My Songwriting is a Mess of Ideas

The Mess of Songwriting
My band, Duke Rushmore, is making an effort to write more of our own material. Back in the day, I used to write songs all the time for myself and for my bands, but I sort of drifted away a bit. Now, I back a bit on my guitar, tinkering around. Both our lead singer and drummer write lyrics, with no music, so I have asked them to send me their words, hoping maybe I can find a way to bring them to life.

This past week, I did work on a song with lyrics from our singer, but I don’t think the tune will work with the band. But he was thrilled to have his words put to music, so that was a nice gift that I could give to him.

Looking at the lyric sheet, I realized: what a mess I make of it when I work on a song. Literally. I scratch out words, rewrite phrases, put lines through whole lines and then remove the lines, draw arrows. The chicken-scratch-lyric sheet is like a roadmap of ideas that can be interesting to examine. Or maybe interesting for the singer, to figure out what I was doing with his words that he graciously and courageously sent my way.

You see, this kind of collaboration requires me to block out the world for a stretch and remake the writing of someone else, which can be both exciting and unsettling. It’s exciting because you are bouncing off the words of someone else. It’s unsettling because there is a lot of responsibility that comes with this kind of endeavor. Most of all, I did not want to lose the meaning of his song, even if the words were moved, deleted, changed, altered. The story had to remain true. I think I did that for him but it weighed heavily on me as I sat there with my guitar, wondering where to even begin as I looked over his words and thought about what he was trying to say.

Yeah, it was a mess but it came out OK in the end.

Here is a demo of the song. It’s rough and the recording didn’t come out so great because I was quickly working to get it down.

Peace (in the collaboration),
Kevin

 

Technology Boxed Me In

I’ve written about this a few times here and there, and to be honest, I am having trouble finding the right way to explain what I mean. So, bear with me here. I love using technology for creative projects. I think the digital tools that I find and play with have pushed my writing and creating in new directions. But, every now and then, I run into a wall and realize: as much as technology helps me to push boundaries, it is also limiting what I am doing. Even as I think technology is opening doors, it is also closing them. Partly this is due to the limitations of the technology I happen to be using. Partly it is my own inability to push around those limitations or abandon a project midstream when it isn’t working for me.

Let me give you an example.

I play saxophone in a rock and roll band — Duke Rushmore — and I am one of the songwriters. We’re just now moving more into original material, which I am happy about, and I have been sharing some songs with the band, and thinking of how to get back into songwriting with more energy than I have in the past few years. (I sort of took a step back). The other day, on the way home from the grocery story, a melody line and the first two lines of a song came into my head. I spent the entire car trip, working mentally on the song, “hearing” it as a soul/pop groove with a chorus all ready to go. I came home, passed the bags of food to my wife, and ran upstairs.

Unfortunately, my guitar was out of tune and a string had snapped, so I booted up a music loop program that I like to use, and began the task of “writing” the song on the computer. What happened was this: the song completely changed as a result of using the loops, and when I was done and could take a breath, I realized that not only was the song not right for the band, I had also completely lost the thread of the original groove as a result using the prefab loops. The technology had reshaped my song, and the original idea had not only been supplanted, but it disappeared completely. And oddly enough, I only realized this when I was almost done with the writing.

It was frustrating, to say the least, and I blame myself, not the technology. But the technology had a role, right? It brought to my mind the thinking of Kevin Kelly in his book, What Technology Wants, and how technology seems to be shaping our thinking more than we are shaping our technology. My songwriting experience here is a clear example for me. It’s not the first time I have come out of a project and thought, my vision was not realized — either because of the limitations of the technology or my inability to wrest control of the technology to meet my own creative needs.

I’m not sure if that makes sense or not, but it is something I struggle with. The songwriting process that I described above is just one example, although it is very concrete to me. The song that I ended up with was very different from the song I wanted to write (and heard in my head), and that is because I allowed the technology to shape the process instead of my ideas.

Peace (in the thinking),
Kevin

PS — I am still thinking about what to do with the song, but here it is:

 

What I did: I Wrote Poetry

We had one of those very odd weather days yesterday, when snow closed down my school (because of the elevation and bus routes) but not my sons’ schools. My wife was in DC, lobbying for the National Writing Project as part of the effort to restore federal funding. So, it was me and our dog for a few hours. I did chores and in-between, I wrote.

I started out with the Global Poem Project, adding a few lines to a collaborative writing project. (See more about it in my post from yesterday.)

Then, I ventured out onto Bud Hunt’s site, where he is posting an image each day and asking us to write poems inspired by the pictures. Yesterday, the prompt was about what keeps you up at night. (by the way, come join us at Bud’s site.)

Confusion
begets dreams
begets hours of wakefulness
of missed opportunities which
begets regrets
which in turn
begets confusion.

Then, I saw that one of my NWP friends, April, had written a haiku at her blog site. I was reading it — it’s about a blind date — when I realized that a good comment might be a haiku, too. So I wrote one from the other side of the story of her haiku.

nervous energy –
inside, he sees the mirror;
and combs back his hair.

I noticed another NWP friend, Andrea, had a poem, too. (She is part of a #poemaday twitter feed). Her poem was about kids and clothing and the metaphor of growing up and growing out of things. Again, I was struck by her poem and found myself writing a haiku response.

Bags of your clothing
sit ready for donation;
parting is sorrow

And then, yet another NWP friend, Joel (starting to see a connection in my network of teacher-writers?) had a great poem about April Fools and the weather, which was on my mind, too, as I looked out our window to the trees dripping with snow. He referenced the groundhog in his poem, so I thought a way to comment w0uld be a poem from the groundhog’s viewpoint.

A Groundhog’s Response

Just because I came up
doesn’t mean
I know what
I’m doing;
Sometimes, I am just
coming up for air
and sunshine.
You try living down in a hole
sometime
and see how you like it
and add to the cramped quarters
the pressure of expectations.
It’s not the shadow that scares me;
it’s you people.

Finally, I had my guitar out (dog at my feet) and was trying to work on a new song. This is what came out. I don’t necessarily feel it will go anywhere beyond this demo, but songwriting is poetry, right? I have been trying to write something about Japan — something true. But I have been failing miserably for days on it, to be honest. I can’t quite get the right song or emotion. So, this started out as a song about Japan, but veered sharply away at some point.

Lost and Found
(listen)

When the shadows are falling
and the voices are calling
and the world is storm
brewing at sea

Will you hold me together?
Will you offer me shelter?
Will you keep me forever
if that’s what I need?

‘Cause I feel the Earth tearing apart
if you reach out your hand — I’ll give you my heart
I feel I’ve been lost
’til you found me

Well, we all have this fire
this burning desire
to shed off the past
as history

But somehow it finds us
it’s never behind us
I’m no longer the man
I used to be

I refuse to allow the pain to creep in
I’m shouting out loud — please let me in
I feel I’ve been lost
’til you found me

Peace (in the writing),
Kevin

New Song: Tangled in the Wires

I’m working on a new song that is somewhat inspired by listening to Steve Earle. This one probably is not right for my band, which is more of a rock and roll/dance venture, but I still like playing this. I began writing it with another “story” in my head — that of a relationship in which one person is getting more critical of the other (not inspired by real life!) — and I followed the words into another story altogether — that of a long-distance relationship slowly blooming with uncertainty (again, not inspired by real life! I am happily married.)

The phrase of “tangled in the wires” kept coming up in my head as this metaphor of the situation, and so I worked that into the chorus. But the line that I like best is “I’m the static — You’re the neon sign,” which goes to the heart of these two characters, and what might have drawn them together (their differences) and what may be slowly driving them apart (the same differences).

Tangled in the Wires
(Listen to the song)

I’m always prone to question
wayward thoughts and best intentions
If you could read my face, you’d read my mind

All this distance here between us
We do connect but have you seen us?
I’m the static — you’re a neon sign

They say it’s love — well, I don’t know about that
We’ve been lost, tangled in the wires
It may be enough — well, I don’t know about that
We’re hanging on, tangled in the wires

You say you want to “friend” me
as if you really comprehend me
You push my buttons, you make me want to smile

You way you write, you dance around
I feel your words, they tumble down
If you could read my face, you’d read my mind

They say it’s love – well, I don’t know about that
We’ve been lost, tangled in the wires
It may be enough — well, I don’t know about that
We’re hanging on, tangled in the wires
We’re hanging on, tangled in the wires
We’re hanging on, tangled in the wires

Peace (in the song),
Kevin

The Rock and Roll Brainstorm

Maybe the title of this post should be in this list. I was challenged by the drummer in our new rock band to come up with some “name ideas” for what to call ourselves. I demurred at first, and then thought: what the heck, this could be fun.

I’m not sure any of these names will make the cut but it was interesting trying to come up with a moniker for a band that is interesting and conveys a meaning of something cool. Some of the names just came out of thin air. Some were inspired by other bands. A few came from thumbing my way through a recent edition of Wired Magazine, and searching for terms that might be interesting. A few came to my head during my son’s recent school chorus concert (OK, so I was thinking when I should have been listening).

See what you think. I put the list into both Wordle and Tagzedo just to see give the list a little oomph. Which ones do I like best?

  • Boss ‘Nova and the Overtones
  • Distortion Box
  • Ten Minutes ’til Midnight
  • The Key Hackers

You?
band names wordle
band names tags
Peace (in the naming),
Kevin

PS — Meanwhile, I also made this brainstorming idea our writing prompt over at our National Writing Project iAnthology space, and some neat names are emerging there. A few teachers have even brought it into the classroom as a writing prompt.

Recording a Demo Song

I have a new rock and roll band up and running, with three friends from my old group and three new friends on bass, lead guitar and vocals. I am mostly playing saxophone now, and a little rhythm guitar, and maybe some keyboards as we push ourselves farther towards gigging a few times a year.

I was thinking of our new singer the other day (he has a great voice) and I began writing a song for him to sing with the band. I came up with this upbeat song about dancing through the night to the rhythm and blues. I had recorded a simple demo (me, with acoustic guitar) but I didn’t like it.

So yesterday, I dragged out some instruments and used Audacity to record this version, complete with guitar, bass, organ and saxophone (I had to use my alto because my tenor is at my friend’s house, but it came out OK). I did my best with my own vocals. It’s good enough for a demo, but I can’t wait to here our real singer give it a try.

Listen to the Song

Champagne, Whiskey and the Rhythm and Blues Tonight

I’m all fired up and I’m ready to rock
I got my dancing shoes on — (I) ain’t never gonna stop
You can take my hand and lead me off into the night
‘Cause when I change my clothes and you put on your dress
You got me spinning around — my head’s a mess
You can take my hand and lead me off into the night

Somewhere out there we can hear our song
The band’s working hard and we can sing along
Champagne, Whiskey and the Rhythm and Blues Tonight
Champagne, Whiskey and the Rhythm and Blues Tonight.

Don’t look for tomorrow ‘cause it’s too far away
The sunlight’s sleeping ‘til the break of day
You can take my hand and lead me off into the night
I’m gonna hold you close, so I can feel your heart beat
Gonna kick back our heels and knock you off your feet
You can take my hand and lead me off into the night

Somewhere out there a guitar’s on fire
a saxophone wails with desire
Champagne, Whiskey and the Rhythm and Blues Tonight
Champagne, Whiskey and the Rhythm and Blues Tonight.

Baby, we ain’t getting old
‘cause we listen to the radio
Champagne, Whiskey and the Rhythm and Blues Tonight
Champagne, Whiskey and the Rhythm and Blues Tonight
Champagne, Whiskey and the Rhythm and Blues Tonight.

Peace (in the music),
Kevin

Haiti, a year later

It’s been a year since the earthquake ravaged Haiti. And still, so many people there are without homes and living in dangerous conditions. It’s difficult event to fathom. I know a group from our church has been trying to get to Haiti with some relief efforts for the past few months, but weather conditions and political violence have delayed that effort. Which means the people who need help the most are not likely getting it.

Last year, when the earthquake hit and I was hit hard emotionally by the images of the destruction, I wrote and shared this original song at a concert we organized at my school. A year later, the song still seems to touch a nerve with me.

I Fall Apart

Peace (and help to those in need),
Kevin

Playing Rock and Roll w/Friends

The other night, a friend of mine who has played drums in various bands with me over the years turned 50 and threw himself a bash. He invited various musician friends to play at the party, and I dusted off my saxophone to jam the night away.

There’s a moment when three of us are on stage. I am on guitar (along with my friend, John) and the birthday boy, Bob, is in the center. He’s listening to a song that I wrote to honor him (his nickname is Duke Rushmore) as a birthday present.

Here are some clips from the night:

Peace (in the music),
Kevin

Dipping our toes into the Gulf

oil spill question
I started out Day One of the school year with a discussion around what my sixth graders know about the oil spill in the Gulf and what has been happening in the recovery and recapping efforts over the summer months (later that same day, I found out about the explosion of another platform). I shared with one of the interactive maps online that shows the spread of the oil from May to August.

I explained to them that throughout the course of the year, we will be doing inquiry projects and environmental-themed writing that centers around these issues as part of the Voices on the Gulf endeavor. My hope is to touch a wide range of issues as we move forward. I explained this to my principal the other day, and he was very excited about it, wondering how we could use Skype or videoconferencing to connect with other students, particularly those who are involved who live along the Gulf Coast region. I’m going to work on that, I told him.

But first, I asked my homeroom class: What questions do you have about the oil spill? I took their answers and created a Wordle of the responses, which is now posted up at the Voices on the Gulf.

You, and your students, are also invited to join us on this collaborative project. You can read more information about what is required (it all depends on you) and how to get started.

Peace (in the starting),
Kevin

PS — I’ll leave you with a song that I wrote during late August about my feelings around the Gulf’s recovery. I shared it at Voices on the Gulf, but I was on my blogging vacation back then.

Listen to Ocean Dreams