Swans' Michael Gira: how I write lyrics

Writing lyrics isn't easy for the Swans frontman. Here he discusses writer's block, his time in prison and why he's always got a friend in Jim Morrison

On lyrical themes in Swan's latest album, My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky: "I've suffered from writer's block for the last two or three years, which is why it took so long to get a record out after Angels of Light (Gira's band during Swans' 1997-2010 hiatus). When your identity is built on writing songs and you can't do it, it's pretty frustrating. It's hell. But I guess, in a way, it's healthy, because I don't want to be a parody of myself – it forces me into new terrain.

"After recording, I did notice in a lot of the songs the narrators' desire to dissolve, or be subsumed – to completely disappear into something greater than themselves. I guess that's my quasi-religious, spiritual side coming to the fore, which ties into the ambition of some of the larger aspects of the music too – just to fall into something really large. I'm not a religious person in any real sense, but like anyone else, I want to experience ecstasy – something greater than myself."

The first lyric that really spoke to me: "I was young, very young in the 60s – I was too young to be a hippy and too old for punk – but as a child, I started listening to Bob Dylan. That line in Idiot Wind: 'You're an idiot, babe/ It's a wonder that you still know how to breathe ...' Dylan is like a friend I've returned to throughout my life. Jim Morrison, too. Of course, he's pretty corny on the page, but it works with the music. I used to listen to the Doors over and over, in various mental states."

On writing songs under the Swans persona: "I wrote this record presuming it would be an Angels of Light record, but there was this gradual gnawing at the back of my mind. As Angels of Light songs, they left me nonplussed. But when I started to think of them as Swans songs, they felt exciting. Only No Words No Thoughts was written with Swans in mind. That's kind of problematic, because the Angels of Light songs are more narrative-based, and I don't think that always works when you've got big chunks of sound, huge vistas of music. For Swans, the lyrics need to be more open to interpretation, so they don't get in the way of the music. As soon as it becomes first person, I just think it makes the music sound smaller."

On inspirations and influences: "Initially, advertising slogans influenced me the most. I really liked the way that language was aggressive and immediate, but with lots of subtext. It's reaching for the back of your mind to influence you.

"There's a book by [Jerzy] Kosinski called Steps, which is cold and clinical, but describes scenes of incredible violence and cruelty. I found that combination of elements attractive early on. I often write after reading books. I wrote an Angels of Light song, Kosinski, after reading him. And I wrote a song called New Mother after reading [Joseph] Conrad's The Secret Agent. Right now, I'm reading Lord Jim by Conrad and I think something's going to come of that."

On shaping, refining and editing songs: "It's a really long, gruelling process, but every now and again a song just rushes out fully formed, and it's just wonderful. That happened with the song Eden Prison. It refers back to childhood memories of me being in jail when I was a kid. I was hitchhiking across Europe, and I ended up in Israel, where I was arrested for selling hashish. I spent four and a half months in jail. It was a pretty formative experience, and this line I wrote ties into that: 'Within the walls of Eden Prison, there is a mark upon a stone/ And in that place a life was written, and there a stain was laid where I was born.' There's this idea that someone was murdered or attacked in prison, but that was some kind of birth experience in itself."

On the perfect song:
"Willie Nelson has an ability that is particular to country music – these one-liners that set up a whole song, then everything else is built around that. I guess you could call them zingers. Crazy is the perfect song. It's an incredibly complex emotion: it's concise, but it describes a state of mind so clearly and poignantly. He's a true American poet."


Louis Pattison

The GuardianTramp

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