My Feminine Ways

When you write a song in English, the right word can be a close, next-door neighbour to the ‘not-quite-right’ word.

Ragnar Kjartansson chose ‘once again’ instead of ‘yet again’ for the line that repeats in My Feminine Ways: “Once again, I fall into my feminine ways.”  He chose well. Once is a perfect fit. Yet would have forced the music to stumble. Why?

Once and yet share easy, elastic beginnings. It’s their endings that divide them. No matter how softly you try to sing the final of yet, it clinks up against the of again. That’s its job – to clearly show where yet ends and again begins. That t would have interrupted and disrupted the smooth shape of the repeating line. 

That final forces the stream of sound to stop. In My Feminine Ways, is a problem and a barrier. In other songs, like this or thisis exactly what you need. Different sounds for different songs.

Once, with its slooshing ending, finishes clearly, but doesn’t interrupt the flow. Once again is a swooping sound that fits the music perfectly. The singer can put extra, long-suffering emphasis on the once, as a subtle change, not a full stop. Emphasising yet would have opened up a gap in the sound.

When you’re writing a song in English, the dictionary is your friend, but not your best friend. Always test a word in your mouth, then test it with the music. Alternatives are always available.

Why does feminine work so much better than womanlyFall into rather than lapse into?

Songwriting is choice, not invention. Unless you’re Sigur Rós:

There is music within words, whether you speak them or sing them. It’s your job, as a songwriter in English, to choose words that present no obstacles for your music. A or a in the wrong place can clutter and block a stream of sound.

By the wayMy Feminine Ways is based on a poem written by Ragnar’s ex-wife Ásdís Sif Gunnarsdóttir. He’s chosen it for an installation presently at the Barbican in London.

A pink rose
In the glittery frost
A diamond heart
And the orange red fire
Once again I fall into
My feminine ways
You protect the world from me
As if I’m the only one who’s cruel
You’ve taken me
To the bitter end
Once again I fall into
My feminine ways
There are stars exploding
And there is nothing you can do

by Ásdís Sif Gunnarsdóttir

© Sing Better English, 2016


4 thoughts on “My Feminine Ways”

  1. “Always test a word in your mouth, then test it with the music.” What wonderful advice! I only wish I’d seen it sooner: I spent four hours directing a voiceover yesterday and ended up rewriting portions of the script — because *hearing* the words is entirely different from reading them, isn’t it? Thank you for yet another great lesson.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Heather – you’re in good company, rewriting scripts ready to speak them. Just heard a radio programme about Marlon Brando ‘poeticising’ the lines of his “I could’a been a contender” speech from On the Waterfront. Tiny changes from the original script, powerful sounds in Brando’s mouth.

      You can hear poet Don Paterson talking about the power of Marlon Brando’s surprisingly poetical phrasing. Don Paterson’s bit starts about 18.50 minutes in, introduced by Antonia Quirke. It’s here: You can download it, or subscribe to the Film Programme’s podcast.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It was a real pleasure to hear Don Paterson talking about the tiny changes Marlon Brando made to the shooting script of ‘On the Waterfront’. He (Don) speaks with a poet’s love of language and the ability to weigh each subtle breath of sound as part of a whole communication. Without sounding pompous or pedantic. He’s going to be appearing on the Film Programme every week – next week discussing Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca. Pure gold!


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