Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Candy Strypers -- "Callin' Sarah" (2010)

You know I'll never be caught
I'm far too clever
You ought to know that by now

In the last 2 or 3 lines, Paul Hughes of the Candy Strypers -- who describes himself as a "bedroom musician" -- pulled back the curtain and revealed how he single-handedly creates and records music like his neo-sixties pop song, "Hymn the Girl."  If you missed that post, click here and get caught up before you read what comes next.

Paul Hughes
In this post -- the second of three that focus on the Candy Strypers -- we'll learn how Paul Hughes writes the lyrics to songs like "Callin' Sarah," which has a very different feel than "Hymn the Girl" did. 

Imagine a spectrum with instrumental music (pure music) at one end and poetry (pure words) at the other end.

The songs that are featured on 2 or 3 lines fall somewhere between the two extremes of that spectrum.  Bob Dylan and most rappers tilt toward the words end of the spectrum -- the music is usually secondary to the lyrics in their songs.  

By contrast, a lot of pop songs have very rudimentary lyrics.  The lyrics of Bubble Puppy's psychedelic hit, "Hot Smoke and Sassafras," consist of 12 short lines totaling only 80 words.  

Don't get me wrong -- it's a great song, and it doesn't need any more words.  My point is simply that a great song can be memorable due to its lyrics, or due to its music, or due to the combination of both.  It's all good, my brothers!

There's one other point I want to make.  Song lyrics can work well and make perfect sense in the context of a song, but make no sense at all when you read them on the printed page.

Brian Eno
When I asked Paul Hughes about the lyrics to "Callin' Sarah," he sent me a very interesting Brian Eno quote:

I don't have the lyrics printed on the sleeve.  As far as I'm concerned my lyrics don't exist as some kind of poetry in their own right, but as part of the music.  So it's no more relevant to print the lyrics than it is to score the top line that the guitar is playing. 

I think Eno is right.  (The same is true of plays and movies.  You can read the script if you wish, but doing that doesn't compare to going to the theater or watching a movie.)  I always loved it when the lyrics to an album's songs were printed on the back cover or the inner sleeve.  But I didn't want the lyrics so I could read them as poems.  I wanted them because I often have a problem deciphering lyrics when I listen to a record, and I needed to be able to see the lyrics so I could sing along -- which I dearly love to do, often to the dismay of my children.

(Which reminds me the time my father sudden turned off the car radio as I was singing along to some sixties song from the backseat when I was about 12 years old.  When I protested, this was his answer: "We can either listen to the radio or we can listen to you.")

Paul enjoys composing music much more than writing lyrics.

Paul's alma mater, Durham University
Paul Hughes:  Lyrics are the hardest part of songwriting for me, not because I don't enjoy the play of language (my university degree is actually in English Literature), but for some reason I just don't have the patience to labour over them.

2 or 3 lines:  So tell me about the process you go through to write a new song.
Paul Hughes:  I'll always start with a melody that I can't get out of my head, always, as that's what draws me to any kind of music, classical or pop. Lyrics are an afterthought, and I'll start with nonsensical humming and the odd word which scans with the melody will pop in at various points, and from then on it's something of a jigsaw puzzle, and perhaps a story will emerge, perhaps it won't.  I'm always so impatient to hear what the finished article will sound like sonically that it feels like the lyric writing is something of a hindrance.  
2 or 3 lines:  As a fellow English major, I have to ask you if you read a lot -- and, if so, what kind of books you read?

Paul:  I'm a big fan of Jack Kerouac and J.D. Salinger, and I read world history and writing about advaita vedanta -- a wide range of stuff really. 
[Note: Advaita vedanta is a school of Hindu philosophy.]

2 or 3 lines:  We might as well cover your favorite movies and TV shows while we're at it.
Paul:  I'm a child of the eighties so I loved Back to the Future and The Karate Kid.  But I think The Graduate is my favorite movie.  I also watch quality TV like The Sopranos, The Wire, Game of Thrones, and Doctor Who.
2 or 3 lines:  Getting back to our featured song, "Callin' Sarah" tells a story.  Is it a true story?

Paul:  Thankfully not a true story!

2 or 3 lines:  The song seems to involve a guy who is obsessed with a girl named Sarah, and who calls her from a pay phone in order to keep his identity a secret.

Paul:  Yes, it's very much about a secret obsession type of affair with the anonymous caller getting off on Sarah's lack of interest in him.

"Callin' Sarah" is one of my favorite Candy Strypers songs -- and not only because I have a daughter named Sarah.  Unlike many of the songs that Paul Hughes has recorded, it doesn't really sound like a sixties song -- I would say it has more in common with music from the seventies or early eighties.  

It's not only the musical style that makes me say that, but also the song's attitude.  "Callin' Sarah" isn't as innocent and starry-eyed as most of Paul's compositions.  The singer is a bit naughty, and the song definitely has an edge to it -- it reminds me a little of Dave Edmunds and Nick Lowe.

Dave Edmunds, Nick Lowe
Despite Paul's claim that he doesn't have the patience to labor over his lyrics, the lyrics to this song are quite clever and polished.

The verses have an interesting internal rhyme scheme.  Here are the first four lines of the second verse of "Callin' Sarah":

Her number ends in a six
I've got a library of tricks at my disposal
Don't you see there's a fix?
'Cause through the mortar and bricks there runs a cable

The odd-numbered lines essentially have four beats of music and words, followed by four beats of just music.  The even-numbered lines fill all eight beats with words.  The rhyming words are in the same place rhythmically in each line -- between the second and third beats of each eight-beat phrase -- but in the second and fourth lines, there are more words to come after the rhyming word (unlike the first and third lines, which end with the rhyming word).

The effect is to make the rhymes much less heavy-handed than they would have been if each line had been the same length and ended in a word that rhymed.

The chorus seems extremely simple:

Callin' Sarah
Callin' Sarah
Callin' Sarah
I don't want you
Callin' Sarah

At first, the caller is presumably saying "Callin' Sarah" -- in other words, announcing that he is calling to speak to Sarah.  But the last lines seem to be coming from the person who answers the phone (possibly a parent or roommate -- or perhaps even a husband) is responding that "I don't want you callin' Sarah."

As the lines quoted at the top of this post indicate, the singer of this song is pretty confident that Sarah won't be able to figure out who he is because he's "too clever" to be caught.  Paul Hughes is a pretty clever fellow himself when it comes to the lyrics for this song.  Maybe he picked something up after all in all those university English lit classes he took.

In the next 2 or 3 lines, we'll talk about a Candy Strypers song that may be is Paul's most complex and ambitious effort yet.  And we'll find out what his wife thinks about his music.

Here's "Callin' Sarah" -- feel free to download (it's free):

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