SAC Challenge 2015

Okay, the SAC Challenge kicked off today with what looks like 110 or so songwriters on the Facebook site.  Six weeks of focussed writing.  It should be interesting. Matt Dusk has opened the challenge with a pitch request.  He’s a crooner by trade but wants to expand things for his new record.  He says he likes a lot groove based things and “to get the excitement of the band and the audience all together.” The stuff that really works for him includes Rock Mafia’s “The Big Bang“,  “Pumped up Kicks” by Foster the People, the cool groove of “Get Lucky” by Daft Punk.  OR, we can take it down tempo, like “All of Me” by John Legend or Lana Del Rey. Not only is that quite a wide range to work with, it could encompass quite different approaches to writing itself.  Jason Blume writes about some of these differences, noting that

In pop, urban, hip-hop, and dance music, a musical backing track is typically created first. This track (sometimes called the musical bed) consists of the accompaniment—the chord progressions and all instrumentation, such as the keyboard, bass, guitar, and percussion parts—but it does not include a melody or lyric for the vocalist to sing. The melody and lyric that is sung “on top” of the music track is referred to as the topline. … In many cases, the musical track is sent to a topliner who writes the melody and lyric long-distance. 

Contrast that with folk or roots music where, according to Blume,

… songs typically evolve organically as writers strum guitars or play keyboards while composing melodies and lyrics. In Nashville, the majority of successful songs are the result of collaborations, but unlike some other genres, cowriters are typically in the same room, with all writers contributing to both the melody and the lyric. 

Perhaps the medium is the method? In any case, I don’t think the next step in the process has been set out for us yet.  It’s just been Matt’s pitch request.   But perhaps writing method is one of the considerations as we go forward with the Challenge.  Try experimenting with both techniques and see what happens. I’m more of the organic type of songwriter but it would be interesting to try my hand as a topliner.

Actually, I’ve done it a couple times for fun, like this song “Bumpercars” I wrote for my young son a few years ago.  It’s a canned Garageband track but I added the topline to it.  Ha!  I never thought I’d rap a song, but hey I’ll do almost anything for my kid 🙂

Anyone have a music bed to share?  Want to try a collaboration?

Simplicity in design … or is it?

The La’s song “There she goes” is a good example of simplicity in songwriting across the four dimensions of lyric, melody, harmony, and rhythm.  However, what seems simple at first hearing can be surprisingly subtle and, on closer inspection, harbour a few surprises for the astute listener.

This version comes in at 2:47, performed on this recording at about 120bpm.

Released first in 1988 then again in 1990, the story is a boy wants girl theme set in a repeating pattern that uses a single rhyme scheme that flows from the first line, “there she goes again”.  Subsequent lines end with rhyming words “brain”, “contain,” “remains”, etc.

The harmony is the widely used G/D/C progression, followed by an Am/G/C with the minor chord giving it a bit of moodiness.

The first line of the melody is two half notes and whole note: “there/she/goes” singing on the 5th, 3rd, and 5th of the harmony chords.  So, he’s singing D/F#/G. Giving it a nice open feel.  Actually, the melodic line in this phrase is similar to “When the Saints Go Marching In” which might resonate subconsciously with some listeners.  I don’t know … maybe.

The second line changes the rhythm with a quarter notes “there/she/goes” with again picking up the last downbeat beat in the bar and carrying over into the next measure. The third lyric phrase is similar

Then it moves to the Am/G/C progression with the line “And I just can’t contain/this feeling that remains”, repeating it, then turning around on the D to start the cycle all over.

Altough it’s a simple design overall, the song structure is unusual because it isn’t based on the usual 4/8/16 bar sections, opting instead for odd numbered sections:

12+1 bar intro
11 bar verse
11 bar verse
11 bar instrumental (same as verse)
12 bar bridge
11 bar verse
7 bar outro

The unusual structure stems from a five line verse followed by a one measure turnaround.  The line phrasing is a typical 2 measures but the verse itself is five lines:

G       D    C
There she goes- (2 measures)

G              D        C
There she goes again
(2 measures)

G         D               C
Racing through my brain
(2 measures)

       Am    G     C
And I just can’t contain
(2 measures)

        Am     G    C
This feeling that remains
(2 measures)

turnaround on D (1 measure)

In terms of production, the song may sound relatively simple but it uses a number of devices to develop an arc and keep it fresh:

  • the guitar intro is a motif that is repeated throughout and reappears in the instrumental section and again in the the bridge section;
  • the vocal part is solo in the first verse but additional backup parts are added in subsequent verses;
  • the shift in the vocal styling from falsetto to full voice in the second half of the verse adds character and “body language” to the delivery;
  • the bridge is a simple but effective variation on the verse, with a slight dip in the dynamic at the beginning to add some mood.

The Wikipedia entry for the song provides some additional background and context for the song, including an interesting note that seems to suggest that it took the magic touch of producer Steve Lillywhite to transform the original recording into a hit record.  The song was covered by Sixpence None the Richer in a 1999 release.  How do they compare?  Listen for yourself.

Two Nights in Toledo

One aspect of songwriting that I enjoy the most is the element of surprise. There is a thrill that comes from not quite knowing where an idea might go as it develops from a song seed into a finished result. It’s a bit like a write-your-own-adventure story without the ability to skip to the ending!

One of my approaches to writing lyrics is to simply to play guitar and let words come out of my mouth. I record multiple takes and listen. It’s a bit like stream of consciousness writing because during these sessions I’ll just sing stuff. Much of it is nonsense but every now and then an interesting expression comes out and becomes the basis for a lyric.

Yet, and more often than not, I’ll sing or mumble something that makes me think of something totally unrelated. I now realize that this is less like stream of consciousness and more like one of those inkblot tests where the blob lifts an idea or image from out of the realms of the subconscious.

Songwriting, as many have noted, is only 20% inspiration. The 80% perspiration part comes from thinking and listening, trying and testing ideas over and over until something clicks. “Two Nights in Toledo” is one of those songs. It began as a passing thought while I was packing for a business trip to that city a couple months ago.  It seemed like an interesting sounding word combination so I wrote it down.

Then one evening I started singing the phrase while playing a guitar riff similar to “Sweet Home Alabama.”  Some mumbled lyrics during this take that I recorded yielded interesting results later on:

“Two nights in Toledo/could change a lucky man” later became “Two nights in Toledo/could make you a different man”.

The other phrases I sang didn’t actually say very much but they prompted some ideas based on the way they sounded and turned into “A good day in Las Vegas” and “Three Days in the Dakotas” and “Two weeks in Missoula”.

But what about two nights in Toledo? How could that make you a different man?

I had one idea–that travelling to small towns can lead to big changes.  Not bad, but it needed more to it.

So here’s the perspiration part, I guess.  I did research on Toledo (Ohio, not Spain) looking on Wikipedia for something interesting I could tie it to.  Here’s what I found aside from it being Maxwell Klinger’s home town in the series MASH and the namesake of the exclamation “Holy Toledo!”:

  • John Denver denigrated the city with the song “Saturday Night in Toledo” performed in 1967 on the Tonight Show, leading to a large public outcry at the time;  Oops.
  • the prog rock band Yes mentions the city in “Our Song” from the 1983 album 90125;
  • the city has hosted a baseball team dating back to 1896 called the Toledo Mudhens;
  • the Maumee River runs through the city, connecting it to Lake Erie;
  • and the inspiration for the 1970s song “Lucille” (sang of course by Kenny Rogers) is associated with the city;

And that’s where it got interesting.  Out of curiousity, I looked up the source to that last bit of trivia and discovered it mentioned in a March 22, 2010 story from the Toledo Blade newspaper about the recent closure of Caesar’s Show Bar, a historic location with a notable reputation as “the stiletto-heeled stomping grounds of local drag queen legends.”

The story says that although “it wasn’t the first drag bar in Toledo nor the only place with female impersonators, it was the best known and had the longest run, strutting through three decades of diva acts.”

Moreover, the story goes on to report that prior to its run as a drag bar, the location had previously been called the Country Palace bar and was where songwriter Hal Byman stopped in for a drink in the summer of 1975:

Mr. Bynum wandered across the street from the current Greyhound station at Michigan Street and Jefferson Avenue. Thirsty for beer, he stepped into the Country Palace bar that was then in the building.

As he sat at a corner table, Mr. Bynum said, he heard a conversation between a man and his estranged wife. There was an angry exchange, and the man got up and told the woman, “All I can say is, you picked a fine time to leave me.”

A song idea hit him, and Mr. Bynum grabbed a napkin and started scribbling words. With later help from Roger Bowling, the idea evolved into the 1977 chart-topping Kenny Rogers country song “Lucille.”

“In a bar in Toledo/ across from the depot/ on a bar stool, she took off her ring,” the lyrics begin.

Although I personally have no substantial connection to drag queens or divas, or Kenny Rogers for that matter, the Blade story did suggest to me how two nights in Toledo could make you a different man.  From there I’ll leave the rest up to the listener.

The point is this: that bit of informal research took the song into a direction that I could never have anticipated.  The original inspiration from a passing thought combined with some mumbled words sung during a writing session, came to fruition with patience and persistence, and a bit of perspiration.  The reward was a journey into a theme and set of lyrics that I had no idea was coming.  And yet it did.  This is for all you Toledoans.

The image “Eye on the prize” is by darwin Bell courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons.

Carry On

A few months back I wrote about using Flickr as a source of visual inspiration for songwriting. At the time, I was working with a line “She’s like a merry-go-round” and had some vague ideas about how the song might develop.  I continued with that initial theme of amusement park as a place to experience young love.

The final result is called “Carry On”.  I wrote about the title and the bridge to this song in another earlier post.  The original version was written for acoustic guitar with a much slower tempo in mind.  When working on the demo, I brought the tempo up to 124 bpm and added a more complex arrangement, including some vintage analog synth parts that seemed to complement the mood of the song.  Trumpeting the love, as it were.

The image is from a colour linocut by Cyril E. Power, called “The Merry-Go-Round” and posted on Flickr Creative Commons.

Meet me in Montreal

It’s interesting to see how an idea changes from one form into something completely different as it evolves in the writing process.  In this case, the song began with a guitar pattern that derived from another song called ‘February.’  I’d been listening to Iron and Wine quite a bit around this time and found myself mimicking the playing style of the beautifully subtle songs from the album Naked as We Came.

I was drawn to the mood of this pattern and spent a week or more trying to fit it to a lyric.  Somewhere along the line I hit upon an idea and dropped the pattern entirely, opting instead for a very simple chord progression using the G/C/Em forms.  I tend to play with a capo on the 2nd or 3rd frets, so the tuning in the recording will be a full tone up, which seems to suit my vocal range.

The lyric itself is inspired by a personal experience with a good friend who never made it to the end of his journey.  I had the good fortune to play it live with another friend at a recent reunion, where we performed it as a personal tribute.

“Country Girls” to the rescue!

I’ve started to experiment with a TC Helicon VoiceLive Play GTX vocal processor.  It’s a great little unit that gives me the opportunity to add harmonies and other effects to songs as I’m developing them.

I’ve had a blast with it so far and am impressed with how quiet it is when going direct to my DAW.  One of the first songs I tested was my own “That’s What You Do”.  This has a country feel to it and I sensed it needed some talented backup vocals to bring out the melody.

Voila, “The Country Girls” (preset number 212) to the rescue!  Here’s an excerpt from a working demo.  This was recorded with my vocals and acoustic run straight as a stereo pair out of the VoiceLive Play into my Focusrite preamp, then captured using the StudioOne DAW.  Not bad for a quick setup to test ideas and arrangements.