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Saturday, February 05, 2011

Songwriter's Navel: Week 04, Which May or May Not Have Fewer Casualties Than Week 03

Don't think of this as late. No, seriously, don't think of it as late. I actually did work on recording this yesterday, but I had limited time, as I had to dig the ZK's car out of the snow, and then had opera (Girl of the Golden West at Lyric; absolutely wonderful and a bona fide Spaghetti Western!). In any case, I scrapped yesterday's attempt and started again today. Please do not infer that the second attempt is in any way kwality.

I did contemplate giving myself a pass this week. We did not actually have class, because of the Michael Bay–Level Blizzard, nor did I have my private lesson. However, I went ahead and worked on this anyway, both because I have a new assignment due next week, and because someone as lazy as I am cannot afford to fuck with inertia.

Working on a song without benefit of my compatriots' feedback was instructive in and of itself. Certainly trying to get the vocals recorded revealed that my voice/guitar teacher is a saint who is worth my weight in gold (my weight, rather than hers, because she is very tiny).

The assignment on which this song is based had a few different components. First, we had to draw 5 words out of a bowl (as a white elephant-type gift, the Kernel had gotten a jewelry-making kit, so the words were on beads). Mine were: Please, Kiss, Sky, Us Yours. Curse you, Jimi Hendrix! No, I will NOT excuse you while you kiss this guy.

The second requirement was related to tempo. In the verses, chord changes would only come once per measure until the last line of the verse when each measure would be split (2 chords per measure). In the chorus, we were allowed to change between split and un-split measures.

And then there were the two requirements that struck fear into my doggedly mediocre heart: We had to have a musical hook to lead off each verse, and there had to be a musical bridge that either shifted keys or changed up chords within the existing key. I suck at hooks. I suck at bridges. I epic suck at musical bridges, because they leave my shitty, shitty guitar playing out there, naked, sad, and exposed.

Moving on from my self loathing, fascinating though it is. I first sat down with the guitar and played around with hooks a bit. In my guitar lessons, we've been working on creating leads and melodies just using the major and pentatonic scales, with special emphasis on getting my hands to be less inept at doing this with hammer-ons and pull-offs, so I had a basic idea of what KIND of hook I was going to use.

Lyrically, the words I'd drawn from the bowl obviously suggested some kind of relationship song. (Well, all songs are relationship songs, but you know what I mean.) I had a left-over concept from my song last week that had not ultimately made it into that song: During the most recent full moon, we were experiencing that optical illusion where the moon appears larger than usual.

Because I'm a nerd who does NOT hate Neil Degrasse Tyson, I love both the illusion and the fact that it can be dispelled by looking at the moon upside down. The latter appeals to me on the evolutionary level (What is UP with the way our vision works?) and a couple of good personal memories (Having lunch with Madeleine at the Jackson Harbor restaurant and talking about what is UP with the way our vision works and a favorite book—although now that I think about it, the book that comes immediately to mind [Margaret Mahy's Catalogue of the Universe] is not the book in which a character demonstrates dispelling the effect [It might be in Kate Atkinson's Human Croquet. Or one of A.S. Byatt's? Gonna bug me now.]).

When I sat down to work on lyrics, I had my 5 words at the top of the page and a vague intention to write about pleasant illusions or dispelling same. Almost immediately, the first two lines of the chorus suggested themselves along with the basic contours of their melody:

Please can't you see me upside down
Can't you kiss how it is goodbye

My immediate reaction was to argue with myself: No, that's not right! If the narrator is asking the listener to buy into a pleasant illusion, then s/he is asking him/her NOT to look at the situation upside down! For good or for ill, I was able to assure myself that Neil DeGrasse Tyson was probably not grading me on the accuracy of my lyrics, and those two lines remained intact.

I went back to try to write a verse and was fixated on describing the moon, a treacherous task for a songwriter, to be sure. I kept thinking. The moon is big. The moon is round. The moon looks kind of orange. The moon is only big when it's close to the horizon. Not exactly poetic or inspiring. When frustration set in, I decided to just try to set down the basic rhythm of the lyrics some chords and I was working with something along the lines of there being a large brass grin on the horizon.

Vomit worthy, to be sure, but setting it on the page and playing chords suddenly made it clear that the narrator was using the illusion as a metaphor and I didn't need to describe the moon at all, really. I wound up with I'm capo 2 on this, so it's really in B, not A):

I see a [A] brass ring climbing high
[D] Larger than life
I see a [A] gift to me and you
From the [E] man in the moon
Might be a [A] trick of the light
[D] Might not last the night
But I see [F#m] you and me and [E] us and I'm [D] reaching for the [Bm] sky

Now, I have never in my life actually seen a brass ring on a merry-go-round. Has anyone? And yet . . .

I kind of ended up feeling like this verse was good enough. It certainly was an improvement over failed attempts to describe the moon, the imagery turned out sort of playful. Part of me sneered at the simplicity of the lyrics and the overused phrases, but on the other hand, with the chords and the rhythm, it was shaping up to be a poppy love song, so they were at least not a disservice to something musically complex. (Not that I've ever written anything musically complex.)

Speaking of music, I'm pretty sure that the chords over the last line of the verse are wrong, wrongitty, wrong, wrong, wrong and I will cop to the fact that I said to myself, "The class/Kernel will help me figure out what they should be." Oops.

As is traditional, I struggled with the rest of the chorus, even though the first 2 lines pretty much dropped in my lap. With verse 1 and the first 2 lines of the chorus, I had knocked off all of my words except for "yours." That wound up in line 3 of the chorus:

[D] Please can't you [E] see me [F#m] upside down
Can't you [C#m] kiss how it is [E] goodbye
[D] All this could be [A] yours if you'd [E] just look [F#m] now
You could [D] see me like I [E] see you, [A] upside down

I go back and forth on how I feel about that third line. On the one hand, if feels like it should be "could be ours," and I was hammering "yours" in there out of Catholic Schoolism. On the other, I like that it evokes cheesy commercials that—like optical illusions—promise things that they can't deliver. The second half of that line is purely a place holder for the rhyme. Initially, I had it as "but don't look now"; however, though my inner critic was willing (to some extent) to let me off the hook on the nonsense in the first two lines, it was tapping its foot impatiently over that. I ended up with "if you'd just look now." Meh. Again, I would have benefitted from feedback.

The text that is struck out indicates that I had originally intended to resolve the chorus by repeating "upside down." When playing around with the music, though, the hook ended up resolving to an A chord, so I decided to just end on "see you" and then the hook. Not sure how I feel about that.

In a song chock full of my ambivalence, I am ambivalentiest about the second verse. In my copy of the lead sheet, it says "[Hateful. So, very hateful.]" next to "Verse 2." I really do hate the contents for many of the same reason that I have issues with verse 1. On the other hand, I rather like how the lines play out rhythmically, even if the words are sucky and predictable:

It's an illusion, so you say
Try to explain it all away
Bend over backwards, break the spell
But we both already fell
It might well be a fantasy
But you might like what you see
Like I see you and me and us and I swear it's meant to be

Something I'm not ambivalent about? The bridge. The hate for the bridge flows through me. On an earlier recording, you can here me snort derisively on the vocals track when the bridge comes around. Anyway, here are the chords:

B E G#m C#m

I just remembered that the instructions required us to repeat the chorus twice after the bridge, then end on the hook. Um . . . I ended on the hook?

Overall, I am not in love with this song, to be sure, but it's always a good exercise to write something more up tempo so that not everything is a fingerpicked, modal dirge. Likewise, lightening up on the lyrics gets me out of my usual rut.

I'm forcing myself to link to the recording, which is worse than usual. I did go over and over and over the parts of the melody that you'll hear me miss badly. I'm unsure that I should be playing a D on the penultimate line of the verse where I go up high, but the real problem is likely that I'm just shying away from that as the highest part, even though it's technically in my "range." I also am flailing trying to get to the melody over the last line because I'm unsure of those chords and I'm floundering in the wake of the previous line's pitch panic.

The guitar sucks, too, as always, but I did pull out my lovely, neglected semi–hollow body, which badly needs new strings and possibly some adjustment to the action. I think I applied the pop vocals filter to my vocals? Can't remember now, but it does not do enough to make up for my lousy pitch.

Here you go.

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