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.

Stavros Damos for the New Statesman
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A L Kennedy Q&A: “Of course we’re all doomed"

The novelist talks wise politicians, time travel and Captain Haddock. 

What’s your earliest memory?
I’m not sure my early memories are that real. I recall pulling a doorknob off in the hallway in an attempt to leave home, because I was walking away from salad and was never going back . . . Salad back then was limited and scary.

Who was your childhood hero?
I was fond of Captain Haddock. And impressed by Henry Dunant. My heroes were mainly in books. My adult heroes would be numerous. The Lakota (and other) folks resisting the Dakota Access Pipeline are amazing. Bill Nighy is quietly doing amazingnesses on behalf of others. The whole of Médecins sans Frontières – they’re extraordinary. Lots of people do amazing things but don’t get mentioned. We are constantly given the impression by politicians and the media that everyone else is a bastard. It’s not true.

What was the last book that made you envy the writer?
I don’t think that’s ever happened. I’m always happy to read a wonderful book. But I guess I have envied writers who have been to amazing places or lived in amazing times and been useful. Rebecca West, then, Chekhov, Robert Louis Stevenson.

What politician, past or present, do you look up to?
Nelson Mandela was very wise about a number of things. Václav Havel and Gandhi also. In the present, the mayor of Düsseldorf is pretty impressive. So is Nicola Sturgeon. They’re people you can stand to be in the same room with – which is unusual in politics.

What would be your Mastermind special subject?
Anything I enjoy knowing would get spoiled by having to sit and spit out chips of it. Plus: my memory is on temporary leave of absence while I have the menopause.

Which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live in?
I’d like to have visited Shakespeare’s London – awful to live there. The UK in 1946-50 would fascinate me. And I’d like to have been in the US for the Sixties.

What’s your theme tune?
Depends. Bits of Dylan, lots of Elvis Costello, “Bread and Roses”, some First World War songs.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
I was told that if I held on and passed my forties, life would be infinitely more fun. I did and it is.

What’s currently bugging you?
Don’t get me started. Let’s boil it all down to ambient cruelty and stupidity. We seem intent on becoming extinct. And if we go on as we are – we kind of should.

What single thing would make your life better?
I can’t tell you. But it would.

If you weren’t a writer what would you be?
No idea. I quite liked bits of acting – that’s tough, though. I like painting, in the sense of decorating. I wouldn’t mind being a painter.

When were you happiest?
I would imagine it’s all the times when I’ve forgotten about being me entirely and been completely involved in something other – nature, writing, giving a shit about someone else . . .

Are we all doomed?
Yes, of course. We always are. We all die. That’s why we ought to be kind. 

A L Kennedy’s “Serious Sweet” is newly published in paperback by Vintage. Her children’s book “Uncle Shawn and Bill and the Almost Entirely Unplanned Adventure” is published by Walker Books

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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