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.


Mike McManus said...

"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". Man, I couldn't have said that better! Sometimes I'll have ALL the music and even some of the background vocals done before I finish the lyrics. There's nothing better than getting that final rhyming word to the very last lyric of a song. I usually follow that with some sort of happy dance!

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