I can’t remember where I learned about furniture. It could have been in the UCLA songwriting class taught by Phil Swann or it may have been while studying with the extraordinary Harriet Schock. I do know that after it was explained to me, I started noticing that all of the most evocative and moving lyrics I’ve heard have furniture. So, when it comes to songwriting, what is furniture?
If you walk into an empty room, you’re not given much information about who used to live there. You can assess the size measurements and judge the light. Not much information. BUT, if a room has 2 pieces of furniture, you can actually tell quite a good bit about it’s owner. The furniture they have chosen gives a glimpse into the owner’s mind and may indicate quite a lot about the personality of the owner. The same goes for “furniture” in lyric writing.
I’ll give a few examples of “furniture”. For instance, if you want to write a song about loneliness, you might sing: So lonely. So lonely. So lonely. The Police – #6 Official Charts Company in UK, 1979. It works. It’s obvious. There is no doubt that the songwriter is trying to tell me he’s lonely. But, that is not the part of the song that evokes anything. It tells me something but I don’t get to really feel it. These verse lyrics, however, say much much more:
Now no-one’s knocked upon my door / For a thousand years, or more
All made up and nowhere to go / Welcome to this one man show
Just take a seat, they’re always free / No surprise, no mystery
In this theater that I call my soul / I always play the starring role, so lonely
That word landscape is entirely evocative. I can clearly picture someone sitting dejected – dressed in full make-up and stillettos – with another free chair – empty, save for the self-pity collecting from the room’s sole occupant. It’s exaggeration. It’s ego driven. It’s lonely angst at it’s finest. It’s furniture.
Another example is a lyric that shows this kind of lonely: I miss you. Like the deserts miss the rain. – Everything But The Girl #2 Billboard Top 100, 1994 It is no wonder that Everything But The Girl had a worldwide hit with the simplicity and effortless cinematography of those lyrics. If you’ve ever seen the desert, or even a picture of the desert, you can understand how much she misses who she is singing to. The verses add even more drama in that it becomes clear she is singing to herself or a phantom. Haven’t we all been there?
A more current example and an entirely different type of lonely is Need You Now – Lady Antebellum – five weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs 2009. In these lyrics you’ll find both the show and a bit of tell:
Picture perfect memories,
Scattered all around the floor,
Reaching for the phone cause, I can’t fight it any more
And I wonder if I ever cross your mind
For me it happens all the time
It’s a quarter after one, I’m all alone and I need you now
Again, I can perfectly picture the scene and easily place myself in it. That is the beauty of the “furniture” – you can be IN it. It puts the listener inside the song.
I am committed to teaching students (and reminding myself) that the best lyrics show us as opposed to telling us. There is nothing wrong with a bit of tell. However, furniture (the showing) helps a listener’s imagination recall a feeling (i.e. – loneliness) by creating a word landscape that is cinematic and immediately recognizable.