Saturday, May 12, 2012

Occupy My Heart: "it was a pleasure to burn" production diary

"Occupy My Heart" was written for a November 2011 Song Fight! She's evolved significantly since her inception and, for me, has become as a study in songwriting concision and making choices that serve the song and not an arbitrary set of goals.

Late October/early November last year was was a high-tide moment for the Occupy Movement. In typical Song Fight! snark, the Fightmasters gave us the chance to be topical, personal or both. The latest version is significantly different from my original.

there ain't no permits needed
no one's wearin' riot gear
i don't have a sign to wave
i just want you here
but i'll take your red tent cities
i'll take your 99
i'll take your white-hot anger
i just want your hand in mine

and it's funny cuz you're next to me
but we're a long time apart
come on over, the space is free
why don't you occupy my heart

the world is going down (in flames!)
and i spend my nights alone (drinkin' whislkey!)
there may be a body there
but you are long, long gone
come back for the revolution
come back and sing along
come back for the retribution
come back - i was wrong

and it's funny cuz you're next to me
but we're a long time apart
come on over, the space is free
why don't you occupy my heart

I was always satisfied with the concept behind this tune, which allowed me to both be topical and craft a personalized twist on the politics of the moment. The simple but fun guitar riff forms a great foundation, and I get the chance to break out my slide guitar obsession again. However, at the time, I was seeking to challenge myself as a songwriter and singer, so the Song Fight! submission had several elements that I've removed or rearranged. In the end, I decided they were present because I wanted something that seemed sophisticated and unconventional; they didn't serve the song best.

There are two major structural changes. The first draft had a bridge:
i've been drinkin' these long nights
drinkin' whiskey all alone
drinkin' down to the bottom of my soul
i don't know what's got you so riled
but i know it' was wrong of me to say
"wait a while"
But the melody isn't all that different from the verse, and it basically says the same thing as the second verse but with less poetry. I ditched the singing for a break-down section that let me do some minimalist guitar noodling. Also, while the basic guitar vamp is pretty nifty, the best part of this song is the chorus. So, why not lead with that, giving me a chance to highlight that slide riff? Besides, it starts the song on an upbeat note instead of a typical low-key intro section.

Overall, the first draft is busier and (overly) energetic. The slide guitar has an overblown delay effect that chews up real-estate, and there's my favorite organ tone again, adding a nifty back-beat emphasis to the chorus. The vocals are hotter, more desperate and simply more fragile.

Still, those harmonies with the background vox are pretty cool. Those stayed, but for the remix, I went in with the mantra that less is more. I pulled back the desperation of the vocal performance for a more resigned feeling that played to my strengths rather than challenge them with few dividends. I removed the organ entirely; it worked, but not completely, and I have plenty of other tunes that feature it in more interesting ways. It's replaced with a MIDI harmonica bit that feels more appropriate to the country-blues genre I'm evoking.

What remains after the gutting and transformation of the original tune is something a lot less ambitious, but more direct and engaging. I was able to nail the conflicted melancholy of the protagonist more effectively, and I'm rather proud of the lead guitar parts since my proficiency with such things is rather limited.

With these first three entries, there's been a distinct laid-back country vibe. It's the running theme for it was a pleasure to burn, but I don't want to fall into that trap where each song on an album sounds too similar. Next week, I'll shake things up with a few up-tempo offerings from this year's FAWM.

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