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Friday, January 14, 2011

Songwriter's Navel: Week 01

So, this blog has been sorely neglected, and truth be told, my writing in general is likewise sorely neglected.

It's probably not coincidental that other things like my commitment to being mindful of my diet and exercise also have a decidedly unhealthy layer of dust on them. I realize it's already mid-January, and I have very little hope of catching up with the resolution bandwagon. Nonetheless, I'm going to try to reintroduce some method and some madness to my life. This is partly inspired by my own impatience with myself, but mostly by the knowledge that Jonathan Coulton's Thing A Week project just turned 5 and he's reliving it. His present-day
insights are interesting and useful.

Pause for a bit of backstory. I take songwriting classes (among other music classes) at the amazing Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago. I started in March of 2008 and have continued with a few brief interruptions. At the tail end of 2009, I did something I swore I would never, EVER do: Perform in public. Since December of 2009, I've played several times as Acoustic Explosion hosted by John Kuczaj. Yes, I just wrote that down and I still don't believe it.

Anyway, the songwriting thing seems to have stuck, and I've decided that I'm going to try to write every week about my songwriting assignment. I'm hoping that this will serve as a record of my process (which is, shall we say, chaotic) and some motivation to practice the guitar and play around with recording (I got this for Christmas, and I'm anxious to play around). Without further ado: Week 01.

I missed the first week of class, because I was on JoCoCruiseCrazy (Dear Mr. Coulton: I am not stalking you, I promise), but the Kernel and my classmates sent the assignment along. They created a melody, note by note, in class. Our task was to add "chords, words, and magic*" (*magic optional, per Steve).

We didn't get home until Saturday night. I had to prep my classes for Monday, so I didn't get a start on this until Monday night. (Please ignore the fact that I pretty much never get a start on things until Monday night, won't you?) I listened to the melody a number of times, played it on the guitar (courtesy of the music and tab also provided: My ear is totally for shit) and eventually coaxed some chords out of the guitar that fit of over the melody:

Bm F#m Bm Bm F#m (Technically, it should be an F# major to hit the melody note, but let's face it: The way I play that barre chord, it's generous to characterize it as a power chord, so what's up with the third hardly matters.)

Over the second part of the melody, I came up with a little D-based figure (Steve told me what they were [and characterized it as "Very Neil Young" just to get my goat!], but I've forgotten, and it seems to be stumping all-guitar-chords). Basically it's playing the alternating bass notes for D, with strums of these strings in between:
4/0, 3/2, 2/3, 1/0
4/0, 3/2, 2/2, 1/0
4/0, 3/2, 2/0, 1/2

[Ed.: Duh, figured it out. It's Dsus2, Dmaj9 {no 3rd}, D6]

then
bass, strum 4/0, 3/2, 2/3, 1/0
bass, strum 4/0, 3/2, 2/2, 1/0
And end on Em

[Ed.: Also known as Dsus2, Dmaj9 {no 3rd}, D6]

And for the final part of the melody back to the beginning:
Bm F#m Bm

Having figured out the chords, I then realized that I didn't fully understand the assignment. Was I meant to use this melody exclusively for the whole assignment? I sent up the Kernel signal and learned that it should be the "main theme" but I could deviate from it somewhat.

This was convenient, as I'd already started to work on a verse that did not fit to the assigned melody. Monday morning on the train, I'd made a half-assed attempt to do some creatively mindful observation of my surroundings and pretty much came up with: Potholes. Ugly potholes filled with snow. It's Chicago in winter, what do you want from me? Besides, Smuggy McSmuggerpants, this did inspire the first words of the song: White-bottomed gouges.

That might not sound like much to go on, but I have always found the blank page the worst thing about writing anything. Once I have something on it, even if it's utter shit, the task becomes much less intimidating. In the context of songwriting, once I know how the first line of a verse starts, I usually write it down, then just spitball phrases that fit the same rhythm in my notebook. I then came up with the phrase "Naked and faceless" to start the second half of the verse, and without too much struggle, the follow-up lines for the two halves of the verse fell into place.

[Em White-bottomed gouges in the [D]coal-tar tissue
We [Em] stumble on
To a [Am] tuneless, to a [D] plaintive, distant [Em song
[Em] Naked and faceless under [D] sun-splintered skies
Beyond the [Em] grave
On our [Am] knees, palm to [D] palm, as though we're [Em] brave

"Sun-splintered skies" worked with the winter imagery. Wasn't crazy about "beyond the grave" (Emo alert!) but it suggested the image of defeat and prayer (on our knees), which allowed me to swipe "Palm to palm" from The Bard. R&J is way down on my list of favorite Shakespeare plays (although it moved up, courtesy of my tenor boyfriend), but the "holy palmers' kiss" exchange is a million different kinds of brilliant.

For once, the words, chords and melody came more or less together on this verse. I wasn't crazy about the bass-strum, bass-strum rhythm that asserted itself (I'm rhythmically challenged and end up doing the same things over and over), but experimentation with some alternatives threatened to unravel the whole shebang so I left it.

The next problem up was transitioning from the verse into the chorus, which gave me fits. I ultimately ended up going with the cheap move of playing single strums on the first line of the chorus, then returning to the bass-strum rhythm for the remaining lines. Coming out of the chorus was (and still is . . . oops) even worse. Thus far I've wound up hanging out on the Bm until I panic and jump back to Em.

Words did not want to come for the chorus and I ended up doing the Scrambled Eggs trick and simply writing down some true dreck (I'd share those, but I typed over them in the file and my brain, for once is protecting me from remembering them) and at least figuring out how I would sing the melody over the chords before giving up for the night.

Tuesday, I made it up to OTSFM with about an hour and a half to spare before my guitar/voice lesson. I scored a quiet room and pulled out the iPad. I was shocked to find that I did not completely hate the first verse. The chorus was another story so I held my nose and waded in by thinking about the headspace from which the first verse was coming. Please accompany me on a psychological Ox-Bow.

I am not the happiest person you'll ever meet, but I am very fortunate (particularly given that 99 out of 100 of the balls in my genetic lottery are stamped CRAZY) in not really suffering from depression. Recently, however, I became aware that I was worried about whether I MIGHT get depressed upon going back to work this January: Our winter break was much shorter than usual, and the cruise meant that I essentially got no down time over it, and if I dug a little deeper, I realized that I associate going back to work so early in the year with my former job, which I hated, and which did make me depressed.

So I got to thinking about cyclicality, seasons, calendars, inevitability, and things like that and I jotted down some words related to inevitability in my notebook. Layered on top of that was the memory of the ridiculously low standards I had to maintain when I was still in that job—for what I could accomplish, for how much satisfaction I could get out of my work there, what I could expect from my students, and so on. So I had the ouroboros of inevitable desire and suppression of it, leading to hopelessness, destruction, devastation. Um, I don't really have a title for the song, but I've been calling it the "Seasonal Affective Disorder" song. (I don't suffer from SAD. In fact, I hate spring and summer and often joke that I have reverse SAD.)

Here's how the chorus eventually shook out:

And the [Bm] clockwork hunger [F#m] goes to ground [Bm] again
And the [F#m] wind-up longing [F#m] bleeds away
Like [Dsus2] tears in [Dmaj9] to the sea [D6]
Like can- [Dsus2] dlelight [Dmaj9] by day [Em]
And the [Bm] clockwork hunger [F#m] goes to ground again [Bm]

The second verse came together through a combination of sonically/rhythmically fitting stuff and more winter/industrial (hated job was in northwest Indiana, which is direct-from-factory postindustrial apocalypse territory) imagery. And then the return to something physical/gestural worked ok, so I guess I have to thank Bill S. for that, too.

[Em] Dead-winter weeks on the [D] iron-grey face
That we call [Em] home
Until the [Am] thunder
Crashes [D] over all we [Em] own
[Em] Cold like a knife through the [Em] rust-colored grief
Between our [Em] hands
Fingers [Am] folded
To en- [D] close what light we can [Em]

Back to the chorus. Repeat the last line a few times, and OUT!

Now pray for me as I try to record this.

Ok. I have recorded 2 versions that are "good enough" for my purposes here. Guitar playing is incredibly rough, as are the vocals.

An attempt with Garage Band, replete with ridiculous echoes and a only a passing acquaintance with pitch (to say nothing of the fact that I am hopeless at laying down a guitar track that any human could sing to). And then a "live" version just sung into my iPhone. Sorry, no real improvement on pitch there.

That is all.

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1 Comments:

Anonymous ross.e.freedman said...

Super DUPER kudos. Especially if I'm using the word "kudos" incorrectly. Maybe I should just stick with "mazal tov."

4:20 PM  

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