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Friday, May 27, 2011

Songwriter's Navel: Week 17, Which Cribs from JoCo and JoWhe


So I had 48 hours to turn around the assignment following the "sincere love song.". For this one, the main criterion was a "one-line chorus" (e.g., "Keep On Rockin' Me, Baby," "Band On the Run," etc.). I say "main criterion," because as it turned out, I was not supposed to use the I chord until I got to the chorus (if I were following the Tuesday class's rubric) OR I was supposed to employ root motion in fourths (if I were following the Sunday class's rubric): I didn't know about the Tuesday criterion, and I plain old forgot about the Sunday criterion. Also, I cheated slightly on the chorus.

I started on this one by going through my songwriting notebook from the beginning (this one is very nearly spent) and pulling out lines and concepts that I liked but that hadn't made it into songs yet. I was about to say that none of those made it into the song, but I see that at least a couple have close cousins in what I eventually wrote. But the real jumping off point was the song that I had started on and abandoned a few weeks ago. (Ha, in dredging up that link I see that I felt that I abandoned it because "it's TRYING to be a sardonic, tongue-in-cheek song, and it was just getting more and more labored at every turn"—I kind of didn't solve that problem before writing this song.)

The line for my chorus became "It's all about you," and I'm not exactly sure why. I mean, certainly everyone has someone in their lives who constantly sucks the air and will to live from everyone. Behold! One of my very very very very favorite Jonathan Coulton songs that he did NOT play on JoCo Cruise Crazy: "Someone Is Crazy" (Come on: "Is Bitter there?/I'd rather talk to her than Disappointed/Though she's not quite as fun as Good and Mad" is a fucking. brilliant. opening lyric.) But there was no one incident or person at that time prompting this song, so who knows?

I did actually write the chorus first, which was bad news for me, because the chorus looked me in the eye and said, "Yeah, that's right, it's another song FILLED with barre chords, bitch."


And it’s [D] all a- [C#m] bout you
It’s [A] all [D] a- [D] bout [E] you
Yes, it’s [D] all a- [C#m] bout you
It is [A] all, it is all [C#m], it is [D] all
About you [A]

So, little box of barre chords down there at the 5th fret, we meet again.

The first two lines of verse 1 were exactly what I wrote a few weeks ago. The second two lines are a tortured attempt to get my original idea of "You're nothing but a heart, and everywhere you look is a sleeve." Oh, ouch! Awkward even when I try to translate for my inside-my-head voice. Not improved by being made into a lyric:

[A] You are made of [A] buttons, I am
[E] Nothing but a [D] fingertip, it seems [A]
You’re [A] all made up of [A] aching heart and
[E] Every time you [D] look at me you
[Bm] See nothing [D] more than a [E] sleeve

The phrasing ends up giving that extra bonus image of your friendly neighborhood narcissist actually using you as a Kleenex. So there's that. Ew.

In an earlier draft of verse 2, I actually had on paper for a while the line "tragedy of being you" and genuinely did not realize that it was a direct rip off from "Someone's Crazy." It just goes to show you that no matter how paranoid a songwriter is about inadvertently plagiarizing, it's not paranoid enough. On that note, "must be Tuesday," in verse 3 is ripped off directly from Joss Whedon. I did not recall until this very moment that it is actually ripped off from the musical episode "Once More, With Feeling." Too bad, Whedon! It's not a lyric, you can spare it, so you can suck it! The rest of verse three was pretty much lifted from the abandoned song from a few weeks ago.

Now you’re [A] up in arms, we’re [A] up in smoke
[E] Up in flames [D] again, it must be Tuesday [A]
It’s the [A] matter-of-fact [A] tragedy of
[E] Histrionic [D] games you like to
[Bm] Play, but I’m [D] pushing back [D] from the [E] table

Raise your hand if you're not tired of the awkward chunka-chunka in A major to disguise my terrible guitar playing. No hands? I thought so. Here, have a bridge that is also lousy with barre chords. E didn't know what a klaxon was. The class was confused by "It's all bat signals with you." My gift for unintentional obfuscation is legend.

It’s all [F#m] bat signals [F#m] klaxons with [D] you
It’s all [C#m] guns blazing, [C#m] shoot first [D] and I’m through

And then verse 3 into the final, slightly altered chorus (will the cheating NEVER END?):

I might [A] miss the bells and [A] whistles, but
[E] Not the Chicken [D] Little midnight [A] scenes
When you [A] hear that busy [A] signal buzz
[E] Humming down the [D] line will you
[Bm] Get the picture [D] then, will you [E] see?

It’s not [D] all a- [C#m] bout you
It is [A] not [D] all [D] about [E] you
It’s not [D] all a- [C#m] bout you
It is [A] not, it is not [C#m], it is [D] not
All about you [A]

The Kernel suggested that I go with "It's NOT all about you" for all of the choruses; having recorded it, I suspect he's probably right. Speaking of the recording, it's got ridiculous Garage Band filtering on both guitar and vocals. Haven't had a good day and I was not up for beating my head against it any longer, so heavy, inappropriate processing!

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Thursday, May 26, 2011

Songwriter's Navel: Week 16, Which Is Shockingly Late


Cat died. House guests. Sloth. What can I say?

I did not make my scheduled Tuesday night class on May 3, which was the second week of the new session (and the first due date for an assignment), but I did a make-up the following Sunday. Missing class honestly had nothing to do with the assignment, although it was a daunting one: The dreaded Sincere Love Song.

In acting, it may be that tragedy is easy and comedy is hard, but in songwriting the opposite is true: It's much, much easier to write a heartbreak song, an angry "piss off" song, or what have you, to write sincerely about something you love. Is it because we are convinced that creative people are creative because they have suffered/do suffer in a way or to an extent that noncreative people don't? (Well, that begs the question of there BEING noncreative people, but let's skip that for the moment.) That's certainly a story we hear and tell over and over again, right? But there's also the fact that it's uncool to like anything anymore. As Hodgman says: Internet = most efficient pure disgruntlement engine in history."

This isn't the first time we've had this assignment. The last time it came up, I violated the spirit of the assignment by writing a song called "Never Get to Nashville" about how the ZK is terrible for writing songs about. Which, of course, brings up the trope about creativity emanating solely from pain and drama. But, hey, it's not like I'm the first person to go to that well.

Anyway, I ended up writing my second song for/about the ZK for this assignment. Time decay is my enemy, and it looks like I took an uncharacteristically small number of notes by hand for this one. The notes I did take were from a completely different angle that was fond and sincere, but not without sarcasm, which is my preferred crutch both in songwriting and out of it. Funnily enough, though, looking at the handwritten notes, I see:

Silent, with you
I am still
I am with you

I hadn't remembered until now that I had been playing with the idea of being "still with you" (i.e., "I remain with you") and "still, with you" (i.e., "I am motionless, I am with you"), but that was certainly an important initial spark for the song. I was thinking of being utterly comfortable when I'm with the ZK in general, but also thinking about the utter quiet at our friend M's country house in the Catskills, where we used to have these big, fun house parties every other summer. I had actually tried to write about the Catskills house a while ago, right after her family sold the house (and it was featured on the incredibly odious American Pickers). I'm pretty sure I burned it down in that song.

I also had notes about sleep, which is not surprising, because I really like sleep and I'm really, really bad at it, especially lately. I had "fold the day away," "sheets fall like silence upon my skin from your fingertips" ('Cause, like, dude, someone fixing the covers while you'er already in bed? Awesome.)

I think I must have written those notes well before I tried to write the song. In fact, I think I might have written them while sitting in a coffee shop waiting to head over to my songwriting codependent's place to get in a last practice before we played on May 2. When I came back to it with a more or less blank page almost a week later, the sheets/fingertips image seemed like it was going to be the end of a thought, not the beginning, and it became connected with the idea of gestures like that creating comfort/stillness/silence, regardless of place. From there, it seemed clearly that the song was more about the road trip to the Catskills, and the refrain became "It feels like home." Not the most original sentiment, but one that's the heart of many songs that I love and think are wonderful, like Ellis Paul's beautiful "Home". I swear to you, I of course realized that my song had a lot in common with his, but had not at all—until this very moment—thought about the fact that he, too, fictionally torches a beloved place in it.

The first verse and refrain behaved well for the most part. The first two lines came easily, although the second is a bit wordy to cram in. I decided to go with the four-finger "Big G" shape and a Cadd9, rather than a regular C because I'd been playing around with hammer-ons. I'm really terrible at them unless I'm using this cheater position and letting my index finger do the work. From there, the whole song musically centered itself around strings 1 and 2 fretted at 3 throughout.

The [G] sun paints its shadows on the [Cadd9] backs of your hands
I’m keeping [Dsus4] time with my bare feet on the [Cadd9] dashboard
With the [G] windows open wide we drink the [Cadd9] breeze in while we can
On the [Dsus4] far side of Ohio stumbling [Cadd9] through this one-night door [G]

And it feels like [Cadd9] home,
When the [Dsus4] sheets leave your [Cadd9] fingers
And [Em] settle on my [G] skin
It feels like [Cadd9] home

To get to the Catskills from Chicago, one drives through Indiana, then Ohio, and then the parts of Pennsylvania that are affectionately known as the Alabama in between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. The first time we drove out together, the ZK had spent very little time anywhere East of the Mississippi other than Chicago. It rained all the way through Pennsylvania. The second time we drove out, the ZK decided to drive through the night. It rained all the way through Pennsylvania. It was raining in Pennsylvania when, on a dark, winding mountain road, I learned that the ZK had this on his iPod. In fact, until we went to State College for our friends' wedding in 2007, I'm pretty sure the ZK was convinced that it was never not raining in Pennsylvania.

I vacillate wildly between liking and hating this verse. I was not and still am not happy with the triteness of the "feels like home" refrain, so I decided not to have it repeat exactly each time, but rather to use an image evoking the "home away from home" sensation. I do think my very sincere love of the fact that the ZK will sing along with me gets me some points for the assignment.

Verse 2:

Now there’s [G] rain in Pennsylvania, there is [Cadd9] always rain
Like we’re [Dsus4] winding through the Allegheny [Cadd9] sorrow
The [G] sun is just memory, hard to [Cadd9] tell the night from day
Where the [Dsus4] blacktop flickers gold on the [Cadd9] road to tomorrow [G]

And it feels like [Cadd9] home,
When I [Dsus4] sing out in the [Cadd9] darkness
And [Em] your voice joins [G] in
It feels like [Cadd9] home

With a refrain song, particularly one that's as musically repetitive as this one, a bridge is kind of a must. Surely I've talked about my hatred for bridges before? I am so. very. terrible. at them. Here, I am especially terrible. I steal from Shakespeare (and for someone who claims not to like R & J very much, I sure go to that well often enough) AND I'm cribbing from someone else's memories. We didn't attend the very first Catskills house party, because I was in Peru at the time. But Mand others have talked many times about the night they lay in the grass around the house and looked up at the stars.

[Dsus4] Lying in the grass, the face of [Cadd9] night so fine
[Dsus4] The world turns overhead, I feel your [Em] breath in [Dsus4] time with [Cadd9] mine

The third verse proved quite hard to write. I had several different concepts I wanted to cram in there, and I was having trouble figuring out what was happening, when really it was very obvious: The ZK was sleeping and I was not. Because this is what happens all the time, and honestly, my not sleeping is much, much worse when he's not around.

When your [G] head hits the pillow, you're [Cadd9] already fast asleep
While my [Dsus4] mind runs away [Cadd9] in the silence
I feel your [G] dreams rise and fall, rise and [Cadd9] fall beneath my cheek
I count [Dsus4] your heartbeats, I count the stars, I [Cadd9] count the moments I am at peace [G]

And it feels like [Cadd9] home,
In the [Dsus4] unfamiliar [Cadd9] stillness
When [Em] you are by my [G] side
It feels like [Cadd9] home
It feels like [Cadd9] home
It feels like [G] home

So there you have it.

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