Tuesday, December 23, 2008
Peach, Plum, Pear
At first I wasn’t sure if it might be a joke video. She’s pixie-ish, earnest and playing the harp, with let’s just say an unusual singing voice. But within 30 seconds I got that she was for real, and had something compelling going on. She does things with that harp I didn’t think were possible, the words were striking and she was deeply committed to her performance and her music.
I looked up the lyrics on songmeanings.net to get a better sense of them, and they were intriguing, the sort of collage lyric that fascinates me when it’s done right. There were all sorts of interpretations going on, but I noticed that most people tried to “figure it out” from the beginning of the song, in a linear way.
But it struck me that the title was barely used in the song. There’s no chorus, no refrain, there’s just a continuous stream of thought, culminating in the title. And that is never an accident. The title is the conclusion, the meaning and saving it until the very end is a tell that it is the keystone to the song.
It’s obvious the song is about shyness, and self-doubt, some relationship gone wrong or questioned, and some of the songmeanings posters circled around the fruits as metaphors for a woman’s self-image. And I think that’s exactly right, though it’s the declension itself that the song is about. A young woman is often described as a “peach,” new and bright, with smatterings of “peach fuzz” designating youth; a “plum” is a great prize, something special, a woman in the full, ripe bloom; and as women age, and gravity takes over, the phrase “pear-shaped” comes into play.
So those three little words, all fruits, all beginning with ‘p,’ are a concise progression. Soft and downy youth, ripe and mature womanhood, body-changing age. Or “golden turned to gray” as the song says. Peach, plum, pear.
And from that idea the rest of the song unravels (or ravels). It ties into the grocery store at the beginning, and brings together all the insecurities spoken of, in many ways, during the song. The song “makes sense” – the best of these songs, impenetrable at first, becomes wonderful to walk in after a little reflection. And I’m in love with the worlds of meaning distilled in those three fruits.
As a writer, I try to intuit another writer’s process, how s/he got from one thought to another. I can almost imagine her in the fruit section of a grocery store having this ‘pear-shaped’ thought, making the connection in her mind, calculating the phrase and reflecting on her life, her changing body, and imagining the start of a relationship, right there, where she was standing. It’s the sort of crystallized thought we try to put in our notebooks when it happens, the thought that becomes the greater song, and the thought that a day later, hours later, you won’t remember if it’s not written.
I’m going to look up more of Joanna Newsom's work, and see what else she’s written for me.
Monday, December 15, 2008
One dead Frenchman can't be wrong
Zola was the flavor of the month, with a series of retrospective displays about his life and career. I knew about the Dreyfus case, and his heroic stand in public, but only a little about his writing. He was a naturalist, and made it his mission to advocate for art that showed life as it was, not enobled or impressionistic, but flat out telling the straight truth. I didn’t realize he had written a 20-novel “series” that followed one family. I figured I owed him something and bought “The Masterpiece” to read.
This is his novel about art, and the artistic impulse. Zola was friends with Cezanne and many other artists. All the characters in the book are based in part on real people (though many are amalgams of several people). It is the familiar and gritty story of a starving artist and friends, living in garrets and attics, creating art and arguing about its meaning, trying to get their pictures recognized by the establishment, and setting up their own salons in revolt. (Cezanne read the book, returned it without comment, and never spoke to Zola again)
All the characters compromise over time, selling themselves out, selling themselves short, selling their souls in the pursuits we all follow as we age, fame, money, security. Only Claude, the main character, remains obsessed with pure art, and it destroys him. The writer, Sandoz (based on Zola) finds the balance between writing what he believes in and making a living.
I should say that The Masterpiece is not a terribly fun read, but it’s rich in detail about Paris life of all sorts, and has a realistic view of human nature – which isn’t always pleasant. And the sex scenes were pretty frank for a pre-1900 book (tastefully described, but no panning to the curtains blowing, or dissolving into points of ellipses).
The passage that struck me the most was an older artist, once successful, telling Claude and a friend how awful it was to achieve success. That the real joy was the striving, the climbing, the rising – and while success gave one satisfaction for a while, it gave way to doubt and anxiety. Staying on top was so much harder, so much worse, then getting there. Would he ever again produce a work like the one that made his reputation? Was it a fluke? He couldn’t experiment now, too much was expected of him, he couldn’t paint just *anything*
I’ve been going through a dry spell in my own writing, spending time putting together words that have been requested, or trying to write what might ‘sell’ to another artist or composer. And I’ve been concentrating this year to learning the lay of the land, music business-wise, and have not been playing as much as working. I’ve looked over some of the really good lyrics I’ve written before, and wondered whether I need to drop back and just write things I like, not because I think they’ll be successful, but because I like them – and not care whether anyone else does.
I did have a good helping of success this year, but I’m afraid it’s frozen me for a bit. I don’t want to wind up like the artists in The Masterpiece. Here’s to some more inventive writing in 2009…..
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
The Little Things You Do Together
It is easy to make yourself, or someone else, cry, when imagining (or unfortunately, reliving) the death of a loved one. We all fear death, our own, our family, and the emotion that a ‘death song’ taps is a primal one, an inescapable one. A wedding song, about the joy and hope of a life together, brings to mind one’s own wedding and we shed tears of joy (or bitterness, as the case may be).
But that’s easy. When one writes about death or love, or birth, one can mistake the sincerity – and depth – of the emotion for the quality of the writing. A song describing the death of a parent will almost certainly make me cry – whether or not there is any skill in the writing. And if there is no craft, no skill in the writing, I feel cheated and used.
The hard thing is to write about something small, and find worlds in it. I ran across a group called “The Mountain Goats” and was struck by the minimalism of the writing. The first song on “The Sunset Tree” album is “You or Your Memory.” All that happens in this lyric is a guy checks into a cheap motel, goes down to the store to buy aspirin and wine coolers and goes back to the room. But it’s incredibly evocative. You can feel the room, feel the singer’s desperation and loss, with the simplest possible arrangement of music and words.
I admire that. It’s something to aspire to. (My own stab at writing in the style of this group is called “Hesitant Elegy”
When I can write about something small, and normal, and everyday, yet describe a person’s entire worldview in that moment, I know I’ve done something difficult.
Monday, November 24, 2008
This one I had written on spec for an artist that was looking for material, and it wasn't used. The image was a couple at an art gallery, him unable to figure her out. There are plenty of ways to talk about a couple where one can't fathom the mind of the other (or maybe I just write about that a lot), and this was a good way in. Talking about trying to make sense of modern art, and modern relationships from different Vantage Points.
Ian stepped out of his comfort zone into a very cool pop setting, I think. Hope you enjoy "Vantage Point."
As usual, I found an appropriate picture from my photographic muse's Flickr page. This was a fitting off-kilter, oddly angled self-portrait, and the fact she's all dressed up worked with the lyric as well.
Wednesday, November 19, 2008
In (someone's) zone
Much of my collaboration has been done over the Internet, asynchronously. I give a lyric to someone, and get back some musical ideas – I can think about them, and give considered feedback, or can do some rewriting.
Lately I’ve been “in the room” with another person, and you have to be “on” – you have to be in the zone, at the same time as other people are in the zone, and hopefully you’re in the *same* zone. Most of these times have started with a “finished” lyric – and working from there, making changes to it.
Last week I went to my first group songwriting session, where four people tried to write a song from scratch. You have to think fast and think out loud, and rush your thinking processes. It’s different, it’s instructive, but it’s not my favorite way to write. We did come up with something but I doubt it’s good as any one of us might have written on our own. It’s true, many people can have those eureka moments “in the room” but it may not be the best environment for my own set of muses…
Monday, October 27, 2008
The Eight Year Folly
I always had a facility for rhyme and meter as a kid, and wrote verse – doggerel mostly – for peoples’ birthdays and whatnot. My Junior Year English teacher despaired of my ever doing anything worthwhile with my talent. By the middle of college, I abandoned writing as a hobby from my childhood.
Many years later, in 1995, after years of thinking that “I can certainly write something at least as good as *that*” I bludgeoned myself to sitting down and proving it to myself. See if I actually had the talent to pull something “worthwhile” off.
I started to write a song from a bride’s POV, in which, as she walked down the aisle, her whole relationship flashed in front of her eyes. I started to experiment with the five stages of death (anger, denial, bargaining, etc.). It got long, and I let it. I decided to let it be whatever it was going to be, rather than squeeze it into a box. Each section got longer, with its own verse structure, changing rhythms, changing tones, going for laughs but by the end speaking some truths from my heart through this “character.” I figure if the song were ever composed and performed it would run 10-15 minutes – a real monologue.
While I was writing that one, I thought I should try to write something “serious” and simple, with fewer rhymes, and wrote about a woman attending her mother’s funeral, while recalling a dream the night before of attending the funeral. I started with a non-rhyming verse pattern almost lifted from Sondheim’s “Pretty Woman” – this, too, grew larger and longer, creating another monologue in song.
I started to write a third, and a fourth, and the birth of my first son interrupted me for a good eight months. When I got my bearings back, I finished those two – probably the two best things I will ever write, and began to envision an entire theatrical evening of pieces like this.
The birth of my second son set me back four or five years. But I was determined to finish what I had started. And I refused to let myself write anything else until I was entirely finished with this extended piece. With the lengthy interruptions, it took more than eight years to get to a point where I could put it down and move on.
Eight years is a long time to obsess about something that will never been seen. I wrote long pieces in several styles, experimenting with forms and structures and rhyme schemes, spending months on each piece. The whole thing is terribly impractical, probably unworkable, and it will sit on my shelf gathering dust. I sometimes think of cannibalizing it, breaking off pieces for shorter works, but I can’t bring myself to take it apart.
But boy, when I had finished that project my muscles were limber as hell. I felt like I could write anything I wanted. It was a grueling period, but doing it taught me so much about expressing thoughts in song form. A foolish decision to take eight years to complete it, but it was the best exercise I could have had.
Thursday, October 23, 2008
My Life as a Record Producer....
I’ve written six songs with Ian Ferrin. He’s a good guy and the songs are quite unlike any others I’ve written – these are pop ballads, a couple of which have a spiritual element to them (especially “World of Wonder”). Ian has moved on from pop songwriting, to other projects, but we have these songs and it would be nice to be able to send them out, or place them in other media. Give them some life beyond my website.
Ian and I agree that to market these songs we could use a stronger vocal to replace his own, and I’ve had it as a back burner project for a while. I’ve been looking into sending them to a studio in Nashville and hiring a demo pro, though that will be quite expensive (Nashville is a “top of the line” market). But it occurred to me that Philly has plenty of studios, and I should be able to find a good singer locally.
I do know someone with a studio that has quite reasonable rates (maybe 2/3 or less of Nashville prices). But finding the right singer is elusive. Of the six songs, some need a modern ‘pop’ sound, but some need a clearer voice, country or even theatre. “World of Wonder” is almost a Family Channel song, and “Crossing the Threshold” could work in a country market. I’m looking for a vocalist that can hit all the notes and all the styles.
I’ve put up a Craigslist ad, and gotten many responses, of all kinds. I’m trying to manage the process as best I can, giving a quick listen now, and saving the e-mails and clips to evaluate carefully over the weekend. I’ve responded to all people who have e-mailed in, letting them know I’ll get back to them one way or another.
After I listen to all the entrants, I still have the option of holding off on this, or going to Nashville and spending lots more money. I’m still hoping, though.
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
Bagels in Nashville
So finding a decent bagel is not an easy proposition. They are a very, very New York phenomenon, and as any bagel snob knows, a real bagel is boiled before it is baked. (My unscientific and totally unfounded theory about why "good" bagels can be frozen and microwaved is the water content from the boiling process).
Luckily, one "authentic" chain, Brueggers, has two stores in Nashville, one downtown and one to the south-west a bit, close to where I was staying. And good thing, as I had promised to bring bagels to Jen Foster's for breakfast.
Jen Foster lives in Nashville, but is not a "Nashville artist." She is an "indie pop" artist, creating catchy ballads about the usual stuff of life (breakups, high school, love, remorse, joy, vacations, Home Depot, etc.) with a strong pop sound. She grabs effortlessly (it seems) for catchy hooks and is a first-rate lyricist, speaking and singing from her heart. And as an out lesbian, with a strong gay fan base, she does not move in the same circles as most Nashvillians (or as we joked, "Nash-villains").
But the label both defines and constricts her in an unfair way. Her music transcends any gender politics, as her numerous awards (Great American Song Contest, International Acoustic Music Awards, John Lennon Songwriting Contest) will attest. Take a listen to her newest song, "Closer to Nowhere," about the dead-endedness of most peoples' lives. This song won First Prize in the AAA category of the International Songwriting Competition last year.
Which is how I met her, as her name and picture were just below mine on the winners' page. I e-mailed her a congratulations (and it turned out we had a couple mutual friends). Several e-mails and missed phone dates later, I got together with her while I was in the city.
In person, she is warm and open and at a place in her life where she's quite comfortable with who she is. If we hadn't both had prior afternoon commitments, we might have just talked all day. It was a great visit and hopefully the first of many. She's like bagels in Nashville - tough to find, but of high quality and worth searching for.
Her new CD will come out in 2009, but four songs from it are currently available on "Songs From Thirty-Nine."
Thursday, October 9, 2008
Young Queen Coles
I have been told repeatedly and often that the Nashville scene rewards long-toiling residents, and is mostly closed to outsiders, carpetbaggers and their ilk. That’s probably true. It is very much a handshake, workshop, community town. And that’s not a knock, it’s perfectly understandable. You work with the folks who are around you all the time, and Nashville is so overpopulated with incredible musicians and great writers, that working remotely with an out-of-towner is an alien prospect.
Doesn’t stop a guy from trying, though.
I had a very good sit-down with Ralph Murphy of ASCAP, a courtly and eloquent gentleman with years of insight into the business, who gave me hard truths in the nicest possible way; and another good sitdown with a songwriter/self-publisher who gave me both en- and dis- couragement, and some good general advice.
I finally met my friend and co-writer, Eduard Glumov of Kazakhstan, and we took in Writers’ Night at the famed Bluebird Café. One great writer/singer after another. I enjoyed the enthusiasm of a guy named Maury Davis, and both of us were taken by a singer/writer named Julie Forester. Julie is a demo singer, and commits to her songs in a major way, approaching them as an actress as much as a vocalist. She thought her way through each ‘beat’ of the song, as a Yale Drama student might. Both Eduard and I wanted to talk to her about co-writing.
The next night, I caught up with Julie at a solo gig she was doing, at a bar that was a lot harder to find than it looked like on the map. I wanted to show up (because Nashville is a “showing up” town), and chat a bit more, before moving off to Writers’ Night The Blue Bar (a great disappointment, as when I got there, I found out they weren’t doing Writers’ Night that evening). She kept imploring the crowd to hang around for the other act, a lady named Coles Whalen, as she was “fierce.”
I hadn’t intended to stay, but “fierce” only begins to describe Coles Whalen. She sang with an intensity and commitment, with exemplary musicianship. Her songs were all closely observed mini-acts of sex, contrition and absolution. The performance and the musicianship were always fierce, the lyrics all good and in some cases exemplary. You should watch her video performance of “Wrecking Ball” and listen to “So it is” which is a lyric I wish I had written. That I wish I *could* write.
More Nashville later on, in particular a wonderful visit I had with Jen Foster, but she deserves more than a desultory paragraph….
Monday, September 29, 2008
The Man From Kazakhstan
Eduard makes his living off of music, and winning the ISC has changed his life. He has been running from meeting to meeting in Nashville, as well as getting some studio demos done (the new version of "I'm Not Your Friend" can be heard on his website).
It's odd, but he and I have only spoken on the phone twice, and have never met. All of our communication and co-writing has been via e-mail.
So I'll meet him early next week, and hopefully we'll spend a little songwriting time together. But he's got career things to do, and I'll be looking for other contacts as well. I expect to drop by NSAI, and go to Writers' Night at the Bluebird Cafe to meet some local writers.
Nashville is the one place where, more than anwhere else, writers are given their due, singers get their material from publishers who get songs from writers, and co-writing is not a foreign concept.
Tuesday, September 16, 2008
Another Song About Paris
I could sing songs about Paris
Till I ran out of breath
I defy you to find me just one
That hasn't been done
--- "Another Song About Paris" by Dave Frishberg
Friday, September 12, 2008
The Rumplestiltzkin song
This is me at a fund-raiser I was hosting, singing "Rumplestiltzkin: Dead at 95"
The studio demo (sung by someone else) and the lyrics are at my website, of course.
Thursday, September 11, 2008
I went over to Tritone for their "night of funk," first to meet Deirdre Flint for a couple of beers. It was too loud to talk so we "texted" each other by scribbling notes on my notebook (songwriters always have paper and pen). We had a great visit, talking about songwriting, before she went home (at a reasonable hour, as she was headed west to rehearse for the Four Bitchin' Babes tour).
If you don't know Deirdre's work, you're in for a treat. She writes about childhood, junior high school (especially) and dating with satiric glee and a touch of wistfulness. The Junior High School songs (about being a cheerleader, about the stud at the roller rink, about reading Nancy Drew books, etc.) are particularly funny, as is her perennial favorite "The Boob Fairy" (no, you'll have to go download it now, won't you?)
But my main purpose for being out was to see, support and otherwise hook up with, Aly Cat. Aly is a bitchin' babe in her own right, and does things with a bass that are illegal in several states. She takes the stage surrounded by four excellent musicians (all male, 2 guitars, drums plus a percussion/trumpeter). They have a wonderful woven-together sound, and Aly not only kills on the bass, she has a strong clear voice as well. She was the final band of the night and it wasn't until her set that a few people got up and started to dance. Those in Philly should keep an eye out for her.
However she didn't get on stage until 12:30am....and by that time I wasn't about to show up to see her and then leave. But it was too late for extended conversation afterwards.
Monday, September 8, 2008
Performing, first in an occasional series
I'm something of a vaudevillian, more of a song-and-dance man. I have stage presence, a strong speaking voice, comic timing and a general comfort level on a stage. And a love of musical theatre.
I'm not a strong singer, so choose material carefully when I perform music - songs in my limited range, and that rely more on the 'acting and storytelling' and less on the sheer vocal quality. Those I can sell.
And I don't play an instrument, so must be accompanied by someone who can keep up with my eccentric and erratic phrasing. My musical ability is present, but limited - I understand, as a lyricist, how the words marry to the music, and how rhythms create different effects; but in terms of creating a full song, even in those cases when I've been able to work through a decent melody line and a not-bad chord progression, I still have to go to a solid musician and say, here's the melody, here are the chords, here's the feel and style the music should have - and let them go from there to play it.
All that said, I got on stage last weekend for the first time in a year, to host a fund-raiser cabaret. Many friends performed, and we had a whiz on the piano (who used to music-direct at a professional theatre). I sang a number of comic songs, including "Jaws" and "I Want To Be A Side Man" (by Dave Frishberg), "If I Had A Million Dollars" (by the Barenaked Ladies, which I sang with Cole Wheeler) and even adapted the famous Stan Freberg "Elderly Man River" sketch to perform with my son.
Towards the end of the evening I performed my own song, "Rumplestiltzkin: Dead at 95" which keeps turning out to be a better song than I thought it was when I wrote it. It's the songs you think about least that sometimes come out the best.
I get emotional towards the end of the evening, and it was difficult to keep my composure - I need to perform it more often to regain some control. But it was a heady moment. I'd love to hear someone else sing it live (there's a hired vocalist on the demo on my website), but it was an out-of-body experience to hear my own lyrics coming out of my own mouth.
The other treat of the evening was meeting noted comedic folk singer Deirdre Flint, who showed up to enjoy rather than perform. One of the performers sang her Bridesmaids Dress song, and Deirdre donated a couple CDs for the cause.
Wednesday, September 3, 2008
Thoughts on Competitions
There’s no doubt that some contests are money-makers. All contests charge a fee for entry, which can be as high as $35/song (and as low as $10). That adds up when you have a lot of entries in a lot of contests. Adds up fast.
And many prizes are usually donations or promotions from music-related businesses. In some cases they’re giving away trial memberships in online services, which is SOP for a business trying to attract new subscribers.
But there are tons of legitimate expenses in running a competition, not the least of which is that they have to pay judges, and if they want good ones (known and respected in the music industry) they probably pay well. And while some contests are simply money-makers, several of them (especially the largest and most prestigious ones) are really about promoting songwriting and giving people a chance to show their best stuff.
Winning a contest does not make you the best, but it does give you a little stamp of approval. It’s a gold star. It gives you a chance to talk to people you wouldn’t ordinarily speak to. You might get someone’s attention for five minutes that wouldn’t have given you the time of day before. It gives you a shot of confidence; like that morning cup of coffee, it may eventually wear off but you have all sort of energy while under the influence.
I decided this year would be the “competition” year – lots of songs, lots of contests, lots of prizes. I have the ISC (and GASC) win under my belt, so I don’t need to prove that I can win the top prize. My goals are to get at least honorable mention, finalist, or similar mention in a few contests, and in a few categories. I am trying to show my range of styles, my ability to collaborate with several people and depth of talent. And I want to get my work in front of a lot of peole.
Goodnight Kiss Music was running a special contest to find material for a singer they’re promoting. The main prize was to get a song cut, so I entered a couple of songs and a few lyrics. One of the songs got an “exceptional merit” mention and two of the lyrics came in second and third. And I got a nice, private note from one of the judges with some very complimentary comments.
So, mission accomplished. So far.
Saturday, August 30, 2008
Back, Pats On The
Sunday, August 24, 2008
The Captain's Daughter
Friday, August 22, 2008
Do You Miss New York?
Since this is a songwriting blog, every so often I’ll talk about one of these songs and why I think it’s great. Or at least why I love it without it’s achieving greatness.
Monday, August 18, 2008
I get to NYC so seldom that I tend to hit the same great places that are familiar to me, rather than do too much exploring. I was with a friend who was in town from
We were in time for the 10pm act at Rockwood, and I said hi to Ken Rockwood (the proprietor and founder of “The Professor and Maryann,” an indie-rock duo), before the set. The act was a female singer/songwriter, piano-based, who sang pop-py songs about love and relationships. My friend pointed out that her playing and voice were very similar to Regina Spektor, though we agreed the songs weren’t anywhere near as interesting.
At The Living Room, the 10pm act was running over, two
I’m not sure exactly what the act was called – I think it was “Reynaldo The” fronted by Aldo Perez. Perez has a rock band called “Psycho the Clown,” a small group called “The Reynaldo The Trio” (it would be Reynaldo The Great, but apparently Reynaldo is not so great), and an avant-garde theatre enterprise called “Theater The.” There may be more incarnations, but we were apparently watching some permutation of "The Reynaldo The Ensemble."
We had no idea what to expect. There were six of them. A keyboardist who looked like a dressed-down Brad Pitt by way of Elton John mixed with mad scientist. An older fellow on the drums, in judges’ robes. A beefy KGB-agent type who was some sort of valet and general factotum, and played bongos and washboard. A tuba player dressed as a refugee from a Chekhov short story. A French maid who played the clarinet, bells and was the main backup singer. And Aldo Perez as Reynaldo, a shambling mound of wild energy and pompostity. He's described elsewhere on the web as the love child of Jim Carrey and John Waters.
I would describe the act, but it was indescribable. It was more of a modern clown show than anything else. An opening mime bit ended with Perez playing the nose flute maniacally. Odd musical pieces. The valet/factotum wound up being the company rapper. They sang “I’m My Own Grandpa” and “Oh What A Night,” all interspersed with “Reynaldo” being a general horses’ patootie while the rest of the band shot him glares. Clearly there was a backstory to the act that we weren’t seeing.
Special mention to Jenny Lee Mitchell, the French maid, who is operatically trained and could do just about anything with her voice. After several bits featuring her refined tones (which were out of keeping with Reynaldo’s musical wishes), she wound up being the best rapper in the bunch. A glance at her resume shows a lot of experience in physical comedy.
Apparently, Aldo Perez and company perform at the Living Room many Saturday nights and have several theatre and music ventures going. If you’re in the city, they’re worth a look. If you’re not, you can catch glimpses of them on YouTube.
Friday, August 15, 2008
Finalist in SOTY
"Punch My Ticket" was named a Finalist for Rock. This means it wasn't the Winner, but was one of the top five entries. And since they don't list the writers or titles in alphabetical order, it looks like we came in third.
(They didn't list Ray Sharp as the co-writer, and I've e-mailed them to add his name. His name *was* on the entry, but they only listed the submitting writer)
I had one other song in the competition -- it's possible it's a runner-up but I won't know that until sometime next week.
Tuesday, August 12, 2008
I am working on a lyric with an artist right now, or at least the artist’s representative, and some rewrites were requested. Something wasn’t quite right with the last line of the first verse. It was all of six words, seven syllables (eight if you count the grace syllable at the beginning).
Sunday, August 10, 2008
Dance Gypsy, Sing Gypsy
Wednesday, August 6, 2008
Wednesday, July 30, 2008
Thursday, July 24, 2008
The Conch Shell
Monday, July 21, 2008
The Folly of Wisdom
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.
Friday, July 18, 2008
The Man Who Met Picasso
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
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
Tuesday, July 8, 2008
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
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
Monday, June 30, 2008
Sunday, June 29, 2008
The Lower East Side
Wednesday, June 25, 2008
Saturday, June 14, 2008
Philly Songwriters Concert
Thursday, June 12, 2008
Rumplestiltzkin: Dead at 95
Tuesday, June 10, 2008
Queen of Multitasking
Friday, May 30, 2008
Sunday, May 18, 2008
Tuesday, May 13, 2008
Demos in the works
These will not be highly commercial songs. "Queen of Multitasking" is a comic novelty song in the Christine Lavin vein, and "Rumplestiltzkin: Dead at 95" is a folk song oddity that I'm just fond of. I've written the melody and basic chord structure for each of them, as they're simple enough musically.
"I Saw My Girlfriend Kissing Santa Claus (Santa, Santa)" (usually called "the 'Santa, Santa' song) was written many years ago by my friend Brian Boland. It's a "Johnny B. Goode"-style comic number with a flood of puns and jokes. It's about as perfect a "novelty song" as you can get.
I'll look forward to posting these on the website when they're done.
Monday, May 12, 2008
Whether I like it or not
As an "internationally-known, prize-winning" lyricist, I have to have something on my home page, so will keep my thoughts as current as possible. I'll use this blog to report news on songs -- completed, demoed, recorded, etc. -- and occasionally muse about lyric-writing and song-writing. I will extol lyrics and lyricists I admire, and will of course rant when necessary.
The title of this blog comes from a favorite play, TRAVESTIES by Tom Stoppard. This play is about the role of the artist in society, and the interaction between art and revolution -- and the necessity of both. Art to memorialize society and revolution to transform it. The play is narrated by Henry Carr, a senile man, remembering his (mostly fictional) interactions in Zurich with James Joyce (artist), Vladimir Lenin (revolutionary) and Tristan Tzara (a revolutionary artist).
This is the last line of the play, as Carr wraps things up with his great insight for the evening:
"I learned three things in Zurich during the war. I wrote them down. Firstly, you're either a revolutionary or you're not, and if you're not you might as well be an artist as anything else. Secondly, if you can't be an artist, you might as well be a revolutionary...
"I forget the third thing...."
And that pretty much wraps it up for me as well.