February Writeaway

When the Usual Isn’t Working      https://online.pubhtml5.com/aqbh/fhde/#p=15p=15

                                                    By Wildcat O’Halloran 

     Somewhere in America, this past month, someone (probably a whole bunch of people!) had a powerful hunch about a football game.   Buccaneers, 4 point underdogs? At Home? With the injuries the other team has?    Or whatever.   Struck with sudden inspiration, it all seems so clear….how does everybody else not see it?   Let’s get a bet down ….right away!   If and when (big if) the hunch pays off, that person (or some of those people) might be tempted to think “Hey! I should be a professional gambler...I’ve got  the knack!!”  Songwriting, unfortunately, is a little like that.  Inspiration may not work on a regular schedule….but record companies and bandmates might want to!  So, while the “pro” gambler white knuckles the Racing Form searching for the next “sure thing”, the songwriter tries to find some form of “system” that will assist the process…..maybe a comfortable chair….by the lake…..far from background noise (or possibly near it)...with a favorite instrument….and maybe a rhyming dictionary…..but, at some point….it may not work, Captain.   We may have tied the dilithium crystals to the phasers, and yelled at Mr Sulu to get us warp speed, but….nothing. What’s a mother to do? 

  In a previous column, we advised our readers to save scraps…...one good line, half a verse,,,,,even just a good title…..time to pull those out and examine them closely 

     If our scrap crashed and burned due to a rhyme problem, open up that rhyming dictionary---programs like Masterwriter, while a tiny bit pricey, can be an excellent online resource….besides rhymes, you can search synonyms, antonyms, and even pop culture “Ok, now I need a 60’s glamour girl, and a famous general….hmmm…” 

     Those bandmates whining for you to get something ready…..bounce some ideas off them!   If not a full co-write, one good phrase, or just reassurance that what you have as a start isn’t stupid--might open the floodgates 

     Co write with a real songwriter….we did a whole previous article about that. 

   Drink….or whatever…..Just remember to EDIT while sober 

   Change of scenery?   Possibly...at least concentrating on driving might stop the growing desperation…..pull over if you think of something really good--no crashing!  George Harrison famously wrote “What Is My Life” while driving to a Billy Preston session. 

  Negative reinforcement?   Pull out your most scathing reviews….what do they say sucks?    Is there anything they felt positive towards?  Another Beatles legend claims John Lennon wrote “Nowhere Man” about himself…...while having trouble getting motivated….to write the song “Nowhere Man” 

What works for you?   Message the magazine….or click “contact at www.wildcatohalloran.com…..I’m just releasing some new material….album called “ You Can’t Fall Off The Floor”....see ya next time!

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From Writeaway Magazine

   If you ask a sculptor what their latest work "means", the traditional art wisdom says you'll be deeply dissatisfied with the answer.  After all, that particular artist has clearly chosen to express whatever unique insight and whatever private pain they have....in clay.   If they wanted to work in words, they would have been a writer.  Logically then, we would expect a more satisfying answer when posing the same question to our friendly neighborhood songwriter.   After all, that person works in words, and actually spends hours trying to succinctly distill complex experiences into short, yet powerful, verbal snapshots.   That are, for lack of a better term: "catchy".  With some kind of musical notes glued on for the ride.  With, as in any other art form, the ability to at once seem completely familiar and natural--while also fresh....even revolutionary.   And, as in any other field of human excellence, the ability to inspire admiration, even awe, the "Wow! Can a human being actually do THAT!!" response.   Uh-oh, dear reader....as the semaphore flags on my parents' cocktail glasses used to spell out: "You are standing into danger"--this may be harder than we thought. 

     Harder than we thought indeed, because, analogous to our first case, if the songwriter felt the need (and ability) to express his or her personal reality in straightforward prose, they surely would have worked in prose!   Not rhyming jingles!   And they CERTAINLY wouldn't have dragged that old emotional button-pusher MUSIC into the equation.  Having embarked on this attempt to analyze this odd human activity, we are, in one sense, immediately defeated....one central truth of the matter is this: no one really knows where these artistic impulses originate.   Having admitted defeat, however, we can attempt to describe the part of the elephant we can detect in our part of the room.   So we soldier on. 

    People inquiring about songwriting often start with this question:  Music first?    Or lyrics first, music built to match afterward?    For me, it's almost always lyrics first.   The rhythm of the phrases will usually suggest a rhythm for the accompaniment, and eventually, some chord changes and such will suggest themselves.  Not quite as simple as "You see, Sally, major keys are for HAPPY songs, and minor keys are SAD" ( in fact, somewhere on my website there's a rant about the whole twisted world of blues, based on the possibly racist (certainly Eurocentric) assumption that the flat third and seventh must mean that the Africans are sad.....but i digress).....sorry, I'm back now....ANYHOW, some chords suggest themselves, and we're off!   In fact, tearing the daunting task of attempting to write a song down to a manageable trick: I'm looking for a title. Just a title.   If the title is powerful enough to suggest one brilliant insight into the human condition (or just a fun insight!), the goddamn thing writes itself!   And one insight is about the correct, pointed amount of wisdom that can conveniently fit into a 3 minute pop song .    Don't make me drag Aristotle and his unity of time, place and action into this article, 'cause you know I'll do it, you know I'll do it! But old Ari could turn a phrase or two, depending on whatever vintage he and Plato were throwing back.  Check these titles, submitted for your approval:  "I Second That Emotion"........"I Feel Like Breaking up Somebody's Home" ...."I Hope the Russians Love Their Children Too" (ok, I cheated on that one...title shortened to "Russians"....for good measure, I'll throw in my own "If You Ever Need A Friend, Buy A Dog", and perhaps " If God Can Make That, No Wonder He's In Charge". Each of those sets a scene vividly enough that, as songwriters, we're OFF!   Filling in the blanks....a thrust here, a riposte there....hell, pull out the rhyming dictionary and we'll polish this up in 15 minutes! 

    Songwriting articles often extol the benefits of co-writing.....careful with your feelings there.   There are "pros" who write with other pros they've just met....insert joke of your choice about the pornography industry, but if you're the sensitive type, choose someone gentle to co-write with.   I used to co-write with a friend, and we kind of unofficially started using "well, maybe it needs a bridge" instead of "that song sucks"....a bridge IS a contrasting counter-melody, right? Anyhow, your friend may have an idea but no place to go with it (not a frequent occurrence)  but will more often be a brilliant help polishing what you've got. 

   Ah, polishing.....yes, I definitely believe in that.   If the urge to express what seems like a great idea presents itself (it used to frequently hit me, when working for a heating company, as I was walking into a basement with a brush and a soot-vac), it needs to get written down quickly and immediately.   Almost every songwriter nods sad agreement with Duke Ellington's famous comment "The best song I ever wrote....I forgot".    Tell Mrs. Smith you'll be in to clean the furnace in a minute, and write that sucker down....in any sketchy form you can scrabble together.   The central idea that inspired you originally will surely rekindle itself when you look at your sketchy notes a week later.....if you can read the sketchy notes.   And yes, I am not above using Masterwriter or some other crutch at the polishing point.    Unlike the movies however, where the songwriter has a great line, and is floundering, trying to slap in a rhyming line..."What rhymes with Lemon?", I do believe in the rule that the killer line goes last.   If there has to be a weaker line for the sake of rhyme, make that the setup line.   I almost think the screenwriters always have the songwriter doing it the other way as a kind of cruel joke....." Look at this poor sap in writing hell.....he doesn't know what he's doing!   What an amateur!" 

     Am unsure as to whether the discussion of the two sides of the brain are science....or pseudo-science.   But for our purposes here, the concept might be useful. Songwriters, and indeed musicians in general (ok, artists in general) have a judgmental side that edits the ideas and emotions that the other side of the brain demands they express.   For me, the constrictions of the blues form simplify some of the leap of faith form-wise, if that makes sense.  Often, musicians will suppress that editing side with drugs or alcohol, just so some of their innermost feelings will get out.   Often, they will get so good at damaging that judgmental side, that stupid shit, for want of a better word, will come out.   In that case, they gradually become an exaggerated version, then a parody of their original artistic selves, an embarrassing cautionary tale to future songwriters.    Or, they go to the other extreme, analyzing the beats per minute of the last 30 top forty hits, and noting that the listener is drawn in by the use of the word "you" within the first 25 seconds in 20 of the last 30 platinum singles.   Those people have already probably moved to Hollywood, but I would suggest that they go the final step, and move in with the Kardashians.  Not how I do it, not my part of the elephant, don't wanna hear about it......well....that's not QUITE true.   If I had something I needed to express, and I built a song out of it, and I really liked it; really thought it was good, maybe I would check it against some of these metrics.    Just to understand whether that's why I thought it was good, to sort of check my sense of what was really getting across to my fellow humans.     Because that, my friends, is the joker in the deck for all artists.    Yes, it's your message....on your terms.....sculpt it, if that's what you do......it's not about what's going on in history....it's not about what's going on in your life ("Shakespeare was clearly depressed about his business reversals")....you may not even be consciously aware of all that you've put in there....it's your bottle (possibly formerly full of the bottled bravery you needed to put your vision "out there")....but it is, whether you like it or not, a communication.   You've got to get this important message through....in code....maybe with a bridge

     If the bard of Avon himself (William Shakespeare to you) was not above tailoring his works to play to the strengths of his best available actors, should we as songwriters be doing the same?   After all, songs are intended to be performed, right?  Are we giving our performer (perhaps ourselves?) something they can work with?  Is it too far outside their comfort zone?   Or worse yet, too far inside that well-worn path?  Fundamental truth number one: songwriting…..in fact, all art, needs to evoke in its audience both a feeling of surprise, and one of familiarity.   Their reaction should be “Wow, I never thought about it that way!” rather than “What the hell are you talking about?”  (Having said that, it seems like the best art often starts them feeling the latter…..and gently leads them to the former, almost as if they have come to the logical conclusion on their own). 

    One could argue then that the bard is all wet.   If we are inspired, in a flash of insight, to innermost thoughts and feelings that are at once unique and yet so brilliantly logical that we can’t wait to share them with our fellow humans….is it REALLY going to matter much whether our singer finds them as comfortable as an old shoe?  Shouldn’t our goal be for this lightning strike of clarity to stand on its own, regardless of who is singing it?  Why would we tinker with transparency?  It almost seems like cheapening it, like we’ve dragged in a new, irrelevant character just so her name will rhyme (“little sister Nell” in “Color Him Father” by the Winstons...a songwriting mess so bad that even having someone die in the song to drum up sympathy can’t save it….but I digress). 

     The truth is somewhere in between.   As it often is.  First of all, let’s calm down, and consider whether we’ve just written “War and Peace”....or “Wooly Bully”.   Then, while striving for this perfect clarity, let’s also strive for simplicity (something this author may occasionally forget!)   What words, sections, notes can we trim?  What lines are least essential to our message.  If we’re not sure our singer can deliver this line with conviction (warning bells should go off,  if you find yourself wondering “Would ANY singer feel good with this?”) go back and decide if that line can come out.