When you invite Death into your love song, how do you keep It on message? You build a regular, reassuring heartbeat of guitar and drums, with a hint of melancholy in the A minor scale. Use words with warm, round ‘m’, ‘n’, ‘y’ and ‘b’ sounds. No guillotine cuts of ‘k’, ‘tt‘ or ‘ss’. No heavy, dead thuds of ‘d’ or ‘ug’. Light words, sung lightly, layered with the lalala of summertime. Death becomes a fact, not a fear; a natural part of life and love:
English words are like onions, when you sing. Chop them, roast them whole, caramelise them, scatter them as crunchy red raw rings on a salad. They never stop being onions, but you’re in charge of the flavour and the texture they provide.
Fire is a classic onion. We all know what fire is. It’s the singer’s job to make us feel what fire ‘is’ in their song.
‘Stranger’ is one of the most compelling words in English. We humans have survived this far by treating the unknown with caution. A tiny part of our ancient brain still twitches when we hear the word stranger. Our defences go up. We pay close, wary attention.
When stranger is paired with beautiful, we’re in the shape-shifting, land of myth and fairy-tale; the pull and push of dangerous attraction. We’d like to beware, but the problem is how?
It’s a name that gives nothing away. At first glance, it’s plain. So plain that it’s become a byword for anonymity in the US. But it’s a name that camouflages a wealth of possibilities for songwriters – it’s easy to rhyme, its diphthong expands, it’s easy to sing.
Any guesses? Here’s a cryptic Italian clue:
Your badger has broken my new phone.
How does your brain imagine the word broken? Where do you put the stress: broken or broken? Is the e like the e of egg or the e in the? Do you roll your r? Is your o like the o in alone or like the o in orchestra? Your personal version of broken is your brain’s blueprint for the word.
The blueprint tells you what sound to imagine every time you read the word broken. It shapes your mouth and instructs your muscles to produce that sound whenever you speak or sing.
Listen to the way Cat Stevens (now Yusuf Islam) sang broken. Is his version of the word the same as your brain’s broken blueprint?: