Lorde and lyrics

LITERARY NOTES: Songwriting is really hard work, says Verlaines frontman and music professor Graeme Downes.
LITERARY NOTES: Songwriting is really hard work, says Verlaines frontman and music professor Graeme Downes.

Do yu like Paul Verlaine?/Is it gonna rain today?/ Shall we have our photo taken?/We'll look like. . . Death and the Maiden, sang Graeme Downes of The Verlaines on one of the Dunedin band's best-known songs Death and the Maiden, released in 1983.

Bloodstains, ball gowns, trashin' the hotel room/We don't care, we're driving Cadillacs in our dreams . . . And we'll never be royals, sang Lorde 30 years later on Royals.

Downes, who now juggles being a professor of music at Otago University while continuing with The Verlaines, isn't lumping himself with one of the most successful Kiwi songwriters in living memory. But Lorde's ability to write a hit pop song - one that Downes says is more complex and adventurous than your average pop ditty - is now being used as an example to his students of good songwriting. They also have to aim higher, he says.

"The elephant in the room is Lorde, which has been fun for me in terms of teaching. [On] the first day back for all levels I said 'you've just had your arse kicked by a 17-year- old. What are you going to do about it?"'

Downes, part of pioneering label Flying Nun's first roster of artists, will discuss more on how he's used Lorde to shake up his students when he talks in Wellington on Thursday as part of the lecture and performance series Literary Notes. His talk - and performance - No Read, No Write - Tribulations of a Composer/Poet/ Educator, will also cover his own journey as a songwriter, including how he's composed several songs for what will become The Verlaines' 10th album.

Downes, who wrote his PhD dissertation on tonal structures in the works of Gustav Mahler, says Lorde and Royals came about via a student request. His first-year students towards the end of the year can ask him to look at a particular song.

"One of them said, 'Can we look at Royals?' and I transcribed the melody and talked through it and said, 'This is a really clever piece of melodic writing. This is not going gangbusters for no reason. This is a really competent composer at work here.' It's melodically a lot more complex than a lot of stuff that's usually at No 1. Across the whole [Lorde] album it's a very sophisticated piece of work. It's really consistent across the 10 songs."

Downes says he had to reach back to British trip-hop band Massive Attack in the 90s or back further to Burt Bacharach for a comparable example of similarly constructed songs.

Downes' examination of Lorde meant that when Royals hit No 1 in the United States he found himself being called by newspapers wanting to know what her economic value would likely be for New Zealand.

"Even the National Business Review wanted to talk to me about it. I didn't have any idea, never having had a No 1 song in the United States."

Downes says his talk will also be a way to road test a few of the songs that are likely to be part of The Verlaines album. And the album itself is ambitious - his template will be the old-school vinyl double albums, so five songs a side, 20 songs in total. He has already commissioned the artwork for the album and knowing that a vinyl option is likely to appeal to many who have embraced the vinyl revival.

Downes says he believes the renewed enthusiasm for releasing music on vinyl has acted as a filter.

"The world is full of music and you have all the virtual sites where every Tom, Dick and Harry that makes something approaching a song in their bedroom puts it up.

"But to do vinyl you've got to have money behind you, which means no one is going to go to the effort of doing vinyl unless they are pretty keen on the product.

"The world's also waking up from the hangover of random play, an entire diet of compilation albums on iTunes.

"With a [vinyl] record you don't want to wreck it. You put the needle on the first song, you let it play, you turn it over very carefully and you play side two. That brings into play a whole different artistic experience. I liken it to classical music - being immersed in someone's thought stream for 40 minutes, which historically we've always liked to do."

Downes says his own approach to writing songs has changed. Until seven years ago he wrote by "basically fiddling around with chord structures and then trying to work a lyric on to it after that". But it was pretty "hit and miss", he says.

Since then he begins with a text or lyrics then marries it with music.

"It's essentially the way all classical composers write songs, they went and found a text and if it was good they set it to music. I've been writing texts as poems and just scraping and revising them all year.

"Then I set them [to music] in January when I'm on holiday, which is scarily congruent with how Mahler used to work."

In terms of teaching others how to write songs, Downes has some sage advice. One comes from an American country songwriter who gave a presentation to Downes' students last year. He said: "you only have to make one mistake to ruin a song". The other comes from Downes' analysis of Lorde - and that she is well read for her age.

"Songwriting is really hard work. You need to learn to read twice. The path to [lyrics] can be poetry or literature or anything else.

"Where do you get actual ideas from? From your own life and experience - sure. But what else do you read to get ideas?"

And other factors can help a songwriter. It can be about support and Lorde is again a good example.

"She is very well handled by [record label] Universal. They virtually signed her up very young and let her work with people and no pressure to produce anything.

"Just keep writing and developing and when you've got some songs that you're happy with, we'll record them' - which is really cool. It's actually very Flying Nun."

Graeme Downes talk and performance No Read, No Write - Tribulations of a Composer/Poet/ Educator is at Old St Paul's, Wellington, on Thursday, 6pm.

The Dominion Post