A song 6 years in the making (Part 1/4)

I’m looking at a tattered, green-covered notebook that has traces of brown, punctuated cardboard in the spine, indicative of a back cover long gone. This one page is written in pen, while many other illegible pages have a strange lead mist about them, which started my policy of never writing song ideas in pencil. There is no date on the page, but its safe to assume that the notes were made during my first month of graduate school, shortly after imagining the song while teaching a marching band in early August of 2005.

The top of the page reads…

key of D
“no love don’t mean asexuality
except for viggie” or “u ain’t me”

I thought it might be cool to put my old “high school nickname” in the song. Rap artists say their name all the time in their songs, why can’t I? It seemed like the appropriate thing to do – it reflected an air of confidence, cockiness even, that I thought the song needed.

A squiggly arrow points to a chord progression: E7 C7 A g9, each chord shows 8 eighth notes under it, indicating the rhythm. Just above this progression is a hastily written line of musical notation, showing the opening riff in the key of F with the notes “horn part – swing shuffle”.

This is how Mr. Wrong started. I remember walking around a marching field in Sioux Falls with this lick in my head, knowing that count 2 of the bar would be a crunchy sound executed by playing the resolution an octave lower than the count before it. I had no lyrics yet, but the feel of the song was already solidified. It wouldn’t be given a melody or verse chord progression until about a month later once I had moved to Tempe, AZ for graduate school. I was late to the game when it came to Ben Folds fandom, and I had just started learning his songs by ear at this point. Song for the Dumped was very pertinent to my situation at the time, and I had just learned the whole thing when I couldn’t focus on horn one day in the practice room.

This trend continued at graduate school, when I found a chord progression that I liked – the Bb7 to the A7, which would function as a lead-in to the chorus. I told myself that it was an uncommon chord progression, so it justified using the tried-and-true I-bVII-IV progression in the verse (Think Sweet Home Alabama, Born This Way, Sympathy for the Devil). Playing the chorus lead-in on quarter notes and responding to each chord articulation with three quick sixteenth notes sounded cool to me, and also let me start the song in a thinner texture leaving more room for piano showoffedness later in the song, so I wrote many lyrics for this melody (what now is “Trying to find/all my dreams/and my goals/couldn’t be more wrong”) that include

“I can’t run/I can’t hide/from what I/know inside is true”
“I wish I/could be kind/but I know/that your mind ain’t clear”
and the even worse,
“I know you’ve/let me go/but the end/of the show ain’t here”

These would turn out to be “dummy lyrics”, obviously to be replaced by something much better at a later date once I figured out exactly what the lyrics would be about.

One technique is to write down a bunch of opening lines for a song. The first thing the listener hears is often the most memorable line of the song, second only to the chorus or hook. I already knew that the lyrics to my hook sucked (“you aren’t me?” come on!). I needed something with a little more confidence, stank, sting for the party who had given this song a reason to exist. I had the chord progression for the verse and a supposed melody, and thankfully no list of opening lines was needed. The first one I had thought of was exactly what I had been looking for:

“Give Me a Sign”

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