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