After taking Oli Rockberger’s course The New Songwriter’s Workshop, I was left with a single glaring question about the nature of my craft. When approaching the art of songwriting, should I focus on fluidity and a singular unified message across the instrumentation, vocal style, lyrics, and tone? Or, should I let each element stand out individually to convey a dense, patchwork effect so that the song sends multiple messages?
This is the age-old soup or salad conundrum, really. So let’s get to the bottom of this. Are songs soups or salads?
Soup: Luke Sweeney
“When done right, the sum of the elements combined are greater than they are apart. A good song becomes a broth from which each slice of homespun lyric, keyboard chop, or spoonful of drum fills benefits and to which each contributes, the same way each cut of potato, ginger, broccoli, or mushroom would in a soup. If you wanted to construct a song like a salad, you could just chop up elements shipped in by strangers from parts unknown, without any interaction. Throw it in a bowl just before the guests arrive, add a cheesy dressing on it — or pack it up in a Ziploc bag with your zip drive in your DJ suitcase and take it to the next town — but that’s not really serving anyone. Soup is another story. The ingredients are messy, unrefined, and melted from their true form into a timeless collective; swirling in a cosmic dance that warms the soul, feeds the mind, and always leaves room for interpretation. A good song will always be like soup, where the pure act of writing is like water boiling, and the rest of the pieces come together organically to nourish us.”
Salad: James Mauri of James Mauri 4
“My songs are almost always salads. I pick other places to practice discipline in writing. One should allow themselves freedom to pick from all the ingredients (but use only a handful). Fusions and flavor combos are where it’s at. It doesn’t even always have to be over the top. It can be subtle too.”
Soup: Steve Voss of Tetherball
“I think of songs as more of a soup than a salad — the fluidity of how all the elements come together. You can have lots of different musical textures to a song, and the lyrics’ place in it can garner a unique character. But the result is a consistent musical message, leaving you with a sense of how that particular journey reacts to your taste. Someone can love the base, but if a certain spice, such as the style of playing or lyrical content, doesn’t jive with the listener, it can spoil the soup.”
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Soup AND Salad: Heather Bond
“Personally, I write soup songs and I write salad songs. Often, the two coexist. My song ‘So Long’ was intended to be soup-y, with the overall tone and instrumentation, to give you a feeling of longing and nostalgia, however, it becomes a salad, sending multiple messages when you dissect the lyrics. Yes, there’s the unified theme of ‘I miss you; it’s been so long since I’ve seen you,’ but ‘so long’ takes on a double meaning since throughout the song, I am also saying ‘so long,’ as in goodbye.”
Soup: Katie Buchanan
“A song should seem effortless. It should be perfectly digestible as is — no further chewing needed. It is a writer’s duty to present a complete picture, feeling, emotion, story, a complete something that the listener can immediately connect to. Then, like any good soup, a song must have layers and a nudge toward deeper listening to get to those layers.”
Stew?: Winston Yellen of Night Beds
“I’m all about amalgamating whatever tastes I like and then letting it reduce…. I guess that’s a stew of sorts.”
Soup: Chris Prudhomme of Painted Palms
“With electronic music, sound tends to seem like it’s coming from everywhere and nowhere at once, and there’s more freedom in this. The weird and exciting genre-mashing that’s happening right now is possible because of the soupiness of modern electronic music. There’s a lot of music out there that is body-first, that immediately communicates an essence with no thought whatsoever required from the listener. My favorite modern music encompasses the listener and creates the environment he/she is interacting with on all levels. It’ll change how you think and feel. Packaging a thought or a feeling in its truest form is the real objective. Direct communication. So, I’m into songs as soup. They take on a life of their own that way.”
“Although it would be nice to always make something fluid and packaged to perfection.. I’ve never been a fan of what’s perfect. Experimenting with separate elements that you know will make a song pop and then finding a way to put them together like a puzzle is fun and exciting, and that’s why I like songs to be salads. It gives the listener a place to interpret and it always makes your song stand out from the rest. If the music you make doesn’t fit within the constraints of one genre then you have the freedom to take ideas of songs you like despite genres and put them together to create a new sound. To me, that’s what makes good original music.”
An Appetizing Appendix by Liam Singer
I have dreams about the perfect song. I can never remember how it sounds when I wake up, but I remember its form. The perfect song is a radiant, polished diamond: structurally pure, self-contained, unimpeachable. So many musical systems exist to convey the multitudinous complexity of the human emotional/intellectual experience, but the song is unique, and in its uniqueness lies its ubiquitousness. It exists to convey one sentiment or idea with a pure, unmediated intensity. It is a soup.
Like a culinary endeavor, the appeal of a song rests on the unification of opposing forces, a tension contained. Be it sad lyrics to set to an upbeat melody, a vocal performance that’s gratingly imperfect yet undeniably attractive, a verse and chorus that complete each other in an unexpected way — through friction is borne the spark that delights us. We don’t have a one-night-stand with the person who does everything right, we go home with the one who does everything wrong in the right way; such is the seduction of a great song. And, as with our one night stand, it doesn’t hurt to have a nice body, too.
Thus, this tension is contained within a handful of classically beautiful forms, such as verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, verse, chorus. A million modifications can be made to these structures, and — like a futuristic, over-designed chair — it will still be recognizable for what it is. But attempts to redefine or eradicate the form entirely lead only to monstrous historical dead-ends such as prog rock. No matter how modern a chair is, you still need be able to sit down.
And yet, there’s a quality about the song that hits us even before the tension, before the clever lyrics, before the uplifting bridge — the vibe. It’s the mood that first strikes us when we hear it, and it’s the key element to a great song’s soupiness.
I remember first having this thought when listening to Paul Simon’s Graceland. Simon’s tracks on that record contain a multitude of ideas and moods, both musical and lyrical. When I’m listening to it, I can sometimes barely believe the breadth of what he’s able to include in one piece. But Simon’s achievement is not only as a cunning lyricist, neo-folk artist, and cultural appropriator; it is in recognizing the nature of the sound he’s created. He writes songs that consistently work in agreement with and pleasurable dissonance against the overall aesthetic impression that one receives almost instantaneously, precognition.
The profundity of his inspired ramblings is contextual, as are U2’s grand humanistic proclamations or Radiohead’s paranoid mumblings, and Simon’s context is so effective that his songs become a jambalaya: you could throw almost anything in, and through the smooth percolation of his voice and wild spice of the arrangements it would bend and mold its nature to work in ultimate harmony with the other elements.
The perfect song recognizes its inherent aesthetic wholeness, and its ingredients always work in ultimate accordance with that unified field, so that in the end — despite the tensions battling within — a listener is left with one overarching impression about what they’ve experienced.
Let us take as an example what is, to me, one of the most perfect songs ever written: “I’m on Fire”, by Bruce Springsteen. I would compare this song to a beautifully executed French onion soup. The synth pad acts as a full beefy broth, providing a warm, comforting base in which to enact the forthcoming drama. The piquant acidity of the onions and cheese are echoed by the staccato line of the muted guitar, acting in chordal agreement yet textural dissonance with the synth. The song begins with a beautiful, unassuming lilt — no proclamations of grandeur, rather a humble offering for the harried, everyman listener a moment of repose. Springsteen’s voice enters, a thick hearty crouton of rustic sentiment. And yet, what is his first utterance within this heavenly, timeless space? “Hey little girl is your daddy home?” Into the pure ecosystem of our soup bowl has been plunged the sloppy, chewed-on carcass of a roast beef sandwich! The holy and profane become one. Soup’s up.