Category Archives: Songwriting

Level One to Level Two

It’s been a while since I shared the process of my songwriting back here and here.  About a year.  Mostly because after I released my cd, my songwriting slowed considerably.  However, a few months back, my friend Chris asked if I wanted to be a part of a Kickstarter campaign for his role-play game Kobolds Ate My Baby, I immediately agreed to write a song as part of the rewards for the supporters.  Writing a song with no constraints can be difficult, as there are too many options.  When you add in a theme, a reason, and (most importantly) a deadline, it ironically allows you to create more fluidly and often with more creativity.  I recommend occasionally adding constraints to any project you might be working on.  You’ll be surprised how it changes the dynamic.

Kobold chasing woman and baby

Art by John Kovalic

The game is a very silly role-play game in which you play small furry creatures that are none too bright.  These “kobolds” are borrowed from the classic RPG Dungeons and Dragons.  In D&D, kobolds are one of the first monsters a player will encounter in the game.  They come in large numbers and are ridiculously easy to kill, but they often provide the first challenge for plays.  In Kobolds Ate My Baby, rather than playing the role of the adventuring hero, you play the role of these expendable speed bumps.  In very silly settings, your goal is to bring food back to the kobold taskmaster, King Torg (all hail King Torg!).  Just to give you an idea of how silly the game is, any time your king’s name is mentioned, all players must shout “All Hail King Torg!” as quickly as possible or risk dying a horrible random death.  King Torg (all hail… you get it) has three-tiered system of food-preference.  At the top is the pinnacle: a human baby.  Slightly lower is a delicious roasted chicken.  Unfortunately, the third tier is the absolutely delectable delicacy of… kobold.

Did I mention that constraining yourself to something fun also helps with the songwriting?

If you’re the impatient sort, the finished product is down at the bottom.  When you’re done, come back up!

As usual, it took a while for me to figure out how I wanted to approach the subject.  I rarely like to take the direct approach, even when the direct approach involves shouting about a king and stupid furry things dying in huge numbers.  I didn’t want to really just write about their silly adventures involving chickens, spatulas, and random immolation.  I started thinking about the pathos of these creatures’ existences.  In the D&D world, their only real purpose is to provide the players with experience so they can go on to bigger and better things.  As no one dies at level 1 in the game, it’s pretty much assured the kobolds are going to lose, and lose badly.

All this was milling around in my head, when once again while swimming, I had some lyrics come to me (through the chlorine, I suppose).

Past the paths you must pass through
On the path from level one to level two

This meant the song would be about the fledgling heroes completing their first quest at the expense of the fragile kobolds.  Having played D&D as a child… er teenager… er adult, I knew some of the standard tropes of the game.  Soon after, I sat at the piano and came up with this little intro:

You traded gold for a broadsword +0
Establishing yourself in this campaign: the hero.
A simple quest to launch your new career:
Eliminate the kobold menace, there’s nothing to fear.

See, later in the game, your swords get all enchanted which makes them a sword +2 or +5.  At this stage, you can’t afford that, so you just end up with a sword +0.

This ballad-like intro makes way to a faster more pop-like section that gives the exposition:

The village elder sets the scene
What’s happening and where these fiends convene
Babies gone missing
Kobolds preparing
A delicious feast for their king

And just like that you’re on your way
Your fight for glory or just to save the day
As you leave the town
Crossing open ground
An encampment is waiting to be found

So basically, it’s a combination of cliches from a typical campaign.  There’s a crisis in town that the ubiquitous village elder informs you of, and then sends you on your way.  There’s a little foreshadowing about the hero’s less than benign intentions.  You fight for glory or to save the day or whatever!  Since you’re playing a game, you don’t need to hammer down the finer ethical points.  This theme comes back in the fourth verse a bit more pointedly.

Usually I write the lyrics first, but for most of this song I wrote the lyrics and music at the same time.  In the second half of each verse, that allowed me to throw in a little lick like the Superman theme.  You hear it in the keyboard right before I sing “babies gone missing,” and “kobolds preparing.”  I also had fun playing around the key of A major, starting with a typical I-IV-V progression before throwing in a flat VI chord.

Then we have the encounter:

You surprise them on the plain
Giving no time to explain
Their evil exploits are now through

A hack and slash is all it takes
An easy THAC0 roll to make
On the path from level one to level two.

This demonstrates the ease in dispatching these creatures.  It also gives me an excuse to break the fourth wall and use the acronym thac0 (to hit armor class zero) in a song.  This is a game mechanic to determine how easy it is to maim your opponent in combat.  I love throwing in little bits of specialty knowledge, as the joy from the few people who recognize it far outweighs the confused stares of the majority.  I find it brings a very specific connection with my audience.

Notice my original lyric conceived in the swimming pool got morphed.  This was because of the cadence of the lyrics in relation to the music.  It just didn’t fit in its original form.

In the bridge, I move to A minor and shift the perspective to the hapless kobolds:

The few survivors turn and flee
Back to their cave and family
Awaiting orders for they do what they are told

Demoralized by their defeat
And bringing nothing back to eat
Their king will feast upon a delicacy called kobold

After I finished writing the first draft of the bridge, I was particularly proud of the harmonic progression, a nice little descending minor sequence with a baroque sensibility.  About three days later, I made a horrifying discovery:

Facebook screenshot: Damnit! I just realized that I "wrote" Jonathan Coulton's Creepy Doll. Back to the drawing board...

Yes, it is that most hated of afflictions, the subconscious plagiarism.  In the past, I’ve also “written” Don McLean’s American Pie, which you’d think I would have noticed right away.  Fortunately, as I mentioned above, the fact that sequences were used all the time in baroque music meant that I just needed to make some minor adjustments to make it more mine.  So instead of the progression going:

Am – E – G – D – F – C – D – E

I went:

Am – E – Gm – D – F – C – Dm7 – E

It looks like only a slight shift, but with a different melody, it was really unrecognizable.

The last verse goes back to the peppy “hero saving the day” style with a tongue in cheek look at what these heroes actually do:

But you won’t let this spoil your fun
This quest is over, but you’ve just begun
Your bard strums a chord
As you sheath you sword
You head back to the town for your reward

You’ll find more challenges to meet
Treasures to win and villains to defeat
Slaughter to enjoy
Families to destroy
Crushing everything, this world is your toy.

Two things with this.  First, I really was proud of the line “Treasures to win and villains to defeat.”  I like to take two words that are opposite like “win and defeat” and apply them to the same idea in a way that makes sense.  Meaning, normally if you win and lose, then you’re back to neutral.  But here you end up ahead.  It’s a minor bit of wordplay, but I liked the way it came out.

Secondly, here’s where not only the fourth wall is broken, but the ethical implications of the heroes’ actions are laid bare.  Yes, the heroes rescue the kidnapped babies and save the town, but they also got to become stronger (PING up to level 2).  The collateral damage of destroying living things doesn’t matter.

And yes, I know it’s a game, so we suspend disbelief.  I really am not petitioning for kobold rights, but it’s just interesting to think about.

Then another chorus:

Without traveling far-range
You defeat the foe orange
Your token quest, first in your queue

Sure, plenty of people have rhymed “orange” and better than I did.  For some reason I felt the challenge arise and went for it.

Fiercer than a cocker spaniel
Cockroach of the Monster Manual
Blocking platinum and gold
And doing just what it’s been told
You are not much to behold
When you’re fighting a kobold

On the path from level one to level two

Another D&D reference: the Monster Manual.  This is just a big book of all the possible encounters.  I don’t even know if they still print something called the Monster Manual, but old-school fans of the game will recognize it.  I also enjoyed stretching the second half of the chorus to build momentum.  Especially that last part where I keep using words that end with “-old,” but keep avoiding using the obvious “kobold.”  It’s like a delayed resolution.

Pretty soon after writing the song, I had to record it for the Kickstarter reward compilation.  Usually I have more time to sit with a song before I commit it to a recording.  I had written it at the piano, but I didn’t want the sound of an acoustic piano as the main instrument.  I started sampling electronic sounds, and the one I liked most was a jazz organ sound.  I laid down a full track with the organ playing all the harmony, then used “quantizing” to make it line up a bit better.  Since it’s MIDI, it’s a little easier to edit, so I got rid of the bad notes.

levelI had this idea to use a brass choir in the intro and bridge, just to change it up from the pop section.  I pulled out my tuba and trombone and tried to improvise my way through some four-part harmony.  When that proved fruitless, I buckled down and actually wrote out some parts that were low enough for me to read.  The intro took on the feeling of a fanfare, while the bridge became a more baroque-styled motet.  After adding in some heavy reverb and some, ahem, pitch correction, it was sounding much better.

I also needed to develop the pop section beyond the organ (that’s what she… oh never mind…).  I often combine acoustic and electronic elements, but this time I decided to go all electronic.  I experimented with some drum loop samples and found a few that fit what I wanted.  Then I found a great funky bass and decided to use it in place of the tuba in the pop section.  In the 3rd and 4th verses, I added a bit of the trombone in as well for some horn hits.

I had also written in a longer break after the bridge for a solo while the trombones and tuba were still playing, but I wasn’t sure what instrument to use.  After auditioning a few including a slide whistle and toy piano, I broke out a flute I haven’t played in about 10 years.  15 takes later, I had a passable one.  I added in some reverb and put some of the drums back in.  Having played it for several people now, this is unanimously everyone’s favorite part of the song.  As Chris said when I sent it to him, “I love it.  Especially the flute solo/70s movie breakdown…”  I was just missing bongos apparently, but having been burned by bongos in the past (Burned by Bongos is now officially the title of my next album), it was not to be.

After some mixing and tweaking, I sent out the finished song to be a part of the Kickstarter rewards.  If you supported the Kickstarter, last week you received this song along with 3 others as part of the rewards package.  If not, here’s the track in its entirety:

I hope you’ve enjoyed this guided tour through my brain.

And finally, big thanks to everyone who commented on my last post.  Your support means so much to me, and I really appreciate it!

The Songwriters’ Taboo

They Might Be Giants

Photo by Shervin Lainez

I know it’s almost impossible to believe it from the fact that I play the accordion and sing quirky songs, but growing up, I was actually a fan of They Might Be Giants.  I was first introduced to their music when my sister Rachel played me the album Lincoln.  In addition to my fascination with the accordion and other odd instrumentation, I was quickly taken with their odd songs with odd references.  My sister had recently been awarded Poet Laureate status, and as such we would often try to break down the lyrics and try to discover the hidden meaning of their songs.  If you’ve ever heard a TMBG song, especially the early ones, this is no small feat.  There is often an abundance of non-sequitur imagery packed into a song that sort-of almost makes sense.  Often at the last second of a song, the meaning I had worked so hard to interpret breaks down when one of the Johns contradicts an earlier line.  Sometimes they just seems to defy all logic:

We yearn to swim for home
But our only home is bone
How sleepless is the egg,
Knowing that which throws the stone
Foresees the bone, the bone
Our only home is bone
Our only home is bone

They Might Be Giants, Cowtown

It seems like they enjoy wordplay, often at the expense of the logic and theme of the song.  As an adult and critical listener, I find that admirable and just the coolest thing ever.  As a 12-year old trying to seek meaning in the words, I alternated between frustration and feeling like I was going crazy (and thinking it was just the coolest thing ever).  Sounds about right for a 12-year old.

Their being the band that I was obsessed with, I sought out their television and radio interviews in order to decipher their songs further.  While their banter and ad-libbing was always animated, as soon as someone would ask them what a song meant, they got tight-lipped and a bit surly.  There would be a pause and then, “Well, our songs… they mean a lot of things… and this one in particular might have some things… that mean something… to us.”  Thus I learned the Songwriters’ Taboo: the songwriter does not discuss the meaning of his or her songs.

To some extent I understand that the feelings and situations in songwriting can be intensely private, and that one would not want to share the depth of those feelings.  However, as a songwriter, we do write songs and typically perform them to as many people as will listen.  This isn’t really a time to be coy.  I find in general, discussing the meaning of your songs is looked down upon as amateurish by the music community.  Perhaps the idea that one has to explain what a song means implies that it cannot stand on its own.  Or maybe, songwriters prefer the listener to extract their own meaning from the song rather than follow down a prescribed path.  I feel that both of those arguments are fallacies, however.

First of all, explaining a song’s meaning or origins is not necessarily related to the strength and clarity of the song.  Granted, if a song is obtuse enough, it can be difficult to glean the artist’s original intention just from listening.  But the explanation can also serve as a further connection between the songwriter and the songlistener.  It can give us insight into the mind of the person who wrote it and allow us to appreciate their artistry that much more.  One of my favorite songwriters, Carmaig de Forest, has a heart-wrenching song called “Bad Things Happen” which is about the loss of a loved one.  We once had a discussion about it (and if Carmaig is reading, this is what I remember of the conversation; please correct me if I’m wrong), in which he told me he wrote it for World AIDS Day, and that it wasn’t about anyone in particular.  The song sounds so strikingly personal (take a listen, even though the link is to myspace).  His saying that it was more of an abstract view of loss had no impact on the strength of the song, but it did show me how skilled of a writer he is and how dedicated to his craft he is.

For the second point, the one about the listener finding their own meaning in the song, I don’t think the two of them are mutually exclusive.  Certainly we can allow ourselves to get stuck once a meaning is nailed down, but we can also continue to explore what a song means to us.  It may sound unintuitive, but a songwriter’s interpretation of his or her own song is not the final word.  Good songs can be viewed a variety of different ways, including ways the songwriter never intended or imagined.  When Michael Stipe says of the song Losing My Religion, “it’s just a classic obsession pop song,” (Snow, Mat. “R.E.M.” Q. October 1992) that doesn’t preclude us from focusing on the word “religion” in a different context and coming up with a whole new meaning.  If we choose to be actively engaged in discovering what a song means to us, a songwriter’s discussing a song’s meaning can just be one more piece of the puzzle of what a song means and why we love it.

Over the life of this blog, I have taken several of my songs and run them through a full analysis, both with the music and the lyrics.  I’m curious if you, dear reader, find it self-indulgent or illuminating.  Even now I get a bit defensive about those posts, falling into the same trap of thinking it’s inappropriate to discuss song meaning.  I just can’t help myself, though.  The beauty of songwriting lies partially in our choices of harmony and melody, but also heavily in the words and how they can be interpreted.  I’ll continue to write up a song analysis from time to time, and you can tell me if it augments or diminishes your listening experience.  But I’ve worked really hard to create these songs; the least I can do is share as much of them as possible.

Anatomy of a Wedding Day

Yes, it’s time once again for an inside look into the world of my songwriting. In previous installments, I’ve gone over Ladies and Songs in Excel.  This time I want to go in depth with the final song from my album (CD Release August 25!) titled Wedding Day.  I do want to give a small spoiler alert in that if you’ve never heard the song before, there’s a certain joy in discovering what it’s about.  I really like songs in which the subject matter slowly creeps up until you have to press the rewind on your 8-track player to make sure you heard what you thought you heard.  If I’m doing my job correctly, this is one such song.  So that you can get the full effect, you might want to listen to it in its entirety before we get started.

The inspiration for the song came from my friends Samantha and Ben.  Last October they got married in the very location I’ll be having my CD release.  In their invitation, they requested that in lieu of gifts, guests could perhaps write a song or bake a pie.  I decided to write a song, but as the date loomed closer, I ran out of time.  So at the wedding, after the jazz band played and we set up for the ramshackle open mic-style hoe-down (a wedding staple, if I’m not mistaken), I premiered what I had so far: 4 words, 3 notes.  There isn’t any footage of that momentous occasion, but I have reenacted the performance:

And a visual to go with it to show the situation:

The Moment

It may have looked something like this

I was in the midst of a project recording a song each month, and October and November were already spoken for.  So I slated this yet unwritten song for December and began the process of, you know, actually coming up with other words and melodies.

I happen to have a relatively negative perspective towards marriage, in that it’s something that is not a goal in my life, and truthfully, I can’t find much of a reason why people do it except for “that’s what you do.”  We want to have children, we want to show our commitment to each other, we want each other and our families to know that we intend to stay together forever; all things that can be done outside the definition of marriage.  I want to get her health insurance, I want him to be able to visit me in the hospital, I want to write her into my will, I want him to have citizenship; all legal and social issues that are bizarrely solved by marriage, although I don’t know why they are or should be (our best solution to “I don’t have health care” is “marry someone who does?” Yikes!).  To my friends who have made this decision to merge in whatever way that means to you, I am non-condescendingly delighted that you have found something that brings you such joy.  I just can’t relate.

My point is that my wedding song was geared from the start to have a little bit of a wicked twist to it.  The first draft had references to domestic clichés: she does the ironing, he makes a mess, etc.  I had a line about its being a bittersweet moment, and then I realized that the song doesn’t necessarily need to be about someone who is getting married.  It can be someone seeing it from the outside.  Even better, what if there’s an unrequited history involved.  Suddenly, the happiest day of the bride’s life (another cliché!) becomes a feeling of dread for the unrequited party.  The slow reveal begins on the first verse:

Iron my suit and straighten my tie
Wipe a salty farewell from my eye
In a bittersweet moment and the rest of your life
You cut the cord and cake with a knife

I really enjoyed including the marriage clichés: crying at a wedding, “for the rest of your life,” cutting the cake; and tying them with the crushing disappointment from the persona: attending as a sense of duty, saying goodbye, bittersweetness, cutting the cord.  I started pouring out every cliché I could think of, and I think just about every one made it into the song.  Of course, nothing works better than a dirge-like drone to really hammer home the somberness of the occasion.  Open fifths of F and C in the low range of the accordion, moving to F and D-flat between lines.  Each verse is just a switch between the two chords.

As the subject matter revealed itself to the listener, I wanted a quicker sense of movement and faster chord changes, as well as more of a cadence that resolves instead of the back and forth of the first part.  When I recorded it, I also included an electronic drum beat and an arpeggiated set of electronic tones, both to change the mood a bit.  With them comes a little more insight about the situation:

And now you’re changing your name
You’ll never requite the same

Wedding Day ClipHere are the chords from my nifty Google Spreadsheet that documented the whole writing process, as well as the melody that I had written out.

Here I jump to the chorus, which is really just the words “on your wedding day” over that lovely A-flat chord I had played at the wedding and in the video above.  Not much changed here.  I originally wanted to put in more words, but the rest of the song was so full of them.  I also like that the chorus, when taken out of context, could be a regular wedding song.

Verse two continues with the wedding themes and self-loathing:

The flowers are chosen, the places are set
But all I feel is regret
You nervously smile as you recite a vow
But I didn’t speak up at 16, why would I now?

Wedding clichés in this verse: choosing the flowers, formal place settings, reciting vows, “if any man has any reason why these two should not be wedded…”  But this person seems resigned to his fate.  As continues in the next part of the verse:

And you have nothing to fear
My wedding toast is not the one you’ll hear

True story: I got in trouble once for threatening to give a faux-drunken speech at a friend’s wedding (the greatest cliché of all!).  Ok, I threatened to have my girlfriend do one.  The bride and groom did not appreciate that I was mocking their special day, and I realize I could have been more supportive of their vision of their wedding.  I swear it was a joke though; she would never actually do that!

Across those lines, I had my friend Margaret, who was visiting me for the week when I was recording, sing a haunting descending line.  She also sang the bridge which comes up next.  As I’ve said before, my good friend Carmaig de Forest instilled in me the idea that the bridge is a good time to view things from a different perspective.  Why not show that bride’s perspective?  She could be creeped out (really, she should be!), she could be angry, she could decide to fall back in love with the persona of the song.  However, probably the worst thing she could say is:

I know it doesn’t always turn out fair in the end
But know I’m certain you will always be my friend

“We’ll always be friends!”  What a double-edged sword!  Not only will we be nothing but friends, but you actually want to be friends and prolong this agony.  Exquisite!

I’m particularly proud of the melody of the bridge.  I wanted the bridge to come back at the end over the chorus chords, but with the same melody as in the bridge.  So I needed something that worked over the chord changes of the bridge as well as the chord changes of the chorus.  And that’s just what I did.

Wedding Clip

I ended up changing the lyrics a bit there.

Also in the bridge, the instrumentation becomes completely acoustic for a few moments as the accordion enters for the first time, and the tuba becomes more prominent.

Then for the last verse, as if you didn’t have enough wedding imagery (and I forgot to even mention the wedding bells in the 2nd chorus!), we get the following lines:

Old was when I first met you so awkwardly
New, a new connection that you graced on me
All the time I borrowed trying just to get through
Blew my mind that there existed someone like you

Yes, I went there and included something old, something new, something borrowed, and something “blue.”  To add emphasis, I sang a harmony line on each of those words.  The lyrics here also show the imbalance of the relationship, as is necessarily the case for those unrequited ones.  In the final part of the verse, I put one more in:

Might you know anybody who
Can’t let you go?  Well, I do.

The last part of the song is the chorus repeated multiple times with the melody and words from the bridge on top.  After a few rounds, the electronic drums come back in, as well as a response to the female vocals:

I know it doesn’t always turn out fair in the end (I just want this all to end)
But know, I’m certain you will always be my friend (I don’t want to be your friend)

One by one the instruments drop out until it’s only the “three” vocalists singing.  One more round goes by, and the album ends with the final mixed message: “I don’t want to be your friend.”  I love that out of context, it sounds like an empowering statement of separation, but in context, it’s more like a desperate plea.  In fact, I liked it so much that I named the album after it!

The only thing I’m disappointed about is that without the electronic instruments and the acoustic Margaret, it’s hard to play it the same way live.  It takes a bit more creativity to do it, but it still works.  I’ll leave you with a recent live recording made at the Headhouse Songwriters Circle.  Enjoy!

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