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]

Friday, February 3, 2012

FAWM 2012: Week 1

On top of Song Fight! and SpinTunes, I enjoy participating in February Album Writing Month. Each of these organizations / challenges has its own distinct atmosphere. Song Fight! is heavy on the criticism, but frequently in a very constructive way, and there's a lot of buy-in from the entire community to keep things going and continually improve things. SpinTunes, despite being a more focused songwriting competition, has a much more laid-back and convivial feel to the interactions. It's held rather infrequently, but there's a pretty solid core of people who regularly participate as either judges or contestants.
FAWM is something else entirely. If Song Fight! is a perpetual songwriting workshop, and SpinTunes is a Battle of the Bands, FAWM is a giant block party. It reminds me of la Fête de la musique, with everybody playing every which way, what, where and how. The point isn't to craft great songs and hone your skills. It's just to get 14 songs written during the shortest month of the year.

You heard me right: 14 songs in 28 days. It's no small feat. In fact, I've never done it. Last year I think I hit ten, but only had nine recordings. 2010 only got three or four. Nonetheless, it's a great exercise in just getting it done and out there.

So, this the attitude I'm taking this year: write the damn tune, slap it down in demo form and move on to the next. Focus on the bigger pictures - melody, lyric, structure, narrative - instead of the minutiae of a killer drum track or building a third guitar part for the chorus. Attention to the immediate and the particular; I'll come back to the gems and refine them for an album over the some - probably Mayish.

You can visit my FAWM page here. I'll also be posting my demos on Bandcamp, just I can use the handy embedded playlist and you can listen to them right here:

It's the evening of February 2 as I write this, and that means I've completed two brand new songs in as many days. That's pretty damn good, if I do say so myself. (Mind you, I'm going to be busy over the long weekend, so that ratio's going to drop off mighty quick.) But let's savor the moment and talk a little about these tunes.

All Swear About Murder
"All swear about murder" was a typo on a Google+ post many months ago. It was just too good of a phrase to let go, so I plunked it down in Evernote and since then it's been steadily accruing companions from various places, though I must admit that Denise Hudson consistently turns a pretty phrase and I pilfer her disjecta with gusto. I started this with the clear intention never to mention the word murder, and I enjoy the ambiguity of what being "all swear" means. It's a flashback episode, too, starting at the end of the story, with a little plot twist at the end of Act One. When writing the prechorus, I decided the first line was just too good. Rather than jam it into a chorus, I just ditched the idea altogether. Chorus no; bridge, yes. The first line and the entire general grove of the bridge is actually ripped from a cover of a song by The Books that I did for Gift of Music this year, "A Cold Freezin' Night." I liked being able to the turn the original lyric on its head.

For some reason, it's really, really hard for me to write happy songs. I take myself too seriously, and I appreciate how much craft it takes to be funny. Being tragic is easier. So, I was delighted when a rather happy little ditty popped into my head on the way home this afternoon. Maybe it was the sunshine after days of rain. Maybe it was the car exhaust as I putted about on my scooter. Maybe Euterpe just had a caprice. Whatever, I took the idea and ran with it, keeping things as simple as possible: straight I - V - IV verse and few 7ths and 9ths for chorus. The doubled vocal track was a last-minute addition; i rather like it, but it'll take some serious honing in revisions. I waffled a lot about having a bridge. The 3rd verse was originally a bridge, but I didn't have anything more to say, and the melody wasn't all that different anyway. (Actually, the verse chord progression was going to be only for the bridge, but it was too good.)