What We Mean by “Impressionistic” Lyrics

Ari Koinuma here.  As the primary lyricist, I like to refer to my style as “impressionistic.”  But that’s not a word often used to describe lyrics, so let me explain what I mean by that.

Impressionist music, which followed the impressionistic art movement, was a particular approach in classical music where you rely more on the tonal color of chord voicings, timbre of instruments, and more suggestive/atmospheric gestures, to convey emotions, instead of relying on more traditional explicit melodies and chord structures.  Here’s a great description of impressionistic painting technique I found on Wikipedia: “Short, thick strokes of paint quickly capture the essence of the subject, rather than its details.”  Of course, that’s talking about art, but with music, too, the same principle applies — instead of worrying about details and formal structures, you more intuitively splash notes and chords to paint a picture by creating a collage of various impressions.

A great example of this style of writing is the Beatles’ “I Am the Walrus.”

I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.
See how they run like pigs from a gun, see how they fly.
I’m crying.

Sitting on a cornflake, waiting for the van to come.
Corporation tee-shirt, stupid bloody tuesday.
Man, you been a naughty boy, you let your face grow long.
I am the eggman, they are the eggmen.
I am the walrus

On the surface, it’s a just a silly word-play, and the music is equally tongue-in-cheek, too. Unless you stop to really think about what’s being said. They run like pigs from a gun. I’m crying. Sitting on a cornflake. Waiting for the van. Stupid bloody Tuesday. Sure, it’s nonsense. But there may be something else here, too.

My lyrics writing and ideal follow a similar path: I try to create a vivid emotional expression by choosing words that give me relevant impressions, instead of telling more concrete stories.  In fact, I like lyrics with at least some sense of mystery to them — if I understood everything being said the first time I heard the song, that’s one less incentive to go back to listen to it again.

So I choose words based on their sounds (rhyming schemes) and also their connotations.  Taking care to make sure things don’t make too much sense or aren’t too obvious, I keep editing until each line sounds right.  It’s a very intuitive decision, but I usually know when lyrics are good enough to be done — I don’t obsess until every line is perfect.  The ideal is to be rich in imageries that evoke strong and clear emotions, but also leaves a huge room for interpretations and new discoveries.  As a writer, part of the fun is that I am also part of that discovery — I do form an opinion of what the core emotion is, but what each line and word can mean and how they contribute to the whole, I discover new twists and previously unconsidered possibilities long after I finish writing them.

Here is an example, this is one of the oldest songs in my stable that I still pull out regularly:

I see you in the dark room
Painting your own mirrors
I see me in the dim light
In the world of no errors
Sometimes, you feel the need
Come talk to me, come talk to me

I see you in the water
Wondering why you can’t walk on it
All alone in the dark room
You can’t see when you see it
All my nights, all my love, all my drowning seeds
Come talk to me, come talk to me

I see you with the flowers
You touch, but no feel
I see me in the dark room
On the way to the seal
Then you run, you run from me
Can you talk to me? Can you talk to me?

— “The Dark Room”


The Dark Room is a wispy folk song, no big drama in this one but looking at the words alone, I sense a lot of longing and growing unease, where the distance between the “I” and “you” seem to widen. The funny thing is that when I wrote the song I didn’t think about what the phrase “dark room” mean to most people — it’s where you develop films! How does that concept play into this picture? I don’t yet know myself.

And here’s a brand new one I wrote this year (2013) — not recorded yet:

Five long years, or eighty more
Can you last a sigh?
Seventeen years of underground
For a month in sky?

Look upon a boiling pot
Can you see a change?
Bit by bit, the water fades
Choking on my range

Question the worth
Aborts the birth
Will anyone bear me?

Staring down the endless whirlpools
Drown the silence of it all
Is there end to draining of this life?
Stand below the edge of misrules
Soak the strainer of the fall
Did we miscue the call of her midwife?

— “Chrysalis”

This one sprinkles words associated with birth — yet there is a lot of anxiety here, not a joyful, expecting tone.  It probably has to more to do with someone hoping for a rebirth, but in the process, there’s a sense of decay, almost like falling into a quicksand.

With my writing style 95% of songs start with music — my guitar — so it begins with my listening to the gestures and moods of the music and then picking out words that seem to go with it, eventually finding an emotional focal point that can stand being the chorus or the bridge, then filling out the rest of the words.  It is a process and sometimes it takes time and effort, but it’s a joyful craft (even when the piece itself isn’t), as the discoveries and journeys are mine as well.

And it’s terrific to write for a singer like Bob, as he is an excellent editor of lyrics — he can pick up all the places where I’m forcing too many syllables or inconsistent imageries.  It’s a true collaboration, between a writer and a singer (probably not unlike that of a playwright and an actor), trading ideas of how to make a song as good as it can be.  It’s truly thrilling.  Love of meaningful lyrics is one of the bonds that put us together and we’re excited to share the fruits of our work with you.

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