Songwriters, Timeless Storytellers

o4cZKFu[2]I love songwriters. I envy their ability to create a lyric that tells a complete story from beginning to end, in roughly three minutes, set to music. If the same person wrote the music too…oh man, am I hooked. There is something about that connection between the lyrics and music I find incredibly sexy and inspiring…as in GENIUS inspiring.

Songs, sometimes complete albums by a specific artist, have been the inspiration behind a story or an idea of a story that goes into the idea file. In today’s digital age, it’s easy to purchase and download only the current hits. I’m still of the old school of buying the complete album, listening to every track and reading every word in the liner notes. I love to glimpse inside the songwriter’s world and try to understand a bit of their mindset while creating a complete volume of work.

Most songs are relatively clear and don’t require much in the way of translation or interpretation. However there are times when a song really moves me, captures my attention with a gripping melody and lyrics that keep me guessing. When this happens I study the lyrics and then search the true inspiration behind the song.  

I recently did this with a song I’ve known and loved for years. Drops of Jupiter written by Pat Monahan, the lead singer of Train, won two Grammys back in 2006. I’d been listening to the album and realized I never did go on my quest for the meaning behind that particular song. This was most likely done unconsciously on purpose because the song has inspired me in various ways for stories and otherwise. Without knowing the real story behind the song, I was left free to interpret it any way I liked. This sparking of imagination is probably what made the song such as standout back in 2006, and will ultimately make it (in my mind, at least) timeless. Of course, a kick ass melody sung by a voice that grabs your attention doesn’t hurt either.  

Here is a link to the song along with my top two misinterpretations.  

First, I thought it was about a relationship between a man and a woman. Why wouldn’t I? I’m a romance writer and isn’t EVERYTHING about romance? In this interpretation, he was not enough for her. She went out into the world to find herself and something better than he could offer – A shooting star, one without a permanent scar, but in the end, she comes back to him and wants him to evolve as a human being so they can be together. He sounds sad though, as if he’d like to be enough as is, and even a bit bitter about her journey. Was it everything you wanted to find, and did you miss me while you were searching for yourself out there?   

The second misinterpretation is a larger dramatization. I thought this woman he was in love with was hooked on drugs while on her soul vacation traipsing away through the constellations. Now that she’s clean, he’s wondering if he can ever be enough to keep her happy and grounded since he’s never had those same experiences. In this version he’s concerned she’ll think of him as a Plain old Jane told a story of a man who was too afraid to fly so he never did land.  

Both misinterpretations provided me plenty to work with from a romantic’s perspective. So, imagine my surprise when I finally took the time to discover the true meaning of the song. The group Train was in their early stages and struggling. They had one studio album under their belt with no breakout hit. They’d been traveling on tour, too broke to even have one cell phone among them. During this time Pat Monahan’s mother was dying from Lung Cancer. At every tour stop, the band would gather up all their coins so Pat could call and talk to his dying mother. Shortly after her passing, deep in grief and trying to make sense of life, he fell asleep and dreamt of her in the atmosphere with drops of Jupiter in her hair. In his dream, on this soul vacation, she never really left him. They had a conversation and when he woke, in the wee hours of the morning, he wrote Drops of Jupiter. Several hours later, he was at Columbia records performing an acoustic demo. The idea that his mother inspired this song after her passing gave me chills and warmed my heart in a way no romantic version of the song ever could.   

Why am I writing about this? The song has depth and kept me thinking and guessing about it for years. As writers, isn’t that what we want? Don’t we want our audiences to remember moments of our work years from now in the same way Drops of Jupiter has stayed with me?  

Another word or thought on the art of songwriting. For years, I pursued a career as a professional singer. During that time I tried and failed miserably at songwriting. As a singer, I never felt that profound connection to the material so many of my theatre friends found. I was in the wrong medium of art. In the end, I needed to be the songwriter, the creator, and not the vehicle, something I have found in writing romantic fiction.  

Have you ever misinterpreted the meaning of a song, or been so moved by a song you had the urge to create some form of art on your own? What about lyrics? Don’t even get me started on the fun to be had when understanding the vocalists becomes difficult and everyone is singing along to a different lyric.

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  1. I love this post, RoseAnn. I often do that too. Maybe it’s the mutual theatre background, but I always imagine the visual, like creating a music video in my head., when a song really hits me in the gut.

    I’m familiar with this song, although I usually listen to country music. So I knew the melody, but hadn’t paid much attention to the lyrics until now. The funny thing is, I immediately thought it was about someone dying, their soul travelling through space and the galaxies on the way to heaven, only to be disappointed. Only I envisioned it as a man losing his lover, not his mother. 🙂 I guess that’s the romance author in me.

    There are so many songs that have given me starting points, or inklings of ideas, for future stories. I wonder if I’ll ever have enough years to write them all.

    If you could write your synopsis in three minutes, it would make up the lyrics for a song. I think I’ll try that the next time I have to write one. It might be an interesting exercise, at least!

    • RoseAnn DeFranco

       /  September 16, 2013

      Hi Jaye, What a BRILLIANT idea for a writing exercise! I am going to give this a try some time. I hear you about having enough time and years to write all the stories! Regarless of the interpretation, the song took you on a journey. Funny you should say that about a music video. Just the other day I was telling my family that I found the perfect theme song for my heroine in a new WIP and when they pressed me for a deeper explanation, I told them that if I were to make a music video for my character it would be set to that song! 🙂

  2. I love the story in music. Especially country western. I think of those song writers as being the closest to romance writers, with raw emotion, the relationship break-ups, all the pain, love, and kissing and making up. : )

    • RoseAnn DeFranco

       /  September 16, 2013

      HI Robena, Country songwriters are hands down the BEST storytellers…esp. for us romantics. While it’d not my current go to, I love country music. Every once in while I get on a country kick which has my family scratching their heads, but I tell them I’m listening to the stories. Since I’m the crazy writer lady, they’re good with this!

      Thanks for stopping by!

  3. My husband and I have this conversation all the time: lyrics vs. music. I’m a complete lyrics junkie, while my husband listens for the music. He likes jazz and classical…you know, music without words! Me, not so much. Give me something fun to sing and I don’t care if it’s Britney Spears.

    But it’s great how everyone’s interpretations are different. What you feel/get from one song won’t be what I’ll get…and that’s so cool for something so short.

    Great post!

    • RoseAnn DeFranco

       /  September 16, 2013

      I’m a combo girl myself. I think you touched upon the mystique. It’s that brief time in which to tell a story, convey an emotion, etc.

  4. Jenna Blue

     /  September 16, 2013

    Fantastic post, RoseAnn! I’ve always liked this song too, and like Janet, imagined it to be about somebody who passed on, an old girlfriend or such…I’m notoriously attention deficet when it comes to music though. I forget to pay attention about half way through, so it’s only songs I’ve heard over and over that I ever really dissect. And I’m also horrid at deciphering the lyrics. It’s actually one of the reasons I like country. Easier to decipher! My husband used to roll his eyes, now it’s my 13-yr-old who is laughing at me. I don’t care, I’m happy to make her laugh, so whatever comes out, comes out! : ) So now you have it, firm proof that I am NOT an auditory soul…
    And I can’t wait for everybody to read your “The Right Chord,” because your love of music shines through that story.

    • RoseAnn DeFranco

       /  September 16, 2013

      You are one of my favorite types of song listeners….the wrong lyric. SOOO much fun to be had there. My daughter and I purposefully sing the wrong lyrics to songs even after we realized we go them wrong the first time. Those words become our inside joke. Thanks for the shout out on The Right Chord!

  5. Similar to Jenna, I don’t always pay attention to the songs. More specifically, I don’t always hear or are able to understand the lyrics. I know I like a song by the way the music feels. Does it have a good beat? Does it make me want to dance? This gets me into trouble when my kids want to download a song. I have to look up the lyrics to make sure it’s appropriate, which is always a question in this time.

    But, I do have a tendency to think of songs in terms of my hero/heroine. They each have a Lifehouse song that I associate with them. For Kate & Edward (Untangle My Heart), it’s “Whatever It Takes”. For Charles & Meghan, it’s “You and Me”. I find listening to the music and the lyrics helpful when I’m having difficulty getting into the scene or their POV. Since I’m a visual person, it helps me to picture a scene with the H/H with that particular song in the background. Sort of like my own movie scene.

    • RoseAnn DeFranco

       /  September 20, 2013

      My couples usually have a “song” as well! And I love it when I find the right “theme” song for my heroine.

  6. I have to admit I’m one of those people who is not a big music listener. When I write, I prefer complete silence and I never visualize the story that goes with a song. I guess that particular creative muscle doesn’t work particularly well in me!

    But songs that do catch my interest are the ones with great lyrics and I enjoy songs that have meaning, tell a story or strike an emotional chord somehow.

    I find the songs that are most meaningful to me are the ones that take me back to the time in my life that I associate the song with – whether it’s something I listened to in high school or played at my wedding.

    • RoseAnn DeFranco

       /  September 20, 2013

      I also love it when a song takes me back. I seem to trip back to the 80’s a lot. Lot’s of angst for me back then. I had AWESOME 80’s hair, though!

  7. Mia

     /  September 19, 2013

    Hello Roseann,

    I love listening to music but sadly I have no depth to my listening. Did you know there is a ya book out about reincarnation based on the Tyler Swift song? It’s by Michelle Madow Remembrance. An interesting side note she self published this book it became a hit which landed her an agent and a contract with Harlequin.
    Happy writing

    • RoseAnn DeFranco

       /  September 20, 2013

      Mia, MUST read this book! I’m a total fan girl when it comes to T-Swift. I LOVE her lyrics and the never ending amount of HS drama she throws into her songs. I’m not surprised one of her songs inspired a YA novel. Now I need to know which one. Hmm….reincarnation…I’m going to guess “Don’t you ever grow up.” How’d I do? Thanks for Stopping by and sharing that piece of information!

  8. Just catching up. Phenomenal post Roseann! First, I love, love, love Pat Monahan. I have all the Train albums and like you I buy the full. Many of their lyrics are deep, filled with loss, love, reflection..and you’re right – his voice makes it easy to really listen and decipher. Without a doubt songs tell us stories and effect people in so many different ways. But, I also believe a story can be had from music without any lyrics. A haunting cello sonata can be just as profound as an opera or a Taylor Swift song. It’s really up to the listener’s interpretation. I’ve found when I need inspiration when writing a story, I do turn to music.
    Thanks for the video!

    • RoseAnn DeFranco

       /  September 23, 2013

      Hi Nicole. I’m a big Train fan as well. It’s these little tidbits of information that always make me feel closer to an artist I admire. I agree 100% about the various types of music setting the right tone or mindset in writing. Because I used to be a singer, I tend to gravitate to the voice and lyrics first, but I was also a flute player for 12 years and feel that strong connection to all music types.

      Thanks so much for stopying by and commenting.


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