A few years ago, after I completed a large, exhausting album, I stepped back and tried to get some perspective on my own work. By observing my own process, it occurred to me that I’d fallen into a pattern of how I wrote songs. It was almost always lyrics with a hint of melody first, followed by chords, and ending with the arrangement, orchestration, engineering and studio production. I felt, however, upon finishing that big album, that I’d played out the possibilities of that particular approach and more or less knew what would happen if I set out to write more songs in that same way. So I determined the songwriting element I usually focused on least of all – rhythm – and decided that for my next project, I would start there.
Collaborating with a percussionist, I built rhythm tracks and wrote music to accompany the beats, recording and producing as I went, essentially composing straight to tape. The very last thing I did was add lyrics. I effectively inverted my songwriting process and came up with extremely different sounding material. Even the types of words I used changed – fewer syllables, less ornate or metaphoric language – since they occupied such a different place in the creative process than they had before. The music I wound up making was something I never imagined I had in me.
Songwriters often vary the types of songs they create and broaden their spectrum as songwriters, simply by varying their creative process. Bob Dylan famously headed down to Nashville and worked with a completely new group of musicians to come up with Nashville Skyline. The Talking Heads sought to break down the perceived relationship of David Byrne as frontman supported by a backing band. They experimented with new techniques and expanded instrumentation to create what many consider their best album, Remain in Light. Paul Simon first split with his writing partner, Art Garfunkel, to alter his sound, then later travelled to South Africa seeking new sounds and different creative approaches to write the wildly successful album Graceland. Read More →
Excellent songs can be made at lightning speed, with little intent, hardly any effort and no training, using a minimum of technical ability. It doesn’t matter how it was made. A good song is a good song, and sometimes all that’s needed are a couple chords, some very simple lyrics and a basic melody. But it’s not often the case that great songs come effortlessly, and even when they do, it’s usually because of something more than just blind luck or “natural” talent.
I started writing songs when I was a junior in high school. Actually, it’s more accurate to say, “I started writing song fragments” back then. I would write a riff (that was a direct rip-off of “Sunshine of Your Love” or “Black Dog”) or a chorus or pages of words that were neither good enough to pass as poetry or musical enough to cram into a verse.
This went on for a couple of years resulting in maybe a small handful of completed songs that time has generously erased. I studied Music Composition and focused on other musical practices before winding my way back to songs. When I did return, I wrote secretly for a few years, fortunately having enough insight to recognize that the songs were “not yet ready for prime time.” It took grinding my way through dozens and dozens of songs over more than a decade before I felt like I had something worth sharing publicly. Read More →
A few years ago, I saw the band The Court and Spark. It was the record release concert for their final album, Hearts, at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco. They were an excellent live band, and it was a great show, but I have a much clearer memory of that show than I do of others I went to around the time because at one point during their set, I distinctly misheard a lyric and it sent my brain spinning down the path of writing a new song.
I heard something that sounded like, “One of her eyes is Dixie weed.” Though I knew that wasn’t what the singer was saying, it was such an evocative image in my mind – I could see perfectly the lush, yellow-green of the color “Dixie weed,” and I thought there were rich metaphoric implications of a character with two different-colored eyes – that it stuck. I borrowed a pen, found a napkin and jotted it down. The next day I sat with my guitar and chased the rest of the song with that misheard lyric launching the whole thing off: “One of her eyes is Dixie weed, the other New Mexico blue.” Musically, it didn’t sound anything like the Court and Spark song, but its origins were somehow tied up with the band and that moment at the concert as well as whatever personal thoughts and emotions were swirling around in my life at the time. Read More →
From around the middle of 2009 until late 2012, I didn’t write any songs. There were three days in the summer of 2010 where I banished myself to the basement and recorded the music for three songs, but was unable to generate any lyrics I could tolerate, so I don’t count those. In effect, I had a three-year “dry spell.” As someone who identifies as a songwriter, it was difficult to stave off an identity crisis.
The first six months or so were easy. I was busy, I’d gone through some life changes. I’d had little songless stretches before. No big deal. At the end of a year I looked back and thought, “That’s kind of strange.” By the end of year two I knew something was wrong, but there wasn’t much I could do about it. I had no songs to write, and I was getting far enough away from the process that I wasn’t sure I’d ever be able to find it again. Read More →
It happens, without fail, every time I carry an instrument in public. I’m usually at the airport. I’ll have a saxophone or a guitar strapped to my back because it’s too fragile to check underneath the plane. I ease it into the overhead bin and as I settle into my chair, the person seated next to me asks, with genuine warmth and curiosity, what type of music I play.
What type of music do I play? I’ve encountered this enough times that you would think I’d be prepared with a quick, easy answer. After all, people only ask out of interest and kindness, they are not expecting a discussion of aesthetic philosophy and music theory. I should just politely say, “rock” or “jazz” and ask them what they do. But the problem is, I (and most songwriters I know) don’t think of the music we make in terms of genre. Read More →
As a musician and songwriter I understand the hard work, the agonizing over detail and second-guessing that goes into creating music. I respect anyone that rises to the challenge of wrestling with songs. But a third of the way into my workday as a music analyst, after closely listening to hours of music, my ears and brain can get tired. Songs can start to blend into each other. It’s amazing that my job involves spending the day with the thing I love most – music – but like a mid-afternoon cup of coffee, it can really help to have a pick-me-up, a surprise, something that perks up my ears.
I prefer to have as few pre-associations with new music as possible. Promotional photos, Facebook pages, album art, can color my perception of a band – actually affect how I hear the music – so I try to listen as “blind” as possible. I’ve already piled on enough baggage just from the band name alone. I’ll bet you have some general idea of what you’d imagine Sküll Krüshr might sound like, or Lil’ Ca$h. Read More →
Twenty people are silently gathered around a table, heads bowed in concentration, listening closely.
“Did you hear it?”
“I feel like I heard it, but only in a couple tiny parts.”
“Really? I can totally hear it!”
“Wait, play it again, I’m not exactly sure what we’re listening for.”
“No, no, no! I’ve got the perfect example. Here, check this out.”
Someone else cracks open a laptop, starts playing a different song at the same time, people chime in with their opinions, voices and music overlap, it gets heated, and suddenly we’re in full-voiced debate like a mob of British Parliamentarians.
Pandora’s Music Analyst Team
The burning issue at hand: identifying and scoring guitar twang. You know, that sproingy nasal boing of a plucked string, often associated with Country music. Twang can be produced through picking technique, by location of the pick on the neck, by the choice of pick-ups on the guitar, or by the amplifier in use. Each of those twangs sound a little different. And what about twang on the acoustic guitar? What if a steel-string guitar is used to pluck a few twangy notes now and then so you know that greater twang exists, even if it’s mostly strummed? The brain kind of fills in greater twang awareness during the less twangy strummed sections. How should we acknowledge brain twang? Read More →
One of my favorite things is to hear a band for the first time without knowing a single thing about them, not even their name. It’s like having someone put a blindfold on me, lead me somewhere, then pull it off. I have to figure out where I am sonically, how I got there, what’s around the corners and behind the closed doors. It’s part detective work, part speculation, part historical research, part forensic analysis. The warm distortion on the drums in the intro sounds like analog tape; this song might be from the 60s or 70s. The fast, downstroke strumming and grit on the guitars is influenced by punk, but when the vocalist comes in, her full, smooth voice and abstract lyrics give it a more modern feel. The breathy synths that enter on the chorus sound like a tongue-in-cheek reference to New Wave, placing the song in the contemporary indie-pop realm. But I’m only a minute-forty-five into a four-minute song. Anything could happen. A scratchy, atonal viola solo could tilt the whole thing further away from the mainstream. Maybe when I go to look up the band, I’ll discover they’re from the 80s, in which case the synthesizer thing and the intentionally dirty production would be revealed as forward-thinking. As much information as I pick up along the way, I won’t really know anything until I’ve heard everything. Read More →