Steve Moorby : guitar/keyboards/mandolin/pedal steel/vocals
Gemma Moorby : guitar/keyboards/drums & percussion/vocals
Dick Jones : bass guitar/bouzouki
One of the very greatest English singer/songwriters Richard Thompson was asked whether he thought of his lyrics as poetry. He answered: I think they would incorporate a few of the virtues of poetry at one time or another, though in a more dilute form. In a sense, they are aground, lacking the depth to make them float on the cold page, needing the tune to lift them up off the sandbank. There are many poets who have written good, sing-able lyrics, like Walter Scott, Burns Yeats, etc. I think of Leonard Cohen as someone who does both poetry and song well, and it’s interesting, I think, to see how simple his tunes can be to carry various levels of complexity in the lyric.
In respect of my own song lyrics – written these days for songwriting trio Moorby Jones – I’ve always tended to discount them against my poetry, seeing them somewhat as second-class citizens, drones with a narrowly specific role in the scheme of things. Whilst making no great claims for the poems as being driven by the fiery heart and soul, I incline to the subjective view that the creation of a song is more a function of craft processes, like the building of a well-constructed wall. Its principal purpose is to accommodate – to contain narrative and to direct sentiment and to be served in this by an equally skillfully crafted melody. The success of the enterprise is in the synthesis of the two.
Richard Thompson refers to the simplicity of Leonard Cohen’s tunes as the appropriate counterbalance to the complexity of the lyrics and I think that there’s a fundamental equation at work there. Now that Steve Moorby and I have been back in close partnership again for some four years, any new lyric that I write tends to anticipate from the start the kind of setting that Steve will provide. Not that I make any attempt to assemble words towards a particular kind of treatment: it’s entirely a function of the symbiosis that develops between lyricist and melodist. And not infrequently Steve will surprise me with the direction he’s taken so that the contemplative ballad will rock out and the robust narrative will come back reflective and low key.
A case in point is Becoming Ghosts from the album The Open Road. The song was based on a poem written a number of years earlier. The poem records somewhat archly a secret liaison that takes place during a weekend amongst friends and its tone embodies a fleeting encounter that must never be repeated. However, Steve’s treatment drives the transmuted song along with a vengeance, replacing wistfulness with defiance so the original intentionality has no place in the new version.
Here’s the poem…
There’s a bucket of lights on the cliff top
squatting at the track’s end and there is
the great swarm of the summer dark.
Its night-roots are tugged by the sea;
its black branches clog the pathway.
We two climb blind, both naked still
under towelling robes, rime in hair and
on lashes, late love tattooed in wheals
of sand, communion salt on our tongues.
I smile into the darkness. Ahead of me,
a thick shadow, I sense you smiling too.
We’re drawn by obligation and now,
by shame a little: company is waiting on us –
over the breathing of the waves, voices rise
and scatter like sparks, music pumps. Soon
(another stumble upwards, one more turn
through gorse, its candles dimmed) we’ll be of
the world again, restored, reconstituted. And
from thereon, bleached by light, we’ll turn into
a pair of ghosts, doomed, blessed to haunt
each other through the falling of the years.
And here’s the song lyric and the song:
There’s a houseful of lights on the cliff top up high.
At the end of the track there it’s shining.
And the summer dark swarms like invisible wind
all around us where we two are climbing.
There’s sand on our skin and rime in our hair
and salt on our tongues as communion.
I smile in the dark; I know you’re smiling too
as we clamber towards the reunion.
It’s deep into night and we’re stumbling blind
with just candles of gorse here to guide us.
Voices rising like sparks: friends and lovers above
and a world that must shortly divide us.
As we rise into light and our story is told,
we take up our place in the chorus,
ghosts in the present, ghosts in the past,
ghosts through the long years before us.