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Friday, April 15, 2011

Songwriter's Navel: Week 14, Which Is a "Cowboy Song" Hot on the Heels of 13

So when last we left our heroine, she'd finally managed to write a song for Sunday. And no good deed goes unpunished.

The Kernel handed me an insane-looking piece of paper with what he swore was a chord progression. Moreover, he swore it was a chord progression from a gospel song that Ray Charles had lifted for a song of his (I've forgotten the title). With no content prompts, we were to write a song to that music.

Here's the progression. I may be playing fast and loose with how long each chord is played, but Ray is not here to object:

|G G/B| |C C#dim|
|G/D D#dim| Em C
|G E7| A7 D7 D7/F#

|G G/B| |C C#dim|
|G/D D#dim| Em C
|G E7| |A7 D7|
|G C| G

D D7/F#
|G C| G
E7 A7
D D7/F#

|G G/B| |C C#dim|
|G/D D#dim| Em C
|G E7| |A7 D7|
|G C| G


I sat down Sunday night and played the progression through (slowly and awkwardly, it goes without saying) a number of times and recorded it on my iPad. It felt like 6/8 to me from minute one. A little odd, because I am the one "singer/songwriter" (yes, those are sarcastic quotemarks) in the northern hemisphere who does not write in 6/8 most of the time. I "schwee schwa-ed" a melody for a while, then started to think about lyrics.

The line "The lines around my eyes" dropped into my lap right away. (Quite possibly because it's the title of a Lucinda Williams song [which I cannot find a video of Lucinda Williams performing].) That determined the character of the song immediately. The "barroom rendition" came next, because I liked how it sang over those chords, and liking how it sang suggested "sung a time or two." Pretty quickly I had firmed up the first verse:


Oh the [G] lines around my [G7/B] eyes
[C] Drink in the [C#dim] light in this
[G/D] Barroom ren- [D#dim] dition of me [Em] [C]
That I've [G] sung a time or two [E7]
Since I said [A7] I was through [D] [D7/F#]


The structure of the chord progression lends itself to refrain rather than chorus. I felt like I should get to the refrain at the end of the first verse, despite the fact that (a) it's not resolving at the end of that verse and (b) I didn't know what the refrain was.

As easily as the first verse came, the second was not playing nicely. I sat down with my songwriting notebook, which is very nearly full, and I flipped through from the beginning. It's both sort of fun and bewildering to look at all the scrawling and try to remember what song I was writing at the time, what the assignment was, the things I tried to hammer in that weren't fitting, things that got cannibalized for other songs, and so on.

Last summer we'd had an assignment to write a song that had a narrative, but not one that filled in all the details for the listener. In other words, the song itself was more like a conversation with someone who knew the story about that story. I wrote down a story I've been wanting to work into a song for a while. I didn't end up writing my song about that story at the time, nor is this song about that story, but the phrase "tall tales" caught my eye, and I felt like "tall, tall tales" was going to be the refrain.

That helped me with the second verse:

Now every [G] night I go to [G7/B] bed
Not a [C] thought in my [C#dim] head
Not a [G/D] worry, not a [D#dim] whisper, not a word [Em] [C]
Not the [G] faintest hint of [E7] you
Since I said [A7] I was [D7] through
With [G] you and your tall [C], tall [G] tales


Because I am lazy an profoundly unmusical, I enjoyed having the music already written for me in this assignment, but beyond my sloth, what I found cool and interesting about writing to someone else's progression was the kind of leisurely way it gets to the refrain. If I'd been writing this from scratch, I almost certainly wouldn't have had that long line in the middle of the verse, breaking up the two couplets. But I really like that structure.

As of Sunday night, I still needed to write the bridge and final verse, which I'd planned to do Monday. But then on Monday, I wound up with a 1/4-inch-long splinter under the nail the middle finger on my right hand. After 5 hours at a walk-in clinic, the removed it WITHOUT ANESTHESIA by cutting away a large chunk of my nail WITHOUT ANESTHESIA and then digging around with forceps of varying sizes. WITHOUT ANESTHESIA. That was fun.

In the time before my lesson Tuesday, I managed to write the bridge and then the final verse:

Oh the [D] pictures you painted, the [D7/F#] tall tales you told
Of all you [G] were, all you [C] were gonna be [G]
Oh I [Em] drank it right in, I [A7] bought what you sold
Now [D] what's to become of [D7/F#] me?

Guess the [G] sun's still gonna rise [G7/B]
I'll make it [C] through another [C#dim] night
From the [G/D] bedroom to the [D#dim] barroom to the street [Em] [C]
When [G] the talk turns to you [E7]
I'll tell [A7] them all I am [D7] through
With [G] you and your [C] tall, tall [G] tales


Oh, the fickleness of the muse and self-confidence. Sunday night, I had gone to bed feeling pretty pleased with how the song was shaping up. On Tuesday, the lyrics felt stale, stupid, and obvious. The bridge, in particular, sounds like it was written via Mad Libs. But folks in class seemed to like it, so what are you going to do? And certainly it has its uses in being very different from most of the stuff I write, so that gives it potential to fill in gaps in a set or what have you.

Because the chord progression is much more demanding than what I would usually write, recording was especially hard, and I admit to using a lot of garage band snipping, pasting, and scotch tape to cobble this together. Originally, I only recorded the chord progression as originally given to us. When I tried to record the vocals, it was like "HELLO HERE IS MY VOICE ON THE ONE OF MEASURE ONE!" No good. You have to ease into my voice. With more scotch tape magic, I ran through the first verse as an instrumental, then added a "lead" (again with the sarcastic quote marks) over it on FrankeGibson. A lead that, of course, begins just a fraction of a second late. Go me.

But here it is.

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