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From Nick Cave to Courtney Barnett: 12 of the most literary songwriters

It seems that these days, rock music is increasingly losing its literary edge. Perhaps it’s shifted more, like the rock-star lifestyle, to the hip-hop and rap world, or maybe it is a question of what is receiving more media attention. When people hear “literary songwriter”, they may think of images of thin, tall men, with dark shades, curly hair, with a lingering smell of liquorice-like absinthe hanging on their breath. In other words, people such as Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison, or even the more modern, razor-like, quiffed Morrissey.

Although having said that, literary songwriters are still around today, albeit not as common, and maybe not always brought to the uttermost forefront of the picture. It used to be the norm back in the late 60s, progressed into the 70s, and experienced somewhat of a golden age in the 80s: exemplified in post-punk and new wave bands, such as Echo and the Bunnymen, and The Smiths.

Many brilliant literary lyricists have ascended into the upper echelons of immortalised stardom. They would certainly fit this bill, and while they do deserve mention, they are very much ingrained in our collective conscience. Songwriters are working in popular music, who are either up and coming or are not as recognised as being equally as literary as they are musical. Of course there a good number of lyricists who know how to write well; we’re taking a look at the songwriters who live and breathe literature, to the point where it seeps into their work.

Pulling from the past and present; whether they have written books or have written lyrics that could read like poetry — they are, in one way or another, very literary. It’s usually a facet of a songwriter’s output, words are, of course, essential to creating pop music, but some artists are more capable than others in using those words to create encompassing worlds of escape.

12 literary songwriters:

Patti Smith

The very queen of punk rock should be mentioned first. One of the most gifted poets and writers involved in rock n’ roll and a foundational artist in the formation of punk rock as we know it today. In addition to her poetic contribution to the genre, she has published several books, including two autobiographies and a couple of books of poetry.

Her book Just Kids details her childhood and then the start of her music career and may well be one of the finest rock memoirs written of all time. Focusing on her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe, the artist paints a vivid picture as visceral as any of her songs.

“And they were like compass grass
coming together into the head of a shaman bouquet
Slit in his nose and all the others went shooting
And he saw the lights of traffic beckoning like the hands of Blake”

Jim Carroll

Another New York City cat, who so happened to have lived with Patti Smith for a while was Jim Carroll. He released a fantastic album in 1980 called Catholic Boy, which is an essential listen. His writing career, however, did take precedence. He published several books of poetry, including a couple of longer reads. His most famous book, titled The Basketball Diaries, is a series of journal entries about his formative years in New York City, where he was a small-time basketball star at his school while doing a lot of drugs.

The Basketball Diaries also details his tortured life after getting expelled and living in the dredges of deep heroin addiction. Keith Richards eventually helped Jim get a record contract in 1980.

“You see, you just don’t know
I’m here to give you my heart
And you want some fashion show”

Nick Cave

The Australian father of goth and murder ballads, Nick Cave is next on the list. Moving from Australia to Berlin, then to England; whether it was fronting his original horror-punk band The Birthday Party, or releasing his more intimate material with The Bad Seeds; Nick Cave will go where many won’t. He has published two novels, as well as written many screenplays for movies, such as the tribute to the wild west – Lawless.

In addition to being a beautiful writer, Cave unabashedly references literary giants — exemplified in songs like ‘There She Goes, My Beautiful World’, a song about being on heaven’s doorstep, or most likely hell’s doorstep, it acts an artist’s attempt to reconcile their mortality through their work.

“John Willmot penned his poetry
riddled with the pox
Nabakov wrote on index cards,
at a lectern, in his socks
St. John of the Cross did his best stuff
imprisoned in a box
And Johnny Thunders was half alive
when he wrote Chinese Rocks”

Courtney Barnett

Fourth up is another Australian word-smith. Barnett reached international prominence with her 2015 album, Sometimes I Sit and Think, Sometimes I Just Sit. Barnett has become somewhat of a staple and well-respected rock musician in the alternative music world.

While she has not published any literary works, her poetic sensibilities are clear in her lyrics. There’d be no surprise if she does release a book of poetry in the next few years. She has collaborated with other notable indie heroes, such as Kurt Vile, Barnett is one of the more vital voices in the world of rock ‘n’ roll.

“Halfway down high street, Andy looks ambivalent
He’s probably wondering what I’m doing getting in an ambulance
The paramedic thinks I’m clever ’cause I play guitar
I think she’s clever cos she stops people dying”

Elias Ronnenfelt

This next one is probably the least well known of all the people mentioned here – and the kicker? English is not even his native tongue, and he still writing better lyrics than a lot of others. Ronnenfelt is known as the creative voice piece and driving force behind the Danish punk band, Iceage and Marching Church. 

Ronnenfelt is one of the most gifted poets working in music today. Also, in various interviews, Ronnenfelt takes up the mantel of a sort of modern-day Rimbaud figure and seeks inspiration from literature. Their 2018 album, Beyondless, is a masterpiece. It takes from the best production qualities of the Stones’ Exile on Main Street hearing a sonic canvas with a picture drawn in 4th-dimensional shapes — the sounds will fly at you in a controlled chaotic manner.

“Like roaring free jazz fireworks
Follow its beat
Dancing to the sound of the enemy’s guns
Boogie as we drop one by one”

Pete Doherty 

While Doherty’s public profile in England has been portrayed as being a questionable human being, often involved in controversy or drugs (the paparazzi know how to do their jobs well, if nothing else) many seem to forget that this is also a marketing scheme on Doherty’s part, to feed his image as a true libertine.

Unfortunately, the negative side is that it often overshadows the sheer fact that Pete Doherty is a beautiful poet. As a kid, he won an award for poetry, and he became fascinated with the lifestyle of an unoppressed poet. Despite his many times of falling off the path of sobriety, he has always remained faithful to the art of writing, the lyrics for ‘Hell to Pay at the Gates of Heaven’ offer a glimpse into his searing songwriting mind.

“Come on boys you gotta choose your weapon
J-45 or AK-47
There’s hell to pay at the gates of heaven
And the whole show it comes tumbling down”

Kate Bush

Initially discovered by David Gilmour of Pink Floyd; at 19, Kate Bush became the first female to have penned a number one hit in the UK charts with ‘Wuthering Heights’. As highlighted with the title of her hit, Kate took literature seriously; she took time off from her music career so she could go to study English at university.

Her vision and uniqueness are incomparable, with very few other artists being able to match her. She has a similar approach to music to Bowie: she embodies the character of the narrative of her songs, never operating in the autobiographical tradition. Bush is a consummate writer, having gone through several prolific writing sprees; during 1973 and 1978, she wrote around 120 songs.

“Bad dreams in the night
They told me I was going to lose the fight
Leave behind my wuthering, withering
Wuthering Heights”

Paul Westerberg 

Leader and chief songwriter of The Replacements, Westerberg rallied a bunch of disillusioned, working-class drinkers to form the band that would be their ticket out of the humdrum life of Minneapolis.

Looking back, people call him the punk rock poet laureate of the 80s; when you peel back the veneer of the drunken rowdiness, what you get, is a thoughtful, literary, and prophet of a songwriter. He has challenged mainstream thought with songs like ‘Androgynous’ and became an icon for a generation.

“Here come Dick, he’s wearing a skirt
Here comes Jane, you know she’s sporting a chain
Same hair, revolution
Same build, evolution
Tomorrow who’s gonna fuss”

John Cooper Clarke

While Patti Smith was gathering up the discarded flowers from the hippie movement, to turn them into something more visceral and sinister, but yet equally as beautiful; Britain’s answer came from one floor below in the underworld: A lanky Salford poet. The world hadn’t seen anything like him, since the romantic movement of the late 1800s. There is nothing romantic about John Cooper Clarke, insofar as Edgar Allen Poe is romantic; the two share a taste for the macabre.

For one, they both look like they may transform into ravens at any second while mocking your social politeness. The Salford bard is one of the only “modern” day performance poets to have sold out theatres across Britain. He combines spoken word and music even exploring that cross-section more so than Dylan at times. Johnny Clarke’s poem, ‘I Wanna Be Yours’ is the same lyric that Alex Turner used for the AM hit of the same name.

“I wanna be your vacuum cleaner
Breathing in your dust
I wanna be your Ford Cortina
I will never rust
If you like your coffee hot
Let me be your coffee pot
You call the shots
I wanna be yours”

Father John Misty

I would be so bold as to say that Joshua Tillman, or now better known as “Father John Misty”, creates luscious compositions of timeless sounds that paint a face; a mask that Joshua wears so his eyes can keep a watchful eye on society. Indeed, I would say that he is the zeitgeist’s keeper; he is reminiscent of Leonard Cohen’s confident but reckless charm. He’s an artist who he has covered several times; one of his latest releases, Anthem +3, includes two Cohen songs.

Father John Misty has been open about his love for literature, citing Henry Miller and Kurt Vonnegut, among many, others as vital influences. Lyrically he’s one of the more inspiring artists of recent years as can be seen from a myriad of tunes.

“I’m out here testing the maxim
That all good things have to stop
The bar closes at 5
But the big man is just opening shop
Speak to me
Won’t you speak, sweet angel?
Don’t you remember me?
I was God’s favourite customer
But now I’m in trouble”

Scott Walker

Scott Walker, the baritone crooner and one of the most mysterious and influential musicians of the 20th Century, deserves a special mention. While he has, for the most part, written his material, he is usually recognised for his beautiful voice, more so than for his unique writing. However, in many interviews later in his career when he became more comfortable in public, he would frequently explain that his words conjured up his melodies. Starting off with Scott’s band, The Walker Brothers, after moving to England from the States; while it may have seemed like an unusual move, Scott identified more with English and European culture; in an interview with The Guardian, the singer talks about his other artistic influences, “it started when I was a drop-out from high school in California and read Sartre, who I don’t care for much now, but back then he had a huge impact on my way of thinking about the world. And Kafka, of course. Those writers were my main sources alongside the European films I saw in the Sixties in an art cinema on Wilshire Boulevard, Bergman and Kurosawa and the like.’

The Walker Brothers saw commercial success in 1965 with Make it Easy on yourself. After Scott left the band, he went onto create a new image for himself, transforming himself into an English version of the Belgian crooner and wordsmith, Jacques Brel. Afterwards, he would spend nearly a decade long in the shadows, drinking himself to oblivion. He would later reinvent himself once again, as an avant-garde artist, challenging the boundaries of music. See his ‘Shutout’ lyrics below for proof of his greatness.

“Throw off
Those gimmicks
To the boys
Let them
Send it all up
In the air
There is
Crouching and wailing
On stones
Down here
We must freeze off
This atmosphere
Scraping out noise
Across night wires
Runs, for the distant city’s”

Leonard Cohen

There’s perhaps one noted songwriter who may not have immersed himself in literature. Leonard Cohen was an artist who was born within the liberty of the written word. A protege of sorts, Cohen was a distinguished poet and respected novelist before he decided to turn his hand to songwriting at the age of 33. The truth is Leonard Cohen was always going to be a writer. In his poems and books, the soon-to-be-iconic singer drew inspiration from sexuality, romance, relationships, politics and religion, among other things and, most notably, he delivered his take on the topics above. Cohen was a modern renaissance man and has always championed the power of the written word.

His songwriting style shone almost from the very beginning, even if it was with his voice. Cohen’s landmark song, ‘Suzanne’, a track written about Cohen’s platonic friend Suzanne Verdal, has rightly been seen as the moment Cohen became genuinely realised as a songwriter. His style lifted so effortlessly from his previous post as the consummate bohemian poet, he created vivid imagery with his lyrics, heightened visions of reality and added a rose-tinted charm that brightened even his darkest tunes.

“Suzanne takes you down to her place near the river
You can hear the boats go by, you can spend the night forever
And you know that she’s half-crazy but that’s why you want to be there
And she feeds you tea and oranges that come all the way from China
And just when you mean to tell her that you have no love to give her
Then he gets you on her wavelength
And she lets the river answer that you’ve always been her lover”

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