On Songwriting Part 5: Building The Tracks From The Ground Up

(This is the fifth of a series of posts about writing songs. Read the first postsecond post,  third post, and fourth post, if interested)

Note: After spending quite a bit of time working to produce tracks of music for this ons song that I am writing and reflecting on out in the open, I sort of still like the rawness of the early versions where it is just guitar and rough voice. I may yet abandon what emerged and described here in this post, but not yet. I’m going to continue my song quest forward.

In my earlier posts, I shared how I took an idea built of a chord pattern and opening line of a song, worked through drafts of lyrics, developed a verse and chorus, and began to construct a new song out here, in the open, as part of a creative reflective practice. (See the links above if you want to read and listen to what I had been up to from the start)

With the lyrics mostly together, and solidified, with only a line or two still being tweaked now and then as I practice the song — Million Miles Away (From Finding Me —  I decided to try my hand at building and producing an instrumental backing music with technology. Initially, as almost always, I was on my acoustic guitar, with the chords and words and paper. In turning to Garageband, and Soundtrap, as digital music stations, I was hoping to turn the song at a slight angle, with layers of sound.

I began in Garageband, on the app on my iPad, and started with drum loops, and then added piano, and then bass and so on. I added, and removed, other instruments that either didn’t work for my ears, or became too cluttered for the sound of the song that I could hear in my head. Still, I kept some guitar, percussion (in two sections) and organ in there.

Million Miles Cover

Even this screenshot shows how many layers are in there, and the tracks are divided up by song sections — the verse, the chorus and the bridge. Here’s a little snippet from the center of the song, so you can get a listen to how the layers are working together at this point. If you have been following this series, you may hear how different the feel is with this, as opposed to my earlier demos. It’s both intentional, and not, if that makes sense, as the automated loops began to shape the song anew in my ears, through my own choices of instruments (the piano gives an entirely new texture) and patterns.

Using and remixing loops in an app like Garageband is fun, and it’s relatively easy, but it also risks generating a fairly sterile sound, as everything is locked in perfect place with the unforgiving metronome, and this is what continues to nag at me here, even as I think about how to wrangle some imperfections in there. To humanize the looped sound. It is this notion of loop track perfection that had me writing the first thought that began this blog post (above) — a reason that I still might ultimately scrap this whole song construction I am outlining here and begin from scratch all over again on guitar.

But not yet. So …

I moved that mixdown of tracks out of Garageband and into Soundtrap, another music recording platform which has some nice options for live recording, and then layered in my own acoustic guitar, giving it more of the original feel of the song, which the piano tracks, while nice, didn’t capture in my ears. The live guitar, while intentionally not very prominent in the mix, gives the song a little extra of something. I play off the beat at times, filling in the robotic metronomic forward motion of what I built in Garageband.

Take a listen to this snippet.

I’ve since added some vocal backgrounds (ahhs) and a section of power chords for electric guitar for the bridge section but I don’t have that ready yet to share.

My next step will be to record some lead vocals, which I will do as another track in Soundtrap. I may add some more live keyboards (myself, playing, as opposed to loops) at the end, to give the second half of the song more texture. In regards to vocals, I aim to do my best, but in my mind, I keep wondering: Who else could I ask to sing this? Or help me sing this? A backing track might make all the difference in the world.

Peace (continuing on),

Book Review: Mirror Sound

Rock and Roll Book Club | The Current

The very first songs I ever wrote and then recorded were done on a little Tascam Four-Track machine that a friend (Murph) borrowed from another friend (Eric), and we set it up in a basement room in my house. We were teenagers. We used a microphone to record some Casio keyboard drums, and layered other sounds, and added vocals (ack), and the magic of the moment when we had a “mix” of that first song was … amazing.

You can even take a listen (because I try to keep everything). The song is called Follow That Dream. It’s hard for me to listen — the lyrics, the voice, the mix … but you can hear some of what we were trying to do with our production as beginners. What you can’t hear is how excited and focused we were, to be recording songs we had written.

That memory has been lingering in my mind as soon as I began reading Mirror Sound (A Look Into the People and Processes Behind Self-Recorded Music) by Spencer Tweedy, Lawrence Azarrad and Daniel Topete.

In this oversized (and pricey) table book — full of cool photographs of underground and independent musicians across genres and genders — the three men (Tweedy is the son of Jeff Tweedy, of Wilco, but an accomplished drummer and producer in his own right) dig deep into what makes music makers creative, and how a home studio format (either simple or complex) helps these artists to chase their musical threads.

I found every page fascinating, even though I barely know any of the artists in this book. What struck me was the articulation of the creative mind at work, and the desire to make music and follow your paths, for yourself first, and maybe the world, second. These musicians are driven by the need capture the sounds and songs they hear and feel, with little regard for audience (at least, in the making of music part of things).

While some of the discussions went technical (about microphones and set-ups and software), Tweedy always seems to ground the discussion to the creative mind, and to the motivation, and to what it is about recording your ideas on your own that keeps the flame of making songs alive for each of these artists. The first section of the book is mostly photographs, intimate shots of people’s bedroom studio spaces (sometimes, it’s just a bed with a laptop and a guitar), with some enlarged quotes, and the second half is packed with interviews with the people. I enjoyed both parts, and the book itself is a beautiful piece of visual art.

After my friend, Murph, and I recorded those first songs, we were able to “steal time” at night one summer in another friend’s garage where he was slowly setting up recording equipment. We’d tinker in there, and make some tapes, and sit and listen in the car.

Later, I saved up and bought my own Tascam (which, reading here in this book, was a revolutionary product for many musicians, for its affordability and its ability to layer four tracks, or more, if you bounced tracks down) and I spent countless hours in my room, by myself, playing around and experimenting. (Murph, my friend, later went on to build his own recording studio as a business.)

These days, I mostly use an online site  to record and layer tracks, although I have an old Tascam in the basement and a cardboard box full of master tapes somewhere (probably gone bad with time).

And I am still mostly writing for an audience of one — myself, and the hope that I will stumble upon something interesting, and follow that path into a song. When it happens, there’s nothing quite like it. That’s what Mirror Sound captures on the page — that sense of wonder and magic of making music.

Peace (the muse sings),

On Songwriting Part 4: Getting It Down As Demo

(This is the fourth of a series of posts about writing songs. Read the first post, second post and third post, if interested)

I’m always anxious about my singing voice, which is one reason why I always am ready to call anything I record a “demo” and cover myself from criticism (that I can’t sing as well as I should be able to, given how many years I’ve been at this).

So, in that vein, I’m going to be sharing a demo recording of the song that I have been writing, and writing about, in the open. The song is titled Million Miles Away (From Finding Me).

A demo recording is valuable for me as a songwriter because it sets into “tape” (or app) how I am hearing a song still in development. You’d think if you were writing a song, you would remember how it goes when you took a break and came back to the song.

If only.

I can’t say it happens often, particularly if a song is worth keeping and the melody line is running in my head, but there have certainly been more times than I like when I have returned to a lyric sheet and picked up my guitar, and forgotten a little melody line that is the heart of a lyric or a line or the song. If I have not have the foresight to record even a rough version of the song, I have to walk away in frustration. Sometimes, the lost piece will return the next time I try the song.

A demo recording at least preserves some version of the song as it is being written, and almost always, my demos are only guitar and voice, recorded these days on the Voice Memo app on my phone, and then moved over to my computer. In the early days, it might have been a cassette player or four-track machine.

For this new song that I have been writing about recently, this audio demo followed yet more minor revisions to the lyrics (something I wrote about in Posts 2 and 3) as I fine-tune words and phrases a bit. For demos, I just hit “record” and start playing, and as long as I don’t completely flub it up, it’s a keeper.

Listen to the first part of the demo of Million Miles Away (From Finding Me).

The next step for me now is to determine if the song is worth a more focused recording session on my computer, in which I would record the guitar separate from the vocals, and maybe have a drum track, and other instrumentations on it. I’m leaning towards that for this one, if only to complete this reflective writing adventure.

And I still like the song enough to keep pushing forward.

Peace (singing it),

Slice of Life: To Watch The Joy

(This is for the Slice of Life challenge, hosted by Two Writing Teachers. We write on Tuesdays about the small moments in the larger perspective … or is that the larger perspective in the smaller moments? You write, too.)

I let Rayna, our young dog, loose in the yard early in the morning, as wet snowfall was just starting to turn to rain here. The slush would come later as the temperatures shifted.

For now, it was a few inches of pure white packable snow from overnight, the kind you could use to build a snow-fort, or snow-person, or perhaps have the most epic snowball fight of the world.

From the back deck, I smiled and laughed out loud as Rayna ran and ran and ran, in circles and then in zigzags, and then in reverse circles, then around the tree and along the fence, and then leaping over the tipped chair, just being so glorious in the moment of pure joy of what the night could bring that all I could do was join her.

So I did, leaping off the steps and running with her in my heavy boots, dashing alongside her, at her, in shared winter exhilaration, the dog and I, together in a moment of play.

Peace (one moment at a time),

We, Who Find Ourselves Here (A Golden Shovel Poem for MLK Day)

Quote from MLK

We, who find ourselves here, we
who have arrived and do not merely
engage but mean to bring
in a kaleidoscope of voices, a shout to
nonviolent, a cause, the
direct call that requires us to surface
action, to make visible our fears, the
are – this is – we will – no longer be hidden,
not now, not ever again, for in tension
the shift always sleeps the sleep of dreamer, in that
creators and voice of change is
of this moment; while we are already
tension, now let us all become alive

– a Double Golden Shovel, constructed from two lines from Martin Luther King Jr’s Letter From a Birmingham Jail (1963) https://letterfromjail.com/ 

via Open Write prompt https://www.ethicalela.com/multiple-shovels/ 

Peace (let it be here),

Student Invented Words 2022

Invented Words 2022This is a collection of some of the invented words my sixth graders created as part of our Word Origins unit. The words were then donated to our Crazy Collaborative Dictionary project, which has been gathering words from every sixth grader since 2005 and has more than 1,000 words and voices (each student now podcasts their word and definition, too).

Peace (in the book of words),


Book Review: Old Growth

I am pretty sure I heard about this collection from Maria Popova at Brain Pickings (now called The Marginalian and always worth a follow, for sure) and I was intrigued by the mention of essays about trees (particularly when I was engaged in the Write Out project). Old Growth (The Best Writing About Trees from Orion Magazine) is what it says — a beautiful gathering of stories and essays and poems about the forests and trees of our world.

There are personal narratives here, and there are some slightly analytical scientific pieces (but still very accessible), and there are explorations of climate change and there are the discovery of old and wonderful trees in the most inaccessible places.  There are childhood memories, and some pieces are only adjacent in theme to trees (such as a wonderful piece about the writer and his immigrant father pruning trees together). Poems fill the gaps between the prose pieces, too.

I read these pieces slowly, a few each week, in order to savor the substance of the words, and as always, I came away with a deeper appreciation of the trees and foliage of our world, and how much we often taken their natural magic and generosity for granted.

I recommend this collection for anyone who wonders, and maybe worries, about our wood companions on this planet.

Peace (rooted),

On Songwriting Part 3: Annotating Lyrics

(This is the third in a series of posts about writing a song. Read the first post and the second post, if interested)

For years now, I have valued many annotation adventures, either on my own or with friends. With tools like Hypothesis, NowComment, Vialogues and more, it’s never been easier to engage in a text, whether your own or someone else’s. Adding layers of questions, comments or just reflective observations over text and images and other media makes the act of reading more engaging and more interesting, I think.

Here, in this third post about songwriting, I wanted to annotate my own lyrics, for a song I have been writing and blogging about in this series entitled A Million Miles Away (From Finding Me). The lyric sheet is still somewhat under construction — in that, I may still tinker with the phrasings — but for the most part, this is where I am at with the writing of the words of the song and its story of a narrator grappling with some confusion about life.

The annotations – which I did in a text editor — allow me to speak from the margins about intentions, and techniques, and struggles, too, with finding the best way forward with a new song.

Annotated Song Lyrics

I invite you to annotate, too, if you want.  I have created a published Google Doc, which I then popped into Hypothesis.

Peace (singing it),

Slice of Life: The Noise Of Curiosity

(This is for the Slice of Life challenge, hosted by Two Writing Teachers. We write on Tuesdays about the small moments in the larger perspective … or is that the larger perspective in the smaller moments? You write, too.)

My sixth graders were working on creating new words as part of our Word Origins unit (and they will be donating one of their newly invented words into an ongoing, 18-year project to build an online dictionary of invented words, called The Crazy Collaborative Dictionary Project, which has more than 1,000 words from students.)

I rarely expect complete quiet when doing this kind of work (and with this year’s antsy social crew, even less so) but the noise of students sharing out loud their words and definitions was a bit of a cacophony yesterday, one I didn’t tamp down on because the excitement and energy level for being creative was just so high, I had to let it go on.

One of my more reluctant young writers was over the moon with this word invention activity, and as I walked by, he turned to a neighbor friend and declared: “This is the BEST writing assignment we’ve had the entire year. I just LOVE doing this!”

I had to smile. You never know what is going to capture the interest of students, and his excitement, along with others, was infectious in the classroom. Heads nodded in agreement with him and then more voices began to float over the room in a strange orchestra of absurd words.

Peace (capturing it),