With Valentine’s Day approaching, greeting cards and little chalky, heart-shaped confections inscribed with “Be Mine” and “Kiss Me” are a nice gesture, but is there anything more romantic than a love song?
Below, 14 musicians discuss their favorite love songs and what it takes to make a great one.
1. Cory Branan
Branan begins by confessing he might be the wrong person to ask about love songs: “All my favorite love songs are a bit skewed.” And according to him, the same is true for his wife, who suggests The Cramps “Like a Bad Girl Should,” with “the admittedly great lyric ‘It’s wild how you sit.’” Branan is a fan of two songs in particular, though: Richard Thompson’s “Beeswing” and John Prine’s “Donald and Lydia.” He describes “Beeswing” as “a lyrical tour de force about love and possession: ‘I hear her flower’s faded now/Hard weather and hard booze/Maybe that’s just the price you pay for the chains you refuse.’” And Prine’s song is, he says, “a romance between two misfits that never meet, and the night they consummate their love from 10 miles away by simultaneously dreaming or, depending on how you hear it, masturbating. I also love how Prine introduces each verse by simply stating the subject’s name—‘Lydia,’ ‘Donald,’ and ‘Love.’”
He notes, “For me, great love songs avoid the trap of easy sentimentality or abstraction. Townes Van Zandt’s ‘I’ll Be Here in the Morning’ doesn’t deny the appeal of the highway while assuring his girl: ‘Close your eyes I’ll be here in the morning/Close your eyes I’ll be here for a while.’”
He also cites Chris Bell’s songwriting: “[He] uses two of my favorite approaches to a love song on his solo record.” The first is, “juxtaposing love’s exaggerated urgency with the matter of fact: ‘Every night I tell myself I am the Cosmos/I am the Wind/But that won’t get you back again,’” in the song “I am the Cosmos.” The second is stating matter of factly, “’All I want to do is spend some time with you/So I can hold you,’” from the song “You and Your Sister.”
Branan finishes by offering advice to the would-be songwriter, “Most of my own love songs are qualified love songs. If you absolutely have to write one, I recommend throwing an insult in there just in case. You never know.”
2. Rachel Kolar (He’s My Brother, She’s My Sister)
To create a great love song, Kolar believes you have to mean it: “You gotta go through love and come out the other side to really understand it. You also can’t be afraid to reveal all of love’s sides. The more honest the writer, the more epic the song becomes.” Kolar shares her own example, “Tales That I Tell” off the band’s album Nobody Dances in This Town: “It’s about three different times I fell in love. The first time fell apart and drove me to drink and the second and third fell apart because of the drinking. I’m in love again and I don’t drink.”
Kolar’s favorite love song is “The Ballad of John and Yoko” by The Beatles. “The lyrics are so visceral,” she says. “You can see the story he is singing and imagine him and Yoko running through Europe, in love… There is also a sense of humor to the song, especially the chorus. He’s frustrated but kinda likes it.” She especially likes the verse, “Drove from Paris to the Amsterdam Hilton/Talking in our beds for a week/The newspapers said, ‘Say what you doing in bed?’/I said, ‘We’re only trying to get us some peace.’” Kolar states, “You can feel the real friendship those two had.”
3. Dave Wilson (Chatham County Line)
Wilson, when asked to name his favorite love song, lists a few: “I really like ‘Long-Limbed Girl’ by Nick Lowe. It is sort of a ‘what happened to that girl I once knew’ story, and I think all of us can relate to that.” As he is currently reading Otis “Big Daddy” Williams’ book on the Temptations, he adds, “’My Girl’ is one of the greatest love songs of all time. It has it all—great poetry, great singing, and a bitching string section.” He also includes John Hartford’s “Gentle on My Mind” to his list: “I feel like it was a very modern take on love at the time it was written.” Wilson is quick to point out he doesn’t like to pick favorites because “as the seasons change so do my feelings about songs,” but if pressed on the matter he says Al Dubin and Harry Warren’s “I Only Have Eyes for You,” which he believes “The Flamingos covered so amazingly in 1959,” is his personal favorite. “If you look at a love song as a way to profess your love for someone, the lyrics to this song can make the ice melt: ‘My Love must be a kind of blind love, I can’t see anyone but you.’ Seriously, if she has ears, then that beats all of the roses and chocolate in the world. The Flamingos’ version too has that slow dance quality that just adds to the atmosphere, and all great love songs have to have that atmosphere.”
When asked to comment on if he has a story about a love song he penned, he remarks, “It has been a strange experience to be a writer and musician in this world – having songs out in the wild for people to take into their lives. One of the songs from IV, ‘Chip of a Star,’ which I wrote as a love song to my then girlfriend, now wife, seems to be one that touches people the most. Occasionally someone will mention after a show that they used in as their first dance, or even in their actual wedding. That kind of response to what you do can make a lot of the miles melt away.”
4. Cate Le Bon
Welsh singer/songwriter Cate Le Bon remarks that she’s never been able to write a “straight-up love song.” According to her, “I suppose I fret too much to give myself fully its form.” For her, “Simplicity and a complete abandonment of self” is what it takes to write a great one.
Le Bon’s favorite love song is “Julia” by The Beatles: “Although ‘Julia’ is not about romantic love, I have yet to hear any love song that captures so well the internal disruption love brings. I particularly love the lyric ‘when I cannot sing my heart/I can only speak my mind.’” And for those who are tired of romance, she mentions the song “I Hate You” by The Monks as a great anti-love song. “It’s a fitting reaction to all the insipid love songs that were being written at the time.”
5. Victor Krummenacher (Camper Van Beethoven)
Victor Krummenacher says Nick Cave’s “Love Letter” is “extraordinary.” He first heard it when Cave traveled the U.S. on a solo tour and performed it with Warren Ellis and Jim White from the band Dirty Three: “Something about it stood out right there, and then as special, he’s already proved himself as a songwriter by that point. But, with that song, he just nailed the everyman sentiment to the wall. All of the dark obsessiveness of Cave was there, but the situation was ordinary—a song about sending a love letter, a song about fucking up, a song about hoping for redemption. These are the kind of love songs I love.” Victor notes the simple bridge in the song and the straightforward lyrics beginning with “I said something I did not mean to say,” and culminating with “It all came out the wrong way.” Victor continues, “I remember seeing him play that song, and I remember thinking everyone in the audience identified with the lyrics right then and there. It was one of those moments of power that make me understand why I like live performance so much.”
6. Greg Lisher (Camper Van Beethoven)
Greg Lisher ranks “To Turn You On,” from Roxy Music’s 1982 album Avalon as one of his favorites: “It’s just a beautiful piece of music really. The sound of this song just oozes romance. One of my favorite lines in the song is ‘It’s so easy, believe me/When you need fun/I’d do anything to turn you on.’”
7. Jonathan Segel (Camper Van Beethoven)
Jonathan Segel’s first thought on the topic is “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” by Richard Thompson: “This song contains love and death like the best of any classical love poems,” where true lovers are parted by death. He admits his fondness of the song has to do with where he was in his life at the time he first heard it—bartending in San Francisco and “being mostly drunk and riding around on old motorcycles,” after a separation from Camper Van Beethoven and also his long-time girlfriend. He says, “In the song, Red Molly comments on how fine James’ bike is and he says, ‘well, you know, red hair and black leather, that’s my favorite color scheme.’ And they are basically an item from then on.” Segel recognizes James’ classic rebel character is cliché: “Of course, he gets shot by the cops, and they call Molly down to see him on his death-bed. But here’s where the song transcends the story—on his death bed, as he again claims his love and slips away into death, he slips her the keys to the bike, ‘I’ve got no further use for these.’” He finishes by stating, “The trajectory of the story tells you exactly how it’s gonna go from the beginning, and you’re drawn along for the ride, and feel the love, the despair and the acceptance of the affair and its conclusion. It’s amazing.”
Segel comments he read an interview by his bandmate David Lowery, the principle lyricist for Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker, where Lowery said, “He created characters from whose perspective he wrote because he didn’t think anybody could have enough personal material to fill 10 albums. I read that many years ago… but it stuck with me because I thought immediately that anybody who had been in love would have fodder for a billion albums.” Segel, who is a “big believer” in love songs says music plus love, equals transcendence. “When we play, for example, ‘All Her Favorite Fruit’ in concerts, I can literally feel the timelessness of it. To begin with, it’s set in the 19th century, and it builds in such a way as to convey the power of the transcendence of that unrequited love across the ages. And when the band feels that, we can pull the audience with us into that timeless and ineffable space. And that makes a great love song.”