s I Cast A Spell On You is probably the most perfect sad love story ever written for my money (again, see first bracket) and you can gleam most of the tale from the chorus and the sucker punch just near the end: “I love you, I love you, I love you anyhow/And I don’t care/ if you don’t want me/ I’m yours right now.” Stories are cool. Why be abstract when you can make sense? (Don’t answer that).
Writing poetry, you learn to observe the conventions of whatever style the poem blossoms into and bend them to suit your style: a song does not need a verse and chorus structure but it sure as hell helps everyone else go oh look I see he’s written a song. Brevity: generally between three to five mins long else you are being indulgent/genius and sometimes it’s too hard to tell which is which and besides why are you writing poetry if you’re writing pieces longer than five mins anyway mate go write a short story you fake (although I do often write very wordy, rhythmic verses in all of my sing-y poems). You also become a real snob towards clichés, you hate adverbs, avoid adjectives ‘til there is no other word you can use, and you develop a taste for the most unique, unusual rhymes and imagery you can think up: For Baby, I spent a day staring at a blank page before, eureka! I decided my fictional couple were going to have a near-breakup at a kebab joint, because no one else had done that as far as I know. Oh, and her smile was crooked, because crooked smiles are rarely called beautiful so I will.
You may not have guessed, but honestly I’m pretty still much winging it as far as songwriting goes, and I could even say the same for poetry. I write things that connect with folk and when I sing people don’t scatter for the mines so it’s going well so far I guess. One day I’ll write a proper song, not a sing-y poem. Or maybe I’m good where I am. I dunno.