Poems Could Be Pop
Michael Zapruder is a songwriter living in Oakland, CA. For years he played lead guitar in other people's bands, until 1999, when he released an album under his own name, 52 Songs. For Zapruder's ambitious debut, he composed and recorded a song a week for an entire year. Each album since has marked his evolution through the restless development of his arrangements, recording techniques, and unique lyrical approach, earning him the 2009 Independent Music Award for Best Folk/Singer-songwriter Album, Dragon Chinese Cocktail Horoscope.
Zapruder's most recent album, the soon to be released, Pink Thunder, is a collaboration with poets who toured on the Poetry Bus, a rock-style tour of performing poets. The Poetry Bus project is organized by Wave Books, which is co-run by Michael's brother, poet Matthew Zapruder.
An audio sample of "Pennsylvania" written by Travis Nichols, Joshua Beckman, Matthew Zapruder, and Anthony McCann from Pink Thunder
Visit Black Ocean for more information on the project.
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Telephone interview, Summer 2010
Scott Pinkmountain – You recently gave a lecture at UC Riverside to a group of writers entitled, "Our Lyric Literature." Do you view lyrics as their own literary genre?
Michael Zapruder – It's a semantic thing. Are they literature? Lyrics are what they are; they're meant to be heard. They're not really meant to be read, I don't think. Some lyrics are good on the page, but many aren't, and that's not necessarily negative.
The lecture was actually more about looking at song lyrics from a non-lyricist perspective, than it was about song lyrics themselves. So for example, I said, "Why don't more poets sing while they're reading?" "Singing is writing." "What does it mean that there's something catchy about a word or phrase that's mispronounced?" I talked about repetition, refrains. "Why don't more poets use refrains in their poems?" I asked them, "Do you really understand the effect of repeating words over and over again?" Isn't that of interest in certain kinds of writing? For playwrights or poets who read their work out loud, you can derive a lot of interesting things from examining how lyrics work.
For instance, on the new record by The National, [lead singer, Matt Berninger] says, "We can say that we invented a summer lovin' torture party." You hear that a couple of times and after a while, "Summer lovin' torture party" is in your head as a kind of sonic fact. Some part of your brain starts working on it. It becomes sticky. Lyrics are adept at telling a story in very few words. Again, the National guy, in that same song ["Lemonworld" on High Violet] says, "I was a comfortable kid, but I don't think about it much anymore." It's such a great line, even though it says nothing. But the way it feels to say it is a part of writing song lyrics.
SP – You said, "Singing is writing." What do you mean by that and what does that mean for your definition of what writing is and can be?
MZ – It was a challenge I wanted to ask of the writing students, "You have to deal with the living language. It doesn't just stay on the page. It becomes something else when it's spoken or sung."
I started the lecture by showing them a verse of "God Only Knows" by Brian Wilson [off of Pet Sounds, co-written with Tony Asher].
I may not always love you,
But as long as there are stars above you,
You never need to doubt it.
I'll make you so sure about it.
Okay, that's really not what you'd think of as writing. But then when you hear it, [sings above verse] all of a sudden it is writing. Good writing. Those lyrics are good. And they're not just good because of the music. They're good in a deeper way.
There is a theory that people discovered emotion through music. Not that the emotions weren't already there, but that through the experience of creating music, we saw, reflected back to us, all these different emotional states, and that helped us identify and name them. So music is the feeling words were invented to describe. The genius behind, "I may not always love you, long as there are stars above you," is …
SP – It's transcribing that melody?
MZ – That's what that music is. That's literally the meaning of that music. So singing is writing. If all the emotional meaning of the words you are using as a writer come from music, or if they can be found in music as the ultimate dictionary – the real dictionary of what the words are pointing at – then how can you go about writing without knowing about singing? If we couldn't sing, our language would be totally different. We wouldn't have a bunch of words. So when I say "Singing is writing," I'm talking about the paradox of that Brian Wilson verse; how the language of Hallmark cards can still be good.
Also, take that line I mentioned from The National – "I was a comfortable kid, but I don't think about it much anymore." That could be the first line of a novel for one thing, but it could also be in the middle of a novel. A lot of people would say, "Well the big thing about lyrics you're not talking about, is that there's music happening at the same time and it's telling you how to feel or it's setting up a context," which is true, but the other idea is that music just does it faster than writing does. So if you have that line on page 150 of a novel as a bit of dialogue, it's also in context. The context is all the stuff that came before. If it's the first line of a novel, the context is what comes afterwards.
SP – The context is the emotional delivery system.
MZ – Exactly.
SP – What do you think did happen when you sang the poems for this project?
MZ – I don't know yet. I have no perspective on it. I could speculate that maybe some of the poem's emotional ambiguity is lost; maybe my version becomes an interpretation. Every reading of a poem eliminates ambiguity by the way the poet reads it. But the melodies and the harmonic stuff that I've created/composed are probably doing more than the interpretation that happens when you read it on the page. There's more context.
Hopefully I brought out some of the intended meaning of the poem. Maybe some of them will make more sense to people more immediately because of the music? Some of the poems will probably be more confusing. There are certain ones that have such abstract words, that it's difficult to know if they would communicate more easily without music.
SP – Do you feel like a song has less capacity for ambiguity than a poem?
MZ – No, I don't. Five hundred years from now, songs could be super abstract and poems could be like nursery rhymes. Poems could be pop. At this particular time, people aren't used to hearing songs that are as ambiguous as poems.
SP – I'm always interested in this question of how do we define the function of art. It's hard to sum up in a couple words.
MZ – My brother says that every poem of his is the name of an emotion and the name of the emotion is the poem. The thing I like about the poems in the Pink Thunder project – and what I wanted to see if I could do in music – is that most of them articulate this incredibly particular, accurate, heretofore undescribed experience that feels authentic and real, and that I relate to strongly. They encapsulate those emotions, they discover a new kind of truth that has never been described before, they make more possible in the world somehow. I think there's something to that in terms of the function of art, the idea that every experience is important enough to have a work of art made about it.
I agree it's a hard question to talk about, because then you get into the issue of the intention of the artist versus the experience. In the song, "Brother Poem # 1," on Pink Thunder, there are people clapping on the track and my eighteen-month-old son starts clapping when he hears it. That's really all he gets out of it. When he hears the guitar he says, "Guitar." So my intention is totally irrelevant. He's at the level of like, "Clapping!" and he claps and thinks it's funny or whatever. And then my brother – who wrote that poem with his friends on tour – for him, it brings back all these memories of the Poetry Bus. So my intention is in there somewhere, but every person is listening from a totally unique point of view. That's why I'm interested in providing something, a depth that will be worth attention from wherever you're starting. So as my son listens more, he'll realize, "Wow, there's a drum in that song too."
SP – So how do you build in that value as an artist?
MZ – I think you allow for ambiguity. You don't over-define things.
In case of the poems on Pink Thunder, the poems are good, but if the poems were bad, or if I were setting the phone book to music, I don't know how far I'd be able to get and have it work.
SP – Can you talk a little about how you picked the poems, (given that none of them were written as lyrics)? What qualities attracted you?
MZ – At first I just picked poems that made me want to try to write a song of them. If I didn't have a feeling from it, then maybe there wasn't corresponding music to be found? But with certain ones I would get excited. I'd think, "I want to find music for this."
As time went on, I definitely became interested in shorter poems [Laughs]. It's crazy how hard it is to set a one page poem. If it's through-composed and free verse, every line has to be started from scratch more or less. Longer ones were arduous to write and then it was really hard to make them not fall apart.
I hope the pieces are credible, but there always came a point where it was like, "Aw, that sounds like a first verse and a second verse and a bridge and a chorusy thing. Aw, there's another part…" But there's a breaking point where you ask, "Am I really going to put in another totally different verse idea?" It would start to seem really shitty and random. For that reason, you have to be totally outside of song and into composition.
After I had a bunch, I picked certain poems for variety. I didn't want every one to be nostalgic and melancholy and about birds – all the things that are my wheelhouse. I picked some poems just because they seemed hard, like the one with the line, "I work with negroes," because I literally didn't know if I could say the word, "negroes," much less sing it. "Boobs Are Real" by Dorthea Lasky seemed funny. "Last Words," by Sierra Nelson was structurally really challenging.
An audio sample of "Boobs Are Real"
SP – How did you deal with phrasing? Did you impose your own phrasing or did you follow line breaks, or what?
MZ – I basically composed my own phrasing. I didn't do line breaks. Somebody would be able to do it, but they'd have to be a lot more talented than me, musically. But even poets don't always read their line breaks exactly.
I tried to figure out what the line breaks meant, but I thought, "I have the right to read this poem, to interpret it and use it. As long as I don't change the words at all, or repeat the words. As long as I feel like I'm really taking the poem as the actual skeleton of the song and the music as the flesh and blood. As long as I feel like the music is really in the shape of the poem as it's said or sung," that was enough for me.
I had intimations of a kind of form – that if I did a bunch of these, maybe at some point there would be a way to deal with line breaks, analogous to resolving a chord change. If people did this for five hundred years, something would be codified. "This is how you write a line break." It would be because you and me, or somebody, some great artist, figured out a great way to do it and then it would become musical convention.
SP – This is a purely knuckle-headed way of saying this, but the tunes on Pink Thunder aren't hooky. They provide a completely other kind of payoff. Is that a fundamental change for your music or was it driven more by the material?
MZ – It's not a conscious decision of, "I'm going to make things not be hooky," but hooks and melodies have to do with repetition. There's very little repetition in these poems, so off the bat, that's not going to happen. If you listen to the songs multiple times, I think there are sections that have a glimmer of that, but you're right, it's totally muted. I take that as a promising sign because I wanted to let the words be the boss. I picture the words in most pop songs as cowering between the beats of the song. The words have to submit. I tried to reverse that.
So the short answer is, it's specific to these pieces. I really don't know what it's going to mean for my future songwriting. It may turn out that when I start to write new songs, I'll just like this better and I'll want to go into a more obscure and through-composed thing.
SP – A lot of the songs on Pink Thunder come to really abrupt ends. Does this reflect some understanding of yours about the difference between song lyrics and poems?
MZ – Part of that is just the recording process. Certain things I tried to record properly. I had professionals record drums and some of the orchestral parts. But I also recorded a lot on my own, and I made a point of not caring about the sound very much. I just was like, "I am not going to drive myself crazy about whether I'm getting a 'tasty' organ sound," or whatever [Laughs]. It was purely practical. I had my hands full, so at the end of songs I probably just abandoned them. I don't think I even composed the endings. [Laughs]
Maybe if I were to try to spin it, to reverse engineer a reason for that seeming okay, I'd say it's really about the words. Once the words are done, the music has no reason to exist.
If you're a chef serving a meal, that's what a record's like. Each song on the record is this beautiful dish, and everything is just so. But the Pink Thunder record is like if you're hanging out with your friends, talking about poetry; the music is the spaghetti you made. It's less important, because what's really important are the words and the conversation, and nobody cares what you're eating. That's probably why the endings didn't require that same kind of attention. I didn't want the music to be fetishized in the way it usually is – to be dressed up into this perfect thing. I wanted to humble the music and have it follow the words, have it build new muscle, take on new abilities to accomplish the articulation of a state of mind or a feeling.
SP – What did working on the Pink Thunder project teach you about lyric writing?
MZ –. I'm sure it taught me something. If nothing else, possibility. I think the poems also put some standard in me. I'm going to be a lot less satisfied with lyrics that are in between. I either want them to be direct and powerful in an explicit way, or I want them to be as good as these poems.
There were some awkward parts of these poems where if they were my songs, I would've changed a couple of words because they weren't good words to sing. They really should be changed. There's one called "Book of Life," by Noelle Kocot with the line, "The phoenix rose from the ashes and decided to keep rising. A forgetful monk basked in shadow." You can't sing, "Basked in shadow." I would never put that in a song. It's irritating to say. There are all these collisions of consonants. Most of us, as songwriters, write with a mouth feel. We just know not to write like that. But maybe I'll consider writing more stuff like that. Maybe I'll say, "Oh wait, this isn't a good place to just go with instinct. Maybe a word that's unpleasant to sing will be good for this part of the song." It broke down some habits, I hope.
An audio sample of "Book of Life"
SP – A lot of the poems are really humorous or they have humorous turns in them. Something I've thought about is how hard it is to pull off humor in song, how ninety-nine percent of the time it's just cringe-worthy. I'm wondering how you dealt with that? It would be safe to say that, aside from this project, your music is not particularly humorous.
MZ – No. Matthew once said to me, "Man you're so funny. How come your music isn't funny at all?" And I told him, "I'm not good enough to be funny yet."
Part of this project is me saying, "This is a kind of poetry. This is a community of poets and one of the characteristics of their work is it's often funny." In terms of how I dealt with it, I really trust the poems and the poets. I tried to follow the poems, to let them bring me places. Like in the case of the song, "Twins," by Bob Hicok, it indicated a funny setting. The eventual recording had a ukulele and this broken organ. It's all chopped up and very clowny. Originally it was just guitar and piano and it didn't have much identity, but I think the arrangement came from the poem being funny.
An audio sample of "Twins"
In "Brother Poem #1" (a collaborative poem by Joshua Beckman, Anthony McCann, Travis Nichols, and Matthew Zapruder) there's a line that says, "Only the carousing merchants can tell me what to do." I had written this clown car oom-pah sort of thing, and I couldn't pull it off. It didn't work right for me to sing it. The words led to writing that part and then the recording led to deciding, "Oh okay, I'm going to hit this big clown drum and I'm going to have all these people sing this line and then clap after it to signal it's okay to laugh. It's supposed to be ridiculous and comical."
SP – Could you ever conceive of writing the word, "boobs," in a song?
MZ – [Laughs] I know. I thought, "I gotta find a woman to sing this song," and Eli [Crews, the recording engineer] said, "Why? It's funny this way. It's interesting. You could just be an overweight guy with boobs." [Laughs]
SP – But the word itself is brutal to have to sing.
MZ – It's so hard to perform. I did it once and couldn't keep from laughing. You sing the whole song and then in the middle you say, "Somewhere in there I grew these enormous boobs," and people start to laugh. They're like, "What the fuck are you doing?" The effect is even more pronounced live.
SP – Are these songs going to be performable?
MZ – I really don't know. I do not want to play them in bars. I'd be happy to perform these in conference rooms, at universities, in people's houses – anywhere there are lively minds and hearts. Obviously they would be performable in a concert hall with resources and an orchestra and stuff. They could be great. And if people know them, they'll be easier to perform. To do both – to not have the full orchestration and not have the audience know them or have ever heard anything much in this form – would be a nightmare.
My brother asked me some great questions when I got close to being finished. He said, "What kind of experiences and opportunities do you want this project to create for you?" And when I think about it that way, I realize, "Yeah, I'm not going to get into my van and tour the U.S. and play the Empty Bottle in Chicago." But if I can go for a long weekend and give a talk and then perform a concert at a university, maybe collaborate with some people, collect some poems for another piece, have a dialogue about this stuff, work on a volume II, and really engage with poets – then I start to think, "Okay, this has legs for me, intrinsically. Whatever happens, this is something I will enjoy doing."