Turning Collaborative Poem Into Song (but it ain’t no Shanty)

DS106Poem

The other day, I wrote about a collaborative poem that folks in #ds106, and #clmooc, and beyond had contributed to. With 106 lines in its construction, the poem has now become a place of possible remix. I had joked at one point at trying to write a Sea Shanty with some of the words (ie, TikTok trend) and yesterday morning, after watching a bunch of YouTube videos of the recent Shanty trend, I was pretty confident that I could remix something. Too confident. I tried to work out a song on my guitar and realized my Sea Shanty was becoming more folk-punk with a hint of Dylan.

Ah well. I abandoned that ship and sailed forward into this:

Here are my process notes for the writing and recording:

I dove into the 106 lines of poem and began to find and make couplets to the rhythm I had started on my guitar. Sometimes, I could use the phrasing outright. Other times, I had to do a little twisting and editing to make the words fit. If a line didn’t seem right, I moved on to the next.

I quickly realized again just how much interesting phrasing was going on in the collaboration, as people jumped into the original poem to add lines. I felt bad that I could not use something from every line but that was not going to happen or else it would be a 30 minute song. In the end, I had eight full stanzas of four lines of mostly rhymed couplets.

I realized a chorus and maybe a little musical bridge was needed to break up the song and to give it a hook. I tried a bunch of possibilities and ended up on a Believe/See theme (after abandoning a Breathe/See theme). The couplet lines in the chorus are mine, as they capture what the poem is all about, about remembering and connecting. The short musical interlude is a way to put space between the verse and the chorus.

You can read all the lyrics here.

For the music, I had first thought just to do a raw recording and be done with it. Guitar and voice. But then I had this bass line in my mind and I realized a simple drum pattern would propel it along, so I jumped into Garageband to lay down some tracks. From there, I moved the files to my computer, and recorded the guitar part.

The vocals, always my weakest point, came last and I nearly passed out, trying to fit all the words into the phrasing. At some points, you can hear me, gasping for breath on the phrasing. (or I hear me, anyway).  I gave it a real Dylan reading/singing feel. You may notice that the first section has two verses, and then the next two sections, three verses, before landing on the last section, with one verse. It makes the center of the song feel longer than I’d like but when I had it another way, it all felt too long. Combining verses condensed the song.

I tweaked some of the audio settings here and there, and added an underlying vocal track to the chorus to give it more life and played an organ keyboard down low in the mix, but mostly, the song was recorded straightforward. I think it’s OK.

Peace (listening in),
Kevin

Song: Hope Remains

The very morning after the 2016 election, I wrote this song to process my thinking  — Hope Remains — and as a way to to remind myself that better days would still be ahead. In 2018, I recorded it as a live video. Today, with the change I hoped for now here on Inauguration Day, I share it again, with lyrics.

Hope Remains

I’m doing fine, I swear
I’m just a little bit quiet out here
And I admit, I’m confused
I’m holding on tight to me and you
I can feel the winds of change
yet hope remains

Remember all the things we said
how we’d pick up the pieces and move ahead
and now that times are tough
let’s hope that our love is big enough
I can feel the winds of change
and hope remains

We feel lost
Turned around
I see how you’re reaching out
And I won’t let you down
We’ll raise our voice
Let it carry the sound
Out here in the darkness
I won’t let you down

We’ll find our way from here
The world we built wasn’t built on fear
I know the words won’t ease the pain
But we’re holding on tight – and try again
I can feel the winds of change
and hope remains

Peace (to the a new start in a difficult world),
Kevin

Music: We Won’t Be Missing You

I wrote and recorded this song – We Won’t Be Missing You — over the summer, as part of a larger Pandemic song collection called Notes from a Quiet Corner (listen over at Bandcamp, if you want).

I wrote it after watching Trump tell lies after lies about Covid when he was still trying to lead the daily briefings, rambling on about the spread of the virus, about the impact on people’s lives, and how he would then pivot the conversation to its impact on himself and his own businesses.

It wasn’t pretty. It still isn’t.

Now that the foot has nearly kicked him out the door, I figured I would share this song again.

Here are the lyrics, if curious:

We Won’t Be Missing You

I hear a whole of talking but I don’t see a change out here
You might be on the screen but we don’t have to hear
I see your mouth still moving and reality disappears
If you listen to the whispers – the whispers are everywhere

We don’t surely know
where this is gonna go
When you’re gone
We ain’t gonna shed a tear

I know you got a lot of money and you think that makes you cool
then you turn your back and you act so frickin’ cruel
If I had to find a reason – I might resort to fool
But all those people listen so what are we gonna do?

We don’t surely know
where this is gonna go
when you’re gone
we won’t be missing you

I got my own news station playing inside my head
it’s got static and its tragic, to hear what it is you said
the world’s gone crazy and all you wanna know instead
is if the hotel’s standing and the money flowing again

We don’t comprehend
how this is gonna end
when you’re gone
we won’t be missing you
(bandcamp link)

Peace (shouting it),
Kevin

Music Monday: Whispers in the Flames

The last few days, I’ve been working on finishing up a song that has a little more rhythmic kick than the last few songs I have worked on. I wanted a bit of rock and roll in the mix. This one rocks more in headphones, I think, as there are some instrumental nuances to the sound.

The lyrics are reworked from a song draft I had done previously, and the music was a mix of live instruments and Garageband loops. I think the Hammond organ parts really give the song some personality.

Peace (in whispers),
Kevin

MusicMaking: SnowWalking (In Seven Movements)

I came back home the other day, after walking our dog in the woods after a snow storm, and noticed the different kinds of walking I had done — short choppy steps, long strides, happy walking, long breaths, etc. And then I decided to try to capture those rhythms of stepping into an instrumental beat song. This is it.

It’s best heard with earphones, I suggest, as the layers of sound are mixed in and experienced best with it close to your head. The tin cans of computer speakers won’t do it justice (in my opinion).

You can also listen here as a regular music file

Peace (listening in),
Kevin

My Holiday Song: ‘A Gift of Peace’ to you

A few years ago, my good friend, John, and I went into a local recording studio to put down tracks for a song we had written (years before that) as a holiday gift of song. Each year, I try to share it out and hope our Gift of Peace brightens your day. The video was shot and produced by my eldest son.

While it was written as a Christmas song, I hope its message of passing the peace to one another might resonate whatever your beliefs might be, religious or not.

The song is on all streaming sites, and I got a kick the other day of hearing it again on Pandora. If you search A Gift of Peace (for Christmas) by the Lullabyes, you should be able to find it.

Gift of Peace on Pandora

Peace (in the world),
Kevin

Book Review: How To Write One Song

Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy is always an interesting read, or listen. In his new book – How To Write One Song — Tweedy turns teacher and cheerleader, urging people to find ways to be creative. Or, as the title suggests, to try to write a song.

Tweedy is certainly a talented songwriter, as far as I am concerned, and I liked the folksy voice he inhabits here, in this book, as he tries to explain the magic of being creative — of losing yourself in the moment of making art out of ideas and inspiration — and then moves into his own routines and practices around writing songs.

I’ve read enough books about writing in general (and the teaching of writing, which is what I do with sixth graders) to know there is nothing revolutionary here in terms of his advice and suggestions, but I appreciated the way he pulls it together, and his explanations of how to stitch ideas to music (even if you only know an elementary level of any instrument) to recording demos (he advocates finding a simple record/play app) was helpful.

For me, a songwriter myself, the best parts of the book were when Tweedy tries to find a way to explain what happens when he loses himself in the making of a song, and how three hours or so can go by, and he comes up for air, invigorated and inspired by a few verses set to simple strumming of his guitar.

Tweedy reminds us that creating art is something unexplainable at times. But when it comes together, it can be something beautiful, in both its outward expression (how it looks, how it sounds, etc.) and the inwards satisfaction of the one who has created it.

I kept nodding my head at these parts, appreciative of his way of grappling with artistic expression in ways that just cannot be fully explained in words or writing. In that, is the magic, and why I (and maybe you) keep coming back to the guitar or piano or whatever to make music.

Nothing energizes me or enlightens me or gives me comfort like when I am writing a new song that has some kernel of truth and possible beauty to it (even if that beauty is only in the eyes and ears of the beholder).

Tweedy also put out a new album  – Love is King — that he references in the book and Rolling Stone Magazine has a good interview with Tweedy.

Peace (strumming it),
Kevin

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