Sometimes I feel like the art of songwriting would be so much easier if there were a non-awkward way to do it. I mean that in the most physical sense. Unless you are a master of speed-writing, multitasking, and audiation (hearing music without any external tools such as instruments), you’re going to be juggling your instrument, a writing implement, and a piece of paper. Writing at the piano seems easy, but often the pen doesn’t cooperate with the inclined music desk. Writing at the accordion or guitar is cumbersome and unwieldy. There never seems to be space for you to write.
Recently, I’ve been writing my songs in Microsoft Excel. While it seems an unlikely candidate for songwriting tool, it has a lot of advantages over Word and other text-based programs. It’s flexible, as you can write each line in a row, then cut and paste them where you want them to go. It’s easy to add lines in for additional lyrics or to extend a section. I also like it because I can easily line up lyrics and chords. I just type the lyrics on one line, then the chords on the line above it. If I shrink the column width, I can easily move the chords to line up with the lyrics underneath them. Like-a-so:
I was so amused with the concept of writing songs in Excel, a normally sterile and machine-like program, that I wrote a song about writing songs in Excel. It’s called Songs in Excel (surprise!), and will be on my album due out this year. In this post, I want to talk about my approach lyrically and musically.
The odd thing about this song is that it’s only marginally about the process of songwriting, and much more about the impetus for songwriting, and the cultural significance (or insignificance). I took inspiration from the band Overlord and their song “The Song that Saved the World.” Their song is a picture of utopian society inexplicably brought about by an artist, with a withering critique of the idealistic view of music as a solution to all problems. In mine, I wanted to explore the difficulties we encounter on a day-to-day basis and how writing music can be an escapist approach.
First, for reference:
There are three verses and a bridge, with no chorus. Each verse brings up a social issue and caps it off with the line “and I’m writing songs in Excel.” The first verse is about social injustice and complacency:
On a grey day out the window
I see a thousand people waiting to find
Their way in oppression and pain and aggression
And what passes for peace of mind
I sit quietly in my cozy bed
And complacently take in the rain
They tell me that history’s doomed to repeat
I remember it again and again
‘Til there’s no more rebellions to quell
And I’m writing songs in Excel
The point being that even if I had the drive and know-how to solve the world’s problems, the bigger issue is that I’m just writing songs instead.
The second verse looks at relationships between people:
I’ve spent 32 years of summers here
Passing by 30 years worth of souls
Had the ones I loved drift to some other story
Leaving my alibi full of holes
But all of our worlds are so perforated
It’s expected, cruel, and mundane
And we let go the lives we love the most
Though it leaves us all longing in vain
‘Til there’s nothing left to do but dwell
And I’m writing songs in Excel
Here the idea is that a heartbreaking part of life is the people who drift out of it. Yet, it happens constantly in varying degrees. It is expected because it a part of what living and having relationships means, cruel because it can be so sad and disappointing, and mundane because it happens so often that sometimes we don’t even notice it.
As a side note, I panicked a bit after writing this because it not only stated my age, but it potentially dated the song. In my extensive career to follow, am I really going to keep singing that I’m 32? I decided that it was a song of that moment, so I will not age in the song; it will always be 32 and 30. Oh, and why 30? Because I wasn’t passing many souls in my first 2 years (at least cognizantly).
Then there’s the bridge, where I praise the benefits of songwriting, specifically using Excel, and the exasperation of the world’s expectations of me:
‘Cause I can simulate order
Lining lyrics and chords in column 2
And nothing seems to make sense anymore
But an absolute reference stays true
And I don’t know what else I can do
This is the part that’s specifically about Excel and references the benefits I mentioned earlier. I also wanted to see if I could come up with a line about a feature of Excel that doubled for a life metaphor. The “Absolute Reference” one made the cut, even though I’m not sure it holds up under scrutiny. Let’s get to the 3rd verse before anyone notices.
The third verse is about the break down of basic human communication:
You and I cannot connect my friend
‘Cause our cables are crossed at the source
And I’m sadder to say on each passing day
That we’ll never find our way back to civil discourse
But were we ever even innocent once
In the primordial slime
I want to salvage every shortage we have
But we’re eclipsed by the shortage of time
And there’s nothing left that I can sell
And I’m writing songs where
Everything’s just going swell
And I’m writing songs in Excel
I get frustrated when I notice basic qualities of communication break down (even if it’s between two people that have little in common). I’ve noticed more in the past 10 years, particularly in political discussions, that two sides of an issue are often speaking in different languages. Then I wonder if it’s my shifting perceptions that change, not the semantics of discussion. But once again, writing music, often music with a rosy portrayal of life, can become an escape that allows us to continue to not hear each other.
In terms of the instrumentation, I chose an organ sound because it fit well with the melancholy theme of the song. Also, I had just gotten my MIDI to work in my studio, so I was experimenting with sounds that were not accordion, tuba, and toy piano. As a side effect, it fits very nicely on the accordion, which has a similar reedy sound. There are a lot of sustained chords over a moving baseline, which also fits nicely on the accordion (makes it so my right hand doesn’t have to do as much). This causes shifting tensions in the line that also fit with the melancholy theme.
Ultimately, it may seem like I’m looking down upon the decadence of art in this song, but I don’t think that’s true. While it’s important to reflect on the things that we do and what they accomplish, we need to take the time to figure out what it is that gives us enough pleasure to make life worthwhile. Sometimes there are a variety of approaches we take, but in moments of exasperation, sometimes we can only say “I don’t know what else I should do.”