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The Art of Song Writing: Missy Higgins and Darren Hanlon in pursuit of inspiration


Anneli Knight, Darren Hanlon & Missy Higgins

“It’s a very different thing being a novelist to being a lyric writer,” said well-known songstress Missy Higgins on the art of song writing at the 2014 Byron Bay Writers’ Festival.

Chaired by journalist Anneli Knight, the session invited Higgins and fellow musician and solo artist Darren Hanlon to discuss their journeys as musicians and the steps they have taken in becoming successful song writers.

Hanlon told the crowd about his love of reading and the way he enjoys the language of authors such as Woody Guthrie.

“He often misspells things, and I think it’s a good lesson in being able to write in your own voice… it’s just beautiful to read the way he spoke,” he said.

Higgins said she loves the way Divinyls singer, Chrissy Amphlett, wrote so straight-forwardly in her autobiography.

“I just get a lot of inspiration out of reading success stories of musicians,” she said.

Knight asked both Higgins and Hanlon what other forms of writing they partake in apart from song writing. Higgins explained that she has been writing a “fair bit lately”.

Darren-Hanlon-Missy-Higgins-2 2

Hanlon performing his song, The Ostracism of Vinny Lalor’

“It started with the Women of Letters events in Melbourne, where they give you a topic to write a letter about and you present that letter to the audience,” she said.

Hanlon said that he writes a daily diary and has done every day for the last ten years “just to keep the pen moving.”

“I’m also trying to write a book about this last album and the adventures that happened in the process of writing this record,” he said.

Both of the musicians feel that taking an autobiographical approach to writing songs is the best way to get the most emotion out of the lyrics.

“I feel like there’s not as much emotional weight in it for me if I’m writing about someone else,” said Hanlon.

Higgins said her experience has shown that even some of her more fictional songs have, and need, an element of truth in them.

“The actual storyline can be fictional, but the emotional heart of the song has to be autobiographical if it’s going to provoke any sort of feeling in people,’ she said.


Higgins performing her new song, ‘Cooling of the Embers’.

Both of the artists had very different ideas on the kind of head space you need to be in when writing song lyrics.

For Higgins, it needs to a place that is neither light nor dark, she explained.

“I think it’s when you’ve got something you really need to get out of you,” she said.

Hanlon gave a slightly more humorous response.

“There’ll be an economical need for me to come up with a new batch of songs,” he laughed.

Knight asked Hanlon and Higgins to choose a song and describe the process they went through to get to the time when “the words came out”.

Thea Astley’s book, A Descant for Gossips, was the inspiration for Hanlon’s song, The Ostracism of Vinny Lalor, he explained.

“It turned out that half of the book is set in a hall that we were recording in, and the lyrics I already had related directly to the young girl in the book,” he said.”It just sends a shiver up my spine.”

Higgins explained that she wrote her song, Cooling of the Embers, after visiting her grandmother in hospital when she’d had a stroke and had begun to suffer from the early onset of dementia.

“It was a strange experience, I was sitting on the bed of someone who was half in this world and half in the next world…and I thought I really want to write a song about this,” she said.

It was a great treat to hear both songs being performed after hearing the true story behind them.

The discussion closed with some very helpful advice from Higgins to any future songwriters: “Don’t be afraid to suck for a while…let yourself shine through.”

Sophie Sambrook is a Southern Cross University Media student.


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