Songwriting 101: A Tale of Two Songs - PVSG #2 & #3

As the winter months continue to trudge along, I am still wrestling my muse into committing to write a song & post it every two weeks. This years Polar Vortex Songwriting Game is quite an exercise in mental discipline & a lesson in learning to pace yourself. These past few weeks,  I have experienced two distinct sides of the creative coin and would like to share my process and what I've learned from both approaches.

Approach #1: The Creative Binge meets the Perfectionist

Burn You Empire Down - PVSG#2

One of my habits thus far as an artist, has been to go for long stretches without creating anything & then just completely binging on the process. I'll get so obsessed with an idea or a song, that it will be very difficult for me to sleep, eat or concentrate on anything else. I gorge myself on the music and wake up a few days later completely spent and disorientated. Sometimes there is a wonderful song laying next to me, but often times it is surrounded by collateral life damage. This process is often painful and can make it difficult to rouse yourself for the next go around. I will admit there is a certain joy in losing your sense of time & space in your art, but it doesn't come with out consequences.

For the PVSG challenge #2, I suggested that we write a song based on the Lydian mode. Which I won't go too far into here, but basically Lydian is: a mode of the major scale based on shifting the tonal center to the fourth note. Basically you reorder the scale and start with the fourth note, while keeping the same notes. This allows you hear a different "color" to the major scale. You can also think of Lydian mode as having a sharped 4th note in comparison to it's parallel major scale. So for example if you had a C major scale: C D E F G A B C, it's fourth mode is F Lydian which starts on F: F G A B C D E F. Same notes, different tonal center. In comparison to an F Major (Ionian) you have a sharped 4th note: F Major: F G A Bb C D E F. The C Lydian scale, (which is parallel to C Major) is C D E F# G A B C. See how the 4th note is raised a half step?

Anyway...needless to say, this was not your run of the mill challenge.  We often start with a lyric phrase & this time we started with a musical constraint. I ended up writing a song that started out in Lydian, but I think it ended up in the Mixolydian mode, which is a mode based on shifting the tonal center to the 5th note in the scale. Still with me? Lol. I think my take away here with out getting into another huge theory lesson is this:

*Sometimes you can start with one idea and it morphs into another one*

That is perfectly ok when writing a song. The prompts are just there to get your juices flowing, or in this case to shake you out of a comfort zone. The lyrics in this case were inspired by recent frustrations with current events:

F# E

Camera obscura
Reverse reality
Look through the pin-hole
See what you want to see
Stick your head in the ground
Cover up your ears until there's no sound

D E F#

We are going to burn your empire down
We are going to burn your empire down

F# E

White wash the rainbows
Sanitize the screams
Muzzle the newsmen
So your echo will agree
Wear the hat on your head
Crimson fashioned from the dead

D E F#

We are going to burn your empire down
We are going to burn your empire down

D E C#m D | D E Bm (x2)

Give me your tired
Give me your poor
Your huddled masses
Yearning to breathe free

The wretched refuse
Of your teeming shore
Send these the homeless
Tempest-tossed to me

F# E

Tear gas the sacred
Firehouse the free
Bulldoze the brilliant
Laugh at liberty
Take a good look around
Cause we're coming for your
Scarecrow's crown

D E F#

We are going to burn your empire down
We are going to burn your empire down

We will lift our lamp beside the golden door
We will lift our lamp beside the golden door

The bridge actually is the sonnet that is written on the Statue of Liberty, which I thought created a nice contrast to the darkness of the verses. A little contrast in a song can go a long way! One concept I am working with lately is that of "Song Seeds". I learned this from a Berklee songwriting book by Mark Simos called; "Songwriting Strategies: A 360 degree Approach".

The idea in essence is to "capture" small snippets of inspiration in their rawest form without adding unnecessary filler.  In this song the "seed" was a quote I had heard somewhere about seeing life through a pin-hole camera. I wrote it down and left it alone until inspiration hit. Later I was able to form that lyric idea into a concept about the current state of things.

The recording process I used for this song was interesting as well. I'm in pretty deep with Apple products at this point, but they are coming out with some pretty good tools for songwriters. I just down loaded the new Music Memos App for iOS and have been enjoying hearing my tracks with simple drums and bass added to it by the program. For this track, I recorded the initial guitar track into Music Memos, kept the bass track it generated and then exported all of that to Garageband. Initially this was working fine, but I found that I needed some of the advanced features of Logic Pro and upgraded to it's new X version.

Now Garageband works great if you are looking for a streamlined process, the new "smart drummer" feature is incredible for songwriters.  It basically will take fully adjustable prerecorded samples from a number of real drummers and match them to your track, tempo and all. Pretty cool:

If want the "supercharged" version of this with more adjustable features, try Logic Pro X.  For Burn Your Empire Down, I used a prerecorded drummer named Logan, basically a classic rock type of sound. I then rerecorded my guitar track into Logic, recorded an electric part & then recorded a vocal take over top of all of that. For the outro, I had my daughter and my lady record multiple takes singing the same line for a large chorus effect.

All in all this was recorded very intensively over the course of three days. A lot for what was intended to be a simple demo. I am by no means a sound engineer and this is where I usually get tripped up, trying to "mix" without really knowing what I'm doing. I will say that Youtube is an amazing reference for figuring things out though, pretty much any question you have with programs like this have been answered at some point on the site.

While I am happy experimenting with new tools and sounds, the creative "binge" left me drained and leery of doing it again in another week. Which brings us to:

Approach #2: The John Lennon "Instant Karma" Method

A Very Long Year -PVSG#3

One of my favorite music documentaries is the Classic Albums series that originally aired on VH1. My ultimate favorite one might be the John Lennon - Plastic Ono Band episode. In it, they reveal all of the inspiration and studio techniques that went into the now seminal recording. By the time John Lennon had left the Beatles, he had tired of the endless studio revisions that the late-Beatles were known for doing in the studio process. While that might have produced some amazing work, it seemed like the creative binge had worn John out and left him looking for a more immediate experience in the studio. 

In a story about the recording of "Instant Karma" they tell of John going in, recording a take or two, getting a "quick mix" and then taking that as the master & long hours in the studio mixing to death, no mastering engineer, just a "quick mix" released to the world....instant karma, instant song:

For this past weeks song challenge, I took the John Lennon approach. After the holidays & my previous creative binge, I didn't have the time or the energy to engage with the process the same way again. We were given the prompt: The Vanishing Note. I had a concept seed about paying tribute to all the creative heroes that passed in 2016, but it sat dormant until a day before the deadline. At that point, my impending guilt about not doing it kicked in and I banged out a tune:

A Very Long Year

G D Em C

One day my facebook feed
Started to bleed
As a black star
Fell from the sky

All my hero raised hands
To form heavens band
A hallelujah and then a goodbye

G B7 Am C | G D C G | C G D7

When Earth, Wind & Fire all volunteer
Their voices get higher and harder to hear
The vanishing notes get stuck in my throat
It's been a very long year

G D Em C

Sometimes life floats like a butterfly
Sometimes it stings like a bee
Sometimes it cops your golden ticket
To the chocolate factory

But you were such a naughty monkey
When you stole the purple rain
Unplugged the jukebox
And sentenced my faith

G B7 Am C | G D C G | C G D7

When Earth, Wind & Fire all volunteer
Their voices get higher and harder to hear
The vanishing notes get stuck in my throat
It's been a very long year

B7 C C#dim D7

Every eagle flies free
Every mockingbird dies
Every Starman returns to the sky

G D Em C

So toast an Arnold Palmer
To the growing pains
Cause I'll still rebel
Without a princess to save

G B7 Em C | G D C G | C G

But if Earth, Wind & Fire ask me to volunteer
Will my voice get higher and harder to hear
Will my vanishing notes get stuck in your throat
It's been a very long year

Having no time to be a perfectionist about it, I sat down, got out Music Memos on my phone & recorded it in one take. No revisions, no overdubs, just the raw experience of it. I dumped that into Logic, gave it a quick EQ tweak and off it went. The whole recording process took about an hour as opposed to the three day endeavor with the previous song.

Which method is the "right" one? Hard to say. It's going to vary for each individual and even for each song. Each method gets you in touch with a different facet of your own personal creativity. I think in the end, balance is the key. The right answer is somewhere in the middle. Pace yourself. Show up for your art. Keep making it, give yourself more and more opportunities to hit the mark. I will leave you with on of my favorite quotes by Ira Glass:

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”



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