The Long Road-walking into the sun
“The presence of music is not a necessary condition for having creativity, but having creativity is a necessary condition for having music.”(Burnard,2012)
We discover as we create, and we create as we discover. How to get from A–good songwriter to B–GREAT songwriter is certainly a journey with some key stops along the way.
i need a chorus
I`ve been a published songwriter now for 12 years, but I had no formal training in the art of writing..indeed, such a thing would have been anathema to me a decade ago.
Well, the Songwriter Workshop has blown away any vestiges of ego-driven pride over who has a right to tell me how to write……
Okay.. so…collaborative songwriting. A seething cauldron of angst and frustration or a source of unalloyed joy? Jimmy Webb says.. “In my view collaboration has always been a necessary evil, which is no doubt why I have never been particularly adept. The primary advantage in collaboration…being influenced by a completely different perspective.”(Webb, 1998)
The Workshops involved A LOT of collaborative writing. I mean A LOT. I`ve found it enjoyable in the past, but it can be problematic. Bennett identifies seven collaborative songwriting models, and it certainly felt like we ran through the whole gamut in the weeks we were doing the Workshops…
“Nashville, Factory, Svengali, Demarcation, Jamming, Top Line Writing and Asynchronicity”(Bennett,2011)
Probably the most appropriate for our purposes was the Nashville model-
“Acoustic guitars/piano and minimal technology – a ‘pen and paper’
approach typically featuring two writers, who usually do not have demarcated roles”(ibid)
There was certainly an observable degree of overlap from some of the other models as we worked together, pinpointing each others strengths and dancing around any perceived weaknesses, trying hard not to offend or become overbearing when coming up with creative suggestions.
Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman were a collaborative songwriting team who worked out of the Brill Building in the 50s/60s. They wrote this little beauty. Pomus mused years later on the secret of successful collaborating-“I don’t know what the subconscious mechanisms are, but right away something happens…the whole thing is communicating…”(Pollock, 1975)
So,not unlike Marriage, communication seems to be key to successful collaboration. Bennett again-
“all creative ideas must manifest themselves in order to be communicated to the other writer”(ibid)
Jason Sweeney, David Law and I were set to work writing a song with a defined narrative. Right away communication/problem solving issues expand exponentially as we moved into a three-way collaboration .
Narrative songwriting, then, is the telling of a story . Three distinct writing styles were discussed-
Micro to Macro
Okay, so this list looks a bit perfunctory and delineated, but as with all human interaction, things quickly started to get messy and mixed up. David manned up and volunteered to use his personal life as the fountainhead of our narrative`s theme. Brave chap! We lost and gained focus along the way, steering each other on and off metaphorical cliff edges whilst we sought to stick to the brief. We had to heartlessly refine David`s life, remorselessly cut and paste it into a workable song.
To make things worse, I had prior work commitments and so had to leave the session early, leaving the fate of the new-born song in the hands of the other two. I won`t lie, but I had deep misgivings as to where we would end up…
I needn`t have worried, though. The other two surrogate fathers more than compensated for my absence. They even kept in my suggestion for a modulation on the final chorus! My reasoning for modulating ? It adds “power, drive, emotion”, and breathes “new life into a song”(Brantingham, 2018)
Jason sang the song. He`s got the chops.
“Improvising in jazz is about creating a situation where change, transformation and
process are focused and where even the structure, the referential foundation of improvisation,may be part of the alterations“(Alterhaug, 2004)
Bea hitting the keys
On day 2 I was paired with Beatrice Montorsi, one of two Italian exchange students on the Masters course. We had initial discussions attempting to find common ground to start our collaboration. One musical reference point that came up was Etta James and so we leapt on that as a musical starting point. I started to vamp in a slow 6/8 using a chord sequence not unlike “At Last” (see above).
Bea began to riff a sensuous melody- very free-flowing and open – and eventually a loose structure began to emerge. We had been asked to consider the relationship between lyric,melody and meaning. Albin Zak states that “ideas are not merely
expressed in sound; rather, ideas become sound. Thus, concept and performance enter into an integral relationship” (Zak,2001).
This is especially true of Bea`s approach to composition. We also discovered a mutual love of Bossa Nova and so the rhythm gradually morphed out of 6/8 and into a slow, syncopated 4/4. Her voice is an improvisational instrument which she used to linger over my slow chord changes-the second verse is basically a tone poem in miniature. She immersed herself in the melody, inhabiting the notes, elongating the vowels.
I put together another sequence of chords for the chorus and added what I hoped would be a structured and anchored melody – one which Bea could return to after the improvisational direction she had taken with the verses.
Free writing exercises often throw up striking images/juxtapositions which often creatively spark lyrical concepts -which is precisely what happened here. Although the word count in Blue Violin isn`t particularly large, there is a distillation of ideas which resonate long after the song has finished.
blue violin title
The dialectic of improvisation and structure , and of lyrical “connectedness” to the melody, are all played out in 3 minutes 11 seconds. It`s short-but very sweet.
The Ballad Of Pauline And Joe/ Anything Joe
“when family members have been given the chance to talk about their experience they often describe it in terms of ‘doing time’ with the inmate or serving parallel sentences of ‘imprisonment on the outside’”(Jacobs, 2018)
Two songs, then, reflecting on Songs for Social Intervention (Practise as Research).
The protagonists in this assignment are all caught up in the prison probation system. Joe,a prisoner up for probation, his under-pressure case worker Pauline, and Joe`s wife/partner who is left unnamed for the purposes of this exercise.
“The Ballad Of Pauline And Joe” is an extrapolation of the short extract from “Pervasive Punishment” by Fergus McNeill that was supplied to us as inspiration for the brief . I wrote it in the form of a theatrical narrative , with the narrator offstage, switching between different viewpoints and insights into Joe`s seemingly hopeless and intransigent situation.
The second song, “Anything, Joe”, is written from the perspective of Joe`s long-suffering wife. It is a declaration of undying loyalty . It deals with devotion and faithfulness to the prisoner in the face of the many obstacles and difficulties that couples who are separated in this way must endure.
There was a phrase in the above article which really chimed with me…”Invisible punishment”(ibid)
I also chose to reprise a section of the first song in the second one as I felt the words tied the two songs together rather neatly..”Is there anything I can do for you? Apart from bury you deeper inside“(McCulloch,2018) the feeling of being “bound together” was a key signifier for me of the situation the protagonists found themselves in.
Unusually for the workshop process, it was decided by mutual consent that we would approach this assignment as single writers-so no collaboration as such. However..I was asked if I had considered asking a female to sing “Anything,Joe”- after all, I was attempting to examine the situation from an alternative viewpoint…an exploration of the nuances of a different perspective…perhaps prisoner Joe`s long-suffering other half should be played by a woman? At first, I took umbrage at the thought- is MY singing not good enough to convey the meaning of MY lyric?!?
Anyway, my mini-strop didn`t last so long and I soon saw the wisdom in this simple suggestion. So I asked fellow student Rachel Jack if she would do me the honour…
This we recorded on my phone, which added a bit of lo-fi grit to the piece. And grit, as you know, is sometimes the starting point for a pearl.
My Salem Song
“And this seems an even more obvious question about popular music, of
which the dominant forms in all contemporary societies have originated
at the social margins”(Frith, 1996)
Rachel bringing her unique sound to the song
Getting the job done
Working on this song , Rachel Jack and I used elements of Bennett`s Nashville model of writing, but also his Demarcation Model: to wit- “A lyricist provides a finished lyric for word-setting by a composer, or the composer provides music for a lyricist to
write to”(Bennett, 2011). Using the story of the Salem Witch Trials as our jumping off point, we brainstormed and came to the conclusion that we could use the story as a metaphor for the rise and rise of Donald Trump -just who were the disenfranchised masses that put him at the top of the heap? The climate of fear and loathing engendered by his cretinous philosophy was/is creating a baleful atmosphere and I wanted to explore that using music in the idiom of Jean Ritchie et al. Ritchie “has proved an important spokesperson for the inequities of the Appalachian region.” (Carter-Schwendler, 2018)
The melody and chords came to me pretty quickly to be honest, but the meat on the bones are the lyrics which Rachel and I hammered out over a couple of hours. An element of creative frustration crept in, however, as we couldn`t think of a title for the song…or a strong enough line of lyric to finish off the all-important chorus . Dr Jo asked a pertinent question when listening to our unfinished effort- “why not combine the search?” quoth she; and looking at the material with this fresh perspective, it came to me that:
this assignment is about the Salem Witch Trials
why not call it My Salem Song ?
This title, as luck would have it, scanned beautifully into the final cadence of the chorus.
“I WANT TO LIVE” (weak,meh…) “”MY SALEM SONG (strong,KILLER HOOK!!)
A “different perspective”, as Mr Webb points out at the top of this blog, can be highly effective in the songwriting process . It certainly got us out of a creative cul-de-sac.
Apropos of nothing- in my opinion the best “list” song ever written–
4 In The Morning Love
“It seems to me that Duglas Stewart has been holding a mirror up to the seasons for a while now… He thinks he might die in flames”(Scott, 2006)
“We may have to wait for the death of a star of the stature of a Dylan before such depth of sorrow is experienced again”(Lester,1997)
Paul Lester sums up the late Laura Nyro`s approach to songwriting succinctly..”intricate meditations on the pain of romance and the romance of pain”.
Sample lyric:“Never mind the forecast/Cos the sky has lost control/Cos the fury and the broken thunder’s/Come to match my ragin’ soul”(ibid)
Honesty..Integrity..Confronting uncomfortable truths in song. I found this workshop very hard to bear. When I first played this final effort to Becci Wallace she felt I was obscuring my lyric behind a guitar wall-of-sound…what was I trying to hide?
Mort Shuman (remember Mort from the top of this Blog?) ended up working with Jacques Brel, the Belgian songwriter rightly lauded for unflinching lyrical honesty. Shuman “was entrusted to introduce his songs to American audiences using musical theatre”, but Brel`s appeal outside of Europe was limited ,not only because of the language barrier and some iffy English-language versions of his material, but I think because of “some of the specificities of the popular chanson form (or, at least, the brand of chanson identified with Brel): the foregrounding of lyrics, the honesty of emotion, the readiness to tackle taboos such as death.”(Tinker,2005)
Anyway. For me it was a revelation.A cathartic baring of my soul on paper, in the form of a throw-away pop song, for all the world to see. Is this what Art is all about?
I`m way over my word count, but if you have managed to stay the course with me I thank you from the bottom of my heart. It IS a long road we are travelling and as a songwriter i am not sure if I am anywhere near becoming the finished article. But I think I am getting there.
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