What It’s Like to Write Music About Yourself

Jess Weiss (Fear of Men) delves into self and art.

Writing about yourself creates a curious relationship between the person and the words. Our self-image can shape us and become a self-fulfilling prophecy, such as when a child is labeled “bad” or “quiet” or anything at all by a parent and those words are internalized to become part of their identity.

Do we do this when we write songs about ourselves, casting ourselves in whatever roles we see fit and then learning to live up to them? The wounded lover, the self-destructive genius, the powerful independent… How does this affect our personal lives — the people and relationships that have inspired the work — and how should we mediate between the two?

This feels similar to the concept of “symbolic interactionism,” and the work of George Herbert Mead, which suggests that a key feature of any situation is who possesses the power to define that situation. One of the main ways in which people try to rebel is through the act of reclaiming the power to define themselves and their situation, and there’s an element of this in writing about the self.

Personally, I use lyrics as a space to explore different sides of myself; humans are complicated.

Personally, I use lyrics as a space to explore different sides of myself; humans are complicated, and while in one song I want to give myself up in complete vulnerability to someone, to promise to live and die for them (“Vesta,” from our new record Fall Forever), three minutes down the line I’m striking out for independence and solitude (“Trauma”). I can’t tell if it’s healthy or unbalancing to be able to bounce between such extremes, but it’s certainly human.

I started off writing songs exclusively from adopted perspectives, as I thought that was more interesting or challenging than real life. The first formation of Fear of Men was actually a kind of challenge to myself to write songs about strange mental disorders or phobias: I wrote about phantom limb syndrome, mortality anxiety, anything other than the everyday. But, at twenty-six, I’m a lot less cynical than I was at twenty-two, and I now believe that the universal feelings of love, jealousy, guilt, loneliness and loss are pretty much the most vital and difficult subjects that anyone could try to take on, where before I thought they were the minutiae of everyday life obscuring bigger ideas.

In a sense, my difference in attitude probably happened as I became a better songwriter and felt like I wanted to put the new and often unpleasant experiences I was feeling into songs. Over the past year or two, I’ve felt both happier and more desolate than ever before, and the extremes of emotion seem to be something that resonates with listeners. It’s really touching to receive emails or meet people at shows who have found a place for themselves in the songs, and it feels very worthwhile. Now I want to make music for emotional survival — for myself and for anyone who can relate. It’s music for outsiders and introverts, and this necessarily means opening up more about personal subject matter.

This gave me a drive to write what I haven’t felt before, which so far hasn’t left me. Now I see songwriting as a way to make sense of what I’m going through; intuitive, freeform lyrics often give me insight into my own feelings, and looking back on the songs written during a dysfunctional part of a relationship can be really illuminating. “Ruins” is very sincerely a love song, and was written with the intention of making something beautiful and heartfelt — but the underlying darkness and uncertainty inevitably creeps into the expression. The starkness of the track, the allusion to a “someday” when the protagonist will need to decide if what is shared between the couple is “enough,” the elusive quality of the other person’s dreams (“when you’re sleeping here by my side I don’t know where you go”), are all things that I have felt, but only realized were exposed through the song retrospectively.

It’s sometimes been difficult to square this new openness and freedom — allowing myself to let out what is on my mind, the good and the bad — with my personal life. The people who inspire songs have sometimes found it difficult to have no agency over their story.

It’s something I’ve experienced a little of in reverse, which certainly left a bitter taste in my mouth — being the unwilling focus of someone else’s work — so I try to be kind and keep specific identifiers shrouded. Although this means, I hope, that people involved wouldn’t feel exposed, this could still change relationships between people who are able to recognize themselves or others. Naming someone or using identifying details feels like a violation, as I have experienced. I understand, though, that I’m lucky to have the creative platform to largely write my own story and have a voice, which historically has been hard for women. Being an unwilling muse without an outlet must be a harder situation, so I hope to be kind — but I know I’ve sometimes touched nerves.

Part of loving someone is loving what they create.

Balancing the worth of personal relationships and work is an interesting dilemma. I’ve sometimes changed lyrics to be respectful to a partner, but only when it pushed me to find a more interesting choice of words or line of development. Part of loving someone is loving what they create, and while that’s not always a quality I’ve experienced in relationships, that’s been a useful indicator that something needed to change.

My favorite instance of someone valuing their art over even their own life is Anais Nin’s  evacuation from Paris in 1914. She sent her diaries, her life’s work, on a ship to America months before she took refuge from the disturbing advance of Nazism. Her writing, a mix a fact and fiction that she wished to present as fact, is an intense window into her psyche that gains so many layers of interest when read in parallel with a more factual, biographical account of her life. She was both self-created and self-obsessed, with a unique sense of truthfulness or self-denial, depending how generous you are.

The line that creative people draw between fact and fiction has always interested me a lot. Growing up, I was obsessed with the distorted versions of self writers such as Simone de Beauvoir, Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath used in their fiction: thinly veiled versions of reality that give insight into how they saw themselves and that were ripe for analysis of, and speculation about, the minds of their creators. There’s also a problem of all women’s art being labeled “confessional” and “personal,” while men are allowed the space to speak universally, so I don’t mean to detract from their genius by suggesting that their works found their feet in reality; I think it adds to it.

In a world post-Roland Barthes’ 1967 essay “The Death of the Author,” but also one entrenched in celebrity culture and hero worship of creators, how are we to contextualize the lives of the creators that we admire, and how do they see themselves? The cult of personality is generally damaging to both sides of the relationship; people get swallowed by their own egos or self-destruct from the pressure to enact the role imposed on them, and their work has the potential to become parody, while those of us who put talent on a pedestal are not making use of our own potential. Still, though, we crave details of the realities that inspired our favorite songs or novels.

Is there a damaging effect of exploring the darker side of self?

Some artists turn to alter egos in order to express different sides of themselves, or take risks on temporary, exploratory identities. A chance to lose the sense of personal identity and remold the self for artistic expression draws a definite line between fact and fiction, for example Beyoncé’s Sasha Fierce or David Bowie’s Aladdin Sane. Costume and content combine to create a performer separate from what we have come to expect from the artist.

Is there a damaging effect of exploring the darker side of self? Writing introspectively can be a way to come to terms with things, or it can push you deeper into the well, and, from personal experience, it’s sometimes been difficult to know whether to climb further in in the name of making something meaningful, but at personal cost, or try to shut down that side of myself. I spent a large portion of the year writing Fall Forever in a pretty erratic state, experiencing emotional extremes in my personal life and then dwelling on them/trying to create out of them.

When your state of being as a writer consists of questioning everything about yourself, it takes a strong sense of self to be able to resist coming apart. In recent months I’ve felt my life take a turn for the chaotic, and my music has almost been the first to know — it’s looking back at my output during that time that I can see the seams coming loose.

In 1957’s Literature and Evil, Georges Bataille proposed that an element of darkness was essential to art in order to give it vitality. What we create has to deal with anguish, which is a reaction based on at least the possibility of events going wrong — an element of darkness allows us to engage, care and face something in art that we will some time have to deal with in life.

The analogy Bataille uses is that of a game: “A man who plays can find in the game the force to overcome what the game contains of horror.” The toll that peering into the darkness takes on the creator finds meaning here, but there is a contamination.

Perhaps nothing can be really beautiful or meaningful without darkness?

Perhaps we’re not human without darkness? So it’s our duty as writers to open up about the darkness within us. Kafka believed himself to be “outside humanity,” on the side of evil, when he wrote. His creativity surpassed his sense of self, rather than being a reflection of it.

There’s a certain draw to evil, and to the darker sides of ourselves, an urge to press on the bruise. It’s powerful to see someone express something that you have felt but not been able to articulate; in contrast to personal experience, expressive writing has been linked to benefits such as improved mood, well being and reduced stress for those who do it regularly. These benefits, however, are shown to reduce when introspective writing is practiced every day. It’s healthy to try to understand yourself, but once you’ve dived in, it can be hard to find equilibrium again.

We’re all forming ourselves through stories we tell about ourselves to others, whether that’s with friends in a pub or shouting our heart out on stage every night. The stories we tell become who we are — self-created “statues trapped in blocks of stone — one must carve oneself out,” as Robert Musil wrote in 1940’s The Man Without Qualities. We choose our narrative arc, and in doing this it becomes a form of identity that both shapes and reflects who we are. Performers may be more fragmented than most, as the prism we see ourselves through is further distorted by others’ views of ourselves, and the different sides of our private selves that we make public through our work.

Jessica Weiss is the singer and primary songwriter of UK band Fear of Men. Their debut album Loom was released in 2014, followed by Fall Forever in June 2016 through Kanine Records. She studied fine art and history of art at Goldsmiths in London and now lives by the sea spending most of her time worrying and overthinking things.

(Photo credit: Clementine Blue)