Reflecting On 1 Month, 4 Songs

Over a week ago, I called time on my 1 month, 4 songs project. My month was up, but the business of writing the four songs was not. Although I hadn’t quite met the challenge I set myself, it had nonetheless been fruitful – I have a quartet of two-thirds finished songs.

I wonder if anyone in the business of writing songs has ever settled upon a strict methodology and found it to work consistently. If this project has taught me anything, it’s only to reinforce for the umpteenth time that songwriting utterly resists one’s efforts to shoulder it with a formula. Over the month I experimented with a number of different approaches, and in this post I want to reflect of their relative values and lessons learnt from the project as a whole.

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I began 1m4s by filling my notebook with pages of unfettered imagery, words and phrases all based around a different song title. Despite my intention to write with utter freedom and try and disconnect my brain from the eventual end goal of turning these scribbles into songs, some premeditation and rhyme-chasing did creep in. But the real benefit of this starting point was beginning with this massive bank of material to draw from and guide the lyrical direction of the songs. Filling those pages felt like hard graft, but rewarding work, and so provided a really positive launch point. And later on, when tunes started forming, I had a wealth of lyrical matter to dress the melodies in.

There was also neat cross-fertilization happening from song to song; I found choice phrases from songs I didn’t use finding a home in others. Even so, there’s quite a lot of stuff left over which I really like that might its way into future songs. It’s definitely an approach I will use again when I want to compose a bunch of songs.

My early ventures into the musical side of things were not as productive. I came at things with an inflexible, structural approach: rhythm > chords > vocal melody > fingerstyle arrangement > embellishments and ‘solos’ (although this last part isn’t done yet). Such a progression is quite logical, and it’s not to say it didn’t work, but there were times when I found I was forcing myself to shuffle along when I should have been running on ahead. My commitment to my method saw me shying away from potential fruitful explorations of the musically ‘frilly’ bits at the end of sequence because ‘it wasn’t time to do those parts yet’.

Is there a better way? As I guy without any real grasp of theory, the musical composition aspect boils down to flailing around in hope of coming across something productive. The occasional stroke of luck aside, that’s inevitably going to take time. But I think I’d benefit from abandoning any preconceptions of how that should happen. I feel that simply doing a lot more guitar playing, without rhyme, reason or application of brain might reap some rewards.

I’d also be interested in experimenting with reversing the process. From an early stage, I tend to come at the song from a macro level. In my mind’s eye, I’ve already plotted the whole course from intro to outro, and I construct each segment little by little before slotting them all together. I wonder what might come if instead I focused on getting one tiny part perfect before moving onto the next, and built from bar to bar. This could lead to something more exciting, and also steer a song away from feeling too formulaic. Introducing the chord change, or the chorus, or whatever it needs, only when it feels necessary, not just because that’s where a change would be expected.

A third way I want to explore is writing melodies completely free of the guitar. I’d tried on 1m4s with Let’s Make Our Bed Together, but wasn’t tremendously satisfied with the results, but I think it’s a methodology which might be worth pursuing further.

Ultimately though, I must accept the musical road will always be messy, and recognise that large degrees of blundering and stumbling are natural parts of the process. Songs will take their own sweet time, some fast, most slow, and all you can do is keep working at them.

Overall, I think the greatest benefit of publically setting myself this challenge has simply been the motivation. Although I don’t kid myself that many people are paying attention, having announced to the world I would try and write these songs, I wasn’t able to slack off. I became accountable, and that helped me force myself to push on when my enthusiasm and energy were flagging, and also to recognise and document the progress I was making towards my goal. In the past, I’ve tended to use this blog to present mainly finished pieces of work, but I can see the benefit of replicating the approach of 1m4s for future projects, be they recording projects, live performances or even 2 months, 8 songs!

Reflecting On 1 Month, 4 Songs

1m4s Day 31: And it took Leonard Cohen two years to write ‘Hallelujah’

As can be told by the title, my project to write four songs in one month has not been an unqualified success. A month ago, I hoped that come this day I’d be able to perform demos of four new songs to the camera and declare my task complete. The truth is that simply isn’t possible, but conversely I have written four new songs. However, at this point I haven’t inhabited any of them sufficiently to be able to perform them even as rough demos. They are still too fresh, and admittedly I may have relied too heavily on the computer rather than the actual guitar in the composition process.

But nonetheless, the four songs are there. I can hear them in my head, and they will not need to travel too far to enter the real world. Here’s there current state of play.

Bold Little Weasel: the most complete song of the four. Some slight refinement required, ‘uncovering the earth’ as mentioned in the previous post to simplify the complex parts without losing their core. There is also the odd clunky lyric which might be improved upon.

Let’s Make Our Bed Together: it’s been my intention for this song to be quite a simple one, but at the moment it feels substantially less developed than the other four. A lot of holes remain in the lyrics, and even those that have been written haven’t been thoroughly road-tested. I know what the chords are, and there is that rhumba bass line, but those silvery guitar lines which make me love that old Congolese sound are still lacking.

Pass Without Trace: its quick inception led to a very straightforward arrangement, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Does it need more? Maybe not, but I think I need to keep playing through it for a little while before I’m sure.

When The City Is Home: all the parts have arrived, but they’re freshly delivered and I’m not quite sure how they all fit together. I still feel this song could head in different directions, but the correct one isn’t clear. Some songs reach a dangerous moment where you teeter between realising your vision and cocking the whole thing up – and this is the place I fear I’ve got to. Best to give it a firm shove and see which way it tumbles.

So what’s next? My aim now is to continue to spend an hour a day working on these songs until they’re complete. Then some time to master performing them. When I get to the juncture when I can perform one of these songs through in its entirety without making a mistake, I will exercise a little wisdom and not immediately rush to record it. Instead I’ll diligently endeavour to play it through every day for another month until it’s really had a chance to settle in to my muscle memory and vocal chords. Only then will I permit myself to make a video performance to share on this blog, so that finally the fruit of 1m4s can be tasted and judged.

I also want to reflect on the process the songwriting has taken over this last month. I’ll let my thoughts on what has worked and what hasn’t solidify over the next few days and write-up my conclusions. In the meantime, thanks for following the project to this point.

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1m4s Day 31: And it took Leonard Cohen two years to write ‘Hallelujah’

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

Glen Hansard’s Thoughts on Songwriting

I’ve been aware of songwriter Glen Hansard since his role in the film Once, but it’s only been with his most recent solo material that I’ve really taken a serious interest in his music. I recently stumbled across a KCRW performance on Youtube where he also talked at some length about his philosophy when it comes to songwriting. Despite his protestations to the contrary, Glen was incredibly articulate in talking about his craft, and I was fascinated. Glen’s been doing loads of press for his most recent album Didn’t He Ramble, so there’s lots of interviews out there online to pick over if (like me) you get a little obsessive over these things. Overall though, he keeps returning to the same key points. I’ll be scattering the clips from which I sourced his quotes on songwriting throughout this article.

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I’m always surprised at how little songwriting is talked about considering that the music industry as a whole receives such a massive amount of media attention. I guess inevitably consumers are more interested in making mythologies of their musical heroes rather than exploring the nuts and bolts of what they do. Since Prince’s sad passing, there’s been so many articles lauding his ‘Craziest Stunts’ and ‘Weirdest Moments’. How I’d love to read a really in-depth interview (not that he really gave interviews) on how he wrote a song, from conception to birth. That’s why finding all these Glen Hansard conversations has been so refreshing – here’s a man talking plainly about how he writes songs, and talking about it as a craft. No myth-making, no avoiding the honest truth that we fail as much as we succeed. Good, honest hard-work.

Glen’s observations cut straight to the core of what songwriting is all about. In all honesty any one of these thoughts could have generated a whole essay; at one stage I considered turning this blog into a three part series. After a lot of pondering and rewriting, I decided to hone in on the points that I resonated most strongly with me. I tried to avoid following my musings down too many rabbit holes: this is just a small warren.

“Singing it, singing it, singing it, until it starts ringing true”

The notion of hard work is a central theme behind what Glen says. It’s a rather intimidating concept. Dragging a song into enough daylight that you can look at it and call it finished is often a long and difficult journey. When you cross the finishing line, you’re often so happy that you got there you’re very happy to say a song is finished and leave it at that. That’s where the ringing true part comes in. There’s a great many songs that I’ve written and completely forgotten about. I finished them, gave myself a breather, but when I came back to singing them again I couldn’t find any truth in them. Would those songs have had a longer shelf life if I’d only worked on them a bit harder, kept singing those lyrics, changing those lyrics, singing those lyrics again until I was finally happy with them?

The trouble is working too long at a song is equally liable to destroy it. Perspective becomes impossible caught up in the convoluted roots of the song, trying to untangle words and match up rhymes. For me, I think the greatest problem is that I often begin a song with too fixed an idea of what it’s supposed to be; I don’t allow it to grow in the direction it wants to, which can be fatal. One solution I’ve been trying out recently has been taking the songs away from all the tools that shape their growth; away from the page, away from the guitar. I’ve been listening to simple demos on early morning walks and just trying to sing along to them as naturally as possible and seeing what ideas are still flourishing by the time I get home.

 “When you’re trying to get a lyric across the music takes a backseat.”

What comes first, the words or the music? A common question thrown at songwriters, and of course the answer is usually ‘it depends’. However, one of the challenges I’ve found myself coming up against recently is the disconnect with the music I’m making and the words I’m writing. My interest in African guitar music means that a lot of the guitar stuff I’m coming up with is rhythmically up-tempo and equally rather cheerful sounding. On the other hand, most of the lyrics in my notebook have a much more English identity, including a lot of baggage from the folk tradition and lyrical themes that don’t naturally lend themselves to music that makes you want to dance. My hope is that in demanding these two opposing forces work together I can come up with something innovative and different.

That being said, I question the wisdom in bending songs into shapes they don’t want to go into. It’s something of a conundrum. Would I be writing a better song if I wasn’t also trying to get it to sound like Tinariwen?

“Whenever I pick up a pen I wanna be smart . . . and you’ve immediately lost then”

I do worry about the amount of artifice in my writing. The first songs come easy, but when you’ve written twenty, or written fifty, there become less and less natural angles to lead you to something new. In seeking a different approach, the songs become intellectual exercises rather than something directly from the heart. By the time you’re properly into the deeper waters of songwriting, the process becomes a constant ebb and flow between applying the head and applying the heart to what you’re doing.

Overthinking has scuppered me a few times. For example, I raise my hand and admit I make an awful lot of use of imagery inspired by the sea. And a friend also pointed out to me that almost every song I write has a bird in it somewhere. For a little while I found myself discounting great lines that found metaphors in those places before I came to my senses and realised that I had to treat each song as its own entity. If someone notices a few themes crossing over then fair enough, I should just be glad they’ve listened to more than one song!

“I hear a lot of whining (in music). It’s an easy perspective to take. (But) there’s no vulnerability in moaning”

When I first started creative writing as a teenager, I wrote a lot of long, miserable poems (sorry to all my friends who had to read them). Glen’s right, it is an easy perspective, both from an emotional and a technical viewpoint. Writing provides a catharsis to what brings us down; burdens are lessened if we articulate the shadows in our lives. It also feels like there’re a lot more interesting words out there to play with when you’re hunting for metaphors and similes to describe the darkness.

Have I been whining? Scrolling back over the recent songs on this blog, I’d have to admit yes a little bit. I do notice a shift in outlook – I’ve moved from moaning about my own problems to complaining about the world’s problems. Despite, or perhaps because of, my years as a teenage miserabilist, I do try to provide light and shade. But is there more to offer? Glen talks about vulnerability, by which I think he means setting out what means the most to him and inviting the world to ridicule. His songs are very straight-talking. He talks about excising the lines which are merely there because they’re pretty, paring it down to the core of what he’s trying to say. He leaves himself no room to sidestep, whereas I’ve been guilty of surrounding my songs in too many shades of grey – perhaps it’s about this, maybe it’s about that, it can be about whatever as long as you like it. Perhaps that’s somewhat lazy, or even worse, cowardly.

“I didn’t want things to sound postured”

Most of the observations I’ve picked out from these interviews stand out as little nuggets of songwriting wisdom. However, this point I struggle with a little more. That old adage ‘write what you know’ comes from a similar place, urging against postures. Should every song be a straight line – beamed from the soul to the ears of the audience? A lot of Glen Hansard tunes are like that, and bloody good they are too, but even so, I quite like the kinks I put into that straight line. Are these postures? Perhaps, but I think they have some value. Again, after having written so many songs, coming straight from the heart, however pure, might also start to sound monotonous.

I think here that my environment is a factor. I’m a child of the English countryside, but I’m also a traveller, currently living in hot and dusty Cairo. The former is written in my DNA, but I don’t always want to be writing from the perspective of a pastoral folk picker. There’s another kind of song which is just as valid, where the songwriter’s role is closer to that of a storyteller. Consider a songwriter such as Nick Cave and his song The Mercy Seat, in which the protagonist is a convicted man sat upon the electric chair. Now as far as I’m aware, Cave has never returned from the dead (despite what his complexion might suggest), so The Mercy Seat has to be a posture, but it remains an elemental composition that connects in a visceral way. Likewise, I hope to be able to address Egypt in song from different angles, not solely from the perspective of a confused and slightly overheated foreigner.

“I would like to write a song that someone can use . . . a song is a good, functional piece of furniture, like a chair”

I invite you to sit on my song. Is it comfortable? Look, it even reclines if you push this button! Seriously though, I like this consideration of the utility of a piece of music. Perhaps every song could be categorised as such, the holy trinity of getting married, getting buried or getting laid. A nice concept to put behind an EP of three songs – one of each!

Of course people are so peculiar almost any song will find someone who can make use of it in some way. I don’t think it’s really possible to imagine how someone might use any particular song you put out there, just ponder all the people who choose something wildly inappropriate like Every Breath You Take or In the Air Tonight as the first dance of their wedding!

“If you’re given this sacred gift of being able to make music (to any level), then you should really be using it to inspire”

It’s difficult to direct this statement towards myself. Do I possess a sacred gift? It would sound rather bigheaded to say so. Yet I do believe that music is sacred, and if I’m going to ascribe that gift to a busker I saw in the street last week then it would be foolish not to let it encompass myself. There’s been a handful of occasions that I know of when my music has given inspiration to others, but in a rather English way I’ve never been able to say with confidence ‘here’s a song that will inspire you’. When I write it’s in an effort to absorb and repurpose what inspires me. I guess there’s a natural chain of inspiration at work; whoever I’m listening to was probably trying to do much the same thing, but equally I’ve rarely let the question ‘will this inspire others’ enter my own creative process. It will be interesting to see what happens to my songwriting if I start asking that question.

“Perfect songs are prayers . . . they don’t exclude anyone”

Despite the misgivings touched on above, this I certainly can agree with. Whatever angle you approach a song; it’s the universal elements that will generate the most resonance with the listener. I’d certainly conclude that my most successful songs have been my most inclusive. Whatever way I find a song, whether the story it tells is mine or not, remember that at its core, it has to tap into that artisanal wellspring of truth, of emotion, that pools in everyone.

“How do you coax a wren into your living room, document it, and put it out in the world undamaged”

Unashamedly ornithologically minded as I am, I want to close with this lovely metaphor from Glen on the work of a songwriter. What do I finally take away from these reflections? I think I need to work a bit harder on how I craft my lyrics. I need to think a little deeper about what my songs are saying in the earliest stages of the writing process, and try not to be seduced by pretty lines or imagery that distract from the core of what’s being said. I suspect a useful approach is to write a lot more material; write a song twice as long as it needs to be and pare it back down to the bone, selecting only the best cuts.

Reading back over Glen’s musings, and my own responses, I’m left a little confused but ultimately inspired. The central thesis is clear – work at it, and love the process. Apply high standards, but don’t lose contact with your instincts. And in the final act, remember and accept that sometimes the wren will sometimes fly away despite every effort on your side, and occasionally it lands in your cupped hands without even being invited.


You can buy Glen Hansard’s album Didn’t He Ramble here. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Glen Hansard’s Thoughts on Songwriting