The Argotist Online

Home       Articles       Interviews       Features       Poetry       Ebooks       Submissions       Links

 

 

Tam Lin

 

Tam Lin (aka Paul Weinfield) remembers finding someone’s copy of Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited on vinyl when he was nine, and within a few days he had memorized all the words to ‘Desolation Row’. It was the moment for him when he realized that songs aren’t just tunes with words: they are entire worlds that can be inhabited fully, worlds filled with strange characters, unexpected emotions and lessons to be learned. That was the year he began to play guitar and dream up song-worlds of his own.

 

Some decades later, he completed his first full-length album, In the Twilight (2008). The album is a testament to the very idea of a “song-world” Its fourteen tracks hit the listener on virtually every level, from their engrossing narratives to their soaring melodies and lush arrangements. These are ambitious songs, but they are solid songs, songs that are accessible and easy to get lost in.

 

In the Twilight is a follow up to Tam Lin Music’s Floating World EP (2006), a quietly-released effort that nevertheless did not escape the notice of several critics. Time Out New York praised the EP for its ‘gentle, literate tunes…wistful yet vaguely sinister’. And Dan D’Ippolito of Jezebel Music, a Brooklyn-based promoter of independent music wrote, ‘Every now and again a musician is preceded by his reputation…The intricacies and uniqueness of [these] compositions stand alone as a rare, successful, genuine-sounding blend of old and new sounds’.

 

Live, Tam Lin’s performances are charismatic and unexpected. He can appear with a straight-ahead electric rock group, in smaller “cabaret” format with a few horns and a percussionist, or by himself, accompanied only by a guitar and harmonica. At the heart of all these eclectic performances, however, is Tam Lin’s smooth and dynamic voice, described by one blogger as ‘simple, soulful, and socially-sentient—he could sing the IHOP menu and make it sound like molten glass’. Tam Lin is known for appearing in prestigious rock clubs such as New York City’s Mercury Lounge or Philadelphia’s World Café, as well at local smaller house parties or even in subway tunnels.

 

 

 

Q: Do you think of your lyrics as poetry?

A: Yes and no. I'm not interested in how my lyrics look on a page, whereas a lot of poetry, particularly that of the last century, is very concerned with the visual dimension of words. Also, the process of writing lyrics involves fitting words to tones rather than to an abstract meter, so that creates different restrictions. Some words sound good when spoken and terrible when sung, and vice versa. When I write, I try to avoid letting either the lyric or the melody evolve too quickly, so I'm always checking one against the other. Poets, who are in many ways more meticulous than songwriters, are free from these melodic considerations. So in that sense, I don't consider what I do to be poetry.

On the other hand, I think songwriters today make too much of the difference between lyrics and poetry. For one thing, both were once one and the same. For another, I think a good lyric has to spring from what T. S. Eliot called ‘the auditory imagination’, the faculty that allows a poet or songwriter to actually hear syllables and sounds in his or her head rather than merely thinking about them on paper. A different part of the brain is involved than in, for example, writing a Powerpoint presentation. There's a receptivity involved in writing poetry and lyrics that is, I think, the same—though there are certainly a lot of songwriters out there who write by formula rather than by this process of inward listening.

Q: Do you think it is important that songs rhyme and if so why?

A: I think rhyme is an essential tool. For one thing, it helps a performer remember the lyrics! There are great songwriters who can dispense with rhyme—David Byrne is a good example—but it's hard to cover their songs. I personally find rhyme an integral part of whatever it is I'm trying to say: it affects the tone, voice, and perspective of the lyrics. I wouldn't want to do away with it completely. But I also agree with what Oscar Hammerstein said: that it's just as important to know when not to rhyme. Often, repetition serves a songwriter better than rhyme. For example, if I start with a title line, I can often ruin it by trying to rhyme it right away, so often I'll just repeat it three or four or eight times to see if there's any hidden power in the repetition. It's the interplay of repetition and rhyme that is most effective, I think.

Q: Do you think song lyrics must conform to recognised song structures such as clear rhyming schemes, choruses, refrains, hooks and bridges or that songs can also be like free verse?

A: I'm not sure I know what free verse means at this point in history, but I do think that songwriters have to be careful to remember that their lyrics will be heard rather than read. That means they have to recognize that the human brain processes things in circular ways. A song needs to come back to something, in other words. So yes, I think a song needs a refrain, chorus, or hook. The rest depends on what effect the songwriter is trying to achieve. My songs generally follow traditional forms because those forms allow me to experiment in other ways and still maintain a sense of connection with the listener. You have to pick your battles in deciding when to be unpredictable, and for me keeping a conventional form can be quite helpful in giving me room to be unpredictable in other ways.

Q: When you read poetry in school or elsewhere did you recognize any connection to the music you enjoyed?

A: Sure. My father is a poet, and he read a lot of verse to me when I was little. So I always had the sense that poetry was something done out loud. Popular music never struck me as being substantially different. People get very precious about the idea of poetry, but for me poetry comes down to a care for how things are said and a desire to share this care with others. I wouldn't call the Beatles or Beck or Amy Winehouse poets, but they certainly have this same care for how they communicate, so for me it's not hard to connect what they do with the words that come in Norton anthologies.

Q: Was there anything about poetry in books that influenced your songwriting?

A: I'm always reading poetry, so I wouldn't know where to start in defining where the influence lies. I've certainly stolen a good many images and song titles from poems, but I think, more importantly, poetry has always been a way for me to expand my sense of how things can be said.

Q: Why do you think songs are more popular with people than poetry is?

A: I'm not sure poetry is as unpopular today as everyone seems to think. I work a lot with teenagers, and they seem to be scribbling as much poetry in their journals (online journals, in some cases) as any generation ever did. As a technology for expression, words aren't in any danger of dying out. The problem, I think, is that the growing association of poetry and poets with academic institutions makes the medium seem more rarified than it actually is. That's where songs come in. At this moment in history, songs are less likely to be seen as instruments of social hierarchy, so they can be passed along between people more easily. Anyone can listen to a song, memorize it, and feel that it's his or hers to share with others. For example, you might not be a fan of hip-hop (I'm not, generally speaking,) but you have to admit that it has created a culture of memorization, recitation, and transmission that's as far-reaching as traditional poetry ever was. To me, the reason for this is that hip-hop—and popular songs in general—are able to capture the richness and diversity of how people actually use words. When I read a lot of contemporary poetry, I'm often struck by how impoverished the range of its idioms and speech patterns is. The words and concepts may be big, but the sense of tone and musicality is often very narrow. Also, in my opinion, the performative side of contemporary poetry has become increasingly homogeneous: poets today tend to read with the same cadence, which makes it easy to see their work as something intended only for a small group of people. But I don't think that's a necessary feature of poetry, nor do I think songs have replaced poetry. I think the two are simply changing in line with the changing emotional needs of different groups of people.

   

 

 

 

 

copyright © Tam Lin