Songs that Sing the Interior Life

by Philip Graham

Now that a deranged president’s toxic presence will finally—finally!—begin to occupy increasingly smaller tracts of our inner lives, these new days might offer an ideal occasion to celebrate songs that sing of the singular mental spaces hidden inside us all—songs that can help re-acquaint us with ourselves.

You might say that all songs, whatever their subject, are expressions of the interior life. From where else would they arrive? But how many songs explicitly address the structure of this inner world?

My first hint of this particular brand of songcraft began when, a half-year shy of thirteen, I sat on the rug of my Aunt May’s home, the extended family gathered before one of those big box televisions of the early 1960s to watch the Beatles’ debut on the Ed Sullivan Show. I edged as close as I could to the screen because, behind me, my older relatives kept up an annoying patter meant to gently tease me, the representative that evening of an increasingly incomprehensible younger generation: “Look at all that hair,” “Are they gay?” and “The music’s too loud.”

Not loud enough, I thought. How that music burst with energy and optimism! How cool those Beatles looked, even as small black-and-white figures on the large TV screen. Their suits served as an imperfect disguise of adulthood, at odds with their carefree body language. They were simply having a great time. And so was I, alone and yet not so alone on that rug, because this music, whose lyrics I already knew by heart, was aimed at me:

I wanna hold your hand
And when I touch you
I feel happy, inside

I was of an age when holding an actual girl’s hand was a not-impossible thought. But kissing?

I’ll pretend that I’m kissing
The lips I am missing
And hope that my dreams will come true.

Even kissing, that even more mysterious and longed-for milestone than holding hands, might not be so distant after all! Those lyrics expressed something else that may have flown under my twelve-year-old radar, yet surely registered. Both songs, with the phrases, “I feel happy inside,” and “”I’ll pretend that I’m kissing,” moved beyond the mere physical and offered a glimpse into the inner life, a place just beginning to fascinate me.


So many years later, West Coast singer-songwriter Adey Bell’s song, “Stay Home,” is as direct a come-on as “I Want to Hold Your Hand”—or whatever a hand metaphorically stands in for. But what Bell offers her unnamed prospective partner are her secret hidden spaces and drama.

Her come-on is also a challenge, because not all inside is pretty:

Stay home
Will you stay with me
As I wander through my haunted memories
Will you stay here with the darkest part of me?


Time to inquire within
As we welcome all of our demons in
Will you stay here
And watch me shed my skin?

After confessing to the presence of demons and haunted memories, during the song’s bridge Bell sings, “I am not who I was, and I am not who I will be,” slowly offering the architecture of her inner plurality.

The master of such architecture was the 20th century Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa, who didn’t write poetry so much as he created poets who then wrote poems. An entire invented literary salon lived within him, and each imagined poet (who he dubbed “heteronyms”) wrote stylistically different work, though they often dwelled on the dilemma of personal identity. Pessoa’s heteronym Ricardo Reis perhaps presented it most succinctly:

Countless lives inhabit us.
I don’t know, when I think or feel,
Who it is that thinks or feels. I am merely the place
Where things are thought and felt.


I have more than just one soul. There are more I’s than I myself . . .

As “Stay Home” comes to a close, Bell now reveals her “crowded rooms” and proposes a merger:

Stay put
And I will stay with you
As we walk through all of our crowded rooms
We will stay here and take in the view

Sharing mental intimacy creates more risks than physical intimacy. But the tender rewards? Being seen, Adey Bell sings. Having company.


Pessoa’s “more I’s” could also be the subtext of the Norwegian singer-songwriter Ann Brun’s “These Days.” When I listen to this song, I’m often reminded of a lecture I gave many years ago about the use of dreams in fiction.

During class discussion, one of the students mentioned she had tried to master lucid dreaming, the technique of remaining conscious while in a dream state. She’d hoped that the next time her father appeared unwanted in a dream, she could control their conversation and tell him all the hard truths she wished she’d spoken while he was alive. But early one morning, waking after yet another failed attempt, she finally gave up on the promise of lucid dreaming.

As the sun rose, she decided to walk off her despair. Eventually she came upon Merry-Ann’s, a popular all-night diner. Time for breakfast. She settled in a booth, ordered coffee, and then stared at the empty other half of the booth.

There was another way. Couldn’t she simply imagine her father into the empty seat before her? She did, and having placed him there, she let him have it, all her pent-up, pitiless truth-telling pouring out silently. No one else in the diner had any clue this young woman was engaged in such a mental drama, this long-awaited pivotal moment of her life.

The video for Ann Brun’s “These Days” allows listeners a look into a similar intimate moment. Brun reproaches someone not present, perhaps some lover who has undermined her self-confidence and still inhabits her thoughts.

At first, Brun seems to be looking straight at us, as if we were this unreasonable person who has deformed her.

There were nights and mornings
When you came to me
Found your way into my bones, my joints
Into my veins
Like an animal you coiled your darkness around me
You spelled your name in charcoal
All over my body

Yet when mobile, hairline cracks streak across her face, another interpretation seems possible. The singer is instead challenging her own debilitating self-criticisms; her self-doubts have become personified into a “you.”

From this perspective, she could be staring into a mirror, watching those swift dark lines appear and then disappear—evidence of an inner struggle between healing and relapse. If so, the camera holds us in the position of being Brun, confronting that mirror, watching herself address her crippling, critical inner voice.

The things you’ve shown me over the years
The roads you blocked and how you’ll define me

It seems this portion of her inner self must always be wrestled with and never, perhaps, truly defeated.The best she can hope for is a truce. Isn’t that what any of us can reasonably expect in our own lives?

These days
I just walk with you
These days
I let you stay
A little further away


The drama of Alison Goldfrapp’s “Annabel” is the opposite of that in “These Days.” Here, a hidden part of the self needs to be embraced, not held at arm’s length.

The song is inspired by Cathleen Winter’s novel, Annabel, which tells the tale of Wayne, a child born with both male and female genitalia. Though squeezed by his family into a public male self, Wayne nurtures another self inside: Annabel.

When you dream you only dream you’re
All the secrets there inside you
Annabel . . .

Nothing that they did will stop you
Annabel . . .

When you dream you only dream you’re

Sleep reminds you takes you there,
oh Annabel . . .

You are the truth they denied.

The video takes the path of interpretation, not mere illustration. In fact, it unfolds like a short story version of the novel. We first see a boy brooding by a pool, intent on his watery reflection, then he tests the barrier of a frayed tennis net, then he’s riding a bicycle along a forested path. But the film’s true story is about Wayne’s invisible life, where his suppressed other, Annabel, lives, in a hideaway decorated with necklaces, dolls, a tea set, a drawing pad.

Meanwhile, the video cuts to scenes of the boy’s mother, played by Alison Goldfrapp, preparing a lunch for her child’s bicycle outing to the forest. She includes something besides a sandwich, which is later revealed to be a sequined dress that fits him, so he knows that he has been seen, that his mother accepts him for who else he is. She might as well be watching his dance in that dress across the forest clearing.


The story of Wayne’s secret conversation with his Annabel is a serious life struggle, the shifting tectonic plates of self-definition. Yet being in silent conversation with oneself is a common, even mundane feature of human existence.

In December of 1980 and March of 1981, two shattering events caught the attention of cultural anthropologist John L. Caughey: Mark David Chapman’s assassination of John Lennon, and John Hinckley’s attempted assassination of a newly-minted president, Ronald Reagan. Caughey noticed something that linked these two young men: the imaginary relationships they secretly nurtured—Chapman with Lennon, and Hinckley with actress Jodie Foster, who he wanted to impress. Caughey wondered, Are such fantasies about people we have never met always pathological, or are they normal? Setting himself a research goal, he discovered how common this impulse is. In his marvelous book, Imaginary Social Worlds, Caughey says we build such worlds with “inner self-talk,” which is “more dialogue than monologue. It has the structure of an inner conversation.”

While walking down the street, who in the world thinks,”Left foot, right foot, left foot”? Instead, we invent conversations, even arguments with people who are not there, we imagine multiple futures, we do our best to revise the past. We carry the voices of others inside us—a parent or parents, former or present lovers, friends, enemies, co-workers, neighbors. They are always available to speak to us inside, voices silent to others but not to us.

Often, though, we don’t “hear” these voices consciously—they have become such a part of our habitual interior chatter that we don’t notice them. Just as we often ignore our dreams when we wake, so, too, do we ignore what we call “daydreaming.”

But we are busy inside. In “Voices,” Adey Bell, who is quite good at this sort of song, address the whispers within.

I wanna know
Who’s speaking
Whose voices are these
Such a lovely day

Whose voices, indeed? Sometimes they are friendly, sustaining. But the voices in question in Bell’s song prevent her from enjoying the pleasure of what’s before her. Often, we don’t quite realize what has created our sour mood, but Bell steps back to defy these negative whispers:

Don’t wanna feel this way
I will
Be free
You have no
Power over me

Then we come to a moment of peace—past the thicket of internal voices she must push through to get there—to see and appreciate the companion beside her, and to be seen in turn.

I have always been fond
Of going places I’ve never been
Inside your eyes
That’s where you’ll find me

But this moment Bell achieves is short, and she returns to the refrain of those elusive speaking voices.

I wanna know
Who’s speaking
Whose voices are these
Such a lovely day

That this refrain must be repeated, and concludes the song, implies that any such inner victories are brief—they remain as part of an ongoing drama.

So here we are today, in our own collective, ongoing drama. The One Who Will Not Be Named is already in the rearview mirror, but still not far enough away that we can release ourselves from the addiction of outrage. Aside from the damage done to our social fabric—damage yet to be fully calculated—there remains the invisible hurt our minds have endured. Much of the bruising need not be permanent. We too can sing the songs of our interior lives and begin the task of reclaiming the peace that was lost. Our intimate personal spaces await our renewed embrace.