Thursday, December 23, 2010

Songwriting (ob-la-di, ob-la-da)

Although I was an English major in college, I never took any creative writing classes.  If there were songwriting classes, I missed-out on those too.  I just took the classes that allowed you read lots of books and poems and then sit around thinking and talking about what was up with Transcendentalism or The Romantic Poets or why William Faulkner seemed unable to win a wrestling match with any sentence he ever encountered.   Still, coming and going from the same building where all the creative types thought creative thoughts was bound to have some spillover effect.  But instead of some immortal teaching from a favorite professor serendipitously overheard in the hallway, the only creative directive I acquired was the mundane and oft-repeated "write what you know."

The partial retardation referenced in the previous post on this blog has precluded me from knowing as many things as I ought to, but one of the things I do know is this:  I love the sun.  I also know that my toenails look better clipped short and painted a dark color, but the sun seemed like a better place to start from a songwriting perspective.  My love of the sun (more specifically its facility for heat and light) is well-known in the circles I run in (and I run in circles a lot).  Indeed, my daughters have concluded that I am actually a lizard, badly lost and dislocated in Minnesota.

Lizard or not, I had made the mistake of mentioning, in what I thought was an off-handed way, to Jim and Andy that I might have written some song-type things and that I might be able to write some more of them if we formed a band.  By "songs," I mean a grouping of words organized in short lines on a page without any melody or musical framework of any kind but which, in my mind, I imagined to be the kinds of words that one could sing to some music, if one wanted to.  I had done this well before the "let's form a band" e-mail.  It wasn't art so much as necessity that made me do it.  Frankly, the unexpected and panicked run of loose thoughts across the backyard of my brain had gotten annoying over the years.  A turn-of-phrase or poorly formed idea would get startled out of a crease and dart into the daylight because I hadn't realized it was there as I ambled along, preoccupied with my "what should we have for dinner tonight" concerns.  Then it would just sit there, in the middle of the lawn, desperate for cover, but of course only drawing more attention to itself.  Capturing them seemed like the only appropriate thing to do.  

Of course, once you put a few rabbit-thoughts together in a pen, you know what happens.  Cottontails everywhere eating the hydrangeas and really messing with your garden.  This is why animal husbandry is best left to the professionals.  I happen to be a professional, but I don't do anything useful.  I'm a lawyer.

But back to the songwriting.  Having recently solicited others to form a band and invested time, energy and most of my self esteem in learning to sing other people's songs, the next thing to do was what bands are known for the world over: create original music.  This was Jim's point when he decreed that "we should work on original stuff next."  Having practically volunteered by my earlier disclosure, Jim and Andy looked to me to come up with the word part of some songs.  (Jim proffered some lyrics about the hollow feeling inside that happens when you discover the box of Wheat Thins is empty, but we're saving that for our second album, which is to be themed around dry goods with maybe a few ditties about perishables, too.)

So, how does one go about writing a song?  What is involved and where does the creative spark come from?  Honestly, I have no idea.  I can only tell you what has occurred in the particular set of circumstances that I am familiar with.  In my case, we had the initial "things I know" decision point -- sun versus toenails.  I think we're all glad that the sun won out there.  Then, there's the need for some words and possibly, though not necessarily, some rhyming.  This requires a pen or pencil, some paper and a little bit of time.  In this instance, I rounded-up a sunny day, my notebook, and a pencil and plunked myself down in the backyard one afternoon last summer, where I observed and enjoyed the sun and waited for the rabbits to start running.  A few fistfuls of fur later, I ended-up with the following:

     Streaming down from above
     Raining bright, clean love
     Golden delicious
     California ambition
     There is nothing more real
     Than the electrifying feel
     Of solar fingers white and hot
     Give me everything you've got

     Sun, give me sun
     Set me down
     Light me up
     Give me sun

     Illumination, sensation
     Blissful radiation
     Seeping down into my core
     Filling me up, wanting more
     Untie my nerves
     Unwind my mind
     Ease me out of
     This world's bind

     Sun, give me sun
     Set me down
     Light me up
     Give me sun

Now, the thing about song lyrics all by themselves is that they seem silly all by themselves.  A finished song, as we all know, includes both words and melody.  This is how we usually first encounter them, hearing both together.  With music there is a symbiotic relationship between the parts with each complementing and supporting the other.  So, for example, when you see the words, "ob-la-di, ob-la-da," your brain simultaneously plays the music in your head (and you probably continue, unprompted: "life goes on, bra, la, la la, la, life goes on.")  You don't know it any other way.  If, however, you had never heard that song and I handed you a piece of paper with those lyrics on it and told you it was a song, you would be very underwhelmed.  You would probably also double-check to make sure that you weren't relying on me for anything really important.   But putting aside the "how-many-rock-gods-can-jam-on-the-head-of-a-pin" theorization for the moment, this is really just a long and ineffective way of saying, "don't harsh on the lyrics until you've heard the music."  After that, you are free to conclude that the whole thing sucks.  I'm just asking you to hold-off on reaching that conclusion until the appropriate time.

So, the "Sun" lyrics took their place in my folder and we practiced more or less weekly for a while.  Then, one day, Andy sends an e-mail with a few MP3 files attached.  The e-mail says something about how they're just snippets, not fully formed, likely not any good, but he's passing them along in case we find anything we like in them.  One of them, titled "Test#1" sounded like this:

This particular snippet really stuck with me.  I listened to the guitar line a few times and thought about what the melody wanted to say.  I assumed I would need to write some new lyrics to go with it and wasn't quite sure how that would work as I've never had any music in mind, let alone presented to me, when chasing rabbits before.  Then, the words to "Sun" started attaching themselves to the melody and I began to see how the two could work together.   I e-mailed Jim and Andy that I thought I had some lyrics that would work with Andy's melody  in "Test #1" and that I was eager to get their reactions.  Jim replied that he was eager to react.  At our next practice, we tried it out a few times and then recorded the following rough take to preserve how the song was coming together so we wouldn't forget it in between practices:

It should be noted that this version of the song is still very rough.  We hadn't yet figured out the tempo,  the drums, the bass line or whether three entirely different people should be brought in and directed to start from scratch.  We have developed a universal disclaimer that we use amongst the three of us to deal with these issues whenever we are exchanging melodies, vocal renditions, lyrics or other ideas and it seems we would be well-advised to employ it here.  The purpose of the disclaimer, of course, is to shield each individual from the inevitable harsh and unrelenting judgment,  criticism and disgust that would usher forth without it.  The disclaimer goes something like this, "I apologize for the lack of rhythm, timing, accuracy, in-tune-ness, and overall musical skill.  I was/am, drunk, hungover, my computer had a virus, my computer was drunk/hungover, my metronome broke and/or I had a head cold when I did this so I couldn't really hear it at all and you might just want to ignore it altogether.  I'm sorry I've wasted your time."

Now, you may be thinking to yourself, "O.k.  Now I've read the lyrics, heard the guitar melody, heard the two of them more or less together and been provided with a very comprehensive disclaimer.  Surely now must be the appropriate time to reach that conclusion about suckiness that I was chastised about earlier."   But you would be wrong.  You have to wait for one more version and then we will have reached judgment day.  That, my friends, is the final, Garage-Band assisted, Sonic Goat Productions version . . . which will be revealed in a future post.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

No One Ran Away

After a totally unwarranted amount of disrespect was paid to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs at our first practice session, two very important things happened: (1) I did not run away, and (2) Jim and Andy did not run away.  They even agreed to show-up on a regular basis to continue their roles as facilitators of my delusion.  Now, I'll never know what Jim and Andy were thinking, but as a fair and balanced observer on the scene, I can tell you that there was not even any grimacing or involuntary spasms on their part the whole time.  (I can only assume they each suffered from an ungodly amount of boredom and were desperate for any distraction that came their way, which I unwittingly provided in spades.)  Instead, what we did have a lot of was repeated takes marked with many, many stops and starts, usually because my timing was off or we had to figure out how we were covering the song with only one guitar and drums, as I am not able to contribute any instrumental skill whatsoever.  Not even tambourine.  Let me explain.

I have always considered myself partially retarded.  Granted, it's a small part, but it's there, like the seam on a pair of socks.  Most of the time you don't notice it, but sometimes it can be really, really irritating.   Of course, there are many others whom I consider to be more retarded than me, such as Glenn Beck, The Kardashians, and Yankee fans.  The point, though, is that there are certain things in life that seem to pose no discernable issues for most of the general population, but which continue to cause me difficulty.  Complicated things like remembering to put gas in my car, getting out of bed in the morning, and eyeliner.

Alternatively, if you have ever thought about human beings as possibly powered by hamsters on wheels inside our heads (and really, who hasn't?), I have considered the likelihood that my hamster doesn't quite do it the way she should.  She'll get going real fast and give the wheel a really good spin and then jump-off and wander around exploring the unchartered corners of my skull cavity.  Usually, she times her return just before the wheel comes to a complete halt, but every now and then she's off and things have stopped and then she has to work extra hard to get the wheel really humming again.

Stay with me here.

What I'm getting at is the early practice sessions involved what I suspect was an inordinate amount of me forgetting lyrics and/or forgetting when it was time for me to sing them.  This would occur even though I had just sung the song 12 times in a row and had the lyrics on a sheet of paper right in front of me.  A typical scenario:

Jim:  1, 2, 3, 4

[Jim and Andy commence playing song as it is supposed to be played.  Vocal cue arrives and is missed.  Jim and Andy keep playing and look at me.]

Robin:  Shit.  Sorry.  I missed it.  Can we start again?

Jim/Andy:  Sure.

Jim:  1, 2, 3, 4

[Jim and Andy commence playing song as it is supposed to be played.  Vocal cue arrives.]

Robin:  Gold lion's gonna tell me where the light is
            Gold lion's gonna tell me where the light is
              . . . .
             Shit.  Sorry. 

Then, there was the time when they encouraged me to try the tambourine (while still trying to remember lyrics and when to sing them).  Let's just say no one has mentioned the tambourine in quite a while.

But despite the innate mental deficiencies and/or errant hamster that prevents me from doing several simple things simultaneously, or even individually in some cases, such limitations do not extend to my judge of character.  Which is another way of saying, I picked really good band mates.  Not only have Jim and Andy endured the highly frustrating wiring of my brain (though, truth be told, this may be why there are so many empty beer bottles laying around by the end of each practice, only half of which are mine) but they have each brought apparently limitless patience and vast musical skill to this endeavor as well.  I usually just bring a six pack and my folder of lyrics.

Andy is our lead guitar player.  He not only knows how to play a lot of songs, he knows how to learn a lot of songs in short order.  He also has a habit of screwing around with little riffs and chord changes that constantly have Jim and I inquiring, "Wait -- what was that?  That was really good.  Do that again."  Plus, he also knows how to plug-in his guitar and turn knobs on the amps and pedals and stuff, which I think is really impressive.

Jim doesn't really contribute much next to me and Andy.  He just provides the rehearsal space, plays drums, plays keyboards, plays bass and plays producer on Garage Band.  I'm a little disappointed that he can't do more than one of these things at a time (as I'm pretty sure his hamster is a type-A finance guy), but since it's his house, I guess he can do what he wants.

So, we practiced for a while and eventually got a few covers ingrained enough in my brain that I not only knew most of the lyrics, but also usually when to sing them.  I think the surprise that occurred in Jim's psyche when we reached that moment was so profound, he didn't have time to consider the consequences before uttering the following in what sounded almost like an optimistic and encouraging tone, "I think we should work on some original stuff next."

Friday, December 3, 2010


Singing.  The very word causes people all over the planet to shudder in fear.  Well, except for maybe the Irish, Italians, Spanish, Russians, Germans, Brazilians, Chileans . . . O.k.  So the only people afraid of singing, really, are Americans.  But, being one of them, the comment is still legitimate.  Singing was always something I secretly enjoyed, but not something I ever sought to do in front of others, sort of like --- well, this is mostly a family blog and I'm just not going to go there.  The point is, in over 42 years of living which included, as they so often do, high school, college and several years in New York City, I never took a single step toward forming a band or otherwise participating in organized musical activities.  No choir.  No orchestra.  No musical theater.  Instead, I did what any properly raised, first-born American, female WASP does -- I completely repressed and ignored the desire.  Now, there are certainly reasons and explanations for such things, but I will leave that to the likes of Oprah and Elizabeth Gilbert to excavate and ruminate about and generally beat to death without accomplishing much of anything.

So what caused me, after so much time, to finally pursue my inner Karen O.?  Death.  Yes, death.  The realization that I was, in all likelihood, at least half-way done with my spin on the merry go round had the predictable and cliched effect of causing me to run a mental inventory of what was in stock and what was not:  "Responsibilities?" Chock full.  "Sorry-assed Excuses?" Got plenty.  "Singing and Songwriting?" Cavernous gap.  Completely out of stock.  ('Course, the bins for "Hangovers" and "Stupid Things I've Done" were spilling their contents out onto the warehouse floor, but that's neither here nor there at the moment.)  I stared at the blank space for  a while and then started writing a novel.  I stared at it some more and got back into tennis.  And then I stared at it again and fired-off an e-mail.

Still, I never really thought that singing would actually be involved.  I mean (a) no one was going to accept the invitation, and (2) why would anyone ever take me up on such a thing?  It was supposed to allow me to fill the shelf with at least one flimsy sack of "I tried" so that I could go tend to the business about the hangovers  (how to increase the storage space, of course, as more inventory was certainly on the way) and see what could be done to strip the label off the bin of "Stupid Things I've Done" in the hopes that the contents would thereby somehow become unrecognizable.

But alas, the carefully laid plans of middle-aged women  . . . sometimes work.  Indeed, my e-mail did exactly what it was designed to do, no matter how much I wanted to pretend it was all just silliness.  Objectively it is totally and completely silly, but subjectively it was cover for finally finding out if I could do it before, you know, I was cold and dead and couldn't carry a tune to save my already dead life.

So, that brings us to the part where I arrive at Jim's house for the first band practice.  I cannot think of a word that really describes how I felt.  Nervous?  Damn straight.  Excited?  Most definitely.  Incredulous?  Believe it.  But I think what comes closest is vibrating.  Not vibrating like --- again, except for the swearing, this is a G-Rated blog, so I'll thank you to stop that -- but vibrating as in the effect of a tuning fork.  According to Wikipedia:

Vibration is occasionally "desirable". For example the motion of a tuning fork, the reed in a woodwind instrument or harmonica, or the cone of a loudspeaker is desirable vibration, necessary for the correct functioning of the various devices.

This is the kind of vibration I mean.  The desirable kind that is necessary for the correct functioning of various devices, me being the various devices.  Of course, Wikipedia goes on to say that:

More often, vibration is undesirable, wasting energy and creating unwanted sound – noise. For example, the vibrational motions of engineselectric motors, or any mechanical device in operation are typically unwanted. Such vibrations can be caused by imbalances in the rotating parts, uneven friction, the meshing of gear teeth, etc. Careful designs usually minimize unwanted vibrations.

Well, I admit that "creating unwanted sound and noise" does seem to be relevant here as does "imbalances" and the "meshing of  . . . teeth."  But never mind. We are going to proceed with the part I like better that talks about functioning properly.  Now, I promise not to get all Dr. Phil on you because, how should I say this -- I hate that shit -- but if I am going to even pretend to be honest about this experience, then it needs to be said that I had absolutely no idea what I was going to do when it was time for me to sing.  I envisioned the most likely scenario as follows: I would, in fact, attempt some sort of sound-making which I have always liked to call "singing" which would have been followed by Jim discovering an unforeseen problem with his musical equipment and Andy suddenly remembering an urgent obligation he had to attend to somewhere else -- urgently.  Still, what I felt was the promise that, one way or the other, I would finally find out something that I had wondered about for a good part of my life -- exactly how many keyboards does Jim really have?

Five.  Jim has five keyboards.  No lie.  He also has several amps, a drum kit, a bass guitar, a tambourine, several microphones and stands and a Mac computer all set-up with Garage Band.  There is a bunch of other stuff too, but I don't know what it is called or what purpose it serves.  This nice little set-up he has in his basement also has a name: Sonic Goat Studios.  It looks like this:

So, Andy and I arrive for our first group practice session and amble down to the basement.  I notice the microphone on a stand in the middle of the room.  Now, truth be told, I had seen Jim's basement before and was generally familiar with it.  But in my previous visit (which, I should note, was at a holiday party that contributed one of the hangovers to that bin I was talking about and at which I found myself behind the drums demanding that someone show me how to play them), there had not been a microphone so prominently located.  Of course, anyone who has done any kind of actual singing before would expect such a thing, but alas I was not in that category.  To me it looked like a snake rising up from the ground all pissed-off already.  It practically hissed.  I hate snakes.

As Andy gets his guitar plugged in and talks technical talk with Jim about the amps and yada yada yada, I am trying to get an angle on this whole singing thing, especially the part with the microphone.  Maybe if I just stand far away from it they will hear me enough but not so much as to actually be able to decide if the sounds I am making are good or bad.  We do a sound check and I talk into it, which tells me we are now moments away from blast off.  Running away occurs to me, but I decide that it would only create more problems.  Instead, I exit the Sonic Goat and relocate to a different part of the basement (one without any microphones or expectant band mates) so that I can practice and hear myself -- alone.

When I return they joke that they thought I ran away.  Ha ha ha.  (Still a possibility.)  But, despite the nerves, I also know that this is it.  This is what I have wanted to do and try and experience.  It took me 42 fucking years to get to Jim's basement so the pain-in-the-ass lawyer part of me is not about to let the pansy-assed part of me bail out now.

So, Jim counts us in, I channel my best Karen O., and open my mouth and sing:

Gold lion's gonna tell me where the light is
Gold lion's gonna tell me where the light is
Take our hands out of control
Take our hands out of control . . .