Sunday, January 24, 2010

Just In Time

YouTube (guitar - live demo)

All the odd imagery in it makes perfect sense, once explained. I have no intention of explaining it.

The music is vaguely a romantic Latin sort of thing though you might expect more of a children's song from the lyrics, but I felt like Latin today and that what you get. As for the tune, it's been bothering me that it's somehow familiar, but I have wracked my brain and can't figure out how, so I'm just not going to worry about it.

You might be able to tell that I was a little distracted here... noises from the kitchen. But at least the dogs weren't barking.

Just In Time
wmh - 1989

Little one made of stone
Cheeks of cherry wine
Strive to crawl - to reach the wall
But don't forget to climb

Please beware the evil dreams
Of dragons in the mist
For they come to life soon enough
As a race run from the wrist

And there you stand, torch in hand
Justin, friend of mine
Instill in me a memory
I'd left so far behind
And through the years we understand
Things we've tried to justify
So just remember, so is life
And that it sometimes seems unkind
And through the years we understand
Things we've tried to justify
It may happen once - seldom twice
But surely Justin Time

Enjoy each flower, the evening hours
The thrills of wishing wells
The songs of life and company
Of Mickey Mouse and Tinkerbell

But fairy tales give way to wedding bells
And friends to sad goodbyes
But fields are filled with dandelions
Each one a new wish just waiting to be tried

Songwriting Part 2: Write What You Like

(This is a continuation of my notes on songwriting. Click here for Part 1)

At the end of Part 1 of this series, I asked you some questions:
Ask yourself what you care about. What moves you? Motivates you? What's your obsession? That's what you need to be communicating in your music.
This challenge concisely summarizes what it is I want to say today, which is that in addition to writing what you know about, you should write what you like... that is, if you're looking for artistic satisfaction. There are plenty of formulae for writing "popular" songs, and damned if they don't work. Don Kirschner made a career out of figuring out what the public wanted and making it happen, and recent years have seen the charts flooded with with pre-fab phenoms like Britney Spears, the Back Street Boys, N-Sync, etc., etc., etc.

That's not the kind of success I'm talking about (and frankly, you wouldn't be reading this if you were looking for commercial success, because I don't have it). I'm talking about the kind of satisfaction that keeps you doing the same thing for 30 years even though you get nothing monetary in return. That I do have, and I can tell you that it's all about loving what it is you produce. You have to like your own music, and to do that you have to write music you like.

That sounds obvious as hell, but over and over I see people write to a particular style, or a particular structure when It's pretty clear their hearts aren't in it. Even if this is your job they call it playing music for a reason. I don't see that you're taking any chances at all if you write something you like, even if it's bonkers or off the wall. Here's an example:

William Shatner took 30 years of heat for his off-beat spoken-word style introduced in his 1968 album The Transformed Man, which contained such stinkers as Shatner's covers of "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds". But Shatner was playing to an audience of one... himself, and he stuck with it. As far as I'm concerned, his 2004 album Has Been completely vindicates the style. Rather than containing covers, in this album Shatner teamed up with Ben Folds to create fresh musical arrangements around Shatner's prose-poems. AND IT'S GREAT! I love it, especially tracks like "Ideal Woman", "You'll Have Time", "Familiar Love". and "It Hasn't Happened Yet". His cover of Pulp's "Common People" was a popular and critically acclaimed single (though I like the original tracks better).

I'm going to adapt a mantra I've previously chanted, and say that if you want anyone at all to like what it is you do, then you have to be that person. Other people will like what you like, but if you don't like it there's no guarantee that anyone will. You need to write things that you can put your heart into and be sincere about. That sincerity shows up in your work and people will respond.

William and I have written a lot of songs. Those that I consider complete are the ones that I really like, such as "The Mission" or "Like Norman" or any of the others I've put here or on YouTube. There are others that I just don't like, and I'm not going to mention what they are, except to say that you've never heard them. I don't consider any of them failures... they're just incomplete, because I don't think I've gotten the right handle on them yet. When a song isn't right I know it's pretty much entirely my fault, as I might find myself looking at a lyric I previously set aside as "unworkable" and suddenly have a flash of insight as to how it should be arranged and played. Some examples are "Mary, I Want Her" or "Just in Time". Sometimes that process takes years: the lyrics to "Just In Time" were written in 1989 and I only put acceptable music to it last week.

The end result is that most of the songs that get stuck in my head and I find myself humming idly are songs that I myself wrote. Is that a bad thing? I don't think so. I don't think it's particularly egotistical, either... it's just justification for having written the song in the first place.

The point here is, pick a style you like, topics you like, and write tunes you like. Don't bother to consider whether it's fashionable. Tomorrow's fashions will change anyway, and the only thing that's a certainty is that you'll never get ahead of them by copying other people. So do your own thing. And if your "own thing" is to perform in the style of your favorite established artist, just remember that nobody needs another Elton John... they've already got one. So use your favorite artist's style as a foundation for your own, and put enough of yourself in it that you're not a carbon-copy.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010


Rainbows.ogg Rainbows.mp3 YouTube (piano)

For Jacie, and Cat.

wmh - 27 Oct 2009

Rainbows don’t last forever
Yet they seem to have no end
They’re a blessing and a promise
That the rain may come again
But the future holds no destinies
And kites don’t fly themselves
In the blue sky...
The blue sky...
So high...............

There’s a tale of 2 cities
And I think the story’s true
There are dreams within your reach
Far above and beyond the blue
And though there’s beauty in a rainbow
There's not enough to fill the sky
The blue sky...
The blue sky...
So high...............

And while you can’t catch a rainbow
You can enjoy the view
Choose an ending for your story
Your future’s up to you
I think you can fly...
In the blue sky...
So high.............

Monday, January 18, 2010

The Mission

TheMission.mp3YouTube (guitar - live demo)

Whether anybody else likes this song or not, it's one of my favorite songs by anybody, and it has been for 30 years. I know that's an egotistical thing to say about one's own piece of music, but it's true (in part because I know what it REALLY sounds like in my head). I'm just happy I got to be the one to write the tune.

I love the lyrics by William Hoover as well... they're imaginative and more than a little bit surreal. I had no bloody idea how or why he came up with the saga of a space captain who talks to a sock puppet. None. (until today*)

I decided to do something a little folksy-techno-weird with it, as if David Bowie's and Paul Simon's brains were merged in a tragic transporter accident. Since you're hearing it live you get the folksy part.

This is one of (if not THE) first guitar pieces I did, back in about 1980. The only problem with it is that it absolutely KILLS my fingers. I don't know why, but they wind up bruised and battered every time I play it, no matter how much practice I've had. And no matter how much practice I have, I never get better at it.

The Mission
wmh - 1981

I found myself in the Sea of Tranquility
All conversation had gone dry
And as I reached for my hand my fingers were missing
So my puppet friend spoke with his eyes

And he said...
Captain I fear our mission is failing
For all the red lights have gone gray
This landing falls short of being successful
Oh how I wish we'd picked a clear day.

We stepped from our craft to be the explorers
All these back home would adore
Though well we knew our journey was over
There was magic here perhaps something more.

Weightless we wondered under the eyes
To find a new hole in the sky
My crew had become so frightened of shadows
They hadn't yet noticed their lives had passed by

And they said...
Captain I fear our mission is failing
For all the red lights have gone gray
This landing falls short of being successful
Oh how I wish we'd picked a clear day.

Captain I fear our mission is over
So sorry we can't make a return flight
Tell those at home the places we've flown
And be sure that this bird gets home before night.

I found myself in the Sea of Tranquility
All conversation had gone dry
And as I reached out something was missing
So I borrowed a voice from outside

And I said...

Captain I fear this life slowly passes
And I feel the strong need for new birth
Your mission ends here and captain I fear
We shall never again visit earth.

Captain I fear our mission is over
So sorry we can't make a return flight
Tell those at home the places we've flown
And be sure that this bird gets home before night.

* Now I can reveal that the inspiration for this song was two Twilight Zone episodes. "Death Ship" and "A Passage for Trumpet", both starring Jack Klugman. I'll leave it to you to discover more about them. I'm also told that the puppet is a hallucination brought about by oxygen deprivation. I have to ask to find out these things.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Songwriting Part 1: Write What You Know About

Though few people even know who I am, I (along with my lyricist friend, William Hoover) have been writing songs for the last 30 years. Some songs have been terrible, and some (I think) are exceptionally good. I've noticed over the years that the good ones are the recent ones, and they get better and better with time. As a result I like to think I've overcome some mistakes and learned a thing or two that I can pass on. If I haven't, then I'm about to expose my ignorance... which is a good thing, in that I'll learn from comments and feedback where I fall short. So in an effort to understand my own process better, I'm going to explain what I think are the important elements of songwriting.

Before we get started in earnest I'm going to digress for just a minute on the subject of art. My dictionary has several definitions of art, none of which are correct! There's little wonder that so many people are confused by the term and misuse it... they can't even look up the right answer! Here's a really simple definition of art, which always works:
"Art" is the deliberate communication of one or more emotions from the artist to the beholder.
There are three ramifications of this definition. The first is that how you communicate it is unimportant. This is why song, dance, poetry, literature, and drama are all forms of art. With any other definition you're left to wonder what holds these together: now you know.

The second is that it is the beholder, not the artist, who determines if a thing is "art". Many of the things we've been taught to think of as art, aren't. These include song, dance, poetry, literature, and drama if the emotion isn't there. It doesn't matter how much of your heart and soul you pour into something... what matters is how much gets back out. Art is cruel to the aspiring artist. If you're not imparting emotion, then it doesn't matter how brilliantly you have done your work, you are a craftsman, not an artist. This isn't a slight against craftwork: a brilliant craftsman is still brilliant! But it's axiomatic that "Art" and "Craft" are not nearly the same thing. If you look around I think you'll agree that some pretty poor craftsmen have turned out some wonderful art.

The third ramification is that this definition is open to future expansion. Almost anything can be art, and many things we don't think of as art, are. For instance under this definition, true lovemaking -- as opposed to sex -- is art. And I think that's how it should be. When we speak of a piece of art being "attractive" or "seductive" it is precisely because art is an extension of this primal ability of humans to personally interact on an emotional level.

So I'm going to proceed from the assumption that you're wanting to write songs as an artform and not as a craft. Jingle writers ply their craft; Songwriters pursue their art, even though they both do what is superficially the same thing. OK? Moving on...

I think that lyrics are the life-blood of any song. That might sound strange coming from someone who rarely writes his own lyrics, but it shouldn't. I get way more lyrics than I can use, so I have to pick and choose from among them, and have a good bit of experience editing and adapting the words I do use. In addition, I do indeed write complete songs on occasion.

One of the things that I've noticed about other advice I've read on the subject is that it almost invariably focuses on the wrong aspects of the task. There is a tendency to focus on mechanical rules to fit words to your music, and I think that's just a bit backwards. While everyone is different, in my case no song begins without a message, and that means the lyrics. You should have a clear understanding of what it is you're trying to communicate to the audience before you even begin on a tune. In my view, the music is there to focus and direct the emotions of the listener to the message carried by the words (in ironic form you might highlight that message by contradicting it).

Now, the one very most important thing about writing lyrics is not rhyme, or meter, or structure. In fact, any and all of those things can be dispensed with entirely and you can still have a great song. No, the most important thing is simply knowing what you're writing about.

That's true of any sort of literary endeavor. It's the first thing they tell you in creative writing classes, right after "Please, sit down." And it's 100% immutably, undeniably true. You have to know what you're writing about. This is especially true about lyrics, because they're intended to communicate emotion. If you don't have that emotion, you really can't impart it. What you produce will not be art.

For instance, when William Hoover and I started writing songs back in high school, we wrote songs about hookers and drugs and other gritty stuff. What did I know about hookers and drugs? Not a damned thing! And it shows in the work. Those early songs about "important" social issues are terrible in comparison to what we've written lately. We tried really hard to be hip, and I don't think it worked out well, largely because I'm not hip. People would rather hear a heartfelt and honest song about the hackysack you LOVE to play with than some political topic that your head says is "important" but your heart cares nothing about.

There are ways around this "immutable" rule. For instance, we wrote a song called "Like Norman" that is apparently about a man who's on Death Row, sung from the point of view of the next man scheduled to die. Now, we've never been on Death Row; we've never worked there; never knew anybody who was. But when played properly the song can really give a chill to the listener when you get to the last verse. Why does it work?

It works because we're not writing about Norman. Neither is it about the man doing the singing. Norman is a metaphor for life. When Norman dies it's representative of your father, or mother, or a close friend of your own, dying. It's in moments like those that we realize our own mortality. The light dawns within us that we -- all of us -- are on Death Row, waiting our turn. Like Norman, we begin to see the Angels coming. On a conscious level, the listener may not even know he's making that connection. Still, the topic finds its "hook" in his subconscious and pulls out the intended emotion. It's your job to make the listener emote, but no law demands that he has to know why.

Use metaphor and parable and allegory. But you cannot forget that your metaphor must be representative of something you know and care about. Besides, metaphor is great because you can get deep, deep messages in seemingly innocuous things. And while somebody might be turned off to the deep message when presented plainly and boldly, they'll listen over and over again to the metaphor and find themselves moved by the underlying message.

So that's the first rule, and it's really the only one you can't break. Everything else is pretty much at your discretion, though some guidelines are stronger than others. In future essays I'll address them, and I'll do that by examining some actual songs. In the meantime, here's some homework... take a good introspective look at yourself. Ask yourself what you care about. What moves you? Motivates you? What's your obsession? That's what you need to be communicating in your music.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Robot Monkey

RobotMonkey.ogg RobotMonkey.mp3 (work in progress - piano)

This is a bit silly, but it invaded my consciousness nearly fully formed in the bath. It was a random thought... "gee it must be difficult to parody a Jonathan Coulton song since they're all pretty much in left field anyway... how about parodying his style instead?" You can see that halfway through that thought I switched from innocent question to a determination to do it. (The devil on my shoulder is such a bully!)

Anyway, I considered some common or memorable components of JoCo's songs and came up with Monkeys, Robots, Loneliness (or Rejection), an occasional bit of the macabre... mad scientist or something. Oh, and talking to inanimate objects. So I thought, maybe if we just chuck them all together with a nice jaunty tune reminiscent of the theme song to The Partridge Family (not that tune, just similar, and I guess my subconscious was thinking TV theme anyway). I came up with this debacle. As it's evolved, it's kind of moved from the 70s back into the 60s. Also, the style is a bit further removed from JoCo than I'd originally intended, so the pastiche may be becoming more of an homage.

I may end up re-recording all of this. Eventually, the flute near the end will be replaced with whistling, but I can't whistle, so I'll have to get someone to do that for me. I also don't have drums, so those are missing for now. But it has given me a chance to play with this new recording software (Reaper).

dfl - 6 Jan 2010

My Robot Monkey has nothing to live for
It's not as though he'll find a cyber-banana
My Robot Monkey is a one of a kind
You'll never find another North of Havana...

I don't know... why I built him
I just don't want to be lonely alone...
[beat. beat. beat. beat]

My Robot Monkey's not the cud-dl-ing kind
He's a little sharp around the edges, you see
My Robot Monkey is a bit of a loner
My Robot Monkey is a little like me

I don't know... why I built him
I just don't want to be lonely alone...
[beat. beat. beat. beat]

Robot Monkey would you like to meet some other robot monkey?
Robot Monkey would you take her home and oil her down?
Robot Monkey I wish you would not dismantle little bits and pieces
Of yourself when I'm not around.....

[Instrumental verse]

Even though... I built him
I still feel lonely alone...

Postcards from Picasso

PostcardsFromPicasso.ogg PostcardsFromPicasso.mp3 YouTube (piano - live demo)

William tells me the inspiration for this one was really simple. Parker Brothers used to publish a game called Masterpiece, where the players bought and sold pieces of art (some of which were forgeries). Among the game equipment, there were postcard-sized replicas of the artwork to be traded. Willy just picked out a number of the paintings he really liked and wrote the song around the names of the painters.

Since it reminded me of a Spring afternoon in Paris, it became a Musette piece (in 3/4 time to lighten the mood). I got stuck on the bridge (all of the verses had the same meter, and I really didn't want to pick one), but Rhod got me over that by suggesting a musical bridge. In the last verse I changed "sidewalks of night" to "city of lights" to strengthen the tie to Paris. Voila!

(Here's how I read things into what William writes... you already know everything there is to know about the origin and meaning of the lyrics, but when I read it I imagine an art student spending his days at the Louvre in the company of great art, and by extension, in the company of the artists themselves.)

Postcards from Picasso
wmh - 5 Apr 2006

I once saw the Louvre on a post card
Sent by Picasso himself
The Guggenheim ain’t got nothin’ on Paris
Excepting for Paris herself

Lautrec has been scene at the Moulin Rouge
Capturing the night life of France
While Degas attends the backstage ballet
Waiting in the wings for the dance

Surrealist scenes surround parasol dreams
From pastel to hard line extremes
Does life as they say imitate art
Or does art lie somewhere between?

I’d picture it all as Grant Wood would
Or Van Rijn when in his prime
Give a little whisper to Vincent van Gogh
And Salvador Dali real time

Angelo and El Greco put on a show
Renoir and Rubens the same
I missed Monet at the station today
As a greyed rainbow stood in my way

Surrealist scenes surround parasol dreams
From pastel to hard line extremes
Does life as they say imitate art
Or does art lie somewhere between?

[musical bridge]

And did I not mention da Vinci?
There are two reasons for that smile
Both have survived through the centuries
Still no one yet knows quite why

Surrealist scenes surround parasol dreams
From pastel to hard line extremes
Does life as they say imitate art
Or does art lie somewhere between?

I still get post cards from Picasso
Andy Warhol and the like
We all have breakfast at an outdoor café
Overlooking the City of Lights

[musical bridge to exit]