Writing A Song From Scratch: Part Five

Suddenly we have a song on our hands. I find that’s often what happens when I write songs – the thing grows in fits and starts. There’s that initial burst of inspiration, then a lot of groundwork where not much progress is being made. Then the song taps you on the shoulder, you look at it, and realise it’s almost finished. Certainly, this feels like the way it’s gone with Anthill.

It’s a lovely feeling when a song is nearly complete; the knowledge that it didn’t escape you. Personally, I find this sense of achievement is often undercut by a blast of postnatal depression, when the final note is ultimately fixed in place there’s often a sense of rejection. You spend too long with something and you want some space from it. Some songs never survive this, are orphaned and abandoned almost immediately, but most shuffle back into your repertoire after a few weeks or months hiding in a dark corner. At the moment I’m feeling quite positive about Anthill and I hope it will find a place on the EP of songs I’m working on.

Few structural questions remain. Perhaps it’s too long (my favourite mistake), and in particular I’m going to consider cutting a couple of lines from the bridge section. As you can hear in the video, I’ve hit upon this idea of staying in 4/4 for the final chorus to give it a different feel. I can’t quite make up my find as to whether this innovation is clever, or if the song would work better if it returned to the familiar turf of the 3/4 time at the end.

I might also make a few snips and edits of certain words here and there, but overall I’m quite happy with the lyrics. The free writing exercise worked a treat here I think – most of the words come from the three pages of prose I churned out, and I think I’ve succeeded in shuffling them around into an order which makes sense.

These are our lyrics at present:

VERSE 1

The anthill keeps growing, more teetering, hopeless homes

While teeming in their multitudes, twelve million worker drones

All of these paralysed souls, indistinguishable, all smeared in soot

The murk of the muted, it paints us the same, from our head to our foot

CHORUS

So extend our limbs, stretch out our hands to touch

Just anything, that is not weighted in dust

Seeking out an empty space or the contours of a friendly face

In the chaos

 VERSE 2

The anthill collapses, yet constructed again

Building on the bones of all its fallible men

Construction it never does stop, and when a body drops, we’ll brick it back in

Exoskeletons formed this city’s skin, while we, while we, while we . . .

CHORUS

Extend our limbs, stretch out our hands to touch

Just anything, that is not weighted down in dust

Seeking out an empty space or the contours of a friendly face

In the chaos

BRIDGE

And now I’m carried on the back of billions, though I do not know their names

There is a fossilised remembrance, that could still be reclaimed

They thought us worker drones did not have much to say, kept us busy anyway

Now the water cannons won’t hold us back, they will simply wash the filth away

And if every one of us could carry six times our own weight

Then there are really no limits to the utopia we might make

We’ve got to wake up, howl some questions to the hive

If we were conscious of our direction, we would to do more than just survive

CHORUS (4/4)

So extend our limbs, stretch out our hands to touch

Just anything, that is not weighted down in dust

Open our minds, spit the silt from our voice

Claim everything, a collective and separate choice

Seeking out an empty space or the shape of a friendly face

In this anthill

So, what’s next? Well, beyond just learning how to play the thing, there’s still a little bit of work to be done on the arrangement of the song. Happily I think the waltz rhythm, chord progression, tonalities of the DADGAD tuning and the shift in time signatures towards the end of the song already go a long way to engage the listener, but even if the cake is iced, you can still put a cherry on top. As it stands, some obvious cherries would be an introductory lick, and to stretch the metaphor, perhaps a little jam and butter to help the different sections adhere more closely to one another. If I wanted to really push the arrangement, maybe even a lead part, though making that work within the constraints of a single guitar and a simple guitar player would be tough. Plus, the song is probably long enough as it is.

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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

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

Angel Coins

Also recorded during my recent few days in Abu Simbel was Angel Coins, a song I’ve been carrying around with me for about a year. Unfortunately, there are a few sound problems with the recording below. Hopefully the singing of the birds, golden desert and azure sky make up somewhat for the failings of audio.

When you’re writing your own songs, it can be very hard to be objective and recognise the quality of what you’re producing. Sometimes it’s the simplest ideas, which often barely register with the person playing them, that prove the most successful songs. I remember this point being made by Let’s Wait Until The Sun Comes Out, one of the most popular songs I wrote with my old band the Lazy Lizards. I remember it suddenly becoming a thing at a jamming session between our drummer and I one evening. We’d spent a couple of hours working on a song which we never finished, the details of which I don’t remember beyond it being heavy in subject and sound. Having made not a lot of progress, I started playing a bit of simple three chord township jive, Amjid joined in on cajon, and suddenly we had a hit on our hands.*

A similar story can be found behind the creation of Angel Coins. I spent Christmas 2015 at the house of a friend in the beautiful village of Tunis, near the Fayoum. This is the Egyptian countryside, another world entire from the hustle and bustle of Cairo. The weather was good, and most of the stay was spent doing little more than absorbing the mild winter sun in the orchard garden of our host’s home.

I had my guitalele to hand. I wasn’t trying to write something, but letting my fingers travel where they would while enjoying the tranquility. At some point during the morning my fingers found the two chord pattern that forms the main body of Angel Coins’ verses. I hadn’t recognised I had anything of import until my friend Reem mentioned that it sounded nice. This prompted me to play more attention. Mucking around a little longer brought me the descending bass line, and coming around to the realisation that I had something worth keeping I made a quick recording.

I kept fiddling around with the song whilst I stayed in Tunis, and began to conclude that whatever song it was going to be it should reflect its place of birth. In my previous post, I touched upon the challenges of finding a comfortable setting for songs that fall between the cracks of different cultures, and in Angel Coins I attempted another strategy. I tried to transpose some of the themes of romantic English folk songs to a desert landscape. Traditional song from my own culture is full star-crossed lovers finding their desires blocked by the constraints of social, familial and financial convention, and it’s very easy to find parallels in contemporary Egyptian culture. Conservative attitudes towards boy-girl relationships prevail here, and falling in love is a complex business. Once I recognised these mutual echoes, the narrative of the song unspooled naturally.

There is one element I still find a little inelegant. The object of the song’s affection lives with her uncle for unexplained reasons. Is she an orphan? Perhaps, but it’s got more to do with being forced in that direction because ‘niece’ rhymes with ‘caprice’. Sometimes being pushed into a rhyme like this suggests a new and pleasing direction for a song, but I have to admit in this case my solution was clumsy.

Probably the last thing to mention is the angel coin itself. What exactly are angel coins? According to a scholarly friend, an angel coin is actually the fossilised body of a tiny protozoa – a nummulite. This makes a sense; the Sahara was once a shallow sea, and in fact in Wadi el Hitan, the bones of prehistoric whales can be found amongst the dunes. Iangel-coins-rayann the deep desert there are arid fields of these angel coins. I’m no paleontologist, and some cursory investigation online finds no mention of angel coins, leading me to suspect that this name is actually a colloquial Arabic one. Whatever, the truth, it made a good song title!

The song mentions several other treasures of the desert; flint knives and pottery sherds. Egypt’s rightly famous for its early Pharaonic civilization, but the Nile Valley has played host to mankind for far longer than this, and on the shores of Lake Qairun the evidence of Stone Age settlements is liberally scattered across the ground. Are these ancient curios sufficient to win over a heart? The song leaves this for the listener to decide.

Ultimately, I’m really happy with the finished article. Thanks Reem for pointing out what I had; otherwise Angel Coins would have remained a brief little musical doodle played in an Egyptian garden – played and then forgotten.

These are the lyrics:

ANGEL COINS

Verse 1

Well, I came out of the desert

With my heart as barren as the moon

From a horizon indistinct

And with my faltering faith extinct

Marching to misfortune

Chorus

Yes I came out of the desert

With nothing much to trade

Just flint knives and angels’ coins

Verse 2

With my pockets rattling heavy

With the pearlescent coins of djinns

Out beyond the barren hills

The bones of ancient beings spill

Parched seas and bare ruins

Chorus

Yes I came out of the desert

With nothing much to trade

Just flint knives and angels’ coins

Pottery sherds and angels’ coins

Bridge

Well I’m not a man of means

Yet I’m still hunting my very own dreams

And the wind still works the dunes

To form your face

I’m waiting for your alms

With these desert-creased, broken palms

And once in a thousand years the rains will come

So I’m standing at your gate

Left here by the laughing fates

With jackals wondering when I will succumb

Verse 3

Your uncle’s a man of circumspect

With no mood for caprice

And with no pennies to my name

I know he will not entertain

My petition for his niece

Chorus

Yes I came out of the desert

With nothing much to trade

Just flint knives and angels’ coins

Pottery sherds and angels’ coins

Just a sky full of stars and angel’s coins

Just a heart full of love and angels’

Angels’

Angels’ coins


*Well, not a hit, but by any stretch our most popular song.

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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 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