Thursday, September 8, 2011
I’ve been writing songs every since I was a little kid. The first one I remember, I was six or seven years old living in Paris, France, and Babette, age nine, whom I loved with fierce if uncertain passion, announced she had started taking singing lessons. I thought a song might be an appropriate way to impress her, but it didn’t turn out that way. I remember that she used the word anodyne, which is the same in French and English, and I thought it had something to do with Mercurochrome, but it didn’t.
I wrote songs in my teens, but mostly I focused on other people’s stuff and quickly figured out that knowing a total of seven chords was more than enough to play 90 percent of what was on the radio. Then, in my late 20’s, I joined a bluegrass band and realized that bluegrass calls on three chords. I wrote a couple of instrumentals and learned to play them badly on the Dobro.
I estimate that by now I’ve written maybe 100 tunes. Most are pretty simple progressions though I occasionally like to throw in an F#minor 7th just to keep things interesting. It’s a great and seldom used chord. I also spent time learning to play the pedal steel guitar, an insane instrument with two necks, 20 strings, eight pedals and five knee levers, plus a volume pedal. Watching someone good play the pedal steel is like seeing spasticity in slow motion.
For me, a song starts with a couple of words, perhaps a fragment of or a whole sentence, an image, a brief event, an interesting turn of phrase. Someone might make a comment, unexpected in its clarity or scope, or unwittingly use a phrase that causes a spark. Recently, a friend told of fighting “sad little battles” and it stuck. I’ll be doing something with that. Another time someone said they were going to nip something in the butt. I thought that was charming if visually alarming. I’ll use that too.
Occasionally, I come up with what I think is a good double-entendre. Then, invariably, tiny grappling hooks become embedded up there in my brain and stay determined not to let go until more words are found, until a story is told in its entirety. It’s an enjoyable quest. I like the challenge of interesting rhymes (and it’s true, nothing rhymes with ‘orange’ unless you’re Cockney, then ‘door hinge’ sort of does), the play of the meter, the cadence and intonations. When the first stanza has taken life, I type it out on an index card that I keep in my wallet.
By this time I also have a basic idea of the music itself. I’ve played long enough to have heard (and copied) unusual riffs and progressions, as well as special instrument tunings. Drop the high E string of a guitar to a D and you have a built- in chord used by just about everyone from Muddy Waters to the Stanley Brothers to Bowie and the Stones. I have a slide guitar using that tuning and can play some very cool licks just by barring the neck with my index finger.
The band I played with for several years broke up a while back and I haven’t written all that much lately. One of the aspects of songwriting I truly love is the involvement of other musicians in the creation of a musical architecture. Two guitars and a bass can fashion miracles of sound if they’re on the same page, and I understand perfectly well why some of the greatest tunes of our times have been written by duos: Collaborative music is a joy; there’s nothing quite as delightful as the development of riffs, breaks, turn-arounds and interesting little three- or four-note embellishments that suddenly make a piece of music more interesting, more vital, and sometimes more humorous. I’ve missed that.
I’ve invested time and money into software that creates virtual studios, and I’ve played around with pre-recorded loops to which one can add a melody, but it’s not the same. A good band has a sense of community and achievement which can’t be computer-generated. So until I find another group, I guess I’ll work on my scales. Do re mi fa sol la si do. Practice makes perfect…