Writing A Song From Scratch: Part Four

This project has been drifting a bit in 2018, but I’ve finally managed to kick myself into shape and get back to it. The nice thing about taking a break from some music is the opportunity to refresh the ears and listen from a new perspective. I’m pleased to report that this nascent song still feels like it has potential despite its time in the wilderness.

I’ve decided the song is called Anthill. I’ve been writing a lot in the last few years about the experience of living in a big city, and how it always strikes me as the most unnatural of existences, and what coping mechanisms we must cultivate in order to survive. Anthill feels like it will explore similar territory, but the exactly how remains to be revealed.

In previous posts I’ve touched upon the technique of free writing that I often use to generate lyrical ideas from which to piece together a song. I did the same here. Below is transcribed everything I wrote. There’s some repetition, and a lot of it is trash, but that’s kind of the idea. This splurge is just aimed at getting the ball rolling. I’ve purposefully written it up in a single monumental paragraph. Not easy to read in detail, but perhaps building such an intimidating wall of text will encourage the valuable lines to wiggle free of the brickwork when I skim read across its surface.

Teeming in our multitudes, crammed into narrow alleys and congested streets. An invisible force is prodding us, and our human forms swarm in a swell of impotent anger. The anthill keeps on growing, teetering, hopeless homes, squashed in between the factories in endless uniform rows. I’m round about the twelve millionth worker drone, indistinguishable from my colleagues, as my Queen ejects more clones. And I’m waving my hands constantly, blindly feeling for a touch. Or stretching out and reaching, can I extend my limbs? Can I find an empty space, a vacuum in which to spin? The anthill howls around me, every voice made unintelligible. If the decibels scrape the red, it all comes tumbling down upon our heads. The anthill collapses, constructed again. The bones and exoskeletons tell our foundations are resting on fallible men. Somewhere within the fury, the soldiers appear in line. Custodians of the cityscape, they loom above us, jaws agape, water cannons ready to reshape the crowds. The noise just keeps on getting loud. Ants hatch without tear ducts and march fearlessly into the gas. In this city, the capacity to cry evolves spontaneously. Then just as unexpectedly the tears run dry. Anything precious is borne down into the anthill to be consumed. You can taste what you have lost hanging somewhere on these stagnant fumes. Can an anthill overthrow its Queen? Could this filthy city one day shine and gleam? Some long-fossilised resemblance, a remembrance urges me to stand absolutely still. The anthill frantic about me, souls threshing within the spinning mill. You’ve been prodding at the anthill, laughing at these tiny forms. How can they harm you? These incorrigible people. The muted, fuzzy, ochre air. Every soul smeared in soot, indistinguishable. I’m being carried into the anthill on the backs of billions. Paralysed, deified. It seems these worker drones don’t have much to say, too busy anyway, being squeezed into the anthill. But after a while you can see the message written in the ways they walk, hefting loads six times their weight without complaint. Without a fuss, as needs must, you must just hope they always march to your tune. I feel I know each one of them, though indistinguishable to a man. Today the anthill turns, workers squashed in serried rows. Tomorrow the world might burn, ignited from above. Should you kick this nest? Do you dare? God does trudging past, stick in hand, heavy tread shaking the land. The construction never stops, when a body drops, just brick the body in, exoskeletons made this city’s skin – from the pyramids to the new desert towns. Despite the tired legs, the massive burdens balanced high upon our heads. The sun upon our brow as we hustle through the anthill.

Three possible themes appear to be emerging. The simplest would simply be an experiential song – how does it feel to be just another one of the worker drones in the uncaring city? Certainly not an original premise, but it’s something that so many of us wrestle with, so there’s potential to write something that speaks to people. Perhaps a more interesting angle might be  to write from the point of view of one of the few people who actually have control over the colony; the one who could kick the nest, a monarch, a higher power, a president perhaps. Which leads me to wonder whether the song could be something more firmly connected to its Cairene inspiration, an allegory for the revolution and the current political malaise. But that might get me arrested …

The next step is probably the most important. Starting with this pile of lyrics I’ve got to both organise them into something which speaks coherently, and also fit them to the music. If things go well, the song jumps from about 30% written to about 80% written in one bold stride.

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WRITING A SONG FROM SCRATCH: PART THREE

 

Last month’s instalment of ‘Writing A Song From Scratch’ expanded our initial set of chords until we had parts for a verse, chorus and bridge. Unfortunately, the song still lacks two crucial elements. It doesn’t have a melody, and it doesn’t have any lyrics. Either of these could be the next step in the songwriting process.

I tend to work from lyrics in most cases. There’s often that first flash of wordplay, a rhyming couplet, a little alliteration, or even just a standalone image which seems to work over the music, and around which the rest of the song takes form. However, this approach has its disadvantages. Words have their own inherent melodies imprinted in their phonemes, and these melodies often begin dragging your song in a certain direction before you’ve even had a chance to explore what would happen if you had gone left or right.

So a different tactic is reverting to babytalk, and making melody the only thing that matters. With some ‘la, la, las’ or ‘dum, dum, dums’ you sketch out the notes the song will follow, and after the fact try and transform your parade of noises into a coherent text. This can be challenging, not least because you can feel like an utter wally while doing so, and furthermore, without any lyrics the melodies slip away easily as you have no investment in them. Still, those tunes that do linger in this form only do so if they are earworms, so the struggle is often worth it.

I’m pretty happy with my babytalk on this song. And having put off some proper lyrics for three episodes, that seems like the only logical next step in this process.  I want to try my level best to prevent those lyrics from displacing the work I’m presenting here, and that’s a challenge I will get to explore in the next part.

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Writing A Song From Scratch: Part Two

So we return to writing a song from scratch!

And before we get any further, apologies for the terrible wind noise on the video. I was seduced by the architecture and the grandeur of the opening to the Suez Canal, and forgot to take into consideration the influence that a fresh sea breeze would have on our plucky little mobile phone mic. 

In the first installment we began writing a song based on a randomly selected chord progression: III > III > II > VI in 3/4 time. In the last video, I experimented with a variety of approaches to this, trying out some different tempos and keys. The last of these was in DADGAD tuning, and as I’ve been writing in the this tuning a lot recently, I opted to continue the experiment. Or perhaps it would be more truthful to say I couldn’t be bothered to retune my guitar . . .

The songwriting process for the next stage could take a number of different routes;

  1. Using the chord progression we have, we could begin exploring some melody ideas for the vocal part. The obvious way to do that would be to write some lyrics to fit the chords. An alternative would be singing a melody using nonsense sounds, allowing the writer to find a strong melody before forcing it to conform to a set of lyrics.
  2. As a fingerstyle guitarist, a different track could be to start developing the arrangement, moving it beyond a bland chug through the chord changes to something for intricate and interesting.
  3. While there are many songs which bravely stay on a single chord progression, my own predilection (especially with a song which is mainly going to be played solo) is to expand the palette, and write some different progressions for other parts of the song; verse, chorus, bridge etc.

In my opinion, there’s no right or wrong direction here – though the route you choose at the beginning influences the finished product. However, I would encourage caution regarding option 2. In my own experience, I’ve noticed that songs which have no part to be sung often die premature deaths. On many occasions I’ve put a lot of time into developing complex fingerstyle arrangements only to grow bored and forget about them. When there’s something to sing, even if it’s only to the simplest chord progression, the song feels much more like it’s coming to life, motivating you to keep working on it.

For this post I choose the third option, to go ‘widescreen’ and expand the chord sequence to what might be the progression for the entire song. The initial randomly selected chord sequence is composed entirely of minor chords. This causes it to feel claustrophobic, suggesting it would make a good sequence for the verse of the song, simply because in the chorus we can offer something which opens the shutters and shines light into the stuffy place we’ve made. The easiest way to do this is to return to the I chord (in this key Bb).

When creating new sections to songs, the obvious change is to the notes played. However, I heard some interesting advice recently, related from Brian Eno to Nick Mulvey. Eno suggested playing the expected chords, but at unexpected lengths. We can apply this idea to the chorus – begin the chorus on I, stay there long enough to invoke a change in the listeners mood, then continue the progression by running through the same chord sequence as verse but for different measures. We dash through the III and II chords with half a bar each, then linger longer on the VI.

For the sake of further variety, let us throw in a bridge as well. The chorus has expanded upon the world painted by the verse, so a countermove in the bridge could be to do the opposite – an extremely simple two chord sequence; two bars each. A movement like this constrains less when it comes to composing melodies above the chords – here I can take my vocal in many different directions, whereas during the chorus the more complex progression leads me down a much more defined path.

Throughout most of the song, I’ve been taking advantage of the ambiguity of the DADGAD tuning to refuse to commit to major or minor, especially on the VI chord, which should be a G minor. In the bridge I emphasized the flat third of the chord, bringing the VI back in to the minor fold with more conviction.

I should also point out that my references to particular chords here is misleading. I’m thinking in guitar terms in relation to the shapes I’m making, but of course the guitalele is five steps higher in pitch. So in reality, we’re in the key of D#, playing a Cminor chord, in the tuning of GDGFDG, which doesn’t quite trip off the tongue in the same way as DADGAD. 

Of course, it remains to be seen whether these chord progressions will support melodies worth getting excited about. This will be the next step, and might force us to backtrack, and make further alterations to the underlying music. Writing a song is rarely a linear exercise. However, in the next part of the series, we’ll hope to make a forward step and begin adding some lyrics – or at the very least some melody – to the song.

Port-Said-Guitalele

Writing A Song From Scratch: Part Two

Five Legged Holy Cow

I haven’t quite held true to my September promise of a blog post a week, but I’m happy enough with the renewed vigour I’ve been throwing towards my music. Five Legged Holy Cow is a new composition I’ve been tinkering with since June, since (as the lyrics suggest) I spent a month travelling in India. It was supposed to be a quickly written song, with a video I was hoping to make in India itself, but songs don’t obey your wishes, and while the bulk of the song came together on the subcontinent, a little more time was needed for it to find its final shape.

This is an odd song, and you’d be forgiven if it was a little lost on you. Permit me to explain. The song’s inspiration comes from a strange sight I saw in India. A gaily coloured, gaudily-decorated, auto-rickshaw (or tuk-tuk, as they’re called in many places around the world), crammed full with a family, and squeezed between, a calf. I asked my driver what the story was, and he explained: the calf had six legs, and was considered especially blessed with powers of healing to anyone who lays their hands upon this literal ‘holy cow’. The lucky family to whom this aberration had been delivered would have given up their farm and embraced a nomadic existence, knowing they could make better money touring their lucky calf around the local communities and charging people a small fee to touch their magic beast.

As we overtook the rickshaw, I could see no evidence of the calf’s extra limbs, but the story was too good to shed doubt upon it. Before the tuk-tuk had even disappeared in the rear-view mirror, I was writing the song.

Now a six-legged holy cow just seems plain impossible, so the first liberty taken by my song was to reduce the appendages to five. Five just sings better than six, and odd numbers hold more magic than even ones. My song also needed a protagonist, and considering the animal’s curative properties, this character would clearly be someone seeking out some healing. Another easy choice was to explore England’s dark history with India. So soon I had the idea of a deserter of Her Majesty’s Service, disabled in the course of keeping the Crown’s iron grip on its colonies, now disillusioned and willing to embrace any cure for his injuries, however outlandish.

This story was heavily influenced by the Sherlock Holmes tale “The Adventure of the Crooked Man”, in which Holmes is pitted against one Henry Wood, also a soldier, and one whose experience in the Indian Mutiny left him much the worse for wear. I always love to pepper my lyrics with some unlikely words and phrases, and in the case of Five-Legged Holy Cow I was seeking vocabulary that evoked the era in which the song was set, so I snatched several choice turns of phrase from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and dropped them into my song. These included “claiming the King’s shilling”, “a roaring lad” as well as a “bag of tigers”. Another lyrical influence was from George Harrison, whose music I always associate with India and whose album All Things Must Pass is a particular favourite. If you know that album, see if you can catch another stolen line.

Five-Legged Holy Cow is one of several songs composed recently in DADGAD tuning, which is often associated with ‘Eastern-sounding’ music. Think Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir, or Davey Graham’s magnificent Blue Raga. I kept my guitalele in DADGAD throughout my Indian sojourn, and there were plenty of long train journeys during which to noodle around and find fresh sounds. A Bill Withers acoustic funk groove turned out to be a surprisingly successful match for the open tuning. I spent a long-time sitting with that groove, knowing I liked it but feeling the song could be expanded somehow. I hit upon the idea of adding a bridge in 5/4 time; a musical challenge for me as I rarely compose outside of 4/4 and a chance to change up the vibe midway through the tune. Somehow though, this section morphed into 6/8 without me really noticing, and so it remained.

By the time I finally got the song together fully, India was far behind and I found myself back inapis-bull-saqqara Egypt. I couldn’t find a holy cow to record with, but I did get to co-star with two delightfully calm and affectionate water buffaloes in Al Sorat farm in Saqqara. This, incidentally, is not far from the Serapeum of Saqqara, where the Pharaohs mummified and entombed their own holy cows; the Apis Bulls, which were conceived by the touch of rays beaming down directly from Heaven, and marked with ankh upon the forehead, the shape of a vulture’s wing upon the back, a crescent moon on the flank, a scarab mark upon the tongue, and bearing the sun between the horns. A tale probably worth writing an entirely new song for . . .

But in the meantime, here are the lyrics for this one:

Five Legged Holy Cow

Verse 1

From Africa to India, the Queen’s shilling I did claim

‘Til the misfiring of a musket, left me broke and maimed

Isn’t it a pity, ain’t it a Goddamned crying shame

That roaring lad

What hopes he had

Now like a bag of tigers tamed

Chorus

I’m open, my shield cast down

Luminous, what can you reveal

Liberate this soul from the spinning wheel

The heart within this hollow could be healed

Refrain

So hold your horses, Holy smoke

I bow my head to this cosmic joke

And if a Five-Legged Holy Cow

Could make me whole again somehow

Verse 2

Let the scholars talk of quackery and dismiss these conjuring tricks

For I live in the land of miracles, where the cripples heal the sick

Every point of the compass, every unlikely, outside chance

Drag broken feet

Through sand and sleet

To where the dead get up to dance

Bridge

So raise up your lantern and limp through the dark

To where a many-faced goddess has laid down her mark

Some say it’s a blessing, some say it’s a curse

The man in ascendance, while the beast just gets worse

The man in ascendance, while the beast just gets worse

Refrain

So hold your horses, Holy smoke

I bow my head to this cosmic joke

And if a Five-Legged Holy Cow

Could make me whole again somehow

Chorus

I’m open, my shield cast down

Luminous, what can you reveal

Liberate this soul from the spinning wheel

The heart within this hollow could be healed

Refrain

So hold your horses, Holy smoke

I bow my head to this cosmic joke

And if a Five-Legged Holy Cow

Could make me whole again somehow

 

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A Tale of Two EPs

Cairo_Kinshasa_Music
Cairo and Kinshasa – their skylines overlain, two great cities with mighty rivers surging through, and surging with the music which will inspire my work. 

A month ago I mentioned a musical reset, and the importance of goal setting. My big musical goal for the next year is to try and write, record and produce two new EPs of original songs. This is the start of the journey, and here I want to set out my vision of the form these two works will take. At this point, they are quite unsullied by the inevitable compromises, upsets and detours that lie ahead. By blogging their development from an intangible dream to a finished piece of art I hope to motivate myself to push on with their creation, shed some light on the creative process, and record their evolution.

What follows is a brief outline of my vision for each EP. They share some qualities:

  • Both already have working titles. Giving a title to something that doesn’t yet exist is a powerful act. It tries to will it into being.
  • Both will have overarching themes, in one case lyrical, the other musical.
  • I envisage both EPs as being about six tracks in length. Today’s mode of music delivery makes the labels of EP/LP irrelevant in technical terms, but I find them useful in packaging a musical idea. Six songs to me feels like a good goal – enough content to properly explore a theme, while not being as intimidating as saying to oneself “I’m going to record an album”.

Manmade Canyons EP

This recording will be, for want of a better term, the more professional sounding of the pair. I intend to record it in a studio, with a small cadre of professional musicians, and basically try and create the best work possible on a limited budget. The central theme of the album will be exploring how beings of wild places, be they human or animal, survive in the unnatural confines of the city … and particularly a city as overwhelming as Cairo. Musically I hope to touch upon some features of Egyptian music. Some characteristics might be:

  • I already have a lot of songs written or half-written for this, such as;
    • When The City Is Home
    • Bold Little Weasel
    • A Tree of Heathens
    • Pass Without Trace
    • Possibly Five Legged Holy Cow
  • Make a trio of my guitar/guitalele, plus bass and Arabic percussion the core of the album. If things are going well, perhaps add some other Egyptian instruments, such as oud.
  • Try and find some good gear, or a good studio, to record in, without breaking the bank.

Confide in Me EP

This is the lo-fi record. For far too long I’ve been resolving I would start learning the craft of getting my songs down on tape. With this project I want to finally start taking steps in that direction. With that in mind it will necessarily be a simpler, shoddier affair, as I learn on the job. What I’m hoping though is for a finished product good enough to have some wonky charm. Its characteristics might be;

  • Recorded at home using simple equipment – free recording software (probably either Audacity or Garageband), a Zoom H5, though I might get one higher end mic for recording vocals later in the process. I’ll probably still seek a wiser hand for tweak and mix what I’ve got after the fact.
  • Writing the songs as part of the recording process (on the whole). By doing this simultaneously, I hope something different will emerge than would if I followed my usual method of completing a song before committing it to tape. For example, I intend to create some rhythm tracks first, and see how these influence the lyrics and guitar parts layered on top of them.
  • Kitchen-sink percussion – I abhor the drum machine, but I’m no drummer myself. I’m going to try and create my own densely-woven rhythm parts by crudely playing all kind of mundane objects and layering the results.
  • One of the questions I haven’t answered yet concerns the arrangement of the songs. Do I want to the write fingerstyle compositions, which would also exist happily as stand alone pieces? This is more challenging, and will probably take more time to compose and master. Or do I instead consider this a two-guitar record? The benefit of this is a lot more freedom regarding what’s happening on the strings, and a chance to dive into lead playing, which hasn’t really been part of my guitar journey in the past.
  • The musical inspiration will be the early guitar music of the Congo, the acoustic precursors of modern soukous, the music played by artists such as Bosco Mwenda and Losta Abelo.

On this blog I’ll be jumping between the two projects, aiming for at least a post on each every month, documenting each important chapter in this tale of two EPs.

A Tale of Two EPs

Writing A Song From Scratch: Part One

 

There are countless video blogs on Youtube discussing guitar playing and songwriting. I’m no authority on who leads the pack, but Sean Daniel’s blog is pretty sweet – informative, fun and with plenty of great music to enjoy. Five months ago, Sean embarked on a project to write a song from scratch, using as its starting point randomly selected chords and a randomly selected time signature. A little bit of chance adds some spice to songwriting – the old case that limiting one’s options stimulates rather than oppresses the creative process, so consequently I decided to rip off Sean’s idea.

I sat down with Chris, my (musically ignorant) partner-in-crime, who had the crucial role of drawing chord numbers from the bag. The chords were replaced each time, so it was theoretically possible to draw the same chord four times. What we actually got was the following chord progression:

III-III-II-VI

Which in the key of C is: Em-Em-Dm-Am

As we can see, that’s wall to wall minor, the ‘sad-sounding’ chords. Although in the video I suggested this might make for a miserable song, I note that when minor chords are hanging out together, they don’t actually sound so melancholy. The sadness seems more evident when they are paired with a major chord.

I subsequently developed the basic chord progression in a couple of different directions – transposing the key to F and the time signature to 6/8 (whose relationship to 3/4 is not as strong as the two times table might imply, but for a bit of variation what the heck), and also transposing the key to Bb but also changing the tuning to DADGAD, resulting in chords which are less firmly affiliated to major or minor. These key changes no doubt have other implications (for example, perhaps the chord progressions should be considered in the minor key, rather than the major . . .), but I’m ashamed to say my music theory knowledge is quite ragged around the edges, and also fairly tattered in the centre. If you wish to educate me, please take the floor . . .

The next step is to expand on this chord progression, adding some more building blocks until we have the foundation of a song. While Sean Daniel’s project followed the process from inception right up until a fully produced song, with drums, guitar solos, backing vocals, all the bells and whistles, I don’t have the wherewithal in terms of resources or finances to pull something like that off. So this journey will be more humble – three or four parts developing this starting point into a proper song, with a beginning, a middle, an end, and a few bits in between.

Watch this space over the next couple of weeks and witness the plan come together . . .

 

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Musical Reset

It’s been twenty months in the gargantuan* bosom of the Mother of the World. I’m far better at dreaming of making music than actually creating it; when I first arrived here I made a naïve post about all I’d achieve in Cairo. Few of those musical ambitions have been realised, but buried beneath the frenetic pace of the city, or work, or simply the insistent dust that weighs down anything or anyone who holds still for a moment. It hasn’t been time wasted, but as the wheel turns towards professional and academic achievements, other matters of import, be they music or love, find themselves on the wrong side of those revolutions.

Luckily, the wheel keeps turning and renewing, and I find myself now at a point of new beginnings; new job, new flat, new routine, a chance to find a better sense of balance. It probably won’t be easy, but I’m hoping to give some things neglected a chance to sing.

Dawn in Zamalek

One of those important things is a renewed sense of purpose in music-making. I want to try and find two hours a day to play, compose and practise. I’ve been thinking a lot about routines lately, and trying to get a better rein of an often treacherous mind. I couldn’t quite say I’m a morning person, but if I can force my eyes awake I love the promise and peace of the dawn, and do good work at this time. Wouldn’t it be nice to wake up early, and get two hours of playing music under one’s belt before all the other noise of day has started?

So, turning over a new leaf – but to what end? It’s likely I’ll be in Cairo for at least another year, and I’d like to direct my free time during this period towards writing and recording two new EPs. One of these I hope to make a semi-professional effort (as far as my budget will extend); using a recording studio and with luck a couple of local musicians to provide a taste of Egypt. The other will be a low-fi experiment; to see what I can come up with recording at home with simple equipment.

But first, allow me to subvert and undermine these plans! Before I throw myself into this new project, I want to do a bit of songwriting just for fun. I’ve got a few seeds and semi-complete ideas I’d like to play around with, one or two of which I hope to transform into songs fairly quickly. Let’s see what transpires . . .

 

*Hey, Cairo’s a big city!

Musical Reset