November 11, 2009

How to Write a Song

Before I dive into this one, I'll let my good friend Gulley Jimson have at it:
But one day when I was sitting in our London office on Bankside, I dropped a blot on an envelope; and having nothing to do just then, I pushed it about with my pen to try and make it look more like a face. And the next thing was I was drawing figures in red and black, on the same envelope. And from that moment I was done for.
It's just that easy! Really. For quite a while, I had a very positive, but not too intimate relationship with songs. I listened to them, sang them, had some opinions, but write them?... no, I could never do that. That's something only other people do. How do you even do that?

Then one day, I had my Gulley Jimson moment. It was a little less dramatic — I was sitting at a piano — but it felt similarly sudden. I was doing what one is supposed to do in a situation, a temptation appeared, I met it, and now my friends are extremely patient with me.

This trip down memory lane was triggered by some recent housekeeping. Despite my background in composition as an exercise in dot-drawing, my song notations have been very informal.* I work in a spiral-bound, college-ruled notebook with disposable ballpoint pens. I like this arrangement for its frugality, simplicity, and unpretentiousness. The pages have space enough to work and pre-marked margins. They don't distract from the work at hand. I write lyrics with chord symbols. As ABBA (via SM) said, if I can't remember my own melodies, who else will?

One built-in of this notation scheme is that songs can become a little organic. I find this ultimately benefits the quality of the writing. However, it's been a little over two years since my Gulley Jimson moment and I decided it was time for a little more precise notation. My memory is sure right now... but I wanted to get things down while they're still sure. So, I fired up Sibelius and went at it. It was fun. I saw what improvements I've made at this or that. I found some moments where it seemed like I was really listening. I was proud of those.

Back to the original question: how do you write a song? My photography teacher in high school offered us a cheeky definition of art: it's whatever artists make. To that, I offer a corollary: you make art by making art. I don't want to underplay the ineffabilities inherent to the process. The sourceless surprises are part of continuing pleasure of it, but there's no denying the dumb earthiness in it. You want to draw a face? Well pick up yer pigment and press it to paper. You want to talk technique and other niceties, that's really a separate conversation. Songwriting became possible for me when I recognized those were separate attitudes.


* What impressionable young experimentalist wouldn't find reading Cage's Notations a radical experience? For all that was in that book, what does it say that my strongest memory of it, what seemed like the most radical notation, was its inclusion of "The Word," lyrics only, attributed to "The Beatles"? (That I was at risk of becoming a songwriter?)

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