Words without Music
The only belonging I actually lost on August 4 was my lyrics notebook. Although our little apartment suffered heavy damage, nothing was completely lost. Doors and windows had flown out of their frames, a table’s legs broke, plants fell out of pots, our newly bought TV split in half, a bookshelf shattered into millions of pieces. Some things could be fixed, others had to be thrown out. But nothing disappeared. Nothing except my lyrics notebook.
I left our Mar Mikhael apartment that night and asked my friends who went back the next day to look for it. They searched the streets around our building, nearby dumpsters, and the cemetery below. No sign of my notebook.
If I Die
I wait for the sun
Let the sun bury me in light
Mermaids sing like in the beginning
There is nothing left under the sun
Houses stand like tombs
Bodies back in wombs
There is nothing left but the sun
Bury me in light
August 5. I only remember the sun.
I wake up at 7 a.m., after a short, nightmare-filled sleep. My mother had given me a sleeping pill, but my dehydrated, drained body was bound to crash anyway. In the gray that overtook the city the night before, I forgot we were in August. Bright, scorching, smoldering August.
I get dressed and rush to the hospital. The sun is invasive, blinding. I feel its rays burning my skin, screeching in my ears. During the 20-minute drive, the sun is defiant and provocative. I want it gone.
I never thought of myself as a writer. I didn’t write growing up. I tried keeping a diary when I was nine, like all my favorite characters in books. I planned to start an elaborate mystery novel when I was twelve. Both experiments failed miserably. The diary lasted three days; the novel, four pages.
Although I majored in literature, I made sure to avoid creative writing classes. I had decided early on that I was a reader, not a writer. I wrote analytical and creative essays in school and university, and I wrote well, because I understood the assignment. I wrote what was expected of me.
My literature teacher in school told me that I was literary with a scientific brain — I was logical, clear, to the point, but I lacked poetry. She said I would some day make a great journalist.
I used to think words could not affect me the way music does.
I grew up with music always playing in our home. My mother is a music teacher. She taught me the guitar and the basics of singing. My father, grandfather, uncles, and cousins are all avid music lovers. Family gatherings revolved around music. I took piano lessons for ten years and have been singing since I was seven. As a shy kid, music was my refuge and the only way I was comfortable expressing myself.
Music is abstract, rich, layered. Its impact is instantly felt, even if not immediately understood. Words felt too dry, too precise. They didn’t move me, but perhaps because I didn’t allow them to. I dismissed lyrics, and poetry by extension. They only existed, for me, to serve the music in songs.
Home is so Sad
You were lying where
you had cut my hair
right beneath the table
where we eat the bread you make
Home is so sad
Glass in our coffee
towels on trees
blood from your nostrils
blood from your ears
soil splattered on our walls like drops of blood
Home is so sad
There’s a hole where your knee should be
but I am not afraid
I am not afraid
Home is so sad
it stays as it was left
I first read Philip Larkin’s poem “Home Is So Sad,” on my cousin’s Instagram post, in my boyfriend’s hospital room in Mount Lebanon some time in August 2020. Larkin wrote it on New Year’s Eve, 1958, in Loughborough, England. “Home is so sad, it stays as it was left.”
When my two bandmates and I founded Postcards in 2012, I was the designated songwriter since I was the band’s lead singer. I found myself writing lyrics “scientifically,” just as my teacher had predicted. For our first two EPs (2013 and 2015), I only wrote because I had to, because pop songs need words. We composed the music together, then I wrote words that fit the assignment. I recycled formulaic sentences from songs we liked to use in ours. The music expressed what we wanted to say. Words were just needed to fill in the blanks. They only had to sound good. I knew they weren’t great, but I preferred writing this way. Dissociating from the process meant keeping my distance. I could detach myself from the “I” in these songs.
I wanted to make and play music, but I wasn’t willing to expose myself with words. And I was not a poet, after all, nor a real writer.
Cut to 2016.
“Julia, you have an opinion about everything. I refuse to believe you have nothing to say.”
The slap in the face that forced me to confront my fear. Our producer and friend, Fadi, told me this as we were writing our first full-length album, I’ll Be Here in the Morning.
Someone had seen through my insecurities masquerading as indifference. He knew I wasn’t putting my heart — or head, for that matter — into the lyrics. Our music was evolving and we were growing as people. The lyrics needed to follow suit.
Fadi’s words echoed a friend’s, who had once told me “I don’t see you in your songs.” His comment angered me at the time, but I brushed it off. I couldn’t afford to think about it because I knew I would have to come to terms with what I’ve known since I was nine. Writing, even if only for myself, terrified me.
I had no idea where to start. A songwriter friend advised me to carry a notebook at all times. I bought a small black one, and began writing down texts I liked from books, movies, music, conversations. I absorbed everything around me. It was easier to begin with taking in the outside world before attempting to bring out my inner one.
Songs I loved acquired new meaning, because I allowed the words to move me. I discovered the beauty — and safety — of words paired with music and melodies. Writing lyrics meant I was still half-hidden behind music. My words weren’t standing alone, they were part of a whole. I slowly understood how lyrics, not just music, could shape a song. A sentence could mean multitudes, depending on how it was sung, where the melody began, what instruments were being played. The choice of instruments, tempo, melodies, rhythms, timbre, arrangements, words — all these combine to make you think and feel something.
Words and music were inherently bound in our songs, and it allowed me to somewhat comfortably inject a part of myself in the lyrics. Somehow the idea of being a lyricist was easier to swallow than that of being a writer.
In the podcast Song Exploder, artists explain the process behind songs they’ve written. Jeff Tweedy, Wilco’s lead singer and songwriter, a guest on one of the episodes, explains how when the band is playing he mutters syllables or random words as he’s coming up with a vocal melody. Some of these words make it to the final song, or even shape the theme of the lyrics entirely. He says this allows his subconscious to connect between words and music in ways he wouldn’t have thought of otherwise.
This was a revelation, because I had been doing the same instinctively but I thought my process was just lazy. I thought that writing based on instinct, the way I sometimes did with music, meant I wasn’t a real writer. The more I read about other writers’ processes, the less harsh I could be with myself.
We composed the music for “Red” in July 2020. While we were playing the song, figuring out the arrangement, I was experimenting with a vocal melody and I found myself singing “I am by your side,” with the syllables fitting right in. The last version we did before August was instrumental only, with this single sentence I repeated. An omen.
I am by your side
I am by your side
when the earthquake hits
the chemicals, the dust
Hold on to my arm
you’re my only one
I run on flattened doors
I’ve seen this all before
it flows in my blood
I am by your side
I am by your side
There’s still some glass on pages of books I can’t read
Let’s get married pack up and leave
There’s a fire in the sky
I try to close my eyes
August 4. “It’s our turn now. Our parents have been through this, now it’s our turn.”
This is what’s going through my brain as I look around for something clean to tie around my boyfriend Pascal’s bloody leg, with the bone sticking out of his knee. I have been getting ready for this all my life. I know what has to be done. Stop the blood, grab the cash and passports, get him out of here before they bomb us again.
August 11. We leave the hospital for Pascal’s parents’ house in the mountains, where we spend the next two months while he recovers. Our friends are kind enough to clean our Beirut apartment for us. They bring us suitcases filled with our clothes and other necessities they rescued. Among them is a black leather notebook that I found one day in the studio.
On the first page, I write the detailed list of medications we have to give him daily. Panadol every six hours, Augmentin every twelve. Pariet in the morning to coat the stomach, thirty minutes before any food intake. Eye drops every twelve hours, an ear drop every eight hours, another one every six hours. A couple of creams to apply once a day on his scars. The biggest one was a line that ran down his nose. There were others below his right eye, below his right eyebrow, on the side of his jaw, and near his right ear. Breathing exercises twice a day, physiotherapy exercises for his leg three times a day, a needle in his stomach every day after lunch to avoid blood clots, since he mostly stayed in bed. His brother, mother and I become his nurses, taking turns within a carefully planned schedule. His father, the dentist, handles the post-lunch shot.
[Helicopters, planes, cars backfiring, motorcycles racing along the highway.]
When the apartment is finally fixed, we move back and spend the first month of the new year in total lockdown. Our ears seem to be more attuned to sounds. Like prey in the wild, we perk up at every noise.
[Heavy rain on the balcony. Thunder. Windows opening and shutting.]
A therapist explains that this is a natural reaction to trauma, since we’re musicians. We anticipate sounds, we wait for them to crescendo. Pascal sleeps with earplugs. I don’t. I’m afraid of missing a warning sound.
[The wind shaking trees, swinging branches, violently closing doors, whistling in the night.]
The wind is the most terrifying of them all. It keeps me up at night. I download three different weather apps to keep track of the exact speed of the wind — when it will peak, when it will die down. If it’s under 20km/h, I can sleep. Anything above that keeps me awake. I stare at my phone screen, counting down the seconds until it will calm down.
Boats at our window
parked on our street
we live in water
caught in a stream
cover my ears
I’ve seen the future
it’s all the same
time is the devil’s twisted game
cover my ears
Grief to grow old with
grief as an end
grief as a neighbor
grief as a friend
Scars on the curtains
needles to thread
grief in the way we make our bed
Grief as a daughter
grief over words
cover my ears
I am not here
Between August 2020 and January 2021, I fill up the new leather notebook. For the first time in my life, I write because I need to. I blurt out pages and pages of half-forgotten memories, chaotic thoughts, unfinished sentences. I need this moment to be archived.
I write without songs in mind. Some parts eventually turn into lyrics, with barely any rewrites.
I write because I can't watch, read, or listen to anything.
I write because I survived, because the man I love almost died in front of me, in the home we made together.
The life we knew is gone. I write to fill the void.
Julia Sabra is a Lebanese musician, songwriter, composer and sound engineer. She co-founded dream pop outfit Postcards in 2013 and is the band’s lead singer, lyricist, co-composer and multi-instrumentalist. Postcards have released two EPs and three albums, and have been regularly touring Europe and the Middle East since 2015. She is currently working on an ambient duo with Fadi Tabbal. Since 2017, she has been the manager of Tunefork Studios where she works as a composer, VO artist, and live sound engineer.