Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Song Blogging: "Out Of Many Comes One"

This time around Suzanne Vega has written the NY Times songwriter blog, Measure For Measure, describing her process of putting together a new album now that she's coming off the road. For me, what was interesting was the fact that she starts with nuggets of lyrics, some of which may turn into a song and some of which may not.

She also included a few of the nuggets.

This is different from the last blog where the Andrew Bird described himself as mostly a melodicist who "hears" the music first and then allows the words to fall into the music.

So, I thought I might jump into the songwriting process fray by describing how Jim and I wrote our submission for "American Idol."

It began when he reminded me that the deadline was upon us. We had two days to write and record this song.

THIS assignment is to "express the journey" that these singers have taken. The place they are now. The big example on their website, we read, was Kelly Clarkson's "A Moment Like This" by Jörgen Elofsson and John Reid.

This song is the Gold standard for raking in piles of cash -- from the first season. Besides selling over a million copies, from Wikipedia:

The song is also used in television commercials for Sandals Resorts in the UK and United States.

The song is commonly played at sporting events which involve a title (e.g. Super Bowl), this song is played for the winning team of the Super Bowl, NBA Finals, Stanley Cup, and World Series. Especially if the home team wins the title in their hometown.

And since the publishing half of the money will go to the company that owns American Idol, they want to repeat this success. And I want to HELP them repeat this success. (I'm sure the publishing terms will be crappy, but what the heck.)

So, I imagine them sitting around looking for the next "A Moment Like This" only different. Their heads are going to be set in that direction as they pick the final 20 for people to vote on. Yes, it's song by vote.

Here's the problem with this challenge. It's like saying, "Let's create another TV show like Friends."

All you get are a bunch of lame imitations of Friends, none of which anyone can stand to watch. And that's why "This Is My Now," which was chosen last year, just didn't catch on the same way, no disrespect to Jeff Peabody and Scott Krippayne, who I'm sure are very nice people.

So, I felt like we had to find a different way to approaching the subject. I mean John Bettis and Albert Hammond already wrote "One Moment In Time." (And Barbra already sang "I'm Greatest Star"). The subject's been covered.

But the assignment is to describe the journey of the singer. Not to rewrite "A Moment Like This".

I looked over at Jim, without prompting him about "This Is The Moment," and said, "They want a song that describes 'the journey" of these singers. Give me a hook."

He thought for a moment, then a light came on in his eyes and he said, "I got it. Out Of Many, One."

"Perfect!" I wrote it down. Out of many, one. Out of many comes one.

Then he started riffing on it.
Out of many notes comes a melody
Out of many notes comes a song.
Okay. Now I get it. Not "Out of all these people comes me" but out of all of us together, we can create a beautiful whole.

That became The Concept.

The Concept is, for me, the target. The underlying theme. The Thing The Song Is Saying. It's the twist that keeps it from being too obvious. The concept is that we're going to twist the hook to mean something better than "Look at me, look at me, look at me." It "Look at us, look at us, look at us, meaning audience, the producers, the judges, the tech crew. Even the musicians and songwriters! We're making this beautiful moment together."

There is definitely a big cornball risk in taking on a theme this big. Pozitivity and hope and optimism are cornball. We'll be walking a very fine line.

By the way, this is the moment when you realize this could turn into the worst song ever written. A lot of songwriters hit this point when they create and it freezes them. Luckily, I've already written some spectacularly bad songs so I don't care anymore. Life's too short. Besides, we only have two days.

As I was sitting there on the couch reading the first lines, I started to feel a gentle gospel rhythm coming over me. Something really simple. A piano, a tambourine and a bass. And voices. Harmony.

And a diminished chord. Right there on the second measure. How daring!

At this point, I knew the only way to make this sound good would be to hire some musicians, snatch a choir, go into a studio and make it real.

In one day? The song isn't even written yet. It's just a hook and concept. And I know what it sounds like in my head. As I sat there on the couch singing the song to myself, hoping to God that when I got to the piano, it would sound like what I was hearing, I realized that I could not make a perfect demo. I had to let that idea go. I would do the best I could and let it be good enough.

I mention this because this is another Freeze Moment for many songwriters. If they can't make the perfect demo, then they won't give it out at all. I come from the "do the best you can but get it out there" school. I don't judge the others. I'm just saying that Freeze Moments can be debilitating. At some point, you have to let the work go and move on.

Happily, the chord construct that I did in my head worked perfectly. I sang it out loud for Jim. He gave a suggestion or two. And off I went to my keyboard and microphone to work out some sounds and music.

I also thought, hm. This song needs to SOAR. What these singers want are great big money notes. So, I shaped the melody line in an ascending line with lovely money notes sprinkled throughout, the biggest one landing at the end. Key of F. Last note on F above middle C.

This refrain sounded good to me. It was also felt more like a chorus than a verse. Ah. This song is an AABA song. A bit old fashioned in structure, but what the heck. It's singing.

I pictured the show. They have these three kick ass back-up singers. I'd do layers of vocals in three parts.

Since I couldn't get that live feel or the soul that fellow musicians bring to a project, I played some piano, left it kind of raggedy and then layered layered on the vocals. Track after track of background vocals, some of which managed to be in tune, making it up as I went along.

Now I needed a bridge or B section. This section of the song lets a breathe a bit. It goes to different chords and then leads us back into the A Sec...

And then I did it.

In for a penny, in for a pound.

I not only wrote a key change into this song, I bumped it up a minor third. Now the last note would be A-flat. Held out as long as the singer has breath.

Off to bed.

The next morning, I finished writing the verses (after having consulted again with Jim, getting additional concepts and lyrics from him). Then I laid down the last tracks of vocals -- a total of eight vocal tracks, all layered and harmonized together. Added a bass guitar, a little acoustic, found a better sound for the tambourine, mixed it, played it for Jim, loved it.

Me, I also love it. Then I hated it. Fixed a bad vocal. Loved it. Hated it. Loved it again. Waited two hours, listened to it again, hated it, loved it, sent it.

And it's done.

Now, it goes to judges who will listen to "thousands" of songs and will pick the final 20. Then, "America" will vote for their favorite song -- and the last two people will sing it in a sing-off.

Honestly, it's a bit like trying to win the lottery. I don't even know if this is a good song or not. I usually can't make that judgment for a month or more, after I've had time to forget it and play it again as if hearing it the first time.

But as of this moment, for this kind of song, I like it. Also, it has a theme I believe in, that we accomplish great things when we unify. Very Obama, don't you think?

Hmmm... Obama...

P.S. Before you ask, I'll post the song at some point, but not while the contest is in this stage.

P.P.S. My mom and my Aunt Freida love the song, so who cares about American Idol.


Tony Adams said...

Absolutely fascinating, and I can't wait to hear it. I also like the collaborative approach between you and Jim. C and I do similar, but when I am going through that "I love it. I hate it. I love it" phase with a painting or a written piece, I'm sometimes a bit, every so slightly, how should we say, impatient with any input.

PS: You were extremely kind in your reference to last year's chosen song.

Steve Schalchlin said...

The "love it, hate it" phase is a bear, no doubt about it. I just kind of stay to myself and change things, and change things until I can finally bear to hear it.

As for last year's song, just to give them their due, it's an almost impossible task to rewrite "A Moment Like This." I think there are only so many ways you stand and tell the world that this is your big moment.

That's why I took a different route. And again, the song we wrote may be a totally sucky song. I just don't know right now. It's too scary to contemplate because it's so easy to suck on this kind of song.

Sometimes I hate songwriting.