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Archive for the ‘Writing life’ Category

Week 23’s #songaweek2018 suggested theme was “laziness.” I went with it. Here’s a song I wrote in about an hour, with the aid of a cup of coffee and a rhyming dictionary. If you look up “self” in my rhyming dictionary, you find a few compound words ending in “self” along with only these other unique words – “elf,” “pelf,” “shelf,” and “Guelf.” So that pretty much directed my lazy songwriting.

When I went to film and record the song, I discovered that the camera tripod was in use with a laser level for our kitchen renovation, and decided it was perfectly appropriate to be too lazy to take it apart; and instead just set the camera on a chair and film whatever fell within that range. Which meant my face was excluded, so then I filmed another track with just my face and added it later.

So here you are, lazy songwriting, recording, and filming all in one convenient package:

This song’s not gonna write itself
I gotta bring it a cup of coffee
And take that rhyming dictionary off the shelf
And see where it might lead me

Woo hoo hoo, woo hoo hoo
Woo hoo hoo, hoo hoo
Woo hoo hoo, woo hoo hoo
Woo hoo hoo

This song’s not gonna write itself
I better make it a sandwich
And look up the definition of “pelf”
and see if I can work it in

Woo hoo hoo . . .

I highly doubt there was an incognito elf
who politically identified as Guelf
All I know is this song won’t write itself

This song’s not gonna right itself
It’s probably best if we just let it sink
Also I’m out of words that rhyme with “self”
It really kinda makes you think

Woo hoo hoo . . .

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This is the song I was trying to write two weeks ago, which I referred to as a songwriting failure and declared that if a song doesn’t come together in one session it’s typically not worth going back to. I did go back to it for week 22 of #songaweek2018, and got myself this song.

It’s compiled of a variety of ideas I’d collected but was having trouble sculpting into a cohesive whole. Even though none of the ideas were directly inspired by the S-Town Podcast, I finished listening to it just before finishing this song, and that somehow gave me what I needed to pull it all together. Something about the tone of that story, the range of emotion, the brilliance and dull despair that can coexist in one person’s life, the bald facts of life’s brevity and its bewildering mix of beauty and brokenness.

The suggested theme was “celebrity.” I didn’t deliberately work with that theme but again, I think there’s something related here. For one thing, S-Town made John B. McLemore a celebrity, and it’s surreal and feels a little bit wrong when I Google his name and find it being sold on T-shirts now. Also I think most of the verses but especially the ones starting “what does it mean. . .” and “if you repeat. . .” do speak pretty directly to the culture of celebrity worship.

Some days I’m sick of everything
Can’t keep my head up, can’t want to try
Tired of hearing my own voice
Can’t find a reason to even cry

They come to me in fits and starts
These glimpses of my wild heart’s
Most sacred pledge
I’m trying to remember
What I am not supposed to forget

All I could say has been said before
What good is winning if it’s just a game?
I never could stomach spinning rides
But any other world is just the same

They come to me in fits and starts
These glimpses of my wild heart’s
Most sacred pledge
I’m trying to remember
What I am not supposed to forget

What does it mean to gain the world
And lose your own soul in the deal?
Why try to build the greater good
On lesser evils you’re too numb to feel?

I’m drinking elderberry wine
Out in the summer moonshine
with the ones I love
Some happy you can bottle
But most of life is best in the flesh

If you repeat and repeat a word
It’ll start to sound like gibberish
If you stare in the mirror long enough
You’ll start to look ridiculous

They come to me in fits and starts
These glimpses of my wild heart’s
Most sacred pledge
I’m trying to remember
I’m trying to remember
I’m trying to remember
What I am not supposed to forget

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The idea for this song came somewhat randomly to me a couple weeks ago, so I made a quick recording of the tune which became the chorus. I also had this name, “Bill Bailey,” connected to it in my mind, as in “won’t you come home Bill Bailey?” and it seemed vaguely familiar. Sure enough, my subconscious was aware of this old jazz standard written in 1902, even though when I pulled it up to listen I didn’t recognize it at all – and the tune idea I had was different.

The suggested theme for week 21 of #songaweek2018 was “apology,” so “won’t you come home” seemed like a good place to start. I initially sang the song “won’t you come home sweet darlin'” – but then thought a specific name would make it feel more real and folksy. Of course I wasn’t going to use “Bill Bailey,” so I went searching for three-syllable male* names. An “o” in the second syllable to round out the assonance in “won’t you come home” would be a major bonus. “Antonio” held on as my favorite even though I have to roll the last two syllables together to make it fit; and a very helpful group of my Facebook friends weighed in with a hefty list of actual three-syllable names when I requested it.

It was fun writing the song in a way that you can’t really tell who needs to apologize here, or what happened. A bit of open-ended fiction the listener can fill out as they please.

Oh, also recently I really enjoyed hearing this rebroadcast of a This American Life episode (#339, Act One) I remember hearing the first time. Usually I skip the rebroadcasts but I really like this one, about writing breakup songs. So I was thinking about that too when I wrote this.

Won’t you come home
Won’t you come home
Won’t you come home Antonio
Won’t you come home
Won’t you come home
Won’t you come on home now

I got beers in the fridge
I got tears in my eyes
And a heaping helping of humble pie
If you come back tonight I got some presence for you
I’m gonna stay by your stay by your
stay by your stay by your side

Won’t you come home . . .

You might think you got me figured just because you’re my man
but I think you better try to understand
I might be crying on the outside
But I’m crying on the inside,
crying on the inside too

Won’t you come home . . .

I don’t want to leave you I don’t want to lose you
I just want to stay here and love you
I could probably fall in love with the whole wide world
But I want to get specific,
I want to get specific with you

 

*There are plenty of three-syllable female or gender-neutral names I might have used instead, but since the song later refers to “my man” and “man” needs to rhyme with “understand,” this time I wanted a male name.

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This song for week 20 of #songaweek2018 probably feels a little cheated. “I really have a lot of potential,” I can hear it whining, “but you barely gave me anything to work with! You didn’t even try me on piano, which would probably sound a whole lot better than that jangly guitar you insist on strumming monotonously. And really, with all the technology you had to work with, you chose to record me late one night sitting in front of your old laptop?”

Well, yes. It was a busy week and my first day of songwriting was pretty much a failure. Some scattered good ideas but nothing was coming together.

Then the next day, I was walking to pick up my son from school in the intoxicating May sunshine, and it occurred to me that even though our sun is just average in brightness and size compared to other stars, it matters immeasurably more to me than any other sun possibly could. Not because it’s the brightest or best, but because it’s home to me.

Which, of course, is a very tidy metaphor for marriage, which made for a much-better-flowing songwriting session the next day, where after a couple hours I had a mostly-complete song. As another songwriter in our #songaweek group noted recently – and I have also found to be true – if a song doesn’t mostly come together in one session, it’s usually not worth going back to for a second attempt.

So by the time I got through my failed attempt and then spent another day writing this one – all the while attending to the everyday stuff which really heats up this time of year as school winds down and there are numerous concerts and activities on the calendar – the arranging and recording process had to be streamlined, meaning pretty much eliminated entirely.

But that’s okay. Unlike the writing process, if a song’s arrangement doesn’t come together right away, that can be worth going back to, and I probably will with this one.

Once again (as in “Angel”), this song takes inspiration from the reading I’ve done in astrophysics, specifically and most recently Carlo Rovelli’s Reality is Not What it Seems. The suggested theme for the week was “future,” which did get some space here.

I wake in your light
I sleep in your glow
And all the day through your love keeps me warm
Let these moments spread out
Through the hours and days
Of our lives

There’s billions and billions of brillianter stars
But the one that shines brightest for me by far
Is the one that I’ve built my whole world around
And that’s you, yes, you.

Everything’s moving
Life is a dance
We are particles weaving a field
With the speed of the light
from the fire that we stoke
With our love

There’s billions and billions of brillianter stars
But the one that shines brightest for me by far
Is the one that I’ve built my whole world around
And that’s you, yes, you.

There are days when the clouds
Hide your face in the gray
And I’m cold and I can’t feel you at all
And there’s nothing to say
And there’s nothing to do
But hold on

There’s billions and billions of brillianter stars
But the one that shines brightest for me by far
Is the one that I’ve built my whole world around
And that’s you, yes, you.

I know lovers must part
And even planets and stars
All eventually expire
But the shimmering waves
from the love that we’ve made
Journey on

There’s billions and billions of brillianter stars
But the one that shines brightest for me by far
Is the one that I’ve built my whole world around
And that’s you, yes, you.

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Last Sunday we trekked over to Minneapolis to see my daughter and her friend – and lots of other revellers – in the annual MayDay parade put on by In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theater. While watching, I thought, this might be Bloomington Avenue’s favorite day of the year, when for a few hours cars aren’t allowed and the street gets to feel dancing feet and music and laughter and the best things about the people in its neighborhood celebrating the return of spring.

Then later that day I looked up the suggested theme for week 19 of #songaweek2018, and lo and behold! it was “streets.” And so I wrote this song and made a video with footage I took while watching the parade. I’ll probably never actually perform this song, may never even revisit it, but it was fun to put it together.

Well aint you the lively one
Aint you the lovely one
There is something different about you today
The people of the city look good on you
Extracted from their cars

Bloomington Avenue look at you shine!
decked out in your Mayday finest
No more snowy white coat
And just for now
For a couple bright hours on a Sunday afternoon
Filled with dancing flowers, stilt-walkers and balloons
We can hear your heart beat

beautiful feet dancing over you
Drums reverberating off of you
Music and laughter and color everywhere
The only tires are bicycle tires

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With over seven billion people in the world now and the Internet giving many of us instant access to publish whatever we create, it’s easy to completely ignore all the good work that’s come before us. That’s partly why I enjoy setting old poems to music. It’s a little like sneaking vegetables into casseroles for picky kids.

Another reason is because it helps me engage on a deeper level with a poem, because I’m reading and speaking and singing it over and over as I work out a rhythm and a melody. The words get to work on me more than when I just read them straight through.

And usually by the time I’m finished making a poem into a song, I also have it memorized – a mental exercise I don’t perform enough in my post-academic life.

Here’s Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem, “My Own Heart,” with more or less the chords from that old favorite “Heart and Soul.” My song for week 18 of #songaweek2018.

My own heart let me more have pity on; let
Me live to my sad self hereafter kind,
Charitable; not live this tormented mind
With this tormented mind tormenting yet.
I cast for comfort I can no more get
By groping round my comfortless, than blind
Eyes in their dark can day or thirst can find
Thirst’s all-in-all in all a world of wet.

Soul, self; come, poor Jackself, I do advise
You, jaded, let be; call off thoughts awhile
Elsewhere; leave comfort root-room; let joy size
At God knows when to God knows what; whose smile
‘s not wrung, see you; unforeseen times rather—as skies
Betweenpie mountains—lights a lovely mile.

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Well, at last – a happy simple song! Guess I was feeling a little drunk on spring which has finally come, in full force, to my part of the northland – and remembering the spring I met Nathan and how it felt to fall so hard in love.

Just a quick rough recording on my phone, made while facing the new sheetrock in the kitchen so I could enjoy a little natural reverb.

I don’t need to say much more about this song (for week 17 of #songaweek2018), except that tomorrow my beloved and I celebrate twenty years of marriage, and I’m thankful to be able to say, I’m still a teeny tiny little bit in love with him.

Oh, and yesterday we played it with our band and it was an instant success! I’m excited to perform this one.

There’s word going round about a woman you know
They say she’s trying to hide what she can’t help but show
so I looked her up and sat her down for a talk
But she couldn’t sit still so then we went for a walk
And the spring in her step and the thrill in her veins
And your name on an endless looping track in her brain
Told me everything I needed, yes the rumors are true
I’m just a teeny tiny little bit in love with you

She said she’d meet you tomorrow, tonight or right now
Don’t matter where or why, or what or how
It’s mainly just the who that she cares about
And you know that’s you, you’re the one who makes her shout
To the flowers and trees, to the birds and butterflies
About how you make her feel like she just opened her eyes
On a world bright with beauty and this radical truth
I’m just a teeny tiny little bit in love with you

I like to think of her and you in closer quarters
I like to think you’re thinking of that too
I hope that you and she could find a place to loiter
I hope you’re hoping for that same thing too

Well I suppose I’ll have to come down from this natural high
nothing lasts forever but the wondering why
but you could come with me on my hike back down
to my everyday life in an everyday town
And hold my hand and own my heart
and share with me a house and a car
Cause while it ebbs and it flows, this current stays true
I’m just a teeny tiny little bit in love with you

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