NOTE: This is the first edition of our monthly lyrics column in which we examine the lyrics of a specific song of a local band with the songwriter. This week's song in question is Matilda by Hares on the Mountain and you can listen to it below. If the song means something else to you, personally, or if you have another song that you would like for us to look into in the subsequent months, let us know in the comments!
Last Sunday I saw the resident band Hares on the Mountain play at Dan’s Silverleaf. Wielding their mandolins, violins, and electric guitars, the Hares delivered their energy and sound to the young and old. There was whistling, there were ballads, there were smiles, and the people were merry. Storytelling seemed to be at the core of their music and they brought the bard tradition to life. So I sat down with front man George Neal to talk about lyrics—about the musician as a poet. We talked about lyrics in general, but focused in on one song, Matilda Jones, and here’s what the troubadour had to say:
WDDI: You obviously have a wild imagination, so tell me about what got you into storytelling.
George: Growing up, I loved rock music, but what attracted me to rock music was storytelling. You know, I grew up listening to bands like The Who and The Kinks, stuff like that, where there are these album-long stories—I wanted to play music not to be a typical "douchebag rock-and-roller" but as a way of telling stories. I’ve devoted myself to learning how to write a really good song.
WDDI: How long does take you to write a song?
George: It varies because sometimes they come really quickly, you know, like Matilda Jones I wrote in 20 minutes because once I decided what the story was and I kinda figured you get from A, B, to C—it just sorta came down to filling in the blanks. Other songs are much more nebulous; I don’t know where they’re going to end up. But most of my songs do contain some kind of narrative. Sometimes I’ll just come up with a line and think, “Oh there’s a song in there,” but it’ll take me a while to come up with the characters and their motivations. I’m really influenced by folk music, because after I got into rock and roll, I kinda fell into Bob Dylan and then that opened up another world of folk music to me. I’ve spent a lot of time listening to traditional Irish and English songs, a lot of ballads…. I do enjoy that very strong storytelling and I go deep into British folk, bands like Fairport Convention and artists like Shirley Collins, Sandy Denny; that whole ballad tradition really attracts me. But I always wanted to make rock and roll because I love rock and roll, so for me it’s about finding that relationship between that storytelling and the aggression and sexuality in rock and roll. But it’s funny because you delve into those deep, deep folk songs and all that sort of stuff is there. Those folk musicians are rock and roll in a way because a lot of the substance of those songs is incredibly violent and the tensions of the characters are often very selfish and there’s a lot of sex involved… Those are the more interesting parts of humanity that are being revealed—these songs are strong insights into human motivations. In some ways Matilda Jones was me thinking “Okay, what would happen if Shel Silverstein wrote a Nick Cave song?” I love Nick Cave, especially his Murder Ballads album, which is very much in that folk tradition and blues tradition of stories of people doing really, really terrible things.
WDDI: I really like the tone of the song. It’s completely ironic, because you have the limerick form, like Little Miss Muffet, in the verse, but you have this really macabre subject matter, and so it’s really amusing.
George: Thank you, yeah, that song was a lot of fun to write, and you know, with this band, since I have five really good singers I can write for, it’s really opened up the things I can do. So as I was writing the first few lines of this song I was like, “Oh Petra is going to sing this song” and writing for a particular voice really helps push a song a certain way. I don’t think I would have written this song in the same way had I been writing it for my voice.
WDDI: I love the femme fatale story—Matilda Jones is a black widow. And she’s a lesbian, too. The story is so multi-faceted.
George: This song was very linear in the way I wrote it. You know, sometimes I’ll write the ending first and it’s all about “How do we get there?” but this song was written very linearly so it just kinda came to me as I was writing it. I was like “Okay here’s this woman, she’s killed all her husbands, and why?” Okay, partially money, but what will make it even more intriguing? I dunno, I have this sort of Victorian sensibility in a way, this whole idea of Matilda and Annie being in finishing school and being lovers who have this master plan. And I had in mind Edward Gorey’s The Gashlycrumb Tinies where it’s like “A is for Amy, who fell down the stairs.” He does these very amazing Victorian style illustrations to accompany, so I was very much picturing that sort of aesthetic as I was writing it. It’s a gothic tale, you know. I love that era of writing.
WDDI: Yeah, You pull a lot from history, with the whole “common law” marriage and finishing school. It’s very dated and that makes the story all the more interesting.
George: Yeah, there’s a movie quality to the story, you know, the idea of this gothic house with all these secrets and this Victorian sensibility with the nanny and the servants discussing things over the dishes—there’s this very anachronistic feel to it. I laughed a lot writing this song, because of the irony. But in a way, it’s almost a parody of that kind of writing. Within this Victorian gothic sensibility, there are all these modern elements, like Annie flying away to Bali and the photograph evidence.
WDDI: I love how they all died, how morbid!
George: That was the most fun part, coming up with all these deaths. I have this fascination with death because I’m a lover of life; I love every moment of being alive. But you know, I’ve never really been very good at writing love songs, just because in the end, I don’t understand them. There have been some really amazing love songs out there; I love poetry and I appreciate love songs, but for me love seems so arbitrary, and I like definites because so much of my life is very much in the grey area, and death is one thing that we all share. Getting to kill off a lot of characters was in some ways gratifying and fun because I have a dark sense of humor.
WDDI: Yeah, a lot of your music has this dark subject matter, but the tone of your lyrics and the sound of your music adds intriguing depth.
George: That is what I love about the Irish and English songwriting tradition. One of my favorite Irish songs is called “Isn’t It Grand?” and it’s about a funeral. It goes, “Look at the coffin with it’s shiny gold handles, isn’t it great, boys, to be bloody well dead?” but it’s a drinking song, you know, and there’s this freedom in embracing the fact that we’re all going to die. It shows you’re willing to deal with a truth that people spend all of their lives avoiding. I think it’s a very interesting to put yourself in that position. If you think of death that way, then it makes life so much greater. Realizing we all die is very life affirming. But I hope it ultimately is kind of fun, too. We want you to get a kick out of our music, to laugh and have a good time.
So gather ‘round, Denton, for story time and drinking songs with the Hares on the Mountain EVERY SUNDAY NIGHT at Dan’s Silverleaf. How flipping awesome is that? Make the Hares a part of your Sunday ritual and let’s all have a bloody good time! (Clinking of pint glasses ensues.)
Who: Ryan Becker, Cory P. Coleman, Justin Collins, Tony Ferraro, Petra Kelly, and George Neal
When: EVERY SUNDAY at 5 p.m.
Where: Dan's Silver Leaf, 103 Industrial Street
Below are the actual lyrics to Matilda by Hares on the Mountain:
Matilda Jones had a nice big home and slept in a fancy bed
She was all alone, a widowed crone 5 or six times it was said
Her first husband Harry fell off a ferry slipped on a slick spot on the deck
While husband number two drank a bottle of glue and number 3 got drunk and broke his neck
Mr. Jones number four had a mishap with a lawnmower
And number five remained alive after running into a beehivewe
Thought he would survive but choked in the hospital on his fork
She never formally wed husband number six but instead they were united in common law
But he lost his head and left her his fortune instead when he fell into a table saw
Oh Matilda Jones
The servants were suspicious and while washing the dishes they concluded she killed them herself
That was not far from the truth but there was never any proof 'cause she always had a little help
Anna McKenzie had drove her to a frenzy since they were finishing school chums
With a secret love no one dared speak of and a family fortune that had up and gone
They made a master plan Matilda would find a man and take his money and his life
While her true love Annie would pose as a nanny but sneak into her room at night
Oh Matilda Jones
But late one evening, Annie was leaving late to go on a trip
The local police had their curiosity piqued when they received an anonymous tip
When the squad car arrived Matilda invited ‘em inside but behaved angry and incensed
And the cop told her bluntly it was her they were hunting and they had incontrovertible evidence
They had photographs of her husbands’ mishaps the press called he Matilda the Hun
And when they looked for Annie, she had booked a plane for Baliand taken the fortune and run
Oh Matilda Jones
- Liz Hopper