Sad songs don’t make people sad, and happy tunes do not lift spirits. Bully for them that Katrina and the Waves walked on sunshine, but their peppy hit song from 1983 would likely annoy or deepen the despair of anyone in the midst of depression. “Don’t it feel good?” Katrina asked, but only the already joyous could fully catch her ecstatic beat.
The expressive singer-songwriter Alejandra Ribera has won the 2014 SOCAN Songwriting Prize – SOCAN is an acronym for the Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada – for producing what a panel of judges determined to be the best independent song in English, for her upsweeping, achingly affecting ballad I Want. As such, whether she wanted them or not, the Montreal-based artist received $5,000, a Gibson SJ-100 acoustic guitar, a BOSS digital recorder, two CUBE audio monitors and one set of stereo headphones.
But, really, all Ribera wanted, as her song goes, was the “aching of a melody” and the “power of a psalm.”
“I had just been through the biggest heartache of my life,” explains Ribera, speaking from Montreal after hearing of the trophy news. “I couldn’t see the point of doing anything, because I no longer had a person to share it with. The only thing I know how to do is to write songs, and every time I tried to write one I just burst into tears. My situation was too messed up.”
In her pocket, Ribera keeps a list of things that can instantly rally her: Dance to the Jackson 5’s ABC, eat dark chocolate, call her grandparents. But none of those things were working, and nothing she tried to do musically inspired her forward either. “I couldn’t even fake it,” she recalls.
Eventually she called a mentor and friend, who suggested that instead of writing how she felt, she should write about the things she longed to feel again. The result is I Want, an elegant, emotional wish list for the soul. “I want the life force back in my blood again,” Ribera wrote. It has to do with the human spirit in general – wanting to want, as so powerfully evoked by Springsteen’s Born to Run. “I wanna die with you Wendy on the street tonight, in an everlasting kiss.” That one should either want that, or want to want to that, is the point.
We can also see Ribera’s I Want as a song about the contemporary condition of song, as was the way with Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen, who wrote about the “fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, the major lift.” Ribera, like Cohen and the more than 120,000 SOCAN composers, stood “before the lord of song,” with nothing on her tongue but verses, bridges and choruses.
In a thoughtful essay in The Wall Street Journal this week, the pop singer Taylor Swift commented on the current state of the music business. She wrote that while album sales are down, people were still buying the music that hit them “like an arrow through the heart,” which made them “feel like they really aren’t alone in feeling so alone.”
The trilingual Ribera understands what Swift is talking about. “You want that song that can transform your day,” she says. “You put it on while you’re walking to that job that you really don’t want to walk to, but you gotta do it. You need to get in that good place when you walk in that door.”