Having an unreliable narrator

I listened to the Broken Record podcast featuring the singer/songwriter Mary Gauthier yesterday. It was a really good episode and songwriter masterclass of some sort. I found it interesting to hear about her being absolutely determined to make the song true – in the emotional sense. Even if it was fiction, it needed to be told as true as possible. A song discussed was “I drink” which is told through the perspective of a character with a drinking habit. The interesting thing was that in the song she uses techniques to show us that the narrator is deceiving himself, that he is not to be trusted.

I find that really interesting from a songwriting and storytelling perspective. As people, how do we try to hide our fears and insecurities. What do we tell ourselves? What do we lie about? How do we try to protect ourselves from the things that hurt?

I’ve never used an unreliable narrator in my songs, but it seems a very interesting thing to explore. I’d consider it an advanced technique. Randy Newman is famous for it. Having narrators that are not very likeable, showing their prejudice, racism etc. While it could be a perspective/narrative technique used to make fun of people – it could also be a way to show empathy.

In the Mary Gauthier song, there was the line “I know what I am But I don’t give a damn” – showing us the shame/pride of the narrator. This kind of storytelling, that is so common in country music, and that songwriters like Bruce Springsteen excel at, is something I haven’t tried much. It would be interesting to try. So, I’m writing this here as a note to for myself to try this.

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