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Friday, February 25, 2011

Songwriter's Navel: Week 07, I Write an Analytical Section for the GRE in Song Form

Is there no end to my tediousness? No, there is not.

So Tommi left us with fairly loose instructions for an assignment. We were to do some variation on a "List" song, beginning each line of the verse with the same phrase. (Some examples: The Flaming Lips "Do You Realize?", Leonard Cohen's "Everybody Knows") Other criteria were ending the verses with a refrain and trying to write up tempo. I can't remember if I mentioned that last week's song was also supposed to be "up tempo." Obviously mine was not.

I had a pretty serious time crunch again this week. We were up at my sister's to hang out with my other sister (visiting from the frontier) and my brother and my adorable new nephew, who just gets adorabler every second. Monday, my friend and songwriting codependent was playing the 'splosion. On top of all that, I had mountains of grading to do.

Nonetheless I got a bit of time on the train on the way home from school to think about lyrics, and then I carved out about an hour and a half before heading up to Silvie's to write a bit.

In a situation that's somewhat unusual for me, I was not having much luck with a phrase I wanted to repeat. However, on the train, I suddenly got obsessed with a concept: Words that are antonyms of two words that are unrelated to each other (e.g., Right Wrong Left; Hard Easy Soft; Now Then Later, and so on). I began thinking that this kind of word play might advance the song that had stalled on me last week.

Not so much. In fact, if anything, it kicked that poor song while it was down by stealing part of its chorus. I think by the time we had to leave for the 'splosion, I had the first verse and the first part of the (pilfered) chorus:

It was [A] light when we got here
Now it's [D] too dark to see [Bm] clearly
And it's [A] all too [D] heavy for [A] me
I was [A] right from the start
You went [D] wrong in the end, [Em] truly
And what's [Bm] left can't be [Em] mended [A] again


[G] Up in [A] smoke we go
We [D] go down [G] swinging

Something interesting—and by "interesting" I mean "annoying"—has occurred to me now that I am thinking more about the process of songwriting. When I set something down on paper thinking that it's just broad strokes to be refined later, I find when I do return to it that there are obvious structural things that I then feel married to. For example, I have this kind of ratcheted rhyme scheme "clearly" has an assonant connection to "here," and I'd been thinking of making the third line simply "it's far too heavy." When I tried to truncate the line, my ear kept insisting on "for me" because it hearkened back to "to see." Likewise, I kept trying to excise "mended" from the last line (because it sounds strange and dated), but the rhyme with "end" (and close rhyme with "again") kept asserting itself.

By some miracle, my private lesson room was unlocked when I got to OTSFM about an hour and a half before my lesson time. Despite having privacy and not having to worry about having my space usurped, I don't think I made any progress at all on the song before my lesson. From there, it was to the wings of the balcony to begin the truly desperate scramble time.

I think shortly after I started this phase, what turned out to be the rest of the chorus dropped in my lap. I swear at the time, I did not make the playground association of "see-saw" and "slide" with "swinging," but it seems like swinging must have suggested the rest, at least subconsciously. The chorus became:

[G] Up in [A] smoke we go
We [D] go down [G] swinging
[A] You saw a see-saw, I see a [Bm] slide

Where the Bm is quite obviously one of those "You have no idea what chord really goes there, DO YOU?" things.

Writing the second verse was painful. I got down what I thought would be the first half of that verse and had an obsessive-compulsive, rule-following crisis. Personally, I blame Catholicism.

Here's what happened. I was trying to employ the "Old New Young" triad and having a bitch of a time. The conceptual pattern that had asserted itself in the first verse was: Linking Word, First Antonym, Second Antonym (which has nothing to do with First Antonym)—light, dark, heavy and right, wrong, left.

I actually had written something I sort of liked, but then suddenly realized that OH NOES! New and Young are actually sort of synonymous. I went so far as to obliterate what I had written and liked because of some psychotic attachment to a pattern that ONLY I KNEW ABOUT. And I worked and I worked and I wrote out how the patterns were supposed to go in my notebook, and I started to panic.

Very late in the game, "One, Many, Few" suggested itself. Out of desperation, I set down the beginning of Verse 2 with that in mind and resurrected the cruelly executed trio (in a form I like less, but the form that I did like is lost to the mists of songs written electronically). I probably finished this verse at 7:15 or so:

Many times you said you knew
That I was the one for you, truly
Guess you said the same to more than a few
I was young, you were foolish
Nothing new under the sun, truly
It's all old, blue, borrowed, and done

You might notice that I pilfered again, this time from my own first verse. I needed "truly" for the assonance in this verse. I did not feel like peppering the song with adverbs that would stick out like sore thumbs, so I decided to just repeat "clearly" in verse 1 and keep "truly" for this verse. I kind of like "old, blue, borrowed, and done" for no particular reason.

I kept recording versions of this on my phone so that I didn't lose the melody entirely. Those recordings sent up a red flag about length. With 2 verses and a short chorus, this was going to be another song under 2 minutes. I see a pattern emerging: I only write bridges if it's an explicit instruction or in a panic. (Oh, and once when that mean old Kernel made me write a bridge even though my song already had 3 verses. What's worse is that he was right.) This is probably not unrelated to the sucktastic nature of my bridges.

I had a couple of trios that I'd wanted to get into the song, so I just kind of threw hem down on the page with not-very-different chords. And then I promptly forgot the melody just in time for class:

This is [G] now, that was [A] then, and it's [D] later than you know
You have to [Bm] go, I cannot [Em] stay, this has to [A] stop

In class, Tommi suggested playing around with tempo. Initially he played it much slower, which sounded cool (because he was playing it); when I said I'd tried to force a faster tempo on it because it was a suggestion, he then played something faster and very cool. Naturally, I cannot replicate this. He also suggested playing around with suspended chords and minor 7ths a bit. K then said that she felt like the chorus left things hanging and that she'd like to hear it repeated each time, perhaps with slightly altered words.

In recording this, I did play around with making the progression more interesting and Lord knows I tried to play with rhythm, but the only change that ended up sticking was the doubling of the chorus. BUT I did make what is for me a giant advance. On this recording there are TWO—count em TWO—guitar parts. I originally wanted to record the main guitar part with FrankenGibson, but quickly realized that I'm just too much of a spazz. Thus, I recorded with my acoustic as usual, then added a little (A VERY LITTLE) ornamentation with Frank. Mostly just arpeggiating here and there, but it was good practice for me. Vocals. Blegh, as usual. I sound so choppy and off key.

But here you go.

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