Bored on an airplane from Phoenix to San Diego by way of Salt Lake City (what?) I opened my laptop to do a little musical messing around and got distracted by a folder filled with old ideas. I’ve learned the hard way that when I get a little nugget of something that might be a song, it’s important to capture it before I forget it. At a certain point song ideas are like dreams – they’re in my short term memory and they feel pretty solid, but they’re really not stored anywhere permanent. Let a couple of hours go by and they completely disappear. So I’ve gotten in the habit of opening the laptop and hitting record.
Some of you might find these interesting from a (pardon me) “historical perspective.” The quality is terrible, they are extremely raw and not meant to be listened to, they’re recorded in Ableton Live through the laptop mic, and often I can’t actually play them correctly. But generally they’re the very beginning stages of my process, when I’ve got a line or two maybe, a guitar part I like, a chord change I want to use, etc. You can hear the lyric technique I use at this point, which is to sing nonsense syllables as I’m figuring out the melody (and sometimes what the song is about). Some of these ideas get completely blown apart along the way and reworked into something else, some of them stick pretty much as they are. It’s funny for me to go back and listen to them because a few of them changed quite a bit – it’s like bizarro world, where all the songs turned out just a little different.
A Talk with George
The file for this one is called “sad irish,” not sure what that means exactly. I don’t think I was planning on writing a song about a sad Irish person, probably I was referring to the style, though it isn’t particularly Irish at all actually. You can hear me reminding myself how to play it in the beginning. The verse melody is mostly there, but different. No bridge yet, no Plimpton either. This version floated around until I connected it with the Plimpton idea and started fleshing out actual lyrics. Usually deciding on a subject or a point of view helps cure the melody, makes it settle down and decide what it’s going to be – there are certain choices you have to make once you’re using actual words. The guitar part in the second half of the verse is mostly complete at this point, that stuck pretty well through to the finished song.
I wish I had a record of the lyric-writing process on this one. For the longest time it was third person – George did this, George did that – and I hated it. It felt very gimmicky. And then somewhere in there I switched it to the second person, as if George was giving you advice. That softened the “wikipedia” feel of listing George’s accomplishments, and gave it depth enough to be about something more complicated.
Big Bad World One
There are three clips here. The first one starts with what eventually became the pre-chorus, and as you can hear it started as a much sadder song – the title of the file is “What If.” I can’t play it properly yet at this point. I’m glad I ditched the second part of this one, it seems to just kind of wander aimlessly.
The second clip was part of a different thread, the one that became the song. It’s the verse and the chorus but I haven’t yet decided to steal from clip 1 for the pre-chorus. The last line of the chorus is there, a couple other hints of where the lyrics were headed. I think it’s safe to say that at this point I had just figured out what I was writing about – that last line pretty much sums it all up.
The third clip has more worked-out lyrics, plus I’ve put the two pieces together. It’s out of order, the pre-chorus lyrics here actually ended up in the third verse, but you can see how they evolved from the original “What If” idea. This is the point in the process when writing gets easiest – there’s a pretty well-formed point of view, a verse, a chorus, both with lyrics. I think of this as having “broken the back” of the song. From here on out it’s just a question of filling in the details.
Blue Sunny Day
The first clip is from a song I was calling “My Nemesis,” not sure exactly what it’s about, and I may come back to that idea someday. The second section is the chord progression and melody that would eventually become the pre-chorus of Blue Sunny Day. There’s also an idea for a bridge, which now sounds boring enough for me to wonder why I bothered capturing it.
The second clip has a great intro guitar part, which I’m glad to have come across again because I still may want to use it somewhere. You may recognize a little figure near the end of that intro section, which is a little picky thing on a G13 chord that now happens between halves of the verse in BSD. The verse chords are there with a completely different melody, and I’ve also figured out the modulation that happens between verse and the pre-chorus section stolen from clip 1. Haven’t yet figured out the modulation back that happens shortly after. I remember that this chord progression floated around in my brain for months, I would just sit and play it waiting for it to take me in some direction. At that point it’s usually time to pick a subject and push it through, because I can dither around with a musical idea until I am bored to death and start to hate it. At some point I would find the line “blue sunny day,” and that was the bit that made me decide it was about a sad vampire, much to my chagrin.
Hilariously, there is a file called “Nemesis 3” that I just listened to, and it is me playing an acoustic version of “Never Gonna Give You Up.” So yes, I just rickrolled myself. No idea.
Drinking With You
Chords and melody mostly there, you can hear me mushmouthing around trying to figure out a lyric/melody combination that works. I have the last line, “nice to go out drinking with you,” so I definitely know what the song is about. And I can’t play it AT ALL (and still can’t). I’m a little sorry I lost the turnaround and repetition of the line at the end, which refers back to that dissonant chord in the prechorus (“I know this place that’s near here”). It’s nice, but of course it also just repeats earlier material, so all in all I think it’s better without it.
This is another great example of a song that started out as chords. Like Blue Sunny Day above, I would play these chords and sing along, and somewhere in there found “nice to go out drinking with you.” Once I have a line like that, I just need to figure out who’s saying it and why, and then the rest of the song falls in line from there.
Lady Aberlin’s Muu-Muu
I wrote this song while on vacation with my family in Cape Cod. We rented a house that had this amazing organ, the old fashioned wooden cabinet kind with two rows of keys, an arpeggiator, a bunch of built-in beats, a bench filled with song books that show you how to play “Lady of Spain” with one finger. I was messing around with Bossanova 2 or something like that when I found these chords, and I had been thinking about Lady Aberlin and the idea of a guy sweetly but weirdly obsessed with this one blue dress she wore (definitely not me). I was hoping to use this organ in the actual recording, so this clip is assembled from a number of takes that I edited together in Abelton Live. But the tempo was all over the place and I am not a great pianist. And anyway it took me months to write the third verse because the form and the rhyme scheme is really tight and constraining.
One of the things that made it hard to play was that I couldn’t do it in C because all the D keys were broken. Keep in mind, this organ was old technology, a lot of wires and tubes and hamsters on wheels. Somewhere in there the D-inator had gone bad, so that every D key on all the keyboards and the bass pedals made no sound. UNLESS you turned on all the effects and sat on it for 15 seconds, then it would make this incredible growling whooshy noise, like a war of angels in an underwater gymnasium. I wish I had thought to record that sound because it was amazing, but I also kind of like that it faded out of existence when vacation was over. LIKE THE NEIGHBORHOOD OF MAKE BELIEVE ITSELF.
That’s all for now, I’ll post some more when I have a chance.