Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Little Things You Do Together

I’ve been browsing several of the “songwriting” forums and looking at the songs and lyrics that are being posted. What I see is a lot of people reaching for the big things, the big events, and trying to hang a lyric on them.

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

Vantage Point

It's been a while since I posted a new song. Ian Ferrin (a frequent collaborator) was looking for something to work on, and I had a couple of lyrics hidden behind the scenes.

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

I usually approach writing like advanced carpentry. I picture myself at a work bench, patiently whittling and carving, going very slowly and laboring over a difficult point.

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…