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Thursday, April 14, 2011

Songwriter's Navel: Week 13, Which is Both Belated and Contains Ill-Advised Attempts at Harmony

Before I lose my nerve, I'm linking this recording. This one was extremely difficult in many ways.

Our assignment hearkened back to the assignment before last, which was set when we were 14. This week, we were to write a song from our present-day perspective, addressing our 14-year-old selves, preferably in an upbeat way that might either congratulate or reassure them.

I tend to have trouble with these types of assignments because I have a weird absence of relationship with myself before I was 18. I'm not nostalgic for that part of my life certainly (it was miserable), but I also don't have pity for or empathize with my 14-year-old self (a lot of the misery was either inevitable or actively of my own making, so why bother?). I think we had an assignment a bit more than a year ago to write a song using 3rd or 4th grade and I ended up with something called "I Am Missing."

I'm equally bad at writing to myself in the future. During the "Shanghai the Pie Contest" session, we were supposed to write a song to ourselves in 5 years, and again, I had nothing to say. Strangely, though, I did end up writing a song to my nerdy nephew that has become kind of my Nerd Anthem, and I've played it in sets several times. (That recording is from the first time I ever played in public, so please be kind.)

We also had house guests up through the evening that this assignment was due, so my time to work on it was extremely limited. I did unexpectedly have Monday evening to myself, and I wrote two lines of what I thought was a chorus and then the first two lines of what I thought was going to be the first verse. And I stalled. Hard. Had a little time before my lesson on Tuesday and remained stalled to the extent that I made two other starts on songs and stalled again.

I ended up skipping songwriting class Tuesday to have a last dinner out with our friends at Big Jones. That's right, I selflessly skipped my class, for which I had nothing to play, and ate oyster stew and ridiculously good scallops because I AM A GIVER.

The Kernel has another section of songwriting 2 on Sundays, and I'd checked to see if it was ok that I attended a make-up. That meant Saturday night I needed to stare down the barrel of the stalled song again. I checked in with what I had and it was still not going anywhere. For lack of any better ideas, I pulled some of the photo album/scrapbook things my mom has made for my various graduations.

In the back of one was a letter that I wrote the night before I left for U of C. It was addressed to the guy I was dating at the time (who, by the way, was a complete and total scumbag—way to go there, first incarnation of me). There were also numerous photos from my 8th grade graduation. I bawled through that entire graduation for reasons that I did not understand then and still do not understand now. For bonus points, the bawling was obvious in the photos. Not attractive to begin with, I am HIDEOUS when I cry. Again: Go me!

So I got to thinking about why it was that I was emotion at these two points when I really could not have been more eager to get on with things. It also sparked a memory of being inexplicably very upset when a girl from grammar school—whom I hated, as she'd always been a right shit to me—transferred away from my high school to a public school. I went so far as to write her a note saying that I would miss her. Even at the time, fully half of me felt like it was absolute suicide to show any kind of vulnerability to someone who delighted in making me feel small. Anyway, that whole "WTF was that about?" vibe ended up giving me the first verse.

It's the [C] strangest [F] time for [C] tears [F]
For the [G] knots in your [C] shoulders to let [G] go of the [C] grudges
That damned [Em] up all your [Am] lonel- [F] iness for years [C] [F] x 2

Initially I thought this verse would wrap around into the second verse by vamping on the motown-y I-IV split measure goodness, and after the second verse, I'd go into what I had written as the chorus. I can't remember now if I finished what I thought would be the chorus first, or if I had the second verse written. In any case, in the draft that I played on Sunday I had a second verse and then the chorus as follows:

Verse (same chords as above):
When the words build up in your mouth
They will spill through your teeth just to fall at the feet
Of the ones who can't see there's a way to get out


When you [G] feel like you're [F] falling [Dm] soundless- [Am] ly
Look [Dm] up and you'll [Am] see the [F] forest for the [C] trees
And [G] fall soundlessly [C] [F] vamp

That chorus was the only tiny piece salvaged from my initial foray into this song. More or less the chords I'd decided on, and I hadn't really hammered out the second half of it.

The second verse just kind of fell together in somewhat sloppy fashion. I was pulling from a list of phrases that had the same rhythm and "mouth feel" of "It's the strangest time for tears," and I kept thinking something along the lines of "There are words on the tip of my tongue." I was not enjoying trying to write to a rhyme for tongue, and then I realized that I wanted the phrase NOT to be a cliché. I wanted to give a sense of knowing that keeping my mouth shut was the smart thing to do, ending up blurting something out anyway, and having that be a frustrating nonevent.

Hmm, writing that down, it seems pretty obviously connected to the note to the nemesis, but I have been thinking about that verse as being more connected to the fact that this is around the time in my life that first started to notice people making fun of or being put off by the way that I talk. (In addition to the "This Garment Was Unsullied When I Left The House" placard that I've often contemplated getting, I sometimes want an "I'm Not Trying To Be Snooty, I Just Talk This Way" placard.)

I went to bed Saturday night with, something like those two verses and the chorus. Sunday morning would determine whether or not I'd make it to class with a song. When I sat down with it on Sunday morning, I was able to clear up a couple of problems straight away, and not long after I actually had the following verse:

It's the hardest truth to face
There is nothing you'll miss, not a single reminisce
There is nothing at all that you need from this place

Although it came pretty quickly on Sunday morning, it was very hard won. From early on, I'd had the sense that I wanted to say something about frantically grabbing up everything I needed, fleeing the scene, and only later realizing that my hands were completely empty. Extremely kludgey, so I guess unsurprising that it was hard to write. I was not and still am not in love with "The hardest truth to face," which feels stale, but it rhymes with place and . . . I got nothin'.

As soon as I wrote THAT verse, I felt like it was the last verse, and that there had to be another verse before it. It seemed like there had to be more realization and emotional distance after the second verse before I got to that one. What can I tell you? Verse three is just weird.

When you shout mirror, mirror on the wall
You will fear the familiar, see the face of the stranger
That you're bound and determined to be after all

I was trying to work in a clever PUNE OR PLAY ON WORDS about "fairest" and life being unfair and oh-thank-ba'al--that-didn't-make-the-cut-of-anything-performed-in-public.

So with something approaching a song that was finished enough for feedback, I did head up to OTS. A total aside, but a funny story. Traffic was terrible and it was very hot. As I was sitting on the Ryan with the windows rolled down, Delta Dawn came on the iPod. And you have to sing along to Delta Dawn. Loudly. So I did. And I hear from the car next to me: "SHE'S 41 AND HER DADDY STILL CALLS HER BABY!" By the time the chorus came around both the folks in that car and the one on the other side of me were singing along in something approximating 3-part harmony. I declare that the most fun you can have on the Dan Ryan.


I played the song in class, and the Kernel complimented the melody and said that he had a suggestion that might be "Rad." (Yes, he actually said "Rad.") What I had positioned as the 4th verse ("It's the hardest truth to face.") was actually the chorus, whereas what I'd positioned as the chorus was actually the bridge. After I thought about it for half a second, it seemed that at the very least I had put this thing together in the wrong form, which likely contributed to getting stalled. It's absolutely true that the "Tree falling in the woods" sentiment is kind of a passing thought, not the main message.

Not one to do my own work if I don't have to, I demanded that the Kernel tell me what the music should sound like over the new chorus. He said, "Why not just the same chords, and the repetition will be what makes it the chorus." Which, as you know, is totally crazy. Oh, wait. It's not. Because there are like 1 million great songs that take the same damned chord progression and make the sections distinct.

On Tuesday, I played the song for my guitar/voice teacher, E, first the way I wrote it, then again with Verse 4 as the chorus and the chorus as the bridge. She agreed this was the way to go, so I asked for HER advice on how to make the chorus a chorus and she said, "Oh, you'd just produce it so that it's a chorus. Are we producing this? Let's produce this. You'd add harmony, and that right away makes this the chorus." So she sang harmony et voila! Fun!

Oh, except that for recording purposes that left me having to do scary things. Although E singing harmony definitely made the chorus chorus-y, I knew my thin, uncertain harmony wouldn't, so I also changed the chords at the end of each verse leading into the chorus. Rather than vamping on C to F, I just went right up the scale in split measures: C to Dm to Em to F to G and into the same verse chords.

My harmony is AWFUL, but it just had to be good enough to get this up a week late.

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