Category Archives: Tools

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.

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.