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Thursday, January 27, 2011

Songwriter's Navel: Week 03, In Which I Kill And Eat My Young For The Greater Good

The Gra'er Gude!

I really ought to have been writing this entry before I tried to record the song, because I have just spent about 4 hours creating something totally awful and in the course of doing so, I have come to hate, loathe, and despise this song. I wasn't in love with it before, but probably it doesn't quite deserve my utter contempt.

Let me try to think about how I wrote this.

Ok, assignment first: The harmonic criteria were to have an A part and a B part and to use a major key for one part and its parallel minor for the other. The lyrical prompt was violence: To think about how routinely violence occurs today and use that as a jumping off point for the song.

Class is on Tuesday nights, and then I volunteer at OTSFM on Wednesday nights. To get back to my car, I can either take a long bus ride or take one train to another. I'd decided on the train route on the grounds that the bus just has a higher weirdness/drama ratio than the train as a rule.

So assume that karma is on the job. I get on the Brown line (the LEAST drama-prone line in all Chicago), and there is a man who is screaming—no, really SCREAMING—into his phone at a woman. He seemed to be trying to get her to put money in his account. And he was just absolutely vile to her. Calling her "fucking bitch" in every single sentence. Telling her to "stop her fucking whining and make it happen." Then he got on the phone with someone else—a male friend, I think, from context—and explained that because of that "fucking cunt" he was screwed. And that he had "stopped fucking her, so she's frustrated," and on and on.

On the one hand, there's obviously nothing I could do. On the other, it's impossible not to think about what I might, could, should, or shouldn't have done if the woman had been there with him. And the answer is, most likely, nothing. For good reasons and bad ones and ones that are inarguable.

So. Yeah.

I started trying to wrangle this into song form on Sunday night. I think I came away with nothing more than the first two lines of verse 1 and a vague idea that I wanted to make reference to Clem Snide's "Moment in the Sun", not because it was playing, but because I'm a hack. I worked on the lyrics on the Metra the next morning and a night of percolation, apparently, was fruitful, because I came away with, more or less, the first verse:


[A] Backward through the city
Tracing [D] flowers in my breath
I am alone*
With a [Em] song about a [G] moment in the [A] sun
The [A] fury winds around me
Flicks its [D] tongue against my skin
I turn to [Bm] stone
I stop my [G] ears I close my eyes**


*I'd started out with a G chord on "alone" in the third line, but I was singing an odd note against the chord. Although I kind of liked it, the consensus was that I needed to support the melody note in the chord, so I changed it to a C#m7(b5). I admit that now I like that chord choice better, though it sounded hella weird when I first used it.

**I was having real trouble shifting into the parallel minor. Despite the downer content, the song kept feeling very melodically up. I realized that I was probably going to want to start on an F chord. For no particularly good reason, I ended the verse on Em. The Kernel advised going to C there (although that's not in the original key of D, and I went to Catholic school . . .). In any case, C it was. That meant changing the melody note, and as is obvious in the recording.

The chorus and second verse come from other images drawn from riding the train (not the same train ride, I don't think). When the Brown line goes around the Loop, it's parallel with about the 3rd floor of a number of buildings. Through one window, I saw a room full of easels with works in progress on them. I liked both the sense of looking through 2 windows at once and the idea of art interrupted that would be continued. A few moments later, I was looking into an empty, dark cafeteria, and the sight of all those tables without people sharing food around them struck me as very sad.

The chorus fought me terribly. I got down "Through a window, through a window," and two things happened immediately: I decided that I really hated that line and it completely killed what I was trying to capture, and I could not expunge it from the song no matter how I tried.

I experimented with a couple of lines related to the easels/art. I ended up with "beauty" being the word encapsulating the image. I also decided I hated that. It also wouldn't leave. I tried out "Beauty interrupted," "Beauty in progress," and ended up with "Beauty yet to be."

Then the thing started to get bloated and impossible. The image about the tables kept trying to get in there. So did the word "easels." I eventually had to hack it down to just two lines. Two terrible, repetitive lines.


Through the [F] window, through the [Gm] window
There is [Am] beauty yet to be, yet to [Dm] be [Am] [Em]


Yes, a terribly awkward transition from Dm back into D. Oh, I'd also forgotten that the Kernel suggested "taking a Powter" (meaning do 2 verses before the chorus), which undoubtedly would have sounded better and kept me from having to sing the chorus more than twice.

The only good part about disemboweling the chorus is that I was able to move the table imagery into verse 2. Of course the image is a hard one to wrangle. I kept coming back to wanting to say something about friendship, sharing meals and so on, and decided on "breaking bread." If there's anything that I don't hate completely in the song, it's that line in this verse (my feeling about it is merely ASYMPTOTIC to hate; chords are the same as over verse 1):


A hundred empty tables
Where the future breaks its bread
Without a sound
And the anguish falls like embers to the ground
Casting paint upon the canvas
Sinking fingertips in clay
I break the vow
To stop my ears to close my eyes


The third, fourth and seventh lines gave me a lot of problems. Despite the fact that the third and fourth lines in the first verse don't really rhyme, they're sonically similar. And my ear would not accept just any old word at the end of line 4. And that made the need for the rhyme with line 7 even more dire. To fill out the verse, I wanted art images. Not wild about the paint on canvas line, but I kind of like the visceral nature of the fingertips in clay line. Mostly out of self preservation (given that the verses are rather long I kept the final line of the verse as a variation on a theme.

The last verse came the easiest, I suppose, because there was, by then, very limited room for me to screw with it. I'd thought that I wanted something about polaris/the north star. I had my new little nephew in mind (I drove up to Wisconsin last week to meet him) and the kind of world we want to leave for those yet to come and so on. Rather generic sentiment, unfortunately:


Contrails from the streetlights
Tease the raindrops on the glass
And taste the moon
An outline in my breath on darkest blue
By the north star like a promise
With tomorrow closing in
I think of you
And my eyes are open wide


End on the chorus with a few Canadian tragipop repeats of "yet to be" modulating between Dm and D, with a cheater C major thrown in for good measure.

As previously mentioned, recording this very nearly killed me. I had decided to try playing it on the nylon string as it's fingerpicked, and the wider neck is sometimes more forgiving. Of course he wider neck and less practice on that guitar meant that I screwed things up over and over. I ended up using my regular guitar and opting for Garage Band's "shimmer" effect to mute the sound of my sucking. I also recorded my vocals with the basic effects for female vocals. I'd started to add a second vocal track with some ornamentation and echoing, but I'm so freaking inconsistent with my pitch, I UGGGH!

Ok, the self loathing is boring me perhaps more than anyone (I know, reader: FAT CHANCE!), so here it is.

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