Category Archives: Songwriting Process

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.

 

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.

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.

Songwriting inspiration from the most mundane of things

The story of My Life On A Shelf couldn’t be simpler. I was literally (in the old-fashioned, actual meaning of the word) looking at some books on a shelf in the spare room, considering their history.

I don’t have an accumulation of a lifetime of possessions. Over a decade ago I moved to Abu Dhabi with my family and we had to purge a lot of our possessions. Some we chose to keep, even though it was a costly proposition. But getting rid of stuff also has its costs.

As I perused my remaining books, I noticed old geology texts, my sci-fi collection from high-school and university and thought about why they had survived the purge and were still with me. It occurred to me that they were markers in my life. I began to look through the rest of the apartment taking stock of what was around and how each item was once a part of me, even if it wasn’t anymore. Every item had something to say about who I was.

This song came fairly easily, though I did spend some time exploring the Em vs. the A chord in several position, eventually using a combination.

The lesson to be learned from this song is how even the most mundane of subjects, thoughts, and activities can inspire, if you look deep enough. Ask yourself some questions and don’t shy away from your feelings.

I know this is a rather short post. It’s that time of year where marking looms large in an college instructor’s life. Plus, I’ve got another song that I’d like to release and don’t want to break the rhythm of song, lyrics, article. I’m happy to answer any of your questions about this song. Just ask.

The Day Is Done – Romantic Sci-Fi Lament Turned Texas Two-Step

The Day Is Done started out as a song called She Isn’t Here. What on earth happened?

I was recently reading a very popular science fiction series that I had never read before and in one of the books was a beautiful lament that, even as I read it, seemed to be a song. I thought I would write music for it and once I was done, I could contact the author and post it on some fan sites where there would be a built in audience for it. But alas, it was not to be.

My daughter informed me that this particular author had made some outlandish, bigoted comments and I just could see my way to collaborating with him, even in a passive way. Too bad. The lines were rather poetic and the feelings they evoked were poignant, but an artist needs to hold onto his integrity (and so should everyone else). So those lyrics were tossed and new, original lyrics written for the chorus. The verses —music and lyrics were wholly re-written to match the new chorus and the song morphed into my first attempt at a Texas two-step

As it turned out, the new lyric was about heading out dancing, as my mother-in-law and her partner do on a regular basis. The song isn’t really about them, though I like to imagine them dancing to it. The Day Is Done is another mid-life crisis cry out from yours truly.

The line, the day Is done, came upon waking up one day. I had been living with the previous incarnation, she isn’t here, for a while, so it wasn’t surprising that my brain had worked on the problem subconsciously. Naturally following from the new first line was the night is young, but the next two lines originally started with I’m feeling old and it’s oh so cold. They didn’t last long though, because ideally I want someone else to sing these songs and it’s harder to get a singer to take on a weak, whining character. But you have to spew that stuff out, so you can properly discard it and write something new.

Pretty quickly, I managed to turn the song into a direct address song with you’re not too old leading off the third line, with a wink and a nod to Raine Wilson’s character in the movie, The Rocker, changing the maudlin I’m so bitter into I’m not bitter for his young emo protégé.

The cadence of the fourth line was changed completely to avoid locking into a structure that might prove too repetitive. The chorus finishes off with a line that was re-written twice and I even put the word weak in brackets next to the first attempt. Here’s the chorus with some of the original lines struck out.

The day is done,
Leave your cares upon the doorstep,
The night is young,
Lead your partner in a two-step
I’m feeling old
You’re not too old,
To fly above the dusted floor,
It’s oh so cold
And in the sigh of each last chord,
(weak) You will find you’re up for more.
(better) You’ll be calling out for more.
(final) You’re content for ever more.

 

So the chorus was written first and to the already existing music. The verses came next, but were a big departure from the original verses. Once I had written lead your partner in a two-step, it seemed apropos to do some research on two-steps and bluegrass. Turned out, I had already started off in the traditional bluegrass key of G, so all was well there and I started practicing and playing the song with a basic bluegrass pick and strum pattern to set some rhythm. It took a while to get up to a true two-step tempo as defined by The United Country Western Dance Council and Country Western Dance International.

The verses came fairly quickly, though I wondered at including the word email in a the 3nd verse line, composing emails in your head. My fear was that it could date the song, but then memos, although more general, has already fallen out of fashion.

I also abandoned some lyrics for a pre-chorus, as being too negative:

You’d really like, to find a way, to make a monumental change,
But the rent’s still due, so what you’ll do is what you done,
Until you’re done from all the pain.

 

In the end, I think the song comes off as positive despite much of the negative imagery. It’s redeemed as our protagonist is, by the dancing music. The overall message is that ideally you want to make the most of every moment, whether it’s at work or play.

That’s a message I can get behind. The song was posted quite a while ago, so go have a listen and refresh your memory. Full lyrics are in the post immediately preceding this one.

You can write songs anywhere (behind the writing of Baby Let’s Just Be)

When you’re not a full time songwriter there are plenty of excuses for not writing. Many, if not most of these excuses, are just that — excuses, at least in my case. But given a little time (even five minutes), you can write anywhere.

babyLetsJustBe_originalLyricsI’m a college professor teaching television production and as part of one my courses I arrange a couple of days of practical testing where students come in one at a time to demonstrate that they can perform various tasks on pieces of equipment. A schedule is posted and each student has a particular time frame. Some students use the entire time slot, others quickly complete the tasks leaving as much as five minutes before the next student arrives — not enough time to do much other than wait for the next student. Or write a song.

You see, five minutes is enough time to write a line, a few lines, or sketch out some ideas. When I had a gap between students of more than two minutes, I was tapping my pencil on my clipboard, rattling off and writing down potential lines for a song. At the end of those two days I had written a song [see Baby, Let’s Just Be]. Sure, there was some editing and re-writing once I got out the guitar, but the song was basically written from those reclaimed moments that otherwise would have likely evaporated. If you think this makes me an efficient, A-type personality then you didn’t listen to the song.

I’ll often jot down an idea that comes to me out of the blue, and I have written while waiting in a medical clinic and waiting in a mall, but in both those cases I had a fair chunk of time. This is the only time that I have written in little, reclaimed chunks and I’m surprisingly satisfied with the results.

I think there was a forced spontaneity, little time to second guess. Some great ideas came out, not all of which made it to the song. Here are two:

As long as you are with me, by my side.
As long as you’re along for the ride.

 But I got distracted by my ignorance of beauty,
And she led me down some lush, but dead-end trails.

These were lost at various points in re-writing (more on that later), but I still like them.

Another unique aspect of my songwriting process in Baby, Let’s Just Be, was that I started with the first line of the first verse: Sometimes I feel like a lump of unrealized potential. In most of my songwriting, the hook or title (often the same thing) is the first thing to come and I work backwards to find a story that encompasses that overall idea. Not as random as it sounds, because the title/hook comes to you, or appealed to you, for some reason, so one just needs to find that connection within. In this case, that first line was the song’s seed and the song grew from it.

I know I am not unique in sometimes feeling like a lump of unrealized potential. I always have so much that I want to accomplish and yet, often waste countless hours watching TV or distracting myself with social media and articles I have set to compile on Feedly.

This blog has fallen victim to those unproductive distractions, as has practicing, writing, recording and playing music [sigh]. I wish I could promise a complete turnaround, but all I can do is work on it.

I followed that first line as an author sometimes does her characters to discover the story as it unfolds. Now, this could have unfolded very badly if I had just begun to list everything that was getting me down. I’ve made that mistake before and recognized it through one of Ralph Murphy’s lectures that is posted online. Instead, I thought of the first line as a problem statement. Here is a problem. What’s the solution?

The solution, it turned out became the song title (makes perfect sense in retrospect), but it was discovered along the way. I can’t even recall the moment of discovery, but I can see from my notes that from the moment it was first written down, I placed it at the top of the page, in title case and underlined: Baby, Let’s Just Be. The solution to the problem of feeling like a lump of unrealized potential is to live in the moment.

When Baby, Let’s Just Be was revealed as the title, it cemented the point of view into direct address. Up to that point, there was a lot of first person narrative. Direct address (using you and I) is a much more intimate point of view and the vast majority of number one songs are written in direct address point of view.

When I mentioned before that I liked, but lost, she led me down some lush, but dead-end trails, it was because I needed that line to be about the you. The pairing became:

I got distracted by my ignorance of beauty,
And you gave it up for any chance at love,

Everything up to the first title reveal is first person. Once our singer’s new philosophy is stated through the title, we are in direct address and the song needs to be as much about the other person as it is about the singer. Therefore the second verse starts with we and from that point on each revelation about the singer is balanced by a reference to the listener.

I thought of this song’s structure as being pretty standard when I wrote it: intro/verse/pre-chorus/chorus/verse/pre-chorus/chorus/bridge/ verse/pre-chorus/chorus/outro. But I don’t know whether those who break down songs would see it that way, because in general pre-chorus and chorus elements are repeating elements lyrically and in this case that repetition is pretty limited. I was thinking of the pre-chorus as the sections, starting with I get distracted and Don’t get distracted and the choruses as the rhyming sections following the pre-choruses and ending with the title. If you aren’t buying them as true pre-choruses and choruses than I we can generically use ABCABCDABC.

I’m usually pretty fond of analyzing such things, but don’t worry too much if a song doesn’t fit a mode (or mold) exactly. More important is whether or not the song has forward momentum and in general, works. I think this song has several aspects carry it forward. There is the evolution of the point of view mentioned previously and whether you call them verse/pre-chorus/chorus or ABC, each of those sections are distinct with the cadence and rhyming structure changing as we move through them. The bridge offers yet another change up.

I’ve always been fond of evolving choruses by slightly changing lyrics within them throughout the song. In Baby, Let’s Just Be, there is quite a bit of change in the B and C sections as the song progresses, but they are still grounded and recognized as repeating elements by either their first or final lines.

Garageband for iPod Touch

Just after writing the song and working most of it out on the guitar, my wife and I flew out to Manitoba for Christmas and New Year’s. I decided to give Garageband a try on my 4th generation iPod Touch. I don’t think the song benefited much from my noodling in the app, but on the other hand, I believe this might have been where I got the idea for the drawn-out, jangly, electric guitar strum that is in the final arrangement. It was fun to play with some of the smart instruments and get to know my way around a bit. I did get annoyed by some of its limitations, but I used to use Garageband for recording on a MacBook Pro, so it was never going to give me the same experience.

Here’s the noodling I did (as cheesy and embarrassing as it is):

A nod to Nez

One more interesting thing to relate is that when I played this Garageband app version of the song for my wife, who had not yet heard any other version, she asked me if I was trying to program a Michael Nesmith song. She’s not as fond of Papa Nez as I am, but I couldn’t have been more flattered. In fact, when I first wrote that B section, it reminded me of Mike Nesmith and I felt that I was truly in the zone.

Do you have to be sad to write a sad song?

Do you have to be sad to write a sad song?

This question was asked at the end of the movie Almost Famous (one of my favourites), when William finally gets his interview with Russell. The answer is that for any song to feel authentic the writer has to be feeling those same feelings. You can write a sad song without being sad, the same way you can tell people you love a gift that you don’t. The lie gets told, but it’s not felt and believed.

I had a friend who once maintained that you had to be miserable to write good music. I don’t believe this. But I do believe that you have to have genuine empathy.

Does anyone really want to write a sad song? I think you do have to be sad to write a sad song, but you don’t have to be a sad person. If you have ever been sad in your life, you can recall those circumstances and those feelings and draw upon them in your writing. If you are good at putting yourself into someone else’s place, good enough that you can feel what you would feel in their situation, you can draw upon those feelings. If you respond viscerally to art, whether it’s poetry, paintings, movies, or music, you can draw upon those feelings. But you do have to go there and you do have to feel it. That’s what makes your song authentic. That’s what makes it true.

I started If I Had Never one morning when I was particularly missing my wife, but she was only away for the weekend. I was feeling lonely ­– feeling it physically, right between my stomach and my chest. Sometimes I like to be alone, but for some reason this weekend was different. I knew I was lonely, not just alone, and inspired by it. It caused me to pose the question in the very first line and that, in turn, caused me to go deeper.

Why do they say it is better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved before?

The originating sentiment is from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem In Memoriam A.H.H.:

I hold it true, whate’er befall;
I feel it, when I sorrow most;
‘Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.

Tennyson’s poem is so heart wrenching, I may not have written this song if I had gone back to read the poem at the time the first line of the song occurred to me. He really says it all. But it seems to me that despite the widely accepted, oft-quoted, time-honoured truth of those lines, at a time of great loss they may, and perhaps should, be questioned, if only for each person to find their own personal truth within them.

Tennyson’s lines are now most often invoked at the end of a romantic relationship, but the poem from which they were drawn was written upon the sudden death of a lifelong friend, Arthur Henry Hallam. If I Had Never, could likewise be interpreted as the end of romantic relationship, but the circumstances in mind during writing were the death of a loved one.

It was a hard subject to explore, but life is such that there are so many places to draw inspiration from—the more personal the better.

There was a scene in the movie Indian Summer, where the character played by Diane Lane shoves pictures of her late husband into a drawer as she leaves her home for a trip, only to return and replace one of them back where it belongs. I filed lots of letters and photographs away after the end of an engagement, which while significantly less tragic than a death does bear some similarity of feeling and ties in with the option for the listener to interpret and feel the song at that “death of a relationship” level.

There are friends and relatives who have tragically lost spouses, children, and siblings. Even the loss of a dear pet can be devastating. And there was the morbid exploration of what if…

In retrospect, I think the song hits most of the stages of loss and grief, which somewhat validates the final product. I don’t think that I could have just decided to write this song. And I don’t think researching the song from sites like the one linked above would have led to the same results. You’ve got to feel it, even if you get there through an exercise of thought.

Nevertheless and the truck driver’s gear change

The song, Nevertheless, is a prime example of taking some everyday inspiration and ramping up the drama through extrapolation and imagination.

The phrase, nevertheless she turns and walks away, was something I once said under my breath when my wife, who was no doubt distracted at the time, totally ignored me while I was trying to engage her in conversation and left the room. As soon as I said it I saw the possibilities and wrote it down. It sets up a great opportunity to juxtapose opposites. Basically, despite what I do, what we had, etc, etc, you turn and walk away.

So the song is mostly made up, but even in a made up song, one can draw from one’s own life experience to ground the song. While I have had a few break ups of my own to draw upon, this song is not based upon any one of them in particular. Remembering back to those feelings is what inspires. My wife and I did once lose each other at the Eiffel Tower in Paris and although I can’t recall dancing in the rain with her, I do remember a wonderful rainy day that we shared at an amusement park (Canada’s Wonderland) early in our marriage. Those memories found their way into the choruses of Nevertheless.

When you do any kind of writing you are going to find that Oscar Wilde was right about life imitating art. This song was already completed, or nearly complete, when I learned of the end of my sister’s marriage and I think that my reaction to the news was tempered by my experience writing this song. Some of the re-writing was informed by this event and the civility that I witnessed in the midst of life-changing turmoil.

The song is presented as direct address with the phrase nevertheless you turn and walk away saved  for the choruses. The verses progress through the story of a break up. Each verse focuses on the questions being asked by the singer and ends with a “nevertheless” phrase.

  • Nevertheless, the whole world sees you’re blue.
  • Nevertheless, I’m right here by your side.
  • Nevertheless, the question still gets asked.
  • Nevertheless, I’ll help you pack your things.
  • Nevertheless you might come back some day.

I’ve always loved the word nevertheless and its cousin nonetheless, because of their total disregard for spaces, or hyphens.

Despite the up tempo musical feel, the lyrics are quite melancholy. She’s leaving and nothing he can say or do is going to stop her, but he recognizes this. He doesn’t understand why she’s leaving, but he’s resigned to letting her go, even helping her, while still holding out hope that someday she’ll come back.

The song is punctuated by a guitar riff with a slap-back reverb on it at the end of the first two lines of the verses (the voicing on the riff is varied slightly for use in verse two) and then switches to a simple interval drop, reminiscent of a doorbell punctuating the questions. The slap-back reverb imparts a retro feel that I felt suited the song.

The bridge offers the possible explanation for her leaving, but the explanation seems to come from elsewhere, maybe the singer’s subconscious. The style in the bridge is driven by a synth pad that gives it a more ethereal feel than the verses or choruses.

Here’s a previous incarnation of the bridge:

Find your neutral corner,
Although it’s filled with doubt,
But you can’t stay there forever,
You’re gonna have to punch it out.

It is often said that writing is re-writing, and I’m learning that lyric writing is no different. I’m sure the lyrics above would not have ended up with the same melody. Luckily I came up with a better pass at the bridge and it came at time when I was away from the house, which I know because it’s separate from all the other lyrics in one of my trusty Moleskins. I think you will agree that despite how far we’ve come, the starlet/stage/spotlight metaphor in the final song is much more suitably feminine than the boxer/corner/punching metaphor.

The new bridge also has more truth in it. My wife is amazing and in many ways I do feel like she gave up the spotlight (and many other things) to raise our children and take care of almost all the household duties. She is a busy, hard-working person and to bring us back full circle, I will tell you that she has every right to turn and walk away when I’m blathering on about something inconsequential.

The truck driver’s gear change

Coming out of the bridge we have what is sometimes referred to as the truck driver’s gear change. The key goes up one tone, from A to B. I’m rather proud that this is done in what I consider, an unobtrusive manner. Did you even notice that it went up?

This is a tool often used to introduce a change in energy as the song repeats a chorus. Barry Manilow was a master of this modulation, or a master perpetrator (depending on how you look at it). But in the case of Nevertheless, the modulation occurs as we go from the bridge to the final verse, so we are coming out of new lyrics and melody, into new lyrics, and although the song likely benefits from a little artificial increase in energy, the more objectionable observations made about such modulations are masked.  Nevertheless, you might want to check out The Truck Driver’s Gear Change Hall of Shame for more information.

Songwriting process behind For My Guitar (Singin’ Wood)

Where do songs come from?

Where do your songs come from? Where does your inspiration come from? What’s the story behind that song?

These can be both fascinating and frustrating questions for songwriters. I think writers who find these types of questions fascinating (most) are into self-reflection and often learn as much about themselves as the questioners do. I think about these question a lot and ask them of myself, but I’m a college instructor by trade, kind of analytical by nature, and I’ve been thinking about blogging about songwriting for years.

I think those that get frustrated by such questions have either been asked them too much (now there’s a problem I’d like to have), want their songs to stand on their own merit, or have just been taken off guard.

The answers to these questions are often very personal, maybe even painful, but not always. Sometimes it’s hard to answer them, because we just can’t pinpoint where the moment of inspiration came from, or because it really seemed to come from somewhere outside ourselves. Obviously this is a topic that we can revisit and expand upon in the future. If you are interested on how songs come to be and like The Guess Who, BTO or Randy’s solo career, I highly recommend Randy Bachman’s Every Song Tells A Story.

I’m going to try my best not to hold back in this blog, but it won’t always be easy, and I won’t always succeed. Not to worry for this first song though.

(Here’s a link to the original song post for those who missed it : For My Guitar (Singin’ Wood))

The origins of For My Guitar (Singin’ Wood)

I bought a new guitar this spring, an acoustic guitar, a little beauty with a spruce top and rosewood sides and back. I didn’t go out to buy this particular model. I went out to buy an acoustic/electric and did find one that I was very satisfied with, but sometimes you just fall in love, Inexplicably, almost by chance.

So that happened.

But, so did this. I started watching Guitar Picks, with Kim Mitchell on AuxTV (also on HiFi). There is often a segment featuring a manufacturer or luthier making guitars, and there is almost always a discussion on selecting the woods. One episode even visited Canadian manufacturer Godin, maker of my new Simon & Patrick guitar.

Those two ingredients likely began the unconscious rumination process. I loved playing this new guitar and couldn’t bear to leave it behind when we went for a visit to Toronto for the weekend. I even played a couple of my other tunes for my mother-in-law on my new guitar— groundbreaking for someone who rarely has the nerve to play in front of anyone.

Low and behold, I wake up Sunday morning in Toronto with most of a chorus rattling round in my head and I have to get it down. Usually I’ve got my trusty moleskin with me for writing lyrics down and I quite likely had it with me that time, but it’s rare that the melody and lyrics come at the same time for me and not as easy to capture melody in the moleskin. So I got up quickly and rushed down to the half-bath off the foyer and recorded a voice memo to my iPod.

As rough as that is, It’s pretty amazing that it was born all together (note the improvised lines at the end). That doesn’t usually happen, but there it was. It’s important that you remain open to this sort of inspiration, learn to recognize it, and grab that idea while it’s fresh, by any means at your disposal—napkin, business card, calling your own voicemail—whatever you can do to recall it later.

I spent two weeks nearly every summer of my childhood on the Canadian Shield at my uncle’s cottage. I’ve lived on the prairie in Brandon, Manitoba. I’ve driven through and camped in the Canadian Rockies. I’ve been to Vancouver, the Sunshine Coast and Vancouver Island, though I haven’t been to the east coast since age four or so (this needs to be rectified). It isn’t too hard to imagine that my brain, probably while I was sleeping, exaggerated this little trip to Toronto with my brand new guitar onto a much more grandiose canvas. We will return to this idea of exaggeration/extrapolation as a songwriting technique when discussing other songs in future posts. I often use it consciously in my songwriting.

So I returned to Kitchener with what essentially became the chorus.

I take my guitar and play the prairie,
I take my guitar and play the shield,
I take my guitar and play the mountain,
I take my guitar and play each wave against each shore,
That’s what this singin’ wood is for.

I think it is important that the performer is playing the prairie, the shield, the mountain, rather than playing on them. It helps reinforce that these places have intrinsic stories to be told and it creates a connection with the story of the tree that is developed through the verses.

The idea of the guitar being born of wood came from all those episodes of Guitar Picks for sure. The three verses are just three acts from a tree’s life on its way to becoming a guitar, with the bridge providing the dramatic turning point towards its death or sacrifice.

  1. A tree grows strong
  2. A tree stands tall
  3. A tree’s brought down

I liked the idea of the tree collecting stories that it can’t tell until it gets its voice—listening through the wind to one and all.

One concern I have is that I don’t want anyone to think that I’m glorifying tree harvesting, especially with some very real concerns of late about where some guitar wood has come from in the past.

But a song is not a research article or a balanced news story. It has to be focused on one idea. For My Guitar (Singin’ Wood) is me contemplating and idealizing the life that a tree (or trees) gave up for my guitar and the care that a luthier (or several) took in crafting it.

So that is where we’ll leave the first songwriting process post and the story of For My Guitar (Singin’ Wood),  but I am happy to answer any questions you might have through the comments.

(For an excellent song with a completely different theme, check out Bob Bossin’s Sulphur Passage, which became an anthem in opposition of clear-cutting old growth forests on the west coast.)