Lin (aka Paul Weinfield) remembers finding someone’s copy of Bob Dylan’s Highway
61 Revisited on vinyl when he was nine, and within a few days he had
memorized all the words to ‘Desolation Row’. It was the moment for him when
he realized that songs aren’t just tunes with words: they are entire worlds
that can be inhabited fully, worlds filled with strange characters, unexpected
emotions and lessons to be learned. That was the year he began to play guitar
and dream up song-worlds of his own.
decades later, he completed his first full-length album, In the Twilight
(2008). The album is a testament to the very idea of a “song-world” Its
fourteen tracks hit the listener on virtually every level, from their engrossing
narratives to their soaring melodies and lush arrangements. These are ambitious
songs, but they are solid songs, songs that are accessible and easy to get lost
is a follow up to Tam Lin Music’s Floating World EP (2006), a
quietly-released effort that nevertheless did not escape the notice of several
critics. Time Out New York praised the EP for its ‘gentle,
literate tunes…wistful yet vaguely sinister’. And Dan D’Ippolito of
Jezebel Music, a Brooklyn-based promoter of independent music wrote, ‘Every
now and again a musician is preceded by his reputation…The intricacies and
uniqueness of [these] compositions stand alone as a rare, successful,
genuine-sounding blend of old and new sounds’.
Tam Lin’s performances are charismatic and unexpected. He can appear with a
straight-ahead electric rock group, in smaller “cabaret” format with a few
horns and a percussionist, or by himself, accompanied only by a guitar and
harmonica. At the heart of all these eclectic performances, however, is Tam
Lin’s smooth and dynamic voice, described by one blogger as ‘simple,
soulful, and socially-sentient—he could sing the IHOP menu and make it sound
like molten glass’. Tam Lin is known for appearing in prestigious rock clubs
such as New York City’s Mercury Lounge or Philadelphia’s World Café, as
well at local smaller house parties or even in subway tunnels.
Do you think of your lyrics as poetry?
A: Yes and no. I'm not interested in how my lyrics look on a page,
whereas a lot of poetry, particularly that of the last century, is very
concerned with the visual dimension of words. Also, the process of writing
lyrics involves fitting words to tones rather than to an abstract meter, so that
creates different restrictions. Some words sound good when spoken and terrible
when sung, and vice versa. When I write, I try to avoid letting either the lyric
or the melody evolve too quickly, so I'm always checking one against the other.
Poets, who are in many ways more meticulous than songwriters, are free from
these melodic considerations. So in that sense, I don't consider what I do to be
On the other hand, I think songwriters today make too much of the difference
between lyrics and poetry. For one thing, both were once one and the same. For
another, I think a good lyric has to spring from what T. S. Eliot called ‘the
auditory imagination’, the faculty that allows a poet or songwriter to
actually hear syllables and sounds in his or her head rather than merely
thinking about them on paper. A different part of the brain is involved than in,
for example, writing a Powerpoint presentation. There's a receptivity involved
in writing poetry and lyrics that is, I think, the same—though there are
certainly a lot of songwriters out there who write by formula rather than by
this process of inward listening.
Q: Do you think it is important that songs rhyme and if so why?
A: I think rhyme is an essential tool. For one thing, it helps a
performer remember the lyrics! There are great songwriters who can dispense with
rhyme—David Byrne is a good example—but it's hard to cover their songs. I
personally find rhyme an integral part of whatever it is I'm trying to say: it
affects the tone, voice, and perspective of the lyrics. I wouldn't want to do
away with it completely. But I also agree with what Oscar Hammerstein said: that
it's just as important to know when not to rhyme. Often, repetition serves a
songwriter better than rhyme. For example, if I start with a title line, I can
often ruin it by trying to rhyme it right away, so often I'll just repeat it
three or four or eight times to see if there's any hidden power in the
repetition. It's the interplay of repetition and rhyme that is most effective, I
Q: Do you think song lyrics must conform to recognised song structures
such as clear rhyming schemes, choruses, refrains, hooks and bridges or that
songs can also be like free verse?
A: I'm not sure I know what free verse means at this point in history,
but I do think that songwriters have to be careful to remember that their lyrics
will be heard rather than read. That means they have to recognize that the human
brain processes things in circular ways. A song needs to come back to something,
in other words. So yes, I think a song needs a refrain, chorus, or hook. The
rest depends on what effect the songwriter is trying to achieve. My songs
generally follow traditional forms because those forms allow me to experiment in
other ways and still maintain a sense of connection with the listener. You have
to pick your battles in deciding when to be unpredictable, and for me keeping a
conventional form can be quite helpful in giving me room to be unpredictable in
Q: When you read poetry in school or elsewhere did you recognize any
connection to the music you enjoyed?
A: Sure. My father is a poet, and he read a lot of verse to me when I was
little. So I always had the sense that poetry was something done out loud.
Popular music never struck me as being substantially different. People get very
precious about the idea of poetry, but for me poetry comes down to a care for
how things are said and a desire to share this care with others. I wouldn't call
the Beatles or Beck or Amy Winehouse poets, but they certainly have this same
care for how they communicate, so for me it's not hard to connect what they do
with the words that come in Norton anthologies.
Q: Was there anything about poetry in books that influenced your
A: I'm always reading poetry, so I wouldn't know where to start in
defining where the influence lies. I've certainly stolen a good many images and
song titles from poems, but I think, more importantly, poetry has always been a
way for me to expand my sense of how things can be said.
Q: Why do you think songs are more popular with people than poetry is?
A: I'm not sure poetry is as unpopular today as everyone seems to think.
I work a lot with teenagers, and they seem to be scribbling as much poetry in
their journals (online journals, in some cases) as any generation ever did. As a
technology for expression, words aren't in any danger of dying out. The problem,
I think, is that the growing association of poetry and poets with academic
institutions makes the medium seem more rarified than it actually is. That's
where songs come in. At this moment in history, songs are less likely to be seen
as instruments of social hierarchy, so they can be passed along between people
more easily. Anyone can listen to a song, memorize it, and feel that it's his or
hers to share with others. For example, you might not be a fan of hip-hop (I'm
not, generally speaking,) but you have to admit that it has created a culture of
memorization, recitation, and transmission that's as far-reaching as traditional
poetry ever was. To me, the reason for this is that hip-hop—and popular songs
in general—are able to capture the richness and diversity of how people
actually use words. When I read a lot of contemporary poetry, I'm often struck
by how impoverished the range of its idioms and speech patterns is. The words
and concepts may be big, but the sense of tone and musicality is often very
narrow. Also, in my opinion, the performative side of contemporary poetry has
become increasingly homogeneous: poets today tend to read with the same cadence,
which makes it easy to see their work as something intended only for a small
group of people. But I don't think that's a necessary feature of poetry, nor do
I think songs have replaced poetry. I think the two are simply changing in line
with the changing emotional needs of different groups of people.
copyright © Tam Lin