Tag Archives: songwriting

The Bad Old Days?

 

I admit it. I was tremendously unhappy in my early twenties.

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I had been dating a girl whom I had thought was “the one,” only to discover that she was losing interest. I didn’t understand it at the time, but she was growing up, and I wasn’t. Eventually, the whole thing just unraveled badly, and I wrote a tsunami of negativity-fueled music. Oh, the angst!

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The good news is that I met someone much better, and married her, and this has been working out well ever since.  But as I finally grew up, my young angst waned, and I discovered that I had learned how to write from all new previously-untapped emotional places. Nothing fuels one to write sad songs like having experienced real heartache.

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In the midst of my emotional repairs, I had become fascinated with early-sixties Southwestern musical landscapes. I set out to write several songs in this vein, and only succeeded in finishing one (and it may not even sound like what I thought it should). That song is “Catapulting Wishes.”

I imagined this whole story:

There’s this old farmer. Farmer? I don’t know. But he lives out in this wide barren area. In his youth, he set out to start a farm or a business or something, and it was successful for a short time. The town was starting to grow and thrive. He married his sweetheart, and they prepared for a nice life. But then, the interstate went through, or the factory moved, or the mine closed. The town shrank, the farm withered, whatever. Finally it was just the two of them scraping by, hoping that next month… maybe the month after that… or after that… something would change.

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Finally, something changed. One day, she was gone. Maybe she left? Maybe she died?  Like I said, I don’t know. You write the story!

But the image around which I built the whole song was that he has taken all of the scrap lumber from the shed, and built a catapult. Now instead of just “wishing upon a star,” he has assembled this tragic contraption to launch his wishes at the stars. Just like he spent his youth trying to build a life in the wrong place, now he’s spending all this time and energy wishing and wishing and wishing.

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My old band Lux recorded this song, right when our sound was changing from something angsty and perhaps Grunge-y like Soundgarden, into something more mellow and ambient. It seemed like a good idea to mix all our sounds together on one album. That worked for bands like The Beatles, Zeppelin, and The Rolling Stones, right? Well, in our case, everyone found something to dislike on that album. It fell rather flat, and we all went on to other things. So “Catapulting Wishes” could really be the theme of that whole experience.

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I managed to save all of the original tracks of that album. Periodically, I mess around with them. A couple of years ago, I decided to redo my guitars and vocals (the recordings were pretty terrible). So I kept the original drums, added some percussion, re-recorded the bass, and see what I could make of it.

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["This? Why I could make a hat, or a brooch, or a pterodactyl."]

As is common, I set it down, and forgot about it. So I just dug it back up on a Sunday night, re-re-recorded one guitar track, and mixed it on a Monday. On Tuesday, I put a clumsy video together.  Check it out.

Have you ever managed to capture your own melancholy in art; a story, a visual medium, a song, or something else? Have you ever created something that turned out to perfectly sum up a whole experience, before that experience was even over? Speak, my people!

 

Being an Inspired Guitarist in the Modern Church

This one may touch a nerve, so I apologize in advance.

Let me first say that it’s my great honor to have played with some of the area’s finest musicians in several of the region’s largest houses of worship. I don’t mean that they’re “good for church players.” I mean that they’re considered GREAT by anyone who hears them anywhere.

Therefore, it grieves me that since I’ve gotten to be among such fine players, as a rule, christian/worship music is so derivative and unremarkable. Certainly, it is  expertly produced, copying all the most successful current formulas, but it covers no new ground. Now it’s considered provocative or edgy only if someone writes a phrase like “wet sloppy kiss.” I neither want to know the artist nor hear the song. Don’t tell me. Just. No.

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I’m not convinced that these people know what deep, real songwriting entails. It can’t just be something quickly scribbled out in response to s brief emotional surge (though I concede that could legitimately happen occasionally). If the net result is a lyric that rhymes “praise” with “days” again, it might be time for a new writing scenario.

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I’m not sure what chord he thinks he’s playing. 

Check out this example: Regardless of your opinions on the band or the song, Led Zeppelin spent THREE YEARS writing Kashmir. First, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant traveled through the East, absorbing music and culture. Afterward, Page began writing a part he found interesting. The band began working on it together after he brought the idea in. Three years after the writing started, they completed what is generally considered their finest work. Here’s a more detailed account from Wikipedia:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kashmir_(song)

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Here’s another one:  Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody was an idea being kicked around for a while. There is some indication that Freddie Mercury had been writing parts of it as early as the late sixties. When the song was released in 1975, they had spent three straight weeks RECORDING it (after the writing process was finished). From Wikipedia – “May, Mercury and Taylor reportedly sang their vocal parts continually for ten to twelve hours a day. [emphasis mine] The entire piece took three weeks to record, and in some sections featured 180 separate overdubs.” Read up on it here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bohemian_Rhapsody

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Let’s be honest. Christian/worship songwriters are clearly not investing this amount of time or attention, at least in the music-composition… OK, and yeah, probably not the lyrics either. The genre seems desperate to make the smallest possible changes to its formulas, and it shows. There are no innovations or departures, only safe repetitions, tendered over and over again.

So how can this subset of the music industry move into a new era of creative growth? I think the MUSIC ITSELF has to be inspired. When you hear Kashmir, the music speaks volumes before Plant sings a syllable. It took a long time of trial and error to arrive on the sounds that were being used, and the parts each instrument played. This is what christian/worship music needs to do- something new, inspired and different… something AUTHENTIC.

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An artist friend of mine attempted to pay me a compliment a couple of years ago. He said, “There’s something so worshipful about the way you play guitar.” What he tried to convey in that statement was that there was a distinct mood that was being created, and that it ushered him in to a place of deeper spiritual communion. Well, that’s exactly what I have tried to do all the time, no matter where I played (most of which was outside of the church). Success! As an artist, I want to move people emotionally/spiritually. If I’m not playing something that inspires ME, how can I expect to inspire others. That’s MY authenticity, for good or bad. It can’t just be default chords and the coolest effects. The actual phrases that I’m playing need to be saying something.

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I include this picture only because it’s awesome and hilarious.

I approach what I do with great care, and a thousand questions, like… What sound am I going to make? Which guitar does it best? Which pickup? What notes/chords/fragments/phrases? Is it better to play the notes low on the neck, on the higher strings, or high on the neck on the lower strings? Will I use a different type of pick for this song? Slide? Ebow? What effects? Should I play more in concert with the song’s mood or should I add contrast?

Then I’m interested in seeing how I can get the rest of the band to interact with that.

Caution: Not everyone is ready to make changes.  Worship leaders, in particular, are usually successful by perpetuating the status quo, so they have no pressing need to change their game (understandable). In my modest experience, they tend to be resistant to ideas that don’t originate with themselves or other worship leaders. If you press, you might find yourself sitting at home on Sundays.

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“Look, they really just want to hear me doing the same thing I did last week.”

If you’re a guitarist (or any musician) playing in a modern church, what can you do to drive your music team into a new place of authentic expression? Do you just copy the trends because the trends are what your bandmates expect to hear? Or do you reach for something beyond the music; something you hear in your heart/mind that you’re inspired to find on your fretboard (or equivalent)?  I will always try to bring the full measure of my influences and inspiration to my playing, either inside or outside the church. What about you?

Sound off.