1m4s Day 19: Technology Weasel!

The song I’ve made the most progress on so far has been Bold Little Weasel. At the Bare Bones stage, I came up with a section which feels like it’s the bridge. Then a couple of days ago, in the time it took my creaky old lift to transport me up to the sixth floor, a new blast of melody struck and I realised I also had a verse. Happily, it seems that both fit together.

I’ve spent the morning developing these ideas. Lyrics-wise, I don’t have as much as I posted for Confide in Me, but a clear picture of the structure of the song is emerging. I’ve started to tab out an emerging guitar arrangement on Guitar Pro. So far, this is sticking firmly to the basic chords and bass line, but the gaps are there to be filled in, hopefully building a more complex and interesting fingerstyle arrangement, no doubt until it’s overtaken my abilities to play.

little-weasel-score

I’ve found Guitar Pro to be a very helpful songwriting tool. I can transcribe a new piece of music, and wander around the room singing to myself, putting my attention on the vocals without having to think about what your hands are doing. Equally, I can work up a solo, focusing on its melodic qualities, and then align the lead with the bass line until both are combined as a fingerstyle arrangement. For good or ill, it allows me to separate myself from my natural instinct as a guitarist. Muscle memory leads the fingers to fall into familiar patterns, but composing through Guitar Pro can to an extent become an entirely mental exercise. This makes it easier to reach new places in your composition. As I mentioned before, sometimes this leaves you with a piece that is very tricky to play – but as it’s your own song, who’s gonna play it but you? Thus, there’s a good incentive to practice and push yourself.

On the other hand, it’s impossible to replicate the attack, swing, and idiosyncrasies of an individual player on a piece of software, and it’s important to remember that this is the end goal over the automated Midi of Guitar Pro. As the composition process usually goes guitar-computer-guitar, it’s important to ensure that the living element of the first stage survives until the end. Finally, there’s just something a bit inauthentic about it – I don’t imagine my musical icons composing their masterpieces by tapping numbers into a keyboard.

As a 21st century musician I take advantage of the technology available to me. However, it would be an interesting experiment, which I’ll reserve for some point in the future, to return to writing wholly in the organic form – notebook, guitar and mind.

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1m4s Day 19: Technology Weasel!

1m4s Day 18: The Night Train

A choir of snorers, impressing with the variety and verve of their chorus. A broken chair, with broken armrest and broken reclining mechanism. A horrid pong from the toilet (though thank God we were at least at the far end of the carriage). The disconcerting observation that one of my fellow travellers had a pistol jammed down the back of his trousers. Not a great amount of sleep was to be had on the night train to Luxor.

Still, it did provide an opportunity for a bit more songwriting, especially as dawn over the Egyptian countryside was glimpsed through the grimy windows and I gave up entirely on sleep. In kindness to the slumbering of the other passengers, I worked solely on lyrics rather than breaking out into song. Now that I’d narrowed down my well of possible songs to four titles, I started work trying to organise them into some degree of structure. As no firm melodies yet exist for the songs, this remains very much a preliminary exercise, but a useful one nonetheless. It was a chance to review the pages of free writing I’d already produced for each title and consider which lines really stood out with potential and what story there were seeking to tell. For three of the songs, I sketched out a rough pattern of verses, choruses and bridges, working out the overarching theme of each part and slotting in the strong lyrics here and there.

I got furthest with Confide in Me, coming up with a full first draft. I feel there’s still an awful lot of refinement to be done. In the case of this song, the strongest lyrics don’t completely support the song I want to sing, and at some stage I must decide whether to persevere with the original idea or let the lyrics I like dictate a new direction. A few months ago, I was writing about Glen Hansard’s thoughts on songwriting, where he counselled against keeping a line just because it was ‘pretty’. I think Confide in Me might be in danger of losing something in service of the pretty lyrics. Still, I believe the song will see a lot of changes yet.

The lyrics I like the best are bolded. A lot of the others are there simply to provide to fill out the whole song – for a sense of completion, but these are the ones I’ll be working to improve primarily. As I settle on a melody and chords for all the parts, this version of the lyrics may bend and break. We’ll revisit these lyrics later in the project to see how they develop.

VERSE 1

The vows that you’ve spoken out, grown as old as a ruin

Just echoes of those empty rituals that you’ve been doing

When you’ve been wasting your time on the wilfully deaf

Unplug your ears and tie this tongue that is cleft

Hear the song that is left

CHORUS 1

Now you’ve seen their fallibility

Confide in me

Might as well talk to a chimpanzee

Confide in me,

Confide in me, confide in me

VERSE 2

You look under the rocks, and open each tome

Fall down on your knees, ‘neath a dome of white stone

You’ve gone and cluttered your mind with convenient truths

But in the face of disaster they are of no use

The book has broken its truce

CHORUS 2

When the whole world’s deceived thee

Confide in me

Stop this kitchen-sink philosophy

Confide in me

Confide in me, confide in me

BRIDGE

It’s the inscrutable, the mysterious, the impenetrable veil . . .

So what exactly are these battlements that you swear you will scale?

Rather hold your hand to an open flame, and press embers to your feet

Rather cherish the bitter gall than the things that are sweet

I am open like water, like a beach of white sand

And I will not compel you to hold out your hand

 

VERSE 3

Let’s hold this coffee pot, over the trembling flame

Let’s ­boil ideas and fears, let it simmer and spit out blame

Until the feelings spill out, these reflexes of doubt

Let’s chase those genies out

CHORUS 3

Late to speak beneath the hanging tree

Confide in me

Now there’s no use telling the turnkey

Confide in me

Confide in me, confide in me

 

1m4s Day 18: The Night Train

1m4s Day 17: Heading Up Country

After the manic last days at work before the Christmas break, holidays are finally here! My wife and I will be catching the train up to Luxor tonight, and for the rest of 1 month 4 songs I’ll be in the quieter parts of Upper Egypt. As a result, it’s rather difficult to predict how often I’ll be able to get online and post updates of my progress – most hotels in Egypt claim to have wifi, but in most cases it doesn’t prove to be true (especially on the kind of budget we operate at!). I’m going to continue working on my songs and documenting my progress, but the updates may not continue at a regular pace. Merry Christmas everyone!

luxor-guitalele-backpacking

1m4s Day 17: Heading Up Country

1m4s Day 14: Half Way Reflections

At this stage I’m roughly half way through my project to write four songs in a month. What’s struck me so far is how difficult it is to ascribe a ‘method’ to a process that resists such strictures.

Although I’d like to believe in the strength of my own creativity, I’m also well aware that I’m quite ‘left-brain’ dominant. In most things I quite like order, or at least the outward impression of such. This thinking has been leading my approach to this project, where I’ve stepped through several stages in a song-writing process that are largely self-imposed. The intention to start big, with lots of ideas for lyrics and music, and then narrow down the focus has been of variable value. Lyrically, those sheets of lyrics I turned out in the first couple of days have been some of the most rewarding steps, and I feel I have lots of content to fall back on as I begin to shape those words into songs. But the macro-approach to the music – my insistence on writing different chord progressions but resisting getting too into the details felt a little self-defeating, and I think the musical arrangements should have progressed well beyond these nascent stages after two weeks work.

Having listened over the different ideas I’ve come up with so far, four songs emerge as the most promising. Still, understanding what a messy affair songwriting tends to be, I wouldn’t be surprised if by the end of the month, one, two or all of them have fallen out of favour.

This is the shortlist:

When The City Is Home: This is the title of a short film my wife is putting together, and she’s asked me to write a ‘theme song’ for it. The concept was born from our experience moving from rural Borneo to the heart of urban Cairo. We’re both people of the country at heart, and value our relationship with nature, so naturally we’ve taken great interest in the wild creatures that make their home in the city. This will be the subject of the film, and indirectly the song.  I want the song also to reflect its environment, so this is the song where I’ll try and evoke some of the Sufi music I’ve been discussing.

Let’s Make Our Bed Together: A love song to my wife, each verse a window of different stages of our relationship – the central metaphor being the act of ‘making the bed’ being the reset that overcomes each challenge we face together. My wife may scoff at the thought of making the bed being a mutual act, for I am a lazy git, but for the purposes of a song it works. Musically, it would go in the African rhumba direction, though the lyrical content might suggest something of a neo white boy soul kind of sound – and by that I mean akin to Radiohead’s House of Cards.

Bold Little Weasel: Strangely, Cairo is full of weasels, who like Britain’s urban fox have adapted to the challenge of living in the city. It always gives me a lift to see them darting across the street, so much so I thought they deserved their own little ode. So lyrically, this looks like a companion piece to Where The City Is Home. I’d like to try and turn this into a jolly number – I’m imagining something that evokes the British Sixties fingerpickers – a la Angie or Al Stewart’s Small Fruit Song but with a few Egyptian flourishes.

Confide in Me: A love song to a lost soul, who turns to all the wrong places for redemption. It’s one of those ideas that seems to lend itself very naturally to a song form – each verse decrying a different ill-advised spiritual saviour, with chorus imploring the song’s title. One of the most fully developed musical ideas I have so far is another bouncing bit of African flavoured fingerpicking which I think will serve as the foundation of this song.

It’s the last throes of the day job before the holidays come at present. Soon there should be a bit more free time on the cards, and hopefully the chance to really start moving these songs forward.

1m4s Day 14: Half Way Reflections

1m4s Day 11: Have I Got Anything?

cairo-sunset-egypt

Over the last couple of posts I’ve shared a few very early demos of ideas. All in all, I have about twelve different ‘mini-ideas’. What I’ve been doing today is singing along to these different passages of music.

First of all, I shuffled up the song lyrics I concocted last week. Then I simply turned on one of the demos, grabbed a page and started singing the words. Whenever I came across a melody which seemed to work I recorded it. For each musical ideas I’d experiment like this with different groups of lyrics, forming a ‘bank’ of different melodies. Afterwards, I will sit down and sort them out, homing in on the most promising for further development.

This has been by turns sometimes rewarding and sometimes frustrating. Certain things come with complete ease, and on others I’ve sat warbling ad infinitum, until I started to feel a little out of my mind. By the end of today I had 25 different vocal ‘memos’, recorded simply onto the sound recorder of my tablet. Below is an example, not much to speak of at the moment, but I think there’s potential there.

Have I got anything? Certainly, I think most of what I’ve come up will be discarded, but with so many ideas on tape I don’t need so much. I’d say there were at least three ideas I got really excited about (and notably, most of these were to the musical themes which were least interesting). By songwriting standards, three out of 25 isn’t bad going. I’ll listen again with fresh ears tomorrow or the day after, and see if there’s anything worth salvaging, and where to take what I’ve got next.

1m4s Day 11: Have I Got Anything?

1m4s Day 10: The Bare Bones

mexican-skeleton-with-guitar-tattoo-design-2

Over the last couple of days I’ve been throwing together different chords and searching for the bones of my songs. My music theory knowledge being almost zilch, this is very much a trial and error approach – simply jumping around the fretboard and seeing what sticks. At this stage, I haven’t been giving any thought to any vocal melody, I’m simply stringing together chords which sound interesting. But they’re really just shots in the dark. It’s only when I start trying to sing over the top of them that I’ll know whether any of these bones will prove capable of supporting a song.

With this in mind, I’ve tried to resist the urge to get too caught up in what the guitar’s doing. My aim has been to just use chords, ignoring picking patterns, riffs and runs, until later in the process of composition. It’s actually proven quite hard to stick to this plan. Finding a set of chords which worked naturally triggers more ideas. In the crude examples below, you’ll hear some flourishes have crept in. And I’ve fallen into the trap of wasting time on these details. I’m in danger of running this metaphor into the ground, but I’ve ended up spending a lot of time putting flesh on the bone, and then stripping it off in frustration.

Another quandary is that the musical styles I’m trying to replicate don’t have a lot of chords in them. The focus is instead on the rhythm. So the question I keep asking myself is whether to be true to the style and keep it simple, or try and find some more dynamic progressions, at the risk of musically ending someplace else? So far, I’ve pitched somewhere in between.

I used two tunings on the guitalele to come up with these ideas. Standard tuning suits the bright feel of the African-flavoured music, while for the Arabic ideas I’ve gone with DADGAD tuning, which has a long history of entertaining ‘Eastern’ music on the guitar. Check out Davey Graham’s DADGAD ragas from the sixties should you have a chance.

I’ve transposed what I’ve written onto the software Guitar Pro, so what you’re hearing in the examples are Midi representations of the guitar parts, rather than my actual playing. Since I got hold of it a year ago, I’ve found Guitar Pro a powerful tool for my songwriting. How I use it is worth getting in to, but we’ll save that for another post. For fun, I synced up the Midi guitar with the LMMS drum loops to see how they’d all sound together.

You can hear the demos beneath. Tomorrow I’ll start trying to sing to them, and see if anything works. It might not, so it could be back to the drawing board!

1m4s Day 10: The Bare Bones

1m4s Day 7: Zoom Zoom

workspace-red-zoom

A week into this project I have lots of ideas but not much to show for it yet. It’s all very well coming up with concepts and inspirations, but eventually I actually have to take them somewhere. The next step is probably to come up with some different chord progressions and begin experimenting with vocal melodies.

However, I didn’t do that today. Instead, I finally got a new toy out of its box for a few simple experiments. The toy in question is the Zoom H5 portable audio recorder. I’m ashamed to say I bought it about five months ago, and only now have I finally got around to making any use of it. I’m hoping it will improve the sound quality of my videos, and perhaps ultimately provide me with the means to produce some lo-fi records. For the time being it will also be helpful demoing some of the songs for this project.

Much of today’s planned ‘songwriting time’ was actually spent fiddling with the Zoom and working out how it functioned, but I did spend some time developing a little piece of music. This was a fast fingerpicking pattern over three chords using a lot of open strings.  I made two recordings of it which are collated on the track below. The first is the arrangement as it was initially composed. I then tried it out alongside the different drum tracks I put together on Friday. The second recording is with the drum track that seemed to complement the music best. By playing LMMS through a Bluetooth speaker and recording with the Zoom, I was able to crudely layer them together.

It’s very early to say, but going back to the song titles I listed on Day 1, I’d say this little piece of music might be Pass Without Trace.

So all in all, not a lot to present from today’s endeavours, but a useful piece of experimentation which has helped me understand how the Zoom and the drum tracks I came up with might aid in the compositions as they come to life.

1m4s Day 7: Zoom Zoom