Skyword recently interviewed a number of songwriters about storytelling. I made the cut along with songwriters for Phil Collins, Aretha Franklin, Jonas Brothers & Selena Gomez! Here’s the piece by Jon Simmons on what brand marketers can learn from songwriters, with tips from eight troubadours (David Pack, Air Traffic Controller, Alexa Weber Morales, Joshua Hyslop, Jess Domain, Emily Hecht, Ed Roman and Bleu).

Simmons is also artist relations manager for Sound of Boston, WGBH’s Boston A-List winner for Best Local Blog 2014. He interviewed me further about stories and songs for this space:

Q: What attracts you to story songs?

A: I love story songs. They come in different flavors depending on the genre of music. In country music and Mexican corridos, stories are typical and can include tragedy, heroism, feuds, love sagas, bad luck or humor. A special genre, the narcocorrido, tells wild tales of the drug war in Mexico. In pop and jazz, they may be a bit more subtle, but almost every song still has a narrative arc: character, situation, conflict, outcome.

How do you start off this kind of song?

I try to hook the listener in with a sense of place or situation. For instance, in my song I Wanna Work For You, about being laid off and out of work, I started with the emotional urgency of the situation: “I wanna know where the meeting is/Take me to your leader/I’ll tell her everything she wants to hear/I’ll make the coffee sweeter”. In subsequent verses, I explain what happened “I got laid off and I became a troubadour/I sang with a baby on my hip/Please take me back, put me behind the Levolors/I can’t by breakfast with my wit.”

OK, emotional urgency makes sense. What about place?

Definitely! In another story tune, about a mother pining for the early romantic days in a marriage gone stale, I started with the setting, then moved quickly to the problem: “When the night is cool and all the boys are sleeping/I remember the kiss you gave to me/No one understands you/Even I can’t stand you/Twenty years slip by so mysteriously/I’ve done my best to leave you/Cast my bloody heart to stone/But I can’t let you sleep on the streets alone.”

How do you keep the story moving?

That song — it’s called When the Night is Cool and All the Boys Are Sleeping — also points to a second principle, which is to hook the listener in with cliff-hangers that keep them listening to find out the whole story. There are often twists in good story songs, and these are often delivered in the chorus, such as the above “can’t let you sleep on the streets alone”, which indicates there may be money or drug problems contributing to why these two are struggling in their marriage.

But there are other factors at work in a song. Can you describe the role of melody?

Of course, but also, you can’t forget prosody, which is how the lyrics fit the melody, and harmony, which affects our emotional understanding of the song. A melody activates the brain differently from words alone. It sinks in deeper. So when the prosody is just right — the rise and fall of the notes matches or enhances how we speak — and the harmony tells an emotional tale (minor key for sadness, for example) it resonates like nothing else.

What’s your favorite example of this type of song?

My audio engineer sent me an amazing one: a 1967 hit called Ode to Billie Joe by a songwriter named Bobbie Gentry. That one is mysterious; you are drawn into this family setting, with very apt details of place and characters. It is beautifully precise writing — the kind we all strive for: “It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty Delta day/I was out choppin’ cotton, and my brother was balin’ hay”. Then they go into eat dinner and you feel like you’re sitting right there at the table, hearing the news of someone’s suicide. It ends with a cliff-hanger that people have speculated about for years. Performing Songwriter had a great article about it.

If there’s something I’d like to achieve in this lifetime, it’s to write a song like that that really speaks to a lot of people — not necessarily a hit, but a song that encapsulates a time or place or story.