14 Musicians Discuss Love Songs

Music Lists

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.”

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?

8. Michael Nau – Cotton Jones; Page France

One of Nau’s favorite love songs is “Magnolia Wind” by Guy Clark. Nau claims when he first heard the song, it “really struck” him. He especially likes the John Prine and Emmylou Harris rendition: “The duet version is beautiful. That song has a lot of great lines and it just kind of moves me.” Upon being asked if there are particular lyrics he favors, Nau says, “I really like the line ‘And I’d rather go hungry/Than eat lonesome stew.’ That whole song—I just feel like every line, start to finish, is really good.” Nau also names Bob Dylan’s “If Not for You” and The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” as favorites: “Those songs have always been true to me all through my life. There’s not much that can change the way those songs make me feel.”

According to Nau, everyone has a different opinion of what makes a great love song. He believes it’s easy for songwriters to over-think the theme. For him, the best love songs are the ones that are the most candid: “Like Dylan’s ‘If Not for You’…I feel the best ones just come out, just pour out and don’t even have to be written down.” He continues, “I would love to write a great love song but it has always been hard to not try to dress things up too much.” When asked about writing romantic songs himself, he responds, “it is tough for me to really write a romance love song and feel good about it and feel like I’ve done it in a way that has not been done a million times before.”

Rose claims she doesn’t know how a person can have one favorite love song. But one in particular that has always meant a lot to her is Bob Dylan’s “I’ll Keep It With Mine.” She says, “It doesn’t sound to be so much about wooing its subject as it is about reassuring them. It sounds like the ball is in no one’s court ‘cause there’s no game to be played. It’s not petty or selfish or pleading, but understanding and supportive. That’s what I like to think of love as.”

A second favorite song, which she describes as a “masterpiece,” is “Marie” by Randy Newman: “It’s got such direct and honest delivery that it shocks me. He starts off frozen in time ‘the night we met’ with this strong detail of her ‘hair piled up high.’” She continues, “It’s all so relatable and average. I get the feeling he was the only person that night to think she ‘looked like a princess,’ but what a perfect scene.” Rose notes listening to Newman’s self deprecation and pangs of conscience in the second verse, “after hearing ‘I loved you the first time I saw you/And I always will love you Marie’ is kind of like willingly dragging your heart through a minefield, but some might say that’s what love is all about, at least the love in this song.”

10. Olafur Arnalds

For the former metal drummer, Icelandic composer Olafur Arnalds has always had an admittedly weird, but special place in his heart for the Joy Divison’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” saying, “I’m not sure if you can really call it a love song.” What makes it even more special is he recalls hearing it the night he met his girlfriend of two years: “I have a vague memory of hearing this song at a very late, dark after-hours bar in Iceland, in a drunken state. Seeing this cute girl and having a very corny, overly dramatic moment over this song,” which he discovered was also a favorite of his girlfriend. He continues, “It’s so dramatic in a way that it is almost comic…I mean, it’s weird in the same way Richard Marx is weird. Nobody actually puts a Richard Marx song on the love-mix tape.”

When asked what makes for a good song, Arnalds replies, “Everything that ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ is not.” And despite believing a love song’s lyrics should be more positive, “In the end it doesn’t really matter. I think a love song is simply a song that ties two people together in love.”

11. Chelsea Wolfe

For Wolfe, “The best kind of love is the kind that knocks you over and steals your appetite and your sleep.” Wolfe, who claims to compose tormented love songs, describes love as “hard and confusing and often really fucked up,” but notes that it is “also one of the most important things in this world.”

The Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin” is her favorite love song: “I think it’s the only good song I’ve heard of theirs, and it’s one of my favorite songs of all time. The arrangement and approach is really special and nostalgic and his voice carries the words perfectly.” However, she says she typically enjoys love songs that are not as direct as “Nights in White Satin”: “A song that I consider a love song but others may not is ‘Hawk’ by Broadcast. The lyrics speak to me in a way that defines a situation I’ve been in so I understand it as a love song, even though it’s very sad: ‘Speak your words/Define my grief for me/Out of reach/Some things just cannot be.’”

12. Russ Manning (Rush Midnight; Twin Shadow)

When asked about his own love songs, Manning says, “some of my new songs are about longing for someone who you begin to miss once it’s too late. He continues, “I tend to glamorize the past, and I like to sing songs about looking back in time and remembering the good moments.” For the Brooklyn-born and bred musician, the idea of growing up in a small town and how it would feel to lose your love to the big city is fascinating. Although he grew up in New York City, he went to college in a small town: “I encountered people there who had grown up in small towns and I always pictured suburban house parties like in the movies…”

Since nostalgia is a theme Manning tends to explore, it’s easy to understand why one of his all time favorite love songs is “Wild One” by Thin Lizzy. “In ‘Wild One’ [singer] Phil Lynott sings about his long lost lover like she’s a legend. She’s never coming back and he knows it.” His favorite lyrics from the song: “Away you’ll stray and never come back/To those who love and made you.”

13. Evan Way (The Parson Red Heads)
14. Brette Marie Way (The Parson Red Heads)

Husband and wife Evan and Brette Way realize their favorite love songs, The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows,” and The Beatles’ “Something,” might sound cliché, but they say, “we can’t help it!” According to them, “These are two bands that were extremely formative for us, and for our band, and we really fell in love at the same time that we were really falling in love with this music, ‘60s music in general.” They maintain it’s hard to name just a few things that make these songs great. “The production, lyrics, perfect melodies, and perfect vocals are hard to separate one from the other. But they definitely spoke honestly about love, somehow avoiding cheese-ball stuff, and somehow avoiding sounding ‘confessional’ – just real stuff that speaks to the heart.” And since the songs were played at their wedding, they are extra special for them.

Evan believes it is important, if possible, to avoid sappiness: “real love isn’t a sappy feeling at all…It’s a real powerful, completely life-changing, nearly supernatural thing.” He continues by saying, “There is a time and a place for a cheesy love-song, yes, but I don’t know if that is what makes a great love song, at least not to me.” So what makes a great love song? “Any song that deals honestly and directly with human emotion, in ways that are completely relatable by the listener. That is a great song. Oh, and a great love song is one that you can dance to in your living room alone, or with someone else!”

And Evan had something to say on the topic of anti-love songs: “They make me want to smack the singer and tell them ‘that’s not true—in a month, you’re not going to believe a word of what you’re singing right now.’” But he does acknowledge being a fan of sad love songs. ‘Donavan’s ‘Catch the Wind’ is one of the all-time greatest unrequited love songs. We love it so much that we had that played at our wedding, too, even though it is sad and about someone who can never be with the person they love! We didn’t care, Brette still walked down the aisle to it.”

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