SAC 2016 4X4 Challenge update

I am delighted to announce that one of my songs for the SAC 2016 songwriting challenge made the special mention list.

The challenge was coordinated through a closed Facebook group with 82 members, many of whom submitted songs for consideration each week.  Moderators listened and commented on all of the submissions, while the challenger was asked to picked a few of the songs for special mention.

The goal for Week 2 was issued by Northern Pikes member Bryan Potvin who challenged us to write a song that tells a story.  My song “Can’t Take it Back” was one of three chosen by Bryan, who wrote

Selkirk Range’s “Can’t Take It Back” is killer country music. Country has always been a genre that relies on ‘the story’.  This tune totally delivers, complete with a gorgeous melody and heartfelt performance.

Thank you for this Bryan.  It means a lot to get positive feedback on something that has consumed much time and energy (not to mention patience) to create.  And a special thank you to Rosanne Baker Thornley and North Easton for the tremendous–and I mean tremendous–effort they both put into the Challenge as moderators and mentors.

The song was written too late for the upcoming release, but maybe this is the motivation I need to consider doing a follow up single for next year.

 

Advertisements

SAC 2016 SONGWRITING CHALLENGE WEEK 4

I’m late submitting this week but I met the challenge.  This week we were asked by Toronto-based singer-songwriter Emma-Lee to “tie two tunes together” by marrying parts from different unfinished songs into a new composition.

This was a hard challenge in part because I have many unfinished ideas but trying to bring them together in a new arrangement is surprisingly difficult.  Different rhythms, different keys, different moods, etc.  After sifting through my iPhone scratch recordings for some time, I finally decided to merge a melody from one fragment of an idea with a guitar riff from another.

The chorus was part of the guitar riff idea and the melody came from a very different song idea so I essentially had to write the lyrics from scratch.  The chorus is suggestive of a theme but I had to work out an angle on it.  In this case the lyrics aren’t too specific but lend themselves to a relationship-type song.  I decided I also wanted to keep it simple and short, so I opted for two verses with a short bridge, bringing the whole thing in under 3 minutes.

It’s a bit more pop than what I’ve been writing lately and the production is more than I would usually do for this kind of demo but I had fun with it, and that’s what matters

We’ve Both Been There

I know that love can be confusing-
when it undermines those plans you made
But I also know it bears repeating-
you’ve got two choices when you’re scared

We’ve both been there
We’ve both been there

I know frustration likes to hang around-
ticking like a time bomb that you wear
Before it blows you need to recognize-
there are others out there who still care

We’ve both been there
We’ve both been there

And I won’t tell you no lies-
cause I can see in those eyes
we’ve both been there

We’ve both been there

Words and music by Gordon Gow, Copyright 2016
Featured Image by Holly Jay flic.kr/p/sjJRJA

 

SAC 2016 SONGWRITING CHALLENGE WEEK 3

This week’s challenge from Michael Perlmutter from Instinct Entertainment was to do a co-write with another participant.  The subject of the song was to be about “relationships” and the process was intended to allow us to be able to share our own experience “with a co-writer may help to craft the story and share the feeling in a more profound way.”

Collaboration presents many challenges unto itself; not the least of which is finding a time  and place to do it.  Online connections are good but face to face is probably better for me, and unfortunately that wasn’t going to happen this week because of other commitments.  However, I did manage to contact two Edmonton-based writers, BoneDog Dixon and Shauna Specht, both of whom I met through the SAC Edmonton Regional Writers Group.

My approach going into the challenge was to lend what I feel are my strengths in lyric writing to the collaboration.  Given the time constraints I also felt it better to draw on some material that was already somewhat developed rather than trying to create from scratch.

I write lyrics in tandem with music, using it as a kind of scaffolding for the process.  The scaffolding can then be pulled back to reveal a lyric.  That was the case with both of these songs.

I offered to send BoneDog a lyric with the title “That Love Ain’t True”, which is about the kind of relationships that really aren’t honest or healthy.   I felt that it fit with his blues-influenced approach to songwriting.  Originally it was written with a series of short verses followed by a refrain.  BoneDog suggested I expand the verses and he added some additional elements to the lyric.  His musical approach is really interesting, and very different from what I would have imagined for the song.  I like it, and think that if we were to continue working on it that I’d want to do an overhaul of the verses to give it a stronger coherence internally and possibly inject some dark humour into it.

I offered Shauna a lyric with the title “Save it for the Brokenhearted”, which is about a long term relationship that has come to an end;  however, it’s not a sad ending but rather two lovers who have reconciled with themselves about it and realize it’s time to move on.   Shauna was drawn to the theme but decided to take it in quite a different direction than the original lyric.  She retained some of the thematic elements and a few lines but it is also a completely different song after the co-write.  I’m impressed with what she’s done with it in such a short time span and now have a greater sense of how an idea in a co-write can develop in unexpected directions.  If we had more time to work on it together I’d probably press for a different chorus as part of the co-writing process.  Nonetheless, my compliments to her for this song, which is now called “The Book of You and Me

Overall, it was a great experience this week and it’s encouraged me to start thinking more seriously about the possibilities of doing more co-write experiments.

 

 

SAC 2016 Songwriting Challenge Week 1

The Songwriters Association of Canada (SAC) runs an annual songwriting challenge for its members.  I did it last year and found the experience difficult but very rewarding.  One of my posts from 2015 is here.

The challenge this year is to write four songs in four weeks under the direction of a set of mentor/challengers.  Each week presents a different type of challenge.

SAC members who participate in the challenge are asked to record their result each week and post it online with some commentary.

So here we go …


The Challenge

The challenger is Toronto-based producer and songwriter Murray Daigle, who posted this for us:

Write a song using no more than 2 chords — OR —  Write a song that has a single repeating riff (1-bar in length)

This challenge is designed to make writers focus on fundamental “hooks” to create a great song. Also to underline the “catchiness” of the melody, vocal rhythm and lyric will be very important. This limitation takes away the writer’s ability to simply use a chord pattern change and define the musical space. You will actually have to write verses, choruses and bridges that define themselves and “speak” as they should in the context of the song.

Murray also provided a list of examples for us to consider, including some classics such as “Eleanor Rigby” (Beatles), “Born in the USA” (Springsteen), “When Love Comes to Town” (U2).


The Process

I went with the 2-chord challenge, although I had considered using my looper to try out something with a repeating riff.

Keeping to 2-chords is hard because there is such a strong desire to add a third chord for resolution and/or harmonic progression against the melody.  However, the challenge really forced me to pay close attention to melodic and rhythmic elements of the composition.

I listened to some of the examples provided by Murray and adapted a technique from “Eleanor Rigby” that I used to give a sense of movement in the song.  Here you can see how the Beatles simply reverse the order of the chords to differentiate between verse and chorus:

Rigby chords

Heartwoodguitar.com

I began with several different ideas, playing around with a Travis-picked D/Am progression but dropped it in favour of something a bit more bouncy that moves between the I and the IV (‘C#’ and ‘F#’).  This gave me a bit more to play with in terms of the interaction between the melody, lyrics, chord changes.

For the pre-chorus I make a slight change by holding on the IV for an extra bar before returning to the riff.    It isn’t quite the same as reversing the order but it does briefly shift the emphasis to the IV and breaks up the pattern.

I also drew on my Pat Pattison theory of songwriting and made subtle changes to the way the lyrics are set between the verses and choruses, “leaning forward” in the chorus to give it a bit more emphasis and remain consonant with the thematic shift in the song.

When I arrived at the end of the second chorus it felt like the song needed a bridge of some kind, so I changed up the rhythm and used a lower and more open voicing of the IV chord:

F chord

Capo 1

The lyrics, as often is the case for me, started out largely as muttered gibberish but slowly evolved into a reasonably unified theme.  I find the process of just singing nonsense, recording it as a series of takes, and then listening back to it generates lots of interesting and unexpected ideas.  Often the gibberish singing produces longer, more rhythmic lyrics than I might otherwise come up with.  Revising it all and giving the song a coherent meaning can be difficult but it usually comes together after a couple days.

FullSizeRender

Lyric worksheet for “Shine On Young Heart”


The Result

Shine On Young Heart

She picks me up in the morning light-
She knows what she’s doing
But for the dust on the heels of my cowboy boots-
I came home with nothing

She dreams of a season scented-
With suntans and Fridays
Sayin’ life is like a long ride in a limousine-
Just lean back and enjoy

She knows just the thing to say-
She puts my mind at ease that way-
It’s a brand new day-
We’ll watch the children play-
You know the sun is here to stay-
Shine on young heart

When I turn back, lose track keeping time-
Choking with fear
She’s there with that halo in her hair-
And whispers for my tears

She knows just the thing to say-
She puts my mind at ease that way-
It’s a brand new day-
We’ll watch the children play-
You know the sun is here to stay-
Shine on young heart

I know you love me

She knows just the thing to say-
She puts my mind at ease that way-
It’s a brand new day-
We’ll watch the children play-
You know the sun is here to stay-
Shine on young heart

(Copyright 2016 Gordon Gow)

 

Song Forms Part 1: Verse/Chorus

Modernist designers introduced the notion that form follows function to suggest that the intended purpose or function of any object should dictate its shape or appearance.

For songwriters, this is an important idea because it draws attention to the musical form that we use to provide a structure for our compositions.  If we assume that the hook is the heart of a song (it doesn’t seem right to call it the ‘function’) then the form should follow in such a way that best supports that hook.

There are always exceptions to the rule, but Sheila Davis in The Songwriters Idea Book offers a helpful overview of the three major song forms that have tended to dominate in the field.  This is changing with genres like rap and EDM but let’s ignore that for now.
music in the late afternoon sun

The three major forms are the verse/chorus, the AABA, and the AAA.  Each has several variations, but basic idea is that these forms support different kinds of hooks.  Let’s focus on the verse/chorus form for now and I’ll discuss the others in future posts.

The verse/chorus form is very common and well suited to songs that have a strong hook that can stand on its own with a lyric and melody that bears repeating.  The verses support the hook by using a variety of approaches including plots based on time, place, point of view, etc.  The sections are usually very distinctive, with most listeners able to easily identify the difference between a verse and a chorus.  Very often the title of the song is the first line of the chorus in this form.

A good contemporary example of this form is found in “Beautiful Day” by Charlie Robison.  The song includes a lengthy 16-bar instrumental break after the second chorus before continuing to a third verse/chorus.  (Amazingly, however, the song still comes in under 3 minutes, ensuring it is radio friendly.)

A common variation of the verse/chorus form is to include a bridge after the second chorus that provides musical contrast to both the verses and the chorus.  The song form looks like this:  Verse/Chorus/Verse/Chorus/Bridge/Chorus.  Sometimes there is a short instrumental break after the second chorus and before the bridge.

A good classic example of this form is Bryan Adam’s “Cuts Like a Knife“.  The 8-bar bridge is placed after the guitar solo and with the lyric starting “Another night/another lesson learned”.  The chorus then follows and ends the song.

A second common variation is the verse/climb/chorus, which adds a pre-chorus or ‘climb’ in between the verse and the chorus.  This form is used to build up energy for the release of the hook, or sometimes to provide an important lyric line that helps to set up the chorus.

A good contemporary example of this form is JP Hoe’s “Save You“.  The climb after the first verse begins with the lyric “so tell me where did it go wrong..” with the chorus starting on the line “You tried to own the sun …”.  The climb in this case is essential to a plot twist in the lyric (listen for it).  It’s interesting to note that the title is buried in the chorus, but in my opinion the musical hook is so strong that it doesn’t matter all that much.  It’s also worth mentioning that the song has a bridge-type section based on the both the music and lyrics of the climb section.

Form follows function, and for songs with strong, repeatable standalone hooks, the verse/chorus structure is both effective and often anticipated by listeners.  In the next part I’ll talk about the slightly more elusive AABA form.

 

https://www.flickr.com/photos/39747297@N05/5230479916/in/photolist-8Yczsd-cbcCk3-7jNmHv-dipm3P-5FefTX-sKjX3-5Fixk1-bBUjs2-bCwEoZ-4qLmk2-ccHti1-bUswQr-2Nati-eALvw3-5bjaoE-dULRxt-boZz85-daMjCh-5FivxU-nfWQif-bEU9xB-evy1D8-78WDg-3f6kZz-bQ7zsp-5FefXP-ddus1V-dwHLRn-5FiwF3-3Ao8mS-9NCMZT-5EYCfm-cpXBxm-e48NRC-8h9176-bBUupB-jvie5t-jjWWL7-2BS8QV-2pvf6Z-4ZHLs3-5WnYcr-422k5w-63dWbv-fbyEfd-oJsYJa-bxN9YA-fSNt1b-dURTpS-3AEivQ

Preproduction session 2

Everett and I are continuing to run songs and explore ideas for the upcoming record.  Here we are in his home studio working on parts for “You, Me, and the Almighty.”  At this point, most of our effort is focussed largely on playing the songs together, listening to them in a raw form, and then talking about structure and arrangements.

For this song, we’ll likely keep things relatively simple with guitars and possibly a slide steel.  I’m keen to try out some unusual sonic elements to give the song a darker quality, and Bry Webb’s album Freewill is something we’re listening to for ideas.

Photograph by Renee LaRoi Design.

IMG_5583 (1)

Working the Body Language of a Song (Part 3)

This is the third in a series of postings about the body language of a song.  I first heard that term from songwriting consultant Pat Pattison, who uses it in reference to lyric setting.  In my previous post I described Pattison’s concepts of front and back heavy lines in relation to creating stability or instability in a song.

A key lesson in all this is to ensure that the lyrics are set against the music in a way that delivers maximum intended impact.  As Pattison correctly observes, what we say is often less important than how we way it.  Setting a lyric to music is about how we deliver the words.

I’ve started to use a worksheet method to help me analyze my own writing and, hopefully, to improve the setting of my lyrics by paying attention to front and back heavy emphasis.

IMG_0348 IMG_0346 

The worksheets use a single stave drum clef divided into 2 measure per row, each with slashes representing each downbeat in the bar.  When working with my DAW, I also note the measure number of the lines to help me locate it on the recording.   After I’ve recorded a performance of the song I go back and analyze it, transcribing the lyrics using the worksheet.

In the example above, the version on the left is the lyric as originally set in the demo recording.  I wasn’t happy with it and felt that it wasn’t well set with the music.  When I transcribed it using the worksheet I realized that the phrasing was predominantly back heavy (in the margin I wrote ‘f’ and ‘b’ to mark front and back heavy).

The song lyric is about letting something good slip through your hands and the importance of taking advantage of opportunities when they present themselves. The verse begins with words that paint a picture of thrill and excitement so it lends itself to front heavy emphasis because the first part of the verse is really a series of assertive, stable statements.

However, the mood becomes unstable in the last two lines as the opportunity slips away.  So, for the last two lines I opted for back-heavy to contrast with the front-heavy lines and to help better convey that sense of instability that is inherent in the words.

The worksheet on the right shows the lyrics after I made some changes to the way the lines are set.  You will notice that all the lines are now set front-heavy except the last four measures of the verse, which adds contrast and instability leading into the chorus.

Incidentally, these changes also required me to rewrite some of the lyrics (the revisions never end!) but that actually helped me to improve some weak spots that had been nagging at me.  (However, you will note also the pink Post-it Note identifying what I think is still a weak line that needs more work).

The worksheet is one technique but the main point is to think about the body language of the song and to use front and back heavy setting as a method to better align the ‘what’ you sing with the ‘how’ you sing it.

Working the Body Language of a Song (Part 2)

My last post introduced Pat Pattison’s songwriting theory of stability/instability and I compared it to consonance/dissonance in music composition.  Good writing, I suggested, is when we intentionally design both stable and unstable elements into a song to convey an intended emotion to our listeners.

Pat Pattison’s songwriting method offers an interesting way to apply the concept of stability/instability when we set words to music.  He refers to this as the ‘body language’ of a song and, rightly, points out that most of our communication is non-verbal in nature.  In other words, how we say or sing something is probably more important than the actual words we are saying or singing.

Pattison uses the terms ‘front heavy’ and ‘back heavy’ when he talks about stability/instability with the setting of lyrics to music with this fundamental distinction:

  • Front heavy phrasing is stable
  • Back heavy phrasing is unstable

So what does he mean?  Front heavy phrasing emphasizes key words on strong beats.  In 4/4 time, that means the first and third beats of a measure.  Back heavy phrasing places key words on weak beats.  In 4/4 time, that means the second and fourth beats.  In practice when we sing, the placement might not be exactly on a beat but the idea here is a rough guideline.

Front heavy phrasing is called for when we want to convey a sense of being assertive, confident, factual.  Back heavy phrasing is called for when we want to convey a sense of uncertainty, loss, trepidation.  Used in combination, the two techniques can be subtle but powerful when aligning the body language of you song with with the content of the lyric.  Pattison’s demonstration of it in action (see link above) is quite revealing.

I’ve applied it to my own writing and I am becoming convinced that there is definitely something to this approach that improves my songs.  Not only that but it gives me a helpful tool for analyzing my lyric setting especially when something just doesn’t sound right to my ears.  By examining the placement of my lyrics in relation to front/back heavy emphasis, I find I can make more informed decisions when I want to make changes to the song.

In the next post I’ll share a worksheet technique that I’ve developed for analyzing the body language of my songs.

Working the Body Language of a Song (Part 1)

Pat Pattison is a professor at the Berklee College of Music and a widely respected songwriting coach and mentor.  I’ve written about his approach to songwriting before and find it a helpful way to approach the process most especially during the revising and polishing stage of writing.

If I were to identify two key ideas that inform his approach to writing better songs they would be these:

  1. prosody
  2. stability/instability

I’ll talk more about Pattison’s notion of prosody in a future post but for now I want to focus on his second idea of stability/instability.  The idea is closely related to the notion or consonance/dissonance in music (or tension/release in other forms of writing).  Depending on the intended emotional effect of a piece of music, as writers we want to be aware at all times whether the idea or expression has the quality of assertiveness (stable) or uncertainty (unstable). 

More importantly, we want to be able to use techniques that help our writing to convey these qualities in effective combinations.  In other words, we want to design both stable and unstable elements into our songwriting.

The simple I-IV-V formula for blues progressions is an example of these two elements in a time-honored combination.  It begins with the tonic (I) chord, moves to the subdominant (IV) chord creating a sense of movement (slightly unstable), then back to the dominant (stable), then to the subdominant briefly before heading to the dominant (V) chord (unstable).  With the dominant (V) chord, instability/tension is at its maximum and it resolves satisfyingly back to the stable tonic (I) chord.  It’s like a journey that takes us away and brings us back home.

Many songwriters already understand this aspect of music composition but some like me hadn’t thought about applying it when we set words to music.  And that’s where Pat Pattison’s notion of ‘body language’ in lyrical phrasing comes into play.

More about that in the next posting.

More on simplicity and songwriting

The Glenn Morrison/Islove song “Goodbye” is a current example of success through simplicity.  It contains a strong melodic hook with a compelling visual image as the centrepiece: “…and it starts to snow in the streets of Mexico.”

It’s one of those lines that I can imagine a songwriter just blurting out as they play through the chord progression and then realizing they are on to something interesting.  The winning element here is that Morrison didn’t bury that line in complexity but chose to showcase it with a catchy and infinitely repeatable melody.

The song itself is a common chord progression (Am/F/G/Am) with only the addition of the C (Am/F/C/G) to create contrast between the opening verse and the lead up into the chorus.

From a production standpoint, however, there is quite a bit going in this song.  I suppose that’s the caveat to Gary Ewer’s comments about simplicity and success.  Dressing a song up for contemporary hit radio is perhaps the producer’s art form.  The right tempo, the right drum track, the sound textures (including Morrison’s use of a sample from “Every Breath You Take”), the perfect vocal performance, etc.

Simplicity is one thing.  Making the most of the song for the intended audience, especially contemporary hit radio, can be a very complicated and delicate undertaking indeed.