Saturday, September 10, 2011

Tayloring

Here's 2 minutes of an interview with Ben Taylor, the son of James Taylor and Carly Simon. Pretty good songwriting lineage.

Listen especially to the last 30 seconds when he talks about editing, believing what you write, making it more pictorial, and not being cliche. It goes by fast, but he gets a lot in there.



And here's James talking about Sweet Baby James. We all know that song, right? So, if you've read any of my songwriting posts, listen to how James tells us about how he wrote that song. He had a very specific agenda, people and experience in mind when he wrote it. But, to each of us, it has very different and personal meanings. He has that whole specificity/ambiguity thing going that I like to talk about.

He also talks about structure - the way he structures the verses, how the song builds from the very specific to the greater universe, and how he structures each line, the overall rhyme pattern and internal rhymes. I think this kid will make it some day.


Here's Sweet Baby James. Now listen for what he described in the song.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Wish List

I wish I had a Gibson Guitar like Joshua Radin.

I wish I could play the guitar like David Wilcox.



I wish I could write a strange and wonderful song like Josh Ritter.


I wish I could write poetry like Billy Collins.


I wish I had even just one song in a movie soundtrack, TV show or on a commercial.



But, guess what? Wishing won't make it so.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

IMHO


Here are two rules about opinions:

1) Don't listen to other people's opinions or take them to heart, and
2) Always listen to other people's opinions and take them to heart.

If you have a dream, don't let one person, or even a few people, tell you that you can't achieve it. Persevere.

However, learn how to grow from the criticisms. Don't take them as personal affronts to your character. But take them personally as an artist and rise above them.

I don't mean rise above them and ignore them. Drink them in, digest them, and let them nourish your creative soul. Work harder (and smarter). Once you understand how to embrace your critics and improve yourself, then you can rise above them.

But, stay true to yourself. It's your dream. It's your path. Only you can decide how hard you want to work at your craft.

There is a tough dichotomy here: do we do art for ourselves or for an audience? Who do we want to please? I guess that depends on who you are and what you want to get out of all of this. Generally, I think if any artist is in it purely for the money, they won't make it. That’s not who we, as artists, are. We are driven by something deeper. Artists usually produce art because we can't not do it.

But who are we without an audience? For what or whom does our art exist? We can produce art for our eyes and ears only. We can write deep, dark introspective songs about very personal moments, events and feelings in our lives. But that becomes a kind of therapy or psychoanalysis. And that’s OK. But, you know what? I don’t want or need to see or hear your therapy or psychoanalysis.

I think art exists for others. I know mine does. I want people to hear me, see me, experience me and enjoy me. I do write from personal experience, but I know that I'm writing for an audience (or, at least, that's my goal), so it has to be accessible. It has to have meaning - to you - beyond my specific memories or feelings.

And I’d love to make real money at it one day, but that cannot be my sole driving force.

How does one write a good song? It's easy. Strong melody, strong lyrics, and make sure more people like than don't like it. It's like that joke about the sculptor who was asked how he can carve such a beautiful and realistic horse from a nondescript hunk of granite. It's easy, he says, just chip away everything that doesn't look like a horse.

There is no magic formula. Just work hard and study your craft. And - as I've said before - emulate. Don't plagiarize, but emulate artists you admire. Then, let it lead you to your own voice.

So what do we take away from this? I don’t know. Philosophical arguments about art have been going on for thousands of years before I dipped my toe in this water, and they’ll continue long after I’m gone.

I recently read an opinion about a musical work that said it was "embarrassingly bad." I never want to be told I’m embarrassingly bad. I’ve been embarrassed plenty of times on stage and off. I work so hard not to be embarrassed or embarrassing. Why can’t people recognize their own flaws? I used to think that all of those people who are shown auditioning for American Idol and are shocked to be dismissed by the judges were just putting it on for the camera. But now I don’t know. I have also worked so hard to recognize my own shortcomings. It may be the hardest thing we have to do as artists. Nobody likes to edit. Nobody likes to scrap work they’ve done. Nobody likes to start over. But it may be the most important work we do as artists.

PAY ATTENTION. Study your craft. Dissect what you do. Develop objective ears. And always – always – get at least another set of ears on a song or project before you rush to release it. And don’t rush.

Please save me the discomfort of hearing your schlock, and I will do the same for you.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

A Note About Recording


You are nose to nose with Thomas Jefferson. But his nose is 20 feet long. If he inhaled, you would disappear. From your perspective, not only can you not tell that you’re looking at the face of Thomas Jefferson, you can’t even recognize that it’s a face at all. You probably can’t even tell that it’s a nose. And if you’re Gutzon Borglum, you’ve lived with this project, this face, this nose for over 14 years. You’ve lived with it, slept with it, tasted it, and let it live inside of you. You must take several steps back from it to see it at all. You must travel far, far away, many miles, to see it as a whole.

And even then, your perspective is skewed. You’re too intimate with it. You see things that others don’t, that others can’t. And every time you look at it you see something different. An eye, that one day looked like the most perfect eye you’d ever seen, somehow now looks like Oedipus after the fact. That beautifully curved lip now drools. And so it goes, every day, every minute that you’re working on it, and even after.

And yet, you are responsible for putting the most perfect product out there. This is what will define you for millions of people for generations to come.

This is what recording is like.

Recording music in a recording studio feels much like what I imagine Gutzon Borglum must have felt as he sculpted the busts on Mount Rushmore. He (and his crew) had to become intimate with the granite. Every square inch had to have been surveyed up close, touched and caressed by human hands, breathed on. The scale of the project becomes completely skewed at that range. It was necessary to know the molecules in order to birth the monument.

You are intimate with your songs. They live inside of you, you birthed them and then you live inside of them. You know every note, every micro beat, every breath, every nuance. You listen to the same passage over and over, to hear if your pitch is precise, if the cymbal has the right tone, if the piano solo has one too many notes, if your breathing is true, if you formed the correct shape with your mouth. It is a skewed perspective.
There are so many ways to go wrong during the process of songwriting and recording. I’m amazed that people actually do get it right. But when it’s not right, it can be hard to listen to, even embarrassing.

And yet, year after year, people put out phenomenal products – recordings that move you, and recordings that make you want to move. Artists (and their crews) bring music into the world that is powerful, gentle, evocative, transformative.

Get nose to nose with your recording. Then step away. Stop listening for a while. Then come back to it. Listen to it from different angles. And always have more than just your ears on it. You need a safety net and a fresh set of ears can be that.

Give me your best possible product because I deserve it, and I will do the same for you. I promise.


Saturday, February 06, 2010

editing

I’ve come to realize that my blogs are too long. So, I’m making an effort to shorten them.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

What is Good?


I haven’t seen the movie Avatar yet. I hear it’s good. The reviews have been nearly unanimous in their raves. Friends and relatives liked it. The Facebook chatter was positive. I want to see it, and I will someday.

Likewise, I have not heard the current hit song “Tik Tok” by Ke$ha. (Yes, that’s how she spells it.) That is, I haven’t heard most of it. I heard a snippet of it on an NPR story the other day. Hearing it won’t be difficult. I’ve got it up on my computer right now in another window. But I don’t want to listen to it just yet.

But, there was a line in the NPR story that got me thinking, touched a nerve, maybe. The story, by Neda Ulaby and Zoe Chace, linked the movie Avatar and the song “Tik Tok” in an interesting way: They’re both derivative. That is, the story claims, there’s nothing new or original in either of them. Avatar contains elements of many other stories and movies – The Wizard of Oz, Dances with Wolves, Lawrence of Arabia, etc. One of the reporters called it a “mash up” (a compilation of lots of other things.) “Tik Tok” is just as mashed up (I think I just misused contemporary jargon, like an old guy). It borrows from every other pop song out there, and the words don’t even make any sense, the reporters contend.

They also talk about how each of these smash hits is over produced. The images, the sounds – all layered on very thick.

As I said, I haven’t been exposed to either of them, so I’m not making a value judgment here. But the line in the story that got me was this: “Bottom line: This is not a good song. But it sounds enough like a good pop song that it's hard to tell the difference.”

Wow.

OK. So, we can have the discussion about creativity and originality. We can bandy around catch phrases and buzz words. We can wax philosophic. We can quote Ecclesiastes – that there is nothing new under the sun. And, I’m sure we will. Someday. Sooner or later.

But just reread that line and think about it for a minute.

“This is not a good song. But it sounds enough like a good pop song that it's hard to tell the difference.”

There are so many directions to take this, so many lines of thought – and I’m a notoriously tangential thinker.

First, the reporter does make a value judgment: it’s not a good song. But, what is a good song. We will never agree on a definition. A couple of months ago, someone sent around an email about “the worst songs of all time,” or something to that effect. I think it contained a link to a blog or website with videos of the songs and commentary. Some of the videos were dated and funny to watch, but that didn’t make the songs “bad.” My brother David, a Pop Culture and music expert and writer on the subject, sent a reply to everyone explaining that there really is no such thing as a “bad song.”

One of the songs in that email was “MacArthur Park” by Jimmy Webb. Most of us have probably heard the song. You know, “Someone left a cake out in the rain…” David went on to explain how Jimmy Webb is a prolific and extremely successful songwriter, and how that song was an important, groundbreaking song for its time. One may or may not like Richard Harris’s performance of it, but that doesn’t make it a “bad” song.

Also, David points out, most of the songs in the article were radio hits at one point, so somebody must have liked them.

OK. So we can’t really define or agree on “good” or “bad” in terms of art (in its broadest sense.) “But it sounds enough like a good pop song that it's hard to tell the difference.” What the heck does that mean?

I gotta say, at first I agreed with that statement. And I still do in some respects, and we’ll get to that later. But, I think we need to very careful about where we tread here.

It might be a little easier (well, it might not be easier. It might just be another analogy.) if we applied that statement to comedy. Most of us can tell when a joke falls flat, either because it’s told incorrectly and/or it’s poorly delivered. We may not recognize that those are the reasons it falls flat, we just know that it does. And it’s probably harder still for most of us to understand how to write jokes or comedy material. But we do know that we laugh when we hear something that we perceive as funny. Which brings me to the term “clapter.”



“Clapter” is a compound word derived from clapping (as in applause) and laughter. You’ve heard it if you’ve ever watched late night TV, Leno or Letterman. A comic will get up to do his three minutes and start into his routine. He’s got the rhythm of a comic delivery. He’ll give you the set up, and deliver the punch line. The audience recognizes this cadence and takes the cues. The jokes really aren’t all that clever or funny, but the comedian is polished and makes the material sound enough like good jokes that it’s hard to tell the difference. So, the audience doesn’t laugh much, but as they recognize the end-of-the-joke cue – the punch line or button - they applaud. Listen for it next time. It sounds more like a political speech to a partisan crowd that a stand up act, judging by the lack of actual laughter and the presence of hearty applause at each button (as in “hit the button” or the appropriate place in the cadence - the trigger – to get a reaction).

You, watching at home, probably won’t laugh at all. You might think, “yeah, well, that was kind of funny.” (You are not part of the live audience which has a whole different dynamic.) And you hear a positive reaction. So you recognize this comic as “legitimate.” He’s made it to one of the late night shows, he’s got the delivery, he sounds like he knows what he’s doing, the audience is reacting. But, does it make him good?

There’s no real way to answer that, of course.

So, is Ke$ha a good artist or not? Actually, that’s not really the question. The question is, is the song a good song? Look, I’ll have my own opinion once I listen to it. But, the fact is, enough people like the song to have made it a smash hit. A lot of people must think it’s “good.” So, if it sounds like a hit song, and acts like a hit song, then…?

Yes, we can argue that it’s a case of “the emperor’s new clothes.” But, often, all that really is is “I wish I’d thought of that first.”

OK. I’m going to listen to the song now…

Yeah. It’s a hit song. It’s got all of the elements. I derived some pleasure from it. It’s got a good beat and you can dance to it. (And the lyrics aren’t totally inane – I’ve heard worse.) It’ll make the people involved (writers, producers, artists) a ton of money. And then it will go away. It likely won’t have any lasting impact on society or the industry. Not like, say, “Hey Jude” by the Beatles did, or even “MacArthur Park.”

I like all kinds of songs – folk, country, pop, rap, rock, standards, opera – but there are certain songs that stay with me. There are certain songs that have staying power within a culture throughout generations. Those are the songs that, I think, come from a deeper place. Those songs are not aimed at the bottom line (money). They may end up making money for someone, but they didn’t start there. One can be a professional songwriter – that is, expect to make money, a livelihood, from writing songs – and still write truthful songs.

I think there actually is something to the idea that something can sound (or look, or taste…) enough like the “real thing” to come close to being the “real thing” without actually being the “real thing.” In other words (and, god I hope there are other words), sometimes you can just sense that the product is lacking something. What is it? Heart? Soul? Ingenuousness?

Hostess Cupcakes are a lot like that amazing chocolate cake I had at that little place in Cleveland Heights. Your child can drip and spatter paint onto a canvas and it will look a lot like a Jackson Pollock. And I can string words together that rhyme and put some music to them and call it a song. Then, if I have the tools and technology available to me, I can produce and record that song. I can hire the best studio musicians (or in the case of “Tik Tok,” studio technicians), draw inspiration from current popular songs, find an artist who can deliver the goods, and layer it all on real thick. Boom. It sounds enough like a radio hit to be one.

I’m not saying that “real artists” are or should be tortured souls, always broke, only making art for art’s sake. I want us all to become as rich and famous as the market and our psyches will bear. I just don’t want us to lose our “realness.” Our Truth. I want us to keep writing from the kishkes. From that place deep inside of us. That place that won’t let you not write. Be genuine. Love your song. I don’t mean love your song like when you hear a song on the radio and you say, “Oh, I love that song!” I mean, treat your song lovingly. Caress it gently and hold as if it is fragile. Because, it is.

I can name some artists that are successful, famous, and probably rich, and that, I think, still write honest, emotional, heartfelt songs. I think John Mayer is a good example. Or look at (and listen to the songs of) that great Motown songwriting team of Holland-Dozier-Holland. They cranked out hit after hit, and so many of them (the songs) just oozed with passion and honesty. They never really lost that. (Of course, it helped to have the Four Tops and Diana Ross singing them.) I think Elvis Costello fits into this group. He’s always had a real, raw honesty that really grabs me. As does the Texas songwriter Guy Clark. Just listen to his song “Desperados Waiting For a Train” if you want to hear what I’m talking about.

So, songwriters, here it is: Don’t settle for a song that sounds like a good song. Demand a song that is a good song, and then hand deliver it to each one of us as if we’re the only one who will have the privilege of hearing it. It is your gift to us, an heirloom handed down, and we, like good caretakers, will promise to cherish it and take good care of it for as long as we have memory.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Journalism 101

So, I was thinking about my guidelines comment in an earlier post: As a songwriter, I have a set of guidelines, or guideposts, in the form of questions, that I use when writing.

I wrote that line over two years ago and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. I think I’ve changed my mind. I don’t think I have a set of guideposts. If anything, and I don’t think I’m unique here, I use the basic Journalism 101 guidelines: who, what, why, when, where and how.

In my earlier posts “Wasted Words: Parts 1 and 2” I demonstrated that I use “what” and “how” pretty extensively. What do I want to say?, and how do I want to say it? You can go back and reread those if you like. But, something else occurred to me.
Songwriting is a lot like journalism, in every sense of the word.

Historically, songs and singers have served as living newspapers and messengers. From prehistoric times to Woody Guthrie, it was a way to get news from one village to another, from town to town, union hall to union hall. Even today, songs carry messages that reflect our current events. Think of Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan. Protest songs in the 1960’s. Think of rap music. Ice-T’s “Cop Killer.” Pop music. John Mayer’s “Waiting On the World to Change.” I’m sure you can think of a hundred more examples.

Music (and, in many ways, the music industry) and pop culture really very accurately reflects what’s going on around us. It’s a microcosm of the larger world. Art imitates life. If you want to know what the racial climate is in this country, look to the music industry. In the 1940’s and 50’s, certain labels recorded what they called “race music,” that is, music made by black musicians like Howlin’ Wolf and Big Mama Thorton. These records were not generally sold in mainstream stores or played on “white” stations. Maybe, they were given a late night slot of their own, but certainly not mixed into the playlist with white artists. They were segregated. And, of course, black and white artists rarely, if ever, played on the same bill live. (you can look to baseball for a similar analogy, but baseball integrated a little earlier.)

What changed the music industry? In a word, Elvis.

Radio station DJs knew that the so called “race records” were hot. They liked the music. They knew that white kids were secretively listening to it, but they couldn’t get it on the air in prime time. They, and other music industry executives, knew that it could be very popular. They knew that there was money to be made, somehow. Sam Phillips knew this, too.

In a nutshell, Sam Phillips (Sun Records) knew that if he could find a white singer who could capture the feel of the black records, he’d have a hit. In walked a young truck driver named Elvis Presley, and the rest, as they say, is history.

This is not to say that the music industry became totally integrated, or even integrated at all, at this point. But, it was a beginning. Real integration wouldn’t happen for another three decades. In fact, as late as the early 1980’s all you need to look at is the success of Maurice Starr. Starr founded a black sextet of young boys called New Edition and had much success. He knew that if he could replicate this close harmony, young boy singing group with white kids, he’d be making real money. He went on to found New Kids on the Block.

It wasn’t until about 1993 that at least half of the Billboard top ten were black artists, and 2003 that all of the top ten songs were by black artists (including Black Eyed Peas, an integrated group). But this is another story for another time. This is supposed to be about songwriting as journalism.

So, as we listen to the songs, and look at the industry, we can see how it mirrors society. The industry is always, and has always been, driven by money. The songs, not always.

Our songs have the power to make history, facilitate change, empower people, and move masses or change lives one at a time. Many songs are written (or manufactured) by the industry solely aimed at the bottom line, but many come from a deeper place. (I’m not making a value judgment about the industry. There is value in, and a place for, all things artistic.) The Beatles didn’t start out aiming to become the Most Famous People In The World. The likes of what the Beatles became had never been seen before. They were playing for the love of making and playing music. Everybody wanted to make money. But nobody dreamed of that magnitude.

There are so many really, really great songwriters out there who will never “make it big.” That probably describes most of us. We write because we can. We have to. We are the journalists of our generation.

We owe it to our generation, and the generations to come, to become the best songwriters we can be. We owe it to our songs to write with clarity and honesty, whether we are journaling world events or a page in our diary. It is our responsibility to fill the world with music, whether it’s rock, pop, jazz, blues, atonal, folk, religious, or anything in between, but music with a heart and soul, music that comes from that place deep within, music that lets the world know how much we care about our music and about our world. And the world and our music will repay us in kind.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Reruns: Wasted Words, Part 1

Thank you all for your comments! It's exciting to know that people are actually reading this stuff. I welcome your comments - praise or constructive criticism - because It only helps us all grow.

In that light, I've decided to reprint some of my old posts (since the only person I know of who read them is my mother). Please - PLEASE - feel free to comment on these as well. And let other people know about this blog. I can also be friended on Facebook and followed on Twitter @noahbudin.

Here, then, is where my songwriting blog really got started, with an essay called "Wasted Words." Here's Part 1:


Just because you can pour sugar into your car’s gas line, doesn’t mean you should.

And just because you can put lipstick on the dog, doesn’t mean you should.

Just because you can put two words together that rhyme, doesn’t mean you should. Likewise, just because you are able to put a new melody to existing words or text, doesn’t mean you should do that either. (Which is why I don’t. But we’ll get into that in another essay. For now, we’ll mostly stick to lyrics).

As a songwriter, I have a set of guidelines, or guideposts, in the form of questions, that I use when writing. We’ll start with this one:

What do I want to say? I mean exactly, specifically. What is the message I want to convey to the listener? (And there is always a message.) What do I want the listener to come away with?

That being said, a little ambiguity is okay (when it’s done skillfully). That is, it’s okay if the listener doesn’t come away with your specific image in his or her head. If fact, the listener most likely won’t. Like any art, music and lyrics are for the receiver to interpret. But, the important thing is for you, the writer, to know exactly what you want to express. Don’t be vague. It’s like subtext for an actor. An actor may invent lots of background information about his or her character that the audience will never know. But it’s what makes the character whole and subtle and nuanced and layered and fully believable for the audience. So it should be with your song.

In fact, lyrically, I often try to stay away from being too specific. And here is a dichotomy (maybe you thought I was going to say “contradiction” or “hypocrisy”): specificity and ambiguity. Remember: lyrics are poetry. This means you have to make careful choices. You only have so many lines, so many beats, in which to get your message across. You don’t have room for wasted words. The ideas expressed in the song need to be fully developed, fully understood – very specific – for you. The lyrics of the song need to be, evocative, image laden, able to draw the listener in. In other words: listenable. The listener should be able to identify with the lyrics on some level. He should feel like you are speaking to him personally, as if you’re sharing secrets or telling a story and you’re right in the room with him and he’s thinking, “Yeah, yeah! Something like that happened to me once,” or “I know someone like that,” or “Wow, I never thought of it that way, but that’s a really cool way to say it!”

For instance, in my song “She Knows God,” I could have written, “I know a remarkable woman who’s very spiritual and deep and she told me this really cool story about how she came to find her faith at a very young age and she has some physical impairments and…” Anybody could have written that. It might even make a good story, but it’s not a song. I could have even rhymed it:

I know a woman
She’s remarkable and deep
When she was very young
Her faith it took a leap
or
She found God to keep

or…any other number of rhymes. But they are empty rhymes, not interesting, wasted words. Also, those words don’t really have the imagery, or even mystery, that will draw a listener in. I did write:

She Knows God
She knows God like the sun on her tears
She knows God
She knows God will not always be near
But she always breathes the air that surrounds her
And it fills he with more than just breath
It’s the fragile space that bridges the distance
Between living life and not fearing death
She knows God

The first line, “She knows God,” draws the listener in for several reasons. First, it’s incomplete. (This also has to do with the melody and the choice to sing it a capella). The listener wants to know what’s coming next. It also makes a statement, a strong yet intimate statement. I could have said it any of those ways in the above examples, or any number of other ways, but this is intriguing. There is very little question about its implication. But who is she? How does she know God?

The next line offers a bit more, but in a poetic image:

She knows God like the sun on her tears

There are several things at work here. I’ve got some linguistic and illustrative tension going on. You can’t get much more intimate with someone than to share their tears. And you can’t get much bigger in the scope of our known physical and spiritual universe than the sun. Also, tears usually connote sadness, sunshine happiness. So now the listener has a lovely image in her mind and is brought just a little closer to the subject and is even more intrigued.

Then, “She knows God will not always be near.” This where we get personal, we can begin to relate to this person. I think everyone who has any kind of relationship with any kind of God has experienced moments of extreme closeness and moments of “where are you when I need you?” God is always here, but not always near (and maybe it’s not God who’s built the distance, but us).

Going on, I could have said, “but she goes on with life anyway.” Instead, I used an image with which we can all relate and then elevated it to an almost mystical place:

But she always breathes the air that surrounds her
And it fills her with more than just breath

Now the listener wants to know, “What do you mean? With what does if fill her?” And the answer:

It’s the fragile space that bridges the distance
Between living life and not fearing death

And again, I’ve taken an element that is immeasurably large and seemingly endless, air, and broken it down to its most intimate aspect, breathing it into the body, and aided the listener in remembering that even the most mundane and automatic acts, the ones we probably take for granted, are holy.

And that's the climax of the verse, a sort of tension and release (both lyrically and musically) that pulls the listener in, satisfies him and leaves him wanting more. And, yes, you do understand the metaphor I’m using here because that’s what good music should be like.

And in all of that (and throughout the rest of the lyrics) are the simple messages that I get out of the song: God is always with us, even in our lowest moments, and every act that we do on this earth is, or has the potential to be, holy.

People always want to know who the woman is, her true identity. But, it doesn’t matter

Monday, January 04, 2010

Pillars

I’ve been reading a book called “Ignore Everybody: And 39 Other Keys to Creativity” by Hugh McLeod. (It was recommended by Derek Sivers on his blog.) It’s a bright little book with short, easily digestible chapters, each with one piece of advice about creating creative, and possible financial, success. (The emphasis is on the creative and not the financial. And that’s the point of the book…but that’s not what this is about right now.)

I’ve just read, and reread, the chapter headed “The More Talented Somebody Is, The Less They Need the Props.” McLeod calls these props “pillars.” Pillars are things we hide behind. He states that fancy tools do not make one better at one does. In fact, the opposite seems to be true. The less capable one is at one’s job, or desired job, the fancier the equipment seems to get, the bigger the pillar to hide behind. He points out that there are many second rate photographers with expensive digital cameras.

It reminded me of a couple of things.

When I was in high school, there was a Jazz Band. The Jazz Band was made up of very talented high school players. The drummer was really cool. And he was really good. But, he had, like, a 37 piece drum kit. I’m not kidding. And I remember half-joking at the time that all he had to do was reach out and hit something and it would sound pretty good. He couldn’t miss. It was clear that he had the chops, and he was entertaining. But I couldn’t really tell exactly how skillful he was. Watch this clip of Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa on the Sammy Davis, Jr. Show. The kits are pretty basic, but the chops are truly amazing.

The other thing I thought of was a single panel cartoon I had clipped and saved many years ago. I don’t have it anymore and can’t properly cite it, but it was a picture of an artist holding a brush in his fancy studio, wearing a fancy smock and beret, with a giant easel, and a pallet full of paints and colors, and on the canvas was a crudely painted stick figure. The artist was saying, “The only thing standing between me and greatness is this lousy brush.”

In some ways, our pillars make us feel safe. We don’t have to accept responsibility. It’s a great life lesson and there are a lot of things to be learned from the “pillars” chapter in McLeod’s book. But, let’s talk about songwriting.
We put up pillars there, too.

Take them down. Or, at least, get out from behind them.

We could extend the physical analogy: There are a lot of second rate songwriters with expensive Taylor guitars, home recording studios, etc. And that may be true. But, I’m not here to judge anyone as second rate. I’m just offering ideas and insights that I’ve collected over the years so that we can both become better at our crafts. And, really, it doesn’t hurt to have those things. But they won’t, in and of themselves, make one better.

The only way to get better is to practice. (Yeah, I know. How do you get to Carnegie Hall…?) You just have to keep doing what you love, and PAY ATTENTION TO IT. It doesn’t matter if you have 27 new and vintage guitars, each with its own sound and personality, or one very old Guild or Yamaha. Your job is play a lot, write a lot, and listen to what you’re doing. And listen to what other people are doing. Emulation is OK. It can make you better.

But let’s apply a different metaphor to those pillars. Let’s think about the actual songwriting process; the putting pen to paper (or fingers to computer keyboard), and fingers to strings (or fingers to piano keyboard, or a capella voice to music. Whatever.) Let’s get out from behind the pillars.

(By the way, I don’t want to take the pillars down. Some pillars are actually structurally important. Leave those in place. Just don’t hide behind them.)

Not only should we get out from behind the pillars, but we should get naked. Strip away every extraneous thing in your musical little brain. More is not always better. Strip the song down to its barest elements. Don’t hide behind fancy rhymes and difficult chords or riffs. Stay focused on your intent, lyrically and musically. Stand naked before your naked song. It’s as hard to do as the literal meaning of that might be for most of us.

I’m asking you to do two seemingly opposite things: Stop thinking, and start thinking; Get naked and be self conscious and awkward, and get really comfortable and intimate.

First, get out from behind the “I’m a SONGWRITER” pillar. Don’t write for fame or money. Don’t act like a songwriter. Just be one. Do the writing, the work. Put in the hours. Write crap. Throw it away. Start over. Learn new words. Understand structures. Say what you want to say. (Isn’t that a song?) Do it for love, the love of writing, because you have to, because you can’t not do it. Strip away all of that other stuff. Stop thinking about being a songwriter, and just write songs.

Now, think about what you’re writing. Really get inside of your song. Get to know it. Let it get to know you. Sit with it for a while. Take it for a ride. Take it for a walk. Be patient with it. Let it reveal itself to you. Strip it bare. Don’t force clothes onto it that don’t fit. Peel away the layers. Break it down to single words, single chords, single notes. Now put it back together and listen to it for the first time, over and over again.

Here’s and old acting class maxim: Less is More. Apply that lesson to your song. It all comes back to my main songwriting philosophy about “wasted words.” You can’t have any. You can’t afford them. That goes for the entire structure of the song, lyrically and musically.

Many of the greatest songs are written with only three or four chords. And there are only seven notes to use in a basic scale. And there are a limited amount of words in anyone’s vocabulary. It’s how you use and organize them.

And now that you’ve stripped everything away, you can start adding things back. But you have to start with the truth, and you have to stick to the truth. Find the song’s soul and feed that soul. Being fancy is OK; using new and complex constructions is OK; Complicated chords, riffs, patterns, rhymes…all OK. If you know how, when and where to use them. Don’t let those things be your pillars to hide behind. Let them be pillars to support your structure.

One of my favorite poems is one called “Introduction to Poetry” by Billy Collins. Here’s the link: http://www.loc.gov/poetry/180/001.html

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Plain City - An Exercise in Important Ordinary Moments

Plain City - An Exercise in Important Ordinary Moments

As I’ve mentioned before in this blog space, my undergrad degree is in Theater, and I believe that a wide variety of life experiences is good for songwriters. As it turns out, I tend to use a lot of my theatrical knowledge in songwriting, in many ways. Here’s one way:

Playwriting. I’ve never written a play, but I’ve learned a few things about the structure of plays. Plays are not meant to be real life. Many plays are meant to reflect real life. But most plays are not meant to look exactly like real life. (You can extend this to TV and movies, too.) Even “real life dramas,” like, for instance, the play “A Raisin In the Sun” by Lorraine Hansburry, or “Death of a Salesman” by Arthur Miller, or the movie “The Blind Side,” based on the real life story of football player Michael Oher, cannot be an exact replica of real life. Why?

Because real life is boring. It takes a long time. There are too many uninteresting moments.

Most traditional scriptwriting follows this rule: only use the most interesting moments, the most important moments, and string them together. There are no unimportant moments in a work of theater. As an actor, one cannot afford to waste any moment on stage. Playwrights do not include those moments in a script (I’m not talking about some modern absurdist drama, for which there is a place). Even if a script seems like it has those moments, it is up to the actors and director to find the importance.

This is not to say that there can’t be levels of emotion and nuance. There has to be. But every moment has its own importance. That’s why it’s there. Nobody wants to watch the moments where I sit at my computer and think of what to write, or lie in bed at night and do the crossword puzzle. Those moments exist. But they’re not interesting.

As a songwriter, I keep that in mind. I want to make every moment in my song important. It goes back to my guiding philosophy about wasted words: you can’t have any. You don’t have enough time or space in your song.

A song can’t be about nothing. Even if you want to capture ordinary moments in the lives of ordinary people, you still need to capture the important ordinary moments.

Many years ago I wrote a song called “Plain City.” It’s real city in central Ohio. I was driving home from Dayton and passed the sign on the freeway. I though it would make a good title (see my blog about titles). By the time I got home, I had the first verse in my head. I knew nothing about the town. But I invented a town called Plain City in my head. I could see what it looked like, I imagined all of the people, I gave them names, I put myself in the town and into the situations as a bystander, an observer, and I took some very ordinary events and circumstances and wrote them into a song. I described everything in detail, but I left out the dull ordinary moments and only wrote about the important ordinary moments.

It turned out to be a sweet and simple, moving song about the cycle of life, set to a simple “country” melody in ¾ time. I don’t sing it much. I probably haven’t sung it in 10 years. I’d love for somebody else to record it. Or, maybe I’ll get around to it one day. But, until then, you probably don’t want to watch me thinking about it.

Here are the lyrics:

Plain City
Words and music by Noah Budin

On the banks of the Olentangy
Where the water flows muddy and brown
Just to the south of the middle of nowhere
Is Lida Jean’s home town
Lida Jean lives with her mama
Knows all the shopkeepers by name
They’ve been there for four generations or more
With no one but themselves there to blame
And on the edge of the town by the highway
There hangs a rusty old sign
It says “Welcome to Plain City
Population three thousand and nine”

Now she stands in the door of the schoolhouse
She’s worked there for 39 years
She’s figured she’s bandaged up 500 elbows
And wiped away ten thousand tears
But Septembers they don’t come easy
Those hallways seem distant and cold
And the children who pass through each year never age
While Lida Jean grows old
And 39 times she’s wondered
If this year might not be her last
And for 39 summers she’s dreamed of what if
As the present slips into the past

As she finished her coffee one morning
She said “mama I’ll be home by four”
And mama half smiled as if lost in a memory
And Lida Jean slipped out the door
When she returned her neighbor was standing
In the doorway, her eyes were all red
Though Lida Jean knew, she said “where’s mama?”
And the neighbor just shook her head
When it seemed like forever since the prayers had been spoken
And her loneliness felt like a jail
She swept up the petals of the dried broken flowers
And went out to gather the mail

Then Lida Jean noticed a card
From a student twenty years past
This wasn’t the first one she’d ever seen like it
And it certainly won’t be the last
And along with the card was a picture
Of a baby all wrinkled and new
It read “Meet Becky Lynn, five pounds, seven ounces
She arrived at 11:02”
And on the edge of the town by the highway
There hangs a rusty old sign
It says “Welcome to Plain City
Population three thousand and nine”


© 1998 by the composer

Monday, November 12, 2007

Send Me Your Faves

Hey, I forgot to mention in the blog below, to post or email me some of your favorite first lines and I'll publish them as a collection in my next post.

Now scroll down and read!

And while you're at it, go to my website www.noahbudin.com and sign up for my newsletter. You can read past newsletters in the archives at http://www.noahbudin.com/newsletter.php.

Thanks!

Sunday, November 11, 2007

On Songwriting: Opening Lines

“I’m the kid who ran away with the circus…”1

“There’s a young man dying as he stands beside the sea…”2

“I saw a stranger with your hair, tried to make her give it back…”3

“You want to dance with the angels? Then embroider me with gold…”4

“Couple in the next room bound to win a prize. They’ve been going at it all night long…”5

“If I leave here tomorrow, would you still remember me…?”6

“I put on my blue sued shoes and I boarded a plane…”7

“Moving in silent desperation, keeping an eye on the Holy Land…"8

“Wasted and wounded, it ain’t what the moon did, I’ve got what I paid for now…”9

“If I had a boat, I’d go out on the ocean. And if I had a pony, I’d ride him on my boat…”10

“War. What is it good for? Absolutely nothing.”11

“I was born in a crossfire hurricane…”12

“I met her on a Monday and my heart stood still…”13

“When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me…”14

How important are the first lines of songs? If you’ve read any of my words before this point, you’d know that I’d say EVERY word is important (see “Wasted Words”). But your opening lines carry a special weight. They are not necessarily more important than any other line, but they serve a special purpose.

In fact, each segment of a song’s structure has a designated purpose. We’ve talked about structure before – verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, etc. Now, let’s break that structure down into micro-units and macro-units.

When I queried my musical friends about opening lines, one of them reminded me that many of the classics from the 1930’s and ‘40’s had an entire introductory verse, unlike the rest of the song musically, and largely forgotten soon after the “meat” of the song stayed in our collective memories. Most of us know, or have heard, the song “Over the Rainbow” by Harold Arlen and E. Y. “Yip” Harburg. We know it opens with the lyric “Somewhere over the rainbow…” But, it doesn’t. There’s an entire opening verse:

When all the world is a hopeless jumble
And the raindrops tumble all around
Heaven opens a magic lane
When all the clouds darken up the skyway
There's a rainbow highway to be found
Leading from your window pane
To a place behind the sun
Just a step beyond the rain

Somewhere over the rainbow…

This was the accepted style then. I suspect it also had to do with getting the listener’s attention. Or, rather, giving the listener a little prep time to focus on the “meat” of the song to come, to guide them in gently – a little meditation time, or foreplay. (I suppose a comparison can be made to the “curtain raiser” in a Broadway musical. This is the song that opens the second act. It’s usually one of the weaker songs in the show, or a throw-away number, by design. At the start of act II, the audience is still in the lobby, eating snacks, in the bathroom, engrossed in conversation, finding seats, etc. The opening number is there to bring the audience in and focus them on the rest of the play to come. Do you remember the opening song for act II of “Fiddler on the Roof?” Probably not. You probably remember much of the great music – “Sunrise, Sunset,” “Matchmaker,” If I Were a Rich Man,” “Do You Love Me?” But, you probably don’t remember that the act II opener is a song called “The Rumor.” Comparatively, it’s not very strong, it doesn’t sound like any of the other music in the show, and it’s sung by many of the smaller roles. But it brings the audience back into the story.) I must say, however, that many of these extended introductions to the pop songs of the ‘30’s and ‘40’s were really quite lovely. It’s kind of a shame that we don’t employ them in popular music any more.

When songs do have an intro, it’s usually a short musical intro – the last four bars of the main musical statement is common. So, you need to draw your listener in in a hurry. You need to set the mood, establish the tenor, and set up the story in two to four lines. That’s not to say the mood and tone can’t change. Listen to a Meatloaf’s “Bat Out of Hell,” or Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” But you’ve got to lead your listener into the song and give him some expectation, maybe create a little anticipation, about where you’re going to take him. There can always be surprises. And surprises can be good.

Look at the above examples. Some of them are from well known songs and you may recognize them, and some you may have never heard before. I’ll opine about a few of them here, but look at them and think about where they take you and how (or if) they serve their purpose. I’m sure you can come up with your own list, and that might not be a bad exercise.

When Edwin Starr sang, “War. (Huh! Yeah!) What is it good for? Absolutely nothing!” there was no doubt about the intentions of this song and where it was going to go. On the flip side (metaphorically), John Gorka surprises us in the first fourteen words of the song I quoted above. He starts out with a fairly benign and common observational comment: I saw a stranger with your hair. It could be a conversation starter, small talk. But, he says what we least expect: tried to make her give it back. It is all at once surprising and funny and a little unsettling, maybe a little disquieting. It usually gets a laugh when he does it live. We know we’ve been set up – but for what? We’ve been drawn into this lyric, and as we listen to the story unfold, we realize that he’s taking us somewhere very deep, even bordering on pathos (Gorka’s good at pathos). There are surprises in each verse, but he set us up to expect surprises. And he never strays from his topic (the person to whom he’s singing) which he also set up in that first line. It’s a beautifully crafted song.

Paul Simon – pick any of his songs, he’s a study in lyrics in and of himself – gets us going with, “Couple in the next room bound to win a prize. They’ve been going at it all night long…” Makes you want to know more. And with Paul, you know you’re in for a well-spun tale; start the fire, get comfortable. On the other hand, when Mick Jagger wings into, “I was born in a crossfire hurricane…” you know you’re in for a wild ride.

Obviously, there are many other factors that contribute to what we expect from a song within the first few bars – tempo, chord progression, instrumentation, the sound of Paul Simon’s voice versus Mick Jagger’s voice, etc. But, like building a house, the lyric is the frame of the song on which everything else is hung, whether it’s a thirty-six room mansion or a yurt. Or even: I met him on a Monday and my heart stood still. The do run run run, the do run run.



1“The Kid” by Buddy Mondlock

2“Young Man Dies” by David Wilcox

3“I Saw a Stranger With Your Hair” by John Gorka

4“Dance With the Angels” by Lisa Loeb

5“Duncan” by Paul Simon

6“Free Bird” by A. Collins/R. Van Zant

7“Walking in Memphis” by Marc Cohn

8“Walking Man” by James Taylor

9“Tom Traubert’s Blues” by Tom Waits

10 “If I Had a Boat” by Lyle Lovett

11 “War” by N. Whitfield/B. Strong

12 “Jumping Jack Flash” by M. Jagger/K. Richards

13“Do Run Run” by J. Barry/E. Greenwich/P. Spector

14“Let It Be” by Lennon/McCartney

Saturday, November 03, 2007

On Songwriting: Music and Lyrics, or Lyrics and Music? REVISED

The answer to this chapter’s titular question is “yes.” There is no one way, better way, right way or wrong way to write a song. I’ve written a lot about lyric writing, to this point, because that’s usually where songwriting starts for me. And, often, as a listener, I tend to get drawn in by the lyrics. I say “usually” and “often” because there is no locked and set formula for me.

Everyone has a different way of working. And everyone probably has several different ways of working. In fact, if you, as a creative person, do lock yourself into a set, predictable formula for receiving ideas and expanding on them, your work will most likely become stale. Creative people need to be open to new stimuli, and be flexible with work habits. Creative people should look for and embrace opportunities to go out of their comfort zones.

So, there is no one, good, straight answer to the question “what comes first, melody or words?” I’ve written both ways. As I’ve said, the words, or some lyrical or thematic idea, are usually my impetus in writing a song. But, I do not like to write lyrics in a vacuum, that is, in a lyrical vacuum. Many of my best songs evolve when lyrics and music are developed together. I may get the lyrical idea first, but then I need to pick up the guitar and see what those lyrics suggest musically. In turn, I let the music suggest lyrical ideas, as well.

One thing I do believe: Music and Lyrics should live together in harmony. I’m not talking about the actual harmonic structure. I’m using the word “harmony” as in “the citizens of the world should live together in harmony.” Or, Lyrics and Music should have synchronicity. That is, they should go together, and they should sound like they go together. Pretty simple, eh?
But, you might be surprised at how many times I hear a song whose melody does not match the lyrics, or whose style does not match the subject. Just as your lyrics should express precisely the message you want to get across, your melody should support those words. Your music is just as emotively expressive as your words. It’s a complete package.

I did an experiment once. I didn’t know it was an experiment at the time, but I’ve come to see it as one. It concerns the music of the songwriter I mentioned in the previous chapter. I was explaining my dislike for this songwriter’s songs and one of the things I was demonstrating was his lack of attention to the relationship between melody and lyrics. My audience of one was skeptical, so I took my guitar and sang the lyrics to one of his hits to the melody of another one of his hits. The point wasn’t that I could manipulate the tempos and rhythms to fit. But, the point was made when someone in the next room poked her head in the door and, with obvious sincerity delight, said, “Oh, I love that song!”

That really shouldn’t happen. I would want even a casual listener to my music to say, “That doesn’t sound quite right.” Every song should be distinct in its personality. I find it much easier in print to describe lyric writing that melody writing. And who am I to say what makes a melody “good?” For me, it’s more intuitive. I have taken music theory classes and piano lessons. My last ones were many years ago and my skills are rudimentary. But I do understand the relationships between notes and intervals, major and minor. I have the vocabulary to communicate ideas. I understand concepts like relative minor, key signature, I, IV, V, meter signature, tempo, diminished, triads, sevenths, suspensions, timbre, legato, etc. I have the foundation.

I also know, as noted in an earlier chapter, that words have a natural rhythm. And words have a natural modulation of pitch and tone. So, just as you can train yourself to hear the natural rhythms in words and phrases, you can train yourself to hear the natural modulations in pitch and tone. Speak your lyrics out loud, conversationally. Disregard the rhyme scheme and patterns for the moment. Where does your voice want to go? Listen to the natural “ups and downs.” I once heard a songwriter suggest that one should walk with one’s lyrics. That you should literally take a walk and recite or think of your lyrics. There are natural rhythms and patterns to walking and your gait will change with your mood or ideas. And “walking your lyrics” connects them to something physical. You get that whole body sensation, you experience the lyrics kinesthetically. And all of this may help to suggest where your lyrics want to go melodically.

There are other factors that suggest where your melody might want to go and what kind of style or tone your music should have. Is your song an “angry” song? A love song? An angry love song? If it’s a song about flying, either literally or metaphorically, perhaps your melody should “soar.” Maybe your melody wants to have an upward motion to support the ideas. Your job is to capture a mood, a feeling, an ambiance. Tempo, time signature, lush chords, sparse lines, chord progressions, major sevenths, open fifths, even key signature – these all make a difference.

I can tell you that (but I can’t tell you how) your melody must be strong. I know that’s a very fuzzy statement. But, when I was young and trying to write songs, my brother David, eleven years my senior and already a professional in the music industry, said something like that to me, with no other explanation, and it stuck with me from that day to this. “Your melody has to be good.” It should, in most cases, be able to stand on its own. It should be strong enough that if you stripped away all of the instruments, harmonies and production, it would be able to carry you bareback where it wants you to go.

I didn’t need any other explanation – I let the music do the explaining. David’s simple instructional phrase was all it took to open my ears up to the sounds of melodies. And, once again, I guess I must refer back to the concept that part of this process is innate. I know what I like, you know what you like. Practice listening to melodies with new ears and try to identify why you like it. If you have the theory background and can intellectualize it, go right ahead. But whether you can or can’t, emulate. Yeah, copy. Emulation is one of the best ways to learn any art. You’ll eventually develop your own voice. A good, strong melody...? To paraphrase Chief Justice Potter Stewart, I can’t define it, but I know it when I hear it.

In general, I think a melody should be somewhat predictable, but it should have some surprises as well. By predictable, I don’t necessarily mean an imitation of someone else’s melody, although it may be evocative. It may be evocative of a lot of things. But, it’s the predictability, or familiarity, that can invite and draw a listener in, give him some comfort, and make him want to stay for the ride (and the twists and urns the ride may have to offer). By surprises, I don’t mean you should jar the listener, but take them to a new place. Use an unexpected chord in the progression, jump an octave in the melody (if it’s supported lyrically) or employ an unanticipated interval.

In my song “Edge of the Ocean,” I use a fairly simple chord progression – I, VI, IV, I, V – but I take the melody in unexpected directions. It starts on the keynote in an upper octave and then jumps down a fifth – or from a B to an E. This happens while the chord is shifting from the major I to its relative minor VI. The first six notes are very simple: three notes up the scale and three notes back down. And then the jump to the fifth below. Or: C, D, E, D, C, B, (down to) E. In context, it’s not jarring. And that interval jump helps to highlight, or spotlight, some of the important words` and ideas in the song. It draws attention to that spot and, instead of throwing the listener off, it pulls them closer.

There are so many good melody writers, past and present. Listen to them. Listen to Gershwin, Berlin and Porter. Listen to Don MacLean’s “Empty Chairs” and “Vincent.” Listen to Teddy Geiger, he writes a great pop melody, as does Lisa Loeb. Listen to the simple eloquence of that song “Delilah” by The Plain White T’s. On the far end of the spectrum is Joni Mitchell. Listen to her album “Blue.” Her melodies take twists and turns and leaps that would scare a circus acrobat, but she makes it work. And on the other end of the spectrum you might find Leonard Cohen.

Lyrics and music together should sound natural, as if they had always been that way. It should be seamless. The listener should not be able to hear the songwriting process. That’s distracting. When you’re watching a film or a play, and you notice The Acting or The Directing or The Lighting or The Photography, when any one of the individual elements stands out to you, it’s a distraction. You may still enjoy the event, and that’s OK. But, it’s those rare pieces of art and entertainment that transcend all of that. They pull you in and you forget that you’re watching a Performance. It’s when you don’t notice the hard work and skill and time and effort that went into it, when it looks easy, that something close to artistic perfection, if I may even suggest that such a thing exists, is achieved.

Monday, October 22, 2007

On Songwriting: Music and Lyrics, or Lyrics and Music?

Note: You'll notice words like "chapter" instead of "blog" as I'm hoping these blogs may someday become a book. Good luck to me.

The answer to this chapter’s titular question is “yes.” There is no one way, better way, right way or wrong way to write a song. I’ve written a lot about lyric writing, to this point, because that’s usually where songwriting starts for me. And, often, as a listener, I tend to get drawn in by the lyrics. I say “usually” and “often” because there is no locked and set formula for me.

Everyone has a different way of working. And everyone probably has several different ways of working. In fact, if you, as a creative person, do lock yourself into a set, predictable formula for receiving ideas and expanding on them, your work will most likely become stale. Creative people need to be open to new stimuli, and be flexible with work habits. Creative people should look for and embrace opportunities to go out of their comfort zones.

So, there is no one, good, straight answer to the question “what comes first, melody or words?” I’ve written both ways. As I’ve said, the words, or some lyrical or thematic idea, are usually my impetus in writing a song. But, I do not like to write lyrics in a vacuum, that is, in a lyrical vacuum. Many of my best songs evolve when lyrics and music are developed together. I may get the lyrical idea first, but then I need to pick up the guitar and see what those lyrics suggest musically. In turn, I let the music suggest lyrical ideas, as well.

One thing I do believe: Music and Lyrics should live together in harmony. I’m not talking about the actual harmonic structure. I’m using the word “harmony” as in “the citizens of the world should live together in harmony.” Or, Lyrics and Music should have synchronicity. That is, they should go together, and they should sound like they go together. Pretty simple, eh?

But, you might be surprised at how many times I hear a song whose melody does not match the lyrics, or whose style does not match the subject. Just as your lyrics should express precisely the message you want to get across, your melody should support those words. Your music is just as emotively expressive as your words. It’s a complete package.

I did an experiment once. I didn’t know it was an experiment at the time, but I’ve come to see it as one. It concerns the music of the songwriter I mentioned in the previous chapter. I was explaining my dislike for this songwriter’s songs and one of the things I was demonstrating was his lack of attention to the relationship between melody and lyrics. My audience of one was skeptical, so I took my guitar and sang the lyrics to one of his hits to the melody of another one of his hits. The point wasn’t that I could manipulate the tempos and rhythms to fit. But, the point was made when someone in the next room poked her head in the door and, with obvious sincerity delight, said, “Oh, I love that song!”

That really shouldn’t happen. I would want even a casual listener to my music to say, “That doesn’t sound quite right.” Every song should be distinct in its personality.

I find it much easier in print to describe lyric writing that melody writing. And who am I to say what makes a melody “good?” For me, it’s more intuitive. I have taken music theory classes and piano lessons. My last ones were many years ago and my skills are rudimentary. But I do understand the relationships between notes and intervals, major and minor. I have the vocabulary to communicate ideas. I understand concepts like relative minor, key signature, I, IV, V, meter signature, tempo, diminished, triads, sevenths, suspensions, timbre, legato, etc. I have the foundation.

I also know, as noted in an earlier chapter, that words have a natural rhythm. And words have a natural modulation of pitch and tone. So, just as you can train yourself to hear the natural rhythms in words and phrases, you can train yourself to hear the natural modulations in pitch and tone. Speak your lyrics out loud, conversationally. Disregard the rhyme scheme and patterns for the moment. Where does your voice want to go? Listen to the natural “ups and downs.” I once heard a songwriter suggest that one should walk with one’s lyrics. That you should literally take a walk and recite or think of your lyrics. There are natural rhythms and patterns to walking and your gait will change with your mood or ideas. And “walking your lyrics” connects them to something physical. You get that whole body sensation, you experience the lyrics kinesthetically. And all of this may help to suggest where your lyrics want to go melodically.

There are other factors that suggest where your melody might want to go and what kind of style or tone your music should have. Is your song an “angry” song? A love song? An angry love song? If it’s a song about flying, either literally or metaphorically, perhaps your melody should “soar.” Maybe your melody wants to have an upward motion to support the ideas. Your job is to capture a mood, a feeling, an ambiance. Tempo, time signature, lush chords, sparse lines, chord progressions, major sevenths, open fifths, even key signature – these all make a difference.

I can tell you that (but I can’t tell you how) your melody must be strong. I know that’s a very fuzzy statement. But, when I was young and trying to write songs, my brother David, eleven years my senior and already a professional in the music industry, said something like that to me, with no other explanation, and it stuck with me from that day to this. “Your melody has to be good.” It should, in most cases, be able to stand on its own. It should be strong enough that if you stripped away all of the instruments, harmonies and production, it would be able to carry you bareback where it wants you to go.

I didn’t need any other explanation – I let the music do the explaining. David’s simple instructional phrase was all it took to open my ears up to the sounds of melodies. And, once again, I guess I must refer back to the concept that part of this process is innate. I know what I like, you know what you like. Practice listening to melodies with new ears and try to identify why you like it. If you have the theory background and can intellectualize it, go right ahead. But whether you can or can’t, emulate. Yeah, copy. Emulation is one of the best ways to learn any art. You’ll eventually develop your own voice. A good, strong melody...? To paraphrase Chief Justice Potter Stewart, I can’t define it, but I know it when I hear it.

Your lyrics and music together should sound natural, as if they had always been that way. It should be seamless. The listener should not be able to hear the songwriting process. That’s distracting. When you’re watching a film or a play, and you notice The Acting or The Directing or The Lighting or The Photography, when any one of the individual elements stands out to you, it’s a distraction. You may still enjoy the event, and that’s OK. But, it’s those rare pieces of art and entertainment that transcend all of that. They pull you in and you forget that you’re watching a Performance. It’s when you don’t notice the hard work and skill and time and effort that went into it, when it looks easy, that something close to artistic perfection, if I may even suggest that such a thing exists, is achieved.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

On Songwriting: Inspiration - Part Three

Writers of any genre often talk about the discipline it takes to be a successful writer. And I believe it. As I’ve said before, once you realize you’ve got the God-given (or natural) talent, it’s up to you to hone and nurture it. Once you’ve learned the rules, you can’t just stop there. And you’re never really done learning the rules anyway.

Think about a professional athlete. It’s one thing to be able to throw the ball at 90 mph, but it’s quite another to pinpoint the spot where you want it to go and then get it there. Some people have spent a lifetime studying and understanding the rules and plays and nuances of a sport, but you wouldn’t want to see them on the field. The professional athlete realizes that he or she was born with some sort of ability and then works very hard to master that ability. It takes practice.

I’ve read and heard writers in interviews describe their daily rituals. Some get up at 5:00 A.M. and write for 3 hours, about anything. Maybe they get something usable, maybe not. For them, it’s about the discipline, the practice. Some need to treat it as if it were a regular job – set times to write and take breaks. Some write when they can, where they can. Everybody has a different routine. Writing is usually a very isolated task. People develop their own techniques, whatever works for them. But, they always do it. They always adhere to the routine, as much as possible, and they always write and work to hone their craft, to perfect their style, to get better with every book, story, song, page or phrase. At least, that should be a goal, to always improve.

The discipline, the just doing it, I think, is important. Indeed, professional songwriters, that is people who actually make their living writing songs (think of the old Brill Building, or Hollywood writers, or Nashville songwriters) often have to sit down on a daily basis, possibly in an office-like environment, and create. Even if they’re not feeling particularly creative that day. So, how does one reconcile inspiration and discipline, creativity and a work ethic? It’s not always easy.

When I was in college, I met a famous singer/songwriter. I didn’t much care for this singer/songwriter’s work, but he was wildly popular and had sold many records. A friend dragged me to the concert, countering my protests with the old “you’ve got to see him live and in person” promise. I still didn’t like him. Actually, I had nothing against him. It was his songs I couldn’t stand. But, he was a famous, working singer/songwriter, and I was an aspiring, not-famous singer/songwriter, all of 19 years old. So, when I found that this famous persona was completely accessible after his concert, I stood in line with everybody else, shook his hand with everybody else, and waited until everybody else had left the building, and then I stalked him. My friend and I slipped backstage and followed him into his dressing room, and when he turned around and saw us I stammered, “I’m a songwriter, too!” I’m not sure what I was hoping to get out of this – maybe a “well, here’s my guitar, let’s hear what you got. That’s fantastic! I’ll put you in touch with my label!” That didn’t happen. What I got from this famous, working songwriter with many albums under his belt and a world-wide following was, “Well, I hope you’re not one of those songwriters who need to be inspired.”

Of course I was! I was flabbergasted. I don’t remember if I said anything after that or not. All I remember was being confused and speechless. And knowing that my record contract was not materializing that day. And, I used this encounter for many years to “prove my point” about how bad this guy’s songs were. But I was wrong to do that. I still don’t like his songs, but, whether I admitted it or not (and I didn’t for many, many years), I learned a valuable lesson that day. Working songwriters work.

As songwriters, we need to find ways to be inspired and sit down with a workman-like approach. Some writers carry note cards with them where ever they go so they can jot down ideas when the muse visits. Sometimes they just write down observations about the world around them. That’s a way of being, and being prepared to be, open to receive. I would be better served if I wrote down more things. I tend to rely on my memory which, I always forget, is practically nonexistent. I know a songwriter who wakes up in the middle of the night with ideas and sings them into his answering machine, the nearest and most accessible device at his disposal, for later retrieval. His family has gotten used to hearing weird little snippets of unwritten songs being sung by a very tired man when they listen to messages. They’ve also learned not to erase them. Every writer needs inspiration. But, every writer needs to practice their craft. Forever.

(I think it might have been Pablo Casals who said he never says he learned how to play the cello because “learned” implies that he’s done learning everything he possibly can about the instrument. He says one must never stop learning one’s craft.)

So, where do you get ideas? Teach yourself to be sensitive to sounds and rhythms. Let words create images in your mind. Expose yourself to all kinds of stimuli. Learn how to open yourself up to the divine and spiritual powers in the universe. Be open to receive. And think of them in your head.

Monday, August 13, 2007

On Songwriting: Inspiration - Part Two

There’s a quirky little book out there by W. A. Matheiu, published in 1991 called “The Listening Book.” I discovered this book by accident one day while rummaging around a used book store. I was teaching music to preschoolers and middle-schoolers at the time and I immediately started adapting much of what the author was talking about and incorporating it into my lesson plans, my teaching strategy, my pedagogical philosophy and my own approach to life in general, and life as a musician and songwriter specifically.

Matheiu is a composer and musician and, among other things, worked (as a pianist) with improvisation groups such as Second City and The Committee. I don’t know if you’ve seen a professional improv show live on stage, but the piano provides the musical and, often, emotional, backdrop for the sketches and transitions. Sometimes the troupe presents a rehearsed show, but there is almost always an improvisational component or section where nobody knows what’s coming next – not the audience, not the performers, not the pianist. The pianist not only needs to be able to improvise on the piano, but he or she needs to be sensitive to the words and actions on stage in order to set the mood and punctuate the situations, jokes and transitions without stealing focus. It’s a hard job. It requires a whole different kind of listening.

In his book, he talks about different kinds of listening. As a songwriter, I know I hear things differently than most people. Listening is, or should be, an active, not passive, undertaking. (We can try to play with the semantics and make distinctions between “hearing” and “listening.” But, let’s not.) As I’ve alluded to earlier, listening, for me, is a whole body experience. I hear words and sounds and breathe them into my body. I let them occupy space beyond my ears.

Sometimes, especially when I’m “open to receive,” ordinary words and phrases pop into my head and all of a sudden take on a new, or previously unperceived, meaning. It can be a word or a phrase I use a hundred times a day and suddenly I’ll hear a rhythm, or a sound, or, more importantly, an idea or see an image, that take that word or phrase in a whole new direction. I hear in colors. I hear in shapes. I hear in images.

I’m aware that there’s a condition, or psychological phenomenon, called synesthesia, where one’s senses are more intertwined than usual. People with synesthesia report seeing colors when music is played, for example. It varies in different people. Some see a color, even in different shapes, for certain sounds, like the telephone ringing, or see a specific color for each letter of the alphabet or number, or word. It’s more common in children, but some never “outgrow” the condition. I don’t know that what I experience is synesthesia, but, whatever it is, I like it.

I think people, especially people who are in the arts, can learn to be more perceptive and sensitive to the world around them. I think we can consciously make ourselves more open to receive and, thus, become inspired. It takes practice and deliberate effort, but, like anything repeated, becomes habit and natural and commonplace. So, learn to be open to new ways to experience words and sounds and the world around you, whatever that means for you.

Different people are inspired in different ways by different things. I’m a title person. I like the way titles sound – song titles, poem titles, book titles. If I get an idea for a title, that’s often enough inspiration for me to, at least, get me started. I’ve learned over the years not to force the process. When I get a really good idea for a title in my head, I know better than to sit down and try to make myself write a song. I’ve done it, and those songs usually don’t make the cut. They sound, well, forced. I do sit down and see if anything worthwhile happens. I might get some usable ideas or material, and if it all flows out all at once, all the better. But that usually doesn’t happen. I know my own process. I know that if I let the idea steep, if I let that title rattle around in my head for a while, that the song will reveal itself to me when it’s ready for me to do some serious work with it.

(There is something to be said for discipline. And I’ll say it later.)

But, it doesn’t always happen that way as described above. Sometimes I’ll write a song and find no discernable title within its lyrics. That’s happened to me specifically with my songs “Joshua’s Band” and “Edge of the Ocean.” “Joshua’s Band” was named by a 7th grade student of mine at the time when I played it for a class and told them I couldn’t think of a title for it. “Edge of the Ocean” probably still isn’t the best title for that song, but it’s the one that emerged over time and stuck.

Many more of my songs, however, have started with the germ of a title. “With These Hands” is one notable example. In fact, when I thought of it, I thought it was such a good title – a title that got right to the crux of what I wanted to say, that had such a strong, fully developed image – that it must have been written already. I thought I must have heard it somewhere before and stored it in my subconscious where it was waiting to be plagiarized. I went around asking people, before I had one word or note written, if they had heard of the song “With These Hands.” It was such a good title that some said they had. This was, if you can imagine such a time, before the days of Google. I did some research, and when I was satisfied that the title, and more importantly, the idea, was not already a song, or at least not a well known song, I set to work on it. Titles aren’t copyrighted anyway.

So, how did the idea come to me? I don’t know. I was thinking about hands. I may have been thinking about that line in one of my favorite Paul Simon songs called “Duncan.” It’s the last line of the song, after he’s made love to a woman who takes into the woods “sayin’ here comes something and it feels so good,” and he concludes with:

Oh, oh, what a night

Oh, what a garden of delight

Even now that sweet memory lingers

I was playin’ my guitar

Lying underneath the stars

Just thankin’ the Lord

For my fingers,

For my fingers

I was thinking about all of the things hands can do: build great structures, plant tiny seeds, cause destruction, tenderly wipe tears, be used as weapons, or instruments of passion. I probably said something to myself like, “I wrote that whole song with these hands.” Then, because I’ve attuned myself to hear these kinds of things, because I was open to receive, the phrase “with these hands” jumped out at me and said “hey, there’s a song in here!” I’m an impatient songwriter. But, because I’ve learned when to push it and when to leave it alone, this song took over a year to complete. I waited for the direction of the second half of the song to reveal itself to me, and, when it finally did, it was worth it.

“Metaphor” is another title that jolted through me like a lightening bolt. You could almost see the light bulb above my head. How many times have I read, said or used the word “metaphor” in some other context and not realized that there was a song there? But, this time, I was open to receive. I was driving – and I remember exactly where I was – and suddenly that word came into my head and I knew what kind of song I wanted to write. I had no structure, I had no melody, I had no inkling of tempo or style. I just knew that I had an idea worth waiting for and exploring. I knew that the word “metaphor” would probably not even be in the lyrics, but that there would be a list of some kind. The seed had been planted and was ready to be patiently tended and nurtured.

“The Silent Son” and “She Knows God” are some of the other songs that have sprung from their titles. And I wrote a poem once based on the phrase “one single act of kindness.” That phrase had been rattling around my brain for a long time, maybe a year, before it revealed to me what I should do with it. I knew it would be a good title. It has a natural rhythm and it’s suggestive…of something. It could have gone in any number of directions. I’m going to reprint it later as an example of something else in another chapter, but the point is here that it doesn’t really matter where it went, but how it came to be; Words, sounds, shapes, rhythms, and how they evoke some reaction or emotion, and how you need to be sensitive to it. Be open to receive.

Often, for me, titles are more than just the names of the songs. They encompass much of the meaning of the song. They are evocative. They can act as a compass, or an anchor, much the way that a mission statement can (and should) guide a business or organization. A good, clear mission statement will guide everyone in the organization, from part time volunteers to cleaning staff to board members to administrative staff, toward the same goal; it will let each person know exactly how to do his or her job. That’s what a good title does: it guides and informs every word in the song.

Monday, August 06, 2007

On Songwriting: Inspiration - Part One

Ah, inspiration. You can’t teach it. Just as you can’t teach a politician how to have charisma, or a performer to have stage presence, or someone to feel the Holy Spirit move through them. But, you can learn to be open to it. Or, at least you can learn about being open to it.


One of my favorite quotes about creativity and inspiration was in an interview with an author. As is typical, I don’t remember who the author was, but it seems to me that it might have been Kurt Vonnegut, or someone like him – prolific and insane and amazing. Or maybe Edward Albee. He said something like, “People always ask me, ‘where do you get all of your ideas?’ And I say, ‘I think of them in my head.’”


There’s not much more I can add to that. It kind of sums it all up. Anything else I add will just be redundant. So, here I go.


If you look up the word inspire or inspiration in the dictionary, you get a lot of definitions, but not much help. The American Heritage Dictionary offers one definition for inspiration as: Stimulation of the mind or emotions to a high level of feeling or activity. OK. Most other dictionaries also state that inspiration is related to a divine influence on the mind and soul of humans. And they also concur that inspiration has something to do with the respiratory system, as inhaling. I like the idea of combining those definitions and coming up with an image of breathing God, or whomever or whatever is divine to you, into your lungs. Literally, physically breathing God into your body and trusting that power to stimulate you.


I often think of breathing as one of the most intimate and holy acts one can do, in fact, must do. I believe that we breathe, or that it is possible to breathe, more into our bodies than just air (and I’m not talking about pollutants). When I taught music to children in schools, I would have them lie on the floor on their backs, close their eyes, play a recording of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” and tell them not only to listen to it, but to breathe it into their bodies. To let those perfect, haunting, sublime notes enter them and occupy space, to feel the music. I would do this with children as young as first grade, and I would watch them do it and get it.


I’ve used the image a few times in my songwriting. As mentioned in “Wasted Words – Part One,” in my song “She Knows God” I wrote:


But she always breathes the air that surrounds her

And it fills her with more than just breath


And in my song “Haruach” I allude to it this way in the bridge:


To everything there is a season

A time to mourn, a time to pray

And I don’t even know the reason

But it moves through me every day

Many artists have many different analogies about inspiration and ideas. And there are essays and books on the subject. One excellent book is called “The Artists Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity” by Julie Cameron. She talks about opening yourself up to the creative forces in the universe, like an antenna pulling in reception. I think it’s since I read that book that I’ve used the analogy in a way that sounds more like a sports metaphor. I’m not much of a football fan, but I call it “being open to receive.” Actually, it also comes from certain spiritual cultures, such as the Shakers, who never attribute their hymns as “written by Brother so-and-so,” but as “received by Brother so-and-so.” I once heard Arlo Guthrie in concert liken getting ideas for songs to fishing in a river. You sit there with your pole and line in the water and every once in a while you get a bite and pull something out. The ones you miss keep going downstream for someone else to get. He said he was just glad he didn’t live downstream of Bob Dylan.


* * *


I’m inspired by words. And images. Especially words that create images. I’ve become attuned to hearing words differently than most people. I hear the sound of words. I hear the shape of words. I hear the natural rhythms that words create.


When I do songwriting workshops, where our goal is to write a song as a group in a given amount of time, once the topic is chosen, I start by brainstorming. I have a large piece of paper and a marker and I’ll usually start by saying, “Tell me everything you know about…” I’ll start jotting down the phrases and when my ear picks up some sound or rhythm or image, I’ll probe more along that line. I’ll ask leading questions. I try to make them think in unusual ways. I like unusual word combinations. When someone raises their hand tentatively and then says, “Forget it, it was a dumb idea,” I’ll make them say it anyway because, often, it’ll be the phrase that that ends up driving the song. People are afraid to explore, to get out of their comfort zones. Don’t be.
In this first part of the exercise, I tell them not to rhyme. I try to prompt them to dig deep and get away from those stock phrases and ordinary images. If the topic is “peace,” for instance, we usually need to dig way down because it’s a topic that’s been written about so much and it’s so easy to become cliché. When I say, “Tell me everything you know about peace,” inevitably they’ll start with things like, “not war,” “love,” “calm,” and “quiet.” Those are broad generalizations. We need to get more personal. We need to localize and identify one aspect of peace. If I’m lucky, someone might say “harmony.” Now we’re scratching at the surface of an image. I’ll probe. “What is harmony?” “It’s singing together.” A good image. “It’s putting separate parts together.” “It’s individual voices coming together for a single purpose.” Now we’ve got some stuff on which to build.


I might ask, “Who uses harmony.” “Singers.” “Voices.” “A choir.” Now we personalize. “Pretend you’re in a choir. What would you be doing or thinking?” Someone might say, “We come to this place from our own separate lives. Each one of us alone can’t do this, but together we are strong.” Well, that’s damn near a song. I’ll write that down verbatim, but I’ll keep going to mine some more ideas. I don’t want them to get hung up on rhythm or meter or rhyme yet. When we’re ready, I’ll come back to that and it’ll become our focal point or, at least, our starting point.
First, listen to the natural rhythm of the sentence:


We come to this place

From our own separate lives


Then, of course, there’s the message. And, finally, but in no way less important, is the image. There’s a solid concrete metaphor going on here.


Now we need to shape it.


We come to this place

From our own separate lives

Each one of us alone can’t do this

But together we are strong


And now I introduce rhythm, meter and rhyme. The first two lines have a natural flow already, so we’ll just leave them as they are for now. “Each one of us alone can’t do this” is a little awkward and doesn’t fit the meter. “How can we rephrase this, keeping the intent, but adhering to the rhythm?” (Limitation? No! Opportunity!) How about:


We come to this place

From our own separate lives

We can’t do this alone

But together we are strong


That’s good. But it doesn’t rhyme. Does it have to? No. But I like songs that rhyme. And, unless you’re Paul Simon (“The Boxer”) it’s very difficult to pull off. But, before we begin rhyming, let me point out a couple of things about this quatrain that may influence our rhyme and, probably, the rest of the song, both in structure and message. I like the phrase “this place” in the first line. I like that it is not specific (yet). It can give us an opportunity to reveal what or where “this place” is later in the song. Or, it can just be this place, the one in which we are singing right now. It can be the “everyplace.” In your home, on the streets, in the White House.


A digression: I know I keep saying “be specific” and “create images.” But there’s this dichotomy. An actor always needs to be specific in his choices. But he will also know the rule about “less is more.” And a good actor will know when to use it. It’s the same in songwriting. Sometimes, less is more. Let the listener use her imagination. The specific is already in the message – uniting for peace. Let “this place” be any that the listener chooses. It will be a stronger choice for that listener than you could have made. And you can always get to “that place” later in the song if the song leads you there. Maybe the reveal can be in a bridge that would go something like:


We will gather at the pulpit

We will march on city streets

We will sing it from the mountains

We’ll tell everyone we meet


But, I’m getting ahead of myself.


OK. Back to our quatrain. I also like the non-specificity of the word “this” in the third line for all of the same reasons that pertain to the first line. But, now the second line is weak and needs work. While it adheres to our meter and hits the accents at the right places, it has an awkwardness, a clunkiness, to it. It doesn’t flow. It sounds forced. It sounds, to my ear, like a line that shouldn’t be there. It should be better. Whether the third line stays the way it is depends on what happens to the second line. But, I like the last line pretty much as is. The only question for me is whether the first word will be “but” or “and.” And we won’t know that until we discover the middle two lines.


So, I like the word “strong” at the end of the fourth line, which means we probably want to rhyme it in the second line. What rhymes with “strong?” Well, I think there’s an obvious rhyme in this case – “song.” It kind of fits with where we started from in the first place: Harmony. And I don’t think it will be a bad rhyme or a forced rhyme when we find the right piece to the puzzle. Let’s see if we can keep the intent and reshape the words a little. How about:


We come to this place

We sing our own songs

We can’t do this alone

But together we are strong


That’s a good start. It may get tweaked a bit more as we go along and refine. I don’t know yet whether it’s a verse or a chorus – it sounds like a good first verse opening, so far – but, we’ll let the process lead us there. This is a game of give and take. Be open to the muse, let her lead you, but be in control.


This was a little peek into part of a workshop process that I’ve honed over the years. My own, private songwriting process is different, of course, but has many of the same elements. But, the point is here to listen to words – the sounds, the shapes, the rhythms – and let them be an inspiration.


Coming up in Future installments: The Listening Book, song titles, meeting a famous songwriter, and what comes first, the music or the lyrics? The answer to the last question is “yes.”