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Friday, March 18, 2011

Songwriter's Navel: Week 10, In Which Depression Hurts Everywhere

I'm not sure this was the ideal activity for this afternoon. I should find thinking about songwriting and recording rewarding in some way, but as I was commiserating with my songwriting codependent this week, mostly it just seems to erodes my self image, even though I know there are things about it that are helpful.

Two requirements for this week: Employ an E-minor cliché in the music (movement from Em to Em(maj7) to Em7 to Em6—See Aimee Mann's "Save Me," "My Funny Valentine," and one meellion other songs if you think you're not familiar with this) and write "Neil Style." The Kernel is reading Neil Young's biography at the moment and shared with us Neil's comments on his process. Probably most of you know that I hate Neil Young (or you do now), so there was a healthy dose of chagrin when it turned out that his process is pretty similar to mine, meaning there is really no process. So that has me worried that all my songs sound like chaotic, self-indulgent shite. Oh well, at least I don't sound like Tiny Tim while singing them, right? RIGHT?

Lyric-wise, I actually started in a fairly good place. There's some silly melodrama going on in my natal family lately, and my sibs and I have been trying to make the best of it. During the action-packed part of this, my older brother was texting me to keep me up to date. The two of us don't have much of a relationship for a number of reasons, not least of which is that we do not see eye-to-eye on anything. However, in the last year or so, we've been more in touch with each other than we probably have been our whole lives. He texts me pictures and funny stories about his kids and pets, I do the same. Not exactly something to end a feel-good movie on, but it's pleasant.

So I got to thinking about the fact that the two of us shared a room for much of our childhood, although he's 5 years older than I am, and we later added our younger brother (8 years my junior) to the room when he was a baby. Our mother denies that we shared a room that long, but the bedroom math in our 3-bedroom house doesn't work out any other way.

On the train on Monday morning, I started to jot down some memories of the room. I wanted to capture the odd juxtaposition of someone that I certainly don't know very well now having the same kind of specific, intimate memories of the room. I knew that the opening image would have to do with the walls, which were painted blue but had this horrible white wallpaper with hockey players in primary colors on it. The next thing that was snagging my attention was the sliding panel to the attic crawlspace, which was in the closet. It always scared me for vague reasons. It's possible that I associated it with sudden death because the "emergency sacraments kit" was on the closet shelf right beneath it. Hmm . . . I've been blaming the fact that this song came out very creepy on the E-minor cliché, but maybe it's Catholicism's fault as usual.

By Monday night, I had 2 verses that were nearly done and I knew that I needed a bridge. I had no clue what the bridge was going to sound like either lyrically or harmonically. Here's verse 1:


There's a small, dark room in blue
And I know just where the wallpaper peels (E-minor cliché over these 2 lines, ending on Em again).
I fit my [G] fingernails into every [D] scar
And the [Em] past still [Em(maj7)] shatters me [Em7]
[Em7] Into [Em6] shards of you [A]


The cliché started to feel a bit relentless pretty quickly, in part because I was giving a full measure to each chord. Musically, though, that really pulls the ear, and for a long time, it kept feeling like there would be two runs through the cliché before hitting the G and D chords. Given the dark lyrical tone, though, that just seemed like overkill, so I dragged myself into making the third line play over major chords.

With the help and encouragement of my guitar/voice teacher, I've been trying to be less rhythmically boring, hence the strange strum pattern. I'm not sure that it really serves this song all that well, unfortunately, but it's a baby step away from my beloved downbeat. The split measure sandwich with the full measure of the Em7 in the established pattern was something was killing me when I was practicing to play it in class. I like the way it breaks the strum pattern briefly, then returns to it. I should probably strive to put more variation in, generally speaking.

My classmates and the Kernel were, as usual, very kind about my warbly, off-pitch performance, kindly calling the melody "floating" and comparing it to a Joni Mitchell song. Unsurprisingly, most of this was much easier when i was recording the guitar track without singing, then recording vocals without playing. But who knows? Maybe that killed what they liked about it?

The peeling wallpaper and the fingernails in verse 1 were eyebrow raising for me, given that, as I said, this actually started out in a positive place. Yeah, that was blown up by verse 2.


There's a small, dark room in blue
The bare floor buckles, cold beneath my feet
And the shadows drink the copper streaming
Through the window from the street
Like a shade of you


Hey, check it out! "There's a small, dark room in blue" is a beginning refrain! Who knew? Certainly not me. Although I was relieved to find that working out. I had a sinking feeling in my stomach as I was thinking about trying to put a chorus to this. Soooo not a chorus-having song.

The third verse that I wrote Monday night turned out to be very much a placeholder. In fact, I can remember very little of how it originally went, except that I kept trying to cram the word "trapdoor" into it. Good word! Does not work in the verses At. All.


There's a small, dark room in blue
Where the corners sigh forgotten, whispered fears
And the doorway yawns and the ceiling falls
All is gone without a tear
I remember you


When in doubt, blow up your song's setting. Or burn it down. This is the second time I've done that in a song. In fact, it's the second time I've started a song from a set of positive memories, then written something really creepy that implies the destruction of the thing that prompted the good memories. In the first one, I burned down 's Catskills house!

On the one hand, I feel like ending with "I remember you" is kind of cheap. On the other, it neatly gives the song a narrative arc, right? The narrator is visiting (in actuality or in memory) a place important to both him/her and the subject of the song. The first two verses are about that being sort of emotionally destructive, and by the third, the narrator has achieved at least movement if not closure.

When I played the song for my lesson, I didn't know what the bridge was doing yet. I had dummy lyrics and chords that turned out to be so egregiously wrong, I spent at least 90 minutes on a terrible harmonic treadmill. Part of the issue was that I'd ended verse 2 on a G major chord to get into the bridge. I knew it was wrong, but I really thought the first chord of the bridge was a D (the melody note is F# on "Palm"). In 11th hour desperation, I just strummed the guitar entirely open to get into the bridge, which the kernel tells me is an Em11. What I ended up with for the bridge . . . I still don't know about it:


[Am] Palm against the [Em] door
[Bm] Proof against what [Em] comes
I have [Am] gone before [Bm]
[Em] Yet to feel the [B7] sun


I'd had a coda that went back to the first two lines of the song. (Ok, I admit it, I like the wallpaper line and was looking for any excuse to go back to it.) The Kernel rightly pointed out, though, that ending on the A major chord and the line "I remember you" fits the mood of the song much better and doesn't wear out my weird refrain as much.

The recording. I was going to try to record a little bit of lead guitar over this, but today's not been a good day. My voice sounds thick and stuffy. The melody does not actually climb that high, but for some reason I'm very afraid of it, which shows in the absence of breath support and confidence.

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