(This is for Slice of Life, a weekly writing activity hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Come write.)
I am in the midst of reading the autobiography of Elvis Costello. The book is called Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink (a title I like very much) and it packs a literary punch and becomes a musical journey through Elvis Costello’s songwriting and life, with plenty of meandering along the way. Yesterday, during part of a Snow Day from school, I read with interest the section about Costello’s collaborations with Paul McCartney.
There was a time when I was deeply into Costello, and the album, Spike, was a favorite cassette in my car. The album had the radio hit — Veronica — on it, and in the book, Costello connects the song that he and McCartney wrote to his grandmother, suffering from Alzheimer’s in old age.
I had one of those strange moments, realizing that it was that song by Costello — Veronica — that led me to write a song myself long ago with my old band, The Roadbowlers, called Inside Mary’s Pocket, which is about my own great-grandmother in old age. Or rather, the song is sort of built off memories of her. It’s interesting that I only realize that now how influenced I was, as I am reading Costello talking about songwriting, and that I did not realize then what I was doing. (or conveniently forgot.) It’s also interesting how Costello talks openly of reworking Motown chords and lines and grooves for his early albums. I guess we all gather what we can find.
Of course, my song is nothing like his (I could only wish). I recorded this track more than 20 years ago now (dang!) on an old four-track. But I still have the Mp3 of our recording, and so I spent part of yesterday tracking it down in my computer files. Here goes …
The other day, I shared out the song that I wrote and recorded as part of inquiry with #Western106 open storytelling adventure. I thought it might be interesting to share out my notebook page, showing the scribbles as the song took shape. I can read it. Can you? (I did a little filtering in Flickr, to spice up the image).
This is pretty typical for me, crossing out words and using arrows to show where things might go. I’m working out structure with my pencil as I play the guitar and sing.
With all the inquiry of the symbolic meaning of “The West” in our #Western106 open course, I started to wonder if I could write a song that might capture the essence of moving West. I struggled with the writing of a song, though. I am no Western singer, so I began to rethink the narrative. Maybe the narrator is giving up on the East and heading West, and maybe the time period is rather elusive. It could be set today, or yesterday, or years ago.
The phrase “Everything is West of Here” began to settle into my mind, and as I heard the drum track — the loping, clip-clopping rhythm — I found the heart of the song, particularly when the chorus of “I’m moving out West, into the break of day” arrived on my paper in my handwritten scrabble (I guess I wrote it, right?) A variation is “I’m heading out West” in the second verse.
So, this song is about leaving a life behind and moving West to start anew, with all the struggles and hardship both the leaving and renewal will bring. And hope, too. There’s hope on that pony as our rider head up over the mountains.
This is one of the slowest songs I have written. My bandmates often chide me for bringing in songs that I write that fall under the 3 minute mark. “Give it another chorus” or “Where’s the break” or “Write another verse” — this is what they tell me. I don’t often listen to them (they know this). I’m from the Elvis Costello School of Songwriting: Say it under three minutes, or risk boredom or repetition. But I kept myself patient here, letting the horse amble its way forward towards the last verse in this one.
I recorded the song first a scratch demo on the day I wrote it, but it sounded awful. (I’m no singer, so that doesn’t help). I then found time to use Soundtrap (my fav recording platform right now) to re-record, adding the drums, and then using some synth sounds to capture the twangy guitar chords and the slide-guitar-ish lead. I was trying to use some of the tropes of Western songs to give mine the same feel, even if it isn’t really a Western song.
I am fortunate. I have friends who are willing to collaborate with me, and it doesn’t matter where on the globe they live. We connect and create, regardless of time zones and languages. This was once again made clear to me over the past two weeks when I recorded a song that I had written a few years ago, moved it into Soundtrap, and began inviting folks to sing along with me on the chorus.
The song — All Join Hands — is a response to the violence in the world, a pushing back against discord. An acknowledgement that we need to help those in need, and that we all have an obligation to each other. We all need to join hands.
The chorus goes:
All join hands and light the candle
We are one tonight
Peace and love and faith inside us
We are one tonight
So, out went the invites, asking for voices, and in came the amazing array of sounds as Ron, Sarah, Maha A., and Wendy all lent me a gift that we wove together for this version of the song.
Thank you, friends. Thank you for taking the time to sing with me. Thank you for honoring the lyrics with your voices and passions and melodies. Thank you for connecting with me, again, and reminding me of the power of those connections.
And I am excited that my other close friend and regular collaborator, Bonnie Kaplan, may use this song as part of the soundtrack for her annual Digital Storytelling collaborative project, in which she invites folks to send her images on a theme. This year’s theme is “Joy.”
I recently read a great book by New Yorker magazine writer John Seabrook called The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory. It’s a fascinating, if scary, look at how the songs we hear on pop radio are constructed together these days, in an era where producers and engineers are more influential than many of the artists themselves.
The concept brought to light in The Song Machine harkens back to the era of the Brill Building, in which songs would be written and handed out to artists, and sales would primarily benefit the music publishers, not the writers nor the artists. Today, thanks to technology, assembly lines of engineers produce what our ears hear: one person might work only on riffs for verses; another on the chord progressions for choruses; another singing nonsensical sounds for melody; another only doing guitar lead parts.
And few of them know where their “parts” will end up because the engineers and producers “stitch” pieces together from vast computer files … creating songs from parts that were composed and recorded out of context. It’s a quilt of disconnected threads, made ear-pleasing by the mixing and splicing.
I was reminded of the book again this week as I was collaborating a remix of a song in the collaborative Soundtrap site. The backstory is this: a student (and classmates) of an online teaching friend has shared out some songs that they wrote as part of finding an audience and pursuing their interests (in true Connected Learning fashion). They found us, in Digital Writing Month. An earlier song led to various remixes. A second song, the one we worked on last week, was a reflective piece that they recorded and shared on YouTube and as I listened, I hoped we could collaboratively remix, record and then share back to the young songwriters as a “gift.”
And we did. A handful of us took the words and chord progressions (which the student shared) and used Soundtrap to record a version of the song, and then another friend took the audio track and created a visual companion piece. I had told the young writer via Twitter that we would be working on the song, but I never invited them into the process.
This lack of direct invitation, I see now, might have been an inadvertent mistake, perhaps, as another online friend who was part of the music collaboration pointed out in a fantastic post about the uneasiness they were feeling about reworking a piece of art without the original artists involved in the collaboration. This friend wondered if we had not taken away something special from the art itself by remixing it.
… it feels like we asked him for a beautiful new thing to play with, then closed the door that we’d opened. He couldn’t even watch from the window as we had fun creating some magic with his song. We closed the door and let him wait while we had a party.
I don’t quite agree, but the post, as good writing does, forced me to step back and think reflectively about why I didn’t agree with this premise. I could be wrong about this, but here’s why I think our collaborative idea has merit in this digital age of composing and sharing.
Unlike the system of making music in Seabrook’s The Song Factory, we musical collaborators always had a notion of what the song was and what we were doing with it. We were honoring the young songwriters. We weren’t splicing in unknown parts. We were not a factor. Their ideas became the inspiration for what we did. We were creative echoes of their art. We also were in global collaboration mode, layering in tracks together from the United States to the Netherlands and beyond, in an online space, working on the song connected by our networks.
We took their Connected Learning inquiry and we used it for our own Connected Learning experience. That’s a powerful notion, for teachers to be inspired by students.
We were working from the heart, and I always knew the song was theirs, not mine. Not ours. Theirs. It was, and is, and always will be, their song. I still see what we did as a gift of an appreciative audience, but I recognize my friend’s trepidation of determining where the line is between the writer and their audience. I have long argued that in the emerging field of digital writing, the line between writer and audience is thin and getting thinner, and that this shift is a good thing. I know not everyone agrees.
Do you know the story of musician Ryan Adams and his tribute to Taylor Swift? Adams, a songwriter of immense talent, was so struck by the latest album, 1989, by Swift (herself, a songwriter of immense talent) that he recorded and released an entire cover album, song by song, that just blew me away (and led to high critical appraise.)
“It wasn’t like I wanted to change them because they needed changing,” he says. “But I knew that if I sang them from my perspective and in my voice, they would transform. I thought, ‘Let me record 1989 like it was Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska.'”
Same here. It wasn’t that the song needs changing. It is great as it is, with the three of them singing and a single guitar. The song stands by itself. It was us, the audience, that changed, by reinterpreting the song in a gesture of appreciation. I understood the song deeper once I started to play it. Recording it brought me even further into the theme and the words of the song. It was not theft or misuse of ideas, in my opinion. It was learning.
The song is theirs. It always will be theirs. It was never ours. I am happy for that.
Peace (in the think),
PS — Irony Alert: Swift recorded parts of her album with the same folks who are featured by Seabrook in The Song Factory.
PSS — I invited the young songwriter into the Soundtrap file this morning, with this note:
PSS — I also asked if they wanted to reverse-engineer a song of mine, to interpret it as they see fit. I followed their example, doing a simple demo on YouTube.
I love the element of collaboration that digital writing spaces bring to the forefront. Soundtrap is yet another, and one I have used before, but essentially, it is a Garageband-like loop music site that allows for collaborative recording and mixing of songs.
Last week, after the horrible attacks in Paris, I was searching for some way to connect with my many friends in the Digital Writing Month community. Something that would bring us together and signal the need for peace in the world. Something reflective and collaborative. It would be a small gesture, perhaps, but change begins with small gestures. So, I went into my guitar case (it’s my unofficial filing cabinet of lyrics) and pulled out an old song called Peace Garden.
The backstory to this particular song is that I wrote it in the aftermath of a terrible event in our small city, where one high school student stabbed another high school student on the streets of our city after an argument. The victim died. It was horrible and shocking, and when the high school where both attacker and victim were students created a Peace Garden to remember their classmate and to promote peaceful resolution to conflict, a small musical group I was in (The Millenium Bugs) was invited to attend and perform a song or two. I wrote Peace Garden for that event.
This past week, I pulled it out again, dusting it off, and recorded a version in Soundtrap and then, I put out the call to others to join me in adding layers to the song. And they did. They did. I had Ron, and Alan, and Bryan, and Sarah, and Maha, and a few others popped in, too. Some left sounds. Some just listened and tweaked the mix. Some are still adding to it.
I’m happy for the collaboration, and satisfied that this kind of activity brings my own world, at least, a little closer on the theme of peace. May we all plant flowers in the ground and join together in making the world a better place today, tomorrow, forever.
I write songs, and often, I try to make commentary on the world around me (or inside me). When I read about the call for this week’s Make Cycle around systems thinking, I found myself struggling to push past game design from last week, where I also thought about systems design.
What came to mind as I re-read the CLMOOC post from our friends at the San Diego Writing Project was political systems, and how often they are broken. I was reminded of this last night as I was reading through and annotating A Letter to My Son by Ta-Nehisi Coates, as part of a Teachers Teaching Teachers webcast on race set for tomorrow (Wed) night. That piece in Atlantic, which is an excerpt from a new book, is a powerful reminder of how many of us are disenfranchised and removed from the systems of power and politics.
All this brought me back to thinking about songwriting, and I was reminded of when Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans and beyond, and how the storm laid bare the neglect and poverty of so many people, and how the system failed them in the time of greatest need. In the aftermath of Katrina, I wrote a song — Katrina Blows In — that tried to capture what I was seeing. My previous band recorded it, and then that band fell apart, so the song has sort of been left off to the side.
But I still think of it as song about a system that failed, and the underlying theme of people reaching out to help each other when the system does not work.
I spent part of yesterday putting some finishing touches up on a new song I have been writing, in hopes of having the pieces in place to share with my band — Duke Rushmore — at our practice. Some songs, I can hear in the band, even as I am writing them, even though I know my friends will take the song in directions I probably can’t hear. I am comfortable letting the song go in places I did not imagine. Other songs … just never make the leap from my head to the band to the stage.
Last night, I pulled this new song — You Can Hold On if You Want To — out, and we played it for about 30 minutes, tinkering with parts and talking through dynamics and trying to get a feel for it, and it all began to fit together quite nicely. The lead singer was not there, so I took on the vocal duties instead of working on a saxophone part. The best part of the evening was when I was handing out the lyric sheet, and the drummer sat down and said:
I love that we get to be the first ones to see your songs. It’s like opening up a present. I’ve seen a lot of your songs over the years and every time, it’s exciting to wonder what might happen.
If we didn’t play another note or song in practice, I would have been fine after a comment like that. His words show the connection and passion that we have for music and for friendship and for making something special, together. The songs I write (and others write, too) get shaped by the band, so that the song becomes “ours.”
As songwriters, we just bring in the wire frame. (In animation, the wire frame is the basic mock structure that things are built on or around, to make movement)
If I can take a leap here, moving from making music to developing a learning process, I think this is a sort of metaphor for the best of the Making Learning Connected MOOC. Lots of people are bringing ideas to the table, and others in the community/network are transforming those ideas into something new. Or collaborating together.
The ideas are the wire frame, and we are all building and exploring off of it. It’s like a jam session of possibilities. Take a riff and build a song. Make something interesting today.
This is interesting … a conversation criss-crossing Twitter and Blogs about writing and composing … it reminds me of a conversation that Anna Smith and I conducted a few years back after we both participated in Digital Writing Month … but now it is with Yin Wah.
We’re zigzagging here in an interesting way … You are invited to join the conversation, or just peep in … We’re having a public conversation in a very connected way.
Dear Yin Wah,
Thank you for responding to my post with a post of your own. (Oh, by the way, I teach sixth grade, not music. I’d love to be a music teacher, though. My two favorite teachers when I was a kid were my elementary and high school music teachers. I don’t know what happened in middle school but he did not have much of an impact on me, apparentely) I appreciated your writing about your own views on creativity and composition, and the ways you struggle with the various modalities. Me, too. All of us, right?
Powerful emotions move me a lot to write some (crappy) poetry sometimes, mostly prose. I used to want to write a play and stage it. I like singing too, but haven’t sung in a choir since I arrived in America. Theatre moves me powerfully. I paint sometimes, not enough. I doodle, not enough. I take photos, and sometimes, I can say I feel that the image is almost incredibly perfect at conveying a mood.
You also wonder:
One question you didn’t answer is a related one. In daily life, you aren’t and can’t be composing songs to sort out ideas, right? So do you think often in words without music in everyday life? Or words often appear somehow with music? Or does a tune often go on in your head?
What an interestingly-phrased question you have there, Yin Wah: So do you think in words without music in everyday life? Yes, of course, words are always pushing inside my head.
Most days, it is lesson plans and the ways I am going to engage my students in writing. How will I explain this? How will I reach that particular student? Or it is the family stuff — who is going to drive which kid where and how in the world will we get there on time, and who is making dinner …
But when I am in the midst of writing a song, or a poem, what I find is that the rhythm and melody becomes this force — silent to others but loud as heck to me — that I am unable to shake. It’s as of the piece of writing has taken on a life of its own and is forcing its way out. I have to listen to it. Maybe that is the “losing yourself” flow that you wondered about, too. It’s the demands of the writing itself on the writer. In my head, I tinker with words choices, with inflection points, with how this would sound with that and what if we added this here and that over there. I could be talking to you, in this moment, and still writing that song or poem in my head.
I realize, in writing that, that I sound like a crazy man, hearing voices and words. I suspect this is where one modality (the explanation in writing of the process of writing) fails the other (the writing of music or even poetry from the artistic sense), or perhaps it is my own limitations as a writer to fully explain how completely immersive the experience becomes.
Years ago, when I was a journalist for a regional newspaper, I used to take my breaks by walking the neighborhoods around the office, using the rhythm of the walk to write lyrics in my head. I’d sing silently to myself, trying out words and phrases. I’d quicken or slow down my pace. The sidewalks became the drum machine. Over and over and over again, I’d work it out, until the song was embedded in my brain. I would never bring a notebook. Then, I would rush back to the office and quickly try to write it all out (and if you see my handwriting from the other post, you know this is a tricky endeavor … my hand does not keep up with my mind … perhaps this is another post another day ….)
You talk about taking photographs, Yin Wah, and you wrote, “I take photos, and sometimes, I can say I feel that the image is almost incredibly perfect at conveying a mood.”
I wonder, Yin Wah, how do you know when you have reached that point of thinking, this is the image I had in mind? What is your process like when using image to convey meaning? How do lenses and filters and other technology either help or hinder that creative process?
I look forward to your responses. Thank you for taking the time to engage in this discussion with me.
Interesting question … and it feels like the 140 character limit on Twitter just won’t cut it. Or, it will cut it too short to respond with depth. Yin-Wah, if I think of which modality I most like to create in, it has to be songwriting. I do love the other kinds of creating — making comics, writing stories, remixing media. But there’s something about working on a song and music that pulls me in deeper than all of the others that I dabble in.
And I am not ever claiming that I am some professional songwriter, or ever will be, nor do I think that the songs I write will become the soundtrack of the world. It’s a personal thing, this songwriting that I do, although some songs do become used in the band I am in, Duke Rushmore. As I was writing this, I remembered once writing a post (I see, from 2009) entitled Why I Write Songs.
Just this week, I was working on a new song, perhaps for the band, and in a break in the writing (and even in breaks, my brain keeps working on lyrics and rhythm and parts …. when writing songs, I can’t turn it off), I found myself writing a second song. It emerged from an old scrap of a guitar riff, and then the first line came, and I found myself writing very quickly, this song of losing a friend, and in little time at all, I had the structure and the first verse and the chorus.
It’s odd how sometimes the writing flows like that, something coming out of nothing and utterly unexpected, Yin-Wah. So, for a few days, I found myself toggling between two new songs. For me, if I don’t play the song over and over, and over and over, I lose the nuance of it. I have to practice it into the ground (my poor family) to understand what the song is, and what the song is about. My fingers ache, Yin-Wah, from playing guitar so much this week.
But I can look at what I wrote, and hear it as I play it, and know: this is something worth keeping. That might mean just stuffing it away into my guitar case, or it might mean sharing it with my bandmates. I’m still unsure. Last month, I dug out a song that I write five years ago and never shared, and showed it to the band, and now we are working on it. You just never know. Songs are like messages in a bottle. The bobble on the surf of the mind.
Maybe you want to hear the demo of the song I have been writing about?
First, here is my lyric sheet. You probably can’t read much of it, Yin-Wah. I’m a word scratcher. But you can see the general ideas I was developing, the ways I identified rhyming and verses and choruses, and how one word gets changed, erased, changed again, returned to the original, changed again. I revise more with songs than I do with other writing. I admit it: I am terrible reviser. But with songwriting, every word is a rhythm, and every beat is important.
Here is a demo I recorded quickly yesterday. I hear the flubs. You may not.
Thank you for asking me about my writing. This is probably more than you expected, but in answering your Tweet, you gave me an excuse to be reflective. That’s a gift in and of itself.