How Charlie James writes songs that tell a story
While producing his latest album, ‘Diary of a sick and troubled mind’, UK singer-songwriter Charlie James reflected on the importance of creating songs that tell a story—no matter how heartbreaking the story.
Forging an album of songs that tell a story
From the album’s eloquent title to its poetic (“penitential”, as James puts it) song list, ‘Diary of a sick and troubled mind’ shifts James’ LA-inspired country sound into more of a British singer-songwriter genre attuned to his soul-searching lyricism.
With a heavier influence from the British artists James grew up listening to, like Elvis Costello, Ian Dury and David Bowie, these “slightly more left-field artists” gave way to the album’s deeper, more rock-oriented sound.
“The content of the album’s lyrics reflects the darker pasts of people, including myself,” James explained. “The songs in this album are, in a way, a diary of some past experiences.”
“This practice actually has a long history, going back through operas, epics, poetry, and even to ancient Greece … They’ll all have one thing in common: having a little more depth to them and a lot more thought put into them than your average teenage love ditty popular songs. Follow the story and identify with the characters; the journey you find may parallel your own life, for good or bad.”
One such song embodying this is ‘The Girl in the Flag’, a heartrending tribute to war-time abuse victims. “It’s a song about the abuse of women by visiting armies and the victimisation of prostitutes, symbolising all of the girls who contributed to the wellbeing as servicemen visit their countries,” James explained.
“The stories songs tell can be just as powerful and moving as any novel or film. By listening to them closely, we make them a part of ourselves for just a second. Perhaps that’s why they get to feel so powerful and intense.”
Where does a singer-songwriter go for musical inspiration?
In James’ words: “The best thing is listening to the lyrics of other music.” Such can be said of Kings of Leon, whose style has resonated with James during the making of ‘Diary of a sick and troubled mind’.
“What is very useful is the iPhone. If lyrics or an idea come to mind, I just write it in Notes and gradually notes accumulate, and then some of those turn into songs. Similarly, with vocal ideas, I’ll just sing them into a memo, even if I’m walking down the street… What I realised is if you don’t write them down, or sing it, you can’t remember it in the morning.”
What’s the secret to songs that tell a story?
“Any artistic discipline can be used for great storytelling, and one of the best is music.” According to James, “as with all songwriting, sad and heavy songs have sad and heavy melodies, but not always,” he said. “Some songs can be more sinister through lyrical content that is a paradox to the music itself, like black comedy.”
James’ message to fans of music
“It’s time that we went back to listening to songs that are songs—songs that have a start, have a middle, have an end, have words that you can hear, have some thought that were put into them… Back in the day when we had songs like that, the days where I grew up.”
By diarising his own experiences in the making of ‘Diary of a sick and troubled mind’, Charlie James demonstrates mastery of creating songs that have a meaningful beginning, middle and end.
You can listen to and download Charlie James’ music here.