Songwriting and Musical Breakdown Of Sarah Jaffe's "Clementine"
Experimentative, versatile, and sheer spontaneousness are what define Sarah Jaffe as a songwriter and musician. Her acoustic folk, hip hop, and indie rock writing career display her experimental ambitions. We got a glimpse of this in her song 'Clementine' that featured on her 2008 EP 'Ever Born Again.'
'Clementine' is a song that is beautifully written, composed, and arranged. This song was initially written as a filler when Jaffe and her band were playing at Arkansas and didn’t have enough songs to complete the set. The singer herself revealed that the song was written in her friend’s dorm room and played to a live audience on the same day.
So what makes “Clementine” such a good song? Here, we break down the intricacies of the songwriting that was involved in “Clementine”.
The Lyrical aspect
[Get "Clementine" Lyrics]
If one were to just read the lyrics of “Clementine”, it looks like a poem that creates an air of sadness and general apathy towards one's lover. The song establishes this right off the bat as we are greeted with the lines:
“50 states, 50 lines, 50 crying all the times,
50 boys, 50 “I’m gonna change my minds,
I changed my mind, I changed my mind now I feel indifferent”
...accompanied by Jaffe’s crystalline vocals.
In the first verse, the narrator speaks of what things were like when she was young. She tells the listeners that the has seen it all and heard it all when it comes to romantic relationships and that she has become indifferent towards them.
The second verse is a self-reflection of the narrator's youthful days when she was more carefree. Unlike the first verse where she is expressing her frustration at someone else, this verse is more about how self-aware she is becoming of her own vulnerabilities.
In the chorus, she backs this implied emotion by saying: “I wish I was a little more delicate….. I wish my name was Clementine”. Clementine is a word of English origin meaning “Gentle”. The regretful theme of the song points to the feeling that perhaps, she has become too callous over the years.
The musical aspect
Despite the overall sadness of the lyrics, the music leans on a happier sounding chord progression that creates a feeling of longing and detachment. The role the bass plays in this song is beautiful. The descending bass line as it outlines the chord gives a nice folksy vibe to the song. While the bass remains in the background for most of the verses, it takes the lead with a beautiful melody in the gaps. This stands out, so much so, that it immediately hooks the audience's ear.
“Clementine” is an unusual song from the perspective of songwriting because it challenges how a conventional song works. Jaffe achieves this by using one of the guitars to do a muted rhythm creating a percussive effect that adds to the depth of the song. The cello then follows suit along with the guitar before taking over the role of the bass. By playing the chord tones, the cello allows the bass to venture out.
The chord progression, while simple, uses the plagal cadence also known as the “church cadence” where the progression uses the IV chord to resolve to the I chord. This does not create a strong sense of resolve as compared to the perfect cadence (V to I). This selection of the cadence further strengthens the feeling of melancholy.
The folk 'soul' of “Clementine” is reminiscent of the song “500 Miles”. The song was originally sung by Bobby Bare and made popular during the 1960s folk revival movement in Europe and the U.S.
“500 Miles” revolves around the central theme of the recurring lyrics “[...a hundred miles..."] while the guitar plays a simple chord progression in the background. Similarly, this is also the case in Jaffe’s song “Clementine” where the song revolves around the lyrical theme: “[... I wish...]” giving this song a lullaby-like vibe.
The overall arrangement of the song 'Clementine' is done in such a way that it reflects the emotions of the lyrics. The song swells as the lyrics portray the singer’s frustration, and then dials the intensity down as the singer begins to self-reflect in the chorus. It is as if the song itself embodies the gentle and merciful meaning of the word clementine.