Musical Storytellers

To continue our theme of stories, we delve into a different medium of storytelling – music. Many musical artists choose to tell detailed stories through their song writing which could have personal, fictional, or political messages amongst many others. These stories are conveyed whilst still maintaining a beautiful sound and a pleasing lyrical arrangement which is something definitely worthy of applaud and recognition. In this article, four contributors discuss some of their favourite current musical storytellers.

Maja Metera On Halsey (Ashley Nicolette Frangipane)

I believe that most of the artists use music as a form of therapy. In my opinion, to gain the title of the storyteller is to be able to give the audience a feeling of catharsis as well as connect with their experiences – making their music therapeutic for listeners too.

Halsey’s fanbase consists of rebelled teenagers, “misfits” as she frequently calls them. She has created an alternative world to which they can escape from the disappointing reality. Her first album Badlands (2015) has been set in a fictional country of the same name – home to this insurgent youth. She accompanied her lyrics with short movies instead of traditional music videos. Watched in order of release, they illustrate a complete storyline of making America a place for everyone. All that with a feminist, angry touch and a hint of love in the background.

She made storytelling her signature move over the years. Her second studio album Hopeless Fountain Kingdom (2017) is based loosely on Shakespearian Romeo and Juliet. Halsey twisted this classic love story to tell her own, full of broken hearts, self-doubt and queerness. Thus, she gave the audience something to cry to for two reasons. It can be because the world is ruthless and deceitful place, but it does not affect them directly (catharsis) or because it has happened to them too, all in a beautiful frame of the modern-day version of a classic.  

Halsey is my favourite storyteller because she made herself into a character each of those fables. She distinguishes her stage persona from Ashley. It is the most visible in her third album Manic (2020). In this case the music videos play, yet again, the most important part creating a dreamlike fairy-tale to the most meaningful lyrics in her career. It is a fairy-tale with a moral; you can be the greatest fabulist, but you cannot fake it forever.

Ella Rowe-Hall on Loyle Carner

With even the first mention of Loyle Carner’s name, what follows is his immediate association with storytelling; his use of jazzy, hip-hop and rap music to tell the excruciatingly heart provoking and raw stories he obtains. Carner uses his music like therapeutic art, expressing his heart ache, grief, and mental health issues especially. His music, with its contradicting and almost genre breaking uniqueness truly reiterates the stories he tells, and his overriding use of socially constructed boundaries arguably tells a story of a ground-breaking artist, refusing to conform. 

From his two released albums, Carner delves headfirst into immersive emotional thought, as all his songs brandish his ability as a poet and novelist. Within his first album ‘Yesterday’s Gone,’ his song under the same title explores the pain and grief relating to the loss of his father. The track is one named and inspired by a song from his late father’s secret album, of which Carner felt resonated with him and his grief. The song and album name tell the story of a man struggling, but also about those we have lost and can no longer see but will always feel. For Carner, the song acts as a reminder that although grief is necessary, our late loved ones will not want it to tarnish us, but to help us harness our inner strength. Although yesterday is gone, another day brings another journey, another person to love and another way to experience life.   

Furthermore, Loyle reiterates the connection to his father with the track ‘Son of Jean,’ of which he commemorates the love for both his father but also his mother too. The song samples the piano from his father’s secret album also, with his mum singing the track in the background. In an interview, Carner expressed the importance of this and the track, and its way to tell a story of a family that once was, but also the love his parents had and have for each other; Carner intertwining them and it forever within his song, which will likely outlive them all. 

Carner tells a story with every chosen word, song and album. His music highlights family love crafted and weaved throughout his music as a commemoration for the people who matter most. Therefore, telling a story primarily of love and pain, retold through generations of musical expression. 

Francesca Ionescu on Hozier

Hozier won the public through his soft voice and beautiful lyrics, telling stories of nature, love and conflict. His music strips him down of being Hozier and gives the words to a name-less narrator talking directly to the listeners.

While we can only listen to the live rendition of ‘Jackboot Jump,’ the lyrics take a much more political storyline, of the conflict between protesters and the state. At Standing Rock, the Jackboot Jump/ You’d swear was all the rage starts the song on Native territory in 2016, during the Dakota Access Pipeline protests. The Jackboot, associated with fascist authoritarian and fascist regimes, then takes us to 2019 Student protests in Moscow, where the Ballet/ Finds some scared young dancing floor putting together a beautiful cultural aspect and the oppressing system. The last destination is in in Hong Kong, where the long hand of Beijing/ (stretches) south a thousand miles. This line creates a horror image, of a ‘creature’ that can reach anyone, possibly referring to the facial recognition used in the 2019 Hong Kong protests.

‘Work song,’ takes the listener to a working man’s heart, in an indie-soul mixture that starts with a concrete image of Boys ,workin’ on empty [in] the burning heat, fading as the narrator goes into daydream, started by the line I’m so full of love could barely eat. The chorus becomes biblical as men came out of their tombs during rapture, the narrator will crawl home to her, making his baby into a representation of heaven. Her religious connotations continue as he says she found him three days on a drunken sin and never asked [him] once about the wrong [he] did. The last bridge, heaven and hell were words to me, sees the narrator regard his love as deeper than the afterlife, rendering death with no importance as long as his he still has his love. Throughout the whole song the listeners become the boys, in the burning heat listening to a story of a love-sick man.

Megan Evans on Jorja Smith

Jorja Smith is one of the most influential singers of the twenty first century, and has mastered the art of craft with the lyricism of some of her most popular songs. Jorja writes a lot of her music on her experiences growing up in Walsall, with moments of levity, and bringing relatable anecdotes to life. 

A prime example is the soft tones of Blue Lights, a song questioning why you should have a guilty conscious when you’ve done nothing wrong. Jorja took inspiration from post-colonialism in grime music, and was inspired primarily from Dizzee Rascal’s ‘Sirens.’ The debut single was a massive success in describing the breakage of social constructs and the tension caused between black men with the police. 

Another entitled Tomorrow is a minimal piano ballad in comeback to an ex that destroyed her confidence. She manages to balance her specific struggles collectively as a society and ease them into her lyrics, grappling her feelings and how she has developed from being an insecure teenager about her curvy figure, her mixed race background, and her mixed feelings of grief, denial and confusion.   ​​​​

​​​​Her creative flair was summoned from her Jamaican father, Peter, who was in a neo-soul vocal group inspired her to experiment with music. Another song entitled ‘Beautiful Little Fools’ borrows its name from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. The song was released on International Woman’s Day and proposes the message of how the media can taint the idea of what beautiful means to young girls. 

She wants to inspire a new generation of women to embrace their bodies and the importance of individuality, and that there are more fulfilling roles for women than the bright archetype. She manages to wove the cool and contemporary with a little hit of R n’ B and soul to encapsulate her effortless vocals and triumph her lyrics.