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.
I’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.