Michael Chabon’s Pop Songwriting Tips: The Pulitzer Prize-Winning Author Reveals His Music Method
The celebrated novelist opens up about his move to music, penning several songs on Mark Ronson’s new album Uptown Special and annotating tunes on Genius.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier and Clay is no stranger to pop music or pop culture: after all, his opus was featured frequently in The OC, and he co-wrote the stellar screenplay to Spider-Man 2. But Chabon’s 2015 has been especially musical: the audiophile and writer has just earned his first professional songwriting credits as the co-writer of all but two songs on Uptown Special, Mark Ronson’s new album. While you may know of it by its smash single, “Uptown Funk” (not a Chabon original), the album features a suite of sunset-marinated tracks heavy with Americana, introspection and noir imagery by one of North America’s finest living novelists.
Genius, meanwhile, has undergone a rebranding process in the wake of last year’s scandal wherein they allowed users to annotate Isla Vista shooter Elliot Rodgers’s 140-page misogynistic manifesto. Genius co-founder Mahbod Moghadam was forced to resign after praising the mass murderer’s prose as “beautifully written.” So in January, Genius lured New Yorker music critic Sasha Frere-Jones away from one of the most esteemed gigs in music criticism to become its editor. “It’s giving lyrics a safe place to live, raising the standards for all the annotations, bringing in different layers of meaning,” Frere-Jones explained to Newsweek. “At the end of the day, we’re just trying to put in one very user-friendly place a whole bunch of different voices that really, really bring out what’s going on in a song or a book or a fact.”
It seemed only natural to ask the man behind the words how he went about crafting some beautiful funk jams. Chabon opened up over the phone about some of the ways he moved from the man of metaphor to the invisible lyricist and how he was haunted by the spirit of Stephen Sondheim.
1. It helps if you really love music.
Chabon has been a life-long music lover, or, he says, an “amateur scholar of music.” In particular, he has always loved lyrics, and has incredibly strong memories of their power even as an infant. “I can’t have been older than three years old and my mother had taken me to a doctor’s appointment downtown. It was the first time I was aware of what downtown was and in the doctor’s office ‘Downtown’ by Petula Clark was playing. It was guessing at the reality of my life in a magical way.”
In his senior year at the University of Pittsburgh, Chabon was lead singer of a band called The Bats (not, he noted, to be confused with the Australian band of considerably more fame) and wrote lyrics for them. And their EP resurfaced on Mind Cure records at the end of last year and is now available for a listen if this album isn’t enough for you.
2. Have the right people around you.
For a music addict like Chabon, the chance to be involved in an album of musicians like Uptown Special was a dream come true: the chance to have Stevie Wonder or Carlos Alomar, the guitarist who’s best known for working with Bowie, on the same album he penned lyrics for. These amazing groups of talented musicans, new and seasoned, wouldn’t have happened for just any producer, Chabon argues. “I’ve seen comments about how well-connected Ronson is. It’s completely wrong. One of Mark’s gifts is to inspire people to work with people they’d never have an opportunity to work with.”
"Daffodil," co-written by Michael Chabon.
3. Find the right music you need to inspire you.
When Chabon began working on the album, he spent a lot of time listening to great wordsmiths of the past: Joni Mitchell, Elvis Costello, artists that sought to bring the words to the fore. But he ended up finding a more unusual inspiration: Hall & Oates. “It’s not what you hear when the record is on but the verve and the simplicity of the lyrics!” said Chabon. He also listened to a lot of modern pop music: easy when you have a 13-year-old daughter to guide you in, he said.
4. Good lyrics are inconspicuous lyrics.
The album has received a huge amount of critical praise, but Chabon has not felt much of the praise has been aimed at him: but he couldn’t be more fine with that. “It’s a weird thing to say, ‘your lyrics are so good,’” he laughed. “The best lyrics are the ones not noticed,” he said, “unless it’s like Elvis Costello.”
5. Songwriting is a puzzle to solve.
Songwriting for yourself, Chabon pointed out, is a very different beast than songwriting for others. “There has to be an efficiency as well as rhyme and cadence,” he said. You have to consider what another person can say rather than your own capacity. But the logician in Chabon really enjoyed the pragmatism of writing lyrics. “Writing has always been to me to a certain degree about problem solving. In screenwriting it’s really rigid, you know, you have a page and a half to do something and you have to do it visually,” he said, but found songwriting even more pleasurable to master. “The puzzle-solving element was the most pleasurable. Trying 27 combinations and then you solve the combination lock—it was the most satisfying thing.”
6. Rhyme can be your friend, but don’t let it rule you.
In the journey to lyric-writing, Chabon returned to Broadway lyricist and composer Stephen Sondheim’s two books on song writing: Finishing the Hat and Look I Made a Hat. In these books rhyme is stated as important because the audience trust you, and the lyrics, to use full rhyme. He also, Chabon noted, spoke about how lyrics must be consumed in real time—there is no room to sit and digest the words on the page. Understandably, Sondheim’s manifesto was a daunting read.
“I came in with this Sondheim figure berating me,” said Chabon, “and it was the first thing [album co-producer Jeff] Bhasker took out of my quiver and snapped over his knee.” What works in musical theatre, he learned, is not necessarily the right thing for a pop song. “Too many perfect rhymes sounds goofy.”
7. Some words are meant to be used together.
Throughout Uptown Special, Chabon uses a mixture of brand new imagery (a drug called ‘Daffodil’ he invented is the crux of the eponymous song) or uses slightly more obscure or abstract images that he has helpfully also annotated on Genius. But Chabon, king of the metaphor, also returns to images that music has always loved: in “Summer Breaking” he alludes to both Delilah cutting Samson’s hair, and a woman being “like a diamond.”
Sometimes, Chabon said, the oldies really are the goodies when it comes to building up the images in song lyrics. “There are just certain words in English that sing really well. Like fire and desire,” explained Chabon. “And you can’t resist it, whatever accent you have, they sing well. Springsteen sang it and The Pointer Sisters sang it. It’s better to let the song do what it needs to do than to be too cute about it.”
8. Don’t force the big ideas—leave it to the audience.
At first, Chabon wanted to do something with a real narrative arc: although the songs are geographically disparate, he imagined a story running through it. “I was four years old when Sgt. Pepper came out, and Quadrophenia, and the heyday of the concept album,” Chabon said. “In my mind it all made a story. A love story.” But he was also aware that there were pitfalls to the narrative structure of Quadrophenia: sometimes songs that worked in context didn’t stand up on their own. So although Ronson was supportive of potentially doing it, it wasn’t a necessity for either of them. “It was a structure that was all in place and if Mark threw the switch it would have lit up, but it didn’t need to be there,” said Chabon. “It imposes meaning and its better when audiences can impose meaning his or herself. That’s what makes an album last.”