Valentine’s Day songs – and how to write one

If music is the food of love, here's your buffet and recipe book. Sam Ritchie from Sam & the Womp and Jerry David DeCicca talk to Yo Zushi in an effort to pin down what makes a great Valentine's lyric.

If music is the food of love, it works the other way round, too: love is often the food of music. Some years ago, a University of Florida study found that 60 per cent of all song lyrics written in the US took love as the theme. “American culture is in love with love,” said Chad Swiatowicz, who lovingly wrote the report. If anything, I’m surprised the figure isn’t higher. Bob Dylan alone has written or performed 193 songs that include the word “love” in the title or the lyrics, from “Love Is a Four-Letter Word” to “Make You Feel My Love” (recently resurrected/murdered by Adele). I suppose there’s nothing like the all-encompassing drama of love – the longing, the heartbreak, the wonder of it all – to get songwriters writing. 

Almost every musician I know has attempted a Valentine’s Day song at some point in their lives. Christmas aside, it seems to be the day of the year most thoroughly explored in music form: from Chet Baker’s stark interpretation of Rodgers and Hart’s 1937 show tune “My Funny Valentine” to Tom Waits’s mournful “Blue Valentines” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Valentine’s Day” (yet another aural heartache). 

This year I decided to write one myself but I faltered at what, for me, is usually the first hurdle: the words. To get things going, I stuck my favourite songs in the genre on the stereo: the Replacements’ “Valentine”, Palace Music’s “Valentine’s Day”. On closer listening, though, I found both to be quite emotionally ambivalent, with lyrical overtones that would be inappropriate in a gift for a partner of almost ten years (which mine was going to be). “I’m catatonic... God has made you one face/You must find another,” sings Will Oldham in the latter song. It isn’t quite “Endless Love” by Lionel Richie.

After a few hours of false starts, trying to come up with something useable, I distract myself by recording an unintentionally spooky version of Richie’s “Hello” on the four-track:

But when I sing high, my voice shakes and it sounds weirdly like I’m crying. This gave the end result a stalkerish creepiness (“And I wonder where you are...” etc). In desperation, with time ticking by, I consulted the experts... 

Jerry David DeCicca of the Black Swans – whose laconic style has intimacy and emotional distance fist-fighting on a balance beam – tells me that even he has given the Valentine’s Day song a go: “I was a very romantic and dramatic younger man,” he says. I ask him what makes a good one. “It replaces cynicism with sweetness and an open heart and remains smart, soulful and sincere.” DeCicca cites Lou Reed's "I Love You, Suzanne" (“a Valentine's song with muscle”) and Steve Earle's "Valentine's Day" (“It actually sounds like a gift”) as good examples but notes rather regretfully that there were more in the past, “when people weren't so afraid to be corny”.

Sam Ritchie of the chart-topping Sam & the Womp agrees that corniness is nothing to fear. He says that those worried about cliché should either “avoid them or use them in abundance”; his own attempt, he admits, was “meant to be romantic but ended up massively cheesy”. (It was called “Snakebite and Wine”.)

I take this on board over a solitary pint at the pub, staring at the scribbles on my lyrics pad. The balance of what Jerry calls “corny” – a positive quality – and what Sam calls “cheesy” – a negative quality – seems to be crucial (and it reminds me of the toppings on a Papa Del’s Mexican Hot pizza). Later, the music blogger Ross Palmer posits in an email: “You have to earn the right to be a little cheesy.” To him, “A tiny detail in an otherwise dry song is often more moving than something gushing... I don't look for anything different from a Valentine's Day song than any other kind of love song, or any other kind of song more generally.”

All of which reassures me. Ross is right. It’s all just an excuse to be a little more sentimental than usual; to be more open than you might otherwise be. Jerry’s main piece of advice to me is to avoid any “insincerity in your voice”. So I knock out a simple lyric and come up with this:

Happy Valentine’s Day, Zoë!

Jerry David DeCicca’s music: jerrydaviddecicca.com

Sam Ritchie is a member of Sam & the Womp, whose new single, “Ravo”, is out now on Stiff Records. Their website is: samandthewomp.com

Ross Palmer blogs at: songsfromsodeep.wordpress.com

Yo Zushi’s new album, “It Never Entered My Mind”, will be released in the summer on Eidola Records

When it comes to writing a Valentine's Day song, should you worry about being corny? Photo: Getty

Yo Zushi is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. His latest album, It Never Entered My Mind, is out now on Eidola Records and is on Spotify here.

Photo: Nadav Kander
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Sarah Hall's dark short stories are fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment

The displacements in Madame Zero are literal, figurative and occasionally fantastical.

There’s no story called “Madame Zero” in Sarah Hall’s new collection: the title floats enigmatically above this dark and memorable set of stories. A passing mention of “Cotard. Capgras. Madame Zero” gives a clue, but the reader has to scurry for it.

In the 1920s a patient presented herself to the French psychiatrist Joseph Capgras with what the latter identified as an unusual form of the Cotard delusion, a mental illness characterised by a radical sense of disconnection from the self. Some Cotard sufferers think parts of their body have vanished; some think they’re dead and rotting. Capgras’s patient felt that she wasn’t there at all, and gave the name Madame Zero to the non-being who had replaced her.

With this, a lot becomes clear about Hall’s second collection of short fiction. So many of these stories are about characters who have vanished, become strange to themselves or stepped out of the centres of their own lives.

The displacements are literal, figurative and, occasionally, fantastical. In the opening story, “Mrs Fox”, for which Hall won the BBC National Short Story Prize in 2013, a woman who “dreams subterranean dreams, of forests, dark corridors and burrows, roots and earth” is out for a walk with her husband one morning when she transforms into a vixen. “She turns and smiles,” Hall writes, in language whose imagery edges close to horror. “Something is wrong with her face. The bones have been re-carved. Her lips are thin and the nose is a dark blade. Teeth small and yellow. The lashes of her hazel eyes have thickened…”

The story quietly updates David Garnett’s strange little novel Lady Into Fox from 1922, but its fascination with the wild – in humans, in nature, in the borders between the two – continues a theme that runs in Hall’s work from her debut novel Haweswater (2002) to her most recent, The Wolf Border (2015).

It finds an echo in “Evie”, the collection’s final piece, in which a married woman becomes wild in a different way, exhibiting cravings, confusion and promiscuity that first baffles then arouses her husband. Her radical changes, however (“She’d walked carelessly across the tripwires of their relationship, as though through a field of mines, as if immune”), turn out to have a dreadful neurological cause.

Other stories experiment with register, style and genre. Written in downbeat medicalese, “Case Study 2” takes the form of a psychiatrist’s report on a patient: a wild boy found on the moors who turns out to have been brought up by a secretive communal cult. As the therapist begins to “re-parent” her new charge, getting him to say “I” instead of “we” and teaching him about property and possessions, Hall drip-feeds hints about the community he has left, whose slogan “All of one mind and all free” soon acquires a threatening resonance.

The points in this story about connection and selfhood give it an aspect of fable, but at root it’s a weird tale; take away the leached and wistful tone and the doctorly equivocations and we might be in The Twilight Zone. Hall has written counterfactuals and science fiction before: her novel The Carhullan Army imagined life among a group of armed feminist rebels in dystopian Britain, while The Wolf Border, written before the referendum but set in a newly independent Scotland, looks more alternative-historical by the day. 

Similar impulses power several of the stories here. “Theatre 6” portrays a Britain living under “God’s Jurisdiction”, in which the Department for the Protection of Unborn Children insists all pregnancies be carried to term. Other imaginary societies are evoked in “Later, His Ghost”, a haunting piece of cli-fi about a Britain devastated by high winds (originally published in this magazine); and in “One in Four”, a four-page chiller set in the middle of a flu pandemic. Hall is no world-building nerd, however. Her focus is always on the strangely displaced characters (harried anaesthetist, obsessed survivor, suicidal biochemist) at the stories’ heart.

A microclimate of unease also hangs over the stories in which nothing weird is visibly going on. In “Luxury Hour”, a new mother returning from the lido meets the man with whom she once had a secret affair; going home, she imagines her child “lying motionless in the bath while the minder sat on a stool, wings unfurled, monstrous”. “Goodnight Nobody” evokes the crowded inner world of Jem, an Eighties child with a ThunderCats obsession (but her mum works in a mortuary, and the neighbour’s dog has just eaten a baby…). And “Wilderness”, my favourite from this collection, conjures stark prickling fear from its description of a woman with vertigo crossing a creaking viaduct in South Africa: “The viaduct was floating free, and sailing on the wind. It was moving into the valley, into the river’s mouth. It was going to hit the hillside, and heave and tip and buckle.”

These aren’t particularly comforting stories; they’re fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment, told by or featuring characters who are frequently incomprehensible to themselves. But their poise, power and assurance are very striking indeed. 

Madame Zero
Sarah Hall
Faber & Faber, 179pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder