There’s a fine line between emulation and replication. As a musician not living in a soundproof hermetically sealed isolation chamber, the outside world is going to influence you at times. That influence can, and does, inform your music. I love bands like Nine Inch Nails, The Distillers, Queens of the Stone Age, Nirvana, Foo Fighters, Blur, and general 80‘s music. I can hear all their influences in my music. Dirty guitars, layers and layers of instruments, pop song structure. Sometimes I get a song in my head, scratch down some notes, then hit the studio and pull out bits of all these influences.
Other times, I go into the studio and write someone else’s song. In this case, Florence and the Machine’s ‘Dog Days Are Over’. It’s a song I’d heard on the radio a couple of times, and liked. It has a great build, a piano-forward lead in, and her awesome vocals. I like it a lot. Apparently, I liked it so much that I unintentionally completely aped the chord progression and general style. I just had an idea for a progression come into my head, and went into my studio setup to draft a track to send along to Rob. I wrote some lyrics, temped in some drums, and layered some instruments, and put in a one take vocal track to see where I was at. And where I was at was about as close to someone else’s song as I cared to be.
One of the most upsetting parts of this is that it was one of the first times I’ve consciously tried to write a song with positive lyrics. I usually pen some irreverent or downtrodden lyrics. I might use these else where, and some ideas and cues from this tune, but again, too close for comfort.
As Rob and I are approaching starting another summer of the 5090 songwriting challenge, I think about this song more in the sense of songs written quickly, and their influences. We’ll touch on more of our 5090 work, both last year, and this year’s new work, in other future posts.
Click to hear my draft track, ‘The Attempt at Belief’, and go here for the real track:
I’m in the middle of recording, mixing, and mastering a solo EP right now. This is part I love and hate. I love it because it usually means a song is close to being finished. I hate it because it means I have to systematically break down a song to it’s smallest components, to notes, to milliseconds, and fuss over the sound of a breath in the wrong place.
We spent weeks, months, mixing and finalizing Serious as a Heart Attack. I love what we finished with, but I’ll always hear what I didn’t mix out. What I could’ve done better. It’s especially tough over this last year, as Rob and I have moved on to a new DAW application, new plugins, synths, drums. In general, we’ve just gotten better. The options at our disposal are almost frightening. Sometimes it’s harder to know when to quit than it is to know where to start.
But it all comes down to tweaking the sound, getting the tone we want, the levels, the layering, the panning, the depth of sound, the feel of track, until we’re comfortable with the songs. Or comfortable enough to let the songs go. I’ve actually asked Rob to help with the mixing and production because I don’t know where the mixes should stop or start. And so far, it’s sounding so much better.
I’m pleased with how this EP is going, but I’m frightened to let it go just yet.
When I was about 12 years old, I went with my Mom and my stepfather to a concert a family friend was producing. I don’t remember the venue, other than it was an outdoor concert on Long Island. What I do remember was the musician. Richie Havens. It was just him, on stage, with an acoustic guitar. I don’t remember the songs he played, but I do remember how intensely he played, how everything he did had a purpose, whether delicate and warm, or emphatically fast and charging.
I watched, transfixed, as he played one song, and broke a string in the middle of it. The D or 4th-string, as I came to identify later. He finished that song, and began another song on another guitar brought out by his guitar tech. He then broke a string on that one. Again, he finished the song, no comments about it, just letting his powerful, bassy voice fill in where the notes were missing. The next song began with what I still believe is the first guitar, now restrung with a new string, ready to go. He broke two strings playing that song, right at the end, the the snapped ends just dangling from the headstock, shaking from his strumming like long reeds swaying from the breeze of a freight train.
That night, Richie Havens didn’t play like some asshole college kid who thinks louder is better. He played with a passion and intensity when his songs called out for it, and when we the audience needed to hear it. With his low, soulful voice, and his fervent guitar, he filled the otherwise empty stage, and made his music known to us; to those who knew and loved him already, and to me, just learning what I’ve cherished since.
I’ve wanted to make music since then, but I’ll never fill a stage like that.
Have you ever spent days working on a project that you really thought was going to be great but then when you finished it you decided that it sucked? Yeah… That happened to me this week. It isn’t the first time it’s happened to me either. In honor of this all-too-frequent occasion The Really Good Pot Roast proudly presents How To Write A Bad Song.
Sit down in your home studio and pick up your instrument of choice. (In my case, an electric guitar)
Pour yourself a scotch
Noodle on the guitar for a half hour looking for an idea
Pour yourself another scotch
Why am I sitting at my computer holding this guitar? Right! The song…
Find a progression you like and slowly work it into a workable song structure. (You like how I just made that 1 step?)
Lay down some percussion and record your progression.
Bass and scotch. They go together like pork and beans. Bacon and eggs…
Add layers and layers of instruments you can barely play. I’m quite partial to keyboards and harmonicas, but really, any instrument you play poorly will do here.
Open a Word document and try and write lyrics.
Why not? More scotch!
Fuck Word! Bill Gates stifles my creativity. AbiWord, engage!
Forget planning. Let’s just jam out the vocals. Hit record and just sing what comes to mind. From the heart, man.
Where the hell did all the scotch go?
Record 3 or 4 ad lib vocal tracks. Using your Digital Audio Workstation of choice, cut them into one coherent thought like it’s arts & crafts time in kindergarten.
Fine tune the mix so the bass is just too loud and the guitar solo is getting lost in the background
Listen to the finished product and declare victory. It’s a shame there’s no scotch left.
Two days later, re-evaluate the song and realize it’s crap. Throw it in the reject pile and start over with more scotch.
I love this song. Aside from being just a fun tune, I loved writing this song. This was a song Rob and I collaborated on for a song writing challenge. During a weekend of songwriting, hanging out, and drinking, Rob came up with a great idea; we trade off writing in isolation. Each person writes and records for no more than 15 minutes, then tags the other person in. The other person has 15 minutes to listen, edit, alter, write, and record anything. The catch is that we could not talk to each other about what we did, or didn’t, or meant to do. First, I spent 15 minutes programming drums. Then Rob laid down the bassline. I did some guitar work. Rob did some guitar work. We played chicken with the vocals, and I eventually lost and penned some quick lyrics and cranked them out.
After the vocals, we both sat and listened. We had a working draft of the song. It was fascinating, because it could’ve gone so wildly wrong, but we just went with it, and surprised each other with each new layer.
That song is one of my favorite tracks we’ve written, not just because it’s a catchy little tune, but because how it came to be.
Some of my favorite moments in a song are not musical at all. I have always been fascinated by what happens around the music. Musicians talking to each other during the recording, count-ins, people noodling on instruments randomly before the song starts. That kind of thing. I once won a round of musical Jeopardy by correctly guessing the song Lynyrd Skynyrd song Sweet Home Alabama after hearing only the count in by Ronnie Van Zant. Also during the opening of Sweet Home Alabama, Ronnie Van Zant can be heard asking the engineer at Muscle Shoals Studio to turn up the volume in his headphones. Mark and I have joked about making a track on a future album consisting of just the conversations we’ve captured while recording other songs.
A well known example of this can be heard on the Let it Be album cut of Get Back, by the Beatles. The song has en extended opening that really captures the energy of the session. Everyone is checking their instruments, Paul seems to be doing a vocal warm-up, and John ad-libs the line, “Sweet Loretta Fat, she thought she was a cleaner, but she was a frying pan.” It makes me smile every time I hear it.
In 1948, early in his career, Les Paul was in a horrible car accident that crushed his right arm. The doctors told him they could set it, but the elbow was so badly destroyed he would never be able to bend his arm again. Les Paul told the doctors to set the arm bent at the elbow so he could strum and play the guitar.
He continued playing until he died in 2009.
Today would have been Les Paul’s 96th birthday. Google has a special homepage with an interactive guitar around the search bar, and the ability to record what you ‘strum’. It’s an awesome tribute to a great musician and patriarch of modern music. If you know who he was, you know why he’s important. If you don’t, regardless of your musical inclinations, at least check the wikipedia entry for him. In some way, I’m sure his influence found his way onto your stereo.
Mark and I occasionally challenge each musically by giving each other unique challenges. One such occasion took place when he and his wife came to visit my wife and I for the holidays. We all woke up on New Years Day pretty hung over, devoured some homemade waffles, and crashed on the couches. When our wives went to another room to chat I decided to jump in the shower. As I left Mark at my studio computer, I said, “I expect a new track to be in progress by the time I get out.” When I walked back over to the studio area 15 minutes later Mark handed me a guitar and said, “We’re in A. This is your only take.” This is the result of our 20 minute songwriting effort.
Lyric writing sucks. It’s frequently the hardest part of song writing for me, with few exceptions. I’m not the greatest musician in the world, but I can pretty easily put together some chords and a progression. I’m quick to put music together, but lyrics rarely lead the way.
When lyrics do happen, they usually surprise me. I’m not someone who can say, “I’m going to write a song about the current political situation in Canada using Care Bears as an analogy for wartime sacrifices.” That’s not happening. I string some chords together and hum along. The tones of the humming and crooning tends to become a trainwreck of syllables. Somewhere along the way I hit a string of words I like, so I clutch at them and jump at the next thought the springs from there, no matter where it goes. It’s more an attempt to find a narrative thread, but a desperate want to keep some recurring narrative idea. Usually there’s some theme of desperation, loss or loss of hope. Or complete irreverence.
But more often than not, the story of the song is found afterwards. I’ll write and write and write, create multiple versions of verses and choruses, small variations in language, until I find something that interests me, or that I tolerate. I pass lyrics to Rob, and comments, edits, revises, suggests, and we go from there. And somewhere along the line, a narrative is found.