Like most rock-based musicians, I'm self-taught. I've been blessed with a good ear, and in my early days I found it easier and more natural to learn what I needed to by copying chords and riffs directly from my favourite records. Formal music training seemed like the long way around. Mum taught piano, so I picked up bits and pieces of music theory just the same—enough to get me by.
So, I kind of surprised myself a month ago when I signed up for a group harmony and composition class that starts tonight. It's four sessions, with the possibility of continuing on if I can afford it and am getting something out of it. I don't feel I need lessons, necessarily; it's more of an experiment. I suppose after all these years, I've become open to the possibility that a bit of formal training might steer my songwriting in new and interesting directions.
I'm glad, too, that I took the plunge before the confirmation e-mail cheerily told me that "the prerequisite for this group is knowledge of all key signatures and 12 major, harmonic, and melodic minor scales." Gulp! I cobbled together a cheat sheet containing the circle of fifths and those helpful mnemonic devices telling the story of Father Charles and the battle he ended (or the battle that ended him). I can't yet claim "knowledge" of key signatures, scales and their attendant chords, but I am hoping the cheat sheet will help. For now, I'm concentrating on those keys with three or fewer sharps or flats. I mean, who willingly plays or composes in, I don't know, Db?
To counter the heaviness I associate with formal music study, I've added some levity by springing for a kiddie keyboard, the Casio SA-46. With 32 mini-keys and 100 sounds, it's fun, it's portable (I can fit it in my backpack and bring it to class), and I can practise my scales on goofy voices like Bandoneon, Synth Brass 1 and Space Choir. I say this only half in jest; some of the SA-46's voices are astoundingly good. It also contains 50 rhythm patterns if you want to play your scales and chords to a trance, salsa or bhangra beat, among others. For only $50 it packs quite a punch, as useful for songwriters working on the fly as children taking their first foray into the world of music.
So, my kiddie keyboard and I are off to our first class tonight. I'm cautiously optimistic, while at the same time hoping I won't be in over my head. Regardless, I think Mum is smiling down from above, and I thank her for my very early introduction to the gift of music.
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Songs can come from the strangest places. Last week I was biking to work, stopped at a red light at King and Spadina. All the while there's a busker on the corner, strumming what sounds like the opening riff to The Who's So Sad About Us. Just your basic folk-rock riff in A; nothing terribly special, right?
Green. I proceed through the intersection and suddenly, an original melody pops into my head over that riff, complete with nonsense words: "Saw a rabbit just the other day, uh-huh." We call these "dummy lyrics" in the music biz: something to hang the tune on until the real words are written at a later date. A famous example: "Scrambled eggs, oh, my baby, how I love your legs" ... which became "Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away."
Anyway, I ride along Wellington Street, singing continuously about the rabbit I didn't actually see so I wouldn't forget it. A short time later, I pull into my workplace and park the bike. I'm 15 minutes early and have my portable voice recorder with me, so I can hang out in the parking lot and start turning this doggerel into a song now.
In situations like this where I have no access to an instrument, I'll hum riffs and melodies and give myself instructions where necessary, like "now change to D." Following where the melody leads, I might be lucky enough to write a complete part. In this case, I got a full verse and about a quarter of a chorus, and my 48-second work tape ends with me humming an F# and saying, "minor chord here." And really, all I knew about my new composition at this point is it wouldn't be about rabbits.
Six days later, I've finished a song called "Making Rainbows from the Sun." My original melody and chords, as far as they went, have remained intact. The key is now E, not A—actually, my work tape was in Bb because the busker's guitar was out of tune—and what do you know, I ditched the rabbit but kept the "uh-huh." I do, however, thank the mysterious hare for transporting me from here to there. Props to the busker and Pete Townshend, too! And that's but one wacky example of how a song can come out of nowhere.
Last Sunday's mass shooting on the Danforth left me shaken, perhaps more so because I live in the neighbourhood next door. I heard about it half an hour after it happened, and for the rest of the night I was riveted to live news feeds as the horrific details trickled in. On Monday afternoon I had an errand to run near there, and I walked along Danforth Avenue in a daze, just trying to process my feelings.
By then, the focus of the coverage had shifted to how the survivors comforted and assisted the victims until the paramedics arrived. Human stories of raw love and compassion began to emerge from the mayhem. I was especially touched by the tale of nine-year-old Violet Thomson, an area resident who'd hand-picked flowers from her garden and was handing them out along the Danforth. When asked why, she simply replied, "because of what happened last night." Here's Violet getting ready to perform her good work (photos by Albert Leung/CBC) ...
... and giving flowers to a police officer on the scene.
Now, it so happens that in the few days preceding the shooting, I'd been working on a new song. As is my usual process, I worked out the chord sequence, strung the individual parts together and overlaid a wordless melody line. As for the lyrics, I hadn't planned on writing about the tragedy; that is, until I read about Violet and saw these touching images. So, with heartfelt gratitude to Violet Thomson, Md Ashaduzamman, Linda Falagario and those whose names didn't make the news, here's a song inspired by their love, courage and compassion, "Violet's Giving Flowers Away."
Trying to reclaim what’s yours and mine
Shaken as we are, waiting on that morning star to heal this scar
I’m not saying I know there’s enough to go around
But on this blackest night, here’s where compassion was found
She cried and sutured his wound, as ammo polluted the room
And Violet’s giving flowers away on the Danforth today
Saw this sign that’s louder than the gun
“Love for all and hatred for none”
I pray with heavy heart when innocents get torn apart before they start
© 2018 Vern Nicholson (SOCAN)
Now that the CD is out, I've returned to one of the things I love best: songwriting. And I'm here to tell you that songs can come from some pretty odd places.
In November I took a train trip to Cornwall, and between Via's attendants handing out Remembrance Day poppies, the music I was listening to on the way (Miles Davis Quintet, Live in Europe 1967), a piano sitting in a downtown square with jammed keys and a bit of research on the Lost Villages, I came up with a tune called "Lost Villages Wail." (It's not really about the Lost Villages—they provided me with good metaphorical meat, though.)
I generally write chords first, then melody, then words. If nothing comes spontaneously I go back to my "bits," those fragments I've recorded that on their own are little more than promising parts lasting no more than 10 seconds. If I'm lucky, I can string two or three together in the same song, but more often than not I create the music from scratch around one strong bit. And again, if I'm lucky, sometimes I get a melody so evocative that the words practically write themselves. That's what happened with December's new song, "The Lord's Glue."
This month's new song, "Let Love Strum You," springs from a truly bizarre source: a lumber outlet jingle I heard on a baseball broadcast. I pilfered the chords and melody verbatim, made it my chorus, and wrote the rest of the music around it. For the lyrics, I drew inspiration from this poem by John O'Donohue that I saw in a church bulletin. Nothing was used verbatim; I simply borrowed a few of his words, then filled in the rest. In fact, the tone of my lyrics differs considerably from that of the poem.
Words and music—they really are everywhere if you look. And all this is coming reasonably soon, I hope, on my next album, Days of Secret Seeing.
So, I trekked out to Mississauga recently for a music clinic. Don't know if I picked up much of what the instructor tried to impart, but I sure gained some insight into my musical self.
Some people—and our dear instructor, a jazz musician, is clearly in this camp—pick up an instrument in order to gain proficiency, if not mastery. Which is, on the surface, fair enough; after all, it's pretty hard to make music without knowing your way around at least one instrument, even if it's your own voice. The goal is to practise, practise, practise and just maybe, you'll become the next Eddie Van Halen or Joe Satriani. And I must confess, I worshipped at the altar of technique when I first picked up the bass guitar years ago. My early influences were giants of the electric bass: Chris Squire, Phil Lesh and above all, the magnificent Jack Casady. In retrospect, it served me well to aim that high, as it soon became apparent that steady practice, a few lessons and some basic music theory (thanks, Mom) were the bare essentials needed to even approach my idols' prowess. Never got there, but I did learn how to play reasonably decent bass.
But you know, a funny thing happened on the way to Billy Sheehan: I fell in love with songwriting, arrangement and production. I came to understand that what I really wanted to do was write great songs and make great-sounding records. And to accomplish that, I had to do two things: acquaint myself with a variety of instruments and figure out what makes a song work. Thirty years later, I'm still working on both.
In terms of technique, this means I've become a generalist, not a specialist. I'd rather play ten instruments adequately, and in some cases barely, than one brilliantly. In my experience most "musos" (technicians) find this sort of attitude absolutely baffling. Case in point: the clinic instructor was dismissive of cowboy chords, urging us (presumed) muso guitarists not to limit ourselves to such mundane forms of musical expression. And sure, run-of-the-mill players like me play easy-strum chords partly because we're lazy and inept. Guilty as charged. However, the main reason I and thousands of songwriters use them is because they sound so good. There's something to be said for the shimmering overtones of open strings ringing out, especially in folk and rock.
In the end, perhaps it's a matter of differing tastes. I suppose if you're excited by flurries of notes, unusual scales and metres and convoluted jazz chords, my ringing easy-strum G chord would bore the pants off you. Conversely, if you'd take Roger McGuinn's opening lick to "Mr. Tambourine Man" over any Eddie Van Halen or Joe Satriani lick ever played, you know of what I speak.
Anyway, we did get some swag last night, for which I was most grateful: a pick holder, a circle of fifths poster and a sheet of promotional stickers, and that's where I'll wrap up. One sticker, now on my lyrics binder, really caught my eye. Designed like a name tag, it said, "I Play Guitar Like A ..." inviting us to fill in the blank. I thought about it for a split second and right away, I knew—
I play guitar like a songwriter.
As a songwriter, I often find myself hunting for that one stellar chord sequence or melodic line that really makes a song shine. I'd like to think I've come up with a few on my own but sometimes, one needs a little help.
If done skilfully, what I'm about to outline for you truly is recycling, not outright theft. Case in point: a song I've just written called "Love's Twin Flames." I'd initially set out to write something in the vein of Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd, which I'm happy to say the finished product sounds nothing like. (You know you're on the right track when you try to ape somebody and it still comes out sounding like you.) I did, however, end up borrowing half the chorus of "Arnold Layne" for my bridge, and therein lies the difference between recycling and stealing. If it's their chorus, make it your bridge or verse. Alter the melody, a little or a lot. Change the last chord or three. Put it in a different key or tempo. And obviously, write a new set of lyrics.
Not done yet, I began tinkering with the chorus of Guided By Voices' "Liquid Indian." It's an absolutely killer chorus paired with the most hideous, abstruse verse ever written (I think Robert Pollard, gifted though he is, sometimes takes perverse pleasure in being demented). Ever since I first heard the song I wondered how that lovely chorus—or something like it—would sit in more genteel surroundings. It's been in the back of my mind for some time as a reclamation project, if you will. Again: I changed the melody, put it in a different key, took out a chord and added two new ones, wrote new words, and it's found a new home as the pre-chorus of "Love's Twin Flames."
Recycling can also happen unconsciously. My song "After You" has a pre-chorus sequence that I knew I'd heard before. I couldn't place it for the longest time but eventually found it in a Fairport Convention tune called "Wandering Man." As it turns out, they (unconsciously?) borrowed it too, from Rod Stewart's 1972 hit "You Wear It Well." And despite Rod, the Fairports and I all using this chord sequence, our songs sound nothing alike. That's how you know you're recycling, not stealing.
A variation on the process is deliberately starting to write by playing a snippet of a well-known song, then going off in a new direction. Another new one of mine called "Puis-Je T'Aimer" began life as "Uncle Vern's Band," a thinly veiled reference to the Grateful Dead chestnut "Uncle John's Band." And for about six seconds, my song and the Dead's sound alike (same intro chords, though I changed the key and tempo). After that, I veer off into a universe that's as unlike Garcia/Hunter as chalk and cheese.
One of my favourite recycled songs is The Jam's "In the Crowd," a stellar track from All Mod Cons. Give that a listen, then try The Kinks' "Johnny Thunder" from their 1968 classic The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society. Something sound familiar? Not casting aspersions on Paul Weller, but this really borders on theft: same chords, melody, tempo and even key, I believe. Yet! Both are classic songs, and that one part aside they sound nothing alike. If anything, it's a testament to Weller's genius that he borrowed so literally (and liberally) to create a new and equally brilliant piece of music.
Have you recycled others' material in your writing? What's your favourite recycled bit or song? Comments are welcome.