Category Archives: Songwriting

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.

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.