Think… but not too much

Do you need a reason?

I needed a woman’s voice for demoing one of my songs. It was just a short thing, four words, spoken. Adds a nice effect, though. Of course, I could have spoken the words myself and reworked it so that it sounded like a woman’s voice, but it was a lot more fun to get a woman to do it. She asked me what the song was about. So I explained it was about those relationships that start off with the idea that it’s just fun but then turn out to be more. For just one of the two people involved.

So she asked me why I had written about that particular subject. I had no answer. I couldn’t, for the life of me, figure out why I wrote about that subject. I tend to stay away from love songs and anything that has to do with relationships, but there it is. I’ve nothing against love songs, only I find it’s a theme that’s much too common among songwriters. And very few, I find, can make it work well.

I wrote the song last year. If I look back around the time I wrote it, I can’t see what would have inspired it in my personal life. But then I thought of this other song I really enjoy. It’s a French song by a band called Octobre. Fifteen minutes long, full orchestra. Quite a song! Same subject. Same general feel to it. So my song was inspired by another song. Of course my song and theirs don’t sound anything alike and the structures are very different. Mine is cut down to five and a half minutes as it’s going out to the record companies and even that is almost too long.

So I started looking at some of my other songs to try and see why I wrote about what I did. In some cases it’s obvious. At this particular time I was involved in that so I wrote about that. Quite clear. But it’s not always the case.

As I’ve mentioned before, I tend to write my lyrics at the same time as I compose the music. At least ninety percent of my songs have been written that way. At the same time and during the same sitting. Meaning that I tend to finish them right there and then. One of the reasons I do this is that I find it more difficult to come back to something that not finished. It’s hard to get back into a previous state of mind, especially when you have new ideas popping up all the time.

I know that some people prefer to compose the music and think about the lyrics before penning them. I respect that. But, at times, you have to let go of this tendency and be spontaneous. If you think about your lyrics, plan them out, your taking all the spontaneity out of it. Therefore, you tend to revert to things you have been taught as a child. That’s why so many songs are filled with clichés and stereotypes.

“Here tomorrow just as likely gone today”, as heard from Pendragon. Nice twist of a cliché there don’t you think? You actually have to stop and think about that one. Or what about Pink Floyd’s profound philosophy: “So I open my door to my enemies/And I ask can we wipe the slate clean?/But they tell me to please go **** myself/You know you just can’t win”. I’m not prone to profanity or general bad language in songs, but I don’t see how they could have said it any more clearly. Ask your enemies to wipe the slate clean and see what happens. This is reality and not the honey-filled version of life provided by the television networks.

Why tell it like it is?

What makes the human race evolve? Obviously science and technology. Forget what some environmental groups try to feed you about the rain forest. The simple reality is that the people who burn down the rain forest have no modern technology. It takes them at least fifty acres to grow what we North American or Europeans will grow in less than one. If you want to save the rain forest, give the modern tools of the trade. Religion? They tend to keep people in the dark, to try and have them remain at a simple contented level. They bring society backward rather than forward. Art is the only other thing that advances society. But that’s a secret. By presenting new and different ideas, art makes peoples minds see farther than what they’re used to. This has never been advertised because of the simple fact that artists don’t tend to be respected. But then again, when was the last time you saw a parade held in honor of a scientist?

Science and art are basically two ways of looking at the same scenery. Two people looking at the same scene, but seeing different aspects of it. Aspects that common people can’t grasp unless they are held by the hand and shown. Do you really think Stephen Hawkings has no imagination? You can’t see a black hole. To just figure out that something like that has to be there, it takes imagination.

The artist’s responsibility

Therefore, the artist, like the scientist, has a responsibility toward society. Odd, though, when you figure out that an artist is conceived from society’s rejection of him. Irony’s always nice…

As a songwriter then you have the responsibility of showing people the world from a different angle. If you just say what others are saying, you’re missing the point. Or if you make things up that have no basis in the real world, you’re just wasting everybody’s time. “What’s love gotta do with it?/Who needs a heart when a heart can be broken?” Yeah, and say hello to Mr. Spock when you get home. We’re humans and we have feelings. End of story. This isn’t even wishful thinking. Unless of course you make it clear that you’re writing about an entirely fictitious story. I don’t think that God’s playing poker with the Devil for souls in a Spanish Train. But anyone who hears Chris de Burgh’s song knows that it’s not based on reality. Storytelling is one thing we’ll look into in more detail at some future time.

Original thought is the key. I suggest you try to do your thinking ahead of time. Of course, I’m sure I don’t really need to tell you this, as an artist, your mind is probably constantly racing in several directions at once. Being spontaneous will allow you to get your original ideas out. And, most likely, in a way that you wouldn’t consciously imagine. A lot of people who think when they write their lyrics do so because they think that their spontaneous thoughts sound stupid. That’s just a bit of lack of self-confidence. The thing is that when you’re being spontaneous, not only do your thoughts come out, they also come out in a way that you couldn’t get out by thinking.

So try it out. Write whatever comes to mind and don’t think about it. Once it’s finished, don’t go back and start changing things around too much either. That can work, but won’t most of the time. The time to make changes is when you’re playing or recording the song. That’s when you really get back into the mood and can make good decisions.

Here there be dragons!

Also, it will allow you to be a little less negative. Songwriting can be very dangerous. Why is it that so many artists end up like Jimi and Janis? You concentrate too much on what you write, you make it too personal and every time you perform the song, you’re reliving a difficult time in your life. I’ve nothing against booze and drugs, I like them myself, but I’ve seen many good people go down because of them. When you relive these difficult times continuously, it’s easy to get drunk or high and forget all about it. That’s when it can become a way of life. You’ve survived so much so far. You can hang on.

The trick is that you should try to make your songs a little less personal. David Bowie is a good example of this. He claims he isn’t original. According to him, everything he writes about is based on observation. Ziggy Stardust did exist. He was a whacked out American singer in London. Could’ve made it big time, but was a little too crazy for his own good. What you can do is write about a very personal subject while twisting the details.

You were madly in love with your last girlfriend, you thought you’d be together for ever. Then you found her in bed with your best friend. Sorry, but there’s absolutely nothing original about that. Happens all the time. You’ve been crying for two weeks. Write a song, but instead of saying “I”, say “He”. Narrate the story, as if it happened to somebody else. She was a redhead? Turn her into a blond. You met her in Paris? Talk about London. The feelings expressed will be as personal as if you had written about all the sordid details, but when you’ll perform it, you’ll come to a point where it won’t even remind you of her anymore. You’ll be wondering why you stayed so long with her.

Tell it like it is, or just about

Nope, I’m not contradicting myself here. Tell it like it is when you’re writing original thoughts, play with the details that won’t affect the actual idea.

Until next week!