The Small Machine Talks to Subhraj Singh about the poetic elements of music- Episode 73

For a few years, I’ve been wanting to do an episode on how music is poetry, the idea that music contains poetic elements. My friend and brilliant musician, Subhraj Singh kindly agreed to have a discussion with me on the subject. In this episode we talk about various songs. For a few years, Subhraj and I have chatted about music together on FB Messenger. His beautiful songs and his knowledge and interest in music made me think of him for the show. His latest music is the three-song EP, PYP (pick your people).

We begin by discussing Subhraj’s song writing and music, and the way the pandemic has affected his philosophies of life and of creativity.

PYP, the new EP by Subhraj Singh

We speak about Subhraj’s influences, especially Haley Heynderickx and Sufjan Stevens.

 For the Widows in Paradise, for the Fatherless in Ypsilanti

“Mystery of Love” by Sufjan Stevens from the Call Me By Your Name Soundtrack

Haley Heynderickx, The Bug Collector

Songwriting Advice from 10 Grammy-Nominated Songwriters

“Songwriting is a really intimate experience, it’s kind of like sitting down with a stranger and telling them every secret of your soul…you have to be not afraid to make a fool of yourself.” Madonna

Song Exploder – now a Netflix tv series but also a great podcast by Hrishikesh Hirway

Coffee and Flowers: a podcast about the National

What makes music poetic?

AE: i’ve come up with an incomplete list of possible elements with examples from various genres:

Spotify playlist of songs in this episode:

I Only Ever Listen to the Mountain Goats

We discuss the Mountain Goats Beat the Champ and In League with Dragons albums.

A Google Spreadsheet of Songs and Music divided into categories of poetic elements

  1. Memorable Image
  1. Superorganism (indie pop group with members from all over the world, formed in 2017)-  The Prawn Song: have you ever seen a prawn cause a world war?/Have you ever kissed a prawn, got a cold sore?/ songs from the entire album are really relatable but exceptionally quirky and unique

  1. Half Waif – Lavender Burning
    Staring out into the shifting darkness/Tryin’ to give a name to the place where my heart is/A country of shadows, hard to tell where the start is/I miss New York and that’s the loneliest feeling [lots of play with rhyme here too]

3. Alice by Tom Waits

4. Mojo Pin by Jeff Buckley and Gary Lucas

5. Mitski – Last Words of a Shooting Star

6. Haley Heynderickx – Ride a pack of bees

2. Evocation of emotion

  1. Ex: Re “New York” from Ex-Re, Elena Tonra’s debut album is a break up album (she’s from the band daughter – Still, I raged through, wine-wasted, shit-faced, solo, so what?. We talk about how New York is a short cut for things like loneliness in a city.
  1. Ghostpoet – Trouble and Me from Dark Days and Canapes “Manic time/Voddy with a little lime/Calm nerves, the bed’s made/I best stay, the devil’s at the door/Trouble and me/Trouble and me/Trouble and me/Trouble and me/I feel it all the time/I’m hanging on the line. Ghostpoet’s a British musician Obaro Ejimiwe. His first album was also great Peanut Butter Blues and Melancholy Jam

Dan Mangan at the NAC. Dan likes to listen to Adagio for Strings 7.

Cold in the Summer

Lay Low

We talk about how the pandemic has made us have a different reaction to music, film, etc from before.

Subhraj has been listening a lot to Phoebe Bridgers‘ Punisher.

Garden Song

Pinegrove New Friends

3 Something to relate to/something that connects u

  1. Jamaal the Poet and Lora Bidner – Ignite – a song about dealing with depression “”For what it’s worth, sometimes only the pain can keep the lights on.” and the light imagery throughout – positive

‘Ignite’ Offers An Important Message To Those Suffering From Depression To The North

2. Subhraj Singh – Stay in : If I can’t squeeze into my skin, I struggle to believe in anything (introspection) from “Coughing Into My Elbow” and new ep PYP

3. Graven Years

4. Haley Heynderickx Bug collector

4. interesting/unique phrase/Word play

The Burning Hell (Mathias Kom)– Dance Dance Dance: “I was born much too early – surely, surely prematurely/But I already knew that I wanted more by the time the placenta hit the floor/And it wasn’t too much later, lying inside my incubator/Clenching my tiny newborn fists, trying to slit my little newborn wrists/So I went to see the rabbi. I said ‘rabbi, why why why why why?’/He said ‘I’ve read the Torah and I’ve read the Talmud. You get born, you meet/ some people & then you die.’/He said ‘everybody has a tiny Pope inside their head!/Go forth and multiply – that’s all the tiny Pope ever says.’/Then he said ‘cause after all is said and done, from womb to tomb and sperm to worm/There’s nothing much else to do, so you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do:Dance, dance, dance, and romance/You just can’t help but dance/Dance, dance, dance, and romance/Take off your pants and dance

Frightened Rabbit – The Modern Leper

5. Repetition 

Iskwe – Nobody Knows, a song to honour missing and murdered indigenous women – very simple lyric but so powerful:  l lay me down now/lay me to the ground/lay me down in the shade/nobody knows where we’ve been or where we go/with the repeated refrain I won’t be afraid

6 Ineffable (i have no idea!) music doesn’t have to have lyrics to be poetic

  1. Davis’ trumpet in Bitches Brew

2. Oliver Schroer’s fiddle/violin in Camino – Field of Stars

Subhraj mentions the poet/musician Rabindranath Tagore. Amanda talks about Peter and the Wolf

Amanda talks about listening to NIN’s the Downward Spiral to write. Ghosts I-IV also.

Later Subhraj mentions Daniel Johnston’s I live my broken dreams

A few comments from FB pals

Rob Thomas I think David Berman (Wild Kindness?) would be timely. Shel Silverstein, PJ Harvey…

My example would be The Wild Kindness by the Silver Jews: rationale: Most songs use poetic form (or versa vice). I think Berman’s songs also make use of voice, narrative, rhythm and poetic figures which function independent of the music and performance.

Jason Christie: sound poetry – intersection of music and poetry ], the Luddites (with bill bissett)

Anita Dolman: All of Cohen, of course, but particularly Tower of Song and Hallelujah for their narrative combined with the musical lyricism. The pacing and rhythm being used to reflect and reinforce the telling of a story so the two become inextricably intertwined. I find the same with many Indigo Girl songs, including especially Shame on You. The first and subsequently only review I heard of their Retrospective Album on which that appears said they were poor lyricists, though the tunes were kind of okay. Given that that album is probably the folk album I listen to the most to this day, I think often of the deep, systemic homophobia, and possibly sexism and classism (given the lyrics are all quite queer, feminist and socialist) that enabled a critic to say that, because I still think they are brilliant and resonating. On a different note (as it were), everything Nina Simone ever recorded was magical poetry, but that would be a whole episode in itself.

Nina Jane Drystek: owen pallett whose music is full of poetry & beauty

llewis takes off his shirt: for its sound, chorus & lyrics:

“I am overrated, ” said the sculptor to the sea.

“I’ve been praised for all the ways the marble leaves the man, and I was wrong to try and free him.”

And as for me, I am a vector, I am muscle, I am bone.”

apart from the owen pallett suggestion, the song gold dust woman (Fleetwood mac) is one that inspired a prize-winning high school poem of mine (which was written in high school, haha!)

Other Miscellaneous stuff

  1. voice as a poetic element: the high, lonesome sound

 When Holcomb starts to sing in his loud, stick-straight, foghorn voice, my whole body shifts into a hyper-aware, overperceptive state: in the language of our age, this is called “being present,” but it feels more like “being electrified.” Suddenly, you see and feel everything. Comparable situations include being frightened (when, say, someone has followed you down a dark block), or, perhaps more generously, falling in love: nothing matters except whatever is happening directly in front of you.

 Cohen would eventually—and famously—describe this as “the high lonesome sound.”

We talk about Subhraj’s need to perform live rather than livestream. At some point Subhraj mentions James Blake’s Retrograde

Thanks to Subhraj Singh for being on the show, to Charles for processing, to Jennifer Pederson for the theme song, and to all of you for listening and sharing the episode. So far in 2021 we will have episodes with Connor McDonnell, Jennifer K. Dick, Rasiqra Revulva, Dominik Parisien and Jennifer Mulligan. It’s been a rough year, connection is more important than ever. I am grateful to all of the guests who’ve been on the show this year and to all of you for listening and sharing the episodes. Happy New Year, everybody!

Here are a bunch of versions of Auld Lang Syne