Read Between The Lyrics

5 female singer-songwriters who put poetry into pop

By Ryan Amato

When you think of creative writing, chances are you don’t immediately think of music; but you’d be surprised that the same amount of creativity that goes into crafting the powerful metaphors and storylines that can be found in some of your favorite songs on the radio. A lot of people just listen to music for the sound, but there are plenty of songs with thoughtful lyrics that pack as much punch as a poem.

I decided to compile a short list of some of my favorite pop songwriters, who all have a pretty substantial following in the music industry, along with some of my favorite lines that they have written over the course of their careers.

Sia

From SNL

There really can’t be a list of pop songwriters without Sia Furhler, or just simply Sia. She has crafted some of the biggest songs in recent history, most notably her chart-topping hit “Cheap Thrills” with Sean Paul, Rihanna’s No. 1 single “Diamonds,” Beyoncé’s “Pretty Hurts,” Katy Perry’s “Chained To The Rhythm,” among so many others.

Most people are familiar with her top-10 hit “Chandelier,” which is about her persistent struggle with alcoholism despite how much the song may want to make you dance. She sings in the pre-chorus: “But I’m holding on for dear life, won’t look down, won’t open my eyes. Keep my glass full until morning light, ‘cause I’m just holding on for tonight.” These themes of internal battles and helplessness are what make Sia’s entire discography so vividly personal.

But some of her greatest, most raw songwriting comes from the deep cuts from her albums. Off the same album, one of my favorite songs lyrically from her is her nearly seven-minute “Dressed In Black,” in which she describes a time when she contemplated taking her own life during her struggle with drugs and alcohol. Simultaneously heartbreaking and uplifting, Sia writes lines like “You found me dressed in black, hiding way up at the back,” and, more happily, “I thought life passed me by, missed my tears, ignored my cries … You quelled my fears, you made me laugh, then you covered my heart in kisses.” If you ever want to cry while dancing, Sia is your go-to.

BANKS

From Billboard

Jillian Banks, known as just BANKS, is hardly your run-of-the-mill pop artist, but her more alternative take on the genre, along with her clever word play will have you seeing things in a brand new light. She burst onto the scene with her top-20 debut album, “Goddess.” My favorite song from the album is “Waiting Game,” which details her analysis of a stalling relationship. She writes, “What if I never even see you ‘cause we’re both on a stage? Don’t tell me to listen to your song, because it isn’t the same.”

Her next two albums, “The Altar” and “III,” are easily my favorite from her. Her songwriting has gotten stronger, and the lyricism kept me listening to songs over again to understand her meaning, which is reminiscent of how one analyzes poetry. “Mother Earth,” from her sophomore album, stemmed from her recent struggle with depression. She begins the song with, “Underwater, consuming all my kind, destined for alterations,” nodding to the feeling of drowning and hinting at how, as humans, we’re all destined to change someday. One of the strongest songs lyrically from “III” is “Sawzall,” in which she talks about a lover who was battling demons of his own but never reached out: “Caught you singing from the ceiling. I thought that meant you were healing. Looking back, I see the meaning; I didn’t notice the teething. Why didn’t you say you need me?”

If you find yourself loving BANKS as a songwriter, she is also actually a poet, and you can check out her poetry collection here.

Halsey

From Phoenix Magazine

Halsey, born Ashley Frangipane, is one of the more well-known names on this list. I have been following her since she was 19 years old with only one song to her name. Seeing her growth has really made me appreciate her not only as an artist but also as a songwriter. On every single record she puts out, she has songwriting credits on each track, and that’s something I have always respected about her. Each album is vastly different: “Badlands,” a concept album about the dark places in our minds; “Hopeless Fountain Kingdom,” inspired by Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo & Juliet”; and “Manic,” her ultra-personal third studio album.

“Manic” is easily Halsey’s best album lyrically. She has really taken hold of her artistic power and crafted several songs with interesting word play. In “Forever … (Is A Long Time),” Halsey describes what it’s like to fall in love, beginning with a metaphor: “I spent a long time watering a plant made out of plastic, and I cursed the ground for growing green.” I’m sure everyone has found themselves at one time putting effort into something that won’t grow, despite having all the perfect conditions. In one of the most personal songs in her discography, “More,” Halsey writes a love letter to her future child and her body’s fight against her: “They told me once, nothing grows when a house ain’t a home. Is it true, honestly, when it’s all a part of me? … Would you know it right away how hard I tried to see your face?” And on the album’s closer, Halsey gets creative in a freestyle that discusses her relationship with her fame: “Who do you call when it’s late at night? When the headlines just don’t paint the picture right? When you look at yourself on a screen and say, ‘Oh my God, there’s no way that’s me.’” Each song has its own intricacies, so if you want the full story, I recommend listening to the album from start to finish.

LÉON

From Forbes

Lotta Lindgren, also known as LÉON, is a Swedish pop artist whom I’ve been following since 2016, and she has yet to disappoint me with her artistry. She is definitely one of my favorite songwriters of all time; her storytelling abilities and poetic elements make her entire discography a valuable one. There is such a maturity in her language, and she is able to vividly paint a story in under four minutes.

From her 2017 EP “For You,” one of LÉON’s many songs that detail the pain of broken relationships is “Sleep Deprived,” an upbeat track filled with metaphor about how thinking of a past love can sometimes be like waking from a bad dream. She writes, “The way that it burns, glass under my nails, an itch I can’t scratch when I hear your name. My baby got me sleep deprived.”

Her other 2017 EP “Surround Me,” was equally as polished and focused on complex relationships. In her ballad “I Believe In Us,” LÉON discusses how she is willing to give everything in hopes of saving her relationship. My favorite lines are the chorus: “I’ve been dreaming that you love me when the fighting, love me when the fighting stops. Oh, my love, don’t cry, love. I believe in us.”

In her debut self-titled album from 2019, she utilized all of her skills as a songwriter and put together a cohesive story of a love that seemed promised and then fell apart. Two of the best-written songs on the album are “Hope Is A Heartache” (“All the moments that I ran from, always thought you’d wait for me. Now this hope is but a heartache that lives inside of me.”) and “What You Said” (“How do I mend what’s broken? How do I turn around? Half of my heart regrets it, if only you changed my mind. And I let you drift away when you’re begging me to stay.”).

If you don’t know LÉON yet, you definitely should.

Lorde

From The Music Magazine

Ella Marija Lani Yelich-O’Connor, known to the world as Lorde, is undoubtedly one of the greatest lyricists of our generation. In both of her studio albums, “Pure Heroine” and “Melodrama,” the Grammy-winning artist showed everyone how stories live in her head, and she uses poetry to craft unique and profound songs that illustrate a bigger picture.

In “Pure Heroine,” she speaks through the eyes of a young person traversing the challenges of the world, using metaphors and wordplay to express this wild freedom and rejection of social norms. In her chart-topping hit “Royals,” she writes about this separation from the rich celebrities and the normal, everyday people: “We’ll never be royals … We crave a different kind of buzz … [E]veryone who knows us knows that we’re fine with this; we didn’t come from money.” Similar themes carry throughout; in “A World Alone,” she uses imagery to convey her discomfort being in the crowds she’s in: “All my fake friends and all of their noise, complain about work. They’re studying business, I study the floor.” And her prose is well encapsulated in this line from “Ribs”: “This dream isn’t feeling sweet; we’re reeling through the midnight streets. And I’ve never felt more alone. It feels so scary getting old.”

Almost as a response to her themes in her debut album, “Melodrama” is through the eyes of an older Lorde. The language is more mature, more introspective, with as much clever craft from her previous work. In her double song “Hard Feelings/Loveless,” she speaks about recovering from heartbreak, and in one of the lines she writes, “I remember the rush, when forever was us, before all of the winds of regret and mistrust. Now we sit in your car, and our love is a ghost.” The words are still unabashedly Lorde, but there’s a cleaner handle of the language; her lyrics are more poetry than lyrics. In “Liability,” a ballad about the fear of being close to others, she writes possibly one of my favorite bits of imagery I’ve heard from any artist: “I guess I’ll go home into the arms of the girl that I love, the only love I haven’t screwed up. … We slow dance in the living room, but all that a stranger would see is one girl swaying alone, stroking her cheek.”

Listening through any album by Lorde is as full an artistic experience as you can get. She beautifully combines her poetry with melodies that brings the art of writing to a level beyond anything I’ve ever heard before.

To hear some of the songs discussed, check out this playlist and enjoy the poetry:


Ryan Amato is the Long River Review managing editor and a translations panel reader. He can be reached at ryan.amato@uconn.edu.


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