Three Pillars of Fantastic – Part 3. Lyrics: Always Be Diving for Pearls

A post on lyric writing. But everything on these pages is about lyric writing. There are books and lives and a whole universe out there of different lyrics and different reactions. 

All we can really do is listen critically and try to absorb something into our own worlds. Most songs have something if we know where to look, that we can add to our portfolio of techniques.

Where to start? SongExpresso is going for a personal favorite, which I think few would disagree with: “Shipbuilding”. It may have been written quickly but we can feel thought, preparation, feeling and rigour. We won’t ever write this. But can we learn something that might help us tie together the circumstances that we see in something of a similar way?

The entire lyrics are at the end.

If you don’t know it please go and listen to it now – the Robert Wyatt version of course. Or Elvis’s own. Often copied, never bettered. Yes, it’s a political song but that’s not what we are interested in. Actually it’s a really human song about compromise, responsibility, and obligation.

It’s a little bit rooted in time: the Falklands “conflict” (one of the last “old school” wars without Internet or 24 news coverage – I’m sure they still did use telegrams to notify the next of kin. And the British government found out about the invasion of the Falklands by telex). This is a pre-digital time of Walkmen, VCRs. Rumours not Facebook. Heavy industry in decline, strikes, riots, unemployment. Change, class consciousness, political polarism – those days it was quite normal to hear people describe themselves as Marxists. Thirty years have changed a lot of things.

Another interesting thing – Ellis Costello later wrote a response to this song (in true SongExpresso style), from the Argentinean point of view (“Cinco Minutos con Vos”) – also an interesting song portraying normal Argentineans living under an oppressive military regime. All in all plenty of material for writing….

What makes “Shipbuilding” so great? The following things struck SongExpresso:

1. Start Strong

“Is it worth it?” This line sums up the entire song. And even better, does so using an everyday phrase. And even, even, better the melody perfectly matches the music of the phrase. Whenever I or someone else says this, I think of this song. Possible other contenders: “I Should Have Known Better” – The Beatles. “Hold on” (from “Stop Crying Your Heart Out”) – Oasis.

If got right, these types of day-to-day expressions are fertile ground for leading listeners back into the song – “well, I ask you”, “it’s just a rumour” or “with all the will in the world” work in a similar way – this is very spoken language.

2. Match tone/feeling to subject matter

It’s interesting to consider that: (i) the melody was written first and the lyrics added later – so the jazzy, downbeat atmosphere was probably already there; and (ii) it was specifically intended for Robert Wyatt to sing. So we imagine in Elvis’s mind the ghostly, beaten-down, Englishness of Robert’s voice (and I wouldn’t disregard either the evocative combination of sea-dog beard, beret and wheelchair that we later see in the music video). A direction to follow can unlock great ideas.

3. Contrasts 

  • Diving for dear life vs. diving for pearls
  • Telegram vs. picture postcard
  • The boy (wanting the bike) vs. the boy (taken to task)
  • Re-opening the shipyards vs. notifying the next of kin

In one of his first jobs, SongExpresso was described as the “however man”. Perhaps I did like juxtaposing opposing ideas a little too much for business memos. But here these are great for showing conflicts of the time: faith against reality, aspiration against realism.

4. Just clever enough

There’s “clever original” and “clever annoying”. Take the line “someone got filled in”. It sits on that dangerous borderline which could become annoying. Yes, it’s there because of the rhyme – but on the other hand is something that the people in the story could easily say. SongExpresso wonders whether and how much Elvis had to wrestle with it. Somehow I hope so. If he was in two minds then it paid off to go with the bold choice: the musicality and “vernacular” of it swings it over to the good side; it does seem right.

This also goes for “take me to task”. This is only real reference to the precise time period (the British navy/air contingent sent to the Falkland Islands was the ‘Task Force’). It’s brilliant in some ways as anyone who was around in Britain at the time will know that this means ‘war’. But as it’s both a play on words and a euphemism, Elvis relies on us to get it or the significance is lost. It’s one of those things that works perfectly locally but is potentially lost in translation to a wider audience. Take the example of “I took my Chevy to the levee”. A levee may be normal parlance in let’s say Louisiana (I’m speculating), but for non-Americans potentially meaningless. These localisms add realism to our characters but we always need to think whether our audience will understand, and how much they’ll lose if they don’t. Elvis needed to get a reference to the war in, and this is a brilliantly subtle way to do that. Just clever enough. The skill we need is to see these amber lights and then consciously decide how to handle them.

5. Verse Structure

You don’t have to have verse–pre-chorus–chorus–break etc.! We don’t know whether the melody already had this slightly off-balance progression that plays with different verse lengths, sometimes circles back on itself and repeats different sections. Maybe it did or maybe the more informal flow fitted the lyrics. Parameters can help, but can and should be disregarded if they get in the way of what feels right.

6. Show don’t tell

“Diving for dear life”. I always see the sailor/airman trying to extricate themselves from sinking wreckage. With some thought that they might have been somewhere else living a full life and not absurdly dying in the freezing South Atlantic. Of course, this is also the thought of the working man back home, making a living from whatever work available, no time for ideals or dreams. Works fantastically for both situations.

7. Is there anything we don’t like?

If this was a SongExpresso song, I would lie awake at night going over and over the line “Diving for Pearls”. It’s the right image. It’s the right rhyme. It’s the right lyric. But – with all the will in world – it really does not scan with the melody. The emphasis falls on the “ving” and not the “di”. It’s just unnatural. Some of the covers try to correct this. That destabilizes the melody and sounds equally jarring. This has been described as “sublime phrasing … of which Stan Getz would have been mighty proud”. I’m going to call that pretentious rubbish and say this was just a compromise. Of course we hope that all options were explored. It’s imperfect: but the good things about it outweigh the slight problem. If we fixed it we would lose more than we gain.

 

More than ever this article makes me ask – who am I to critique. I’m a fan, yes. And grew up with this song. So I feel some pressure to do justice – this is my one shot at this. But if SongExpresso has a goal then it’s to improve the lyrics gene pool. All I can do is pick out some things that I appreciate. And maybe convince some others to listen. What do you think?

 

This is Part 3 of SongExpresso’s Three Pillars of Fantastic:
Part 1: Bring Your Own Feeling
Part 2: Melody (coming soon)

 

Shipbuilding
COSTELLO, ELVIS / LANGER, CLIVE WILLIAM
© Universal Music Publishing Group, Warner/Chappell Music, Inc.

Is it worth it?
A new winter coat and shoes for the wife
And a bicycle on the boy’s birthday
It’s just a rumor that was spread around town
By the women and children
Soon we’ll be shipbuilding…

Well I ask you
The boy said “Dad they’re going to take me to task,
but I’ll be back by Christmas”
It’s just a rumor that was spread around town
Somebody said that someone got filled in
For saying that people get killed in
The result of this shipbuilding

With all the will in the world
Diving for dear life
When we could be diving for pearls

It’s just a rumor that was spread around town
A telegram or a picture postcard
Within weeks they’ll be re-opening the shipyards
And notifying the next of kin
Once again

It’s all we’re skilled in
We will be shipbuilding…

With all the will in the world
Diving for dear life
When we could be diving for pearls.

Don’t bore us – with your tedious chorus

Is it possible to write a chorus using just one word? Hmmm. Is is possible to write a GOOD chorus using just one word? Double Hmmm. Probably not as easy as writing a samba using just one note… 

We know repetition can be effective for creating a hook. Repetition = memorable, ey, Jude? And it can be effective at any time for cementing an idea. Yes, a couple of times. Not necessarily consecutively. But three, four, potato, more? Can we pull it off?

But let’s always consider why we would want to pull it off: do we have good artistic reasons, or could it be … (speaking very quietly) that we just don’t have any better idea?

Remember, if you go this way, then you are giving up the opportunity of getting the listeners’ attention with an interesting lyric. Lyrics are – naturally – one of SongExpresso’s 3 pillars of fantastic. If you minimise them, then you’d better be sure that the other two pillars – Melody and Feeling – are rock solid and super-interesting.

Feeling is feeling and is a combination of various things – but definitely within the composer’s power and not just a question of style, instrumentation or performance. If it feels good to you then probably it is good. All we are saying is do it consciously: Does it work in real life? Is there any alternative? Can we vary it next time? Where we don’t have lyrical interest then for sure we need melodic interest, direction and variety.

Warning: unfair comparison ahead!

1. Let’s start with “Sing” (Travis)

Here’s the operative part:

But if you sing, sing, sing, sing, sing, sing
For the love you bring
Won’t mean a thing
Unless you sing, sing, sing, sing

It’s simple but definitely melodic enough to hold our interest. Each “sing” is a litle different so it doesn’t really sound repetitive and still enjoys all the advantages of memorabiliy. On “thing” we are held for a while on the 2nd before satisfyingly being brought back to the root. Taking the song as a whole we have a very cute feeling and tempo, and a wide melodic range. SongExpresso one-word-lyric score: 8!

2. Moving on to “Come On” (The Hives)

We don’t actually need to extract the operative part as in this one minute song the entire lyrics are:

(One! Two! One, two, one, two, three!)
Come on!
Come on!
Come on!
Come on!
Come on!
Come on!
Come on!
Come on!
Come on! (come on!)
Come on! (come on!)
Come on! (come on!)
Come on! (come on!)
Come on! (come on!)
Come on! (come on!)
Come on! (come on!)
Come on! (come on!)
Come on!
Come on!
Come on!
Come on!
Come on…
Everybody come on! (repeat from top)

It’s a fun song. A rare thing, a song with more chords than words! (Though is it really a song? Or just a riff? Or a chorus? Or a chant?) In any event, the energetic feeling and building instrumental intensity are parts of the mix. The other is the variation, including the call and response. SongExpresso one-word-lyric score: a cheeky 7! 

3. Finally, what about “Inhaler” by Miles Kane?

it’s a short song too, so here’s the entire thing: 

I’ve been looking forward to lifting up the veil
Yes is the answer, you know that for sure
The night time, is the right time
Oh, don’t you know girl
You’ve heard it before
Hey

Inhaler, inhaler
Yeah, yeah, yeah
Yeah, yeah, yeah
Inhaler, inhaler
Yeah, yeah, yeah
Yeah, yeah, yeah

Cold is the shoulder, you’ll give me for sure
Dance with your hips, and grind on the floor
The night time, is the right time
Oh, don’t you know girl
You’ve heard it before
Hey

Inhaler etc.

It’s a riffy song – in fact the riff is the main entertainment. That’s fine – the Feeling is good. Melody – in the verse, it matches the riff nicely and gets us moving. We really like the “lifting up the veil” lyric, suggestive and original. “Night time is the right time” is a bit of a cliche but in tune with the “up for it” theme. “Cold is the shoulder” is quite nice too. Some great lyrical potential going on here.

But for SongExpresso, when we get to the chorus it loses its way a bit. The feeling seems a bit flat; the melody lacks interest; and the lyrics seem like a missed opportunity. And the inhaler idea is actually great – it suggests breathlessness, wanting to absorb the night, drinks disappearing, as well as the potential for some other substances… It’s cool – perhaps envisaged as an anthem – simple to remember and sing at festivals. But where does it really go? Couldn’t we have something a bit more evocative? The above ideas could already give us a start…

Perhaps another unfair comparison – think about “Just Dance” by Lady Gaga – another nightclub song but, for SongExpresso’s taste, scores higher for interesting lyrical content and for combining all three pillars.

SongExpresso one-word-lyric score: 5.5!

So what’s our conclusion? There is a not altogether unfounded rumour that – in pop at least – lyrics may be dispensable. But we say “always be interesting”. And the lyrics are a major opportunity for doing that. So the one word chorus is to be applied sparingly and not as a first resort. If we have looked at the alternatives and are still really taken with the idea, then the feeling, melody, variation and direction had better be good.

What are your favourite minimal lyrics? Including lalalas. Perhaps lalalas deserve their own post, what do you reckon, Jude?

I’ve looked at nuns from both sides now…

Gone Girl. A writer’s dream really – let’s write a chapter from one point of view and then write the same events again from the other person’s point of view to show how things are taken wrongly or interpreted differently. It reminds SongExpresso of that Woody Allen film (the one with the giant lobsters?) where subtitles tell us what the character really means to say. Because we are all trapped in our own language and true communication is impossible and SongExpresso is feeling Sartrean. Excuse me a moment.

Feeling better now. Where this is going is that almost all songs are written from one person’s point of view and we never get to hear the other side. Notable exceptions: “Just give me a reason” (P!nk), “Don’t you want me, baby” (Human League), “You’re the one that I want” (half kidding).

So just recently SongExpresso was looking at Billy Joel’s “Innocent Man” (remember: I know you’re only protecting yourself/I know you’re thinking of somebody else/Someone who hurt you/But I’m not above/Making up for the love/You’ve been denying you could ever feel) and got to thinking – what does the girl think about all this? Billy is showing a lot of understanding. Empathy. Patience! 

Bingo! The girl is thinking this:

“Cause I … need time
My heart is numb, has no feeling
So while I’m still healing
Just try … and have a little patience

Aha! (or Take That!) – there are two sides to every story. If we can’t find material here, then we’re probably a pot-noodle

We can do this big or small. The smallest method is using reported speech (“you say”, “he said” etc.) to bring the other person’s point of view into the song. Check out SongExpresso’s own lyrics from the future classic “Snakeskin”:

“You say the tree to grow has to be cut
That it’s normal for horses to fall
But to me it doesn’t seem natural at all”

Told you it was small. The masterclass in this style would be “Cat’s in the Cradle” (Harry Chapin, Ugly Kid Joe).

Next size up is a duet: “You were / I was working as a waitress in a cocktail bar”. As a style, it might come over a little bit too ‘storyish’ for SongExpresso’s taste: it’s definitely telling not showing. But for nominations in this category you can’t argue with “Father and Son” by Cat Stevens (I know, a duet that’s not a duet). Also some powerful stuff came out of a recent Reddit “A wife kills her husband. Make me symphathize with both characters.”

But being SongExpresso, we want to go for the top. So what we aim to do is the Innocent Man-Patience trick. So pick a song, any song. Pick a song you really like. Or one from a random jukebox. Best would be a song ABOUT or TO a person. Then write the other side. Simples.

See what I chose here.

In my case, bad show tunes that would never make it into any show (and certainly do not claim to stand next to Rodgers and Hammerstein) are fun to do and not hard to start (major key! melodrama! perfect cadences!). In minutes I had a couple of pages of ideas – and SongExpresso would always prefer to prune than to be scraping around for material. It’s a little rough and to be a real song would need plenty of honing, but as a basis I’m quite pleased and it reflects what I think she’d say.

For anyone these should be some of the easiest lyrics to start – you have a heap of material from the original song and a character with a ready-made backstory. Aha, again! So you can answer any “allegations” or simply hold up a mirror to the original lyrics. There may be a choice to make – do you somehow refer to the original in order to ensure that your point of view has a context? Usually this shouldn’t be necessary – in Maria‘s case we do have to understand that she is a struggling nun, but in the Billy-Gary example, the songs stand by themselves. 

So go for it. And tell SongExpresso your favorite “two points of view” songs or, even better still, your results.

“Do I wanna know?” – rhyme grit – and no blandarctica

Billy Joel is not Alex Turner. For SongExpresso, Bily is a master of natural sounding rhyme. But for SongExpresso, the best Arctic Monkey’s lyrics are like raps – layering on rhyme and sounds without compromise to meaning. No “rhyme crime” here (“rhyme grit”, anyone?). 

As readers will by now have realised, SongExpresso is universally unimpressed by contrived or forced rhymes; but what we have in “Do I wanna know” is something more sophisticated than rhyming couplets. It’s wordplay with half-rhymes, internal rhymes, and eclectic but never stilted sounding vocabulary. The rhymes keep coming, maybe 10 obvious ones to a verse, not counting the ones we feel but don’t see, that season and spice the remainder of the lyrics.

This is really structured and disciplined – we might try to emulate by sitting with the rhyming dictionary open and going for a rhyme at the end of every line. Could be a good exercise but almost inevitably boring.

So let’s take a moment:

  • to feel the “organic-ness” – I don’t believe there’s a dictionary that would give you all the rhymes here (verse 1: the “ee” sounds – verse 2: the “uh” sounds). This comes from feeling – and perspiration.
  • to chase the rhyme – it seems to start at the end and wander backwards into the middle or even near to the beginning of the line. That reminds us of some (modern) rap techniques – the rhymes seem to be attracted together and to chase one after the other. It creates an accelerating and decelerating flow – more natural, more rhythmically varied and attention-keeping.
  • to enjoy the Englishness – “summat”, “settee”, “you’ve ‘ad a few” – of course this wouldn’t be Arctic Monkeys if the language was some kind of mid-Atlantic, estuary, blandarctica. This takes some self-assurance to pull off – but in reality they always had it and haven’t changed much since album 1. For the rest of us, daring to use details like this can help us inject a pinch of credibility, sincerity and personality. Of course, if trying to write from the point of view of a character from a culture that isn’t yours, best get these right.
  • to notice how the flow of the lyrics matches the beat – there are no scanning issues here. This depends to an extent on Alex’s delivery, and using short words helps – but the emphases fall all in the right places. The mix of shorter and longer phrases also makes for a more spoken feel and avoids dull symmetry.

Let’s not try to be rappers if we aren’t. (If you do want to, please try first in the safety of your own home and not on 8 Mile Road.) And I don’t think we really need more pop songs with rap breaks. But we can try some of the techniques to add interest and variation to the lyrics and rhyming patterns of a rock or any other style of song. What other non-hip-hop songs use elements from or could be raps? As always, SongExpresso wants to hear your favorites.

 

DO I WANNA KNOW?

Have you got colour in your cheeks?

Do you ever get the fear that you can’t shift the type that sticks around like something in your teeth?

Are there some aces up your sleeve?

Have you no idea that you’re in deep?

I dreamt about you nearly every night this week

How many secrets can you keep?

Cause there’s this tune I found that makes me think of you somehow and I play it on repeat

Until I fall asleep

Spilling drinks on my settee

 

Do I wanna know

if this feeling flows both ways?

Sad to see you go

Was sort of hoping that you’d stay

Baby we both know

That the nights were mainly made for saying things that you can’t say tomorrow day

 

[Chorus]

Crawlin’ back to you

Ever though of calling when you’ve had a few

Cos I always do

Maybe I’m too busy being yours to fall for somebody new

Now I’ve thought it through

Crawlin’ back to you

 

So have you got the guts?

Been wondering if you’re heart’s still open

And if so I wanna know what time it shuts

Simmer down and pucker up

I’m sorry to interrupt

It’s just I’m constantly on the cusp

Of trying to kiss you

I don’t know if you feel the same as I do

But we could be together if you wanted to

 

Do I wanna know

If this feeling flows both ways?

Sad to see you go

Was sort of hoping that you’d stay

Baby we both know

That the nights were mainly made for saying things that you can’t say tomorrow day

 

[Chorus]

Crawlin’ back to you

Ever though of calling when you’ve had a few

Cos I always do

Maybe I’m too busy being yours to fall for somebody new

Now I’ve thought it through

Crawlin’ back to you

Too busy being yours to fall

Ever thought of calling darling?

Do you want me crawling back to you? 

 

Songwriters: Turner, Alex

Lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC

http://www.arcticmonkeys.com/song.php?id=136

 

Songwriting Resources 3 – Daily Inspiration

We’re chefs, right? Taking ingredients, even complete dishes, and combining them or adding a twist to produce something fresh and inspiring. As chefs we can’t go back to Freddy’s for the ribs every day. Or to Campagnola for the pasta. We need to be experimenting – yes, but we risk experimenting with the same old stuff if we don’t feed ourselves with the new stuff. 

If we’re open-minded, read lots of things, talk to people, practice and experiment then eventually we’ll have new ideas. Maybe. But we can jumpstart the process of finding new ways – our own ways. Travelling the world – yes we need to do that; but can’t always do it daily. Checking out the work of other chefs – yes, and if we can get recommendations and reviews all the better. 

Here are a few SongExpresso resources for having an idea that you didn’t wake up with:

1. Reddit

Just to lurk or to converse. SongExpresso doens’t really go for the posters who put up songs saying “please critique my work”. But good luck to them – actually it’s pretty brave (especially on Reddit where critiques tend to range from scathing to mildly abrasive). But check out the following. If you follow these subReddits you are sure to see something that you hadn’t thought of before:

http://www.reddit.com/r/WritingPrompts/ (personal favorite – nothing directly to do with songwriting)

http://www.reddit.com/r/writingprompt/ (not sure why we need two of these but this one is more down to earth and less mind boggling) (or not)

http://www.reddit.com/r/SongwritingPrompts/ (if really stuck why not? Also good for free writing or object wriing)

http://www.reddit.com/r/WriteDaily/ (a bit like object writing but with more accessible themes)

http://www.reddit.com/r/POETRYPrompts/ (kind of the same but with a tendency to more obscure themes).

2. Juxtaposing stuff

http://www.Poets.org/poetsorg/poem-day great selection of emotive modern poems – you can read one a day right?  SongExpresso thinks you should – and will return to this.

http://literaryjukebox.brainpickings.org/ a bold venture – the great brainpickings.org will never run out of thought-provoking material. SongExpresso finds the songs generally on the soft and folky side – but that’s a taste thing. In common they have quality and emotion (perhaps inevitably in order to be selected to be part of a literary project). No matter. Come here and see two things that didn’t together before and think about each element and their combined effect.

3. New Music

We used to have to wait for a particular new music DJ on the radio; now we can create our own station. 

http://www.stereogum.com/ There are a million music websites and blogs out there. This one is perhaps a bit edgier than most – SongExpresso guarantees you won’t have already heard everything on here.

https://www.kexp.org/live/ There are a million music stations and podcasts out there. But SongExpresso has never been bored by these short live performances.

http://www.soundopinions.org/ There are a m… you know. This one’s a keeper (a few too many sponsorship messages for SongExpresso’s liking, but someone needs to pay the royalties).

http://grantland.com/contributors/brian-koppelman/ Not just about music. And sometimes a teeny bit mutually self-congratulatory? But BK does like to ask probing questions about motivation and what it’s really like to be the artist.
 

Do you use any of these or any other ones? Recommendations (but not spam) always welcome and SongExpresso will review the worthwhile ones here.

See also other sections on:

3 pillars of fantastic – part 1: BYOF – Bring Your Own Feeling

Why do we like songs? What attracts us and what keeps us there? What’s important? 

SongExpresso would of course like to say “everything”, but that may not be realistic (or even always true).

SongExpresso believes that there are three pillars of fantastic. If you don’t have at least one of these that is fantastic, then your song will not be fantastic. But, predictably, SongExpresso just has to ask – is one enough? Why not strive for two? And why be happy until we have all three?

The first is what SongExpresso calls “feeling”. We could call it “soul”, “swing”, “vibe” or anything else: it’s the non-verbal thing that gets you going inside. It’s probably the most important of all and probably the hardest to find. On the other hand, if you get this element right, then people can often happily forget the others. Some artists bring it and add this to whatever good or bad material they’re given. If you’re the songwriter and the artist then you have to bring it yourself (“BYOF”). But even if not, songwriters of course can and should sow the seeds of feeling and design it into the fabric of the song. It’s the performance, the style, the energy that we hear in our minds when writing.

It comes from many places. SongExpresso doesn’t have the secret recipe. But SongExpresso is convinced that, while some are born with more or less natural feeling, is not just about talent. If we know how to experiment and keep learning then we can find the right feeling for any song. Here are just a few SongExpresso techniques. The object here is not to write a text book but to get your imagination flowing. As Tom Waits said – “your hands are like dogs” – they always like to go back to the same familiar places. So here are a few ideas of some different places to go to find the one where your half-written song feels at home.

Let’s kick off with time signature. Take a progression in straight eighth notes 4/4 time (here’s one for free: G-Bm-C-D7) – we might have rock, country, maybe pop. But without changing anything, now play the same in triplets – you now have a different driving, dramatic mood, straddling waltz-time and common time (check out “Home” by Lisa Hannigan). Think also about strumming patterns (or equivalent if not on guitar): down-up-down-up is a really different (jolly?) feel from down-down-down-down (more rocky already). What about double time? Classic example: “All My Loving” by The Beatles. Something of a physical challenge (at least to SongExpresso) but a great weapon to have. Not really about time signatures, but now play “All My Loving” in shuffle feel. Now bossa-nova (great!). Now… you get the picture. 

And now for something completely different (jazz lovers please look away now). Try taking our same major key progression (G-Bm-C-D7) and build the 7th onto each chord so we get GM7-Bm7-CM7-D7 (D7 stays a 7 – or does it? Let’s go crazy and make it a 9 – and the next time round a 13! Jazzers may reenter the room). Instant jazz. Or maybe folk. Try this new progression with some of the timing techniques we just mentioned – probably suits the tripleted/shuffle feel, or just some chunk-chunking. Your melody might not work the same now – but mix and match – try going back to the straight major progression and using the m7 – different more complex feeling already for the same melody?

Obviously, we have to talk about tempo. Most songs have a natural beat, but they need to find it (that means YOU need to find it). Remember what you start as a rock song might be a ballad or a dance number, or whatever. Check out “Stop Crying Your Heart Out” by Oasis – sounds like it’s deliberately been held back a bit, which matches the theme and lyrics. If speeded up it could sound like a happy ditty – totally not appropriate. Leona Lewis’s version is even more deliberate. Now try this – play “New Year’s Day” as an accoustic slow ballad using arpeggios – still sounds good? Admittedly we are listening with familiar ears. Could be a winner at weddings. But would it have been a hit? Probably not.

We haven’t even started on different instrumentation yet – most of us have just one that we know well and habitually compose on – but we all have a whole orchestra in our heads and maybe even bandmembers or friends to experiment with (if your friends happen to be a string quartet or horn section then hang onto them, and never let them go).

The trick is to match the feeling with the theme. The more of these techniques you have, the more likely you are to steer the song towards its correct destiny. Get the music theory you need. Listen to all styles of music with a critical ear. Steal widely and imitate often. Play with others. Ask around. You’ll know the feeling when you feel it. Send us your own favorites. Or your experiences with the ones above.

A few different “feeling” examples to get us going:

  • Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers – “You get me High” 
  • Barry Ryan (or The Damned) – “Eloise”
  • Badly Drawn Boy – “Something to talk about”

These aren’t that interesting lyrically (“Eloise” is even on SongExpresso’s Rhyme Crime wanted list) or, with the possible exception of “Something to Talk About”, musically. And of course styles and tastes are very personal. But doesn’t each of them have something of that indefinable feeling that really suits the song and that we’re all looking for as composers and listeners? As always, send in your favorites – we’re particularly interested in songs that have “the feeling” but not much else to recommend them…

But don’t forget the other two pillars and to strive for all three together…

Part 2: Melody (coming soon)
Part 3: Lyrics: Always Be Diving For Pearls

“Cornerstone” – Benjamin Clementine – don’t try this at home (home, home, home, home)

SongExpresso challenges you to listen to Benjamin Clementine and not to have an opinion. Or remember something from what you just heard. No-one else we know does anything like this (and really they shouldn’t try). A jumble of diverse accelerations, dynamics, melodies and feelings? No, a feast. 

We can speculate where this comes from (possibly something to do with classical influences or “French” emphasis on lyrical content? – ChansonExpress remains to be convinced but will investigate) – possibly also partly being at the first album stage (that’s when writers have the greatest amount of material and freedom to do things their way). Certainly, there is enormous freedom in the lyrics and style, and we’re left with the impression that although we don’t necessarily know what’s coming next, to the writer and eventually to us it just feels right. And is actually more structured than we might assume.

So, let’s dive in:

“Cornerstone”, Benjamin Clementine

I am alone in a box of stone

Hold it right there – “box” is such a pejorative word – really objective and stark; packaging, almost. It’s not even a shell. Box of stone – can only be two things, a house or a coffin. Which is it?

When all is said and done

As the wind blows to the east from the west

Unto this bed, my tears have their solemn rest

We still don’t know whether it’s a house or a coffin – the “solemn rest” certainly leaves an infusion of death in the air. We may have different opinions depending on the rest of the song and how we see it, and perhaps that’s exactly right: it doesn’t really matter – he’s come to (or near to) the end of his life and his house is his coffin; if not dead then he is as good as dead… Whether looking back from the grave, or living with nothing to look forward to, there’s no hope.

For I am lonely, alone in a box of stone

They claim to love me, but they’re all lying

I’ve been lonely, alone in a box of my own

And this is the place I now belong

There’s lots of emotion just in this segment: I am lonely – either old at the end of my life and no-one comes around, or past the end of my life and just forgotten. Alone in a box of my own – it’s just a thing, maybe worked all my life to buy this house and it’s turned out meaningless because it’s empty (or I just ended up in a coffin anyway). Any that’s where I now belong – no hope, no way out.

It’s my home, home, home, home, home, home, home, home

This might seem like a throwaway line – but the repetition is really effective in emptying the word of any romance or tenderness – like this it’s just a word. The character repeats it, more in resignation than despair (compare this with the anger of “they’re all lying”). We’re left with a feeling of hopelessness and fatalism.

It wasn’t easy getting used to this

I used to scream

It’s not true, that it’s only when the door is locked

That nobody enters

Cos mine has been open till your demise

But none had come, well who am I

What have i done wrong?

This part feels more like the despair of being left alone at the end of life (partially by death – whose demise? his last so-called friend? we don’t know – but in general by apathy and disinterest), followed by the resignation. “I used to scream” says it all. But he got used to it. No hope. Slam. 

Also, we like the way that the “it’s only when the door is locked” lines don’t quite scan and come out half-spoken: we understand that this is what he really feels so he needs to express it, without compromise, and breaking the rhythm like this makes it unmissable. SongExpresso is reminded of Billy Joel’s non-rhymes.

I’ve been lonely, alone in a box of my own

They claim to be near me but they were all lying, it’s not true

I’ve been lonely, alone in a box of stone

This is the place I now belong

We’ve had all this before – but this is more so – the lines “they were all lying, it’s not true” are an angry statement of fact. This is how it is, without nuance or exception.

It’s my home, home, home, home, home, home, home, home

Friends, I have met

Lovers have slept and wept

Promises to stay have never been kept

This bare truth of which most won’t share

I hope you share, I hope you share

What about this part? It’s almost as if the lies and the abandonment are worse than never having had any human contact at all. And “most won’t share” – because we’re all selfish. Except, you dear listener, might you understand and be good to someone like me? He hopes not for himself but for others.

Cos I’ve been lonely

Alone in a box of my own

They claim to love me and be near me

But they are all lying

I have been lonely, alone in a box of my own

And this is the place I now belong

Its my home, home, home, home, home, home, home, home

The ending is a bit breathless… not of desperation, but final breaths?

So, although this may not be our style, or topic, and we normally wouldn’t think of packing a song so full of such varied ingredients, what can we take away and use?

  • consistency: while the song has its rhythmic ebbs and flows, the lyrics consistently support and return to the feeling of hopelessness. As well expressed in this article, don’t ever break the mood, always try to have everything keep building it up.
  • breaking the rhythm: SongExpresso finds the “it’s not true”, “they’re all lying” interjections really effective – they break out from established rhythm and verge on being a bit “shouty”. This makes the anger palpable and impossible to ignore. Can we try this? Can we take a key line that we don’t want the listener to forget and just speak or shout it? A technique not to be overused, for sure. What about the other way round? A metal song with a tender interlude in which we really hear the words before going back to full volume? Why not? If what’s in the break is important, then giving it its own oasis can make it stand out from the sand.
  • repetition: “home, home, home” – we may not have much opportunity to ever reproduce this. But here it is super-effective, because it unloads the word of all symbolism or romance. So think of a symbolic object – wedding ring, feather, pyramid, diploma, autograph, pet… repeat ten times and the symbolism falls away – it just becomes a thing, just a word.
  • reduction: “box” is the reduction to its lowest form of the home or house (or coffin). A perfect technique for the theme of this song – material things are meaningless and powerless to affect the writer’s hopelessness. So maybe we might also try this: compare: clothes vs. cloth; banknotes vs. paper; wine cellar vs. hole full of glass. The thesaurus doesn’t necessarily get us here – it’s really a type of metaphor, or some other figure of speech. (SongExpresso refuses to go onto Wikipedia in order to find the Greek word for this and pretend that we use these terms every day…) This one seems to work only in a disdainful, reductive way: SongExpresso doesn’t really see much mileage in calling paper “potential banknotes”. Though we’re intrigued by the idea of “glass aspiring to be a wine bottle”… Got any good examples to share (of either)?

 

The Rhyme Crime post

As a young performer, I had a song which contained the not very remarkable verse:

“You say it could all be the same

If I would only let it;

But I don’t want to play this game,

When we both want something better.”

It was a kind of anguished indie-folk-jazz thing with a trumpet section that actually sounded pretty good. But I will always remember our bass player saying “trying to rhyme ‘let it’ and ‘better’ really grates – you need to change that”. I think I took it on board but never quite got round to doing the work. It didn’t grate to me – and it actually caught the meaning I was looking for. And in the scale of things, it’s not that bad, right?

SongExpresso is now all about doing the work. There are two parts to this – the emotional one: you strive to be the most professional and the best you can be (I think Taylor Hawkins said something like that), and the practical one: as Barbara Cloyd said, producers are “looking for any reason to say no.” As soon as they hear one thing they don’t like, they pass and go on to the next song.

What would I do with this now? Maybe something like this:

“You say that we can turn back time

And it wouldn’t hurt to try;

But going back seems like a crime 

When we both deserve to fly.”

Hmm. Swapped a bad rhyme for a cliché? And lots of “i” sounds. Have another delve:

“You’re tempting me to stay

But I can’t justify 

Accepting yesterday

When we both deserve to fly.”

That took quite a few minutes, one bike ride and two sleeps. It’s getting there. It was worth it already. Bass-guy was right… I had committed SongGBH. But was it rhyme crime? Not really – I had gone with a bad rhyme and not been sufficiently bothered to look and find all means of escape (slightly ironic given the theme of the song). True first-degree rhyme crime is saying something no-one would ever normally say (or worse still something that you don’t really mean) just in order to make a rhyme.

So here’s the thing. There are loads of music professionals who commit this all the time. And I never like to criticise professionals (after all they are professionals and I am sitting writing this). But some of them seriously need a bass-player to make a citizen’s arrest. Or a shot of SongExpresso. OK, so now they (and their fans) will all hate me. But here we go with some examples that we don’t ever want to follow:

1. Rhyme Misdemeanours – no-one really notices or cares 

OK, some songs aren’t intended to be taken seriously (or apparently even listened to – and certainly not ever written down and scrutinized). And it’s all about the hook. But why settle for less? Why not be the best we can be? SongExpresso wants you (us) to feel great – and never apologetic – about every line.

The way you move me / Everything is groovy  (“Drive By” – Train)

Maybe this has to go down as attempted rhyme crime as it actually fails to do so. And groovy? Was that word sent back from the 60s in a rhyme-crime-time-machine? Also contains “I’m just a shy guy looking for a two-ply” among other – um – unique lyrics.

So open up your morning light / And say a little prayer for I.  (“I Don’t Wanna Wait” – Paula Cole)

Boom, she shot the rhyme (and the English language) into the air, and missed. Unless she is really saying “for right”? (as if that would make it better).

My Eloisa, I long to please her…  (“Eloise” – Barry Ryan, as faithfully reproduced by The Damned)

That’s taking poetic licence pretty far – to actually change the lady’s name in order to make the (awful) rhyme.

2. Rhyme Felony – some people notice – most just find it amusing

Somehow a few classic radio songs have been allowed to go down in music history with their rhyme crime intact. Light entertainment, not art you say? This does matter. Even a burger bar doesn’t leave garbage on the floor…

Yes, there’s love if you want it / Don’t sound like no sonnet  (“Sonnet” – The Verve) – Agree with that…

Abra, abra-cadabra / I want to reach out and grab ya  (“Abracadabra” – Steve Miller Band) – Yeah, ‘like Cleopatra’…

Nobody calling on the phone / ‘Cept for the Pope maybe in Rome  (“What if God was one of us” – Joan Osborne) – no comment.

Gotta write a classic… I can’t bring myself even to go on with that one.

3. Rhyme Homicide – take them away

These are just inexcusable lapses from people that should know better.  

Never opened myself this way / Life is ours, we live it our way / All these words I don’t just say  (“Nothing Else Matters” – Metallica)

Pardon? Was this written with Google Translate?

Piano keyboard, oh lord  (“Ebony and Ivory” – Paul and Stevie)

Piano keys, oh please?

Even if you cannot hear / My voice / I’ll be right beside you, dear  (“Run” – Snow Patrol)

Everyone loves this epic indie anthem. But I can’t get past the “dear”… Pass the indie sherry and my anthemic zimmer frame, dear?

 

My view? Rhyme crime is never necessary. Sorry, Sir Paul and company, there is always an alternative. But – at least in my case – it takes wrestling and wringing and wrenching, a convoy of JCBs to dig into your inner imagination and dusty dictionaries. This is not simply about calling people out when they do this – we’re constructive and always asking “how could this be better?” or “could we perfect this?”. Usually we could do a bit better. And it’s a worthy process. As always, send me your favourites – but also say what you would do instead… (but don’t bother with the classic in the attic – that ship has sailed and even a cafetiere of SongExpresso couldn’t bring that one back…).

 

"An Innocent Man" – in a rhyme crime free zone

SongExpresso has a thing about Billy Joel. Hugely musical songs in varied styles and a way of using natural language that never makes you go “eh?” (though even he had a bad day at the office: “We didn’t start the fire”, seriously).

For sure this won’t be the only time we analyse one of his lyrics. But this one is chosen particularly for what it isn’t – if you listen to Honesty, A Matter of Trust, etc. etc. then you’ll hear this super flowing series of rhyme after rhyme which never sound forced and just support the song’s flow and message (#SongExpressoNirvana). But this one contains… in the verses, almost no rhymes.

It’s a bold choice. How he holds it together is with a very subtle rhyme scheme ABCD EFGD, plus the natural rhythm of the lyrics and the relaxed phrasing.

 

An Innocent Man  (http://www.billyjoel.com/music/innocent-man/innocent-man)

Some people stay far away from the door

If there’s a chance of it opening up

They hear a voice in the hall outside

And hope that it just passes by

No rhymes. So it sounds more like speech. Rhyming now could break the sincerity. But note also that as listeners we don’t care – there’s no moment where we yearn for a rhyme anywhere in the verse. And why “some people”? At the moment we don’t actually know who Billy’s character is speaking to, he might just be making a general observation. 

Some people live with the fear of a touch

And the anger of having been a fool

They will not listen to anyone

So nobody tells them a lie

This time we end on a rhyme with the last line of the previous verse. Perhaps we don’t even notice the rhyme – is it even necessary? It’s skillfully done and doesn’t sound forced. And it closes off this first section in a satisfying way – we’re not waiting for anything more. Also notice the use of senses and emotions we have been through – hearing, hoping, fear, touch, anger, listening. 

We can empathize and maybe recognise something here in ourselves; that’s also the power of NOT making this personal e.g. “I know you’ve lived with the fear” etc. That might be too direct and negative. Here, the criticism is gentle and seems full of understanding. I think this reflects generally Billy’s style in the romantic songs – he likes to speak straightforwardly in the voice of his “I” character addressing someone else – compare with “Honesty” – “Honesty is such a lonely word” (statement of fact, could be internal), but mostly what I need from you (definitely external and shows us that the whole thing is directed to the other character).

I know you’re only protecting yourself

I know you’re thinking of somebody else

Someone who hurt you

Still full of understanding and empathy – but now speaking directly to the “you” character – and placing the blame on the other (bad) lover. 

But I’m not above

Making up for the love

You’ve been denying you could ever feel

I’m not above doing anything

To restore your faith if I can

The “But” is really just a leading note and the beat falls on the “I’m” to emphasize the contrast with the bad lover. It also sounds like how we’d say it in real life “he may have been like that but I’m certainly not”. Natural language = #SongExpressoHappiness. And the repetition adds emphasis – I’m not above that, in fact I’m not above doing anything. 

The “above” is interesting – yes, it rhymes with love. But again we see Billy’s character being non-judgmental and trying to show that’s he’s not trying to be smug or better but just speaking with the benefit of experience.

Some people see through the eyes of the old

Before they ever get to look at the young

I’m only willing to hear you cry

Because I am an innocent man

Oh yes I am

Here we have a similar “Honesty” style phrase – we start with “Some people” but midway go to I and you, so it’s all one impassioned speech. And this is really nice stuff – more sense-based images (seeing, hearing); getting old prematurely and missing out on youth; crying (also part of the youth idea?) and innocent – again contrast with the bad (guilty) lover. It’s a great theme – it’s not just “I’m a good man” or “a better man” but “innocent” – and so it’s unfair to penalise me due to others’ mistakes. There is something pure and enduring about this statement – he’s not just innocent today but someone you can put your faith into. Faith and innocence (linked by our only rhyme in this two verse section – can and man) give us an almost biblical flavor.

Some people say they will never believe

Another promise they hear in the dark

Because they only remember too well

They heard somebody tell them before

Some people sleep all alone every night

Instead of taking a lover to bed

Some people find that’s it’s easier to hate

Than to wait anymore

More of the same? Almost. I think a promise in the dark is a great euphemism – we all know what it means without needing to be told. Although contrast this with taking a lover to bed – old bad lover gets a euphemism while future better lover doesn’t need to beat around the bush (so innocent in the sense of “not evil”, not in the sense of “chaste”). 

By the way, what’s the opposite of a lover – a hater? No, a promise breaker… 

Finally, the language retains the spoken tone and natural, poetic rhythm – you might miss the rhyme if you weren’t looking for it.

I know you don’t want to hear what I say

I know you’re gonna keep turning away

But I’ve been there and if I can survive

I can keep you alive

I’m not above going through it again

I’m not above being cool for a while

If you’re cruel to me I’ll understand

Change of pace. More poppy more upbeat – more rhymey. Not “some people” any more but “I” – what we’ve been doing is getting more and more personal as we’ve gone along. This is probably the “Braveheart moment” (“Will you fight with me?”). But not preachy – gets the objections out of the way first and then drops in the “I’ve been there” story. Get a pad and write down as many empathetic and patient concepts as you can… 

Some people run from a possible fight

Some people figure they can never win

And although this is a fight I can lose

The accused is an innocent man

Oh yes I am

An innocent man

You know you only hurt yourself out of spite

I guess you’d rather be a martyr tonight

That’s your decision

But I’m not below

Anybody I know

If there’s a chance of resurrecting a love

I’m not above going back to the start

To find out where the heartache began

 

Some people hope for a miracle cure

Some people just accept the world as it is

But I’m not willing to lay down and die

Because I am an innocent man

 

I am an innocent man

Oh yes I am

An innocent man

I could go on but have gone on enough. But note the sheer length of the lyrics – minimal repetition and great content every time. I think the lack of rhymes enables this – the ear can take more. It’s almost two songs in one – the soft (empathetic) part then an upbeat (passionate) part. That’s an occasional SongExpresso technique by the way, when stuck – knitting together two or more fragments – obviously they have to work thematically but can effectively deliver a change of mood and elevate a song out of a rut.

So, takeaways:

  • Rhyme scheme – or non-rhyme: I think the ear does expect a rhyme sometimes: songs rhyme. But when you’ve got a lot to say, consider ditching the rhyme and really saying it with freedom. Of course, don’t also lose the poetry and rhythm…
  • Point of view: Think of different ways to say things. Do you ever feel your lyric might be a bit “preachy”? (I have one that builds up to a finale which incites the audience to “Enjoy each day while it’s here!” – ugh, definitely in need of a double-shot of my own medicine). If we take a cue from Billy, we can try out some different ways to say it, either to make it less personal: “Like people say, enjoy each day” or more personal: “You made me realise that I should enjoy each day”. Already a bit better.
  • Meshing two fragments: If we write every day and build up a catalogue of song ideas, adding one into another song may be a gift for a change of pace, pre-chorus, bridge. (Tip: they probably don’t fit together just like that – it’s essential to adapt and meld and not create SongFrankenstein).
  • Lists: If you have a good title or starting idea then build on that. Mind-mapping or just listing is great for this. Look in the dictionary and all the other forms of the word, or in the thesaurus: e.g.:

http://www.wordreference.com/thesaurus/innocent 

innocent‘ also found in these entries:

above reproach – above suspicion – angelic – artless – benign – blameless – boyish – callow – candid – chaste – child – childish – childlike – clean – clear – cleared – credulous – excusable – guiltless – inexperienced – modest – naive – natural – pure – safe – simple – sinless – tasteless – unsure – unsuspecting – unsuspecting – untarnished – with clean hands

Some great ideas there already.

Let me know what you think, especially if you are a fellow Billy fan…

Songwriting Resources 2 – Songwriting blogs

Guess what? SongExpresso does not have any monopoly on amazing songwriting ideas. Here are a few really good blogs for finding others:

 

  • Nicholas Tozier: He’s into practice, discipline and focus. And language. And finishing songs.
  • USA Songwriting Competition: Not so much for the competition itself, but the blog almost always has top level professional guest bloggers who (again almost always) have something non-obvious to contribute.

 

Do you use any of these or any other ones? Recommendations (but not spam) always welcome and I will review the worthwhile ones here.

 

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