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 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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1m4s Day 21: Getting Out Of Bed

luxor-morning-workspace

A week and a half without reliable Internet access means these these blog entries are being published retroactively.

Today I turned my attention to Let’s Make Our Bed Together, which has been lagging behind the progress made on the other songs. In my mind, it this is going to be quite a simple song, but that doesn’t necessarily make the task of composing it easy. You have to a lot of faith in the strength of your song to keep it simple. I’d cite Bill Withers as the master of this art – songs such as Use Me and Ain’t No Sunshine are mainly just two chord affairs with a lot of confidence.

From brainstorming melodies last week I had a piece which seemed like a verse and refrain. This I’d done acapella: apart from the chord progressions I’d been writing out.  It’s often a slight disappointment to discover when I look for a melody in this way the result is something rather crude harmonically. Though I was happy with what I’d sung, when I worked out the chords beneath it I realised it was just a simple I-II progression. In this instance, I embraced the lack of dynamic, and in fact, simplified things even more so that the verse was entirely on one chord, with the change to the minor coming only when the refrain kicks in.

For a while, I toyed with the idea of making those two chords the be-all and end-all of Let’s Make Our Bed Together. But ultimately (and this happens a lot), I denied my inner Bill Withers and inserted two mini-choruses and something chordally a bit more complex to provide the song a little relief from the dominating groove. I then spent the rest of the day working on the lyrics until I felt it had more matured out of an idea and into a prototype.

Finally, I got out of bed early to record a quick demo on the rooftop of the Nour El Balad hotel: most of my songwriting over the Christmas period has taken place here.

1m4s Day 21: Getting Out Of Bed

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 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?