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.

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

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…).

 

FAWM? No it isn’t.

February is album writing month! No it isn’t.  

Just ship it! No, please don’t. 

50/90? No, no, no, 0.5555555 times no.

I get it – the idea is to have confidence in your work and not be so worried about imperfections that it never gets out the door. And also to get some songs finished rather than having them languish while you add yet more ideas and half-done projects into the funnel. Guilty!

However, these “get it out of the door” challenges generally promote derivativism, tediousness, cliches and rhyme crime. The opposite of what SongExpresso stands for!

Expresso can be quick; but it must always be rich. With the best ingredients we can find…

Our aim on here is to take some time and get some inspiration to make those songs as perfect as we can get them – and at the very least to make us feel we’ve given them everything we’ve got. To produce lyrics that are thoughtful, colorful and attention-grabbing. To get those songs out of the door – but in the right way.

If you need a middle eight, or even just a non-awkward-sounding word, SongExpresso won’t let you hack something together – let’s take some time, smell the coffee and get it right…

It’s like having yet another Expresso when you don’t want one (there is a limit even to that).

The “write a little bit every day” challenge? Yes, it’s like the “have a coffee for breakfast challenge” – let’s sign up for that.

Do you disagree? Do you think these challenges are useful even if just as a means to an end and not an end in themselves? Let me know…