(Welcome to another edition of Andy Synn’s Waxing Lyrical feature. Today he presents a very interesting discussion with Jamie Stewart of The Absence.)
Some of you may have caught my review of A Gift for the Obsessed, the long-awaited fourth album by Floridian Melodeath marauders The Absence, last month (almost exactly one month ago, in fact). And hopefully some of you were inspired enough to go check out the album on your own terms and, ideally, to pick up a copy for yourselves.
If you didn’t catch it, well, here’s another chance for you to check out what you’ve been missing, as I managed to cajole the band’s vocalist/lyricist Jamie Stewart into participating in this edition of Waxing Lyrical, where he talks about misheard lyrics, space madness, and the importance of Hip-Hop to his early musical development!
Technically, I started writing lyrics before I was ever in a band. It started with finding Hip Hop. I grew up in Upstate New York, so finding out about Hip Hop was really, really easy and hearing such amazing wordplay was life-changing. As a kid, I knew about all sorts of music based on mainstream radio, MTV, etc, but it wasn’t until I watched the movie Juice starring Omar Epps & Tupac Shakur that I took notice, and I started searching out a deeper cut for new music.
From there it opened up with Eric B & Rakim’s classic “Know The Ledge” (get it?). Rakim’s ceaseless flow still floors me to this day. I wanted to be able to do that, and I wanted to be able to do it as eloquently as guys like Rakim and Biggie and as viscerally as groups like Wu Tang Clan & Das Efx. It is a style of music that, while not completely, is extremely driven by vocals and lyrics. Hip Hop Music started me on my journey to find my own voice, and to become a lyricist and a musician.
Shortly after that, I got into listening to Punk and then Hardcore, again, a genre that bares a very pronounced vocal and lyrical presence in its raw and simplistic style. I started playing in bands, and always wanted to sing and write lyrics. It just felt right, because I felt like I had to write the lyrics if I was going to scream them. I have always been the main lyricist for The Absence but I welcome anybody and everybody’s ideas wholeheartedly. Whatever betters the song is what we go with.
To be honest, I find inspiration in a lot of things — be it musical, poetic, or just the random things you hear in everyday life. I have always been a fan of ambiguously metaphorical lyrics — something that can have more than one interpretation or definition, even if it’s someone going, “wow, those are cool lyrics”.
Personally I always write within a defined context, just so I can exercise my own demons. That’s not to say that I expect anyone to understand my viewpoint, or even to relate to it. If somebody can grasp their own meaning from my writing, I’m all for it. I think that’s the way art should be
In terms of my process — I’m constantly writing things down, or recording vocal patterns. Sometimes the lyrics will blossom from a cadence, or pattern I come up with, before a word has been written. I think that helps with making sure you don’t have too many unnecessary lyrics or syllables within a song. It’s a lesson I wish that I had learned when I first started my journey as a lyricist!!
One funny thing to note is that there have been a lot of times when I’ve thought that I have overheard something that someone has said, or I’ve heard a lyric in a song, and thought to myself, “Man that is really deep & introspective” or, “Damn, that’s pretty poignant at the moment”, only to find out that what I thought was said, or what I thought those lyrics had been… they were nowhere near what was stated or written! It was just my brain’s misinterpretation, which on occasion has helped with my lyricism; happy accidents as they say!
So many lyrics, so many artists… this list would be totally different if you asked me this question tomorrow!!!
There are a lot of reasons why lyrics might resonate with me, but I think my two favorite things are content & cadence (plus having the voice to back it up). To me, with those two forces combined, a lyricist can be unstoppable!
“A Rush And A Push And The Land Is Ours” by The Smiths is a great song all around, but the way the song starts out with the eerie harpsichord coupled with Morrissey’s ghostly vocal lines… by the time the rest of the band comes in, you are already fully invested in what the rest of the song has to offer!
As a lyricist, vocalist, and front person, Morrissey’s “unapologetic style” has been a huge influence on me.
Oh hello / I am the ghost of Troubled Joe
Hung by his pretty white neck / Some eighteen months ago
I travelled to a mystical time zone
And I missed my bed / And I soon came home
Chuck Schuldiner’s lyrics have always dominated. But, as the years pressed on, and as he progressed as a musician, vocalist, and lyricist, it seemed like his style became more refined. His lyrics went from gore, occultism, and well, death, into a more personal and pragmatic realm talking issues like drug abuse, religion, and one’s own introspection, to name a few. “Crystal Mountain” has always been a personal favorite as it deals with the negativity of religion in a very intelligent yet indignant manner:
Built from blind faith / Passed down from self-induced fantasy
Turn a page to justify/ Conjuring power – it opens wide
On your seventh day,/ is that how it’s done?
Twisting your eyes to perceive / all that you want
To assume from ignorance
Inflicting wounds with your / cross-turned dagger
It’s merciless and eloquent and takes a high road, so to speak, from the normal blasphemy found within Death Metal lyrics.
Jacob Bannon has always been one of my favorite lyricists too, even though you can’t always decipher what he’s saying. His lyrics have always been a very heartfelt, yet visceral entity:
Sadness fills up our lungs / their flesh hangs on our broken horns
Strays lay claim to shame in the way / a currency that once adorned
the blinding beauty of our world”
Every time Converge release a new album, I intensely look forward to sitting down and reading what he has written. I’ve always loved Jacob’s poetic and vicious style.
Then there’s “No Omega” by Eric B & Rakim where, except for three spots where a sample plays and he stops rapping for a couple of seconds, this is Rakim destroying the mic with almost three and a half minutes of impeccable flow:
I’m the Alpha with no Omega
Beginning without the end so play the
Eye inside no extended version
Next episode be smooth as a Persian
Rhyme everlastin there’ll be no part two
Knowledge is infinite once I start to draw
A better picture for your third eye if you’re blind
You know with a mic I’m a black Michaelangelo
I’m the brother who ideas are colorful
Givin em insight but givin em trouble to
Comprehend cause they thoughts won’t blend in
They’re pretendin, while I’m extendin
You bite like a parasite, ? you attacks
But you won’t strike, cause you ain’t no match
You need more light cause yours got dim
Then you get sparked by the Lord Rakim
What’s the matter G, check your battery
Go get charged up, then come battle me
His approach to writing rhymes really opened my eyes to having a perpetual cadence with what I was writing. It’s all about the delivery of what you want to say, and having style when you deliver it. A catchy rhythm within the rhythm of the song. That’s where I found a similarity in rapping and screaming, a more profound use of vocal groove: I’ve always loved those gritty Hip Hop songs that just got right to the point and didn’t bother with a chorus. Just an endless barrage of rap acrobatics!!!
Initially, as the years went on I learned how to write to the music instead of trying to force something I wrote beforehand into the song. I am constantly writing, regardless, but at this point I’ll pick and choose little tidbits that I’ve jotted down, re-writing something to fit into the music with a better cadence, or I’ll augment them by cutting out words or syllables.
Sometimes, it really helps by coming up with a vocal pattern first. When I do this, I‘ll sit there and repeat it to myself over and over again until the lyrics flourish from underneath the mumble. I’ll do this while I’m surrounded with notes and ideas I’ve written. I actually tend to overwrite the lyrics, creating an abundance to shave down. I find it’s better to have more than enough rather than not. With that being said, once you get into the studio, that instantaneous magic can happen, and sometimes a bunch of lyrics end up on the cutting room floor with me completely re-writing things on the spot. It’s kind of a crazy manic process that I’ve obtained over the years, and I’m sure a lot of lyricists can relate. But, everybody has their own process and their own way of doing things, this is just mine, at least for the moment!
Damn…. this is a hard one, but I think I’m going to go all the way back to our first album, From Your Grave.
One of my favorites off the record is the song “Summoning the Darkness”, which was written with a theme loosely based around a dystopian future, over-run by vampires, as a metaphor for those people and things that can just suck the life out of you:
It’s such a loneliness / Stalking here all along
Burning all of our bridges distant from the dimming sun
Slow in the shadows / The demons have crept
And this is where the dark thirst has slept.
Ultimately, it describes how the evils of the world attempt to close in on us, but it’s also a story-of-sorts, where the narrator (myself) is asking another survivor (the listener) what is important to them:
who will you die for tonight? Who will you search for at first light?
One of my favorite songs off our new album is “Celestial Hysteria”.
I wrote these lyrics with the intended departure of one normality usually found in my lyrics: an underlined message. There’s no moral, or warning; no self-realization; no declaration. I just really wanted to write a fun song about outer space!
I come to life / Imprisoned in an astral sea
Thrust into a panoramic that blackens endlessly
Now, I had to make it dark, obviously, so I wrote it about a person waking up, alone, drifting through deep space, totally unaware of how long they’ve been lost, or how long they’ve got left:
The time unknown burns within my lungs
Seconds flicker into minutes
While days enslave into month
How much oxygen do they have? How much food?! It’s about the pure insanity that would inevitably set in, the solitary madness swallowing you whole:
Absorbed by the abyss
Doomed to dementia
In solitude I am left adrift
To say that this song bares no metaphorical sense would be false. The song’s title literally translates into Space Madness. I often refer to this when I’m on tour: you’re stuck in the vehicle, you’re cramped and bored. It’s at that moment when reality sets in, and you realize that your trip still has a seemingly endless amount of time left. After a while, everything culminates into insanity, and you end up going into Space Madness! You’ll always end up losing your mind, trapped in the moving sardine can known as the “tour van”.
This was a lot of fun!! Thank you so much for letting me be a part of this. And everyone should listen to:
Church of Disgust, Meatwound, Career, Pyre, Twin Strike, Hot Graves, Clipping., Body of Light, Death of Lovers, Torture Rack, Phrenelith, Necrot, Goregang, Night Birds, Disevered, Edge of Sanity, Rittz, Ces Cru, and as always, the Bad Brains.