How Not To Write a Song

Ages ago (ahem, last June), when a long winter that cursed the lands succumbed to summer winds without any sign of spring inbetween, I started writing a song. The only line or thoughts I had came to me while listening to David Grey’s “Babylon” on my running route on Madison Wisconsin’s west side. The line went something like “looking through the blades of grass and locks of hair, wouldn’t even know there was something to see if the veil wasn’t there”. 

The general idea of the song is pretty clear from that line – I like people who don’t flaunt their beauty, have something to discover further down the road. The initial intent of the song was to try and make myself feel better after a breakup. Most of my songs are therapeutic in that way (see Mr. Wrong (You Aren’t Me)). I thought it would become a rather tepid sort of song, like the David Grey song that had been playing when the lyrics came to me. 

I spent weeks, maybe 2 months, trying to elaborate on those lyrics, find the write chords and melodies and meter for the lyrics. Everything seemed to sound contrived to me, and this wasn’t a song that would work if I had to force it. So I kept running every day to see what other bit of inspiration would come to me.

One day in late June, I was running and trying to think of how I could sing a song to someone and propose a course of action that we both knew was stupid…but we’d do it anyway. Soon I came up with a line very much like “Everybody knows that running away is a fairy tale ending, but I’d regret asking you to run away with me tonight”.

I repeated the line to myself for the rest of my run and completely ignored my need for a shower once I got home. This song was ready to be written. I can’t attribute my next impulse to anything, except perhaps my need to write on an instrument other than piano because my fingers tend to play what they’ve already played hundreds of times before. So I picked up my out-of-tune, unamplified electric guitar and proceeded to jam away on a B chord. I liked the idea of using barre chords so that I could choke the strings easily and create a percussive sound. After I played the B chord, it seemed natural to follow it with the ii and the V chord, because I had tried singing the line to that progression. I thought of what I could say to justify my feelings, and debunk my relationship’s potential affiliation with the terms “star-crossed” or “ships in the night”. I wanted to prove everyone wrong, myself included, and just say something honest, sweet, and green. Not naive, green. 

An hour later, I had written my latest song – all of the words (except the bridge, that would come 2 weeks later), all of the chords, I even had ideas for the solo that I would play on piano.

All this is a great way to write a song. 

But I’ve had to fix a lot since last June. The song had me singing a B in my falsetto, and everything else in the song was strained head voice. I’m still not convinced this was a terrible idea, but I’ve been unable to sing this damn song for the last two months – time to change the key!

Also a bad idea – writing a song entirely with barre chords when you don’t know proper guitar technique. 

Bad idea #3: buying a brand new acoustic guitar just for one song that you can’t even play!

So for the last 10 months or so, I’ve struggled with what instrument to play this song on, which key to put it in, what other instruments to include, and mostly, how I should translate it to piano. 

You all will have the answers to these struggles very soon. My song “Fairy Tale Ending” will be performed, in its new key and solidified style this Friday at the Elbo Room, somewhere between 9 PM and 12 AM, on piano and vocals. The master recording will still have the guitar as the driving rhythmic component, and hopefully very soon I will have that recording ready for you to all hear. Stay tuned, and come see me Friday to hear the song for yourself. 

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