Gretchen Peters Talks the Difficulties of Writing an Effective Love Song

The hit country songwriter notes that anyone can write platitudes, but getting to the heart of true love is hard work.

When a person thinks about love songs, the tendency is to think of big, cheesy blockbusters: “I Want To Know What Love Is,” “Everything I Do,” “Endless Love.” Everyone whose heart isn’t encased in cement has felt a guilty pull of pleasure at hearing a well-placed power ballad at the end of a movie or a date or a wedding. So why is it so hard to write a straightforward, unrepentantly romantic love song?

If you’re a songwriter, you learn early on that the road to success is paved with love songs: positive, uptempo ones. The insatiable beast that is radio devours them. The gatekeepers who guard the airwaves from too much introspection demand them. Celine Dion needs them. And every songwriter hates writing them. Maybe not every songwriter — maybe some of us are genetically predisposed to writing happy love songs and I just don’t know any of them. My songwriter friends write eloquently and frequently about all forms of heartache and personal struggle, but very seldom do they write about simple, uncomplicated romantic love. Some people do indeed want to fill the world with silly love songs, but not very many of us.

Even many of the happiest-sounding love songs contain a seed of doubt or longing. There’s an undercurrent of yearning in “I Want To Hold Your Hand” that would be absent in a song simply called “I’m Holding Your Hand.” The truly timeless love songs almost always exist a hair’s breadth away from despair. “God Only Knows,” which holds a permanent place in my personal top 10 love songs, lyrically walks the edge of what if, and has a melody that will break your heart anyway. Mack Gordon and Harry Warren’s classic “At Last” gets its sting from all the heartache that predates the arrival of true love. Etta James knew it, and sang it that way.

It’s wonderful when love turns out to have a happy ending, but it’s not that interesting. That’s why all fairytales end with “…and they all lived happily ever after.” They never go into any detail about what happily ever after looks like, because it’s not the main event. It’s the drama — the tension created by the seemingly insurmountable obstacle, the star-crossed love — that captures our imagination, our hearts and our attention.

I don’t buy into the idea that you have to be unhappy to be a writer, that without a constant supply of dysfunctional relationships and personal tragedies you will run out of things to write about. (A reasonable dose of misfortune early in life makes for a good foundation, though.) Nor do I believe that writers don’t want to write when they’re happy. People who write for a living don’t want to write anytime — we do it because we must.

By the time I was 15 years old I already possessed an internal well of sorrow deep enough to draw on for the rest of my life. Not because I had an unusually unhappy childhood, but because I had a capacity for melancholy — an affinity for it. I nurtured it, I practically wallowed in it. I loved sad songs because they felt good, and I wrote them for the same reason. Catharsis is “the act or process of releasing a strong emotion (such as pity or fear), especially by expressing it in an art form.” Catharsis is what I feel every time I listen to Blue (1971) by Joni Mitchell, and it’s still what I pray for every time I sit down to write.

Tolstoy famously said, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” So it is with songs. There is infinite variety in the pictures that sad songs paint. There are so many ways to have your heart broken, and it’s the small details that make great songs great — Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat,” torn at the shoulder; Bob Dylan’s “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.” Details are what draw you in, make you feel and ultimately crack your heart open. Maybe, to paraphrase Tolstoy, everyone who falls in love is the same fool, but every heartbreak is unique.

Music alone is powerful enough to make us cry, even without the poison-tipped arrows of words. And while we’re at it, why is it that most often our response to powerful music is to cry? Why don’t we laugh or feel deep joy (although music can certainly elicit those responses as well)? Why do we respond with what feels like a deep release of some ancient sorrow? This verse, from Anne Porter’s poem “Music,” poses the question:

Why is it that music
At its most beautiful
Opens a wound in us
An ache a desolation
Deep as a homesickness
For some far-off
And half-forgotten country

We want our hearts to be broken, but just for three minutes. We want songs to make us feel something, and you can’t feel something without feeling its opposite, too. The rose and the thorn, the pleasure and the pain. Give me “Famous Blue Raincoat” or “A Case of You” anytime. Unless it’s a wedding, of course. Then bring on “Endless Love.”

Gretchen Peters is a Nashville Songwriters Hall of Famer who received a Grammy nomination and CMA Song of the Year Award in 1995 for Martina McBride’s “Independence Day,” a second Grammy nomination and ACM nomination for Patty Loveless’ “You Don’t Even Know Who I Am” in 1996 and a 2003 Golden Globe nomination for her song “Here I Am,” featured in the Dreamworks film Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron. Her discography boasts over 120 recordings with many iconic artists, including George Jones, George Strait, Etta James, Trisha Yearwood, Faith Hill, Pam Tillis, Anne Murray, Randy Travis, Neil Diamond, the Neville Brothers, Bryan Adams and Bonnie Raitt, Her eighth studio album Blackbirds features a who’s who of modern American roots music (Jerry Douglas, Jason Isbell, Jimmy LaFave, Suzy Bogguss and more). You can follow her on Twitter here.