The Autobiographical Song – Just say no (or maybe yes)

Just for the record – in the interests of transparency – I have never done any of the following:

  • Lived in or in close proximity to a fishing port

  • Had a passionate and torrid affair with the wife of a fisherman

  • Seen that affair come to an end because of a tragedy at sea

I only point this all out because one of my songs – the Running Tide – features a character who has done or experienced all those things, and a few more besides. Indeed, in the space of a six minute song, he (the narrator) and his partner indulge in a fair amount of morally sub-optimal behaviour. And along the way he walks a road from a kind of innocence to experience.

Writing in Character

It was actually, a fun song to write. A proper story with characters, a beginning a middle and an end, plus a plot twist. If that sounds a bit heavy, people seem to like it. It’s my best performing song on Spotify and it gets requested a lot at gigs.

But it’s not autobiographical and very few of my songs are. Once, after a gig, a woman who asked me: “Do you put all your relationships into songs.” I probably smiled enigmatically/I wasn’t totally sure if I was flattered or vaguely unsettled by the fact that I might look like someone who has endured and survived several albums’ worth of doomed, tragic or tempestuous relationships. The truth is I write stories and the characters aren’t (usually) me.


So does that make them inauthentic. I hope not/ Maybe the autobiography slips in when I apply elements of my own experience to other people’s stories. In other words, the characters and situation are made up, but I wouldn’t be writing them if I couldn’t, at some level, empathise with the fictional people who I move around my songwriting chessboard. So there is a bit of me in there. Small incidents in my life are enlarged into the stuff of song.

This is a win/win situation, as I see it. I get to write about real feelings and emotions (and situations) but I render them in a fictional format. So – for the most part –  no one recognises themselves in any of my songs and consequently  nobody gets annoyed at having their story framed by somebody else’s narrative. At least that’s what I like to think.

That said, I’ve probably written two or three songs where real world situations – and more importantly real world people – find themselves centre stage. And  it does worry me. What if they Google me one day and find the song? What if they then recognize themselves within the song? What will they think? Will they be annoyed?  Should I take the song out of public view, just to be on the safe side?

Sad to say, I don’t think anyone has ever written a song about me and if that were ever happen, I don’t know what I’d make of it. On one level, I would probably be flattered that they bothered. But possibly also severely destabilised.  I remember reading that the real Suzanne from the Leonard Cohen song of the same name was extremely upset when she was identified as the subject of one of the world’s best selling (and best known) lyrics.

So I think that – by and large –  it’s wise  to stay away from stories that real life people can recognize as their own. And it’s probably even wiser to avoid naming  names . But sometimes as an artist/songwriter, you feel you have to tread the autobiographical /biographical road  – If only because you have a story  a story that needs to be told.  A case of handle with care.

Let me know what you think.

Check out my new album on spotify:  Love & Pride 

Or bandcamp: Love & Pride

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