Word To The Wise – No. 4

The Songwriter's Soup.

“I have freely begged, borrowed, and patched together. If there is any quality in my work, it is primarily in the “taste” with which I have raided others’ stores and in the way I have adapted and mixed together the ingredients and, thereby, made the soup. Some will, of course, not recognize the ingredient they have contributed, or, at least, not want to admit they do after they taste my soup. If there are occasional inventions, their only chance for a full life is that someone else will borrow them and mix them into new soup.”

James Paul Gee (2011)

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What Makes A Great Chorus?

The Ting Tings: Jules De Martino and Katie White.

“Clap your hands if you’re working too hard”

The Ting Tings – Hands

If the Ting Tings hadn’t strapped this lyric onto an interminable sub-Kraftwerk wind tunnel and had it voiced by a supermarket counter, it would have been the best chorus ever written.

I can’t resist it. It voices a universal truth of our work-stricken modern life. It speaks to the backbreaking labour of the working class and the high-voltage deskwork of the bankers. It makes you proud to work and proud to rebel. In 9 syllables, ladies and gentlemen.

A good chorus can make or break a song. It’s the song’s gravestone: the verses can have faff around a bit, but the chorus is what they’ll remember. It can pump a song to new levels of commercial appeal: there’s a reason that one-hit wonders plague our charts. They’re all built on strong choruses. Example: £100 to anyone who can remember the lyrics to the second verse of “Who Let The Dogs Out”?

When trying to describe a perfect chorus, people will often grope for the boardroom bonehead’s best buzzword: ‘It’s really catchy.” “Wow, that’s so catchy.” I want to tell you here and now to think of “Catchy” as a myth.

There can be no doubting that some songs are ‘Catchier’ than others, though I feel unclean using that word. Melody contributes, chords contribute, and structure certainly contributes, but I honestly don’t really care too much about a ‘Catchy’ formula: it makes it seem as though you should base your songwriting around whether it’s Catchy or not. Let me tell you: if you bash on the front gate of the Catchy mansion, you won’t get anywhere close.

So let’s try the back way in. I love Hands because it epitomises what I think a good chorus should do. Let’s split this down into two stages.

First: Validation. The first thing a great chorus should do is validate an identity, either of a group or a community. Consider Bruce Springsteen’s Born In The USA. You’re trying to get the ‘That’s Me!’ moment on the other end of the wireless. I’ve heard it said that art should articulate and make clear what people feel, and the chorus is your moment to shine.

There are two routes: either you reach out to as many people as possible on a general level, or you speak to a small group incredibly personally. What makes Hands so incredible is that it speaks to a universal audience on a deeply personal level, but that’s a once-in-a-career moment. I’d advise taking one of the two routes above and hoping that you strike gold.

Second: Catharsis. This is where you can deliver a chorus that can change someone’s life. Once you’ve achieved the ‘That’s Me!’ moment, you’ve got them in the palm of your hand. Now it’s time to smack them out of the park.

This is where it takes a bit of personal tailoring to your audience. More often than not it’s simply enough to give people a voice. Consider Pulp’s Common People, or Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changing: the very act of giving voice to those who cannot speak gives the song strength. But you can do so much more: once you engage people on a personal level you can breathe new life into their lives.

Every music listener has songs that light a fire in their hearts, that seems to speak directly to you. Validating an identity, then allowing that identity Catharsis. That’s the big secret.

You have 9 syllables to change someone’s life. Choose carefully.

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Should You Trust Your Critics?

How to see through the smokescreen of ego. (Image: DeviantArt)

I’ve heard it said before that every songwriter writes from insecurity, but that’s not quite right. Every songwriter writes from ego.

No doubt about it. There’s something innately gratifying about completing a song that props you up for the rest of the week. When you pluck some delicious chorus melody out of the air and scribble it down, there’s a significant part of you that wants to light up a cigar, lean back in your chair, and utter that immortal adage of satisfaction: ‘Boom’.

So it naturally hurts when someone pokes their finger through your cigar-hazed fantasy. Your first fully completed song hangs framed above the mantle; you sit bleary-eyed with love, reminiscing about how each perfectly constructed line came into being. But suddenly, a snickity little gremlin appears from your periphery, shouting words of abuse so vile as to curse down the sun, and you fold into a little sweaty ball of misery. Sound familiar?

Your first encounter with criticism is make-or-break time. It’s where your artistic ideas, which get cosy in the comfort of your own head, are thrust into the real, cold world. And it’s serious: some people never recover from the first go-around. But let me give you a little phrase to remember next time you come up against the gremlin:

‘Your critics are always right, and your critics are never right.’

Let me explain. Remember your heavy metal phase? Remember buying that brand new amp, turning it up to 11, and rocking out that first solo? Remember your little sister slamming through the door, stuffing her pigtails in her ears, yelling ‘SHUT UP, YOU SUCK!’ She was, in many ways, just as eloquent as much of the modern music press, and she was a valuable critic.

Another example. I was busking in my local town centre, and playing one of my own songs. A bedraggled, ineffably cool man carrying a guitar was stood watching me from the opposite street corner. As I finished, he walked up to me and dropped ten pounds in the box, and said: ‘Play that song again’.

The musician and the sister are two critics: one hated me, one loved me. One didn’t know a thing about music, one probably knew a fair bit. But here’s what I mean to say: Both opinions were equally right.

Everybody, critic or not, belongs to a demographic: both of the above opinions reflected the demographics that the critics belonged to, and so were equally right. But both were equally wrong, because they failed to represent any demographic other than their own.

Your Warhammer-obsessed male flatmate who tells you your song sucks is only speaking from the Warhammer-obsessed demographic. Your bleary-eyed elderly teacher who loves your singing voice is speaking only from that perspective. Your little sister utterly reflects her age group when she says that heavy metal sucks, but if you were playing Disney songs she’d be loving it.

But where does this leave our central question? Musicians, just like any salesman in the marketplace, must aim their products at certain demographics. You should therefore only trust the critics who are representative of the demographic you’re aiming it. But, like a sensible entrepreneur, take note of everything you hear: if you suddenly notice a groundswell of critical reception from the over-65’s, maybe you should take aim there. Always offer what they’re calling for.

So don’t get downbeat when the gremlin curses your work. You can keep the cigar, but make sure you can see through the smoke.

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Lyrics or Music: Which One First?

How to get the most out of your harvest. (Image Source: Flickr)

In my rather lengthy period of blogging absence I’ve noticed quite a trend amongst the twittersphere. In 140 characters, always the same question, repeated like a broken record. When you feel the sudden bolt of creativity, what should you reach for? Your right hand itches for the pen, but your left longs for the guitar. Which one?

I’ll tell you: Both. When you feel that raw pulp of creativity welling up, you’ve got to start singing what you’re thinking. If you play an instrument, strum some chords together and sing over it. If you release all those inhibitions, you’ll start finding lyrics and melodies that you wouldn’t be able to dream of if you worked through it one by one: working through both at the same time gives a song an incredible unity of elements that you can’t recapture when you separate them.

This is why I devoted an entire post to the Ernest Hemingway quote: “The First Draft Of Everthing is S**t”. The more you just let go, the more you stop censoring your work, the more good stuff you’ll get out of those spurts of creativity. It’s an elegant irony: The more you allow yourself to be s**t, the better you’ll be.

I can understand the appeal of “Lyrics Or Music”: it seems to provide a clear structure: first one, then the other. But separating the elements can do a great deal of harm to your songwriting, so what kind of structure can we place instead?

Think about a wheat harvest. You’ve got two stages of production (I assume: bear with me, readers, I ain’t no farmer). First, the combine harvester goes around and gathers all the wheat it can. No stalk is left untouched. You get a lot of chaff, but you get a fair bit of wheat as well. Let’s call it the harvest stage.

In the second stage, the farmers go around and pick all the wheat out of the chaff. The chaff gets thrown away, and the wheat gets stored. It’s a slow process, but it’s very deliberate and pre-meditated. Let’s call it the refinement stage.

You can apply the same logic to your songwriting. First, harvest. The sun may only shine on your creativity for half an hour a week, but you’ve got to gather all the material you can from that. Write down the chords, record voice memos of the melodies: do whatever you can to remember them, because this is where the best wheat comes from. Don’t get me wrong, you’ll write a lot of s**t, but this where the second part comes in.

Second, refinement. Take the wheat from the chaff. In between the creativity is where all the good work gets done. I mentioned Bruce Springsteen’s Car analogy in a separate post, but I’ll return to it again: If three cars aren’t working, you take all the parts that work and stick them in a new car, then bolt ’em all up and get it on the road.

If you write 3 terrible songs, I bet you that there’s enough good bits to get one song really revving hard. Thing is: songs are far more malleable than cars. Take a chorus from one and turn it into a bridge. Take a strong lyric and slap it onto a strong melody. You’ll have to tweak the lyrics, but the new combinations of verses and chorus’s will throw up delicious new themes and ideas. You really can’t go wrong.

The car analogy goes further: remember that 10-minute stream of consciousness piece you wrote about your ex-girlfriend? (read: beat-up 1970 Austin Maxi) Strip it for parts and move on. Start thinking of your songbook as a junkyard rather than a showroom. Don’t be afraid to go in there with a sledgehammer.

The Lyrics or Music debate really needs silencing. Don’t waste your creativity noodling away on meaningless melodies, or stressing over stale poetry. Dive upon your instrument of choice and play.

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A Bit Of Self-Indulgence: Black Coffee at the RDC

Hey all,

This is my little folly: Black Coffee. I’m the sweaty pillock at the piano. This cover was entirely improvised, as you can probably tell. Hope you enjoy it, and please share it with all your friends.

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When To Show Your Songs To People

Pennywise the Clown from IT (1990).

On my computer hard-drive, tucked away in a hidden folder, is a file called ‘Spontaneous Lyrics’. It contains the entire oeuvre of my songwriting from year 1 to around year 5, from my very first scribblings, through my ‘Political’ phase (*weeps in shame*), right up to the start of my ‘Girls-are-really-quite-attractive’ phase, which I’ve never truly left behind.

I’m now in around my 7th-8th year of songwriting, and this file is painful. Painful. Absolutely no-one in the world has ever freely looked through it. This was, for a long time, how I felt about my songwriting. My songs were my Pennywise, lurking in the gutter of my mind. No way in hell was anyone going to see those songs.

I know I’m not alone in this, either. So crippling is the fear of rejection in some songwriters that they never get off the ground. Some will noodle away in silence for decades without ever breathing a melody.

Well, let me tell you, that approach ain’t too great. For one thing, keeping a song cooped up in your own head means you can’t ever say ‘This is finished’. I’m living testament.

I finished my first song six years after I began songwriting. It was called ‘You Ain’t Alone’ (It’s my mum’s favourite, incidentally). Here’s the kicker: I only knew it was finished when my great friend, who I’d started playing all my songs to, told me it was.

I then proceeded to play it individually to every single one of my flatmates (of which there were 12) and anyone who would listen to check if he was giving me a bum steer. And he wasn’t. At least my mum doesn’t think so, anyway.

This process of ‘Finishing’ a song is not, as is commonly thought, a question of editing. Songwriters are perfectionists, and they’ll edit the song to death before they realised they were actually just as happy with the first draft.

Finishing a song is just about dragging Pennywise out of the gutter. Once it’s out, the song is no longer a secret diary entry, it’s a piece of work which exists independently of you, and it won’t feel so scary any more. I promise you: the change is remarkable.

Don’t get me wrong, it takes a lot of guts for a first-year songwriter to do it, far more than I’ve ever possessed. But here’s my advice: Do you have a best friend? Are they smarter than you? Show the song to them. They’ll give you better advice than you’d ever manage on your own.

It’s worth it. Once Pennywise is up on the pavement you see him for what he is: just a feckin’ clown.

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The Secret Ingredient Of Productivity

Kung Fu Panda (2008) - Enlightening productivity ideas and family fun.

I am writing to you, gentle reader, in a state of disarray. After crash-landing back into my university schedule I have suddenly been inundated with countless pressures on my time and energy. I feel as though I’m trapped in a giant, greasy bagel of need which is sucking out all my creative juices.

Needless to say: songs still need to be written, blogs still need to be written, essays still need to be written. But how can it be managed? How can you remain productive? I’ll tell ya, but first I’m going to explain the airborne omnivore currently floating in your eyeline.

Mr Kung Fu Panda, or Po to his friends, works at a noodle shop run by his dad, Ping. Ping sells loads of noodles because of the ‘secret ingredient’ that they contain, which apparently makes them extra nice. Po, disapproving of this dull business venture, nonchalantly becomes a Dragon Master, appears in a short training montage, and goes up against some kind of evil tiger.

However, at his moment of doubt, when all hope is fading, when he realises that he can never fulfill his promise to be a Dragon Master, he turns to Ping.

“Son,” Ping says, “Do you want to know the secret ingredient of my noodles?

“There is no secret ingredient.”

I know that many may not appreciate taking advice from a cartoon goose, but this is too important to miss out on.

Productivity is a state of mind. If you feel energised and focused, you will work more and therefore produce more. So, whatever you do to make you feel productive actually makes you more productive. Let me explain.

I reckon it’s all down to the placebo effect. Many of you will already know what this is, so I won’t go into detail, but you can Wikipedia it if the mood strikes you. It basically means that if you attribute an object/situation with an effect, the brain will simulate the effect and make you believe it is working. For example, if you tell someone that an M&M will make their headache go away, it will help kill the pain of their headache. But there’s no secret ingredient in the M&M which suddenly turns it into an efficient painkiller: you are the secret ingredient.

It also applies to the creative process. I have a friend who could only write poetry if she drove out to a remote location and scribbled in the dark. Roald Dahl could only write in his shed, using a rotting plank as a desk. Both effective, if slightly mental, placebos.

I have purpose-built my own placebo. Want to know what it is? Tea. Yes, Tea. If you didn’t know I was English before, you do now. When I’m working, I do 50 minutes on, 10 minutes tea drinking. This can go on for hours before I need a proper break. It’s not the caffeine, the heat or even the regular breaks that make me productive, though they probably contribute: It’s just that when I hold that mug of Tetley’s in the morning, I feel the need to work.

How did I do this? The law of repetition and relation. A fair while ago, I purchased Call of Duty 4, and on the same shopping trip bought a new coat, filled with fake fur which had a very distinctive smell. The heating had gone out in our house, so as I settled in for a massive sesh I put on my new coat. To this day, when I smell that fake fur I feel like I want to shoot things. The repetition of playing for such a long time had related the smell of the coat with the feeling. Weird, eh?

So what does this mean for you? It means that if you discover a placebo that naturally makes you work harder, turn it into a habit. With enough repetition, you will relate the object to the feeling, like my cup of Tetley’s. Your creative juices will flow, you’ll become super-productive, and you’ll finally take your place as a Dragon Master.

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