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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Songwriter's Navel: Week 24, In Which The Narrator May Be Cutting Veins Of Indeterminate Origin

Recording. This song is goofy, and the recording reflects that in playing with the vocals. Believe it or not I dialed back the drama.

A subideal week for songwriting.

The assignment itself sort of hamstrung me, because we were to explore our own "cheese line"—the highly individual point at which we roll our eyes, rather than being moved or wiping a tear away. This is not my strong suit to begin with, and worse, the Kernel suggested that a shortcut to the cheese line was writing about a pet. Given that (a) I had tears rolling down my face during the TRAILER of Marley and Me, (b) I wept through 9/10 of Children of Men because of a dog, and (c) I'm still wont to unexpectedly burst into tears after the recent loss of our foamy cat, this was dangerous, dangerous territory. I knew that there was no way I could write about a pet.

We were also out of town for the holiday weekend, so I was shorter on time than usual. Please ignore the fact that I have started writing the last several songs on Tuesday morning AND that I actually had a bit more time because I did not have a private lesson last week. Add in another stumbling block in the form of a false lead as soon as I started writing, and you have the recipe for a not-very-good song.

In addition to exploring the cheese line, we had to use root motion only in 4ths, 5ths, or steps (or half steps, as it turned out in class, but I had not interpreted the instructions in that way). I started writing from this requirement, which resulted in the false lead into a completely different type of song. I thought I'd saved that effort, which was something like 3 lines of what I was fairly sure was going to be a chorus, but I can't seem to find it. It was something along the lines of:

Darkness falls on strange, strange houses
Like (simile lost to the mists of time, but it had the word "beneath" in it and internal assonance)
Like the vein beneath the blade

Ouch, check out that last line. I'm not sure it's cheese, per se, but it's certainly melodrama. Naturally that shouldered its way into the song I actually wrote. Why? I like the way it sounds. I like the long as. I like going from the v to the bl. But it's a terrible line, and it rightly dogged me.

I had the chords for this chorus-y thing, and I kind of liked the melody and pace I'd set down. It took its time over "darkness" and "falls." I liked the repetition of "strange." But I Could. Not. find anything to finish out the chorus.

In desperation, I picked the guitar back up and started playing around with root motion. Suddenly I had an Em-Bm vamp and a verse just kind of spilled out.

You should’ve known better
You should’ve read the writing on the wall
You should’ve seen it coming from a
Mile away, now darkness falls

Lines 1 and 3 are a simple, split-measure Em-Bm vamp repeated twice. Line 2 is one split measure of Em Bm, then Am to Bm. Line 4 hangs out on Am for 2 full measures, then hits a split measure of G-D and back to the vamp. Initially, I'd had a full measure of D at the end of the verse. The Kernel advised going right back into the vamp. It's musically the right move (and that's what I recorded), but my brain and fingers have a hard time jumping back to that right away. I've since come to think of that D as the panic measure.

Content-wise, I feel like this kind of writing is such a cheat on the one hand, but on the other, I'm inclined not to be too hard on it. It's conceptually a blues form: Three different ways of saying the same thing, then some kind of "stinger" at the end. It shows up in all kinds of songs that I like, and Ba'al knows it's the stumped songwriter's friend. Also, in the case of this song, which shaped up immediately to be a revenge song, the repetition of the same idea feels conversationally real. It feels like an argument, like one of the all-time greatest scenes in cinema, right?

The last line of this verse gave me trouble. Initially, it was just "darkness falls" scavenged from the false start. It went through an awkward adolescent phase where it was "but you thought you had it all" (which ended up on the lyric sheet I printed out before racing out of the house to try to get to OTS early enough to vomit up a third verse), and I ended up singing "You were heading for a fall." More on why I ended up reverting to the original in a minute.

The second verse is more of the same technique and problems of the first:

What were you after back then?
What kind of fool did you take me for?
What kind games were you playing with
Me? I’m not playing any more

Many of these lines were harvested from a false start song from about a year and a half ago. Strangely, that song was intended to tell a funny story. Again, not really anything profound here. I kept swapping the "fool" line and the "games" line, trying to come up with an ending rhyme I didn't hate. I suppose what I ended up with is serviceable, but I kind of hate it.

By the end of the second verse, I was oh so tired of the vamping, so I needed a chorus, bridge, or ambiguous B section. Both the chords and words fought me pretty hard, and that shows.

[Am] I see the [D] lie beneath your [Em] smile (darkness falls) [Bm]
[Am] Like the | [Em] vein be- [D] neath | the [C] blade (darkness falls) [G]

I messed around with this six ways from Sunday. I left off the last measures of each line (the Bm and the G, respectively). I added them back in. I played them while singing "darkness falls." I played them with no lyric over them. I tried to rewrite the "vein" line so it didn't inappropriately imply that the narrator was suicidal. And finally, I was just sick of it, so I wrote the "darkness falls" in as echoes.

I left the house not knowing whether this was a bridge, a chorus, or something else, and hastily rewrote the end of the first verse so that I wasn't using "darkness falls" there. In class, the verdict was that I was trying to force "Darkness Falls" as the title, but that it came out of nowhere (because, let's face it, whatever this section is, it doesn't fit at all with the verses). Ending the first verse with it is a half-assed attempt to remedy that.

And oh the veins. The Kernel was on board with it, saying that he did not take it as the narrator being suicidal, but my classmates were not convinced. S commented that I satisfied the cheese requirement, because this was literally a "corte de las venas" (vein-cutting) song; L interpreted it as the narrator being so angry that she was going to kill herself—a sentiment that doesn't make any emotional sense to me, so I certainly didn't want to convey it. For now, it's just sitting there, making the song un-performable. I'm not sure it's a good enough song to spend time remedying the B section.

I hand wrote Verse 3 in the wings of the balcony at OTS. I think I squandered all my melodramatic simile power earlier in the day, because I kept coming out with incredibly literal lines like, "They will never find the body." What I ended up with is not exactly far advanced from that problematic literalism:

Nowhere you can hide now
Nowhere that's safe to rest your bones
No one will shed a single tear
For you. No one'll miss you when you're gone

I also had originally written "no place safe to rest your head," which too obviously wants "dead" for its rhyme. I suppose one solution to the B section is rewriting this verse to be less explicitly threatening to the person addressed, but the truth is, as little as I like this verse, I like it better than that B section.

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