Saturday, May 26, 2007

The Return of the Return of the Son of the Bride of the Idea Tree

A few more thoughts to follow up my post from last week.

Look for the second right answer... or trust the first.

One of my favorite "idea" persons is Roger von Oech of Creative Think. He's penned some really cool creative thinking books with great titles like A Whack on the Side of the Head and A Kick in the Seat of the Pants. One of the techniques Roger teaches is to look for the "second right answer" (or third or fourth right answer). We can sometimes find a good answer to a problem or discover a great new idea that might be perfectly workable, and yet, if we don't continue searching at least a little bit further from there, we might miss out on what might be an even better answer or idea.

I agree that looking for "the second right answer" can be a great tool for many creative and problem-solving applications, and I often have to employ that when working on lyrics, where a general sense of what I'm trying to say will come first, and then a better way to say it comes later. However, I find that when I'm creating music, my instinct is usually to go with the first thing that struck me when I was playing around on an instrument. There's something mysterious about music and why it works to create enjoyment, and for me it's almost a Tao kind of thing where I trust to follow whatever the flow is when I'm in the mode of creating something. I may spend a lot of time crafting and honing whatever it was that first came out, or making some adjustments to it, but more often than not I will keep at least some essence of what it was that came out initially.

Sometimes, once I've got part of a song together and I'm recording a rough demo, I'll be brave and continue recording into whatever part of the song I didn't have finished yet, completely ad libbing the chords and/or vocal part. At the time I'll think, ah okay, I'll have to come up with something better for that part later... but when I listen back, it often turns out that there was something about where I happened to go that was quite interesting and useable, perhaps with a bit of work. I might not have recognized it so much while I was actually playing it, but listening back later can give a totally different perspective. (It seems that the bridges of songs are quite amenable to that kind of thing... You can create bridges of all shapes and sizes that will work just great to transport your ears safely from the second chorus to the third verse.) That perspective of time and being able to get outside of what you're doing can be very important to appreciating the work (or not). There's a great story Jerry Garcia used to tell about how he once pushed Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh down a flight of stairs after a concert (yes, Jerry Garcia did that!) because he was so upset at how bad the band had played. But when he and the band listened back to the tapes later, they liked that show so much that they actually released it as a live album.

"Write what you know" and/or "make stuff up".

The old adage about writing is to "write what you know" and I agree that's often very useful; Scott Adams worked for years in cubicle-lined companies before creating Dilbert; Kurt Vonnegut was actually at the Battle of the Bulge that he wrote about in Slaughterhouse Five; and Charles Dickens grew up and worked among the wide cross-section of humanity that he wrote so colorfully about. But then again, Robert Plant was in Morocco when he wrote the song "Kashmir" and most of the Beach Boys never surfed. So I would say that "make stuff up" is also a good motto for writers, perhaps especially for songwriters. I suppose it's easier to get away with making stuff up when writing a song because you're only talking about as many words as might equal about a half of one page of the average novel. Novelists have a much more detailed story to describe and they should probably have a better idea of what the details of their story are all about.

But very few "true stories" are anywhere near 100% as they really happened, so writing what you know can always be combined with making stuff up. I've done that several times... "There's a Monster in My House" was based on a true story... not from me, but from my wife when she was little... though how the song turns out is made up. "Hide and Go Seek with the Moon" was based on how my girls are avid "moon spotters", but that idea was embellished from there. A musical I wrote called A Week in the Life (think The Office with singing and dancing) was based almost entirely on the company where I used to work in customer service, and I used several of my colleagues there as the characters and a lot of dialogue from things I'd noted over the years. But since the day-to-day work in that kind of company doesn't typically involve what we normally think of as "plot", I had to create and embellish a few concurrent plots involving some situations there, some of which had occurred and some of which only sort of happened. By the time the show ran I estimated that it was about 70-75% true to life, and the rest was either completely made up or embellished in some way or other.

When writing songs for kids, how much you write about what you know (or knew, or observe about kids) and how much you make stuff up depends to some extent on what kind of perspective you're coming from as the singer... Are you singing as a kid talking about his own life, or singing as a kid talking to other kids or telling a story to another kid, or singing as an adult to a kid, or singing as a pirate or some other character that is enacting a story for kids? I think Justin Roberts is an absolute master at writing from a kid's perspective, and Frances England does that amazingly, too. It's great not only for kids, who can relate so well to it, but it also helps you as an adult to appreciate a kid's world better. But then making stuff up will probably work better for songs that are more character or story based, or just meant to be purely imaginative or absurd.

Ultimately, I don't know that it really matters all that much if you write from your direct experience or just make stuff up, as long as there's something interesting about it. As Ginger Hendrix said so well in a recent article she wrote about writing lyrics for kids' songs: "Maybe the criterion I'm reaching for is just the word authentic. Is the song authentic or was it written to lure cd-buying parents into feeling like they’re teaching their kids something? I don't know about you, but most days I feel like my kids end up teaching me a lot more than I manage to teach them."

But then, some great kids' songs have lyrics that are really about nothing more than teaching something to kids, sometimes even in a very generic or by-the-book way. For example, perhaps the most popular kids' song of all time has these lyrics: "A B C D E F G, H I J K L M N O P, Q R S T U V, W X Y Z. Now I know my ABC's. Next time won't you sing with me?" Not really the most artful or authentic lyrics ever, and it's totally trying to push a concept on kids... but hey, it's great for what it is and kids love it, so to me that's great kids' music. I almost wonder if the new indie kids rock aesthetic is putting too much emphasis on music and lyrics for kids needing to be oh so artfully hip and brilliant all the time... That's stuff that adults care more about, anyway, and then again, a lot of lyrics for adult songs are pretty silly and insipid and are pushing messages, and yet we still love a lot of those songs, so why should we care if some kids' songs are like that? If we're always looking down our noses at all of those so-beneath-my-level-of-cool Barney-esque kinds of songs, we might be missing out on giving our kids the next great simple and timeless learning anthems like "The Alphabet Song".

The Idea Dream Team = Columbus, Van Gogh, Judge Judy and Joan of Arc.

Roger von Oech talks about the roles of the creative person being the explorer, the artist, the judge and the warrior. First, the explorer has to go out and search for the raw materials that could make up an idea. Then the artist takes those materials and molds them into something. Then the judge looks at that "something" and determines whether it needs more work, needs to be thrown out, or is fit to go forward. And if the idea gets the okay from the judge, then the warrior takes it and fights for its success out in the world. It's not always a linear process like that... sometimes all of those roles are being enacted concurrently, and sometimes what the judge determines gives the artist a new direction which gives the explorer something new to discover, so the process can work backwards as well.

To me, the explorer is always discovering things, no matter where he travels or whether he stays put in his easy chair at home... And it's not the explorer's job to have any thought about what is to come from his discovery, but only to recognize that there is some potential in that moment of discovery. A song of mine for an upcoming album is called "How Big", which began with a feeling my "explorer" had while watching a YouTube video that zooms into a single atom from the far reaches of the universe. Another song called "Heartbeat (The Stethoscope Song)" began when my explorer smiled and laughed while my girls were playing with a toy stethoscope and listened not only to my heartbeat, but also to my nosebeat and elbowbeat, etc. And the feeling inspired by my one year-old (at the time) prying me from my busy work one day by saying, "Daddy... come play!" (with her eyes like Puss 'n' Boots from Shrek) led to a song by the same name.

Of course, many things that the explorer thinks are noteworthy don't even get past the artist, much less the judge. The artist takes all of those little nuggets of possibility and tries to turn them into something more tangible. Sometimes that works, and sometimes not. The artist often has to mangle and warp and twist the basic materials to create something he is happy with. Sometimes my artist will spend an undue amount of time trying to make something workable that just isn't... but that's to be expected, because he's good friends with the explorer and doesn't want the explorer to feel like his discovery wasn't at least given a good chance.

I think many artists can give too much weight to their judge. And then again, if you've seen any of the Americal Idol audition shows, you know that some people don't give their inner judge nearly enough power to stop them from embarrassing themselves on national television. I don't think I need to elaborate on what the judge is all about, only to say that there are times when you have to remind your judge that absolute perfection is not really a viable option in art, and that sometimes it is okay to let things through that are a little rough around the edges.

One thing to be really wary of is paying too much mind to anyone else's "judge" when they make a judgement about your work, especially when it's still in progress. I'm not a huge fan of creating artistic things by committee, and so I adhere to the advice I was given when looking for feedback on my first musical and handed out scripts to several people whose opinion I valued... The advice was to completely ignore individual criticisms. One person, even someone whose opinion I respect greatly, or even someone who is hugely successful in the same line of work, might really dislike some particular thing about my work, but if I change that aspect of the work to please only that person, I might have just changed something that everybody else but that person would have liked just fine. Everyone has particular tastes and preferences, and one person's opinion about something in particular should never supercede the artist's vision and inspiration for the work. But if you get what seems to be a general negative consensus about something from several different people, then it is worth looking into. It's still not necessarily worth changing, though... sometimes the artist just knows best about their own work... but it's certainly worth sending back to your explorer and artist to look into.

The ancient Greek sculptor Polyclitus once did an experiment where he worked on two sculptures simultaneously, one in his private workroom and one in the room where he often entertained guests. Whenever someone commented on the viewable sculpture, Polyclitus would change it as they suggested. When both sculptures were finished and showed to the public, the private one was declared a masterpiece and the public one considered an artistic disaster. When asked how the two sculptures could be so drastically different in quality, Polyclitus answered, "Because I made this one (the private one) and you made that one."

The bottom line is that my judge, and the judges of the people that I've chosen to work with, are hard enough to get past for my artist, but my work is my work because of the particular back-and-forth that my artist and judge have with each other. If I listened to recommendations of other people, some of my most popular songs wouldn't even have made it to the album or been finished in the first place, and my musical wouldn't have been produced, etc. Or, what was released would have been less of my work and more of a work by committee (which of course created the camel while trying to make a horse). Not to imply any bitterness or disaffection for people who have criticized my work, either during its creation or afterward... that's certainly not the case at all... but only to emphasize that everyone has their own opinions, and the ultimate opinion concerning the value of my work and whether it's worth creating is the one I have of it. Heck, ninety-nine out of a hundred people might dislike a movie or song or book, but there might have still been some real value for that one person for it to have been created and released. And that one person may be me, the one who created it, but sometimes, that's enough to justify its creation and existence.

In my Thinking Outside the Box assembly program, there's a point when I play a brief game of Simon Says with the kids, at which point I hold up a picture of Simon Cowell. That always gets a laugh, but I make a serious point afterwards that there are a lot of Simon Cowells in the world, and when you are trying to think creatively and come up with new ideas, sometimes you have to be strong and brave in the face of all the Simons that you might encounter. That's one of the main jobs of the warrior, to stand tall in the face of opposition and to keep your idea alive not only in the world but also in your own heart and mind. You could have an idea that you think is really great and tell it to your very best friend and suddenly they become a Simon and say, "That's not going to work." or "That's dumb!" And they very well might be right... but they might not be. You might really know best about how great that idea is and what its potential is. It's not worth getting upset with a Simon or taking offense, though, because they might not be able to see the idea in the same way that you do, and some people just aren't good about evaluating the worth of ideas... they need to see things in a finished and concrete form to be able to appreciate them. And they might not know that there could be something very valuable for you to experience and learn as you work with that idea. But the world is full of hugely successful things that were initially rejected... the first Harry Potter book was rejected by dozens of publishers... the Beatles were turned down by many labels... etc. So keep that in mind as you send your warrior out into the world, and make sure that they are well equipped with perseverance, strength, faith, determination and some really thick armor.

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I've enjoyed sharing these thoughts with you, and I'll compile some more for another "Idea Tree" feature sometime down the road. Please share your own thoughts and stories about how your ideas have come to you and how they came to fruition (or not). I would love to reference some other artists' experiences for the next installment.

Friday, May 18, 2007

The Return of the Son of the Bride of the Idea Tree

It's time to grab a bushel basket and head back out underneath the ol' Idea Tree and see what's ripe for the pluckin'... As I said in the original "Idea Tree" post, I believe that ideas for songs (and other things) are available in abundance, and it's mostly a matter of our climbing up into the idea tree to look for them, or catching them when they fall, and then trying our best to turn them into a delicious idea pie. Of course, my original post didn't begin to cover all of the ways and means of how song ideas happen, or how the ideas themselves develop into actual songs (or not), so I thought I'd add some more thoughts along those lines. I'd also like to encourage other musicians, writers, artists, entrepeneurs, etc., to contact me and share about how your ideas came to you and/or how you honed ideas into something fully realized. I'll probably do an "Idea Tree III: Jason's Revenge" at some point, and I'd love to include some of your stories for that.

I'm going to break this up into two installments. Check back next week for the second part...

Symphony No. 9 for Bagpipes

Sometimes a song idea doesn't start out so much as a song idea, but an idea that seems intriguing in another sense, as in, hey, wouldn't it sound great to record a song using nothing but an orchestra of bagpipes (it probably wouldn't)... Or, gosh, wouldn't it be cool if I could somehow commemorate the founding of the first curling club in Loch Leven in 1668 (it probably wouldn't)... And so there isn't a song idea, per se, but the idea that intrigues you can help to lead you in some unique songwriting directions. For example, the sonic nightmare of a bagpipe orchestra is likely to create some interesting lyrical possibilities and story ideas, and deciding to do a song about the anniversary of the first curling club is going to challenge you to find a way to write something exciting about a subject that just isn't very exciting at all (no offense meant to curling fans, but let's face it, the sport is pretty boring to watch).

We were in Utah last year and caught a show by my friend, Sam Payne. Sam is an outstanding original singer/songwriter in the general vein of Bob Dylan, Sting and Bruce Cockburn, and he also happens to be an incredible scat singer. I'd seen him perform a couple of times before, but this particular time I had one of those intriguing ideas that wasn't so much a song idea, but a concept idea, where it was like, hey, wouldn't it be awesome if Sam could scat sing on a song of mine (it probably would).

I mentioned it to Sam and he said that he'd love to do it, so at that point, the idea became slightly more than just an idea... it could actually happen. (It's usually good early on in an idea's gestation period to make sure that it even has the potential to grow beyond that stage.) The problem was that we would have a very limited time when we would be able to record him while passing back through Utah, and we really didn't have the actual song idea yet, so we had no idea what to actually record... what tempo, what key, what chords, etc. We thought, well, we could just record him ad libbing a bunch of scatting and hopefully work it into something later. And what we ended up doing wasn't so far removed from that, though we did end up having the very bare bones of a verse for a song and some specific chords for Sam to scat over.

I suppose that any song could include some scatting, but since in this case the person scatting wasn't going to be the same person singing the song, then it seemed a little more appropriate for the scatting to have some specific kind of focus or to be representative of a character. So thinking in terms of character and thinking of words that might go with "scat" led to the phrase "scat cat", and then a picture grew from there of a downtown alley where a cat is meowing all night long (or in essence, singing and putting on a show). Most of the people who live there love him and his "singing", but there are a few people who have to get up early every morning and don't appreciate his late night vocalizations, so they yell out their windows, "Scat cat!" and the cat misinterprets that as an invitation to start scatting. We had no idea initially where that basic premise would lead or if we could even make a whole song out of it, but it was enough to go on to create a very rough demo of the first verse and give Sam some chords to ad lib over. He was truly amazing, recording several wonderful takes having never even heard the chord changes before, and so then we had the raw materials for what might become a song. From there it took a lot of mental and musical wrangling to figure out where to go for the bridge and last verse, but thankfully, we eventually found a cool way to resolve the story and finish the song. But for quite a while it was nothing more than a smidgen of a song with some great scatting included, inspired by an idea that wasn't really an actual song idea.

("Scat Cat" will be on my upcoming Snail's Pace album, available for preorder here. You can hear a sample of the first two verses below. By the way, if you want your voice to be on "Scat Cat", I'm still accepting submissions for about another week to add to the third verse for the final mix. Click here for details.)

It's all been done... woo hoo hoo... but so what?

One thing I did when I first had the idea involving the phrase "scat cat" was to Google it and see if any other kids' performers had done a song like that. Best I could tell, they hadn't, so that was good. (As it turns out, a recent episode of Noggin's Jack's Big Music Show featured a character named Scat Cat who sings a scatting song, but that came out months after my song was finished and the song is nothing like mine, thankfully.) But then again, so what if there had been another "Scat Cat" song already? Song titles can't be copyrighted, and as long as your inspiration for the idea was indeed your inspiration, then the odds are that it will be unique enough to be worth creating. Well, I mean, there's a point when public familiarity with a title sort of makes it off limits... It would be difficult to comfortably do a new song called "Stairway to Heaven" or "Bohemian Rhapsody" or "One Eyed One Horned Flying Purple People Eater" (I was really disappointed when I found out there was already a song with that title.)

Especially in the kids' music genre, there seems to be a number of general subjects that get a lot of attention, such as the alphabet, animals, pirates, opposites, cleaning up your room, imaginary friends, and the list goes on. But I've found that there is always a new and interesting way to approach the same general idea if you look hard enough for it and find your own take on it. I touched on this very briefly in the last "Idea Tree" post, about how Justin Roberts' "sock album" would be different than anyone else's. And I recently covered Little Nashville and Gwendolyn and the Good Time Gang, both of whom have a song that is a Red Light/Green Light game... which isn't just a similar subject, but an identical subject... and yet, each song is fun and cool in its own way. It's always great if you can find subjects to write about that haven't really been expressed before, but there's no reason not to cover some of the same subjects that have already been done if you can put your own stamp on them. There have been times when I've been looking for ideas for songs and I've thought, well, what kind of typical "kid subjects" haven't I covered yet? I realized recently that I haven't done an "alien" song yet, so I was going to start thinking about an idea for an alien song, but when I was going through a mental list of typical kid song subjects I had another idea that sounded even better... to do a song that combines several of those kid subjects together. So that's now in the works for an upcoming album. And that's a good example of one idea leading to another, and one "already been done" idea leading to something that hasn't been done yet, or at least, not as far as I know.

Slot Machine Lyrics

For me, creating the music is the fun part of songwriting, where you get to make noise and play with sound and arrange notes and chords into colorful shapes and textures. I hate to make all musicians everywhere seem less cool than public perception has granted them for so long, but in essence, we're all just interior decorators that use notes and sounds instead of fabric and furniture. (I sometimes have to chuckle at musicians who takes themselves so darn seriously, when I picture them in that sense.) But for lyrics you sometimes have to really think, and that can be like actual work! To put it another way... Writing music is like playing with a really awesome giant robot toy, and writing lyrics is like filling out the registration card and rebate forms that came in the box with the giant robot toy; you know you should do it and you know you'll get something good out of it, but it feels like much more of a chore to actually do. Then again, when lyrics seem to come with ease in a rush of inspiration, that is very cool, but that just isn't often the case for me. I can spend a lot of time, months even, poring over one or two lyric lines for a song... which seems strange when it's a song about something silly like a cowboy with a ridiculous name or a stink bug who insists that he doesn't smell... but to me there are few things that can jolt you right out of the illusion of a song quicker than a lyric line that is clunkily worded (like how the phrase "clunkily worded" is clunkily worded) or feels wrong for the character of the song.

Sometimes working on lyrics means sitting quietly with a notebook or driving somewhere with a voice recorder nearby and trying to think it out, and other times it means playing through the song and sort of scat singing along with the vocal melody until a word or phrase comes out that sounds good where it landed. My friend Steve Brown of the great "BNL meets Simon & Garfunkel" band Border Crossing defined this as the "slot machine method" of lyric writing, and that's a perfect description of it. The first time through, one thing might lock in, the next time through another, and before you know it, you've won the jackpot, especially if the words turned out to be, "Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away." Odds are, the whole song won't need to be done that way, but once you get a few key phrases in there and have more of a direction and context for the words, then you can usually finish it from there by thinking it out.

Speaking of "Yesterday", that is a great example of using "placeholder" lyrics, which is a common thing for songwriters to do. Placeholders are lyrics that don't necessarily mean anything, but fill in the spaces of the melody for the time being until you are able to get the real lyrics together later. The original placeholder lyrics for "Yesterday" went like this: "Scrambled eggs, ohhh baby, how I love your legs". And then there's the classic Homer Simpson placeholder for the song that practically wrote itself: "Baby on board, something something, Burt Ward." Much as I try to use "Burt Ward" when I can, my placeholders tend to be just "la la la"s or the like, which becomes confusing for my girls, who learn to sing the song that way from the early demos and then at some point are surprised to hear that actual words were added and they have to relearn everything. (I suppose that "la la" would be easier to replace in your memory than "Burt Ward".) I once had a placeholder for the chorus of a song that went "blah blah blah blah", and for the longest time I couldn't get any actual lyrics in there, and then I finally realized that those were really the perfect words as it was, because the rest of the song was about someone who kept asking for advice but never listened to any of it, so it pretty much all ended up sounding like, "Blah blah blah blah". It made for an easy to remember hook and the song became a favorite back when I was playing the coffeeshop circuit in Western New York.

Well, duh...

I have a lot of "well, duh" moments like that when I'm writing songs, where I'll be banging my head against the wall about some lyric or some musical part, only to realize there was an obvious answer all along. One catch phrase that I try to remember is, "If you're looking really hard for something, it's probably right in front of you." The chorus for "There's a Monster in My House" (listen below) goes "There's a monster in my house, and it's coming after me. There's a monster in my house..." And then there's a little chord sequence repeated from the intro of the song. For a long time I kept thinking there needed to be a fourth line to go over that chord sequence which would rhyme with the "coming after me" line. I tried all kinds of things but only ended up with piles of crumpled up paper in my brain. And there are a lot of things that rhyme with "me", so it was particularly frustrating that I couldn't come up with a good line there. Then at last I had the "well, duh" moment I needed where I realized, hey, maybe it doesn't even need another line there at all. These are the little battles and discoveries that are all in a day's work for songwriters. I have habits and expectations for phrasing and vocabulary, both musically and lyrically, that I can glomp onto for certain songs or sections of songs, and sometimes it can be very difficult to step outside of those and see that there was something better right in front of me all along.

One more example of that is "No Big Deal" (listen below), which my wife, Roseann, and I collaborated very closely on. We had the music down and had a direction for the lyrics to basically be a "don't sweat the small stuff" kind of thing, and as we were working on the words we were wondering what the hook and the title would be. We kept saying things to each other like, "Yeah, it should be about how that kind of stuff is really no big deal, you know?" "Yeah, exactly, it's no big deal." "Right, but what should the title be?" "Hmmmm..." That went on for a while, far longer than I'd like to admit, and then... Can I get a "well, duuuuh!"

Check back next week for the next installment, The Return of the Return of the Son of the Bride of the Idea Tree.