Monday, February 13, 2012

SpinTunes: Hey, Joe

The challenge for the second round of SpinTunes 4 was pretty straight-foward: write a Valentines' Day card for someone other than your significant other. That suited me just fine: I actually find it hard to write about my wife (though I have done so on a few occasions), and this challenge allowed me some welcome creative freedom with just the right amount of boundaries to get the juices flowing. I read the challenge first thing last Monday morning with a big cup of coffee in my hand and it was a "Eureka!" moment. (Well, in my early morning, pre-coffee haze more like: "Hmmmm... *look at coffee cup* Yup.")

Two things off the bat:

  1. Please listen to the whole album. There is some fantastic stuff here. Brand new, and totally free. (I'm number 8 in the queue).
  2. Please go vote for your favorites (and mine, too!) over on the SpinTunes blog. The popular vote counts like a judge, so your voice is important.

Right, on with the show. For lyrics, beyond the condition of writing an ode (of sorts) that was not for my wife, I set myself the additional condition of not writing about a tryst, because that seemed facile. Coffee is something that I could pour myself into, so I set a third condition: don't mention the word "coffee." I like things that are discrete about their subject matter; and it's a good exercise in craft to make a clear description without naming a thing overtly.

It's often part of my creative process to have a touchstone for inspiration and reference. This tune has several. My primary reference for lyrics was an essay called "The Pleasures and Pains of Coffee," by the 19th-century realist Honoré de Balzac. This dude knew his stuff. (Side note as a French professor: the English translation is annoyingly edited, cobbled together from a much longer piece that's just as interesting, called the Traité des excitants modernes.) But I digress. Yes, I stole the "coffee roasts my insides" from Balzac.

wake [D] up, get out of bed
[Am] have a cup and [C] tilt your head
[G] [F]
take a [Am] sip, another one
 [C] sugar, cream: your [D] motor runs

hey [D] joe, i am [Am] awake now
you have [C] my vow, [G] thank you friend
hey joe, what is this feeling
my fingers tingling
i think i love you

after lunch, another cup
caffeine always help me sup
take it black with a smoke
gotta to keep my fires stoked

hey joe, you are my bright star
you warm my heart every day
hey joe, you roast my insides
you make my eyes bright
i think i love you

[G] i feel i am floating
[F#] i feel i am flying
[Em] i feel i am letting go
in the air soaring
upon the waves crashing
oh will you help me joe

hey joe, don't want no mocha
no chai latte, just grind it fine
hey joe, this fine aroma
it transports me,
you're all mine

Musically, I had the second half of the Beatles' "A Day in the Life" in my head for some reason. I purposefully didn't listen to the song before writing and recording, relying upon the haze of my memory to give me enough distance. I'm no John Lennon, to be sure, but I'm quite happy with the way things turned out.
I have to admit, dealing with the piano part was a pain. Firstly, I don't have a keyboard; that's all programmed with the REAPER MIDI interface. Secondly, for a long time, I had the parts reversed: the chorus was the verse. While that matched my memory of the verse from "A Day in the Life" a little better, it didn't work with the melody I had crafted. Once I swapped the parts, things went better, and when I changed the verse piano to a combo organ and synthesizer, it went much better. I'm really proud of the change in chord progression in the verse; I'm packing a lot of variation into not much space (well, for me) and that keeps it interesting.

I took a note from the Beatles as well for mixing, making the unconventional George Martin choice of hard-panning the drums and bass to one side and the guitars to the other (left and write, respectively.) I fiddled a little with the organ and piano parts, because that's where they sounded best, and chucked everything out for the bridge, using dynamic panning to introduction a sense of auditory delirium. It's a non-standard mixing choice, and so that can throw people off, but I think it works well for this tune, giving the whole thing space to breath. You really can pick out each part, which is something that I love about much of the Beatles' stuff.

Let's talk structure. I took a bit of inspiration from the previous round and went for a series of tempo changes: 132 bpm for the verse, 144 for the chorus, and 80 for the bridge. Still, there's the illusion of more variation with the constant breaks in the verse. I really wanted that part to have the Beatlesque vocal "Aaaaaah - aaaaaah," but I cannot sing like that, much less craft a similar harmony. So, I let the guitars do it for me. (Post-submission, I had the idea that the break leading into the chorus should go up from G to A instead of down to F. Ah well, noted for the remix.)

The bridge comes from an early version of the song that was inspired by French comic songwriters Oldelaf and Monsieur D., "Un p'tit café?"
I originally had the narrator going crazy, coming home and murdering his family as a proof of his devotion to Joe. It was a too dark for a light-hearted love song. And having a constant tempo increase would have been too much a direct rip of Oldelaf's and Monsieur D's genius.

One thing that I was not referencing - for some reason - was the 50's / 60's rock standard "Hey Joe," perhaps most famously covered by Jimi Hendrix. I only ran across this when Googling album art for my Bandcamp page. [/shameless plug]

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