A Thread About Threads

The great Polish film director Kieslowski was famous for including certain scenes in multiple films. Perhaps this is because he used the same characters, or borrowed footage of certain scenes shot from multiple angles for different films and narratives. Whatever the artistic impetus, and whatever the process techniques that made this sort of magic trick doable, the effect for the attentive film-goer, especially watching multiple films over a period of time, was a kind of Cubist re-arrangement of time’s flow, causality and teleology, fate, destiny and recurrence.

You can use this technique in your songwriting work.

You can reference your other works. Not in ways requiring the auditor to go off in search of the reference to complete their experience, but as a way of weaving your work into a larger texture, tapestry. Create sequels, circles, rings, cycles. This can be approached as a learning and skill development technique, an artistic practice, and also as a kind of marketing strategy—a way of creating a narrative around the body of your work for your audience. Give someone a great first experience, then some threads to follow.

I like to say you can steal from yourself with impunity—as long as you agree in advance not to take yourself to court.

Examples. On my album Crazy Faith the song title “Hurting Sure“ was stolen from the last line of an earlier song, “Deeper than Crying” recorded by Alison Krauss and Union Station. The “last new line” of that song—that is, the last line of the last verse, before the chorus, was: “But deep inside my heart is also hurting sure…” Alison didn’t really get that phrase (and sang something slightly different on her recording). I resolved that the phrase warranted a more patient explication, via a song of its own. Then I stole, or referenced the line again, in “Time Has Humbled Me”—“Still I keep reaching out to you / hurting and unsure…” Similar lyric threads of this kind are woven throughout the songs on the album, along with musical threads, such as a certain picked guitar run (itself a transmogrification of the classic bluegrass Jimmy Martin “G-run”) that pops up again as a kind of musical “Where’s Waldo” or whack-a-mole.

Know of other examples of this kind of cross-referencing in songwriters’ work?

Songwriting Challenge: Whack-A-Line

If you have a great lyric song seed, especially one that could make narrative sense in a variety of situations (that is, could be “framed” in multiple alternate ways):

Write a song cycle of 7 – 12 independent songs. Use the line in each one of the songs. If possible the line should mean something different in each song. Use the line, if possible, in different positions in each song, and set to different music, perhaps even phrased or stressed differently. The single line should be the only repetition, and the only thematic link between the songs.

This challenge may be too hard for mortal songwriters. I’ll try it too! Stay tuned!


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