A short Song Writing Reflection: Daughter of a Heathen Man by Matt Hicks

This article is not written to be an authority on songwriting. It is merely a reflection and is meant to stimulate thought and dialogue. What works for me may not work for you but even in the process of vehemently disagreeing with me, it may give rise to you finding another “right way”.
One of the biggest hurdles to songwriting is a significant conflict which, I believe, some people never overcome before downing tools and taking up something else.  That conflict lies in the friction caused between existential reflection and existential fatigue. What do I mean by that? Existentialism is the position that we can only know things or form knowledge of something through our own individual experience. Albert Camus once said something like ” the cats universe is not the universe of the ant hill”. That is we cannot understand anything other than through our own eyes and senses.
Now for poets, that often isn’t a problem. In fact they revel in “existentialism”, working their senses into words, images and metaphors that reflect the universe around them. Its a wonderful skill and it is probably that which  separates poets from many songwriters. Many songwriters tend to write directly about their experience about every day things. That is a generalisation, I know, but its a useful one for the picture I’m about to paint.
So that takes us to the second half of our problem. Existential fatigue. That is the boredom, lack of conviction, lack of excitement about our own experience as we begin to express and reflect our experience. I don’t know about you but I have about 30 songs that I have abandoned over the years because I’ve  grown out of them or they no longer reflect my universe or how I feel or experience things or rather; the way they are written no longer reflects my universe (even if I still feel the same things). I remember a couple of times when I was younger, performing a song I had written about unrequited love or whatever, getting to the middle of it and realising that I was completely bored and, worst still, I lost the ability to show conviction about what I was singing.
Maybe that is just me but relaying a relationship or an everyday experience into a song almost word for word and still retaining the interest of both the songwriter and the audience is incredibly hard to do. There are two ways of doing it to my knowledge.
The first is to keep it all really simple and basic in language and theme and keep it really really SHORT!!!!
Sea of heartbreak was released by Don Gibson in 1961 and is the theme song to Clint Eastwoods Heartbreak Ridge. Its a simply worded, simply themed short song about heartbreak. This is a song which is what it is without any poetic pretensions and people are really receptive to that.
However, many people who are sensitive enough to write songs to actually reflect their pain or happiness want to relay more complex emotions and experiences rather than writing to sell a multi million dollar three minute hit. That’s when the conflict between existentialism and fatigue comes in. So how do we get around that one? How do we relay how we feel without boring everyone including ourselves?
Well my approach is very often to write someone else’s story. I choose someone who no longer has their own voice or perhaps never had a voice. My recent anger at the lurch to political populism found its way into a song by writing about the last woman to be hung for witchcraft in the UK at the demands of the baying crowd.
Writing about someone else makes you seem less self absorbed but there’s also an added trick. By virtue of the fact you are telling this story about someone else, the audience will automatically assume its a story worth listening to. Singing about someone else also has its advantages because often the words and themes you use will then be timelessly caught in the moment you’re singing about and you will also fool yourself into carrying on the song with conviction.
22 years ago I left the religious faith of my childhood. It was an enduringly traumatic experience which, over the years, I have slowly made sense of. I have written countless songs on the experience and to date only one of them has survived in my set list. Guess what! It is the one song I wrote about someone else. This song “Daughter of a Preacher Man” is very different to the others. Firstly its not immediately obvious its about me. Secondly, it tells a chronological story. Thirdly it has a very basic theme about finding God in the arms of the one you love. Having spent countless years boring myself with songs about my existential crisis, I woke up one morning and thought Id have a bit of fun. Dusty Springfield’s  “Son of a Preacher Man” is a story told through the eyes of a girl meeting the…er…..song of a preacher man. Well I wondered what Billy Ray’s (son of a preacher man) side of the story would be. Hence a song about his existential crisis being soothed by meeting the “Daughter of a Heathen Man”.
So there it is. The above reflection is not…er…gospel, but I hope it shows a different way of working. If, like me, you bore yourself very quickly, writing someone else’s story engages yourself and the audience a lot more potently and makes the whole experience of performing your songs a pleasure to all rather than a chore. I hope.
Daughter of a Heathen Man:


One Response to A short Song Writing Reflection: Daughter of a Heathen Man by Matt Hicks

  1. Harry Parker 30th March 2017 at 10:59 am #

    The perspective of this song is such a great idea and is one of your best. As for ‘falling out of love’ with your old songs – you’re in good company Matt, Paul Simon in an interview with Paul Zollo* – after talking one by one about most of his early hits with Art said ‘. . . it’s funny, you’re picking songs that I don’t really like . . . the early songs, I can’t say I really like them . . . ‘ If I knew him, I’d send him this blog post.
    *’Songwriters On Songwriting’ Paul Zollo (Da Capo Press 1991)

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