Book Review: Switched On Pop (How Popular Music Works and Why It Matters)

Nate Sloan and Charlie Harding are music nerd friends who host an interesting podcast — Switched on Pop — that became the anchor for this book of the same name. In it, Sloan and Harding dive into pop music to figure out what makes songs and styles tick. In doing so, they brilliantly bring us deeper into tracks and showcase things you might intuit as a listener but not have the vocabulary or expertise to completely understand.

This book — Switched On Pop: How Popular Music Works and Why It Matters —  is fantastic in this regard, and Sloan and Harding make a perfect set of tour guides, being both ecstatic about the songwriting and production moves they uncover as well as pointing out the tropes that have long been hallmarks of pop music culture, whatever the decade.

Starting with an analysis of Carly Rae Jepson’s Call Me Maybe, to Outkast’s use of unusual rhythms in Hey Ya; to the use of voice and timbre by Sia in Chandelier to Justin Timberlake’s use of “text painting” in What Goes Around; to samples as collage by MIA in Paper Planes to a comparison of two song with the same titles — Made in America — the Toby Keith version side by side with the Jay Z/Kanye West/Frank Ocean version … the paths of this book are varied and deep.

They reference Swedish producer Max Martin numerous times — he is the one who has crafted songs over the last decade or more for Brittney Spears, Kelly Clarkson, Taylor Swift and many more — and while the writers note how often Martin seems to fall into tropes, he also is adept at adapting to the changes of production and sound and song types, transforming the way pop music is made and heard. A brilliant essay here shows how Maps by The Yeah Yeah Yeahs was used by Martin to create Since You’ve Been Gone by Kelly Clarkson.

The book ends with a look at one of Paul McCartney’s strangest releases in recent years called Get Enough, which weaves Auto-tune and modern sounds with some old fashioned instruments and McCartney’s ability to craft another “silly love song” for the modern age.

If you are a songwriting (as I am) or love music (as I do), this book is well worth your time. I highly recommend it, if only to give you another way to “hear” the songs that make up the musical landscape of radio (remember that?) and YouTube and culture.

Peace (harmony and melody).
Kevin

12Tone: Writing Lyrics

This video, and all of the 12Tone videos, is great for thinking of how we might imagine the writing of lyrics for songwriting. I have all sorts of techniques, but I am also always looking for other ways to get inspired.

And then there was this one, too

Thanks to Verena for sharing this out as part of another piece of sharing she had done.

Peace (singing it),
Kevin

Process Notes: Turning Poem into Song (About Writing a Poem)

I’ve been trying to write each month with the folks at Open Write via Ethical ELA (it’s pretty inspiring how many people come to write there), and it works by having just five days of writing prompts each month (so, manageable). The email notifications are always welcome, as I always forget it is coming up.

Mostly, I work on my daily poems with the prompts. The other day, the theme of ‘thanks’ came up for the first prompt of November, and I began a poem about the greeting cards you get from stationery stores, and then veered into something different, something more interesting (for me).

The shelves have become
barren of those silly cards,
those throw-away phrases
that always tried so hard
to make us laugh, in aisles
of the grocery store and
boutique shops and kiosks
in the mall, manufactured thanks
spit out by cold machines,
while I’m still one of those few
who settles down in the quiet,
pen in hand, to carve out poems
from the bones of memory,
a crinkled paper-cut of words
tucked into the folds
of your jacket pocket

It was the place where the poem took a turn in the middle with the writer becoming self-aware that I could not shake throughout the day. I found the words becoming lyrics in my mind all day long, small phrases dancing in my mind, and finally, I had time to sit down with my guitar, and I slowly began wrangling the poem into another shape altogether, turning the lines into lyrics of a song.

An interesting and challenging element of this process is that the rhythm and rhyme of the poem didn’t quite work (I’m not sure why I even heard the poem as song verses, given the lines) and so I found myself moving the pieces around, adding words, twisting phrases — all in the service of song.

I was intent on keeping the meaning, though, of a poet — feeling a bit estranged from the world, of thinking they are “one of the few” still scribbling words to paper – still writing, and intent on tucking words into the pockets of another person, hopeful that the poems will be found and recognized, and read. I think I was successful in this thematic connection from song to poem.

Paper Cuts You (Everywhere You Go)

I may be one of the few
to settle down
in the quiet and write you a poem

I wish I knew
how to share the silent
the way memory holds us like bone
the paper cuts you everywhere you go

These four walls
these blue lines
the days turning into night

I can’t recall
what it is we said
I’m tucking words inside your sleepy head
dreaming on this paper bed

And if it rhymes, it’s time
to break it all apart
I’m the poem inside
the pocket of your heart

And if I had the words
then we’d be OK
I’d hold you in the dark before the light

So close the door
pull on the shades
I’m writing you from somewhere yesterday
and tomorrow will be better than today

And if we find it’s time
that we make it from the start
I’m the poem
inside the pocket of your heart

The music was first recorded as a rough demo with only guitar and voice as a way to get it down. I found I liked what it was in that rough format but the song needed a bit more lyrically to bring things around to something hopeful. So I began all over again — adding other instruments — keyboard, piano, bass, guitar, strings. I wanted to keep my voice front and center — the poet, thinking — and the guitar fairly sparse strumming, more like a mandolin (the capo is high up the neck).

In the end, the song is different from the poem — the middle section, with worries that the poet is falling into method as opposed to heart, turns things a bit and the last parts give more hope, with the poet being the poem inside the pocket of the heart — but the pieces are still connected by some invisible string, circling around the central idea of a writing having hope that words can still impact the audience – even an audience of one person.

Peace (sounds like love),
Kevin

Songwriting: Lyrics for a Friend

My friend, John, has long had a vision of producing a country album on his bucket list. John and I play in a rock and roll band but his country project was something he always wanted to do, drawing on Hank Williams and others as inspiration for the sound he was after. So many months ago, he started to write the music and then he asked if I would contribute lyrics, and I readily agreed.

We had worked on some of his songs live, with our bandmates, and then the Pandemic hit and that came to a sudden pause. So John did it all solo at home in what he calls The Demonstration Tapes, and the tracks are, as he explains, published drafts for a possible future studio project.

Here is his song page for Bodie Madison & The Ranchers.

I tried to write the lyrics as character sketches for a general theme that John had in mind, and it was an interesting experience to try to do a whole collection of songs this way. John and I have collaborated before, many times, so this was not a new experience, but I really wanted to give him words that would make his songs work as he wanted.

Listening to what he did, from a distance, I am proud of the stories in running through his songs and happy that music remains a connection point in our friendship.

Peace (listening in),
Kevin

Song Lyric Deconstruction: With You With Me

I shared a new song entitled With You With Me the other day and wanted to use the draft lyric sheet (this is often what my notebook paper look like as I am writing songs — messy, with crossed-out words and phrases, and crammed things all over the place) to annotate what I was thinking as I was writing the song.

I did this annotation in Thinglink (which allows for audio embeds and layered notes) for myself but maybe you will find it interesting, too.

Peace (with you with me),
Kevin

Music of the Pandemic: Sitting On Horizon

I am not sure if this new song — Sitting On Horizon — is part of my Notes from a Quiet Corner project of music written and produced during and about the Pandemic …. Maybe it’s a late add to that mix … the lyrics are inspired by thinking about the days ahead and the unknowns of that waiting …

Sitting on Horizon

Everybody’s waiting
‘cause nobody knows
today’s hesitation
is where tomorrow always goes

We walk around in daydream
sink me like a stone
We’re fingers on the touchscreen
but in the slipstream, there’s no flow

You can take me
when you need me – I’ll go

I’m writing you this letter
from somewhere in the past
I hope you can forgive me
with the shadows fading fast

I’m stuck inside the story
with the place gone mad
It’s not as if you lost me
it’s the world we used to have

you can find me
when you want me -I’ll go
You can call me
when you need me -I’ll go

maybe when we’re older
when time turns slow
we’ll sit on the horizon
and remember what we don’t know

‘Cause everybody’s waiting
but nobody knows
today’s hesitation
is where tomorrow always goes

You can take me
when you need me – I’ll go
you can find me
when you want me -I’ll go
You can call me
when you need me -I’ll go

Peace (in the listening),
Kevin

Music of the Pandemic: We’ve Got Shadows (Bring the Light)

This is likely the final piece of music for this project of mine, which began back in March to create music of this time in the Pandemic. Here, I first did the basics on the guitar and the moved over to the Garageband app to construct the entire music, with a piano-centered feel. The key of the song is a bit out of my limited singing range.

I’ll be pulling all of the songs together soon into a collection.

Peace (singing it),
Kevin

Music of the Pandemic: Words Left Behind (The Wheel Won’t Spin)

I’m nearing the end of my collection of songs written and recorded during this Distancing Time of the Pandemic entitled Notes from a Quiet Corner. This song is just acoustic guitar and voice, with little production, entitled Word Left Behind (The Wheel Won’t Spin). It will be probably the final song on the collection of songs I am curating for release on Bandcamp in the coming days.

Peace (listening),
Kevin