December 16, 2008

Let's Go to the Mountains

Here's another new song I wrote in the DADGAD tuning. Been messing with DADGAD for over 2 years, finally got some songs to the 1st draft stage. A rough demo is on my demo site, myspace.com/robroperdemos.

Let's Go to the Mountains
by Rob Roper 2nd draft December 8, 2008

Hey, girl, what's up today?
I got an idea, now what you say?
Let's go to the mountains

Yeah I know I slept 'til noon
But fall is here, and in full bloom
Let's go to the mountains

(break)

The trees are turning yellow and red
So don't be lame, don't be dead
Let's go to the mountains

Remember that place we went last year
We'll sit on the deck and have a beer
Let's go to the mountains

(break)

No, I didn't go out last night
just played guitar and stayed at home,
How 'bout you?
No wait, I don't wanna know

Yeah I know that we're just friends
I won't try to start it up again
(I promise)
Let's go to the mountains

(break)

We don't even have to talk
We'll find a trail and take a walk
Let's go to the mountains

So hang up the phone, jump in the shower
I'll be at your house in half an hour
We're going to the mountains

The Man in the Movies

I dug up some free writing from my journal from a couple years ago, created some potential lines, and liked "she was looking for the man in the movies". Initially I came up with a simple melody with some rock and roll music, nothing very original. A few weeks later, I was noodling around in the DADGAD tuning and thought of these lyrics, and decided this slower, more melancholy music was better. So I started writing lines and the melody and tweaking the music. I'll put a rough recording on my demo site later today, myspace.com/robroperdemos.

The Man in the Movies
by Rob Roper 3rd draft December 16, 2008

She had no time for sadness
Didn't believe in second chances
She was looking for the man in the movies
She wanted flowers without the rain

Guess I scared her a little
when I let her see my cry
She was looking for the man in the movies
and no clouds to block the sun

I guess I've changed
'cause I no longer play the game
She's still looking for the man in the movies
I take the flowers with the rain

December 8, 2008

Misfit

by Rob Roper 2nd draft Dec 8, 2008

Too weird for straight
too straight for freaks
not a redneck
not a hippy
Don't have a tatoo
don't have piercings
don't have dreadlocks
don't wear a hoodie
Misft

Don't watch sitcoms
or the cop shows
Don't watch the Oscars
or the Grammys
Don't like the Idols
or the hit songs
The music that I like
you never heard of
Misft

Don't eat McDonalds
I'm not a vegan
don't drink Jaegermeiser
or Bud-lite
Don't have children
or a wife
not gay
or even bi
Misfit

Not a Democrat
or Republican
not a Christian
not a Jew
not a Muslim
or a Buddist

What's a misfit boy gonna do?
Gotta find me a misfit girl
Like you.

November 18, 2008

Mama Had a Mohawk

A couple of years ago I was at my neighborhood bar, and met this young kid who was into to punk rock. He was a second generation punk rocker; he said his mom had a blue mohawk. Didn't know his dad, he was just some guy in one of the bands his mom met. He was working at a tatoo shop on S. Broadway. I mentioned that I liked the song "Story of my Life" by Social Distortion, and he said, "man, that song saved my life when I was in high school". I thought, "this is a song!" I made a few notes at the time, but just got around to really working on it yesterday and today. I took what he told me, and made the rest of it up. Here's a first draft of the lyrics. I posted a rough recording on my myspace demo site, http://www.myspace.com/robroperdemos.

"Mama Had a Mohawk"
by Rob Roper 1st Draft Nov 18, 2008

Mama had a mohawk, painted it blue
black leather jacket, an angel tatoo
Daddy played the drums, in a punk rock band
Mama said, "son, one day you'll understand"

Chorus
Mama had a mohawk
Daddy wasn't around
They let me run wild
on the streets of the town
A rock and roll baby
Born and bred
I look back now
Can't believe I'm not dead

Sometimes at night, mama wouldn't come home
I'd have to call my friend, on the telephone
She'd pick me up at noon, and buy me ice cream
and say, "sorry, litle man, I was out with the band"

Chorus

High school was tough, I didn't fit in
I was skinny and ugly, only had one friend
We were always skipping school
hanging out, smoking pot
Just sitting in the car
and listen to punk rock

Chorus

I remember the day, Social D came to town
Mama snuck me in the back, when the guard wasn't around
Mike Ness looked at me, sang "Story of my Life"
Every word rang true, man, he got it all right

Chorus

Now I'm ok, work in a tatoo shop
got a hardcore band, and man, we really rock
I watch the kids jump around, from up on the stage
They remind me of me, when I was their age.

Chorus

November 17, 2008

Freestyle

I saw a good movie last night. It's a documentary called "Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme". "Freestyle" is a type of rap where you spontaneously make up a rap. The lines can't just rhyme, they have to flow logically and make sense. And you can't pre-write any of it; it has to be spontaneous. Try it sometime, it's hard! I think it could be a good songwriting exercise even for songwriters who don't write in the hip-hop style.

Rent the movie. I got it on Netflix. It's amazing the stuff these guys come up with on the spot.

-Rob

October 8, 2008

Fare thee well Ronnie Drew (of The Dubliners)

I just heard that Ronnie Drew, a singer and founder of The Dubliners, passed away in August.

I was living in Tucson, Arizona in the 1980's, and my brother Greg, then in grad school, came to visit me. While floating down the Salt River in inner tubes, he sang a few Irish folks songs--drinking songs--and I was enchanted. They were funny and clever. Most of them were by The Clancy Brothers.

About the same time, I began listening to an Irish music show on the community radio station in Tucson on Sunday evenings put on by a fellow named Scott Egan. Among the bands whose songs were played regularly were The Dubliners. There were hilariously funny drinking songs, such as "7 Drunken Nights", and sad, story songs such as "Donegal Danny". Although Ronnie shared singing duties with Luke Kelly, it was Ronnie's songs that I liked the best. He had a rich, gravelly baritone with a great Irish accent that I just loved.

Since my teenage years I've been into both rock music and quiet acoustic songs. Now I had a third love--Irish folk songs.

Today bands like Flogging Molly, which combine punk rock with Irish traditional music, are big. Flogging Molly was directly influenced by The Pogues, the first band to play and write Irish traditional music in a punk style. And The Dubliners were a huge influence on The Pogues. Without The Dubliners, there would have been no Pogues, and without The Pogues, there would have been no Flogging Molly.

Here's a great summary of The Dubliners history:

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/ronnie-drew-lead-singer-of-the-dubliners-900669.html

What I found interesting in this article is that, back in the early 1960's when The Dubliners started out, Irish pubs generally didn't have live music. It was O'Donoghue's Pub in Dublin that allowed Ronnie and the boys to play a little music. The Dubliners are credited with reviving Irish traditional folk music in Ireland in the 1960's. During my last visit to Ireland in March of this year, I stopped in O'Donoghue's for a couple of pints. Old photos of The Dubliners were all over the walls. I felt like I was on sacred ground.

In 2004 I began taking up songwriting in earnest. In 2005 I was doing my 3-days-a-week jogging around the local park, and began thinking of a melody for a song. It sounded like an Irish melody, an Irish drinking song melody, the kind of song The Dubliners would sing. While jogging, it seemed like the lines should be saying, "here's to this, and here's to that". I asked myself, "ok, that's cool, but what are we drinking to?" I didn't want it to be the normal stuff, and I had been working on another song where I was exploring the consequences of making mistakes, and not being able to go back and undo them, but what would happen if we could go back and undo them? After working on the song off and on for 5 months, "The Screwup Song" was born.

I couldn't have done it without you, Ronnie. Thanks, man.

-Rob Roper

Here's a beautiful video of Ronnie singing "In the Rare Old Times", with footage of Ronnie singing interspersed with photos of old Dublin. Damn, the tears poured down my face watching and listening this.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9T7OaDDR7i8

September 7, 2008

3 types of songwriters

Being a singer-songwriter means learning three crafts: songwriting, singing, and playing an instrument. I've noticed a difference in songwriters' strengths and weaknesses depending on their background:

1. the musician
2. the writer
3. the singer

I'm generalizing, of course, but here are my observations about the strengths and weakness of the three types:

1. The musician got his or her start playing other people's songs in bands. The typical example is a male guitar player. When he begins trying to write songs, his strengths are his knowledge of music, and of course his instrument. He can easily come up with ideas for chord progressions, rhythms, etc. His weakness is with singing, unless he's always been singer and guitar player. And he's almost certainly going to find lyric writing difficult, since he probably never did any creative writing; he probably never read, much less, wrote poetry. (I'm in this category).

2. The writer wrote a lot of poetry, and has kept a journal for a long time. I'm going to stereotype this person as a female. She decided she wanted to put her writings to music, so she acquired a guitar somehow, but didn't take lessons. She noodled around and came up with her own chords, which can be interesting. But due to her lack of music knowledge, the songs tend to sound the same. Being creative, she may also come up with good melodies, but she's not a trained singer, so she doesn't sing very loud. More likely, she copies her favorite singer rather than develop her own style. Her strength is her lyrics. She knows how to write about the senses, with imagery, and metaphor.

3. The singer's strength, naturally, is her singing. I'm going to make my example for this category a woman also. Her weaknesses, obviously, are her musicianship and writing. She's learned to play guitar at a basic level, so she plays simple first position chords. And her lyrics are simple and direct. But, damn, can she sing.

Our three songwriters should feel no shame about their weaknesses; we're all beginners at some time. They should only be ashamed if they're not willing to recognize, and work on, their weaknesses.

1. The musician needs to read poetry, and then try to write poetry. He needs to start a journal and write every day. He needs to learn how to write in a creative way; to "show me don't tell me". And he probably needs to take singing lessons, and practice.

2. The writer needs to take guitar (or piano) lessons. She should learn to play a bunch of cover songs by some of her favorite artists. She'll learn composing skills from learning the cover songs. And she probably could use singing lessons also.

3. The singer should take guitar (or piano) lessons, and read and start writing poetry, and start a journal.

So what do y'all think? These stereotypes are based on real people I've known. Maybe I'm over-generalizing based on just a few people?

-Rob

September 1, 2008

New song - Falling into Heaven

Here's another experimental song I'm working on. With this one, I started with a rhythm and chord progression on my Fender strat electric guitar, then started humming a melody, and during the musical refrain section, the words "falling into heaven" just came out. I didn't know what that meant, but I liked the phrase, since we normally think of "rising" into heaven, not "falling".

Later, while walking, driving, and hiking--especially while hiking--I had the music in my head, and allowed myself to just open my mind and allow anything to come out, no matter how absurd, and wrote them down. Later I arranged these weird phrases into loose verses. My "editor" tried to get involved and give the song a meaning, but I tried not to let him. I wanted to keep it open to different interpretations by different people.

It's still a rough draft, I'll almost certainly add and change some of the lines. I recorded a rough acoustic version and put it on my myspace site.

Falling into Heaven
by Rob Roper September 1, 2008

Lost and found and lost again
That's the way you've always been
Running naked with the wind
Fall down, get up, fall down again

You're falling...
into heaven.

Go outside, talk to the trees
Hear the wisdom in the breeze
Read a story to your cat
Walk around in a silly hat

You're falling...
into heaven.

Hitch a ride, don't ask where
Go to work in your underwear
Lay your head down on the ground
Listen to that pretty sound

You're falling...
into heaven.

Give your spare change to a bum
Don't ask what he spends it on
Take a hike, go off the trail
Get too drunk and land in jail

You're falling...
into heaven.

Lost and found and lost again
That's the way I've always been
You don't have to rescue me
It's the way I like to be

I'm falling...
into heaven.
I'm falling, falling...
into heaven.

New song in progress - I Believe

Lately I've been experimenting with unconventional lyrical and musical styles. At least their unconventional for me. Unconventional in the sense of the song structure, rhyme or lack of rhyme, and so forth. I'm also striving for lyrics where the meaning isn't completely obvious, and could be open to different interpretations. Here's a draft of one tentatively titled "I Believe". The music is also somewhat unconventional, and composed on electric piano, which I haven't done before. Another thing I like about this one is that some of the lines are very short; there's a lot of space between lines. I'll record it soon and post it on my myspace site.


I Believe
by Rob Roper August 31, 2008

I believe
because I need to
It exists
because it must
Don't bring logic into this
Don't ask me for the proof
Don't bring logic into this
I won't think about it
I won't think about it
I won't
think

I believe
we have a choice
That one's bad
so this one must be good
Don't say anything bad about him
Don't say anything bad at all
Don't say anything bad about him
I won't hear it
I won't hear it
I won't
hear

I believe
because I need to

August 31, 2008

Josh Ritter's songwriting tips

I attended the Song School in Lyons, Colorado August 10-14. One of the instructors was Josh Ritter. Here are some points he made in his workshop, taken from my notes. In some cases, I've also expanded on his comments from my own experiences.

1. Why do you write? If you're not writing obsessively and for pleasure, then why are you doing it? You should be writing because you love it, you should be compulsive and obsessive about it.

2. There's no such thing as "Writer's Block". If you can't write, then don't. When you have something to say, you write. If you write all the time, eventually you'll run out of ideas. So you need to take some time off. If you force it, you'll write songs that you won't be happy with.

My comment: I need to start recognizing when I get to this point. When it doesn't flow, rather than try to force it, I should use my music time to improve my musicianship--learn new things on the guitar, piano or mandolin, learn songs written by others, take a singing lesson-- do some of the things that I never seem to have time for. All those things will help my songwriting and performance.

3. Originality: don't worry about it. Nothing is 100% original.

4. Cliches: never allow cliches in your songs. Our goal is to create new cliches. If you allow cliches, you're not pushing yourself.

5. Don't be afraid to kill your song. If it's not working, put it in the compost, let other songs cannilabize it. If you force it, it won't be a good song.

Another songwriter, John Common, uses the analogy of the junkyard for this. I like that analogy, too. If a song needs a carburator, go to the junkyard and take one off a discarded song.

My comment: I started learning this last Spring. My songs, "Me" and "Like a Child" used both lyrical and musical elements taken from other songs-in-progress.

6. Always keep a journal. Always record lines, ideas.

7. You don't have to be crazy to be a songwriter. Take care of the problems in your life.

My comment: for a long time, I didn't try to write lyrics because I thought I wasn't weird enough. I thought songwriters were born, and they wrote songs without effort. This prejudice held me back; kept me from becoming a songwriter. Or perhaps I didn't realize that I was weird enough to be a songwriter. :) And flowing from that concept...

8. Songwriting is a craft; it's hard work. To view yourself as an "artist" rather than a craftsman may take you down the wrong road. Songwriting is a craft, and occasionally we will make great art. Not everything you write can be great.

Josh mentioned that he typically goes through 8 or 9 drafts of a song. Then he plays it for people, and edits it some more.

To hear Josh's music, see joshritter.com or myspace.com/joshritter

-Rob

July 28, 2008

Boston trip

I took a little vacation July 17-23 in Boston. I have some songwriter friends there that I met at the Lyons, Colorado Song School over the last few years. I had heard that Boston was a great city, with a great music scene, so I decided to go visit my friends there. Charlene DiCalogero was nice enough to offer me a place to stay, so I didn't have to pay for lodging.

I played at The Lily Pad in Cambridge on Friday, July 18, along with Boston-area singer-writers Rob Mattson, Charlene DiCalogero and Tim Riordan. Charlene organized that show, and Tim and Rob helped with the publicity. It was a great little hall, and the crowd was small but appreciative. I used my handheld recorder, the Edirol R09, to record the show at the Lily Pad. I posted two of the songs on my myspace site, myspace.com/rroper, "Like a Child", a song I wrote last Spring, and "The Screwup Song".

I also played two open mics. Monday July 21, I played The Lizard Lounge in Cambridge, hosted by Tom Bianchi. What a great open mic! It's a contest, with a $50 prize for the winner, selected by a judge appointed by Tom. You play two songs. Tom always has something positive to say about every performer, and jokes around between acts. Tom also insures that the sound is good. There were some very good songwriters there; the talent pool there is very large.

The next night I played the open mic at The Burren, a great Irish pub in Somerville. The front room is the bar, and the music room is in the rear. Here you got to play 4 songs, which is nice. (One reason I generally don't like open mics is that I like to play for an hour. After two songs I'm just warming up!).

On Sunday night, July 20, I attended Charlene and Tim's songwriter group, at the home of Chris and Esther (forgot their last names, dammit) in Reading. Great people. Earlier that day, we visited Charlene's future home, a co-housing development on the outer edge of the metro area. And we went to Walden Pond. What a beautiful place; now I understand why Thoreau was so inspired.

Of course I walked around the old Boston and saw the Boston Common and the historical revolutionary war sites, and ate some good seafood. But it was mainly a music vacation. One afternoon Tim Riordan and I started writing a song. Tim came up with some cool chords and a lyrical theme, I wrote some lines, who knows if we'll finish it. And I ran into Theresa Storch, another Boston songwriter whom I met at the Lyons Song School.

The only negative was that I came down with a cold the week before, and was suffering from that the whole trip. But all in all a good little vacation. I hope to get back there before too long.

-Rob

July 3, 2008

My songwriting room


I get the impression that most songwriters just need a small room, a guitar, a pen and paper. I wish that was true for me. But I seem to get most of my ideas when I'm outside, and moving. I went hiking today in some mountains just outside of Denver. This photo is where I stopped for lunch. I bring my songwriting notebooks and handheld digital recorder with me. I'll walk around and come up with lines, rhymes, melodies and such. I realized a few years ago that I'm an outdoors person; I'm happier when I'm outside, especially in the woods. I don't know why.

July 2, 2008

A Billy Collins Poem

I'm going to write a Billy Collins poem
I'm gong to write about
the poem I'm writting about
right now
What I'm doing
Where I'm sitting
Very self-aware, you know
Like "Budapest"
or "Tuesday, June 4, 1991"
or the best, "Workshop"
You know, Billy Collins-style
very conversational.

How does he pull it off
without sounding cute or pretentious?

Maybe it's because
in the midst of the conversational style
he throws in a great image
or a devastating metaphor
to remind you
that he's the real deal.

(A pause while I take a swig
from my vodka tonic
The vodka tonic I made
in a beer pint glass
2 shots of vodka,
1/4 of a lemon squeezed
then 1/8 of a lime
ice
and tonic water.
Now back to the poem)

Ha!
How did you like that clever digression
with the drink recipe?
Just the sort of thing Billy Collins would do.
Brilliant!

Anyway...
I'm sitting on my front porch
in Denver, Colorado
It's June 26, 2008
A beautiful early evening
like all Denver early summer evenings
I should say it's 7:30pm
(notice my concern for detail)
This is my favorite time of day
Perfect temperature
perfect light
I sit out here everyday that I can
at this time
and write
or read poems
I watch my neighbors walking their dogs
and I have a drink, of course
It tastes so good after running.

Oh I forgot to tell you
Usually after work
I go up to the local park
and run 2 miles
it keeps the fat off
and lowers the stress
then I shower
and sit on the porch.

I should say something about the flowers
I love flowers
So I've planted a bunch in my front yard
And I have planter boxes hanging off the deck
or mini-deck
that is my front porch
half of the ones I plant die
I'm not a good gardener
But I'm learning and getting better
I like the amazing colors
and amazing shapes
They make me happy.

So I'm sitting on the front porch
on a beautiful Denver evening
drinking a vodka tonic
and writing a Billy Collins poem.

No devastating metaphor
simile or image
but dude
this is like
only my third poem
or something.


-Rob Roper

June 21, 2008

A Live Music Lover's Pet Peeves

My blogs thus far have been from the point of view of a music creator. But I'm also a music lover. I've been going out to hear live music, individuals and bands, for years. So I thought, blogs being a perfect forum for rants, complaints and pet peeves, I'd list my longstanding grievances about many live music venues. Don't get me wrong--I'm grateful that they provide a venue for live, original music--but I wish they would have...

Tables and Chairs

I can understand a dance venue not having tables and chairs, or a venue that has punk or rock bands where people thrash or dance. But when the music is for listening, I like to sit on a chair, and have a table to set my drink on. I really hate to have to stand during the entire show, my back starts hurting, my feet start hurting, and then there's the issue of what to do with my drink when each song is over and I want to applaud? Put it on the floor? In my armpit? Between my legs? Or just don't clap and yell instead? What if I really like the song and want to yell and clap? It's so much more enjoyable to be able to sit at a table, have a few drinks, and listen to the band. For venues that have all kinds of bands, well, take the tables and chairs out for the dance bands, and put them back for all others.

I suspect that some venues take the tables and chairs out in order to pack more people in and sell more tickets. Well, I can understand why they want to make more money, afterall, they're a business. But frankly, I avoid going to these venues, unless it's someone I just can't miss, so they're actually hurting their business by not having tables and chairs, at least for people who feel like I do.

Local Beer

I live in Denver, and there are many small breweries in Colorado that make great beer. So why do so many live music venues only have the boring corporate beers? Dude: support small business! You're a small business, for chrissakes! Support your small business comrades. And their beer is more interesting than the big corporate beers. When I asked bartenders at these corporate beer venues in Denver (which, incidentally, are also the table-less and chair-less venues, hmmm....), I was told, "we're a Miller bar". Seems Miller has made some sort of exclusive agreement with them to ban local beers, and only sell Miller and it's large European corporate partners (Guiness, Pilsner-Urqell, Newcastle). OK my anti-corporate bias is coming out here. But it's not just that; small local breweries' beer is better tasting than the large corporate beers.

So listen up, corporate beer, chair-less and table-less live music venues: change your ways, and you'll get a bigger share of my entertainment dollars.

Sound

Why is that, all too frequently, despite very high quality equipment, the mixes are so bad? I was at a show recently, at a small venue, and the drums were WAY too loud, and you could barely hear the singer. You definitely couldn't hear the lyrics. Now, as a songwriter, I know how much time, heart, pain and suffering goes into creating lyrics. What a shame that nobody can hear them. And speaking of drums, who invented the lamentable modern standard of mixing the bass drum and snare WAY louder than the drum kit as a whole? The lack of balance sounds awful. A good drummer makes use of more than just the bass and snare, and I, for one, would like to hear it all. I didn't come to a show just to hear a bass drum and snare drum. I came to hear music; I came to hear a band--the whole band--including the lyrics. And how many times have you seen this: one band member, perhaps the lead guitar player--is playing his heart out, but you can't hear it, because the sound guy is... I dunno, either deaf or asleep? Isn't he paying attention?

I've done a little live sound, and I recorded and mixed my own cd's, so I know it's not as easy as it may seem. And everyone has their own tastes in terms of mixes. But when one band member can't be heard at all, and another is WAY louder than everyone elses, I don't understand that.

OK now that I've got all that off my chest, guess I should get off the computer and go practice guitar, or piano, or write a song. Or clean my bathroom.

-Rob

April 19, 2008

Another new song, 1st draft

Following up on my earlier blog, "The Songwriting Process is Weird", I've written a 2nd and 3rd verse for the song. So here's the first draft lyrics, I will post a rough cut on my myspace site, myspace.com/rroper, so you can hear the music.

No Title Yet
by Rob Roper 1st draft April 19, 2008

She took off for Biloxi, with a banjo on her back
and left me here in Denver, trying to understand
I heard thunder in the distance, but I never thought it'd rain
and now you say, you'll be ok

Chorus
But try and explain that to my heart
It cries when it's left out in the dark
Like a child, it wants to have its way
everyday, and feel no pain
(hey-hey-hey)

Well, I've got a friend, all she does is cry
'cause he won't return her calls, and she don't know why
She showed me the pictures, of that beach in Mexico
I tried to say, you'll be ok, (but she said...)

Chorus
Try and explain that to my heart
It cries when it's left out in the dark
Like a child, it wants to have its way
everyday, and feel no pain
(hey-hey-hey)

Most good things come to an end
That's the way it's always been
Just listen to your brain, it's easy to explain
So what's wrong? Just move on

Chorus
But try and explain that to your heart
It cries when it's left out in the dark
Like a child, it wants to have its way
everyday, and feel no pain
(hey-hey-hey)

April 15, 2008

The Songwriting Process is Weird...

...but I'm starting to accept that, and even like it.

You may have noticed I haven't written any love/sex/relationship songs. Of course, that theme comprises probably 90% of all popular songs. That's partly why I haven't written any, I figure the world doesn't need anymore of them. Why write the same songs that have already been written 1,000,000 times by 1,000,000 songwriters? But I have done some free-writing on various past relationships, and even started putting some lines together. I thought I should do at least one.

I was trying out some lines with different types of music, not finding anything that seemed to resonate well. I then put on a cd of my "library" of music ideas--stuff I'd come up with and recorded so I wouldn't forget, sometimes years ago. One was on a mandolin. Upbeat, simple I-IV-V chords. I started to fast forward to the next idea, then hesitated. Hmmm... something about that. The girl in question was into bluegrass music... and maybe the music shouldn't be slow, shouldn't be minor key, the subject matter is dreary enough... let's try it. So I grabbed my acoustic guitar instead of the mandolin. The music on the mandolin was in D. I replicated it on the guitar. Then I remembered seeing a songwriter friend of mine, Ed Skibbe, performing recently, and it seemed on 2/3 of his songs he used a partial 5-string capo on the 2nd fret, for a drop-D simulation in E. I had one of those laying around, hadn't written a song that way before, so I slapped in on there. Bingo. That was it.

Once I had music that seemed right, what do you know? The lyrics started falling into place. Got a chorus--a good chorus too, if I do say so myself--and the first verse written. Some of my best stuff, I think. Here it is as it stands now:

Verse 1:
She took off for Biloxi
with a banjo on her back
And left me here in Denver
trying to understand
I heard the thunder in the distance
but I never thought it'd rain
And now you say
You'll be ok

Chorus:
But try and explain that to my heart
It cries when it's left out in the dark
Like a child, it wants to have it's way
Everyday
And feel no pain
Hey hey hey

Now for the second verse. Another weird thing happened. I'd written all sorts of other lines about the girl in question. But something said to me: you've said enough. Talk about somebody else now. I thought of a friend, and started writing about one of his experiences. Then I ran into another friend, and decided her story was better. I'll write that one for the 2nd verse.

Then I'll have either a bridge or a third verse where I summarize the theme--talk about how illogical the "heart" is; how the "brain" can accept that something is over and move on, but the heart won't listen. That's the plan now, it could change. Hell, the first verse and chorus could get changed, too! Gotta keep an open mind...

Weird how this songwriting works. But now I say, "bring on the weirdness".

April 11, 2008

Capturing Ideas: songwriting technology

Every songwriter knows that ideas--lyrics, melody and such--frequently come at times when you don't have a guitar, pen and paper handly, much less a multitrack recorder. But if you don't get them down, they're long gone and forgotten.

For a few years I carried a mini-cassette recorder in the car with me, because, oddly enough, I would get ideas for lines or melodies while driving. Of course I have a notebook (or notebooks), for free-writing and such. That was good for capturing ideas, but if I wanted to record a demo, I'd have to setup the microphones and my multitrack recorder.

Last December I gave myself a Christmas present: an Edirol R09 handheld digital recorder. I highly recommend it. It's easy to use, and the fidelity is great--of course, WAY better than a mini-cassette recorder or a boom box. In fact, the built-in microphones are good enough to record a concert. You can record to either .wav or directly to .mp3 files, then just transfer the files to your computer with a USB cable. I put two new songs that are in the first draft stage on my myspace site (myspace.com/rroper). I recorded them by simply setting the Edirol on the music stand next to the lyric sheet, and recording voice and guitar at the same time.

By the way, I'm not being paid to promote the Edirol R09. There are other similar products by Zoom, Tascam, Sony, etc. I can't say if those are better or worse. I suspect they're all pretty good.

Yesterday I got new cellphone, the Palm Centro. It has an application called "Voice Memo". The fidelity is crappy, but I think it will be fine for capturing lyric ideas if I don't have my Edirol with me.

April 5, 2008

New Song - You Could Have Had Me

I started work on this a few months ago, then forgot about it. I found it in my songwriting folder yesterday, worked on it yesterday and today, and got it to a first draft state. I'll record a crude version and post it on myspace for feedback.

You Could Have Had Me
by Rob Roper 1st draft April 5, 2008

You could have been happy
You could have had me
But you went for him
And I was just a friend
So I have no sympathy
For your latest tragedy
Why can't you see?
You could have had me

You like the pretty ones
Won't consider the other ones
But they don't need you
They get bored and they leave you
You wouldn't give me a chance
Now he's left you at the dance
Still you don't see
You could have had me

Oh, you say you'll change
But I know it's not true
You see, I understand
Cause I'm just like you

Soon you'll recover
And you'll find another
And he'll do you wrong
And you'll write another sad song
And I'll sip my beer
But I won't shed a tear
Cause you'll never see
You could have had me

Stepping back and looking at the lyrics myself, I see no detail or imagery, no similes or metaphors except for the metaphor about leaving her at the dance. But I worry that's a cliche. I'll try it out at some gigs and open mics the next couple of months, and continue to tinker with it.

-Rob

March 24, 2008

New song - Jones County

A few years ago, I read a book called The Free State of Jones by Victoria Bynum. It's about a county in eastern Mississippi--Jones County--where, during the Civil War, non-slaveholding whites who had opposed secession deserted the Confederate army, and when the Confederates sent a squad to capture them and return them to the army, they resisted. They fought guerilla warfare against the Confederates for about a year and half until the war ended. The leader of this band was Newt Knight. A Natchez, Mississippi newspaper wrote at the time that Jones County had "seceded" from the Confederacy and formed "The Free State of Jones". This was an exxageration, but the legend lived on. I found it interesting in that it dispels one of the many myths about the "Old South", that all whites supported slavery and the Confederacy.

I was born in Jackson, Mississippi, and grew up during the last days of segregation and the civil rights movement. My parents brought me up not to be racist. But that caused conflicts with the other white kids in my neighborhood. At a very young age, I had to decide whether to "get along" or stand up for what was right. Now, nobody threatened my life, or even beat me up over it. But still, it was tough sometimes. Because of that, I admire Newt Knight and his band of brave southern whites who fought against the slaveowners.

When I read the book, I wanted to write a song. But I was just getting into songwriting, and didn't think I was worthy. The topic is so holy to me, I wanted to do it justice. And also, I think you need an "angle". And what about the music? The obvious thing would be to write it as an old British or Irish-style folk song-- "Come gather round me children, and I'll tell you a tale, about how brave Newt Knight...." But I wanted to consider other "angles" besides the obvious.

Recently, I got an idea for the "angle". The song will appeal to those who don't just go along with the crowd, who will stand up against peer pressure for what's right. I'm thinking the last 2 lines of the chorus will be:

I'll take my stand for what's right
I'll take my stand with Newt Knight

I re-read the book, this time with pen and notepad. I wrote down imagery and interesting phrases from the book. That gave me a "library" to build lines for the song from. The problem will be to scale it down, to pick one aspect of it and write about that.

Musically, instead of the old folk style, I'm thinking a loud, jangly electric guitar. I'm thinking Steve Earle, John Hiatt, Neil Young. But do it in such a way I could still play a solo acoustic version. I started working on the music--melody and chords. I've changed the music 3 or 4 times already. I have a guitar riff. I can hear an Irish tin whistle, mandolin and fiddle doubling that electric guitar riff. Cool. I think The Elders are influencing me.

I've got a tentative first verse:

The Piney Woods of eastern Mississippi
is where I call my home
Where we raised the Union flag in 1863
They called it The Free State of Jones

A daunting task I've created for myself, but I'm pretty stoked about it.

-Rob

February 17, 2008

Songwriting stretching exercises

I've noticed that, when it's time for a scheduled (or unscheduled) songwriting session, my brain usually isn't in the right place. I've been working the day job, or maybe doing housework, or reading and writing email--that is, mostly using the logical side of the brain, rather than the creative side. And I can't just flip a switch and go from the logical side to the creative side in an instant. And sometimes, I just feel mentally and/or physically tired, so I'm subconsciously or consciously looking for excuses to not do the songwriting session.

I decided that the way to overcome that is to slowly phase from the logical (or tired) brain to the creative (and energetic) brain. Maybe I'll pick up the guitar and noodle around, maybe practice a song, play a cover song. Or practice piano. Maybe I'll grab a book of poetry and read some poems. But I won't start working on a song immediately. I have to first transition to the right frame of mind.

I used to think these things were just me procrastinating. I told myself, "you're wasting time, get to work!" But now I see them as necessary; like stretching exercises before you run or play a sport.

-Rob Roper

February 8, 2008

New Song: This Ain't Me

Yesterday I got a 1st draft of a new song, tentatively titled "This Ain't Me." The way it came together taught me the value of keeping an open mind when writing songs.

Several months ago, I had an idea for a funny song, called "I want to be an expatriate". The theme would be envy for the lifestyle of the expatriate writers (Hemingway, Henry Miller, etc.) living in Paris in the 1920's. The singer would be longing to leave his day job, go to Paris, hang out at sidewalk cafes and such. I did some writing, coming up with images of Paris and such, got a few lines together, then dropped it to work on "serious" songs.

Musically, the original ideas was just going to be a semi-ragtime, blues ditty, rolling chords, probably C - E7 - F - A7 or something similar. Nothing very original or creative.

But I decided, well, let's listen to my stored library of music ideas and see if I like something else better. I heard one that was a little funky strumming pattern, starting in C, going to F or Am, I forget. I thought, hmmm, maybe. Let's try it. I changed the second chord to D9 (or Dsus2, whatever you call it), and really liked it. But I thought, that has a melancholy sound to it, doesn't work for a funny song. But that's ok, I'll save it for another song. But then, for some reason, I said, let's just sing a few of these lines. One line, "This Ain't Me", really resonated with those chords and rhythm. I said, wow. But it totally changed the song. It didn't really change the theme of the song, but it changed the approach to the theme; it changed the mood. But since I want to write "serious" songs anyway, this worked out better!

The first verse would be about his current job/life, then subsequent verses would be about wanting to be living it up in Paris as an expatriate. But then I thought, maybe Paris should just be one of his dreams; why not come up with other places he'd rather be. So I changed the later verses.

Here's the first draft of the lyrics. The rhyme scheme isn't consistent from one verse to another, so I have to make some adjustments. And I'm sure I change other stuff as well. Our songwriter group meets tonight, I'll play it for them and get some feedback.

This Ain't Me
by Rob Roper 1st draft Feb 7, 2008

Sitting in a cube
Living in a Dilbert cartoon
But my mind is far away
sitting at a sidewalk cafe

Chorus:
But here I am
Working for The Man
Staring at a screen
But this ain't me
This ain't me.

Me is in Paris
Walking down the street
with Amelie
Me is on a train
on my way to Spain
or Italy

(Chorus)

Me is on skiis
flying on the snow
past the trees
Me is on stage
Singing songs of joy
and of pain

(Chorus)

February 4, 2008

Ignorance is Bliss

I used to play guitar for a young songwriter in Tucson. She didn't know anything about song structure. But she wrote cool lines. She also never took guitar lessons, and didn't know any standard chords, or music theory. She made up her own chords, which were cool. I always wondered how she thought of all those weird, cool ideas. Of course, I would use my knowledge of music to give her songs structure and polish, which (I think) she was grateful for.

My songwriting mentor told me that I'm "too smart for my own good" and I need to use "more heart, less brain". I didn't know what he was talking about. Now I think I do. Because I've been such a huge music lover all my life, listened to so much music, learned how to play the guitar and a little piano, I understand the components of a song, musically and lyrically. When I go to compose a song, from the very start, I'm thinking about all those components, and how to frame what I want to say within the structure of a song.

I also noticed from my own experience, as well as that of other songwriters, that, once you've written your first batch of songs you consider good, it's harder to write the next batch. You've set the bar at a high level, and you feel the pressure to exceed that level.

I know two English teachers. They have a hard time writing. They know too much. Their standards are high.

It seems so unfair that the people who love literature the most, have the hardest time writing it, and the people who love music the most, have the hardest time writing songs!

So I think at need to find a way to pretend that I'm ignorant of music. At least at the beginning stages of the song.

I have an idea: when starting a song, I'll write the poem first. By "poem", I don't know mean a real poem, well-thought-out, edited with craft; I mean, just write lines with rhythm, but no rhyme or structure. Since I don't have any poetry craft, that will guarantee that I'll just write simple, crude, primitive stuff, purely from the heart. Then I can use my songwriting craft to convert it to song lines, give it structure, and pretty it up with similes, metaphors, imagery and detail.

Well, that's the strategy I'm going to try next. Who knows if it will work? But worth a shot.

-Rob

January 31, 2008

Heart But No Brain

When it comes to songwriting, I've got heart but no brain. At least that's how it seems to me.

I can come up with musical ideas-- chords with a rhythm-- no problem. I've got over 100 of those ideas recorded, not to mention all the ones I didn't record, lost forever (perhaps). I could come up with new ones daily, if I wanted to. No problem. That's easy for me.

I can free-write about all sorts of topics. My grandmother's house. How I felt about a breakup with a girlfriend. Observations of my neighborhood. I've got notebooks and file folders of papers full of that stuff. And I can easily write more. No problem. That's easy for me.

But putting the musical and lyrical inspiration together into a structure--writing a song--now that's different. That's not easy--at least for me. I'm still trying to figure out how to do that. That is, how to take the raw material from inspiration, and convert it to a first draft of a song. Something with flaws, to be sure--musically and lyrically-- that needs editing, but it has structure; there are verses, there's rhyme (for most songs), there's the same number of lines in each verse, etc. Needs polishing, but it's a song.

What I've done up until now, is to go back over the free-writing, and circle words or phrases that, for whatever reason, are interesting to me. I then list those phrases on a new sheet of paper. Those become the building blocks of lines. But they're not in a logical order, they don't rhyme, etc. Converting those phrases into lines of the song is the part I don't really know how to do yet. Or at least not well or easily. I have probably two dozen songs in this phase right now.

I've finished a handful of songs, so obviously I've gotten through this stage, but it's hard, and frankly not a lot of fun. I think it's because to organize a bunch of creative ideas takes craft; it takes the logical side of the brain. That's like work--and it's work that I'm not good at, so I don't like doing it. Plus, I don't want to work. I want to have fun. It's the child in me rebelling when dad says "go mow the lawn" when I'd rather play baseball with my friends.

I think I need to figure out a way to make this stage fun instead of work. I need to figure out a way to engage the fun, creative part of the brain--the heart--at this stage of the process. A songwriting mentor told me "less brain, more heart". I just don't know how to do that yet. It just seems to me that to go from a collection of organized musical and lyrical ideas to a structure of a song, you need to use the logical side of the brain, not the creative side. Maybe this stage requires some percentage of both.

I'd be interested in hearing what other songwriters do at this 2nd step of the process--getting from raw ideas to a first draft. I guess the answer to this is what's called the "craft" of songwriting. It's what I don't have much of yet. A lot of heart, but not much brain.

P.S. - I even started writing a song about this, called "Heart But No Brain". But of course I'm stuck in the 2nd stage; I can't get a first draft. :)

January 29, 2008

Which came first, the music or the lyrics?

Ah, that old question. I've deliberately done it differently for different songs, to see which works best for me. I'm still experimenting. Here's the order I got the ideas for the songs on my EP "Some Songs I Wrote":

1. "Let it Go" Chords and rhythm first, then the hook line ("Let it go"), then the theme, then the melody. (By "theme" I mean what the song is about).

2. "A Special Request" Theme first, then some lines, then rhythm and style, then melody, then chords.

3. "Bipolar" Rhythm first, then chords, then melody, then some lines, then theme.

4. "When They Go" The music and the theme were developed independantly. After going through my library of music ideas for the song, I remembered this chords/rhythm idea, and decided to use it. Then I found melody for the initial lines I had.

5. "Invisible Prison" Theme first, then melody and rhythm, then lines, then chords.

6. "The Screwup Song" Melody and rhythm first, then lines, then theme, then chords.