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
Ross Palmer blogs at: songsfromsodeep.wordpress.com