Coming Home

Here’s a gospel-tinged, piano ballad about being apart and coming back together. Are those religious overtones I hear, or just soaring guitars?

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.

Lyrics for My Life On A Shelf

My Life on a Shelf

© 2015 Stephen K. Roberts

Poking through the spare room,
Walls are lined with a clash of colours,
I pull out one of a thousand aligned spines.
Over here a textbook,
Over there a world shared mind to mind.

Flipping through the pages,
The words and smells and textures all combine.

That’s my life on a shelf,
Reminding me of who I once was,
My life on a shelf,
Souvenirs from the world of self,
Where’s the harm in traveling back.

There beside the TV,
A hundred movies climb to the ceiling,
Among them are a few that mark our time.
Next to them, the CDs,
Dwarfed by what’s on vinyl in import and size.

Sometimes a painted jacket,
Emerges from the cover like a prize.

That’s my life on a shelf,
Reminding me of who I once was,
My life on a shelf,
Souvenirs from the world of self
Where’s the harm in traveling back.

BRIDGE
Photographs in albums, or in frames,
A shell, a stone, a coin, may do the same,
That totem in your hand,
Sparks some magic in your brain,
Keep it safe to kindle memory’s flame.

REPEAT CHORUS

My Life on a Shelf

New song about our former selves.

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.

Lyrics for The Day Is Done

The Day Is Done

© 2014 Stephen K. Roberts

Get up, get up, get up, get up,
Force your feet to find the floor,
Give all you’ve got for not a lot,
Swim like hell to reach the shore,
Punch the time clock, punch the keys,
Punch those numbers on the phone,
Resist the urge to punch the guy,
Who’s barking orders from his throne,
You trick yourself that busy makes the time go fast,
But isn’t the point to make each moment last.

CHORUS
The day is done,
Leave your cares upon the doorstep,
The night is young,
Lead your partner in a two-step,
You’re not too old,
To fly above the dusted floor,
And in the sigh of each last chord,
You’re content forever more.

Toss and turn, toss and turn,
Composing emails in your head,
Running through tomorrow’s scenarios,
Runs the comfort from your bed,
You fall asleep wonderin’ if these sheep,
Are being herded just like you?
Except you’ve heard the freedom call,
Of the fiddle and the ol’ one-two.
You whisk each workday quickly into past,
But isn’t the point to make each moment last.

REPEAT CHORUS

INSTRUMENTAL BRIDGE

Wake up, wake up, wake up, wake up,
You’ve been asleep for far too long,
Awaken from your zombie trance,
Hear the music, sing along,
Find the beat now, find the groove,
Make it part of every day,
Find the rhythm everywhere,
Don’t give any part away,
When there’s only now, no future and no past,
Each moment can be infinite and vast.

REPEAT CHORUS

The Day Is Done

Time for a two-step.

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.

Lyrics for Baby, Let’s Just Be

Baby, Let’s Just Be

© 2014 Stephen K. Roberts

Sometimes I feel like a lump,
Of unrealized potential,
I used to think that I was on my way,
To being something special.

But I get distracted,
By things that don’t matter,
And I’ve followed far too many dead end trails.

As the years slip by it’s plain to see,
I’m not the man I’d hoped to be,
I’m primed to find a new philosophy,
Baby, let’s just be.

When we were young we both had dreams,
Of all that we could be,
I searched the ground for rocks, the sky for stars,
You were your mamma’s prodigy.

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

Now you’re stuck with me and I with you,
Is there anything you’d rather do?
I’m more than fine, so speaking selfishly,
Baby, let’s just be.

BRIDGE
I want and you want and they want,
But it’s all just a taunt from society,
Let’s give and let’s take this chance to remake,
Our own reality.

Consumerism everywhere, well I’m not sold,
It ain’t consuming me.
You want to run away, escape,
But if you’re looking to be free,

Don’t get distracted,
By things that don’t matter,
Know there’s lots to learn down every dead end trail.

I’m content to travel anywhere,
Destination, I don’t care,
Everything I need is here with me,
Baby, let’s just be.

Baby, Let’s Just Be