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Posts tagged "songwriting"

Sep 16, 2014
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My working process is no doubt much the same as yours and the same as many other people. The artistic process seems to be mythologized quite a lot into something far greater than it actually is. It is just hard labor… As anyone who actually writes knows, if you sit down and are prepared, then the ideas come. There’s a lot of different ways people explain that, but, you know, I find that if I sit down and I prepare myself, generally things get done.

Jul 28, 2014
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The only lyrics I’m really interested in are the lyrics I find, not the ones I invent… You just have no idea that’s a thought that you had. It surprises you. It can make me laugh or make me emotional. When it happens and I’m the audience and I react, I have faith in that because I’m already reacting. I don’t have to question it. I’ve already been the audience. But if I make it up, knowing where it’s going, it’s not as much fun. It may be just as good, but it’s more fun to discover it.
Paul Simon, quoted in Songwriters on Songwriting

Jul 23, 2014
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Paul McCartney and John Lennon writing “I Saw Her Standing There,” 1962

I looked this photo up after reading about it in Joshua Shenk’s Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs:


  One late November afternoon in 1962, John Lennon and Paul McCartney got together to write at Paul’s house at 20 Forthlin Road in Liverpool. Their ritual was to come around in the afternoon, just the two of them, when Paul’s dad was at work. They would go to the small front room overlooking Jim McCartney’s patch of garden and sit opposite each other. “Like mirrors,” Paul said.
  
  John sat on a chair pulled in from the dining room. He had his Jumbo Gibson acoustic-electric with a sunburst finish. Paul sat on a little table in front of the telly with his foot on the hearth of the coal fireplace. He played a Spanish-style guitar with nylon strings, strung in reverse for a lefty. In a photography shot by Paul’s brother, Michael, they’re both looking down at a notebook on the floor, filled with lyrics…
  
  …Years later, Paul told his brother that he loved his photo of the “I Saw Her Standing There” writing session because it captured how it really was—”the Rodgers and Hammerstein of pop at work.” Writing “eyeball to eyeball,” as John said, they weren’t just frontmen for a rock group; they were composers working in concert.


There’s a Lennon/McCartney excerpt of the book over at the Atlantic.

Photo credit: Mike McCartney, image via britishbeatlemania

Filed under: The Beatles

Paul McCartney and John Lennon writing “I Saw Her Standing There,” 1962

I looked this photo up after reading about it in Joshua Shenk’s Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs:

One late November afternoon in 1962, John Lennon and Paul McCartney got together to write at Paul’s house at 20 Forthlin Road in Liverpool. Their ritual was to come around in the afternoon, just the two of them, when Paul’s dad was at work. They would go to the small front room overlooking Jim McCartney’s patch of garden and sit opposite each other. “Like mirrors,” Paul said.

John sat on a chair pulled in from the dining room. He had his Jumbo Gibson acoustic-electric with a sunburst finish. Paul sat on a little table in front of the telly with his foot on the hearth of the coal fireplace. He played a Spanish-style guitar with nylon strings, strung in reverse for a lefty. In a photography shot by Paul’s brother, Michael, they’re both looking down at a notebook on the floor, filled with lyrics…

…Years later, Paul told his brother that he loved his photo of the “I Saw Her Standing There” writing session because it captured how it really was—”the Rodgers and Hammerstein of pop at work.” Writing “eyeball to eyeball,” as John said, they weren’t just frontmen for a rock group; they were composers working in concert.

There’s a Lennon/McCartney excerpt of the book over at the Atlantic.

Photo credit: Mike McCartney, image via britishbeatlemania

Filed under: The Beatles

Jun 24, 2014
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Mo’ Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove

I actually picked this up after I read his Soul Train coffee table book. Good read. Like with the Soul Train book, you’re going to want to keep Rdio or Spotify handy, so you can make a playlist of all the tracks you’ve never heard.

Here’s Dwight Garner (damn, he’s a great reviewer):


  Whenever I read a book by a musician, groupie, rock critic, producer, record mogul or roadie, on the end pages I keep a running tally of the songs I’m aching to download when the reading is done. Most times, the longer the list, the better the book… The end pages on my copy [of Mo’ Meta Blues] are crammed with song titles; they resemble the back of a popular girl’s senior yearbook…. I suspect I’m going to be listening to more Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield, Prince, the Isley Brothers, Rufus, Public Enemy and D’Angelo than I have for a long time.


The title of the book is a nod to the Spike Lee movie Mo’ Better Blues, and this scene in particular, which The Roots used for the opening of Things Fall Apart, a debate between Denzel Washington and Wesley Snipes on staying true to your artistic vision and giving the audience what they want:




  "If we had to depend upon black people to eat, we would starve to death," says Bleek. "I mean, you’ve been out there, you’re on the bandstand, you look out into the audience, what do you see? You see Japanese, you see, you see West Germans, you see, you know, Slabobic, anything except our people—it makes no sense. It incenses me that our own people don’t realize our own heritage, our own culture, this is our music, man." Shadow disagrees. "That’s bullshit…the people don’t come because you grandiose motherfuckers don’t play shit that they like. If you played the shit that they like, then people would come, simple as that." Deciding who is right is part of what makes for a compelling intro.


As Questlove explains:


  That problem—how to stay true to our idea of our music and also be appropriately inviting to audiences, how to court audiences without compromising the music we were making—was something that had plagued us since the beginning.”


He talks about finding a “Stupid Human Trick,” or a gimmick, to hook folks:


  a band needs something to elevate it above other the fray. The secret weapon was often something we called a Stupid Human Trick, borrowing the idea from David Letterman… what was the wildcard for the rest of the people, the ones who were afflicted with cultural ADD? The Stupid Human Trick was something that would draw them in, an indisputably entertaining novelty.


And at one point Questlove talks about putting out a new record and says, “I wasn’t worried about our audience. They would follow us or they wouldn’t—I was used to losing about half our audience each time and picking up new fans.” That sort of knocked me out, the idea you’d lose 1/2 your fans with each album. “It’s a cliché, maybe, but one that turns out to be true: when you start making stuff for other people, that’s when you lose yourself.”

And finally, comes to some kind of synthesis:


  Acrobats love to talk about working without a net like it’s the bravest thing in the world. But the thing about working without a net is that if you fall, you die. It’s better to work with a net, and to know that you can attempt the tricky maneuver without permanent consequences. It’s an answer to the dialogue between Bleek and Shadow in Mo’ Better Blues, or maybe just a third voice in the conversation.


I cut and pasted some more favorite sections below.

On memory:


  Sometimes I only remember things through records. They’re a trigger for me, they’re Pavlov’s bell. Without thinking about the music, I can’t remember the experience. But if I think long enough about a specific album, something else always bubbles up…. I had two kinds of experiences that I mapped to memories: records that were played in the house or on the radio, and Soul Train. Every memory of mine is paired with one of those two things.


On reviews:


  I write the reviews for my own records. Almost no one knows this, but when I am making a Roots record, I write the review I think the album will receive and lay out the page just like it’s a Rolling Stone page from when I was ten or eleven. I draw the cover image in miniature and chicken-scratch in a fake byline. It’s the only way I really know how to imagine what I think the record is. And as it turns out, most of the time the record ends up pretty close to what I say it is in the review.


On sampling and Roland Barthes:


  I had a friend who tried to explain Roland Barthes to me; not all of it, of course, but that one little principle about how a text is not a unified thing, but a fragmentary or divisible thing, and that the reader is the one who divides it up, arbitrarily. Reading is the act that creates the pieces. I wasn’t totally sure I understood it—I’m still not sure—but it sounded like what was happening with the SK-1. You, as the listener, pick a piece of sound, a snippet of speech, or a drumbeat, and you separate that from everything around it. That’s now a brick that you have in your hand, and you use it to build a new wall.


On what happened to hip-hop:


  Something changed when commerce arrived. Good and bad stopped mattering; only effective and ineffective mattered. Whether a record worked on an audience became the standard, rather than whether or not it was any good…  [There was] a new era of conspicuous consumption and conspicuous charisma. In “Bad Boy for Life,” P. Diddy rapped, “Don’t worry if I write rhymes / I write checks,” and that became more than just a clever aside, it was his style of hip-hop. Virtuosity disappeared and this other kind of skill—a ringmaster skill, something closer to what you’d find in a corporate manager—emerged.


On having a day job:


  The Fallon show is a day job in the best sense. We’re in by noon and gone by seven, and in between we make a show. It’s highly structured, and as a result, the opportunities we have for creativity are really distilled: not reduced at all, but disciplined, forced into existing forms and packages.


And some good lines:

I write things because I want to get to the point where I have written things. (Ben Greenman)  
What a shitty way to go through life, hiding your love for music so that people don’t think the wrong things about you.  
Switching off perfection switched on the human quality.  
I feel like my cultural value comes from my role as a bridge. My job is to connect brilliant have-nots to the land of haves.  
How do you plan a rebirth? I’m not sure you do. You just stand in the darkness until you can’t endure it any longer, and then you move forward until you’re standing in the light.
It’s a funny word, persistence. It means not giving up, but it also means just passing on through time.
When you live your life through records, the records are a record of your life.™ (Is this really trademarked?)
I was an indoor kid with a tendency to fall inward. 
Recommended.

Mo’ Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove

I actually picked this up after I read his Soul Train coffee table book. Good read. Like with the Soul Train book, you’re going to want to keep Rdio or Spotify handy, so you can make a playlist of all the tracks you’ve never heard.

Here’s Dwight Garner (damn, he’s a great reviewer):

Whenever I read a book by a musician, groupie, rock critic, producer, record mogul or roadie, on the end pages I keep a running tally of the songs I’m aching to download when the reading is done. Most times, the longer the list, the better the book… The end pages on my copy [of Mo’ Meta Blues] are crammed with song titles; they resemble the back of a popular girl’s senior yearbook…. I suspect I’m going to be listening to more Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield, Prince, the Isley Brothers, Rufus, Public Enemy and D’Angelo than I have for a long time.

The title of the book is a nod to the Spike Lee movie Mo’ Better Blues, and this scene in particular, which The Roots used for the opening of Things Fall Apart, a debate between Denzel Washington and Wesley Snipes on staying true to your artistic vision and giving the audience what they want:

"If we had to depend upon black people to eat, we would starve to death," says Bleek. "I mean, you’ve been out there, you’re on the bandstand, you look out into the audience, what do you see? You see Japanese, you see, you see West Germans, you see, you know, Slabobic, anything except our people—it makes no sense. It incenses me that our own people don’t realize our own heritage, our own culture, this is our music, man." Shadow disagrees. "That’s bullshit…the people don’t come because you grandiose motherfuckers don’t play shit that they like. If you played the shit that they like, then people would come, simple as that." Deciding who is right is part of what makes for a compelling intro.

As Questlove explains:

That problem—how to stay true to our idea of our music and also be appropriately inviting to audiences, how to court audiences without compromising the music we were making—was something that had plagued us since the beginning.”

He talks about finding a “Stupid Human Trick,” or a gimmick, to hook folks:

a band needs something to elevate it above other the fray. The secret weapon was often something we called a Stupid Human Trick, borrowing the idea from David Letterman… what was the wildcard for the rest of the people, the ones who were afflicted with cultural ADD? The Stupid Human Trick was something that would draw them in, an indisputably entertaining novelty.

And at one point Questlove talks about putting out a new record and says, “I wasn’t worried about our audience. They would follow us or they wouldn’t—I was used to losing about half our audience each time and picking up new fans.” That sort of knocked me out, the idea you’d lose 1/2 your fans with each album. “It’s a cliché, maybe, but one that turns out to be true: when you start making stuff for other people, that’s when you lose yourself.”

And finally, comes to some kind of synthesis:

Acrobats love to talk about working without a net like it’s the bravest thing in the world. But the thing about working without a net is that if you fall, you die. It’s better to work with a net, and to know that you can attempt the tricky maneuver without permanent consequences. It’s an answer to the dialogue between Bleek and Shadow in Mo’ Better Blues, or maybe just a third voice in the conversation.

I cut and pasted some more favorite sections below.

On memory:

Sometimes I only remember things through records. They’re a trigger for me, they’re Pavlov’s bell. Without thinking about the music, I can’t remember the experience. But if I think long enough about a specific album, something else always bubbles up…. I had two kinds of experiences that I mapped to memories: records that were played in the house or on the radio, and Soul Train. Every memory of mine is paired with one of those two things.

On reviews:

I write the reviews for my own records. Almost no one knows this, but when I am making a Roots record, I write the review I think the album will receive and lay out the page just like it’s a Rolling Stone page from when I was ten or eleven. I draw the cover image in miniature and chicken-scratch in a fake byline. It’s the only way I really know how to imagine what I think the record is. And as it turns out, most of the time the record ends up pretty close to what I say it is in the review.

On sampling and Roland Barthes:

I had a friend who tried to explain Roland Barthes to me; not all of it, of course, but that one little principle about how a text is not a unified thing, but a fragmentary or divisible thing, and that the reader is the one who divides it up, arbitrarily. Reading is the act that creates the pieces. I wasn’t totally sure I understood it—I’m still not sure—but it sounded like what was happening with the SK-1. You, as the listener, pick a piece of sound, a snippet of speech, or a drumbeat, and you separate that from everything around it. That’s now a brick that you have in your hand, and you use it to build a new wall.

On what happened to hip-hop:

Something changed when commerce arrived. Good and bad stopped mattering; only effective and ineffective mattered. Whether a record worked on an audience became the standard, rather than whether or not it was any good… [There was] a new era of conspicuous consumption and conspicuous charisma. In “Bad Boy for Life,” P. Diddy rapped, “Don’t worry if I write rhymes / I write checks,” and that became more than just a clever aside, it was his style of hip-hop. Virtuosity disappeared and this other kind of skill—a ringmaster skill, something closer to what you’d find in a corporate manager—emerged.

On having a day job:

The Fallon show is a day job in the best sense. We’re in by noon and gone by seven, and in between we make a show. It’s highly structured, and as a result, the opportunities we have for creativity are really distilled: not reduced at all, but disciplined, forced into existing forms and packages.

And some good lines:

  • I write things because I want to get to the point where I have written things. (Ben Greenman)
  • What a shitty way to go through life, hiding your love for music so that people don’t think the wrong things about you.
  • Switching off perfection switched on the human quality.
  • I feel like my cultural value comes from my role as a bridge. My job is to connect brilliant have-nots to the land of haves.
  • How do you plan a rebirth? I’m not sure you do. You just stand in the darkness until you can’t endure it any longer, and then you move forward until you’re standing in the light.
  • It’s a funny word, persistence. It means not giving up, but it also means just passing on through time.
  • When you live your life through records, the records are a record of your life.™ (Is this really trademarked?)
  • I was an indoor kid with a tendency to fall inward.

Recommended.

Jun 20, 2014
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The history of “Try A Little Tenderness”: from Tin Pan Alley to Watch The Throne

One of my favorite songs is Otis Redding’s cut of “Try A Little Tenderness.” Here he is doing it live in 1967.

The song has an interesting history. It’s first incarnation was written in the Tin Pan Alley heyday, in 1933, by the songwriting duo Jimmy Campbell and Reg Connelly with composer Harry M. Woods. It was first done by Ray Noble and his orchestra:

Ted Lewis had a minor hit with it, and other artists later in 1933 recorded it, like Ruth Etting and Bing Crosby:

And then a bunch of artists did it over the years, including Frank Sinatra. But Aretha Franklin was the first well-known black artist to record it, in 1962:

From Soulsville, USA: The Story Of Stax Records:

Columbia records was attempting to market Franklin as a pop singer and consequently recorded her singing any number of Tin Pan Alley standards replete with pop string arrangements. These records were a far cry from her later Atlantic rhythm and blues hits in terms of instrumentation, arrangement, and performance style. That said, Franklin cannot and does not completely shed her gospel background and consequently, at least to a small degree, transforms the song when compared to the Crosby and Sinatra recordings.

When Sam Cooke heard it, he chose to sing it at the Copa, “attempting to appeal to an older white, middle- and upper-class audience”:

And now we’re getting somewhere. Otis Redding’s manager, Phil Walden, had been trying to talk him into doing the song for a while. Walden recalls:

I remember he called me late at night and he said, “You know that song you’ve been on my ass about recording, ‘Try A Little Tenderness’? I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘I cut that motherfucker. It’s a brand-new song.

And so it was. But get this lineup: the Stax label’s house band was Booker T and the MGs, and Isaac Hayes was producing and arranging (and playing the organ) with the Mar-Key horns.

More from Soulsville, USA:

Isaac Hayes was responsible for much [of the arrangement], including the three-part contrapuntal horn line in the intro (inspired by the strings on Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come”) and the cymbal break in the climax (which Hayes later reused on “Theme from Shaft”). The idea of having Al Jackson lay out during the first verse and then come in on the second verse of the song simply by tapping quarter-beats on the rim of the snare came about accidentally when the drummer idly tapped along while Redding was running down the tune.

There’s also a ton of ad-libbing by Redding, some of which incorporates lyrics from the Duke Ellington song, “Just Squeeze Me (But Don’t Tease Me)”:

The song took only three takes. Here’s the final result:

And of course, about 50 years later, Kanye West and Jay-Z sampled the song for their track “Otis,” off Watch The Throne:

Jun 13, 2014
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Lyrics are really the last very hard problem in music. Software and hardware have changed music dramatically in the last thirty or forty years. It’s very, very easy to make pretty good music. I could take anyone in this room, and within two hours, we could make a pretty good music. (Pretty good isn’t very interesting, but pretty good is possible.) But writing songs is just about in the same place it was in the days of Chaucer.

May 14, 2014
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Your legacy isn’t something you always choose. Sometimes it’s chosen for you.
Alfred Darlington, better known as Daedelus, whose song “Experience” was remixed by MadLib for “Accordian

Apr 27, 2014
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Stories of how songs were written

I tweeted this a few days ago and got some excellent responses, so I wanted to share them here:

Paul Zollo’s Songwriters on Songwriting seems to be the classic text on the subject

Bill Flanagan’s Written in My Soul: Conversations with Rock’s Great Songwriters (Flanagan went on to create VH1’s Storytellers)

American Songwriter has regular stories about songs, of course (here’s one on Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane”)

The NYTimes’ “Measure for Measure” blog, where “Songwriters pull back the curtain on their creative process”

The Guardian’s “How We Made” series where “two collaborators on a seminal art work talk us through their original creative process.” Several of the columns are about songs: the Four Tops’ “Reach Out,” Ben E. King and Mike Stoller on “Stand By Me,” The Kinks on “You Really Got Me,” etc.

The blog Songwriters on Process (here’s an interview with Kurt Wagner of Lambchop)

The podcast Song Exploder, though not necessarily about songwriting, is great for recording nerds

What am I missing?

Apr 05, 2014
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The Ultimate Fan Extras Collection

mlarson:

lacienegasmiled:

Demo of Beat It composed using only Michael Jackson’s voice

As Jackson couldn’t fluently play any instruments, he would sing and beatbox out how he wanted his songs to sound by himself on tape, layering the vocals, harmonies and rhythm before having instrumentalists come in to complete the songs.

One of his engineers Robmix on how Jackson worked: “One morning MJ came in with a new song he had written overnight. We called in a guitar player, and Michael sang every note of every chord to him. “here’s the first chord first note, second note, third note. Here’s the second chord first note, second note, third note”, etc., etc. We then witnessed him giving the most heartfelt and profound vocal performance, live in the control room through an SM57. He would sing us an entire string arrangement, every part. Steve Porcaro once told me he witnessed MJ doing that with the string section in the room. Had it all in his head, harmony and everything. Not just little eight bar loop ideas. he would actually sing the entire arrangement into a micro-cassette recorder complete with stops and fills.”

Reasons why I laugh when people say he wasn’t a real musician.

Dang. Dude was good.

Incredible.

(Source: harrattanparhar)

Feb 26, 2014
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Paul Weller Interviews Curtis Mayfield

Paul Weller interviewing his hero, the late Curtis Mayfield, most likely before Mayfield’s gig at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz club in the Soho area of London on 31st July 1988.

This is a nice little interview. (Puzzled about the Weller connection? The Jam covered Mayfield’s “Move On Up.”)

I like what Mayfield says here about depth:

I like to go in depth as to where I know without a doubt that those who receive me understand me. I know they breathe, I know they cry, I know they’re hurt, I know they love, I know they hate. They have all these different feelings. When you speak in terms of depth rather than ride along the shallow surfaces, they can only give you one true reaction as to what you’re talking about.

What a beautiful man.

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