Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Runner Up

I just got word from the Song of the Year contest that both "Out in the Cold" (Adult Contemporary) and "Vinyl" (Rock) scored highly enough to be runners-up in the May 2008 competition.

Obviously, one hopes for higher, but it's nice to know that the judges liked the songs and gave them high marks.

There are ten categories in the SOTY contest, and there is a monthly winner (and four finalists).   After that, any song that is scored highly, regardless of category, is a runner-up, and there were 64 named for May.  (It's conceivable that a runner-up, entered in one category, could get a higher score than the winner of another category, depending on the competition, we'll never know).   I don't know how many entries there were, or how many in each category, unfortunately.

Congratulations go out to Ron Tintner ("Vinyl") and Anthony J. Spinella ("Out in the Cold") my co-writers.   The runners-up page only lists me, since I entered the songs -- I'm trying to get the SOTY folk to add my co-writers to the list.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Conch Shell

Well last night had a few interesting fillips.   One of which is that the pizza slices at the place below Lickety Split (401 South Street) are as big as your head.   I had two.  I was hungry.

I did double-duty last night, checking out artists I had seen previously, and generally being out and about.  My birthday started at midnight, so I was determined to be somewhere in the city when the odometer clicked over.

At Burlap and Bean in Newtown Square, Philly Songwriters was having their bi-weekly showcase. I came to see AlyCat, who I enjoyed at the PSP finals at Milkboy weeks earlier.

The evening kicked off with two thirds of Funkharp.   Terry "Thundercat" laid down the bass foundation, and Joseph sang, played guitar and harmonica (the "funkharp" itself)   He threw himself into his playing with some abandon.   They had a neat trick where they recorded a riff -- live -- and immediately looped it back and built on, or harmonized, with it.   Many wonderful effects.  Then there was that thing with the conch shell, but more on that later.

Folk singer Darcy Sebright was trying out her sea legs, or kaffeehaus arms, with some song she had written partly with the benefit of her Masters in poetry.   One song was written as a collage, the lyrics literally cut and pasted from another poem.   She sang directly to me and pressed a CD in my hand at the end of the evening, and her playing and voice and much more assured on the CD.    She also did a song about how her husband and she would leave little post-it notes to each other, and some wondered whether he was going to chide her about that after she left.

AlyCat rocked.  And rocks.   She had 4 of her 7-piece backup band.  There was a trumpet and there were bongos, plus electric *and* acoustic guitar.  Aly plays the electric bass and sings.   They have a very hot funk sound going, and they're worth checking out.   Afterwards I hung out with them a little, and we talked about maybe doing some writing together.  But time will tell.  Look for her at Tritone in September.

I made it into Center City to hook up with Lee Morgan.   Lee and his friend Ed were stuck playing to a near-empty (or totally empty) room for some small percentage of the bar which wasn't much.      But they played their Americana (and more harmonicas) with gusto and feeling.   They had been playing on and off for two hours when I got there, and Lee was still going after 1am when I left.

Oh, the conch shell -- Joseph, of Funkharp, pulled out an actual conch shell.  Thundercat laid down the familar opening bassline of the "Pink Panther" theme, and Joseph managed to blow out the melody, by using his hand to control the flow of air from the shell.   It was truly something to behold.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Folly of Wisdom

Two recent songwriting rewrite experiences.

I was working on a collaboration over the weekend with a couple people, writing a song for a young female singer. We started with a lyric I had on hand (not referenced as it’s still being developed, though it’s on my website if you want to try to figure it out). It was conceived as a dance lyric, something dark and edgy, the message being “I want you to be dangerous and scare me, hurt me, to make it interesting” – something Madonna might sing. It was the kind of writing “assignment” I would give myself, to write in a style I hadn’t tried yet.

During the collaboration process, we softened the message of the lyric, took out the “dangerous” elements, and the message became “I like you but don’t be such a wuss all the time” – a more universal feeling, probably. And we went through the all-too-familiar process of trying to retain something of interest while making it palatable for a larger audience.

A few months ago I went through a process with a composer who gave me a melody to set. I worked pretty hard on it, a lyric about a woman (it was also for a female singer) who had been through dark times (wrong boyfriends, wrong times, lots of mind-altering activities and soul-deadening sex) but was now in love with the right guy. The song contrasted night images (scary and dark cityscapes) with sun-drenched daytime images (in a nature setting). Coming out of the darkness into the light.

Despite a few attempts at rewrites, he finally said he thought the lyric was too dark for the music. I thought it was as hopeful as it could get – that it was enormously positive, a story of redemption. I use that theme a lot in my writing – I return to it over and over. So we decoupled the music and lyrics (I’ll rewrite the lyric at another time for different music).

And it finally hit me. As an older person, I understand what it’s like to live through the long, dark night of the soul, and come out the other side. Anyone may age does. But a young person doesn’t want to hear about that. The young don’t think the dark times will ever come to them. Those on the other side of the divide can warn all they want, but youth persists in believing in its invulnerability.

A young audience isn’t necessarily interested in hearing songs about difficult life experiences.


Friday, July 18, 2008

The Man Who Met Picasso

I posted something on a discussion board at the Muses' Muse a few days ago which I thought was worth ruminating on here. It started with a question about Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues." The lyric has no chorus, and barely mentions "Folsom Prison" -- and we were discussing titles and their purpose.

I'm one of those people that thinks the title is key. If you don't know the title of your song, you haven't figured out what the song *IS* yet. Songs are marvels of economy -- a few key strokes to tell your story, or paint your picture. You don't have the luxury of a short story to explain everything. The title tells you how to think about the rest of the story. And it's most interesting when the title isn't echoed in the song....

"Folsom Prison Blues" describes being in prison, and hearing a train in the distance. Most of the song talks about the train (representing freedom), and in the four verses (no chorus), only mentions Folsom Prison twice. I noted that if you called the song "Passing Train Blues" it wouldn't have half the impact -- and adding a chorus which featured the line or phrase "I've got those Folsom Prison Blues" would add nothing significant, and would actually detract from the narrative.

What I finally came to remember was a story I read more than 25 years ago, called "The Man Who Met Picasso" (I've since researched it and found out it's by Michael Swanwick, and can be found in a spec fic collection called "Gravity's Angels"). The main part of the story has Picasso telling a young artist to go stare at a particular painting, depicting a vista of orange rooftops, with one green one in the middle. The artist is to hold up his thumb so that it blocks the green roof, and start at the painting for a good half an hour, only then to take his thumb away.

When he does, the oranges become brighter and more vibrant. The presence of the green roof illuminates, by contrast, all that surrounds it.

Like the title that is not in the song, like the song with no chorus, it is often the seemingly strange element -- sometimes inexplicably there, sometimes mysteriously absent -- which is the key that lifts up the rest of the work. The green roof can raise something good to be something special.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

On background

I've been meaning to say a word about the background of the new site -- it's one of the features that makes it feel personal.

The original intent was to have some sort of "floating words" element in the design -- I'm a lyricist, after all, so there should be words. We talked about a flash opening with adjectives (beginning with z, m, u, l and s) waving.

Miralina gave me a draft idea that included some typed text in the background, faded so as not to detract from the text you were supposed to read. And I asked her if it would be possible to take handwritten papers and transform them (through the magic of scanning and photoshopping) into a background.

What you see in the background of the website (not the blog site) is actual rough copies of four lyrics -- my own writing -- cut and pasted and repeated for visual effect. You can see how I work on a lyric, the sorts of scribbles and crossings-out, the occasional rhyme selections scrawled on the side, the rewriting....I almost always work longhand. I have once or twice worked on a lyric on my computer, deleting and changing lines, but it's dissatisfying to delete. I like to see the history of the line, it makes it feel that I've worked for it.

It's the messy desk theory -- a clean desk means you're not working hard enough. What if I finished a lyric and all I had to show was a very cleanly-typed piece of paper?

I have had a fantasy of having to go to court to prove that I actually wrote a lyric, and hauling out my boxes of rough drafts and saying, "See, look at all the work I put in."

For the record, the four lyrics you can see are from "Yellow Mailbox" and "Slipped Away" (both turned into songs by Jim Chapman, "Midsummer" (another song, this one written by me for my wife) and "Inconcievable Joy" (a semi-autobiographical lyric I think came out well).

Monday, July 14, 2008

Punk Rock Girl

I am about 30 years too late to be starting to venture into the darker points in the demimonde.

I took myself out to Tritone on Friday night. I had passed the place many times, as it's right across the street from Bob and Barbara's Lounge. Bob and Barbara's is the kind of dive where, even though Philly is smoke-free, you can still smell the ground-in smoke of years past. It has what is probably the largest collection of Pabst Blue Ribbon memorabilia on the Eastern Seaboard -- the walls are covered top to bottom. The specialty of the house is a shot of Jim Beam and a can of Pabst. (Insert appropriate quote from Blue Velvet here).

Bob and Barbara's is known for Friday and Saturday night jazz, so it makes a cool hangout. And now that The Happy Rooster has changed hands, I am looking for new hangouts.

But I hadn't been to Tritone and it was obviously a hopping place. A funk/jazz bass player I had met at Philly Songwriters was playing there last Wednesday, but my wife's schedule kept me from attending. So on Friday I went on a whim.

The group onstage was KeN, a punk band. The lead singer was female, a fierce gal with glasses. I then realized that most of the band was female with the incongruous exception of the middle-aged male drummer. They rocked out, and I realized I could barely make out the words, but that wasn't really the point. The noise and energy and anger was the driving force -- I could try to write a punk lyric but there wouldn't be much point. You can't hear the words while they're singing and if you had the CD you wouldn't be worried about the lyrics either.

It's like a blues band -- the lyrics aren't the key component. When I hear blues, I hear the repeated chorus and that's about it. Other than that I'm just going with the music, not looking for a story.

Slowly discovering the various corners of Philly music....

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Open Mic Night

Open Mic Night

I finally made it to an Open Mic night. One glance at the Philly Songwriters resource pages tells you that Philly is a hell of an open mic town. There are several options on any given night of the week.

I chose to stay on well-trodden ground (for me) and went to World Café Live, where every Monday is Philly Rising, hosted by the irrepressible Boy Wonder. Sign-up starts at 6:30pm for 15-minute slots (2 songs only), and the fun begins at 7:30pm. (At 11pm or so, there are one-song slots). I took the prime piece of real estate at the very end of the bar, where I had to continually pull my feet in to avoid tripping Abby and Erin, the hard-working waitresses.

There were guitar wailers. There was hip-hop (some lame and some not). There was Keyboard Cathy, who cheerfully, and somewhat defiantly, sang songs about peanut butter and sushi (not together). There was Jack Gleason, a sort of happy hobbit, who coaxed interesting space-like electronica out of his guitar, and (though the magic of several gizmos) made it sound like an ‘invisible Irish choir.’ There was a 19-year-old fellow who, accompanied by his best friend on the piano, belted out some Elton John-esque ballads in a fiercely powerful voice. And on and on.

And if you sit there long enough, enjoying the music for what it is, and for the joy the individuals bring to it, you will eventually get the oyster with the pearl.

Lee Morgan got up and first did some extraordinary things with a harmonica, and then sang some Americana with great passion and feeling – he had “it” whatever “it” is. Unfortunately, he doesn’t co-write, but I think I can learn a lot from his writing in genres I’m still finding my way in.

And a new band, Bojibian, totally rocked the house. They’re all barely legal (just turning 22), and they’ve only been together for six months, and they play like they’ve been together for years. They were totally tight, vocally and instrumentally, all of them could play, and their beat was infectious. I chatted with Steven, the lead vocalist, afterwards, and will be talking to them more. They will be at World Café on July 19, so local folks should check them out.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

New look for the website

The new website is live.

If you're on the website now (, you're reading the blog, which will always list the first three posts on the front page (if you scroll).  And the website will link to the blog so you can read the archives.

I had the pleasure of engaging designer Miralina Stewart, who gave me a fresh new look, and spruced things up in general.   When she gets back from maternity leave, she'll be available to do the same for you.

You can still read the archive of lyrics and listen to over 25 songs I've collaborated on.

Welcome to the new Z. Mulls home!