Because this is filler, filler night…

Take this SongExpresso verse:

“My tired eyes
Were looking forward to your bed
But now they’re getting used to the idea
That they’ll be closing all alone instead”

The idea here is not to promote SongExpresso’s works, but real life examples are always helpful, right? (But does the world seriously need yet another breakup song? – Ed.) 

It was just “OK”. First draft. Some “synecdoche” going on. But the third line was supposed to have eight syllables. And scan. Ugh. Paralysis? No! Do the work…

“But now they’re coming to the conclusion” ?

Still sounds off. Work harder. What are we looking for? Eight syllables, scans in a singable way. Possibly something that works with the eyes reference. Next try:

“But it looks as if from now on
That they’ll be closing all alone instead”

Well at least it scans. And contains the word “looks”. But what new information does this give us? Nada. That line has no purpose whatsoever but to take us to the next line. And it’s boring. Do you know what you created? Yeah, filler. Good enough? Not for SongExpresso. 

“Considering the prospect?” (Jason Isbell already took that one in a much classier way). “Now they’re realising?” Hmmm. SongExpresso is frustrated. Seriously considering junking the whole verse. Take dog for a walk.

SongExpresso (and his dog) cannot rest until this is perfected. So where did it end up?

“But the realisation’s dawning
That they’ll be closing all alone instead.”

SongExpresso won’t say “nailed it”, but it’s a huge improvement – proper length, a tinge of personal insight, and slightly more interesting vocabulary – “dawning”, to fit into that night-time theme.

What’s the moral? Do the work. If you care about your listeners. Or if you just care. Please care.

And you know what? That verse never made it into the finished song. SongExpresso decided that it needed to be “Guilty eyes” and the whole thing needed to go in a different direction. More work. But the song turned out as good as it could be, with no stone (or rhyming dictionary or thesaurus) unturned. That’s what we’re here for. (If curious, a dodgily recorded demo of the song can be listened to here.)

Sometimes it’s hard: “You start to freeze as horror looks you right between the eyes. You’re paralysed…”

No you’re not, unless you want to. Get a shot of SongExpresso and do the work.

I wrote a blues. I wrote a rap. I wrote International English.

“Hey, I wrote a blues!” “Seriously?” “Yeah, I quite like it.” “Are you a blues player?” “Umm, well I do a bit and this one just seemed to, like, come out.”

“Hey, I wrote a rap!” “Seriously?” “Yes – good flow, nice rhymes.” “Are you a rapper?” “Umm, well not really but I had these lyrics, and it just seemed to fit, you know.”

Now, SongExpresso likes a good blues. But the blues has somehow turned into an international language enabling guitarists (and others) of all abilities the world over to jam instantly. Yeah, hear my scale tones! 

And, as regular readers also know by now, SongExpresso likes some good hip-hop. But, again, hip-hop has turned into a some sort of worldwide thing where anyone can participate. Yay, hear my rebelliousness!

It’s cool. Let’s make music and have a good time. Are there any rules? Who cares?

SongExpresso thinks this can sometimes be a little bit like international English. International English is an amazing thing that allows people from all over the world to communicate using words. However, if you ask an actual English-speaking person, then probably this is a bit like the language they speak if it had been abducted by aliens and replaced with a near replica. Like SongInstantCoffee… (TM waived).

Please don’t stop writing blues or rap. If it is your intention to write blues or rap. But can they sometimes be a tempting refuge for lyrics or music that don’t have anywhere else to go? Can they sometimes be a lazy way out if we are not struck by melodic inspiration? No! Collaborate, leave in the freezer, do over in the style of another artist. Do the work…

Writing original melodies is one of the hardest things. Anyone else sometimes tempted to fit into pre-existing styles that aren’t really our own? How do you get over melodic blocks? As always, SongExpresso would love to hear… 

Are you sure it’s a song?

The other day, SongExpresso presented a songwriting collaborator with a steaming pile of lyrics without a melody. Only to be asked “Is this some kind of spoken word thing?” Ouch. I had written prose.

I loved the concept and some of the detail. But I was having endless difficulties with it. Melody, like an upside-down magnet, was refusing to attach to the lyrics. Chords would scatter bird-like away from my lyrical dogs.

Maybe there was no “prosody”. Or maybe I was relying too much on prosody to do the work, expecting melody to flow naturally out of the words. Not to mention that there was a radical internal rhyme scheme where the rhyme would appear in different places in each verse, but this ultimately only went to add confusion and subtract satisfaction.

In retrospect all this is normal. SongExpresso thinks you can tell where a set of lyrics have been written at a desk and then later put to music (all Squeeze and Elton John songs probably excepted). As they say, a desk is a dangerous place

A lyrical idea can happen in isolation at any time. But then it isn’t a song, just an idea. If it doesn’t have rhythm and feeling it may just be prose. You can impose some structure and develop ideas on paper or a computer and possibly hear instruments in your head (if you are Beethoven). Otherwise, your idea needs to be put in a taxi, taken to a party, and sat next to a musical instrument (or made to dance flirtatiously with lots of musical instruments until it finds one it likes). Then they need to spend time together so that their bits crystallize into a song.

You can – and should – go back to the desk and work more. But doing that is much more likely to produce a song after magnetic melody has adhered to your words, and chords of grouse have settled around your lyrical corn.

SongExpresso’s collaborator in this case was a “get a demo done” type of person, a fresh approach that really helped. What do you do when you get lyrics without a melody? How do you take it to the next stage? As always, SongExpresso wants to hear your ideas and experiences.
 

What’s a songwriter?

Songwriter /’sɒŋˌraɪtə/ (n): A normal person who (1) observes details in the world; (2) hears and connects them in a musical way; and (3) writes them down.

An abandoned object, a dog barking at a bird, a faded book, a new school, a conversation on a train, a misheard lyric, a new take on an old phrase. It depends if you pass them by, or pick them up and remember to take them somewhere.

Anyone can do this. Most people do (1) and even (2) from time to time, but not (3). If we work at all of them, all the time, and go back and squeeze the potential out of – and squeeze our feeling into – what we find, then that’s when the magic can happen.

The Song Funnel

Welcome to the world, my unbearably adorable, squishy, little coochie-baby song idea. Come with me immediately to the SongKindergarten(TM).

Actually, you are allowed to stay here forever. It’s a free kind of school. No curriculum. No teachers. Play with other little darlings if you like. There are dozens of them! Go crazy. Let things happen. No worries.

Sometimes a SongExpresso inspector will arrive unannounced. Don’t be afraid. Unless you are more or less identical to one of the other little i-dears, you’ll never be ejected. Possibly you will be made to play with other similar ideas. Possibly you will get to come and dine with me, and get fattened up to make you bigger and stronger and more developed. Maybe even grafted together with one of your fellow little ones to form a bigger idea (child metaphor starting to run out of steam).

If SongExpresso sees that you are nearing adolescence, you may be thrust into the SongCollege(TM). This is good for you. You want this. The SongKindergarten is a great place to be but you should really be moving up in life and seeing something new. Here you will get my full attention. There are probably not more than 10 or 15 other spotty young things in this class. You may even get introduced to a collaborator and move in a different direction. Certainly here you’ll get lots of instrument time and this is where you really grow into your full potential. Unlike mammals, it’s not at birth but here where the “labour” really happens (child metaphor starting to get quite weird now).

You’re an adolescent. You’re unruly. You have some bits that are messy and some that no-one really understands. You have some bad rhymes still and some outlandish images. You have 4 and a half verses, which is about 50% too many but no-one is sure which are the good ones. You lack a break or a solo or an intro. But you’re the future. You’ll work your way into my brain and during the night or the shower or a book or being out in the park, a little bit more of you will be finished off.

Until the day where we all smile. You’re good to go. You’re a SongGraduate(TM) – you can now officially use the title “Song” (or any of its translations in any official language of your choosing). You can go out into the world and see whether someone other than your proud parent will love you. It doesn’t matter, because I always will.

Maybe you’re an ant-idea and will progress through all stages in a day. Or maybe you’re more of a diplodocus-idea and will have the longest adolescence of any living thing ever (please do not write in to tell me that this is not a scientific fact and it should be e.g. the Royal or Wandering Albatross). The important thing is to keep moving. Because there are lots more cute little coochie babies being born every day.

A broody SongExpresso is off to re-name his “Song Ideas”, “Songs in Progress” and “Songs Finished” Evernote notebooks. What do you call yours?

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?