What’s That Song About?

I get this question a lot as a songwriter, and it doesn’t always have a simple answer. I can tell you the setting and circumstances or the general inspiration, but sometimes the about isn’t terribly cut and dry.

I plant a seed of myself in every song I write, but that doesn’t make them all autobiographical, or even true. Sometimes they’re completely fictional, sometimes they’re partially true, and sometimes they’re not even a linear narrative at all. Those seeds that I plant, though, make every song personal to me. I feel them all when I sing them, but I still can’t always provide a simple answer when I’m asked what a given song is about.

I think songwriting is a unique artform. It’s left-brain and right-brain. It’s poetry, rhythm, melody, and emotion. You can feel something just listening to a song, regardless of what the lyrics are about. Additionally, two people can read the same lyrics and come away with two very different interpretations.

So, to avoid just completely copping out altogether and saying “sometimes songs aren’t really about anything” (making this a very short blog post that would have been better deployed as a Tweet) I’m going to attempt to break down my thoughts on this topic and offer a bit of my songwriting philosophy in the process.

Also worth noting: I’m focusing, primarily, on songs with lyrics throughout this post.

Sometimes songs are true stories. Something happened to me and I wrote a song about it. I was feeling something and I wrote a song about it. I heard about something that happened to somebody else and I wrote a song about it. Simple. Straightforward.

Lay Low, which I released back in December of 2021, is an autobiographical song based on something that actually happened. I was sitting at my kitchen table on a December afternoon, looking out at our backyard and drinking a cup of coffee. I was thinking about how quiet it was and about how the snow came early that year. In fact, it snowed while the leaves were still on the trees and we had broken branches all over the backyard. I felt relaxed and content, which, for someone who struggles with anxiety, is saying something. It was a good day.

Lara recommended that we take some time to journal, so I free-wrote for about fifteen minutes. It was pure stream-of-consciousness writing, and I wasn’t intending to write a song. However, when I was finished, I read through it and felt like there was one hiding in there. Most of the lyrics in Lay Low were excavated, more or less verbatim, from that exercise.

Sometimes the autobiographical songs come from big life events, positive or negative. In the case of negative events, the song can serve as a cathartic experience when it’s written and performed. It’s therapy, really. It feels good to get it on paper or sing it out. Occasionally, though, songs come from something simple, like a cup of coffee in December on a cold, gray afternoon.

Sometimes songs are fictional. Maybe there’s an element of truth that inspired it, or maybe they’re completely fabricated. Either way, they can be just as impactful as a song based on real events.

AngelinaEcho and Ransom (Sessions from Studio A, WNIJ)

I wrote Angelina about twenty years ago, and I’ve been asked many times about it, usually by people wearing solemn expressions, as it’s heavily implied, although not explicitly stated, in the lyrics that the narrator of the song is struggling with the death of the woman he loves.

This never happened to me.

That said, there’s still a piece of me in that song. Novelists will, in a way, write themselves into their story as one of the characters (and not necessarily the protagonist). I do that, too. When I write a fictional song I’m still reaching inward to tell the story. I’m putting myself in a thought (or, I suppose, emotion) experiment and extrapolating it out: What would I do if this were me? or, maybe more interestingly, What could I possibly see myself being driven to do if this were me? When I sing Angelina twenty years later, I still feel it. I’m still examining that emotion after all this time.

Songs like this can allow you to explore a feeling or a situation and the impact of it. The underlying story doesn’t have to be true to facilitate that exploration and, if you’re honest and authentic, the listener will be able to join you in it.

Incidentally, for those wondering, I’ve never even been to New Mexico.

Sometimes songs are narratives. These are “story” songs. Fact or fiction, these songs form something of a linear narrative. Often the narrative is very explicit: characters, plot, conflict, cause, effect, etc. Other times, though, the story may have some space for interpretation.

To clarify what I mean by that, I’d like to offer, as an example, one of my favorite songs of all time, Pancho and Lefty by Townes Van Zandt:

If you pay attention to the lyrics of this song, you’ll come away with a story about two outlaws in Mexico. Lefty sells Pancho out to the Federales and runs off to Ohio. Pancho is captured and executed. Pancho is remembered as something of a folk hero, and Lefty is forgotten. As the last verse elegantly states:

Well, the poets tell how Pancho fell
And Lefty’s living in a cheap hotel

Pancho and Lefty Townes Van Zandt

Part of what I love about this song is the fact that a lot of what we understand about the story isn’t explicitly stated. Instead, we’re left to infer it. He never says that Lefty sold Pancho out, at least directly. Actually, he never even says that Pancho and Lefty knew one another. The beauty of the song is that we, the listeners, fill in the blanks. He leaves vital plot points up to us, and I think that’s to the benefit of the song itself as well as the overall experience of the listener.

Songs aren’t novels. You only have a matter of minutes to tell your story. When I was younger I wrote quite a few very wordy (and very long) songs. I’ve found, though, that part of the art of songwriting is elegance and efficiency. “Efficiency” is a cold, non-artistic word, admittedly, but, in this context, I’m referring to the ability to convey something complex in a very simple way.

There’s nothing wrong with complexity, but complexity for its own sake isn’t necessarily art. This type of simplicity, though, that elegantly implies something more complex and allows the listener to piece together what’s not explicitly stated, is. Say enough to kick-start the listener’s imagination, then let them fill in the blanks.

This gives the listener something of a claim to the song. They’ll connect to it, they’ll feel it, and it will belong to them.

Sometimes songs are more abstract. I’ve found myself writing like this more often lately, and it’s been an interesting experiment for me. This type of song is, as you can imagine, the hardest to explain when someone inquires about it.

If I’m being completely honest, “abstract” is an imperfect word for what I’m trying to get across, but I’m going to run with it for lack of a better one. Essentially, I’m talking about a song that doesn’t really have a cohesive narrative or an easily interpretable meaning. That doesn’t mean there isn’t an underlying meaning, of course, but it means that meaning isn’t terribly clear.

I’ve written songs over the past several years that were less about telling the listener a story and more about making them feel something. I’ve tried to play with words and images and see what they can evoke. As the writer, these songs don’t always start out with a “meaning,” but they usually end up with one, at least for me, by the time I’m done. Basically, I’m not sitting down to write a song about something, but it usually becomes about something.

I see what I think a song like this means as only my interpretation of the song, and that interpretation is no more or less valid than the listener’s interpretation. Actually, I really enjoy hearing what other people think these songs are about, because it’s often something I never would have considered.

My song Gasoline is like this. I didn’t have a story in mind when I started writing it. I came up with the line “Blood and sweat and gasoline” and built the song around it. A meaning began to take shape in my head as I wrote the song, but I’m not really spelling much of it out in the lyrics.

Gasoline – Jason Benefield (Dry City Brew Works, 2/15/2020)
This is a very early version of the song. In fact, it was the first time I performed it. It’s changed a bit since then, but the original lyrics remain intact.

Gasoline‘s not a true story. There are elements of me and my experience in it, but it’s not something that happened to me, and the woman referenced in the song isn’t based on anyone. Further, there’s little in the way of an explicit plot, and it’s not necessarily a song about any specific feeling or emotion.

Ultimately, I’m using words and imagery to try to make the listener feel something, and that allows them to interpret the song in a way that speaks to them. I’m letting them fill in the blanks, like Townes Van Zandt did in Pancho and Lefty, but a song like this has a lot more in the way of “blanks.”

People have come up to me after hearing this song and said “That song really spoke to me because…” The beauty of a song like this is, if you’re not presenting a detailed narrative for the listener, they will view it through the lens of their own experience and find their own unique way to connect to it.

Like I said earlier, I have a meaning in my head for Gasoline, but I think if I were to have said it more explicitly in the lyrics, or if I explain my interpretation prior to performing it, people will see it through that lens and, maybe, not feel as connected to it. My interpretation of this song is how I understand it as seen through my own lens.

Also, the meaning of a song is, sometimes, simply the way it makes you feel. Obviously that’s the case with an instrumental piece, but often the lyrics need to offer just enough imagery to let the listener write the rest of the story themselves, even if the “story” is just how it makes them feel when they hear it.

I enjoy the ambiguity of Gasoline and other songs like it. I didn’t always feel that way about songwriting, but I think this approach really gives me the opportunity to connect with the listener in a different way, and experimenting with it has been quite fulfilling to me as a songwriter.

There are a lot of people out there writing songs, which means there are a lot of songwriting processes, styles, and philosophies. Here, I’m only speaking to mine. I do believe, though, that if a song is born from an honest, authentic, and vulnerable place, the listener will connect with it. That’s a universal statement.

Before I was a songwriter, I was a listener. I’ve had so many songs resonate with me throughout the years, whether I understood the meaning of them or not. In fact, there have been times when I’ve heard the writer talk about the meaning and decided that I liked my interpretation better because it resonated with me. Connecting to a song is a powerful thing for both the writer and the listener (and I say that as both).

When somebody offers me their interpretation of a song I wrote, I don’t want to counter with “Well, actually, the song’s about…” I wouldn’t dare take that away from them. If they love the song because it speaks to them, who am I to get in the way?

So, I suppose the bottom line here, is that if you ask me what one of my songs is about, I may very well give you an ambiguous answer, but that doesn’t mean I’m being deliberately cagey. It’s also possible you won’t get a meaning as much as an explanation of how the song came about.

In fact, I may use this space to write about where some of my songs came from. A word or phrase that I hear, read, or think can often spawn a whole narrative. An afternoon sipping coffee can become a journal entry. Songwriting is wonderful like that.

I promise not to force my interpretation of any of these songs on you, though. I’m more interested in yours.

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