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.

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Paula Hawkins: a pulp-feminist follow-up on The Girl on the Train

Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion in misogyny. 

A couple of years ago, Paula Hawkins, an Oxford graduate with a run of chick-lit novels to her name (well, to her nom de plume Amy Silver), became the latest example of various splashy phenomena. Most obviously, The Girl on the Train, her first thriller, made Hawkins an out-of-nowhere, book-clubtastic, “movie rights gone in a flash” sensation, on the model of E L James. It also made Hawkins, who had formerly worked at the Times, one of those journalist-turned-juggernaut figures, like Robert Harris and Gillian Flynn, a beacon of light to every deadline-haunted hack.

Not so publicised was the kind of writer the book showed Hawkins to be. The Flynn comparisons were perfunctory, the overlap limited to shared use of multiple narrators and that not uncommon word, “girl”. A puff from Stephen King was a little more in tune with Hawkins’s sensibility, a taste for the Gothic intensities that lurk beneath the everyday; but King’s praise – it kept him up all night – still missed her strangest virtue: not the gift for making people turn a lot of pages and feel foggy on the next day’s commute, but for using the mystery thriller form as a back-door polemic, every revelation bringing an adjustment of world-view, every twist of the plot putting a spin on what we thought she thought. More striking than Hawkins’s late success or old career was her emergence as a new practitioner of feminist pulp, the sub-subgenre in which men destroy and women suffer, whose most recent classic had been Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and whose presiding genius – its queen for fifty years and counting – is the hydra-headed literary combustion engine who usually signs herself Joyce Carol Oates.

Hawkins’s new novel, Into the Water, serves to make things clearer. It enables her readers to sketch a Venn diagram to identify what was incidental to The Girl on the Train – what merely helped to grease the wheels – and what she is obsessed with. Why call it an obsession and not a crutch, a formula, the hardening of habit? Not because what Hawkins is up to conflicts with readability – clearly that isn’t the case – but because she is building novels more intricate, more packed with implication, than readability demands.

Like The Girl on the Train, the new novel centres on a female victim with alleged deficiencies as a woman and mother. The body of Danielle “Nel” Abbott, a writer and photographer, is discovered in the part of a lake known as “the drowning pool”. Nel wasn’t much liked by the other local women. She had ideas above her station. She was a “slattern”. In fact, Nel’s death goes unmourned by everyone except her wild 15-year-old daughter, Lena, who is convinced her mother jumped, but for a good – withheld – reason. To Nel’s unmarried sister, Jules, who ignored a number of phone calls and messages, and who has travelled from London to watch over Lena and identify the body, Nel’s death is the final insult, another way of upsetting her existence.

Into the Water follows its predecessor in applying laser scrutiny to a small patch, but there are signs of growth and greater ambition. Last time the setting was a pair of houses on Blenheim Road, Bucks. Here it is the community of Beckford, a village in or near Northumberland, several hours’ drive from anywhere civilised – “if you consider Newcastle civilised”, in the words of one character. The Girl on the Train had three female narrators describing events, in mildly jagged order, that occurred across a single summer. The new novel features testimony from five characters, including Jules, Lena and the brother of Lena’s dead best friend, and provides close access, in the third person, to another five, including the best friend’s mother. Alongside these ten voices are sections narrated by Jules in 1993 – her experiences carry echoes of Stephen King’s Carrie – as well as passages from Nel’s unfinished manuscript: a photographic history of the Beckford lake called The Drowning Pool, containing a prologue and descriptions of three previous deaths, dating from 1920, 1983 and 1679.

The book isn’t free of cliché – the phrase “out of the woods” is not a reference to the rural setting – and some of Hawkins’s devices border on cheating. At various points a narrator starts talking about a previously shrouded incident soon after it has been revealed elsewhere, as if the characters were in cahoots, conspiring how best to frustrate the reader. There’s much recourse to the undefined event, the word “it”. (What?!) The outsider figure, Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan, is severely restricted in her role as a conduit for backstory. “Have you not seen any background on this?” her superior asks. No, she hasn’t. But Erin “should have been given the files”. Well, she wasn’t.

But most of the time, the novel is plausible and grimly gripping, and Hawkins plays fair. Characters aren’t only lying to us, they are often lying to themselves, or else they’re misinformed. The reader always knows more than any one character but never knows all that a character knows, and Hawkins trusts that the promise of enlightenment is sufficiently seductive to deliver information by the drip.

So, Into the Water is on a par with The Girl on a Train – and of a piece with it, too. Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion not just in patriarchal structures, but in misogyny. The blame lies with men, who react with violence and psychological abuse to the perceived threat of a woman’s independence. But one of the main products of this mistreatment is that the female characters overlook the role played by such damage when considering other women’s behaviour and subscribe instead to a male-sanctioned narrative of stubborn irrationality or wilful coldness.

Hawkins seems more engaged with the second part of the equation, the way that women see themselves and each other. The radicalism of The Girl on the Train and Into the Water depends partly on the persuasive depiction of figures such as (in Girl) the pathetic drunk and the unrepentant home-wrecker, and in the new novel the money-grabbing mystic, the joyless spinster, the trouble-making man-eater. Then Hawkins exposes the truth behind the cardboard, the way these images have been constructed and perpetuated. Her plotting works as an ambush and also as a rebuke. “You didn’t believe that nonsense, did you?” she seems to be saying. “Oh, you did – and here’s why.”

The effect is less patronising than perhaps it sounds. The rebuke is aimed at the reader not as a citizen but as a participant in the thriller tradition. After all, the victim who deserved it is a familiar character: we have little trouble believing the type. Hawkins has set herself the challenge of adding a third dimension to the dramatis personae bequeathed by Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. We are accustomed to characters shifting shape as a story develops. The obvious suspect – twitchy, tattooed, alibi-less – was all along a Good Samaritan; the spotless widow has a cellar full of skulls. Hawkins goes further, showing how narrative presumptions betray unconscious beliefs, upending clichés of other people’s making. You might dismiss her as a killjoy if she wasn’t so addictive. 

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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