Tag Archives: Sincerity

What Should You Write Songs About?

Bertolt Brecht. Fingernails not pictured.

It is said that the great director Bertolt Brecht used to apply dirt to the undersides of his fingernails each morning so that he could more deeply empathise with the ‘Great Unwashed’.

What a faker. Despite coming from a deeply middle-class background, he began erasing the circumstances of his birth and embracing a fictional ‘peasant of the theatre’ persona. He wanted to make theatre for the working class, and it wouldn’t do too well for his audience to think he was a posho. Essentially, he disregarded his whole identity in order to make art tailored to a certain demographic.

Luckily, he happened to be a genius, so it pretty much worked out for him. Go figure. So what works for the rest of us non-genii? I mean, we can still write about what we want, right?

Technically, you’re absolutely free to write about any subject you please. This ain’t no Stalinist regime. You’re free to write that 8-minute stream of consciousness about mackerel livers if you fancy it; go ahead and pen a rhyming version of the Magna Carta; sure, write lengthy death metal songs about unspeakable subjects (No joke, I once went on after a band called ‘Vomit Enema’. Their first song was entitled ‘Hilarious Abortion’.)

But lyrics based in truth will always beat lyrics based in fantasy. Lyrics from your own life carry a supreme authenticity, a momentous weight of personal significance: you can extract so many original ideas from your own life because you understand yourself better than anyone. You aren’t just gazing superficially at some other random subject, you’re communicating what is important to you.

This is a crucial part of finding your unique voice as an artist. I’ve heard the same old platitude thrown around for a long time – ‘You’ve got to find the thing about yourself that makes you unique’ – but I didn’t understand the wisdom of it until very recently. The things that make you unique are so ingrained in you that you take them for granted.

It’s like seeing your sibling every day and not noticing them grow taller. You come back ten years later and say ‘Woah, this is you?’ Finding your unique voice is a process of rediscovery: writing authentically, then working out what shape you’ve grown into over the years. It’s a long process, but it’s utterly, utterly worth it. Having someone really connect with a song that came bubbling up from your soulwell, that’s what it’s all about, right?

Thing is, if the audience see dirt under the fingernails of your songs, they’ll sniff it right out. But if you give them your hands as they are – your guilty, dirty, ragged old hands – they’ll fall at your feet.

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Developing A Voice: The Curse of AutoTune

Macy Gray: more attitude than the sum total of Lower Manhattan.

“My baby works down at the boulevard cafe
Just a fine young man with big dreams
Trying to make his own way
The owner is this mean old bitch
Who degrades him everyday
Then she fires him for no reason
Don’t wanna give him his last pay”

I’ve Committed Murder – Macy Gray

Macy Gray has the strangest voice in the music business. She sounds like a Disney villain being crushed under a boulder. The last chorus of I Try even trumps Pink Floyd’s The Great Gig In The Sky for downright scatty weirdness.

But it’s bloomin’ compelling. You listen to I’ve Committed Murder, and though it’s not the best song in the world, you utterly believe the nastiness and cruelty that comes spilling out of her mouth. It’s riveting.

Frankly, I’m amazed that a talent like Macy was able to prosper in the 90’s female R&B market, which was full of real technical wizards (Whitney, Mariah, Jill Scott etc). Macy’s full of soul, but she’s can’t work the top notes like those girls can.

If she’d have struggled then, she’d be underwater now. AutoTune is used more and more in professional recording studios, especially for female performers. What with the rise of X Factor (American Idol for you Yanks) and the sudden demand for Whitneys it’s brought with it, AutoTune was legitimized simply by necessity: the Top 40 has turned into a vocal arms race.

It starts innocent enough: Can’t quite hit that top note like Mariah? Well, give it your best shot and we’ll bulk it out with a bit of gear. That was a great take, but you just got a bit flat on that middle section. We’ll just lift the whole song to reinforce your vocal. Then you get what happened on Ricky Martin’s Livin’ The Vida Loca, where the producer Desmond Child digitally moved Ricky’s syllables around in the mix for the best effect.

Now we’ve got an environment where TV talent shows, which dictate the public’s view of a good singer, are using AutoTune to bump up the quality of their entrants. If Macy were to walk on to the X Factor stage she’d either come out of post-production sounding like Aretha Franklin – or she’d be laughed off. I shudder to think of what Cowell would have made of a fresh-faced 1960’s Bob Dylan shambling onto the stage.

What with all this public movement towards the AutoTune factory, it’s really quite tempting for us songwriters to go that way. Why don’t I start producing urban hits with just my voice and a bit of kit? I’d probably make a bit of money if the songs were alright.

Because if you’re serious about this singer/songwriter lark, you’ll notice that those with the most devoted fanbases are those who are authentic. Mark Oliver Everett: gritty as gravel but undeniably him. Sufjan Stevens: airy-fairy but full of human weakness. Soul trumps software any day of the week.

Macy, just in case an intern at your lawyer’s office misinterprets the first paragraph of this blog, I’d take you over Whitney any day.

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Beyond The Pop-rizon: Folk Structure

Joni Mitchell and Axl Rose’s bony lovechild.

“Just before our love got lost you said
I am as constant as a northern star
And I said, constantly in the darkness?
Where’s that at?
If you want me I’ll be in the bar”

A Case Of You – Joni Mitchell

It’s the most played song on my iPod: it had to come out at some point or another. Joni Mitchell’s A Case Of You is the epitome of songwriting at its best. The beautiful, ambiguous emblem of ‘A Case Of You’, the pure value-per-line of the lyrics, and a performance of arresting sincerity. It’s cracking. At some point I’ll talk about the long-uncredited awesomeness of this song, but for now I want to use it as an example of a classic Folk Structure.

What I mean by a Structure is what people refer to as the Verse-Chorus-Verse-Chorus formula by which pop songs are (in the vast majority) constructed. It’s the formula by which the song repeats certain melodies and chord sequences.

Each genre has a formula that it swears by. The Folk Structure, instead of Verse-Chorus-Verse-Chorus, goes for Superverse-Superverse-Superverse. Each ‘Superverse’ may contain several different chord patterns and melodies within it, but really follows the same structure and often ends on an emblem; e.g. “I could drink a case of you”.

I’m not expecting any 50’s housewife reactions here, but the distinction is important because it allows the songwriter more lyricism and freedom. This repetition of melody allows you to rigidly structure your lyrics as if they were a poem, and really simplifies the songwriting process.

The Folk Structure also allows for a more natural build-up of instruments, adding them in slowly in each verse. The Pop Structure, by having to quickly ramp it up for each chorus, often forces you to slam everything in at once.

Plus, the three repetitions gives you a beautiful structural arc upon which to build your story. Remember your Year 9 teacher drumming ‘Beginning, Middle, and End?’ into you? She/He wasn’t lying. Three repetitions is just long enough for you to build up a Setting/Conflict/Resolution-type scenario without waffling.

So give it a go. It’s actually a fair whack easier than having to produce separate arrangements for Verses, Choruses, and Middle 8’s. Just make one little progression and repeat it three times. No wonder all those catheter-wielding octogenarian Folkies still cling to it.

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The Lonesome Death of Sincerity

Bob Dylan in Greenwich Village, NY.

“In the courtroom of honor, the judge pounded his gavel
To show that all’s equal and that the courts are on the level
And that the strings in the books ain’t pulled and persuaded
And that even the nobles get properly handled
Once that the cops have chased after and caught ’em
And that ladder of law has no top and no bottom
Stared at the person who killed for no reason
Who just happened to be feelin’ that way without warning
And he spoke through his cloak, most deep and distinguished
And handed out strongly, for penalty and repentance
William Zanzinger with a six-month sentence”

The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll – Bob Dylan

Talk about striking at the heart of the times.

1964. America is changed forever by the Civil Rights Act. Segregation is ended and the voting booths are opened to black men and women.

But civil rights workers are still being killed in the South. The problem is not over. The justice system in the south is still mostly comprised of white, conservative lawmen. Well-connected old families like the Zantzingers still seem untouchable.

Enter Dylan. In this, the song’s last stanza, he buffets us along on the faint hope of justice; Finally, will a change come to the south? An almost operatic drive builds up, the judge is framed behind his cloak, the courtroom draws breath.

Then that last line crashes in, and you feel anger. Actual anger. You want to write a letter by the Tardis Royal Mail to the court of Maryland to get Zantzinger retrialed.

In ‘No Direction Home’ by Martin Scorsese, a biopic of Dylan’s career, you see footage of Mr Bob sitting on the back of a wagon, singing this song to the local farm workers. He rides those words like he’s steering a horse into battle. Not only does he tailor the lyrics to directly affect his audience, but he slams it home by dragging out the chords. He repeats that same, hypnotic melody, driving it louder and louder… until he drops it down with last line. The audience are in raptures.

The power of the song all comes from the incredible sincerity with which Dylan delivers those words. It’s unabashed, unfaltering, and unequivocal. And almost never matched. As homework, name me one record in the past three decades that speaks with such sincerity on a political subject matter. You won’t find one. Not since Punk has popular music been able to express a clear point of view without self-effacement or ironic detachment.

William Zantzinger died only a couple of years ago. Perhaps the spirit of rebellion that made him infamous died with him.

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