Saturday, 13 June 2015

Of Writing Songs - again

I am fascinated by the whole process of writing songs.  I wrote a little about my song writing  process on 24th April in the entry titled, "Precrastination", but I wanted to return to it to set the scene for another post I want to write.  

I spend a lot of time thinking about and writing the lyrics, composing the melodies and the harmonic beds of my songs.  Then there are the hours I spend learning and practising  to perform what I write.  Each process is another layer in what eventually becomes a performance that I hope people will enjoy or to which some may give some thought.  To put numbers to this process most of my lyrics begin as ideas that I jot down in one of my lyrics books (I have five A4 notebooks full of these at the moment).  Sometimes I start writing and the bulk of what turns into song lyrics may come out in one sitting, taking half a day to a day of work.  More often, though, I reach a point where an unfinished flow of ideas comes to a halt and I have to leave the song and pick up some other activity, leaving the ideas circulating in my head and after a period - minutes, hours, months - I'll be able to pick up from where I left off and get the words knocked into a shape that I find acceptable.  If I'm lucky, that's how they remain, but inevitably as I go through the other processes, it becomes necessary to edit the lyrics further.  This part of the songwriting process takes, for me, at least a number of weeks and frequently much longer.  Words are very precious to me and linking them into a coherent flow is by far the hardest part of the songwriting process for me.  Every word in my songs has been thought about in terms of its weight, meaning(s), imagery, implications and how and whether it fits into the frame of what becomes a lyrical shape and a context of scansion and rhyme.  I am sure that many songwriters take just as long over lyrics as I do, but I know that there are also many people who need less time than me to write a good lyric.  I am a slow writer.  By standards of songwriting, my lyrics are probably not good.  There are usually too many of them for some people's tastes.  However, I write what pleases me.  My yardstick is that if something rattles around in my head for a while it must have something going for it.

Once I have a set of words in place I like to be able to compose a melody that has its own integrity before I consider which chords I would like to use.  Working the other way round feels a bit like cheating, although I have done it for some songs.  Working from chords makes it harder to come up with a melody that I find interesting, since melodies are often implied within harmonies.  Chords before melody may produce a sound that is less challenging for a first time listener, but the outcome of this order of working is often less satisfying for me and, I suspect, may give less reward for repeated listenings.  Having the chords in place first makes it harder to compose a melody that strains at the edges of the harmonic construction.  If I leave adding the chords till the end I have options, sometimes many options, and I like having to make decisions about the harmonic textures I create.  Sometimes I have to find and learn new chords to be able to come up with satisfactory solutions to accompanying the melodies I compose.  I am happy with this as it means my songwriting continues to be a journey for me and a process through which I continue to discover and learn new ideas.  As of this date I only came back to attempting to write songs less than five years ago after more than a three-decade lay-off.

Of course I break all my own rules at times and perhaps as I gain more experience writing songs the processes shortcut themselves as my brain accommodates so-called "intuitive" leaps.  I have noticed that sometimes a song needs to have a melody before I can write a second or further verses.  It gives me a shape to work within.

Sometimes I get to the end of this whole process and have to abandon the song.  It doesn't work, so I have to go back to the drawing board.  I have a couple of song ideas that I want to explore and that I have tried to work on several times over the last five years.  I have started and sometimes completed, only to abandon some of these three or four times.  It's a bit of a wonder that I have a repertoire of songs at all.

I don't learn my songs quickly and one part of the process for which I have not found a short-cut is the learning - lyrics, chords, guitar fingerings and, of course, whether and what rhythms I play on my footdrums.  Alongside this there are decisions to be made about expression and of being able to coordinate all these elements into one performance.  With voice, guitar and drums I am, after all, playing three instruments simultaneously.  I have never counted, but I would not be surprised to learn that, before I can sing a song in public, I have practised it at least dozens and very likely well over a hundred times.  I am sure that some songs have required me to practise them hundreds of times before I dare sing them publicly.  Learning a new song is a process that takes many, many hours of slog.  A day away from practising makes a difference.  Time off has to be made up.  Fingers can soon become slow and soft, the voice less agile and the feet clumsy.  If I am going to persist in offering my music to others I have to practise, sometimes even when I feel too tired or otherwise not in the mood.  Once I get started a couple of hours can go by without me noticing, but getting started is not always easy.

Despite all this, I often feel that I have not done enough.  As the saying goes, an amateur rehearses until they get their music right, a professional practises until they can't get it wrong.  I could and should always do more.  The singing and the songwriting does not bring home the (vegetarian) bacon.  I am old enough that it probably never will.  I survive through running music workshops and performing in various function ensembles.  At one time the Swedes used to allow their artists an income from the state until their art was able to sustain them.  I don't know if that is still the case in these times of austerity, but that has never happened here unless one has been lucky enough to find a private patron.  

Marshlander by Brian Parcan
My performances always feel as though they teeter on the edge of collapse.  I am experienced enough as a performer that I no longer go into a state of complete panic, but stage-fright attacks in insidious ways.  I may have gone through all the processes I have already outlined.  A performance may be going well, but at some point and sometimes for no apparent reason my ears seem to stop functioning, or my fingers may stop belonging to me or my feet may decide to go their own way.  Any one of these things has a knock-on effect and the whole line of dominoes becomes at risk.  If I'm lucky I can keep the voice going and therefore some measure of continuity in the song, I can also simplify a drum rhythm on the fly, but if my fingers can't even find the right strings to play and I can't hear which are the right ones it can be worrying.  This leads to further distraction and further risk.  When practising I try to sustain the habit of simultaneously singing the line and mentally lining up the next idea in words and chords, so the song flows.  Occasionally in performance, the next idea goes walkabout and if autopilot is also offline there is a hole in the song.  I don't know why this happens because it does so even in songs I think I know faultlessly.  I guess it is my fault for not practising hard enough, or efficiently enough.  To be honest I'm not even sure that the mistakes that happen are always noticed by some people, but they are noticed by me and I feel very disappointed with myself for not being able to give my audience the absolute best.  I am pretty sure that no one criticises me harder than I do myself.

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