Monday, October 10, 2011

Echo Panacea

I've written a new song, "Echo Panacea," for Julia Sherred's Lupus Awareness Virtual Art Gallery.

Usually, I don't like to talk too much about my work. It can often remove a lot of the mystery and the ambiguity that I really prize. But Echo has a story that needs to be told.

Echo was something of a commisioned piece, I wrote it for Julia Sherred's virtual gallery dedicated to raising awareness for lupusJulia Sherred has the disease, and so do about 5 million other people, including Maurissa Whedon. I'll let far more qualified and expert people explain in their own words, but in a nutshell, imagine your own body turning on itself: those wonderful bits of your anatomy that keep you healthy and hale, that fight off infections and flu, suddenly turn their great, big barrels on your very insides.
October is Lupus Awareness Month, and when Jules put out a general call for contributions earlier this year, I volunteered. And so I created a little file in my Evernote: "Lupus Song." I read through the Lupus Foundation website, took a look at what others had previously contributed, and poured over Jules' personal account, picking a few phrases that resonated with me.

The project sat for a while. I knew I needed to do it by October and I knew what I needed to be writing about, but I had nothing.


So I gave up. I let it go. My creativity is like a cat: it really likes to play, but only when it's ready. So, you leave a few treats out and keep the laser pointer ready and you wait. My form of waiting was to get back to craft, to guitar basics. Lo and behold if a guitar methods activity did not make stop and go "Huh. That's pretty." The riff was in 6/8 time, a simple melody with alternating low note trikes on the C-chord. But, couple that with a chord progression from a previous exercise (D - A - F# - Bm) and voilà! Instant song! Four chords, even! "I might not even have to write a new chord progression for the chorus!" I said to myself, smugly.

Yeah, right. I kept flubbing the change from Bm back to D. My fingers wanted to go to the C chord; and this was enormously frustrating because if I couldn't play the basic riff in my sleep, a lyrical melody would not come. It took me a while to figure out that the shift from Bm to C (major) actually sounded pretty cool. And if I just applied the same pattern, I already had a whole new direction for the song. Gadzooks! Eight chords! A shift in key signature! This was already far more complex than the vast majority of my tunes. 

And so it was time to begin crafting some lyrics. I had this long, lilting phrase on the guitar, slow and pretty, in 6/8 time and so I wrote a long lyrical vocal phrase for it:
Bad news: a specter is haunting these glossy glee pages; bad news
Bad new: the phantom is you and none of your wrinkles; bad news
You'll note the heavy use of repetition. I generally like repetition and symmetry, and these phrases had lots of room. As I crafted three verses worth of lyrics and a story emerged, which remains intact in the final version, a hopeful journey from darkness into light. 

It's important to note at this point that while I call her "Echo" for the sake of convenience, this song still had no title beyond "Lupus Song." And maybe because she was still a unnamed Morphean thing, she started to slip about. I crafted a scratch percussion track, thinking of something Cohenesque, but the 6/8 riff and melody it required (88 bpm) made the tune something like 6 minutes long. I knew that I didn't have 6 minutes' worth of musical and melodic ideas.

Solution: fiddle. Instead of a finger-picked 6/8 plod, I found that a thumb-struck 4/4 strum, similar to what you hear in the final version, worked. Well, sort of. First, the new strumming pattern was so monotonous that it needed a break. Beyond Echo's story, the chorus you hear in the final version may be the single-most long-lived element of the song. Secondly, the new strumming pattern sped things up to the point that I had to spread the lyric phrase out over twice as much time. Result: a 5:30 tune at 132 bpm. For a radical change whose goal was to shorten and focus the song, this was a mixed success.

Solution: cut. Mercilessly. I slashed the 32-bar verses to 16, which meant tearing out all of my prized repetition and symmetry. It meant getting to the real heart of things. It meant, in the end, making the song better, forcing me to focus on the most important parts. Actually, I made something of a compromise with the tune, keeping a quarter of my verse repetition.

Trimmed, sleek and drum-tight, the composing was over and it was time to record this difficult child. For me, recording rarely changes things radically in a song; because I have to build and/or perform each section by myself individually, recording is the usually the most rigid part of my songwriting. Changes occur: slight variations in melody as I find something sounds better after playing it the Nth time, or finally discovering a hook. But these are rare and minor.

With Echo, I should have known better. Building the drum part wasn't too hard; I had been focusing on that aspect of my songwriting for most of my album, and after a long talk with a good friend, I had some interesting ideas to try out. They worked beautifully and, unlike most of my "first take is good enough" work for Song Fight, I had the time to really engineer the percussion, mixing and mastering each "drum" as a separate track and exporting that to rest of my mix-down. It sounds a hundred times better than what I've done in the past. So, on with the show!

Yeah, right. Obstacle the first: I wanted a piano part. I am not a pianist; I have a nice little MIDI VSTi and a basic grasp of music theory and composition. It took forever to find a good arrangement. I knew I wanted something tonally different, but it still had to blend with the acoustic guitar, both the soft rumble in the verse and the more kick-out chorus. Obstacle the second, the new melody, the result of so much hemming and hawing and hacking on my part, was a fickle little thing. So, the bones of the song, the acoustic guitar part were a difficult part to nail down - until I stretched out the first 8 bars to half-speed; so, 2 bars of D, 2 bars of A, etc.

And then the chorus. "This should hit pretty hard," I thought, "It should really step up the dynamics." So I chucked on a little over-driven guitar, slightly clean, hard panned to the left. It wasn't enough; I piled on more over-drive: panned right, messed up a bit more - and crank that volume knob while your at it. 

What I ended up with was a terrible mess with a dozen parts competing violently and awkwardly with each other. Solution: cut mercilessly. The opening bars were too loud; I cut the gain on the vox and dealt away with a whole track of guitar. The piano wasn't coming through in the last half of the verse; I turned down the  gain on the over-drive vox and brought out the EQ scalpel. The chorus was a terrible muddle; I cut the acoustics gain by half and literally halved the piano part, letting it punch only on the end of each phrase.

"Well, hell," I finally said to myself, as the over-driven guitars poured through my headphones, "I've made a rock song." Echo had finally found her voice and spoke to me with a feral feline's spit and hiss. And from there on out we understood each other. The lead part was no clean BB King spank, it was as snarly, loud, and gritty a tone as I could muster. The third verse cool-down wasn't a sweet acoustic-guitar walk, it became an electric growl.

Omega Point
This entire process probably took more than three weeks. As a frequent participant in songwriting competitions where you're always on a deadline, this was a new experience to me. And Echo has taught me a few things:
  1. I really understand my own creative process. Everyone's is different, so listen to yours, poke at it (gently, they're all wild, you know) and ask it questions. Some people have to go get theirs with a club; other's have to coax it out with sweets. Figure yours out.
  2. Sometimes, even at the most inopportune moment, you have to go with the flow. It wasn't so much that Echo fought me, it's just that she kept slipping off in new directions. And I had to let her. Some of them were dead-ends (there was almost a horn part), but others were terrific ideas that would never had happened if I had been impatient.
  3. Flow notwithstanding, sometimes you have to declare enough is enough. Vocals are not my strongest suit, and so they are the part of Echo that I am the least proud. I could have held the tune back, kept fiddling and honing, letting it explore new avenues forever. But I put my foot down; I wiped the sweat from my brow and when « ça suffira. » And so off it went.

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