Monday, April 09, 2007

On Songwriting: Wasted Words - Part Two

In Part One of this essay I talked about word choice and broke down one verse of one of my songs line by line, word by word. It may seem like I’m nit-picky and obsessive about my lyrics. Well, yes, that’s the point. It matters. You’ve got to care. You’ve got to care about each word. As I’ve said before, in the limited space you have within the structure of a song to express your ideas, each word is important. You cannot afford to waste even one. And, yes, I’ve sat for long periods of time debating (with myself, usually) whether to use the word “and” or “but” or “a” or “the” in a specific places in songs. Every noun, verb, adjective, adverb, article and conjunction carries weight. Become obsessive; become a better writer.

Too often I hear bad or mediocre songs that could be good or great songs. (Okay, a personal note here. I have a lot of friends who are songwriters. And as artists we all share a common trait: insecurity. So, if you’re reading this and you start thinking, “he’s talking about me, he’s talking about me!” Stop it. I am not talking about you personally. I am just making observations and sharing things that I’ve learned along the way. On the other hand, if you do see yourself somewhere in here, if you recognize something about yourself as a songwriter, don’t take my words personally, but take them to heart.)

Unfortunately, with the proliferation home recording and professional-quality recording software and equipment, anyone with enough money (or friend with a studio) can make a “studio-quality” CD and release it. Some are really good, some are not. (I know we’re speaking about subjective tastes here, but…) Every song has its place. Sometimes very talented educators and musicians write songs for or with children to teach a specific concept or topic. Those songs are good in their place. Other educators should know them and use them. But, should they be on a CD with a bunch of “filler” songs because the artist didn’t have enough material? Or on an album as filler with some other really good songs for an older audience? My opinion is no. Not everything has to be released. There are other forums in which to share these songs. Work as hard as you can to make every song you release important and as good as it can be. It’s what you’ll be remembered for (or not); the songs will be here after you’re gone. Respect your audience and treat them as if they are the most important thing in the world. Because they are – it’s not about your own desire to slap something down on tape to sell.

Okay, let’s get back to the technical aspects, the behind-the-scenes, the innards, of songwriting. Here’s another question I use as a guidepost:

Now that I know what I want to say, how should I say it? What form, what structure will be my most effective tool to get my message across? What perspective shall I take?

Just as when you’re writing prose, you’ve got choices. You can use different vehicles in which to convey your ideas. Are you retelling a story from history or from the Bible? What is the point of that story that you want to get across? Are you telling a fictional story? Are you making a list (as in my songs “Metaphor” and “Reason to Believe”)? Are you explaining a situation or idea? What voice will you use? First person, third person? What rhetorical devices will you use? Analogy, Simile, Metaphor, Parallelism, Personification, Polysyndeton (the use of many conjunctions in quick succession), Alliteration, etc.?

I always look for a new way to say something. I try to create unusual word combinations (but not obscure). I’m always searching for a unique angle. Even in a simple story song. In my song “Hallelujah Land,” it’s just the combination of those words – Hallelujah Land – that are unique and unusual. They describe a place in a way in which it had never been described, and yet we know what, or where, that place is (in the context of the song). This song is a pretty straight narrative. It starts out with me, the storyteller, talking to you, the listener, in the first person:

I’ve read a lot of books and sung a lot of songs
And seen me a miracle or two
But I’ve never seen a miracle…etc.

Then I switch into third person as I tell about the miracle. The last verse brings us back to me as the storyteller to conclude and to reiterate the point.

Musically, I used a very simple(and very common) progression for the chorus so it is immediately singable. Likewise, there is not much unusual about the verses. I wanted to write a song in the style of a 1950’s or ‘60’s folk song ala Pete Seeger. It pretty much uses the I, VI, V and VI chords. But toward the end of the verse I use the III chord after the VI chord to give it a little lift. The listener doesn’t expect it, but it’s natural and not intrusive.

In my song “Joshua’s Band” I drew my inspiration from a few different places. Musically, I wanted the song to sound like a gospel song. My main message (in my mind – refer back to Part One) in the song is stated in the tag of each verse, “If you’re waiting for a miracle to set you free/You gotta take the first step…” I had just heard, for the first time, the midrash (story) of the Red Sea splitting because one man had faith and stepped into the water before it had opened up while it still looked hopeless. There are three verses. Each verse has that tag followed by the chorus. The chorus has my other main point: You gotta give the stories a voice and pass them along.

The verses are where I had fun. I wanted to take a trip through biblical history and link it to modern history. I gave myself the challenge (we’ll talk more about structure and viewing limitations as opportunities in another essay) of depicting a different, entire story in only one line of each verse. And I wanted to find a unique perspective for each story. So I tell each story from a first person perspective and find an unusual way to state the idea:

First verse:
I was in the Garden when Eve set the table (a layered meaning or double entendre)
I was covering the story of Cain and Able (“covering the story” lends a playful tone to an otherwise pretty grim story, and the modern listener can relate to the image)
I was on the Ark and I followed the flight of the dove
I was on the mountain when the ram was slaughtered
I was dancing in the river with Pharaoh’s daughter (dancing in water is a strong image)
Had my toes in the water when the water was parted from above (foreshadowing the tag)

Second verse:
I was at the Temple for the rededication (a Chanukah reference)
I stood behind the Gallows at Esther’s celebration
I was the rock that sailed from David’s hand
I tried to get a job translating at the Tower
I marched around Jericho and I felt the power
I played the drums in Joshua’s band (This was the only time I allowed my self two lines about the same story)

Third verse:
(Here is where I break from the mold a bit and bring it into modern history. The last three lines of the verse are where I tie it all together. It’s “the reveal” when we find out who “I” am.)
I was standing next to Caesar picking peaches off the trees (a reference to Caesar Chaves)
I was standing next to Abraham when Martin had a dream (Martin Luther King)
I was on the ring of keys that unlocked Nelson’s door (Nelson Mandela)
I’ve been around for the whole human story
I am Freedom, I am Justice and I’ve felt the glory
I’ve tasted the tears and the fears and I know what for

When I write lyrics, especially for songs that depict past events, I like to make the listener feel as if he or she is there, in that place, a witness to the event. It’s fine to take a little creative license to describe the surroundings and events, especially if the source material has some holes in it. It’s up to you to fill in the blanks. Use specific, vivid images. But be true to your subject.

In my song “Let It Burn” the opening line of the second verse is the one that came to me first. It was Chanukah time and I was driving to Buffalo, NY for a gig. I tend to think in images, or pictures, like a movie playing in my head. I was thinking about the Chanukah story and trying to imagine the real struggle and terror and anger at watching the desecration of the holy Temple. And these lines were born:

The scent of oil hung heavy as it lingered in the air
Clouds of black smoke billowed from the holy house of prayer.

The word “oil” is a very deliberate choice here. Oil was used to rededicate, to purify, the Temple when it was reclaimed. At this point in the song it’s being used as a weapon of destruction. So a parallel is created along with some illustrative tension (see Part One).

In my song “Standing at the Bottom of Ararat,” which retells the Noah story from Genesis, the first line of the third verse states:

It rained and rained and the world was water

There are any number of other ways I could have said it. But “the world was water” is a strong image. It also employs a few of those rhetorical devices. It uses alliteration on the accented beats:

It rained and rained and the world was water

and there’s a little bit of polysyndeton:

It rained and rained and the world was water

Please, avoid clichés. I did not avoid a cliché in the same song when I used:

The rain came tumbling out of the sky
but Noah and the animals were high and dry

If you’re going to write about a historical figure, there are so many better ways (as of yet unwritten, just waiting for you to write them) to open the song than, “(fill in the name of the person) was a man who…” or “When I was young…” or “This is the story of…” or any of those other phrases that make me wince and set me up to know that I’m about to hear a “bad song.” Know the person or subject about whom or which you are writing. Know him personally, intimately. Get right to the essence of that person or subject or situation or idea. You don’t have to spend too much time setting us up. I’ve always advised my children, whenever they were writing papers for school, to not start by saying, “In this paper I’m going to write about…” Just write about it. Don’t waste words.

Remember: give your audience credit. They are smarter than you think. Don’t be afraid to challenge them. And respect them.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

On Songwriting: Wasted Words - Part One

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
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.