Tag Archives: songwriting

Chorus or bridge? | Pass the Cup

Songs evolve and song form can emerge organically from the songwriting process.synthesizer/workstation with the title songwriting process superimposed

[This post refers to the song, Pass The Cup and it’s lyrics posted here on Stephen Songtime with the song available for download from Soundcloud.]

It’s a glass half full kind of song

Pass The Cup evolved from the guitar riff that starts each verse. The lyrics grew from that riff and originally there were only three verses and a chorus, scribbled on the bottom of a weekly planner page.

A friend, responding to the lyrics post shared on Facebook commented, “Definitely a glass half full kind of song.” I agree. But looking back at the original lyrics reveals an initial inclination toward a glass half empty kind of song.

The first iteration of the first verse started with: Did you ever want to be / A star? / Not me. My initial thoughts were not to be negative, but to point out that we don’t make music to become stars (hopefully). Too soon, I was establishing an agenda for the song. The not me does offer a surprise answer and has possibilities, but ultimately it is a hard thing to sell and not honest in my case.

When you are young, you do have those dreams. I can remember gathering various cousins and friends to play Partridge Family in our basement, when I was a kid. We sang along to their songs while mimicking playing instruments. I would even have someone listen to the performance through the intercom in the house pretending we were on the radio. Obviously me too, rather than not me, is the more honest choice, despite appearing to be a second thought.

First thoughts are very valuable

First thoughts are very valuable, because you often get to unfiltered feelings and truths that anchor your song in something that can universally touch people. But songwriting is a craft. The pieces have to fit together. I think the nature of the opening and repeated riff is somewhat jaunty, flowing up and down almost cheerily. That riff is the backbone of the song and doubled by the melody, so more optimism was called for.

I would even argue that me too was likely the first thought, edited before putting pen to paper. How does one arrive at the unexpected answer without first contemplating the expected one?  In any case, I’m glad I brought it back, because I think it helps to complete a universal question with a universal answer.

But after weeding that line, another negative nettle popped up.

Did you ever want to be
A star?
Me too,
But I couldn’t go the distance.

I actually kind of like it as a line. It might even be true, but it is negative and draws a conclusion that would force me into articulating excuses or rationalizations throughout the rest of the song, or shift gears completely and center the song around giving it up for something that is eventually more fulfilling. I decided to keep maximum possibility, so the line evolved:

  1. But I couldn’t go the distance [foregone negative conclusion]
  2. It was hidden in the distance [unclear and somewhat contradictory]
  3. It was always in the distance [alluring, but unreachable]
  4. It was right there in the distance [achievable, but requiring effort]

You can see that I moved the dream of being a star from a foregone negative conclusion to very possible, through the eyes of young optimism and naivete, but not at all imminent.

Getting the rhyme right

The end of the first verse was originally written as So far / Away / Let’s play. I like let’s play and its quick rhyme, but I think it begs for an instrumental break or immediate jump to the chorus, which didn’t seem to fit there. More importantly, I needed to ensure a consistent rhyming scheme.

I liked the third verse on the handwritten original lyrics right away. It eventually became the final verse when more were added. The final verse rhymes two different lines than the first verse, so even though it’s not there in the original handwritten lyrics, it was corrected before recording with an additive rhyme, between me too and from school.

If you click on the image below, you’ll note that the second verse was edited to match right then and there. You can see both versions in the original handwritten lyrics.

There are clues that some edits were made right after a line was written, some were made after a subsequent section was written, and still more were made long after the initial writing session. I’ve included a picture of the original handwritten lyrics for you to decipher on your own.

Handwritten lyrics to Pass The Cup

Click the image for the entire original handwritten lyrics

When is a chorus, not a chorus?

Perhaps one of the more interesting aspects in writing this song can be seen where I scribbled down theme possibilities before tackling what I thought would be the chorus. Probably the majority of my songs are written from a title idea, so it was a bit of a departure for me to have verses before trying to come up with ideas for the chorus.

  • The dream never dies, but it changes.
  • Dreams become hobbies
  • One dream fulfilled, others devoted to hobbies

The resulting chorus turned out, in the end, to be a repeated bridge. It was started from the common idea of dreams noted above, but followed the vagaries of inspiration in the moment of writing. There are a few alternate lines to be found in the draft, but it was nearly complete from the first writing. Differing dreams, shrinking choices, the routine of everyday life, and a warning not to let your chance pass you by. The pseudo refrains of Don’t send it on its way and Don’t turn the cup away were only added after the third verse (eventually the final, fifth verse) was written and revealed the song title.

That final verse came out the most complete, with only three words being changed from first writing to final recording:

I’m looking to be ready when they pass/ The My cup / To me Of tea

It is this final verse that makes it a glass (or cup) half full kind of song. And it really articulates the message of the song: continue to do your thing so that if the chance comes, you won’t miss it. And it is the final line of the final verse that leads me to conclude that what was originally intended as a chorus functions more as a bridge.

A chorus contains the main idea of the song, and so would most likely have contained the song title. This bridge does not use the actual title of the song. Each repetition only suggests it and in a rather oblique way. But more importantly, the main idea of the song, its focus, is not in the bridge. It’s in that final verse.

The final verse is where the refrain of the title is most closely articulated, repeated, and supported  by the chanting of “Please pass / The cup.” The verses also contain the main melodic hook, doubled by guitar riff and vocal. And it ends the song. While its not a rule, where a song has a chorus, it usually ends on the chorus, because the chorus usually has the main hook.

For any beginners out there, we know the verses are verses because the lyrics are changing each time.

Song form and length

I hesitate to dive into song form because I’ve studied it just enough to be dangerous and to note the close but conflicting explanations out there. Pass the Cup is not a clear cut case. My feeling is that it is really a modified 32-bar or AABA form, but structured AABAABA, with a solo.

The two additional verses were written to extend the song’s depth and length. Length is somewhat important for commercial purposes, but otherwise is more of a feel thing for me. Exposure to so much popular music likely creates an innate sense of whether there is enough material to tell the story. In the case of Pass The Cup, the verses are so short that I felt I wanted some more ideas to flesh out the song.

Inserted after the first bridge, these verses allow me to put the too busy excuse (which I’ve been known to use) to rest and then advocate for being proactive using a tea party analogy that fits well with the title and advocates that one needs to be proactive.

I don’t want to hear the same,
Excuse,
Again,
Everybody’s busy,
Come on lose,
That tired,
Refrain.
If you’re waiting for someone,
To bring,
The cake,
Listen and you’ll hear,
The kettle sing,
It’s yours,
To make.

As I recall, these verses were written months after the rest of the song and originally arranged in an AABABAA form right up to the record date. But I didn’t change it to get into AABAABA form. It just seemed the better, more natural choice after rehearsing the song.

That pretty much fills the cup up to the brim. I’m happy to answer any further questions that anyone might have regarding the writing of Pass The Cup.

Lyrics for Pass The Cup

[As usual, you can listen to the song in the previous post or on Soundcloud.]

Pass the Cup

© 2014 Stephen K. Roberts

Did you ever want to be,
A star?
Me too,
It was off there in the distance,
So far,
Away,
From school.

No man really wants to live,
His life,
Alone,
Planned or not the path begets a wife,
Some kids,
A home.

Knowing there are still dreams that we don’t share,
I contemplate with extra care,
The shrinking choices that surround us, as we make our way,
Through yet another day.
Don’t send it on its way.

I don’t want to hear the same,
Excuse,
Again,
Everybody’s busy come on lose,
That tired,
Refrain.

If you’re waiting for someone,
To bring,
The cake,
Listen and you’ll hear the kettle sing,
It’s yours,
To make.

SOLO

Knowing there are still dreams that we don’t share,
I contemplate with extra care,
The shrinking choices that surround us, as we make our way,
Through yet another day.
Don’t turn the cup away.

Did you ever want to give,
It up?
Not me,
I’m looking to be ready when they pass,
My cup,
Of tea.

Baby, Let’s Just Be

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.