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Thursday, March 10, 2011

Songwriter's Navel: Week 09, For Which I Have No Clever Title

I should remember to write before I record. If I do things the other way around I tend to be embittered about the song. I am certainly embittered about this one.

The source of my bitterness is thrown into sharp relief by quotations from my guitar/voice teacher and The Kernel:
E: "Wow, that's pretty. And that's . . . a lot of chord changes. Why would you do that to yourself?"
TK: "That's . . . some fancy guitar playin' you wrote there."

And as any fool knows "Fancy Guitar Playing" is not something that one associates with me. "Guitar Playing" is, in fact, not something that one associates with me.

But let me back up. Our assignment this week was part lyrical, part musical and/or lyrical. We had a 3-column table of words and for each verse, we were to include one word from each column in the lyrics. Musically and/or lyrically, we were supposed to work on contrast: Establishing a pattern, then subverting the listener's expectations by deviating from it.

I started in my usual disorganized fashion on Monday with no real sense of what I was going to do. I picked up the guitar and started playing around with a D chord and a descending bass line (we had also talked about inversions quite a bit last week and the various ways in which they are used). I had a very strong sense of a melody over this, and then the second line revealed itself to be an Fmaj7 walking itself back down to a D.

I guess at some point I must have gone to the notebook and started to think about lyrics. The first thing I have written down are a number of sentences or sentence-like lyrics constructed from the table's columns. These had little or nothing to do with the chords and melody that I'd been playing around with. In fact, only one of them eventually made it into the song, partly because it suggested a strange line that also ended up making it into the song.

I then abandoned this approach because it suddenly became obvious that the melody and the moving bass lines I'd established called for short lines. I picked the guitar back up and the first 3 lines of the verse just kind of fell right into place:

You are certain [D, with a descending bass line]
[Fmaj7] It is [Am7] written [D]
In the [Bm7] hard [Bm7/A] right [B7/D#] angles of your jaw [Bm7 to Bm7/A to Bm7/D x 2]

You might ask where the HELL the chords under that third line came from. I wish I knew. I could hear them in my head from the first time I tried to play the line. It probably took me 10 minutes to figure out how to replicate what I was hearing: 1 spent picking it out on the guitar, 2 spent looking up what the hell one calls the chords. and the other 7 arguing with myself about the D#. It sounds SO weird. But the voices in my head insisted on it.

The next two lines marked a return to the notebook and a new variation on the descending bass line pattern (although I didn't realize that I WAS doing a variation on that first pattern until The Kernel pointed out to me that I had misnamed the chords over this part of the verse, and really what I was playing was just half of the descending bass line over the D):

I remember
Your hopeless fingers [These two are just the D pattern, then the Fmaj7 pattern]
Pressing white against the door [Here I'm just alternating between D/C and D/B]
Against the letters of my name [On "letters" I just go to the regular D]
Against the wall [Fmaj7 to Am7 to D twice starting on name]

After writing this verse, warning bells started to sound. Looking at the verse as a whole, it's pretty clear this is some kind of a break-up song (aren't they all?). But I wasn't sure what other ground I'd be covering or what their WAS to cover. Warning bells are still kind of sounding. This doesn't have a title, which reflects the lack of repetition, something I surprisingly didn't get dinged for in class. I don't know why it doesn't have much lyrical repetition—I guess maybe because the music is kind of buzzing around the same basic motifs?

I dithered a lot over verse 2 until I realized that it didn't start with "You," it started with "I." Even then, though, I kept having to discard opening lines like "I am finished," "I am ruined," "I have fallen."

I wrote "I am hollow," and it was almost right, but not quite. It wouldn't sing over the top of the verse, no matter what I did. After trying to force it for a while, I went back to the notebook and immediately wrote, "I am empty," which I fought for a while, even though I had a strong sense that it was right. I like the word hollow better and I was reluctant to let it go.

In working with empty and a "close rhyme" (really, my rhymes in this song are more "moderately far" rhymes, if that), I kept coming up with "surrounds me." I kept thinking that verb tense was wrong, and that was gnawing at me, but it was really that it was the wrong kind of verb. I wanted something active and something that conveyed the idea that the narrator might be emotionally done, but that didn't make him/her vulnerable. I dropped in "I draw around me" as a working concept, telling myself that it could work with drawing boundaries or something that protects, like armor or a mantle. As is typical, the placeholder got codified in the song.

For the long third line, I went to the word table and immediately hit on "dangerous," "smile," and "reach." Then I had a happy little moment, as I realized that "hollow" clearly fit in the second half of the verse AND I would be able to use a lyric I'd abandoned long ago in my moleskine (the concept, anyway) about footsteps sounding just as hollow, whether they were coming or going. Verse 2 became:

I am empty
I draw around me
Ev’ry dangerous smile that reached my eyes
You are hollow
You are an echo
You are one footstep in the hallway
Ringing fainter everyday
Inside my mind

I really don't know what that third line means, but for some reason, I rather like it.
In this verse, the Fmaj7 pattern doesn't repeat a second time. Instead, it goes to a G major chord and the melody rises with that chord, leading into the B section, which is pareve—neither a chorus, nor a bridge, just a B section.

"Inside my mind" was loosely suggested by something that approximately rhymes (or at least doesn't not rhyme ) with "eyes." That assonance and the word table gave me a nice short B section:

Can't [D7] find an honest word
Don't you [C7] tell me this won't hurt
A bit
[chromatic walk down back to D]

Folks in class did not like the hanging "a bit." I agree with them that it's weird in a formal sense. I also suspect that if I keep it there should be a chord change under it, rather than it just hanging on to the tail end of the C7. But my brain is being very stubborn about this music. I did try in recording to leave it off, to double it, to find another chord under it, and nothing would work.

By the time I needed to leave for our Lundi Gras dinner on Monday, I had the two verses and the B section squared away. On Tuesday, the third verse decided to be a delightful combination of easy and hard to write. I got the first 2 lines immediately, once I realized they started with "we." Way back when I was doing the sentence writing from the word table, I'd written "Skip the hopeless rain" in the notebook and rejected it as sux0rz. But something about "skip the" kept snagging on my brain, even though I was sure that the long third line was something about pretending. Why I thought that, I do not know, as "pretend" implies some kind of fondness, wistfulness, or what have you, and this was clearly shaping up to be a "Screw you, I'm going home" song.

SKIP, you idiot! Once I accepted skip as my lord and master, it was totally obvious that the line was "skip the long goodbye of the blind."

Third verse (musically the same as verse 2):

We are strangers
We are over
Can’t we skip the long goodbye of the blind
I am unbroken
I am in motion
I have gathered, I have salvaged
Every fragment that you claimed
And scattered wide

I had originally written "I am broken" to launch the second half of the verse, which has the same problems as "pretend." The narrator is clearly telling the other person that s/he is done, has moved on, has reassembled him/herself from component atoms.

Not entirely crazy about the cheap semi-repeat of the B section, but that's where this ends:

’m giving you my honest word
I’m telling you this doesn’t hurt
a bit

So this was definitely a weird song for me in that the the music really came first, almost entirely unaccompanied by lyrics, and at least until the second half of the second verse, the lyrics were driven by the demands of the music, helped along by the requirements of the assignment. Oh, I also didn't realize that it absolutely needed to be fingerpicked, not strummed, until right before my lesson on Tuesday.

Recording this was extremely difficult. E had given me 2 things that I must do so as to do justice to music itself: Emphasize the bass line, and as often as possible, let the high E string ring out (all the D stuff is really Dsus2) as often as possible as I was fingerpicking. She's certainly right, but my sloppy playing made this a real challenge. In fact, you can probably hear that I ended up recording in sections, rather than eventually achieving a continuous guitar track (or something resembling one). The vocals were also hard to record, as the timing is slightly odd.

Recording has "sixties texture" to smooth out some of my rotten guitar playing and "female rock vocals" applied, though helping out my pitch would be past the power of magic on this one:

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