You’ll hear people say that there’s a kind of honesty in songwriting that comes from writing about the things that you know and have experienced. When you write about things you don’t know, they say, there’s an insincerity problem that you need to overcome.
I’m not sure I believe that. I like to take a “wikipedia” approach to music: everybody knows something about almost everything, and you’re completely fine to share that bit with anyone else.
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Joni Mitchell wrote “Woodstock” — about the famous music festival from August 1969 — even though she didn’t attend the event. She based her lyrics on what Graham Nash, her boyfriend at the time, told her, and on what she saw on news reports.
But “Woodstock” captures the spirit and essence of that epic festival better than if it had been written by anyone who was actually there, according to singer-songwriter David Crosby — who was there.
There’s a knack to writing about the things you don’t know. Sometimes the solution is simple: if you’re writing about an event you simply need to do some reading, and you’re probably good to go.
But what’s trickier, and where audiences may tend to take issue, is when you write about something as if you were there, and that’s probably where the claims of artistic dishonesty begin to be a problem.
It really helps to read what Joni Mitchell said when she introduced her song on December 12, 1969, in a concert in Massachusetts. Because she wasn’t there, she at least starts the lyric by setting a scene where she’s walking along a road, and comes across someone who’s heading off to the music festival. On a metaphorical level, it works.
The last verse is nothing more than what she would have seen on television at the time: a half million people… song and celebration… planes in the air. And then a bit of artistic license, which no one should ever take issue with.
There are ways to write about the things you don’t know. It starts by making an account of what you do know, and then filling in the rest with as much of your own honest passion, opinion and viewpoint that you can muster.
When it comes to expressing yourself artistically, everyone knows something. And certainly if you don’t know the entire story or situation that you’re describing, you know enough to have an emotional reaction.
And emotion and feelings are what songs are all about.
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