Lyrics for Pass The Cup

[As usual, you can listen to the song in the previous post or on Soundcloud.]

Pass the Cup

© 2014 Stephen K. Roberts

Did you ever want to be,
A star?
Me too,
It was off there in the distance,
So far,
Away,
From school.

No man really wants to live,
His life,
Alone,
Planned or not the path begets a wife,
Some kids,
A home.

Knowing there are still dreams that we don’t share,
I contemplate with extra care,
The shrinking choices that surround us, as we make our way,
Through yet another day.
Don’t send it on its way.

I don’t want to hear the same,
Excuse,
Again,
Everybody’s busy come on lose,
That tired,
Refrain.

If you’re waiting for someone,
To bring,
The cake,
Listen and you’ll hear the kettle sing,
It’s yours,
To make.

SOLO

Knowing there are still dreams that we don’t share,
I contemplate with extra care,
The shrinking choices that surround us, as we make our way,
Through yet another day.
Don’t turn the cup away.

Did you ever want to give,
It up?
Not me,
I’m looking to be ready when they pass,
My cup,
Of tea.

Pass The Cup

Through persistence, grit, and determination you’re asking the universe to Pass The Cup.

Consider the opposite, select a synth, shift the solo | Songwriting process

Songwriting possibilities open up when you take your original idea and stand it on its head.synthesizer/workstation with the title songwriting process superimposed

[This article references the song Forever from a previous post. It can also be found, on YouTube, or along with my other works, on Soundcloud.]

Consider the opposite

I woke up in the middle of the night with the idea for the song Forever. More accurately, I woke up with the opposite idea to what became Forever.  The original line that I put into my Keep app on my phone was I can’t write with this hear forever.

It was logical. We all die. We can’t go on forever. Or can we?

Because of my training and subsequent career in television, video production, and eventually teaching the same, I’ve always been into books on film technique and screenplay writing. One of the many nuggets I picked up from William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade was about writing the opposite to avoid the cliche and the predictable.

Now this has nearly become the new cliche, but the idea is that if, for instance, two characters love one another, it is far more interesting for one of them to say, I hate you, than to state the obvious and make everything easy. No one wants to watch village of the happy people, is one of my favourite William Goldman quotes.

I would like to suggest that the songwriter can benefit from a similar exercise. Consider the opposite to open up more creative possibilities. It won’t always provide better, but it will surely provide different.

I can’t write with this heart forever, may have been the start to an excellent song. But, in the morning, when I considered the opposite statement, the impossible statement, I can write with this hear forever, so many more possibilities jumped forth that I just didn’t look back. Sometimes it’s all about grabbing the most inspirational idea, the one that fills you with the breath and breadth of creativity.

Once I started down this more metaphysical path, the I can walk on this earth forever verse, with its theme of being recycled, occurred to me next, but it was too early in the song to go there. Something more concrete was needed that didn’t lend itself as easily to metaphor. I knew I wanted to go there, but not quite yet. Now, I’m not saying that my thoughts at the time matched the following exactly, but sometimes we understand things better in retrospect.

A slight digression

I don’t really like my voice. I tried out for the school choir in grade three and while I wouldn’t say it still haunts me, I do remember the result to this day.

Auditions were in a portable, those tin boxes arranged outside of the main school building to accommodate increasing student numbers at the time. The junior choir leader, Miss Jeffries, had each student come in individually and sing our national anthem, Oh Canada, a cappella. I thought I did a good job. After all, I’d been singing Oh Canada at least once a week throughout my school career, but I obviously didn’t measure up. Nothing was said, but I didn’t make the list that was subsequently posted.

Sidebar (as Stephen Tobolowski says in his most excellent, now-defunct, but still-available and highly recommended storytelling podcast, The Tobolowsky Files): I once had a nightmare about Miss Jeffries. I honestly don’t know whether it was before or after the audition. Miss Jeffries was dressed in the school sweater, green with three white stripes on the left, upper sleeve. She beckoned me toward her and pulled a sharp, shiny jackknife from her pocket and displayed it to me. I was terrified, but woke up before anything more transpired. End of sidebar.

It wasn’t until grade seven or eight that I attempted to join a school choir again, this time under the direction of Mr. Harris. There was no audition. Everyone was welcome. This was the case once again, in high school, when I joined the choir because my high school infatuation, Pam Bain, was in it. She was also in the elite madrigal choir, but I knew I couldn’t join that because they had auditions, and ever since Miss Jeffries in grade three, I knew I did not have a good voice.

I manage now by trying not to care about what other people think and with a little help from Melodyne, only when I need it. Part of me wants to take voice lessons, but the ten-year old me is still frightened of what a professional might do. Maybe throw up her hands in hopelessness at the task set before her. As unlikely as this behaviour would be in a professional, fear is fear.

The song continues

At any rate, back to opposites. I feel that I can’t sing well, so the second verse is I can sing with this voice forever. And I make a little fun of myself, but also state that I’ll continue on regardless.

There is no chorus. Instead, there is the one word refrain, forever, at the end the closing line of each verse, which mirrors the first line of its respective verse.

After the instrumental break or bridge (more on that in a bit), we’re on to the verses that reveal the metaphysical solution. I can walk on this earth forever. We are all recycled, physically. Also, our songs disperse into the universe as all energy does. Any interaction you have with me, becomes a part of me, just as my interaction becomes a part of you. You can write on this heart forever.

And so the cycle continues with the final verse and first verses closely playing off one another: I can write with this heart forever and you can write on this heart forever. We are linked together and will be transformed and reused when the time comes, on and on forever.

Synth city — The bridges

George Martin’s excellent Soundbreaking series on PBS presented a very timely episode on synthesizers. I was in the midst of arranging and recording Forever and realized that some synthesizer was just what I wanted to impart some other-worldliness into the instrumental break.

The search was on for a sound. In that search, I also found some sounds that I decided to use as accents and then adapted them to help build the song and add variety as it progressed.

The first verse is only voice, guitar and drums. In verse two, I introduced a little string-like chirp on the first and third beats. To underscore the harshness of the line, criticized by bigger than you babe, the synth drops down to the middle of the range for more power. Still reminiscent of strings, it now pulses on every beat. When we hit the bridge, the synth drops down to become the bass, adding gravitas to the strumming acoustic guitar.

As the solo guitar begins its run in the bridge, we get some really spacey synth spinning off into infinity (as Paul Simon might say). Most of these synth sounds are presets in AIR’s Loom. It was a blast previewing the possibilities. I also wanted a soft wind or wave sound and ended up creating that with my own voice and a microphone. It’s pretty subtle in the mix.

When we head back for verse three, the synths get dialed back to rebuild again as we head toward the end. The final outro repeats the bridge.

Solo shift — I’ve gotta try this more often

I love the simple acoustic guitar solo in this song, because it just fits. It was pretty much made up on the fly, recording over the backing tracks. I prefer simple, melodic guitar solos over the dense, technical calisthenics admired by my contemporaries during my teen years. Sometimes, many times, simple is just perfect. Among my favourite guitar leads and solos, and in no way am I comparing mine to any of these, are those in the songs Hearts of Lothian – Marillion, Just Between You and Me – April Wine, and Anthem: For The Young – Randy Bachman.

Something serendipitous happened with this solo that I’d like to share with you. It sounded good as recorded. I liked it. When I decided to use it again at the end of the song, I option-clicked and dragged it into position, but missed by a eighth note, just half a beat. Suddenly, it sounded so much better for this song. Not only did it move the start of phrases off the strong one-beat so they can be heard better, it imparted a more casual, less formal feel. I immediately thought California when I played it in its new position for the first time. It felt more like the solo was floating over the backing tracks along with those high, drifting synths. Yummy.

When I think back to the sheet music of the songs I used to play, as part of my piano lessons, I remember eighth notes, at the end of bars, tied over to the quarter, half, or whole note on beat one of the next bar. The song, If, by Bread springs to mind, but there were many others, so it’s definitely a well-used technique for more than solos.

I’m going to try to remember this in the future, when I’m arranging and want a similar effect. It really gave the solo, and therefore the song, a whole new feel. Try it yourself. It might just add something to your latest creation.

 

Lyrics for Forever

[As usual, you can listen to the song in the previous post or on Soundcloud.]

Forever

© 2015 Stephen K. Roberts

I can write with this heart forever,
It once was broken, but it held together,
It’s been swollen up with pride,
Forced to take a side,
Thrown away by better than you babe,
But it keeps beating out the measure,
Sorrow, joy, and pleasure,
I can write with this heart forever.

And I can sing with this voice forever,
It may grow soft or start to creak like leather,
It was pitchy at its best,
Still I can’t give it a rest,
It’s been criticized by bigger than you babe,
But it’s the only one I own,
And it’s gonna call me home,
Yes, I can sing with this voice forever.

I can walk on this earth forever,
Ride the wind, meander with the river,
Be a thought in someone’s mind,
Convince them to be kind,
Be part of something bigger than me babe,
It’s like a double feature,
Reclaimed by mother nature,
I can walk on this earth forever.

And you could write on this heart forever,
All it takes is a word, or gesture,
And we’re connected by a thread,
That’s part of one big web,
It stretches ‘cross this great big world, babe,
And it never goes away,
You can go or you can stay,
But you can write on this heart forever.

Forever

Immortality awaits! It’s all in how you think about the world and your place in it. This is Forever.

 

Write, rinse, repeat — Songwriting in the shower

[This article references the song Shortcomings from a previous post. It can also be found, along with my other works, on Soundcloud.]

Lather up

The cliche is singing in the shower, but a shower can also be a well-spring of creativity.

My song, Shortcomings, had been sitting around with several other songs, sadly neglected from a recording point of view, while I attended to less important things. Life is busy, but also short. If I were hit by a bus tomorrow, I would sentence many a song to full-bore obscurity, possibly doomed never to tickle a tweeter, nor wend from a woofer.

Shortcomings wasn’t the oldest in the succession of never-beens, but is old enough that the detailed circumstances of its creation are somewhat shrouded, somewhat revealed, in mist.

I do remember that like many of my songs Shortcomings started with a single idea/lyric: I’m forthcoming / About my shortcomings. The theme hits pretty close to home with me (wasn’t I just discussing my catalog backlog?). In truth the forthcoming part has taken a long time to develop, but I have found that with age it gets easier for me to recognize and own up to my own shortcomings, which are many.

The other thing I distinctly remember about the writing of Shortcomings is the mist itself, from several nice, warm, and productive showers. I regularly find the shower quite conducive to continuing a lyrical flow begun elsewhere. I’m not the only one who feels this way. It’s that lateral thinking thing and even a quick search will reveal tons of articles about the phenomenon, including:

For perhaps as long as a year, the song only had two verses drawn from those primordial mists. When I decided to get busy and get it recorded, I felt the song could use another verse. I actually made a conscious effort to come up with that third verse in the shower. Continuity, coincidence, or not, those were the waters from which the final verse sprung.

The next time you’re stuck for an idea, lyric, or melody, try hitting the showers.

Rinse and repeat, or leading with the preceding

As a straight-forward, traditional, blues shuffle, there’s not a lot of discussion to be had surrounding the music in the song. Except to say that it’s not in eight- or twelve-bar blues form. In fact, it’s not even as varied as those forms, spending most of its time on the one chord during the verses and the five chord during the bridges.

There is no true chorus in this song and that’s without any intent. I really just let this song take me on a ride, with the lyrics in the driver’s seat.

Lyrically, I think the pattern of transitions between verses is worth noting. I remember liking the juxtaposition of the same/similar word that I wrote at the end of the first verse and the beginning of the second. I managed to keep the pattern going by starting each new verse the same way.. So we have (in order): long/along; pride/proud; cries/cries. I think it helps drive the song forward.

Transition between verse one and two:
That’s how we get along.
As long as I’m not preachy.
Transition between verse three and four:
I wear my scars with pride.
Proud to kiss her sweetly,
Transition between verse five and six:
That’s why this bad boy cries.
Cries with joy not sorrow.

 

I’m sure there must be other songs that do this, although I can’t think of one at the moment (feel free to provide examples in the comments). One song that has a very similar, though much more clever idea is New York City by Ken Tobias, in which two of the lines in the first verse start with a word that can be interpreted as the last word of the previous line, without repeating the word. I suggest listening, using the link above to hear how well it worked and to hear this gorgeous song, if you’re not already familiar with it.

How could I
Ever spend a day without you
Here am I
Watching lonely people passing
By the way
How are things in New York City anyway?

New York City, Ken Tobias, Copyright 1977, Above Water Music, Gloosecap Music Publishing

Squeaky clean: Avoiding the expletive

Shortcomings was originally written with an expletive, in the second bridge. It used to say,  I still f*** up, still let her down. I even recorded that lyric, along with the alternate that took its place. So, why did I change it?

I liked the sound of the f-bomb there. I thought it was in character for the protagonist and motivated. In the end though, I couldn’t see limiting the song’s potential reach by having to label the song “explicit.” Is this selling out, or just being considerate and respectful of a large chunk of the population?

Throughout my life I have used and heard my fair share of curse words. I think most people have in this day and age. Even so, I cringe when I hear that particular word ring through the halls of the college where I work. It’s use by some people is so cavalier that sometimes it modifies nearly every noun in an overheard story of someone’s latest adventure in class or on the weekend.

In the Tightrope to the Sun blog, the article Don’t Run With Those Expletives examines the use of the f-word in four modern songs and comes to the following conclusion:

In all four of these songs, the reasoning behind the usage of profanity is clear.  They are all logical arguments.  Yet they do not convince me that the intention justifies the means.  In all of these cases, I believe the omission of the eff word would not harm the meaning of the song.  Surely there are some less attention-seeking, less shock-value synonyms out there.

So does my substitute, “messed up,” cut the mustard. I think so, and yet there is still a part of me that thinks the original effed up is just a little more authentic. But of course that was how I first wrote it, so I’m not very objective.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Feel free to leave a comment.

Lyrics for Shortcomings

[As usual, you can listen to the song in the previous post or on Soundcloud.]

Shortcomings

© 2016 Stephen K. Roberts

I’m forthcoming,
’Bout my shortcomings,
And she’s not going, going, going, going gone,
That’s how we get along.

’Long as I’m not preachy,
We get along real peachy,
No need to get along, get along, get along, get along little doggie,
’S all okey-dokey.

BRIDGE 1
I used to run around this town,
Without a single care,
Now the thought of disappointing her,
Is more than I can bear.

I’m forthcoming,
‘Bout my shortcomings,
I’ve been hushin’ and pushin’ my demons far aside,
But wear my scars with pride.

Proud to kiss her sweetly,
I give myself completely,
I gotta give it up, give it all, face the test, break this wall of doubt,
That’s what I figured out.

BRIDGE 2
I still mess up, still let her down,
That’s the nature of this beast,
But now I’m doin’ everything I can,
Where I used to do my least.

I’m forthcoming,
’Bout my shortcomings,
And she is patience, goodness beauty to my eyes,
That’s why this bad boy cries.

Cries of joy, not sorrow,
If she’s with me tomorrow,
And then the next day, no way, one day at a time,
For now we’re doin’ fine.

’Cause I’m forthcoming,
’Bout my shortcomings,
And she’s not goin’, goin’, goin’,
Goin’ gone!

Shortcomings

Well it’s been a good long while since I’ve posted a new song. I’ve got lots written, but a backlog of recording to do. At any rate, please enjoy Shortcomings, a fun little blues shuffle, with some syncopated piano and a dash of harmonica in the final verse. Despite the timing of the release, this song was not written about Donald Trump.

Let’s go to — The MALL! (to write a song)

Maia in front of Marina Mall, Abu DhabiSongwriting at the mall

With all due respect to Robin Sparkles, the mall can be more than a place to shop, play and just have fun. Like the cliché of the writer’s café, the mall presents its own peculiar view of life. It provides both distraction and fodder for the songwriter.

Malls are great places to people watch and the hubbub is easily pushed to the background when inspiration strikes. Benches and tables may not abound, but they are easy enough to find, unless you are there at a particularly busy time. Most importantly, the mall is not home. It’s an alien landscape that allows you to become part of its very particular, and artificial, environment and observe the people within.

Coming Home was written in 2011 in Devonshire Mall, Windsor, Ontario (not pictured above). I didn’t deliberately go to the mall to write a song. I went there to kill time, while my daughter was attending an orientation at the University of Windsor. I was the designated taxi that day with my wife out of town. I’ve written about writing songs anywhere. The malls is as good a place as any and better than most.

Devonshire Mall wasn’t particularly busy that morning. In fact, many of the stores were still closed when I got there. With plenty of time to kill, I wandered throughout and found myself waiting for HMV to open. Streaming wasn’t as ubiquitous then as now, so I nearly always found a movie or CD on sale that called out to me. If memory serves, I think I might have picked up Shania Twain’s Up! (with both the green and red disks included), along with The Very Best of Neil Diamond: The Original Studio Recordings and The Essential Dixie Chicks that day, but it was probably only two out of those three, because three CDs in one day seems excessive for me. I then wandered to the food court, probably already second-guessing my purchases, as I often do.

Nearly every food court in every mall in every city is essentially the same. I grabbed a drink and sat down at one of the shiny, smooth, cold-to-the-touch arrangements of steel and plastic that form your standard food court table. There were a few other people around.

Who knows why inspiration strikes when it does? Every songwriter has been caught unaware at one time or another and, as a result, many a song has slipped through the cracks never to be heard. But I had two tools with me to save the day. One was my trusty Moleskin notebook (any writing pad will do), the other was an iPod Touch. Today a smartphone can easily replace both and I suppose the iPod Touch could have sufficed on its own that day. I prefer writing on paper, though, so I love a pocket-sized notebook, even if it requires a pen or pencil to become functional.

As I sat there in the food court, observing, thinking, avoiding the temporary intrusion of butt cleavage into my sight-line, my mind traveled west to Winnipeg, where my wife was visiting family.

As is often the case, the title line came first: And it feels so good to know you’re coming home. The melody for this line followed fairly quickly, as I traced the natural pitch changes in how I spoke the line. For me, melodies can be somewhat fleeting, so in order to capture what I was happy with, I turned to the free NLog Synth app on my iPod Touch, found the notes and wrote them right there in my notebook. I wasn’t prepared to sing, out loud, in public, into the Voice Memo app. But we’ll save those insecurities for a future post.

The words, melody and cadence of that title line speak to me of positive reflection, rather than longing. There isn’t any sense of desperation in the song even when pushed all the way through to life’s end. What helped to crystallize that tone is the line, “And we can’t really say we’re lonely, when it’s nice to be alone.” A slightly altered form of that line was there right from that inaugural, mall-based, writing session:

No, I don’t think that I’ll be lonely,
Yes, it’s nice to be alone,
But it feels so good to know you’re coming home

I like the no/yes in consecutive lines, but the line that ended up in the song flows much more easily.

As I thought about my wife, over a thousand miles away from me, what I was feeling was not loneliness, but contentment in knowing she would soon be home. It was such a satisfying feeling, very powerful. The song took shape around the idea expressed by those lines about not being lonely.

Although that kernel was there from the beginning, you can see that I was initially hedging my bets with the phrase, I don’t think. Many other lines, since discarded, were also muddying the waters. Out of the two pages of lyrics scribbled in my moleskin, only five remain in the final song and I’m including the altered lines mentioned above.

All told, there wasn’t a lot written down there at the mall, but the song would never have come into being if the inspiration hadn’t been recognized and captured right there and then.

Don’t let the fear hold you back

The bulk of the song was written on piano with the melody accompanied by chords, which meant that the first recorded version had voice and piano following the same melodic sequence (more on this below). Even so, this song became a family favourite, with my daughter promoting it above Sing Out (not yet covered in this blog) as her favourite, and my son singling it out among several other songs as one he wanted his girlfriend to hear.

You might think that sort of encouragement would have me champing at the bit to get busy and put something together beyond what was essential a piano/voice demo. But the mind is a strange place. Even now I sit here with dozens of songs only recorded as scratch tracks and a few, not recorded at all.

There is a fear that is oh so sly. It dons the cloth of perfectionism. You think you have something pretty special, but your voice isn’t good enough, you don’t have enough time to do it justice, you’re missing the perfect piece of gear, whatever. You’re scared. I was scared, frightened that I couldn’t do it justice. And it doesn’t even matter that you know it. You still have to wait until you are brave enough to take that first step.

Even knowing through past experience that the ideas will flow, or the skill that isn’t quite there can be somewhat accommodated through multiple takes, I always wish I could pass my favourites on to a more talented producer, a more talented artist, and more talented accompanying musicians. Of course for me, nearly every original tends to become a favourite at some point and paralysis is not a productive strategy.

Ultimately, the way to grow and to get better is to complete things, learn from them and move on to the next.

Some creative choices

From the beginning, I detected a faint whiff of gospel wafting from the song’s theme of coming home and the chord progression accompanying that title line, which ends through the resolution of a suspended fourth. I decided to enhance the flavour by adding a few additional ingredients, including the transformation of rock organ from the bridge into a cathedral style organ for the final chorus and some synth choir ahs joining in just before that. It never gets all the way to full blown gospel, but the idea gave me some creative direction.

Originally, Coming Home had a nice simple piano intro, somewhat reminiscent of the keyboard into to the Theme from Tootsie, It Might Be You, whose music was written by Dave Grusin, even though it was performed by famed singer/songwriter Stephen Bishop. The intro worked very well as solo piano. Still, I added the ethereal, harmonizing guitars and I really like the sound these guitars invoke (kinda heavenly), but they do take the attention off the piano line that I liked so much. Life is full of choices. Now the intro reminds me of Ian Hunter’s Ships in feel, even though the instrumentation is completely different. I think it’s the combo of a slow, simple, rhythmic keyboard line with a soaring melodic instrument line above. Maybe not.

Those guitar lines from the intro and others that I’ve recorded in various songs are the result of improvising with the playback and then recording as soon as I’m happy with what I’m hearing. The disadvantage of this is that I couldn’t pick up my guitar right now and play back any of those guitar intro parts. Thankfully, if I ever need to I could deconstruct it from the original track.

One of toughest things about writing on piano in the way I often do is that over and over I play and practice the chords with the main melody as I’m figuring out the song and that often ends up being the first recorded scratch track. Once the voice is recorded, the piano is basically doubling it, which doesn’t usually make for an interesting piano line. For Coming Home’s verses in particular, I found it challenging to come up with a piano line that added some movement in the vocal gaps —a form of comping if you will. Again, I am pretty happy with the result.

So that’s some of the story behind the song Coming Home. Feel free to ask any questions through comments or emails.

Lyrics for Coming Home

[As usual, you can listen to the song in the previous post or on Soundcloud.]

Coming Home

© 2011 Stephen K. Roberts

Oh I’ve never understood those,
Who kick up such a big fuss,
Every time the two of them will be apart,
Such a lack of heart.
And I’ve never understood those,
Who have to stick together,
Closer than two books upon a study shelf,
Such a lack of self.

You and I, we know we’re gonna come and go,
You and I, we want to see each other grow,
And we can’t really say we’re lonely,
When it’s nice to be alone ,
But it feels so good, to know I’m coming home.

The alarm goes off this morning,
I reach out to where you lay,
But you won’t be back for many days and nights,
It’ll be all right.
And as I head off this morning,
I can’t help but miss that one thing,
Launch some love across the time zones through the sky,
Feel my kiss good-bye.

You and I, we see across infinity.
You and I, we hear a wind-borne melody.
Now the voice I miss is filtered,
Through a telephone,
So it feels so good to know you’re coming home.

Coming home, coming home,
Coming home, coming home.

Seems we’ve always been together,
But that simply isn’t true,
There was once a time your dreams did not include me,
That’s no tragedy.
Seems we’ll always be together,
But that simply isn’t true,
There will come a day when death will do us part,
Don’t let it break your heart.

‘Cause you and I, we’ll see, across infinity,
Yes you and I, we’ll hear that wind-borne melody.
When our traveling days are over,
And there’s no place left to roam,
It will feel so good to know we’re coming home.