When Mark Ronson started working on his chart-topping album Uptown Special – his first album for four years – he wanted to push the boundaries for an R&B record by featuring ambitious, memorable lyrics that were about much more than standard themes like love and dancing.
He told The Atlantic magazine: “I’d just written the piece of music that became ‘Summer Breaking’ and I could already tell that the chords and the melody needed something more interesting than I was capable of doing.”
Ronson felt that the music was telling him it needed lyrics that told good stories.
That’s when Ronson took the unusual step of contacting Michael Chabon, the music-loving, Pulitzer prize-winning author of seven novels, including The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.
As a result, the acclaimed American author’s lyrics now feature on more than half the tracks on Uptown Special.
“Michael is one of the greatest living American authors and has this way with language,” Ronson told The Atlantic. “He brought something to this record that no other songwriter would have thought of in a million years.”
Michael Chabon recently told BBC Radio 4: “Mark was hoping for something different where there might be personas created in a more literary way whose stories were going to be revealed in the unfolding of the lyrics.”
With some songs, Chabon wrote the lyrics first and Ronson composed music to fit the words (like Elton John and Bernie Taupin); for other songs, the author was sent a basic track and he had to come up with lyrics to fit the melody.
Mark Ronson’s highly successful collaboration with Michael Chabon is not the first time an acclaimed novelist has crossed over the border into the world of music. Booker-prize winning author Kazuo Ishiguro writes lyrics for jazz singer Stacey Kent; Tom Waits has worked with William Burroughs; Salman Rushdie’s words have been used by U2; and Nick Hornby wrote lyrics for Ben Folds’ 2010 album Lonely Avenue.
A good novel and great lyrics share the same ability to use well-chosen words to reach people on an emotional level. And they can both create powerful imagery through the potent use of devices such as metaphor, simile and personification. But lyricists have to work their magic under much tighter constraints than novelists. An author can pour out his or her feelings on page after page of dense and structurally complex text; the lyricist has to be more concise and work within the confines of a clearly defined song structure and rhythm.
Talking about his lyric-writing experience with Ben Folds, Nick Hornby once observed: “You have to learn to scale back the length of the narrative.”
Michael Chabon admitted that adapting the relative freedom of his novel-writing style to the precise musical and rhythmic restrictions of a song was a “brilliant challenge”.
He told The Guardian newspaper: “I had way too many verses. The lines were much too long with far too many syllables. There was this whole issue of singability I had no experience of.”
He added: “Just because something looks good on the page doesn’t guarantee it can be a viable lyric. Sometimes you need a line not to be brilliant or memorable or dazzling. You need it to fit …”.
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