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.

Cracking creative blocks using reverse engineering

Yes, it can be hard to come up with a compelling story, intriguing characters and find a satisfying resolution in just a few minutes. Making it musical and lyrically arousing is not the problem – that’s what we do. But we’ve all been there. Sometimes we just need a fresh idea.

Two words: music video. The other night, SongExpresso had a craving for a bit of accessible drum and bass and came across two memorable Rudimental videos: “Not Giving In” and “Waiting All Night”. Firstly, hats off to the makers Josh Cole and Nez Khammal. Their role visually was actually not much different to what we are doing lyrically – take a theme and imagine a whole world around it to portray that story in a short time. In the short time of the length of a song. 

Go on, watch those examples and think about (i) the actual lyrics and (ii) where the director has taken them. 

In each case, the lyrics are simple and catchy with a very straightforward message. SongExpresso thinks that this is often what dance lyrics need to be – and by simple we don’t mean easy. 

So we have “Not Giving In” – whose message is: “I made some mistakes in the past but this time I’ll not give in to temptation”. A nice idea for the two brothers, one getting on in life and in contrast the other going down a fatally wrong path. 

And “Waiting All Night” – “I’ve been waiting all night [for you to tell me what you want]”. Where is one place where someone would wait all night? In a hospital of course. Match that to another true inspiring story and we are off.

Now the exciting part. Forget about the original lyrics. Watch the videos again. Do it with the sound off if it helps. Pretty emotionally charged stuff. Any ideas stirring? I bet. Just for some bonus fun, try this: video of one song and audio of the other. Start both at the first vocal (NGI: 0’44”; WAN: 0’34”). We might edit a little differently but actually they still work, giving a slightly different message. See? We have characters, back story, conflict and resolution – what more do you need to start writing?

SongExpresso is not saying this is going to work every time. If the video just tells the same story as the song, it’s going to be quite hard to squeeze out an original take. What we want is a video that is implied by the title or the song but doesn’t follow it. But like we said with Mr. Banks, when we have a starting point then things have a much better chance to flow. 

And, best of all, we can bask in the satisfaction and don’t have to tell anyone what we did. As we never get tired of saying on SongExpresso, “it’s not where you take it from – it’s where you take it to”…

SongExpresso is sure that there are a million other examples out there. What about “Love Me Again” by John Newman?  Depeche Mode’s videos were (are) always great too. Not sure whether “Wrong” or “Enjoy the Silence” are really suitable for this exercise – but what do I know? 

Have you done this? Have you got any candidates? As always, SongExpresso would love to hear.

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.

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.

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: