Archive for the ‘The Craft’ Category

This kind of thing is ALWAYS going in my head.

Sunday, October 4th, 2009

You know what’s been bugging me the last day or so? The opening lines to “The Way You Love Me” by Keith Follese & Michael Dulaney:

If I could grant
You one wish
I’d wish you could see the way you kiss

See it? See what I mean? If I’m going to grant you a wish, what does it matter what I’d wish?

Sorry. Little things like that in songs really grate on me.

Running with the muses

Thursday, April 16th, 2009

I saw on Spence Smith’s blog where he mentioned that he goes out every so often for a run while listening to music that inspires him, and how creatively refreshing that is, and so on.

I do this, too, and have created playlists in iTunes and now in Pandora called “muse songs” and “muse artists”. In some cases it’s the songs that inspire me to write, and in some cases it’s the consistent genius of the songwriters.

Spence listed some of his muse songwriters:

James Taylor, John Williams, Sting, Bono/The Edge, Chris Martin, Sheryl Crow, Bruce Hornsby, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Jacob Dylan, John Hiatt, McCartney/Lennon, The Rolling Stones…

And in fact, Spence’s muses and my muses overlap a bit, which is not surprising, I guess, since we’re both songwriters (at very different levels of accomplishment, mind you) looking to the undeniable greats of recent pop music for inspiration. My muse writer list includes (but as they say in legalese, is not limited to) Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Aimee Mann, Shawn Colvin, and several others. My muse song list includes “A Case of You” by Joni Mitchell, “Everytime You Go Away” by Hall & Oates, “The Boy in The Bubble” by Paul Simon, “Ghost” by Indigo Girls, and again, several others.

Of course now having written this, I want to throw on some headphones and go out for a run and soak in the creativity of these geniuses. And I will, soon, but for now, I’ll start with just the part where I put the headphones on, right here at my desk.

On being in tune

Monday, February 2nd, 2009
Shadow of a Writing Hand
Image by lowjumpingfrog via Flickr

From an article on writing the perfect pop song in the Guardian:

For Echo and the Bunnymen’s Ian McCulloch, songwriting is not a choice, but a therapeutic necessity. “When I’m not writing songs, it’s cryptic crosswords and Countdown on the telly. Everything gets a bit fuzzy, a bit bleak.”

Yeah. I’ve been in a funk lately, and I think this is partly why. I need a healthy dose of songwriting fairly regularly to make sense of, well, everything else.

Is everyone like this in some way? Is there some thing that you need to do for the world to be right? What is your thing?

Quickie

Sunday, January 25th, 2009

(I can’t believe it’s been THAT long since I updated here.)

It was a crazy productive weekend, and to reward myself for my diligence yesterday, I spent all evening writing lyrics. By hand. On paper. With a pen!

The PubCon Twitter song. Apparently, this songwriter takes requests!

Sunday, November 16th, 2008

By somewhat popular request (OK: two people), I’m capturing the Twitter song here in my songwriting blog.

I’ve been trying to do better about keeping the content of this blog related to Honey Bowtie Music, meaning Karsten’s and my writing, our pitching & publishing, and our life at our home office & studio, so I wasn’t planning on doing any kind of post PubCon follow-up here, but hey! this is relevant to songwriting. It’s some of the only writing I did while I was in Las Vegas, so it counts.

The story is: on Wednesday afternoon, I was taking a break in my hotel room, watching the #pubcon search feed in Tweetdeck burn up while everyone chatted about the “5 bloggers and a microphone” session, when I noticed that Kate Morris tweeted:

#pubcon someone needs to write a country song about losing love for twitter!

Fearing that there might not be too many other songwriters in the PubCon crowd, I felt it my duty to respond to the call.

@katemorris Just for you: “A hundred forty letters / And spaces in between / Isn’t near enough room / To say what you really mean” #pubcon

@katemorris 2nd verse: “It’s getting kind of silly / How everyone I meet / Instead of asking if I blog / Now asks me if I tweet” #pubcon

@katemorris I’ll let the rest be crowdsourced. It’s more the Nashville songwriting style to collaborate anyway. :) #pubcon

Only the rest never ended up crowdsourced, since everyone was caught up in what was going on the session. I mean, how wrong is that? Paying attention to the panelists instead of Twitter?

So if you attended PubCon and you end up here after searching for blog posts about it, here’s your chance: take a swing at writing additional verses in the comments. This is not limited to PubCon attendees either. My Nashville buddies, long-time net-friends, and songwriting colleagues are all encouraged to play along. I’ll update the post with the song’s progression, and it will be ready for performance by March in Austin.

Everyone who comments with additional verses gets songwriting credit. As we say in Nashvegas, “add a word, get a third.”

So who’s up for some cowriting?

You heard it here first. And maybe last.

Saturday, November 1st, 2008

It could just be the DayQuil talking, but I think I’m going to undertake NaSoWriMo (as in, 30 songs in 30 days) AND, uh, let’s call it NaBooWriMo (as in, attempt to finish a first draft of a book) at the same time this year. After all, I like to have multiple things going on at once, and this will certainly accomplish that.

If it IS just the DayQuil talking, I reserve the right to pretend like I never said this. So what if it’s on my blog?

RIP Danny Dill, co-writer of “Long Black Veil”

Friday, October 24th, 2008

Danny Dill has passed away.

Mr. Dill wrote “Long Black Veil” with Marijohn Wilkin, a that song has been recorded by Lefty Frizzell, Johnny Cash, Jerry Garcia and a slew of others. His “Detroit City,” written with Mel Tillis, became a standard when recorded by Bobby Bare. Largely on the strength of those songs, Mr. Dill was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1975.

He was one of the first established songwriters Karsten and I had a chance to meet and hear perform in an intimate setting when we first moved to town five and a half years ago. It was a pretty powerful Nashville experience to hear him play “Long Black Veil” while we were sitting not 20 feet away in a living room with maybe two dozen other songwriters.

Our condolences to his family and friends.

Songwriters: found anything better than MasterWriter?

Wednesday, October 8th, 2008

Some time ago, I wrote that I was abandoning the leading software for songwriting: MasterWriter. I proposed a few alternatives, but in reality, those have turned out to be disappointing for the purpose, as well.

I’m just wondering what I’m overlooking. Yesterday I found Minim, which looked promising, but after downloading it and working with it I don’t think it’s right either.

I can’t imagine I’m the only one out there who’s frustrated. What are the rest of you doing for songwriting tools?

What makes a song demo work in Nashville?

Tuesday, July 15th, 2008

The Nashville Feed has a great entry today about the “science” of cutting a killer demo, but the write-up goes on to demonstrate that it’s really anything but science. Several anecdotes from hit songwriters and producers nail the dilemma: music professionals often claim to prefer a work tape, because they say they want to hear their own interpretations, but a good many of the so-called “golden ears” on Music Row don’t seem to be as objective as they might claim. From what we’ve observed (and I’m not just talking about our own pitching, but what we’ve been witness to in various pitch sessions), a slightly less commercial song wrapped up in a well-polished demo has a better chance of being noticed than a slightly more commercial song recorded at home with just a guitar and some less-than-stellar vocals.

Perhaps the best of both worlds might be to make a home recording, but use a great singer. That’s an approach we’ve thought about taking, but in the end, we always feel our songs are better represented by studio demos anyway.

Anyway, the entry goes on to include a bulleted list of “how to make your demos real contenders,” and based on Karsten’s and my experience, there’s some good wisdom there. For example:

Trust Your Musicians: “In Nashville the session musicians are the best in the world at getting demos done,” said Hambridge. “Songwriters are not usually producers, but good musicians spend so much time in the studio playing on all kinds of songs that they often know exactly what you’re going for. Listen to their ideas.”

That’s one thing I haven’t written about often enough here: how impressive the talent is in Nashville. The first time we took a demo into the studio, we were completely knocked out by how quickly the musicians picked up the melody and laid it down for the recording. The guys were milling around, chatting with each other while the scratch demo was playing on the studio speakers, apparently not paying any attention. Yet when they all sat down to play it through, they had it sounding nearly radio-ready on the first take.

Part of that, of course, is song structure. We intentionally write pop songs, and pop songs by definition have straightforward chord progressions, so it’s not like we typically give studio musicians much of a challenge. But the quality of musicianship is so high that they even replicate the turnarounds and licks without appearing to try.

There are more tips, and some good anecdotes at the Nashville Feed. Click on over there to read the rest.

And as a bonus, here’s some video from the “By Surprise” demo session we did back in ‘05:

Should I write a song about it?

Sunday, May 11th, 2008

Stumbled across a good post by Frasier Smith about what makes a song hit-ready. I think this is the songwriting equivalent of “get rich quick” schemes to the average Joe, or of “Good to Great”-style books for business. And yes, I’ve thought a lot about the topic myself.

Smith talks about various elements in hit songs that make their lyrics and melodies memorable, universal, and instantly appealing. Certainly those are elements worth striving for, if pop hits are your goal — and they are ours.

But one of the things I’ve been thinking about lately is the importance of writing for me. I’ve always done this, to a degree, but at times I’ve strayed a bit into unfamiliar territory in the hopes of writing something that more people would connect with. Imagine me writing, for example, a song with NASCAR allusions. I’ve tried it. It sucked. I won’t do it again (I promise).

And I just don’t believe it’s necessary to deal with the unfamiliar. Some of my favorite hits are the ones that seem broadly appealing and universal, but which have lyrics that appear specific about the writer’s own life. I’ll cite “She’s My Kind of Rain” as an example, even though its merits are often contested in songwriting circles. I’d cite other examples but I’m about to board a plane. Let me just assert that they are plentiful.

Moreover, I’m finding that the more I strive to write about the most universal topics in the most universal way, the less motivated I am to write them. Maybe that’s a “duh” kind of realization, but it hadn’t sunken in yet after all these years of writing. I think I’ve got it now.

So for me, the question of what to write about is “whatever I’m thinking about.” And then I guess I’d hope that I’ll sometimes stumble across universal themes. That makes it pretty simple, huh?

How about a REALLY happy new year?

Tuesday, January 1st, 2008

I thought about writing a year-end update yesterday, but the truth is, not all that much of note happened. And that’s a pretty good thing, as it turns out, because I was also thinking yesterday about how I’m feeling more balanced and centered than I have in — gosh, what? — maybe 8 or 9 years.

In the meantime, the highlights were clear:

  • Karsten and I celebrated our 10th anniversary of being together and being crazy in love by going to Paris, world capital of romance. And it was romantic. The trip wasn’t 100% perfect all the time, but it was wonderful on balance. As for being together 10 years: wow. Our ties to each other just keep getting stronger, and having that is the best thing life can offer in any year.
  • I started working at Magazines.com in January of 2007, and it’s been a really good move for me. I worked a lot (so much so that I seem to have lost my ability to update blogs), but I’m really OK with it. In fact, by far most of my efforts and energy in ‘07 were directed towards helping make something really special happen there. And it looks like that will be the case in 2008, too, and again, I’m OK with that. (Although if that’s still the case in 2009, I will have to re-evaluate my effectiveness. I want to be able to find better balance around then.)
  • We got the front porch, doorway, and fence built, and the front of the house is transformed. I find so much pleasure in those last few yards of my drive home, coming up over the top of the hill in front of us, looking at such a charming house and being perfectly content to live there. I’ve never had that feeling about a place where I’ve lived before, and I don’t take it for granted that I’m this lucky. (And who knows — we might even be able to begin the major addition and renovation in 2008.)
  • Karsten and I got close to another song placement, and although it didn’t ultimately come together, we ended up having much-needed clarifying conversations about our level of commitment to our songwriting (both still very committed) and how to refine our writing process under our current highly-unavailable circumstances (maybe more on that later). That clarity should help us over this next year, too, as we both continue to be heavily distracted by other areas of work (me with my job, him with renovation and visual art) — we should still be able to make progress, as long as we continue to want to. And so far, we still want to.

There were other events, of course: stressful conflicts at work, pests in and around the house, disappointments, disagreements, and so on. But they don’t stand out in hindsight, and that tells me exactly what my resolution for 2008 needs to be:

I resolve to find as much happiness in the current space of every moment as I possibly can, remembering that, in the end, it’s the happy moments I’ll want to carry with me.

May 2008 be the happiest of new years for all of you, as well.

Cross-medium inspiration

Tuesday, November 6th, 2007

I’ve been getting creatively inspired a lot lately. I already talked about going to hear the Peter Plagens lecture at the Frist and how creatively inspiring that was, but then on Thursday night we went to the Société Anonyme show at the Frist with Brad and Jed, and Brad spent a good chunk of time explaining why “Tu m’” was, as he put it, the Rosetta Stone of modern art. So I listened and I looked hard at it, and I saw it. And I kept coming back to it as I circled the exhibit. I’d look at other pieces, the Mondrians and the Miros, and then I’d make my way back in front of the Duchamp piece that did begin to feel like the punchline to the whole show.

All day Friday, I kept thinking back to that piece. I’d be working on the budget at work, and I’d think about the genius of using a tool to say I don’t want to use this tool anymore. And I’d think about the shadows from the bottle brush, and how much there is going on in just that part of the work alone, not even to mention the rest of the composition.

I’m not a painter or any other kind of visual artist; I’m a writer. And lyrics are my primary medium. But looking at visual art can inspire me in ways music doesn’t reach. (I bet Randy at Ethos totally gets what I mean here.) It’s like rewiring my brain; all the lights seem brighter and the circuits seem faster. And I see dimensions of things I’d been blind to.

Whether that translates into more and better songwriting, I have yet to see. I’m writing here and there, but nothing yet has screamed epiphany. But even if it’s not about that, even if the net effect is just to reset my powers of observation and make me live a little more in the moment, hey, that’s powerful stuff, I’ll take it.

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Odds and ends: the weekend recovery edition

Saturday, October 20th, 2007

I’m so lame. I never got around to posting on Blog Action Day. But my excuse is that I’ve had a real roller coaster of a week. I went from, well, managing myself on Monday to having two direct reports on Wednesday, and that’s only part of it. So yeah, I really do think activism is important, I just didn’t take the arbitrarily designated day to talk about it. I wish I could link to my activism category, but I’ve been slow with this whole content import and re-tagging thing, so I’ve only gotten around to tagging one of my old posts with it. Oh well. There’s always next year.

***

On Thursday evening, Karsten and I went to hear Peter Plagens give an art lecture at the Frist with our friends Brad and Jed, and I’m pretty sure we were all creatively inspired. It was awesome. He basically talked about the struggle to embrace the new once you’ve become comfortable and familiar with the not-so-new, but unlike that rather trite-sounding summary, he was articulate and witty and insightful.

***

Speaking of embracing the new, I spent this morning working on updating the top-level honeybowtie.com site. I needed to replace a lot of the clunky tables, image-based text styling, and Dreamweaver-generated Javascript from oh-so-long-ago with a more adaptable CSS-based design. I’m not in love with how it looks yet, but it’s definitely a step in the direction I’m trying to go. The idea is to incorporate the blog and the rest of the site a bit more seamlessly, but I’m obviously not there yet.

***

Karsten is spending the day working (and I’m occasionally collaborating with him) on a project we’ve been trying to get around to finishing for several months now. Between all the chaos of the house renovation, my day job, our flea and rat troubles, sick cats, and vacation, it’s been delayed a bit. So with any luck we’ll have a scratch demo recorded by tomorrow night, even if it’s only a chorus. The artist we’re communicating with about this song has been waiting long enough and we need to get this one wrapped. I’m also trying to round up some other song ideas she might be interested in, so I guess we have next weekend already planned, too.

***

This vodka and tonic is simply perfect. I am a bartending genius, I tell you.

Might as well kick the tires on this thing

Sunday, September 9th, 2007

I’m not finished uploading old content yet, and I don’t quite have the layout and functionality I’m planning to have, but let’s go ahead and get this show on the road, shall we?

I’ve moved, and the majority of my blogging will now be done at The Bee Hive over at Honey Bowtie Music. I’d claim that you can expect a tighter focus on songwriting and music, but if you’ve read me at all you probably know I’m going to talk about whatever I feel like talking about.

Setting up a blog at honeybowtie.com has been in the plans for a while. I’ve wanted to tie the time I spend on blogging back into an area of my life that I’m passionate about in a meaningful way. And I wanted to give Karsten the opportunity to contribute in a way that would be relevant and interesting to him. Don’t expect to see too much from him — he hates typing. But if anything could get him to contribute anyway, it’s having the discussion take place here, in this context. We may bring him around yet.

Even with genuine motivation to get started, though, I was pretty put off by how much work I thought it would be. It helped so much for me to be so involved in setting up Music City Bloggers so I could get some heavy exposure to the inner workings of Wordpress. I wasn’t really wrong about the level of effort — I’ve spent the entire weekend getting this thing set up and migrated. But so far I’m pretty impressed with the flexibility of this platform. I think I’m going to like it here.

Anyway, for the time being, I will be replicating content and comments between The Bee Hive and High Holy Mass of Contradictions, but that may not be the case for long. I’m still deciding how best to use the LiveJournal account — it has a pretty respectable presence for a blog I never really put much effort into promoting. That may come in handy.

In the meantime, though, the main action is now at The Bee Hive. Please update your feeds and your blogrolls. Speaking of which, if you read me regularly but haven’t had me on your blogroll, now might be a nice time to add me. I could sure use the link love while I’m getting this thing rolling. Thanks!

Why I’m abandoning MasterWriter

Sunday, August 26th, 2007

Last week, a song opportunity came up (I’ll say more about it when/if there’s more to say), and it required digging through our catalog for songs of a particular style and mood. I thought I’d done a relatively decent job of setting MasterWriter up to be able to do this, but in this case when I attempted to find suitable songs, I found myself at a loss as to how to whittle down my 600+ song library in an efficient way.

See, MasterWriter is antiquated by software standards (the copyright in the web site’s footer says 2001, and yet the FAQ page still says “Coming Soon!”), and its search capabilities still require the user to select a field in which to search. Ugh. More to the point, not all fields are searchable. So where I’ve set up a rough approximation of keywords (such as male, female, or neutral, loss, breakup, happy, etc), I now realize that I have no search capability.

But I knew this, sort of. I had recognized a while back that there was every possibility that MasterWriter would never produce another software release (even though I provided them with feedback so specific it was practically a requirements document, which no one at MasterWriter ever acknowledged to me, so I shortened it and posted it as a review on Amazon, thinking maybe someone would get ambitious and use that feedback to build a better tool). At that point I started investigating other possibilities, such as Journler or Yojimbo. But now I see that I need to speed that process up and get everything moved over from MasterWriter to another app with a quickness so I don’t run into more situations like this.

But MasterWriter has no real export facility. So it seems to come down to a manual, one-by-one copy and paste process. No kidding. I’m not thrilled.

Good, Bad, Ugly: weekend recap edition

Monday, August 13th, 2007

The ugly: we spent the entire weekend obsessing over fleas. In 8.67 years of living with multiple cats, they have never had fleas. Admittedly, our cats have been outside (on leashes) more lately than ever but I also think the flea population must be larger this year, probably due to the heat.

Anyway, we’d “treated” the cats with some over-the-counter Hartz crap a few weeks ago, but it obviously didn’t do a thing. Meanwhile, the problem was getting worse. I’ve been busy with work so I couldn’t do much about it myself and had been trying to be patient since I knew Karsten was already dealing with the rat problem in our back yard and I didn’t want to overwhelm him. Besides, he seemed confident that the Hartz stuff would work and that the fleas were minimal anyway. On the contrary, it seemed to me that if you spot one, you can assume there are dozens/hundreds/howeverthehellmany you can’t see. I regularly noticed fleas on the cats, so I printed out web pages with tips on killing fleas and left them on his keyboard. I suggested he just call an exterminator and get it over with but when he did, he only asked about the rats. He just didn’t seem to feel as much urgency as I did about having to coexist with the fleas. It was all starting to freak me out a little. Last week, when I stood in the cat room and could see the fleas jumping around, I had a major meltdown. Karsten felt bad for not realizing how upset I’d been getting about it, but I assured him that everything would be fine it we could just rid the house of fleas. So he picked up the Advantage flea treatment from the vet on Friday and we started treating the cats first thing Saturday morning.

Each cat had to be isolated so they wouldn’t lick the stuff off of each other, which meant that we could only treat three cats at a time: two of them were stuck in cages while a third got to be loose, but stuck inside a closed-off room. Meanwhile, we vacuumed the house, sprinkled boric acid powder on all the carpets and fabric surfaces and used a broom to push it down into the fibers, and washed the curtains and bedclothes in the hottest water and dried them in the hottest drier they could withstand.

By mid-day Saturday, there were dead and dying fleas all over the house. So I went around and vacuumed everything again yesterday, but they’re still dropping off. It’s gross, but it means the treatment is working, so I’ll take it.

The bad: it was miserably hot outside. I mean it. Hot. It was 104 yesterday. It makes me feel like I’m melting. And since we wanted to escape the house once we got through each day’s flea treatment, we were limited in our options.

Though actually, that didn’t go too badly: we ended up going to see a movie (”Becoming Jane”; it was OK), eating out for every meal (all the food was great), thrift shopping (I found some cute stuff), and hanging out with some Sam and Alyssa Cornett, two songwriting friends who were visiting from Chicago (which was fun).

So I guess the bad was really just that every time we stepped outside, we felt like we were about to melt into flesh puddles.

The good: even in my jangled state of mind, I wrote a few songs. Hanging around songwriters last night got me all fired up. When we got home, I dashed off two songs in fifteen minutes along with a few other ideas I’ll come back to eventually. One of the reasons I was so inspired was that, although the songs our friends were playing last night were written well and were enjoyable, they were so consistently about relationships ending badly that I felt double-dog-dared to write a heartfelt song that wasn’t about that. So I did.

Runnin’ & Writin’

Monday, June 25th, 2007

I need to remember that not only is a good workout healthy and stress-relieving, but it also always seems to leave me chock-full of good song ideas. Awesome.

Worst lyrics?

Tuesday, June 5th, 2007

Courtesy of Digg, I present to you the top 10 worst lyrics ever, as rated by BBC 6 Music.

U2, Toto, Duran Duran, and Oasis all made the list.

But are there worse examples? I can’t think of any offhand that are truly awful, but one springs to mind because of how much it missed the mark. In Dwight Yoakam’s “Ain’t That Lonely Yet” he sings:

Once there was this spider in my bed
Got caught up in her web
Of love and lies
Spun her chains around my heart and soul…

Aah! It bugs me every damn time I hear it. Spun her chains? Since when do spiders spin chains? I mean, he could have gone for the extra internal rhyme with “bed/web” and done “Spun her threads around…” or even gone suggestive and used “Wrapped her legs around…” or probably dozens of other possibilities, but “chains”? Bad. So bad.

What lyrics bug you?

NaSoWriMo: Time’s up! 13 songs drafted, none really completed, but still a success.

Thursday, November 30th, 2006

It’s the last day of November, in case you hadn’t noticed, and that means all November writing projects are pretty much at their end. In my case, that signals the end of my 30-songs-in-30-days “NaSoWriMo” challenge, which I have once again failed to complete. But I don’t really care. All I’m really shooting for when I set about to do these things is to make myself write fast and get some ideas down, and I did do that.

I managed to draft 13 songs. I can’t say I really finished even one. But that’s OK. Because this was also a crazy-ass month. At work, we had a major scramble with a deadline of 11/30 (yep, that, too, is today!), and my weekly average number of hours shot way up. I’ve also been sick twice this month, including right now, which is why I’m not expecting to be able to churn out any more than I already have before tomorrow. And my current tummy troubles have me in a really bad mood and I’m finding it hard to concentrate on anything. So yeah, not the best conditions for creative writing.

So it’s over, and the count is 13 songs in 30 days, sort of. There might even be a few ideas worth going back and polishing up, which is a bonus because I was really just thinking of this as an exercise. Maybe I’ll try the challenge again in a few months when it’s not looking to be a crazy month at the day job and I’ve loaded up on multivitamins and echinacea.

In the meantime, the month of December is usually a wash for songwriting. Too many weekend activities, too much commotion, not even time to sit idly with my laptop, my guitar, and a cup of coffee and mull over an idea until I find just the right thing to say. So this is probably pretty much it until January. But I’m pretty satisfied with where things stand, so I’ll be happy to take a break and then get back into it come the new year.

Hope everyone else who participated in a writing challenge this month got something good out of it!

NaSoWriMo: Day 1

Wednesday, November 1st, 2006

Today it begins. You’ve probably heard of NaNoWriMo, and some of you may remember that in years past I’ve attempted my own version: NaSoWriMo. 30 songs in 30 days. Last year, as a result of the death of my father, I didn’t participate.

I’m back in the saddle this time, though, so today I will be setting some time aside to begin my challenge. Wish me luck!

Purity vs. technique in songwriting

Wednesday, October 18th, 2006

Mark at This Guy Falls Down has some musings on songwriting and his “songwriting hacks” series (which can be found by riffling through the Creative Process category on his blog archives).

I just don’t think participating in the creative process is an area where you can find a clever workaround. The creative process is not one to be manipulated. I guess it works, if all you want to do is be a “hack”.

Now, I have a lot of respect for Mark, but hey, I’m willing to go toe-to-toe with a Grammy winner. Because I do think there are ways to manipulate the creative process, and I don’t think it necessarily makes the creator a “hack.”

Besides, most of what Mark wrote about in the “hacks” series weren’t manipulations to the songwriting process, but guidelines to make the process easier. Saying that you should read good material to be able to write well is hardly a controversial idea, as writing advice goes. Saying that you should work on one song at a time is a matter of preference and experience (I don’t write as well unless I can flit back and forth between multiple songs in progress). Of course, Mark did say at the beginning of the series that he was taking liberties with the word “hack” anyway:

I’m hoping to share some advice I’ve picked up along the way as a musician, particularly as it pertains to songwriting. I call this advice “hacks”, even though that’s probably not the proper use of the term, simply because we’re on the Internet here and it seems appropriate.

But I guess I’m arguing that you could talk about songwriting “hacks” in a way that’s closer to the “clever or elegant solution to a difficult problem” meaning of the word. I’ve even talked about some of those kinds of things here over the years. There are scads of books written about songwriting technique, and some of them get awfully clever with the difficult problems they tackle.

Creativity is a fickle mistress. Taking a purist approach to songwriting and letting raw emotion drip from your pen is usually the best way to get to the heart of a feeling or an experience. That’s the art of it. But once you have the raw material, there are definitely tricks and techniques that comprise the craft of songwriting, and knowing a little of Mark’s music, I know that he’s very capable with those tools and techniques. And I’m pretty firm about advocating that craft in creativity is nothing to be ashamed of.

I also think it’s very natural to go through phases where we vacillate from a more purist approach to a more crafted approach to creating. As long as we keep creating, the balance seems to restore itself eventually.

Best songwriters, via Paste and NPR

Thursday, July 6th, 2006

Paste magazine published its list of 100 best living songwriters, and Robin Hilton on NPR’s Mixed Signals followed with a rewritten version of the 10 best living songwriters. It seems to me that the Paste list skews a bit older and hippier, whereas the NPR list skews a bit younger and edgier.

Compare Paste’s top 10:

1. Bob Dylan
2. Neil Young (Buffalo Sprinfield, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young)
3. Bruce Springsteen
4. Tom Waits & Kathleen Brennan
5. Paul McCartney (The Beatles, Wings)
6. Leonard Cohen
7. Brian Wilson (The Beach Boys)
8. Elvis Costello
9. Joni Mitchell
10. Prince

with NPR’s:
1. Bob Dylan
2. Tom Waits & Kathleen Brennan
3. Paul McCartney (The Beatles, Wings)
4. Bruce Springsteen
5. Vic Chestnutt
6. Stephin Merritt
7. Sufjan Stevens
8. Aimee Mann
9. PJ Harvey
10. David Dondero

Personally, there are points on both lists I agree and disagree with: “Joni Mitchell feels like a token pick“? Huh? But the inclusion of Aimee Mann in the top 10 feels right to me, so maybe we’re even on that one.

And it’s unclear what some of the criteria for inclusion on either list are. In the NPR list, the notes on PJ Harvey include “Anyway, I really think if she were a man she’d get a lot more credit than she does. She plays guitar and rocks better than most. And her sound is so distinctive. Listen to the crunch of the opening guitar in ‘One Time Too Many’.” Are we still talking about songwriting? There’s surely a blurry line between songwriting and instrumental performance for singer-songwriters who use their primary instrument to convey melody and message, but a good chunk of that spills over into musicianship, arrangement, and production rather than songwriting, per se.

Anyway, I’m very happy to see some of my absolute favorite songwriters represented in the Paste list, like Bob Dylan (#1), Elvis Costello (#8), Joni Mitchell (#9), Paul Simon (#13), Holland-Dozier-Holland (#17), Lou Reed (#21), Elton John & Bernie Taupin (#23), Tom Petty (#29), Kris Kristofferson (#38), Ryan Adams (#43), David Byrne (#46), James Taylor (#53), Aimee Mann (#54), Morrissey (#57), Conor Oberst (#67), and Lyle Lovett (#87).

Though honestly, I’ve been influenced at some level by almost every single name on that list.

And to that list, I would add at least the following, if not a few more (though I’d have a tough time deciding who would get cut to make room):

Daryl Hall (& John Oates sometimes & Sara Allen sometimes) on the incredible merit of songs like “Dreamtime” and “She’s Gone” alone, if not the entire balance of the H&O catalog.

Tori Amos for the sweet melancholy and plaintive lyrics of “Sleeps With Butterflies,” “Tear In Your Hand,” “1000 Oceans,” and so many others. She’s every bit the songwriter anyone else on this list is.

Don Schlitz for sincere, down-to-earth songs like “The Gambler” and “When You Say Nothing At All.”

What about you? Who would you add? Who are you especially glad to see represented?

Feline songwriting

Monday, February 6th, 2006

I was working in MasterWriter when I got up to admire a bluejay outside the window. When I came back, Barbra was sitting on my laptop keyboard, writing a song. Here’s what he wrote:

yttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttgyuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu
uuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu
uuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu
uuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu
- (c) 2006 Barbra Streisand O’Neill-Soltauer, aspiring cat songwriter

I’m not sure what the melody’s supposed to be. If anyone has any idea, please let me know.

2005 Year-End-y thingy

Thursday, December 15th, 2005

1. What did you do in 2005 that you’d never done before?

Started taking anti-depressants. Got my first single-song contract. Somehow that combination seems very rock’n'roll, so I’ll leave it at that.

2. Did you keep your New Years’ resolutions, and will you make more for next year?

My 2005 priorities were to improve my nutrition, improve my fitness, improve my finances, and improve and advance my songwriting. I stuck with those, for the most part. I think I let the nutrition and fitness slip a bit now and then when I was too depressed to pay attention, but I did pretty well on the finances and the songwriting.

3. Did anyone close to you give birth?

No one close to me, no.

4. Did anyone close to you die?

Lordy, yes. My mother-in-law in March, and my father in November.

5. What countries did you visit?

I travelled frequently between the southern and the midwestern United States. Seems to me you should need a passport or something to cross the Illinois-Kentucky line.

6. What would you like to have in 2006 that you lacked in 2005?

A pay raise.

7. What date from 2005 will remain etched upon your memory, and why?

November 5th, 2005. Something tells me the loss of my father will remain a pretty significant event for me for a long time.

8. What was your biggest achievement of the year?

Getting the single-song contract, I guess.

9. What was your biggest failure?

Being unable to keep working while spending time in the Chicago area. It has cost me professionally, I fear.

10. Did you suffer illness or injury?

If depression counts, yes.

11. What was the best thing you bought?

It’s a tossup between my Treo 650 and my 17″ Powerbook. They’re both rockin’.

12. Whose behavior merited celebration?

Karsten’s. He was a total trooper.

13. Whose behavior made you appalled and depressed?

Some of my relatives.

14. Where did most of your money go?

Into the new old house! Lots and lots and lots of money went into fixing up the house.

15. What did you get really, really, really excited about?

The house! The single-song contract!

16. What song will always remind you of 2005?

Live Like You Were Dying” written by Tim Nichols and Craig Wiseman, and recorded by Tim McGraw. It really is a great country-pop song, but its significance this year has partly to do with how ubiquitous it was (#1 on the charts, for, like, EVER and winner of who-knows-how-many “song of the year” awards), but also, of course, in my life, how timely it was. I just wish my dad had had an opportunity to do the kinds of things the song suggests — living an uninhibited life knowing that your death is imminent — because he was too weak to do that in any kind of physical way. But he “loved deeper” and he “spoke sweeter” (sometimes), for example, so at least some of it was true for him.

17. Compared to this time last year, are you:

Heh. My answers to these questions prove that the world is so not a binary place.

i. happier or sadder? More of each.

ii. thinner or fatter? Thinner but, in some ways, less fit.

iii. richer or poorer? Lower income, greater net worth.

18. What do you wish you’d done more of?

I don’t know. Maybe cooking.

19. What do you wish you’d done less of?

Crying.

20. How will you be spending Christmas?

My mom is coming here the week prior to Christmas and leaving Christmas morning, so I’ll be seeing her off and then Karsten and I will probably spend the day lounging around the house with the kitties.

21. How will you be spending New Year’s Eve?

Apparently the neighborhood has a big party, so we’re going to check that out.

22. Did you fall in love in 2005?

It may be corny but I found myself falling in love with Karsten again and again.

23. How many one-night stands?

None.

24. What was your favorite TV program?

Arrested Development. (”Come on!”)

25. Do you hate anyone now that you didn’t hate this time last year?

I’m too tired to hate. I have some pretty annoyed dislike for some people, but it’s a pretty passive dislike. Hate seems so much more active and energetic than I have the capacity for.

26. What was the best book you read?

To be honest, I did very little reading, and what I did read tended to be pretty fluffy, like “The Lucky Guide to Shopping” or “What Not To Wear.” They were both pretty good, though. ;-)

27. What was your greatest musical discovery?

Was “Garden State” this year? I can’t remember. If so, like many people, I discovered The Shins because of that movie, and I love them. Also, I think Anna Nalick debuted with “Breathe (2 AM)” in the beginning of the year, and that has become one of my favorite songs ever (although most of the rest of Wreck Of The Day doesn’t impress me much). I think Keane got most of their visibility this year, too, and I just love them.

28. What did you want and get?

A single-song contract. :-)

29.What did you want and not get?

A promotion at work. Not just for the position of manager of our group, but for the next level of seniority within my own position (from Senior Business Analyst to Consulting Business Analyst). I think the perception is that I’m just not ready since I wasn’t around much of this year to prove my value, or whatever. It annoys me because I already deserved it for the work I’d done before this year so it’s like I’m being passed over for the second time.

30. What was your favorite film of this year?

Tossup between “Garden State” and “Sideways.”

31. What did you do on your birthday, and how old were you?

Haven’t gotten there yet, but I’ll be 32 and I’m having a pizza party with, like, two attendees. (Everyone else is going to be out of town.)

32. What one thing would have made your year immeasurably more satisfying?

Oh, how could I narrow it down? I don’t know. It’s really kind of depressing to try to pinpoint.

33. How would you describe your personal fashion concept in 2005?

I was shooting for urban professional sophistication with a twist of unexpected hip, but I probably missed entirely. ;-)

34. What kept you sane?

Now THIS I can get specific about. Karsten, for a start. Every day in some way, Karsten kept me sane. Then there were the long walks; the gardening; the cats; putting the kitchen together; Absolut Raspberri vodka & tonics; pedicures; girly-scented body washes; dying my hair burgundy.

35. Which celebrity/public figure did you fancy the most?

I don’t think there was one, really.

36. What political issue stirred you the most?

I guess it was the lack of response immediately following hurricane Katrina.

37. Who did you miss?

Too easy. I missed my dad as he was before the strokes made him less communicative.

38. Who was the best new person you met?

I think that honor goes to nothinganything. Congratulations! I don’t think you win any prizes, but, really, isn’t my fawning admiration enough?

39. Tell us a valuable life lesson you learned in 2005:

We don’t live in years; we live in moments.

40. Quote a song lyric that sums up your year:

I think, more than anything, it’s this from “This Woman’s Work” by Kate Bush:

I know you have a little life in you yet.
I know you have a lot of strength left.

I should be crying, but I just can’t let it show.
I should be hoping, but I can’t stop thinking

Of all the things we should’ve said,
That were never said.
All the things we should’ve done,
That we never did.
All the things that you needed from me.
All the things that you wanted for me.
All the things that I should’ve given,
But I didn’t.

Prosody and God’s Will

Sunday, January 2nd, 2005

Something about that Martina McBride song “God’s Will” (written by Tom Douglas and Barry Dean) gives me chills, but it’s not the lyrics, interestingly enough. I find the lyrical story a bit of a turnoff, actually, since I’m not a believer. But that chorus melody and the cadence and internal rhyme resulting from the repetition of words like: “I’ve been searchin’, wonderin’, thinkin’, lost and lookin’ all my life” and “I’ve been wounded, jaded, loved and hated, I’ve wrestled wrong and right” — it just gets to me. I love well-placed prosody, and I love me some good-sounding words, even if what they mean as a whole doesn’t grab me.

Edit: the very end of the audio clip on Amazon.com has the very beginning of the section I’m talking about.