June 27, 2008 at 12:51 pm (Uncategorized) (, , )

The inevitable question–which comes first? Words/egg or music/chicken? In my case it is almost always the egg. There have been so many occasions when my friends have casually laid out some seemingly profound (or maybe just catchy) turn of phrase while sitting outside at some restaurant in the summer or stuck in traffic somewhere between here and Philly. My friend, Scott, perhaps struck by a nice stretch of weather and sitting amongst relaxed diners enjoying cold drinks outside in West Chester, remarked, “This could be anywhere.”

There’s always a phrase or two that hangs in the air during any good conversation — this one seemed significant for some reason. I was struck by the whole delivery. It was a line that wasn’t part of some larger ongoing conversation; it was delivered at a lull and after what I thought was a studied survey of the surroundings. A moment when you’re able to see the town you’ve lived in for years in some sort of different light. The comment felt good. It wasn’t necessarily a statement on the sameness of small town America, though that’s certainly true of this place. It was something about the word “could” — “This could be anywhere” — that made it attractive to me. It was more about the possibility of the day and the setting. You might imagine it to be somewhere else if that’s what you wanted. Or not. The song I wrote, “Anonymous” ended up being about how sometimes it’s nice or preferable to be anonymous, without any clear definition.

In any case, it’s this kind of phrase that makes me want to write a song. So as many people do, when moments like this come up, I reach for a pen and something to write on–usually my hand, despite the number of fine notebooks I own. (Never on the palm because sweat might remove it–just left of the space between my thumb and forefinger on the back of my left hand works nicely.) I’m sure texting it to yourself is a good option; I just haven’t gotten into that yet. I suppose people carry notebooks with them, but I find that a bit rude and a conversation killer. I like treating it like it’s a reminder to pick up milk (though, I’ve actually never done that; I think I’m a little lactose intolerant). Still I’ll admit, I think it gets on people’s nerves sometimes. People don’t really want their winning lines transcribed by some guy. My friend Dave had a great line (don’t know if it would really work in a song)– delivered after I had written a number of things down on a particular night: [paraphrasing–damn, should have written it down] –“I feel like Ben is playing some game by himself but no one knows the rules or who’s winning.” Some nights it does seem like a scorecard. Often it makes no sense the next morning. Like songs, these phrases sometimes depend on the setting, all the “verses” that came before it, the time of night.

So the other night, out on Marc and Krista’s porch, the conversation turned to insects and whether or not we kill them and under what circumstances. Personally, I have no qualms about squashing the occasional bug–not senselessly mind you, but when they are crawling somewhere they shouldn’t (subjective, I know). I’ve learned not to kill spiders; I understand the role they play in controlling the population of other insects and so I’ve shooed a few through a door or window. After living in NYC and Boston, I have no problems killing cockroaches–mostly because I know if they could, they’d do it to me. While we are without cockroaches here, we do get frequent “baddies” — that’s what Jess calls them. She does not like them to put it mildly. It’s one of the few moments I get to act chivalrous and protect my wife from harm. 

Where is this going? Anyway, Rosalie, also sitting on the deck and no doubt due to her vegetarian beliefs, wants no part of the senseless killing of insects. I admit to a bad habit of prodding vegetarians from time to time with stupid questions like, “Why don’t you have a problem killing lettuce? It’s alive? What, because it doesn’t have eyes? Because it’s not pretty?” She was nice enough to ignore me. But after considering Rosalie’s world — my warped interpretation of it — one where nothing ever dies and everything gets to live — I said, “Your world must be so crowded.”

And so before you knew it I was looking for a pen. Could be a good line in a dialogue type song. Maybe it’s just a title: “Crowded World”. Maybe it’s about how people never clear out all that builds up around them. I’m often attracted to accusatory or confrontational lines. Lots of pop songs try to call people out or indict. 

To Rosalie’s credit, her reply to my “crowded world” line was, “Yes, but it’s happy place.” [Let’s hope Bobby McFerrin wasn’t walking by.]


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June 20, 2008 at 8:45 pm (Uncategorized) (, , )

This site exists to discuss songs. That being said–

I can’t even imagine writing a novel. Think of the years it must take to get the thing off the ground–the enormous work of all that writing and the inevitable burden of getting it published. Or before that, consider just handing the first draft off to your mother or father or your husband or wife or your best friend and waiting for a reaction. And what if it’s terrible and you know it but, man, look at all those pages.

Maybe a poet has it easier. The idea of crumpling up a single page and starting over might actually feel liberating. You’re just capturing a moment after all and there are lots of other moments and other pieces of paper. (Apologies to epic poets.)

Songwriters have the advantage of not having to rely entirely on their words. Music adds weight where there is none and air when there is too much. There are exceptions of course, but if you ever leaf through the pages of the collected “songs” of a songwriter in a bookstore somewhere, they’re pretty limp. [Jewel: tell us more about Alaska.] Frankly, this balance struck between words and music serves to prop both elements up — often to an extent they wouldn’t have reached on their own merit. For instance, there isn’t any argument about how great a song “Bridge Over Troubled Water” is. [At least, there shouldn’t be.] But reading the words, “When you’re weary, feeling small / When tears are in your eyes, I will dry them all; I’m on your side. when times get rough / And friends just can’t be found / Like a bridge over troubled water I will lay me down” — you aren’t necessarily struck by some original idea. If you’re more cynical, you might even roll your eyes at the the sight of clichés like “tears in your eyes” and “times get rough”. But in that sweet tenor voice of Art Garfunkel, you never once doubt the sincerity of any of those notions. A lot can be said for inflection and delivery and attitude in a performance; sometimes that’s all that can be said.

But in creating something that you can listen to in a couple of minutes, the song also has the advantage of being less demanding. You could let your girlfriend/mother/wife/etc. listen to it and she can continue to drive her car or order something online or have a conversation. Songs sneak up on you in a way literature can’t– [I know it’s possible, just not as likely.] They actively involve more of the senses. And perhaps, as a result, they are harder to describe and examine from a craft perspective.

Anyway, the point is songwriting is a completely different bird and most songwriters are bad at describing the process but I want to try anyway — maybe for selfish reasons. [I’m not sure what that means; I just want to make sure I cover myself here.] So: I’ve started writing down all the devices, strategies, and inspirations I use to write songs. I thought about what goes on in my head when I’m coming up with an idea for a song or when I’m stuck with something unfinished. The process is ongoing and like a lot of writing, it’s probably more about self-validation than anything else.

My ongoing list is made up of observations about both music and words. I won’t pretend that I’m an expert in either, but I’m fascinated by the strange power songs have and spend most of my time thinking about how I could write a better one. Maybe there’s something helpful about being neither a great musician nor a great writer. Great musicians often have a hard time reigning in all that talent. When there are few limitations to your talents as a musician, the basic song format might become a real bore. They same must be true of great writers. How could the verse/chorus structure of popular song really allow all the space they would require?

Wow. Talk about self-validation: I’ve just legitimized my songwriting abilities by proving that my limitations as a musician and a writer might actually make me an ideal songwriter. If only Salieri (from the film Amadeus), who proclaimed himself “The Patron Saint of Mediocrity” could have enjoyed the importance we put on popular music today, he might have found real satisfaction as a songwriter and could have avoided the suicide attempts and insane asylums.

So let’s celebrate the imperfect art form of the song. I hope readers feel willing to share what “it” is they like so much about a certain song and maybe other songwriters could give us some insight into their process.

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