Random Thinking, chapter 17, EVEN AN OLD SONG DOG CAN LEARN A NEW TRICK...
Evidence that we (or more specifically I) never stop learning...
Yesterday, in a writing session with two of my favorite writers and good friends, I was reminded of one essential lesson, and I learned what to me was a fresh approach to the craft of writing lyrics.
I had been saving a certain song title for months, waiting for the perfect female perspective to help me pull it off (I am reluctant to write something from a female perspective without the aid of a female co-writer). I will not reveal the actual hook at this juncture, for fear that some unscrupulous member of the creative community might just borrow it. (Paranoid? Not usually, but this happens, and it's happened to me. Once burned, you know the rest.) Suffice it to say that the title is one of those juxtapositions of verbiage that are curiously contradictory: as in "Beautiful Mess" and "Favorite Mistake." It's always tricky trying to find a spin on these kinds of ideas that will be attractive to a recording artist.
I've written extensively on the vanity and ego of stars, and how so few of them dare to portray themselves as anything but heroic. Self-deprecation, sarcasm, the revelation of any character flaws are rare, particularly in the country music world. Oddly, some of country's newest superstars regularly exhibit a sense of humor and even dare to share some less-than-admirable personal quirks in their lyrics (Brad Paisley and Miranda Lambert come to mind). However, over the last 20 years or more, most in the country pantheon have taken themselves all too seriously and always want to come out smelling like a rose. (Remember Roger Miller? He never worried about such hogwash and had hit after brilliant hit.) Lately, the vast majority of country artists have been like the actress Claudette Colbert, only allowing the camera to shoot "the good side" of their faces. They never want to raise the curtain on their human frailties, only to spotlight their gallantry and beauty.
Anyway, I digress. Back to my writing session. Irene Kelley, who has had cuts by Trisha Yearwood, Alan Jackson, as well as the new single by the reigning female bluegrass vocalist of the year, Claire Lynch, was in da house. The third writer was Irene's daughter, Justyna, a beautiful and talented singer/songwriter in her own write. Both Kelley girls have been long-time collaborators of mine, but we had only written as a trio once before. So, I unveiled my title and a chorus sketch. The Kelleys' body language didn't demonstrate spontaneous enthusiasm. There was intrigue, yes. However, no one was doing flips of joy over what I thought was a pretty dang great, potential hit idea. We opened the floor to a brainstorming session. The ladies began giving me the perspective I needed to make the idea work. We discussed every angle we could find. Nearly every remark began with "What if...?" Finally settling on a lyrical attitude and a musical style, we set out to re-write my chorus. After an hour or so, it was beginning to take shape. We recorded a tentative little sketch. It wasn’t thrilling, but it sounded okay. Then, I left the room for 15 minutes or so to take care of something personal (none of your cotton-pickin' bizness!).
When I returned, Justyna had intuited an entirely new musical approach. It was hip and magical, and we all agreed that this was a far better way to go. Now, after two hours of battling away at a challenging idea, there was some genuine excitement in the room. We spent the next hour or so finishing off the chorus, always questioning our choices as to how the character of the singer was being portrayed. Remember, we want to write a song that will attract performers, not one that will scare most of them away -- not because it's a crap song (I don't write those. LOL), but because the lyrical attitude might reflect negatively on the artist's precious image. We recorded the new chorus. The lyric was solid and spunky. I loved it.
I looked at Irene, and she had a very sour expression on her face. "Are you grimacing?" I asked. She nodded. "Well what's that about?" Successful co-writing requires that we respect our collaborators, and body language sometimes speaks louder than words. Even if one writer prevails over the other in terms of the direction of a song, he should encourage his creative pals to speak up. We don't want to leave any point of view on the table, unexpressed.
"I was just wondering if this approach would really attract an artist," Irene said meekly, as if she was afraid that I would yell at her (something I would never do... although, as Irene well knows, I will voice my opinion persuasively and with vigor). Anyway, had I not noticed the skepticism on her face, Irene might not have said anything. But, I saw, I inquired, and encouraged her to give voice to her scowl. As a result, we talked about it some more, examined it, and adjusted the chorus to open up a whole new posture for the singer. This new, improved approach we all agreed would be much more attractive to more artists, without losing any of the song's spunk and strength. Irene's grimace had been replaced with an ear-to-ear grin, and the room was electric with enthusiasm. That's the lesson I relearned: ALWAYS OBSERVE BODY LANGUAGE.
Then we got busy on the verses. I'm a nut for opening lines, and Irene came up with a doozy of a couplet. Then she said, "I look at lyrics like I'm taking steps. Left, right, left, right."
"What do you mean by that?" I didn't quite get the analogy.
"Well," she explained, "if you use the word 'black' in the first line, then try to use 'white' in the next. You know, opposites." Wow! After having written songs for more than 45 years, I'd never thought of lyrics in that way. Irene's theory was a revelation to me. We applied her step-by-step technique to the verses, and the song began to fall in place. By the end of the day, we had two dynamite verses and a powerful chorus, with a bridge to go.
"This is 'country strong'!" Justyna exclaimed, doing a seal clap with her mittened hands. This is an example of true collaboration, three writers all checking their egos at the door and endeavoring to communicate constructively. We'll get back on the song asap to write the bridge and do final tweaks, because we all feel strongly that we have a potential winner on our hands.
Random Thinking, chapter 16, E-Gherming, The New Music-biz No-no...
As in all businesses, the most important and essential contributors to our success in show-biz come from the personal relationships we develop and maintain over the course of our careers. Someone put it very succinctly when he or she said: "It's not about who you know; it's about who knows you." To take that very truthful statement a little bit further: It's not just about who knows you, it's about who likes you, who trusts that you can take the bad news with the good, and who can depend on you to give your all and perform at a truly professional level every time you're called upon to deliver the goods.
Yes, Willy Loman was right. Not only should you seek to be recognized for your individual gifts, you should strive be "well liked," too. Sure, there are some notorious A-holes who have somehow bullied their way through to the top and remained there through manipulation and intimidation. These insecure egomaniacs surround themselves with "yes" people, subservients who live in constant fear of losing their jobs, their connections to, and/or their influence over the cult of personality. But, I think most folks agree that is no way to live. Life's too short to spend it burgeoning a rep as a greedy monster or, worse yet, as a lap dog to a mean-spirited master.
This leads me to a friend request I received just the other day from a gentleman whose name I did not recognize. Chad (not his real name) and I had dozens of mutual friends, so I felt safe accepting his invite to connect as Facebook pals. Curious, the nomenclature of much of the Internet social network. "Friends," not "connections." As if we all are capable of carrying on thousands of friendships, most of which are with people we will probably never meet in the flesh. Anyway, I accepted Chad as a "friend." Within hours he sent me a FB message: "THANKS FOR BFING ME , CHECK OUT MY SONGS"
I don't know if other music-biz pros feel the same way, but here's what really irks me: getting an email, or a post, or a personal message from an aspiring songwriter or recording artist instructing me to "Go to my reverbnation page and listen to my stuff. I'd love to get your feedback." The presumption that I have the time or the inclination to click a link and wade through a half dozen songs by someone I've never heard of is offensive to me. Arrogant? Maybe, but it's true. I'm busy. My time is at a premium. And, lots of songwriters pay me their hard earned cash to coach them, and offer my constructive criticism. "CHECK OUT MY SONGS" is the equivalent of walking up to a dentist at a cocktail party and saying, "Hey, Doc, take a look at this? Is this an abscess?" This is precisely the same kind of obnoxious as the overly ambitious newbie who aggressively corners a top producer or publisher at a conference and forces a CD and a business card into his or her hand. This kind of uncouth behavior has a very unattractive name: "gherming." And those who practice it are deserving of the moniker, "gherm."
So, I warned my brand new FB pal, Chad, that "e-gherming" was uncool and suggested that he stop doing it, to which he responded: "CALL IT WHAT YOU WILL , IT IS WHAT IT IS" Now, remember, I don't know this guy from Adam. Well, I know a few guys named Adam, and I know Chad is not one of them, but you know what I mean. Anyway, I have no reason to give Chad any slack, because he's already made a rather toxic impression on me. Then, he followed up quickly with yet another post: "WHAT THE HELL IS E-GHERMING , I NEED TO KNOW,SO I CAN NOT BE COOL"
I explained to Chad that "CHECK OUT MY SONGS" was not the way to get an industry pro interested. In Nashville, you can't swing a cat without hitting another aspiring songwriter. (Not that I'm inclined to cat swinging, or any other kind of swinging for that matter.) Nearly everybody has a bunch of original songs and nearly everybody is trying to get those songs heard. However, as I detail in my new book, The Absolute Essentials of Songwriting Success (Alfred Publishing, 2010), getting your songs heard is not enough. Songwriters only find success when they get their songs heard by somebody who cares, somebody in a decision-making capacity who wants them to succeed more than any other competitor. You want your songs to be heard by somebody who can influence the outcome, but who is also motivated to like your compositions more than the thousands of others competing for the same slots. Chad had already become the raspberry seed in my wisdom tooth by blatantly offending me. In return, I had given him some solid, constructive advice on how not to immediately torch a potentially beneficial bridge. Was Chad receptive to my free career counseling? Absolutely not.
This was dear Chad's response (spelling intact, asterisk is mine): "bull sh*t I dont care who you are , i never said i had any tast,if i did i would not ask you to be my freind" This of course begs the question as to why he wanted to "friend" me in the first place. If he doesn't really care who I am, and if he is aware that he has no discretion in regard to his friendships, then why would he want me to "CHECK OUT HIS SONGS?" After dashing off a response that included my off-the-cuff observation that Chad must be a very self-destructive fellow, I terminated our day-old "friendship" post haste.
Chad has more than 1,000 FB friends. Perhaps he treats his other online pals with more diplomacy and greater respect, or maybe they are more forgiving of his rudeness. Maybe those other folks even find his lack of social skills charmingly rebellious. I ain't got time for that stuff myself. And, I'm quite sure that most true pros in the music biz feel the same way. We want to associate ourselves with talented, hard-working, humble, yet confident people, who are willing to do anything and everything it takes to create and build their own success. A big part of "what it takes" is patience. When you meet somebody you think just might help you get another rung up the ladder, don't push it. You start by making a positive impression. You want to leave that person thinking, "What a nice young feller, I wonder if he writes great songs." What you don't want to do is to send your new show-biz acquaintance rushing to the nearest rest room to scrub off your aggressive, obnoxious stink. You certainly desire to make a memorable impact, but you want that memory to be a pleasant one. The goal is not to score a walk-off, grand-slam homer on your first swing, but to be invited back into the conversation the next time. Relationships take time to develop and cultivate. Then, once established, they require maintenance and nurturing.
The Internet has vastly expanded our networking opportunities, offering more and greater potential to make new connections all over the world. To abuse that incredible opportunity for whatever reason is beyond foolish. It broadcasts a person's propensity for stupidity, cruelty, and self-destruction to a world-wide audience and can turn into a permanent strike against. You can't run away from it. I have made some huge mistakes in my life. Several of my boners became somewhat notorious in certain circles. The most notable was probably the day I offended Clive Davis so severely that he immediately withdrew his offer of a recording contract with Arista Records. (An account of this blighted chapter from my checkered past is detailed in my book, Makin' Stuff Up.) I try to be much more careful these days. Popping off in an email or impulsively posting something in an online forum can lead to a firestorm of negative energy pointed in your direction. Take it from me. I've faced the flames of scorn more times than I care to discuss.
Relationships. Cultivate them. Do not disregard the people in your life who might potentially help you create success. Before you flash out in anger (or to protect your fragile ego) take a deep breath. Swallow your pride. Try to be nice. We like nice people, considerate, respectful, gracious, and grateful people. There, there, Chad. Sorry, you blew it with me. I'm sure you won't lose any sleep over it. But, then again, neither will I.
Random Thinking, chapter 15, What "No" Really Means...
I was inspired by a brief article entitled The Function of Failure by Dr. Cheryl Lentz (RefractiveThinker.com). Dr. Cheryl's basic premise in this wise and succinct piece is "fail faster to succeed sooner." Her allegory stars an imaginary plumber by the name of Peter. We are aghast that this dude has the brass to charge $100 for what looks like a mere 15 minutes of work. Yet, the good doctor reminds us, we are not only paying Pete for the work he's done today to unclog our toilet, but for the many times he failed to fix similar problems in the past. In other words, Peter's time and expertise comes at a premium rate now only because we can depend on him to get the job done once and for all in a single, quick visit. And, he's earned his sterling reputation for reliability as well as his high price tag by failing to get 'er done a number of times previously.
"The quicker Peter failed (Translation: learned how not to fix something)," Lentz concludes, "the sooner he succeeded -- and learned." We writers are usually not called upon to "fix" something. In fact, the vast majority of us are not "called upon" at all. We write, fueled by compelling creative impulses and blind faith. Then, ultimately, we have to go and sell our poetry door to door (not literally, but that's what it feels like). The second part of the equation amounts to a gig with a ridiculously high rate of failure.
Every profession has its inherent expectations for success. A major league left fielder is at the top of his game if he gets a hit 30% of the time or more. Pete the plumber wouldn't have a prayer of sustaining a thriving business with that batting average. A veteran NBA shooting guard is guaranteed tens of millions every season for making a mere 45% of his shots from the field. A plumber is expected to perform at a 95% clip at the very least. And, if he doesn't get it right today, he is obliged to return pronto to make good on his shortfall.
According to Jimmy Webb (one of the most successful pop song crafters in history), "...best case scenario," for songwriters, "90% of our work will be completely ignored by the public." Here's the hard-to-face, bottom-line truth: as a tunesmith, you can keep workin' at it for a lifetime -- in fact, you could even be the most brilliant melodist and/or lyricist in the entire Universe -- and there is still no guarantee you will ever see an iota of success. Not one dime of income, not one smidgeon of recognition, not even a pat on the back -- other than from your parents, a supportive aunt, cousin, or a dewy-eyed, admiring next-door neighbor. This same reality, I think you'll agree, applies to nearly every artistic pursuit. There IS one guarantee, however: IF you stop practicing your craft, stop doing the work, if you pack it in, you will NOT succeed. Hmmmm.
So, in order to keep those creative juices flowing and survive (if you can call a series of inevitable rejections "flow"), we writers need to continue to work smarter, always seeking excellence, persevere, gut it out, and look at every "no" as what it actually is: another step closer to a "yes." Corny as Nebraska in June, I know. But, that's the absolute minimum amount of faith required here. It's hard, but nobody's gonna cut those tunes if they don't hear 'em. And, if they do hear 'em, you will definitely get a whole lot more passes than cuts, even if you're one of the Top Dogs like Jimmy Webb. When my friend, Hall of Famer Rory Bourke, was asked if it ever got easier, he responded thusly: "No, you just hear 'no' faster."
We all tend to take rejection personally. But, here's an absolute fact: a "no" is less a reflection on you or your work than it is a revelation of the state of mind of the gatekeeper giving you a two-thumbs down. As a songwriter, novelist, playwright, screenwriter, poet, or whatever your creative aspiration is, "no" doesn't necessarily mean that your work is not up to par, or that you are incapable of delivering the goods. If you have any talent at all and you're actively doing everything you can to hone your skills, what "no" means is that the person on the other side of the desk is simply not looking for what you're putting in front of her at this very minute. However, take heart, brothers and sisters because there is good news: IT CAN TURN ON A DIME. Tomorrow (I kid you not), the same piece that just received a boisterous raspberry could suddenly become the flavor of the month.
This is not to say that everything we create is flawless, that we shouldn't continue to seek coaching, listen to and apply feedback, always striving to sharpen our tools. Yes, every one of us has his or her own direct connection, as it were, to the gods of inspiration. But, ultimately, for most of us, great writing is re-writing, re-writing, re-writing. Only a dogged, nose-to-the-grindstone pursuit of excellence can achieve a truly competitive result. In other words, we have to fail time and time again to finally succeed. For a writer, it's not just "fail faster to succeed sooner," it's fail enough to find any success at all.
Random Thinking, chapter 14, Sometimes Constructive Feedback Just Doesn't Work...
A songwriter/producer I'd connected with on a business-networking site requested "a favor." He wanted my opinion on a new song he'd just demoed -- basically, the equivalent of asking a dentist one meets at a party to take a look at a tooth that's been flaring up. So, being the professional that I am, I responded by instructing this fellow to submit the song through the MakinStuffUp.net Feedback Loop and pay the required $20. After assuring him that I would be doing the evaluation personally, I received the MP3 and lyrics of his new composition.
I do my comprehensive song evaluations based on one basic criterion: whether or not the writer has accomplished his or her stated intent. Many song critiques are based on whether, in the critic's opinion, a song has what it takes to compete in the marketplace, whether or not it should be deemed "a hit." I only use commerciality as a benchmark if the writer tells me he or she is shooting for the top of the charts. And, as far as I'm concerned, no self-appointed "expert" is capable of predicting with any accuracy whether or not any particular song is bound to strike a chord with artists, producers, record company execs, or the public at large. Those of us who attempt to help writers improve their works in progress can really only point out where they might be succeeding and where they might be falling short, as measured against what the writer has set out to accomplish.
If a song is for the writer to perform as the artist, or if he or she has written it purely for self-expression, I apply a different set of standards than I would for a song he or she intends to pitch. After all, a song needs to be more special, yet at the same time more accessible and universal, both lyrically and structurally, if its composer expects to attract another performer to render it. After grading each choice the writer has made -- from the opening line, the rhyme scheme and the phrasing, to the dynamics -- I actually go to the extent of making specific suggestions as to things the writer might try in a rewrite to make the song a more solidly structured, more well-crafted piece. I use the word "suggestion" purposefully, because I never dictate what a writer should do. I'm only trying to shed light on some different, hopefully more effective possibilities.
Back to the song submission from the biz-network connection. He indicated his desire to pitch his Christmas song "in all genres." The demo he sent me was unusually structured, starting with a simple, two-line refrain that he called a "chorus," followed by a two-line "verse," that actually sounded more like a bridge. The melody was unexceptional and non-descript, staying within a four or five note range. The demo had a lugubrious, yet slinky, R&B groove, vocalized in a Marvin Gaye-ish soul style. Oddly, it was orchestrated with traditional, pre-rock, pop instrumentation: piano, bass, drums, vibraphone, and strings (obviously synthesized). With no bridge, the recording totaled 4:30, nearly a minute of which was taken up by a lengthy jazz piano solo. Taking all those obvious drawbacks into account, the most evident flaw was that his "verse" lyric was mostly random imagery that didn't support or set up the chorus refrain. So, what we had was a hook, sung on a less-than-memorable melody, followed by some fairly generic lines about warm hearts and children's smiling faces and other such Christmas-y word pictures. To make matters worse, he had employed convoluted grammar (for rhyming sake) and some very quaint, old-fashioned verbiage. The sum total was pretty much a hybrid jumble of clashing styles, lacking in good pop song craft. Nearly every choice the writer had made was working against his stated goal: "to pitch the song in all genres."
What was I supposed to say? In requesting my evaluation and coaching, this fellow confessed this was his first attempt at a Christmas song. Since he had shared that he wanted to attract artists to the song, I responded with constructive feedback I thought might help him make the adjustments to achieve that goal. As I always do, I offered him specific suggestions as to how he might re-approach the lyric to make it work more effectively with his refrain and the song's suggestive groove.
His response -- via message on the business site -- was a lengthy "explanation" and/or "justification" for his choices, basically disagreeing with every one of my comments. Because he had utilized more traditional instrumentation, he elucidated, this song was an attempt to bring back a classic-pop style. His point of reference was Mel Torme's "The Christmas Song." The Torme standard, one of the most recorded songs of all time, however, has more melodic range in its first two notes (an entire octave), than in the entirety of this new composition. Every line of Torme's masterpiece includes a colorful, specifically drawn image, none of which could be considered in any way cliche: "Jack Frost nipping at your nose?" Give me a break! That's genius stuff. It's not "smiling children's faces." It's "Tiny tots, with their eyes all aglow." Those brilliant words sail upon a gorgeous melody while the song's tidy structure builds dynamically to its conclusion, making an always-dependable performance piece, one that singer after singer has taken on with relish. "The Christmas Song" is a lasting piece that is playful, yet poignant; nostalgic, and surely heart-rending: all the qualities one desires to hear in well-written, contemporary-pop, holiday fare.
The submitted composition had none of these qualities. "The Christmas Song" crescendos steadily to its refrain: "Merry Christmas to you." The submitted piece begins with its refrain, then fails to go anywhere. "The Christmas Song" has memorable melody galore and gorgeous word pictures. This new piece employs some rather unimaginative, over-used words on a meandering structure and an instantly forgettable melody.
Here's the deal, kids: The arrangement doesn't make the song. The choices we make as writers define our compositions. If it ain't in the words and the melody, the instrumentation and production won't make your song into something it's not. (I once heard a foot-stompin' bluegrass version of Shawn Colvin's "I Don't Know Why." Frankly, I don't know why that fool-hearty artist even attempted that interpretation -- crushing this melodic, pensive, introspective ballad with an errant attempt at a brisk, lighthearted reinterpretation. Had Colvin introduced her beautiful tune to the world as an up-tempo barnburner, it would never have flown.) Your song tells you what it is. You can't take the components of an already-written piece and twist them into something else altogether. The only way to change the DNA of a composition is to go back and fundamentally adjust your writing choices: RE-WRITE THE SONG. Putting lipstick and a wig on one kind of song can't transform it into another. Sure, great songs can withstand and even thrive with all kinds of approaches. But it's the melody and lyrics that make them great, not how they are arranged.
When I suggested that a piano solo is unnecessary and actually counter productive in a demo -- especially when the instrumental passage makes the song exceptionally long -- the writer defended his choice by explaining that his demos where not just song demos, but production demos, simultaneously. Eliminating the solo, he claimed, would be counter to his vision of what a record might sound like. I'm sorry, but singers don't record songs because they love the piano solo on the demo. They are attracted to great melodies and crafty, emotionally satisfying lyrics. DEMOS ARE ABOUT PUTTING THE SONG FRONT AND CENTER -- not about showcasing production skills or the talents of any individual musician or singer.
My lyrical ideas to help make the verses support the hook were also soundly rejected. After telling me at first that he wanted to "pitch the song to all genres," he rebuffed my suggestions on the basis that he's not "that kind of writer," implying that he would never stoop to pandering to the marketplace. I was only trying to help him attract more artists to his song. Oh, well. Sorry, palio, for doing what you asked me to do. I guess he would have been much happier if I'd just sent him an email expounding, "Two thumbs up! This one's a surefire smash!"
Ultimately, if you have to explain or justify your song-craft or production decisions to anyone, it means that YOU HAVE MORE WORK TO DO. It's not the listeners' fault that they didn't "get it." I can't claim that I am the ultimate end-all, be-all in song-craft coaching. However, I have some experience and success to back up the input I offer. But, there are times when honest, constructive feedback just doesn't work.
Random Thinking, chapter 13...Writing timeless, emotionally charged lyrics......
I just wrote an essay/blog about how trendy recording trickery can easily stigmatize a record, trapping its sound in a certain era. The liberal use of the most popular ambience (reverbs, slaps, gates, room sounds, etc), guitar effects, and vocal processing can brand a recording as being only from a certain period. On the other hand, some more restrained productions are evergreen, and could actually be hits in any decade. This is because they rely on pristine recording of meticulously written songs and exceptional performances -- not on the trendy studio tricks of the day.
The same goes for your song demos, kids. We all want to be hip, now, with it, "cutting edge." Just remember: it can take years for a song to find a home. You certainly don't want to be stuck with demos that confine your songs to a brief window of opportunity. Be careful. Use discretion in your demo production. Try not to get snagged by the snares of hipness. The drum sound or the vocal effect will not get your song cut. The melody and the lyrics will.
That being said, what I realized in the process of putting my thoughts down on this subject is that song lyrics can trap a composition in a certain era as well. If I may be so overtly self-absorbed as to quote myself, I posed the following question: "How many excellent country songs have now been rendered obsolete by a reference to the now antiquated 'Code-a-phone?'" During the early '90s, in the common vernacular of contemporary country, the generic term for an answering machine was "Code-a-phone." Soon, however, more and more people stopped using answering machines, and voice mail became the term of the day. Then, of course, all sorts of other innovations in electronic communication swept in and gained popularity: E-mail, instant messages, texting, so forth and so on.
You see, if you make lyrical reference to a certain type of cell phone or hand-held device, a happening social network or website, it may be the hippest thing this year. But, you know, at some point in the not too distant future, it's bound to become quaint almost overnight. For instance, while "Your tweet was so sweet" might be a colorful, contemporary, and extremely clever lyric, it could easily be laughable five years down the line. And, centuries from now, music historians will be able to identify the exact period of time your song was written, simply because it makes reference to a hot trend of the second decade of the 2,000s.
On the flip side, the obsession that far too many country songs continue to have about pick-up trucks, dirt roads, small towns, "country" this and "country" that, I'm "country," she's "country," and we're "country" is getting more than a bit tiresome, isn't it? No wonder listenership is down on country radio. The themes represented by every other record are nearly identical, along with the words the writers use to express them. Certainly, these truly American values deserve to be celebrated and sung about. They resonate with the folks who share that lifestyle, as well as people who only dream about it. But, one would think that we might start holding out for some fresh language and new ideas. We've already had ourselves a redneck woman, sailed with a redneck yacht club, been to a hick town and the boondocks, and listened to a hundred hunky white boys singin' 'bout how "it's good enough for Daddy, so it's good enough for me!" I think it's just about time to kick the mud off our boots and move on to some less-plowed acreage, by cracky!
Great song ideas are few and far between -- and yet, they are everywhere. Incredible song concepts hide away in every conversation, every newspaper article, every commercial on TV, and ride on every breeze. We are the miners for a heart of gold. And, it's a 24/7/365 gig. Remember that songs are emotional things. Songs are born in emotion, express emotion, and speak to listeners emotionally. "Clever" is intellectual, not emotional. Beware of appealing to the head with your song lyrics instead of going for the heart. That is precisely why Lady Antebellum has exploded over the last year. The trio's songs are not only melodic, timelessly produced, and performed skillfully, with genuine commitment, they are lyrically universal and pure in their sincere, emotional statements. Love songs ain't easy to write. Like those too-many country songs obsessed with "country," non-cliche love-song language is hard to find. But, if you can convey the exhilaration of a new crush, or the heartache of a blindside breakup in a fresh, yet honest, and passionate way, you've accomplished something that will be viable for decades -- if not forever. "Amazed" and "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'" will still be played on the radio long after I've contrived my final rhyme.
Avoid those here-today, gone-tomorrow references. Don't just jump on a trend because you want to be perceived as cool. Write from your heart. But, get professional, constructive feedback on your works in progress. And, rewrite until you hone your inspirations into as close to perfection as you're capable. There is far too much competition in this biz not to follow these simple guidelines.
Random Thinking, chapter 12...What Do We Make?...
What Do We Make?
A pair of liver-spotted hands lift an open cardboard box into a packed car trunk. On the top of the various articles in the box is a framed photo of a smiling, elderly couple. The trunk closes, revealing a "For Sale" sign in a front yard. There is a banner across the sign: "Sold." The camera pans back, as an elderly man makes his way to open the driver's side of the car. A close-up reveals that this is the man from the photo -- alone. Sad eyed and longingly, he looks out over the lawn. The camera reveals what he is looking at: a modest, but well-tended suburban house. As he climbs into the driver's seat, a voice over informs us that a capable realtor from So-and-so realty is taking care of the details.
I love great TV ads. I am in awe of how a cleverly constructed spot can introduce a cast of characters, define their relationships, clarify their situation, and move us to laughter or tears -- all in 30 seconds. Never mind that I seldom remember what the product was. Never mind that I know I'm being completely manipulated. The skill required to craft an effective TV ad is amazing. There is a new commercial on TV that I absolutely love -- not because it accomplishes what I've just described, but because it boldly unveils the philosophy behind advertising itself. "We've learned through the years," the announcer's voice confesses, "that how you make people feel is just as important as what you make." Then, after some video of folks havin' an absolute blast drivin' their brand new, beautiful luxury cars, the voice returns for the capper: "At BMW, we make joy."
Joy? What an incredible product! Any company that can credibly make that claim must be a successful one, wouldn't you think? This is how advertising works. It doesn't matter what the product is. Those wizards on Madison Ave. are always out to hit us with an emotional wallop, attempting to get us hot to trot for something, or make us afraid that not investing in this absolutely essential new product, might leave us ostracized, or worse yet, vulnerable to some horrible air-borne contagion. Drinking that certain beer will certainly win any guy the sexiest, most playful young female. A woman applying that certain hair color will invariably attract the most attractive and successful man. That's the message, isn't it? When we see an ad for a top-of-the-line automobile, we don't sit there slavering over the quality components, the craftsmanship, and the reputation of the manufacturer. No. We imagine how cool and irresistible we'll feel driving that sleek, new machine down Main Street. While watching a spot for a national burger chain, we don't think about the process of preparing that juicy, beef paddy, the quality of the meat, or the cleanliness of the kitchen in which it is cooked. We begin to salivate, imagining what it would be like to bite into that succulent, high-fat/caloric/cholesterol indulgence. It's not what you make. It's how you make people feel.
(Of course, those wonderful initial feelings we imagine are temporary, aren't they? In fact, there is quite a different feeling when you crack the envelope containing that statement from BMW Financial indicating your next monthly payment is due in two weeks. "What? Again? I swear I just paid this bill!" It's quite another sensation altogether, after you've wolfed down that triple cheeseburger, when the first pang of heartburn hits. And, the next day, when you dare to stand on your bathroom scale, how does that make you feel? However, purveyors of advertising know that what inclines us to follow the impulse to lay down our hard-earned cash to have an experience is that they have helped us imagine how fabulous that experience will be. We always respond emotionally first. If he shows up at all, Mr. Logic is almost always a latecomer to the decision making process.)
And, that's perhaps what we're trying to accomplish in the composition of our songs. We really don't want anybody to notice those interior rhymes. We want our craft to be invisible, while the listener unthinkingly absorbs the emotional content. Maybe each song is a series of 30-second commercials. The first 30-second verse introduces our characters, their relationships, their situation, the landscape on which they'll be playing out the various scenes of the story. The chorus is like an extended jingle summing up the song's themes. The second verse is a sequel to that first 30-second spot, delving a little bit deeper and setting chorus two up to mean even more on its return visit. The bridge can be like a voice-over, explaining what we've just heard. Then, the final chorus puts the emotional pedal to the floor to close the deal.
This is a concept that all songwriters harboring designs on their songs breaking onto radio playlists and rising up the charts might want to bear in mind. The difference, of course, is that those who hear our songs don't have to imagine how those songs will make them feel. Their emotional response is direct and immediate. People love songs, not because they have catchy tunes, infectious grooves, fresh chord changes, or skillful alliteration -- although those are often the common components of great songs. They love songs because of how those songs make them feel. So, what exactly do we make as songwriters? Certainly, we make melodies, rhymes, and stories. We construct rhythms and chord progressions. But really, in the long run, WE MAKE FEELINGS. One party-time barnburner might provoke feelings similar to the joy of driving a brand-new BMW. Another groove ballad might be empowering, giving the listener a feeling of fellowship and encouragement. Yet another heartfelt piece might allow a music lover to revisit a profound, lingering sadness. These are all healthy, healing emotions; emotions that can attract people to return to our songs time and time again.
While we certainly always want to use the highest-quality components to construct our product, we also set out to choose the most colorful, vivid, yet easy-to-sing language, and marry those carefully chosen words to a melody that is simultaneously familiar and fresh. And, during the entire process of writing each song, we should be constantly aware of the emotional impact we intend to have on everyone who hears it. Each line of lyric and music should support that intent. Each phrase should point toward the emotional core of the piece. We can't afford to waste a single syllable, to get off track, to waver from our focus. Not even one word can be allowed to slack off in those precious three minutes. If a phrase does nothing else but reiterate another, it should be reconsidered. If a word isn't the most vibrant, yet singable and conversational word available, another should be sought as a replacement. When a filmmaker is editing a film (or a commercial), a lot of footage ends up on the cutting room floor. Only the scenes and shots he or she considers essential to propelling the story and the drama forward are kept. That means lots of experimentation and a good number of hard choices. Like the editor, know that you've considered every possible angle, before you declare your masterpiece finished.
Aside from meeting your own high craft expectations, there is only one other goal here: to move people; to elicit a strong emotional response, the kind that indicates your aim is true. Every song has its own target, its own bull's eye. The language, the mood, the mode, the ambience, the tempo, the phrasing, and the performance all contribute to the way our songs make people feel. And, how the listener feels is what it all boils down to. Sure, we write melodies, come up with chord changes, and grooves. Yes, we define characters, describe situations, and tell stories that rhyme. But, ultimately, what we really do is make feelings. In actuality, "I love this song," means, "I love the way this song makes me feel." Never forget that, and you will write much better, much more effective songs.
Random Thinking, chapter 11...Networking...
Actor, author, talk-show host, and notorious curmudgeon, Charles Grodin commences his very entertaining memoir, It Would Be So Nice If You Weren't Here, by stating that the only profession possibly more difficult than being an actor would be "selling poetry door to door." Imagine spending your evenings weaving lines of language, spilling out your most intimate pains, exuding your greatest joys, concocting precise and personal observations about the world around you, making it all rhyme, and then waking up in the morning to spend the day walking around random cul de sacs, ringing doorbells, and making your sales pitch. "Good day, Ma'am. Wouldn't your day be brightened just a little by an original poem?"
Sound familiar? Well, it should. Because that, in a metaphorical nutshell, pretty much describes the profession of every tunesmith. You see, we're not only responsible for crafting our inspirations into commercially viable products, each of us is also automatically drafted as the first-line rep for that line of goods. If we don't do it, odds are no one else will. That would inevitably result in no results, which you'll probably agree is a long way from the most desirable result. At the very least, we write 'em so that people will listen to 'em. We express ourselves with the hope that somebody is somehow affected by our expression. If we don't take the initiative to ask folks for a few minutes of their time, our songs won't have the opportunity to do what we created them to do: to communicate; to move people.
Supposing your job and your livelihood actually did require you to pack up a sample case, go out, and make sales calls to hawk your wares. How exactly would you tackle that assignment? First, you'd make sure to have a solid selection of demo models on hand -- poems to suit every occasion; or, if you're more of a stylist, a dynamic range of high-quality items representing your specialty. Then, you'd put together a list of legitimate leads, compiling contact info for potential customers who might be interested in hearing about your product line. Then, you'd start making calls, setting up appointments to do your song and dance. And, if you were a really savvy sales maven, you'd constantly be replenishing your list of leads. In every conversation, you'd slyly slip in the question, "Who do you know that really loves poetry?" That way, you could be adding new names, addresses, phone numbers, and email addresses to widen your network. You'd be smart, too, to do some research about each prospective client, taking note of his personal interests, political and/or religious leanings, schools he or his kids attended, etc. That knowledge could help you put him at ease, might enable you to avoid an unnecessary feaux pas, and would give you a better chance of picking out poems that might speak to him personally.
Entrepreneurs who are serious about launching and expanding their businesses also join civic organizations and service groups. Kiwanis, Rotary, Toastmasters, Knights of Columbus, Bible study groups, PTA, charitable causes, Chambers of Commerce. Why do they spend time and energy going to meetings, doing charity work, and marching in parades? Well, it's not just because they're purely magnanimous, altruistic people -- or, because their calendars need filling up, either. They get real professional benefits from involving themselves in these organizations, causes, and interest groups. In those gatherings, they make friends, gain connections, and begin to develop the kinds of trusting relationships that can be all important to increasing one's chances of sustained success. Nobody's all that comfortable with the idea of buying life insurance. But, say you've hammered nails for Habitat for Humanity alongside Fred, the local agent from Prudential. Fred's a good guy. The dreaded subject comes up (because, after all, Fred knows an opportunity when he sees one), and you find yourself signing on a dotted line and handing over a fat check made out to The Rock. For generations, that's exactly how a whole lot of business has proliferated in the good ol' U.S. of A.
Now, why didn't Fred just put the hard sell on you the first day the two of you strapped on your tool belts? Why did he wait to broach the subject of life insurance until you got to know him personally, until the two of you developed a rapport, until he detected that you felt at ease with him? Because Fred's a smart salesman. He knows that life insurance is not a wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am product. The relationship between a client and his life-insurance agent is long-term. The two of you will be meeting periodically, year after year, updating and adjusting your coverage as situations change.
If Fred was in vacuum cleaner sales, his credo would be "ABC -- Always Be Closing." Why is that? Because a household typically makes a new vacuum-cleaner purchase every ten years or so. Once you've taken possession of the Hoover, once he's cleverly gleaned a couple of hot references from you and collected his commission, your sales person/client thing has pretty much played itself out. By comparison, as in the life-insurance game, songwriters are ostensibly cranking out new product every day and will be knocking on the same doors, month after month, for years to come. So ABC doesn't work for us. Our immediate goal -- with every industry relationship we approach -- is not to close the deal (although that certainly would be great!). Like Fred from Prudential, we seek to engender trust, to put contacts at ease—in essence, we are striving to be liked. So, OUR FIRST GOAL IS NOT TO MAKE THE SALE. OUR FIRST GOAL IS TO BE ASKED BACK, to be welcomed into the conversation next time, to become part of the inner circle. We are out to cultivate relationships that we can only hope will help facilitate some success; if not today, at least sometime in the future.
(From the Chapter, "Networking," from Rand Bishop's book-in-progress, "The Absolute Essentials of Songwriting Success," (c) 2010, Alfred Music Publishing, all rights reserved.
Random Thinking, chapter 10...Year End Thoughts, 2009...
Comes a time when we're all well served to take stock of where we are, where we've been, and where we intend to go. The end of the year (and coincidentally, the end of the decade) seems like one of those appropriate times.
Take a good gander in the nearest mirror. Where do you stand at this point in time? Are you exactly where you want to be? Have you fallen short in some way? Or, are you surpassing your wildest dreams by light years? I suspect it's a mixed bag, but a louder yes probably answers the middle question more than the former or the latter. Certainly, that's the case for me. But, let's not beat ourselves up over our disappointments. Let's just decide now to change the behavior that has led us to those shortfalls.
(At least we're not stocking up on water and canned food, preparing for the end of civilization as we know it. Remember Y2K? Ah, the memories. That was exactly ten years ago, before Osama gave us something real to be afraid of, and before Bush and Cheney used that fear to shaft us with their shenanigans. But, I digress.)
Personally, while I would like to have a fatter bank account and some more plaques on the wall, I can point to several 2009 accomplishments worthy of mentioning. For me, it's been a year of tremendous personal growth, marked by a big birthday milestone (60), along side some unforeseen challenges and sorrows (skin cancer/surgery/recovery and the death of my dear brother, Bart). MakinStuffUp.net now counts more than 100 members, I've spoken in front hundreds of people, sold hundreds of books, done some fun interviews, appeared on a handful of TV shows, picked and grinned hither and thither, and evaluated countless songs-in-progress and re-writes. Hopefully, I've helped some of you creative souls improve your craft, one song at a time. I've been pleasantly surprised by the fulfillment coaching my fellow tunesmiths has brought me, and I'm sincerely grateful to be trusted in this capacity.
In the coming year, I have a novel of which I am exceedingly proud coming out: "Grand Pop," a mock-memoir from the POV of an egocentric, developmentally arrested, fictional, rock superstar. My first, self-published songwriting course wrapped in a memoir, "Makin' Stuff Up," will be showing up on the nation's retail bookshelves in the first few months of 2010, via my newly inked distribution agreement with Alfred Publishing. Alfred has also entrusted me to write a second songwriting tome. "The Absolute Essentials of Songwriting Success" will be less about the craft, and more about how to formulate a strategy for achieving your best chance at long-term success as a tunesmith. I don't think any other book unravels this mysterious challenge the way I plan to. So, I'm excited about delving deeper into its pages in the coming months. My end-of-the-year workshop: "12 Choices to Solid Song Craft" (produced by Indie Connect), was a big success, and I've received excellent feedback from attendees.
Musically, 2009 has been productive as well. Folk/pop songstress/songwriter Justyna Kelley cut three of our collaborations on her David Kershenbaum produced project. Classical/pop baritone, Noah Michael, came out from Texas to Nashville to record with me -- three of those productions are featured on my reverbnation site. I'm still working on four hard-rock sides to accompany "Grand Pop," representing four stages in the career of storied frontman, Keefe Taylor, and his imagined band, King Pest. MySpace and Reverbnation sites, Facebook page, and YouTube videos will soon be cropping up for "Keefe and the guys." I invite you to take that virtual ride with me. It's gonna be fun, fun, fun! December offered a three-way collaboration between myself, Irene Kelley, and Molly Hunt -- an enormously gifted and soulful 13-year-old contemporary country artist from Ypsilanti, MI. This kid is incredible, folks. You'll be hearing more about Molly, I can guarantee you that.
So, I'm blessed with much to look forward to in 2010. For you, I hope you feel that you've made measurable progress over this past year, and that you're already resolving to keep at it, developing your craft. If you don't feel that enough progress has been made, I ask you to consider calling on me to help you accelerate your growth. In this coming year, there is nothing I want more than for you to experience the exhilaration of achieving success in your songwriting career.
Happy Holidays, and Every Success in the New Year.
Random Thinking, chapter 9... Farewell to Brother Bart...
There was a foreboding tone in middle-brother Theo's voice-mail message on the morning of October 19th. "I have news. It's something I don't want to tell you in a phone message or an email. Please call me back." With trepidation, I dialed his number in Orange County, CA.
"I wish I had better news, Rand," Theo began. I braced myself, shivering a little in anticipation. "Bart died last night." Theo's report was a brick wall for my heart. As the bearer of this unbearable news filled in the details -- probable heart attack; Bart's wife, Annie, finding him on the couch and trying, but failing to resuscitate; how he'd complained of severe back pain over the last few days; of course, without health insurance, and with an aversion to doctors, Bart hadn't seen a doc in who knows how many years.
I'm the oldest of the five Bishop boys. Bartley Graham came second -- three and a half years after me. Theodore James was next. Then quickly, Gregory John arrived. And finally Jayson Matthew. Bart was the dark horse, the black sheep -- although the character of a sheep is as far from Bart's as that of a scorpion. But, compared to his fair-haired freres -- with our Scandinavian features, broad shoulders, and muscular legs -- Bart's Eskimo-like complexion and dark, curly locks, slender frame, and long, skinny legs inspired teasing that Mom must have stolen an "afternoon delight" with the milk man.
But, point of fact, Bart was the one of us who carried on the swarthy, mixed heritage of our father's side of the family: the Bishops, the LaVies, and the Grahams. The rest of us were much more the products of our mother's Finnish bloodline.
Bart never made things easy. As a baby, he suffered severe burns when he yanked over a steam vaporizer placed precariously above his crib. For years, those injuries put Bart in leg braces like a polio victim and he wore a scar across his chest that resembled a relief map of Africa. He lacked the natural athleticism of the rest of us. But he always signed up to play anyway. As a statement of non-conformity, he insisted on batting from the left in Little League -- he was barely adequate from his natural right. While the rest of us pursued our musical inspirations by succumbing to years of classical lessons, Bart went the intuitive route. Aside from a few hours with a clarinet teacher, Bishop bro #2 was completely self-taught on the guitar, autoharp, keyboards and several other instruments.
Bart had a habit of bringing home strays -- not pets, but humans. Growing up the outsider, he always had a strong empathy for the underdog. And, many of those castaway meeklings found their way to my family's dinner table -- at big-hearted Bart's invitation.
He always admired me, his big brother, and so followed me onto the merry-go-round of the music biz. But, he always carved his own sound by creating new hybrids. Recruiting a group of Boise, Idaho classical prodigies, and writing dreamy, idealistic, artsy folk/rock, Bart formed Providence in the early '70s. Fancying myself as a burgeoning producer, I took Providence into a Portland, Oregon studio and helped them make their first demo. That recording attracted the Moody Blues' producer Tony Clarke to fly in from London to see the band showcase in a circular Frank Lloyd Wright house in the high Idaho desert, a command performance that resulted in a record deal with Threshold Records. In the guise of his power-pop band, The Roulettes, Bart also recorded an album produced by infamous Hollywood gadabout, Kim Fowley.
Above all, Bart was an enthusiast, a gamer. He was excited about being involved in whatever it was and threw himself into every endeavor -- especially music projects, and later, politics -- with abandon. On occasion, he could be overbearing, intense, too in-your-face. More than a few times, he got himself into some pretty questionable scrapes and a few risky situations -- but always because of his natural gusto, never due to greed, or because he was trying to take the shortcut.
Bart's voice and mine together created a sibling blend that evoked the Every Brothers. In fact, for decades, he and I could slip easily into a credible, spontaneous rendition of "Wake Up Little Susie" or "Dream, Dream, Dream" -- with no rehearsal. I'd pluck away at the 6-string, while Bart, with his patented wide-eyed, ultra-sincere performance posture, would slap his thighs and croon the high parts. We began performing together as two-thirds of a short-lived trio called The Boogie Boys. I was 11; so that made Bart all of 7 or 8. With a neighbor, John Fagerstadt, we set out to wow 'em with our arrangement of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." The photo of The Boogie Boys published in the Spokane Spokesman/Review, circa 1960, was probably more a tribute to the spiffy outfits Mom made for us -- pin-striped shirts, arm garters, and vests, topped off with fake-straw, flat-brimmed Maurice Chevalier-style hats -- and less about our whiter-than-white, Wonderbread (with Miracle Whip) gospel music.
To exploit our fraternal vocal sound, I included Bart on sessions for a number of my music projects. He sang with me on The Wackers's first LP, "Wackering Heights." It was a simple, gentle ditty he and I co-wrote with Bob Segarini called "I Like." He contributed back-ups on my top-5 Canadian single, "Don't You Worry." He gave voice to a character in the soundtrack to "The Glacier Fox (In Search of the Midnight Sun)," a beautiful, meticulous, Japanese, musical, nature documentary. He took my place on tour, singing my harmonies with Austrian superstar, Billy Thorpe. Some years later, Bart helped me save the day for screenwriter/director Sylvester Stallone, as I did marathon sessions to finish an 11th hour re-arrangement of "So Close To The Fire" for the Paramount film, "Staying Alive." The platinum album Bart received for that multi-million-selling album was one of my brother's proudest possessions.
It's funny; when referring to any one of those projects, Bart would always call it "our record, what we did together." Surely, there were numerous recordings that featured Bart in the leading role. But I wasn't involved in those. Even though he was really more of a sideman, a hired hand, an ensemble member in my projects, he had a true pride of ownership in everything he participated in. He always looked up to me; and he was there for me every time I called.
My brother had an innate passion for tradition. He was a student of country music history and a collector of vintage recording equipment. For awhile, he purchased the Sphere recording console company. The converted garage of the Valencia, California home he shared with his wife, Annie -- where he helped raise his step-son Adam and shepherded his own two children, Graham and Jodi -- was often littered with dusty odds and ends he'd wrangled or bartered from garages, pawnshops, and studios. Regardless of whether he was scraping by selling real estate, or mattresses, or sport jackets at Robinsons/May, he still tinkered in his own studio, writing songs and making music, always with that same trademark enthusiasm.
Over the last three or four years, Bart had found a new clarion call in an old-timey style of music. He transformed himself into a protest folksinger. He was so proud to be MySpace friends with his idol, Pete Seeger, and with Joan Baez. With the able production of brother/keyboardist Theo, and even with some cello performed by our youngest sib, Jayson, Bart (under the moniker Bartholomew Bishop) recorded an album of songs that reflected his idealism and railed against the injustices that pervade this misguided world. The last, so-far-incomplete project to which Bart devoted his unbridled passion was a tribute to his friend, Sid Bernstein, the man who promoted the first stateside concerts for The Beatles and managed The Rascals. I find it ironic that, while Sid turns 93, Bart will never see his 58th birthday.
There was never a better brother than Bart. He supported everything I did with absolute loyalty. When one of us was short on cash, we helped each other out. In October of 2008, our parents celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary. Some years back, the folks had fallen into a semi-permanent state of financial uncertainty, and I wanted to express a fraternal tribute to their enduring love by way of a substantial cash contribution. I thought, if all five of us could kick in a hundred and twenty bucks, we could come up with $600 -- ten bills for every year; not a lot, but meaningful. Response from the bros indicated that was too much, so I reduced the suggested contribution to a hundred. Still, Bart and I were the only ones liquid enough to pitch in. I promised Greg I'd cover his share. Bart said he'd throw in for Theo and Jay. He was ready to take the biggest hit, even though he had been working for peanuts for a year, trying to get an Illinois long-shot named Barack Obama elected president. I talked Bart into letting me pay half. We each came up with $250 on behalf of the brood, and the folks were thrilled.
Bart had a big-time fascination for our paternal grandfather, Albert Carl "Biddy" Bishop. Our father's father was a WWI vet, a former minor-league pitcher (Biddy threw the spitter), and a diehard, itinerate salesman till the day he died, just shy of his 59th birthday. Bart was only a few months old when Biddy Bishop's heart gave out, as he lay on the seat of a Jeep, in the showroom of the downtown Portland, Oregon auto dealership he managed. My brother kept his grandpop's legend alive with a commemorative song: "Here's to Biddy, you old baseball champ..." It was a family favorite Bart often sang, always with dogged commitment.
Baseball being a family tradition, I once bloodied Bart's forehead with a Louisville Slugger -- completely unintentionally, I swear. I was taking batting practice in the basement of our Spokane house, by throwing a tennis ball against the far wall. Always the gamer, Bart volunteered to be my catcher. Rearing back to take a swing, I blasted my brother right over his left eye. He cried out, I turned around, and blood was flowing down his face. It was one of dozens of times the Bishop team took stitches. I'm still sorry about that to this day.
I miss my brother more than I ever thought possible. I'll miss his monthly calls (always at the most inconvenient time) and his daily political emails -- and the brotherly, back-and-forth email diatribes that would often distract me from the work at hand. I'll miss talking about that someday, when he planned to come to Nashville and how I was gonna school him on what it takes to write songs for the contemporary country market. He had so much left to do; so much more to offer. Yet, he gave so much already. I love you, Bro; and my love for you is unconditional and eternal.
"Here's to Bart, the best brother any man ever had..."
Random Thinking, chapter 8... Sushi and I Have A Routine...
Sushi and I have a little routine. (I'm not talking about raw fish wrapped in rice and seaweed, but our year-old tortoise-shell tabby, a female feline with a personality far bigger than her petite frame.) Every morning when I get up, Sushi bounds to the footboard of our bed and waits for me.
"Burrrrr," she chirps her greeting, with a perfectly rolled "R." (This one has an exceptionally expressive vocabulary -- for a cat). What she's saying in that one brief syllable is that she fully expects me to pause on my way to the bathroom to stroke her undulating back. Of course I obey (who could resist that invite?) and she responds with a soft purr. When Sushi was a kitten, after accepting a few pets, the little charmer would flex her haunches and perform a death defying leap onto my shoulder to drape herself around my neck, and ride along like a living, furry muffler as I walked from room to room. Now, after receiving the anticipated affection, she turns and runs back along the length of the footboard, pounces onto the floor and quickly scoots into the bathroom for a manic claw sharpening on the rubber mat under the treadmill. Then she sits with her head cocked to one side, while I make my first toilet visit of the new day. (To much info? Sorry.)
My point in recounting this simple daily repetition is that cats have certain expectations of us humans. They kinda get used to specific patterns of behavior. From there, our dance proceeds. After I do my eye drops and take my allergy meds, I trundle downstairs. Sushi leads the way to the kitchen, making sure I'm right behind her all the way. I pour a cup of black tea and put it in the microwave. Meanwhile, the cat is already expressing deep concern that I might have forgotten the next step of our choreography. Pacing impatiently across the black-flecked, granite countertop, she keenly observes my every move. If I wait too long to glop a dollop o' that stinky canned food on top of the dry stuff in Sushi's dish, she delivers a loud, whiny, and obnoxious protest. Her commentary rings out loud and clear. Sushi is hungry. There's no ignoring the pretty little carnivore. She wants her kitty crack, and she wants it NOW!
Before Sushi, there was the late, great Oliver (I use the word "great" purposefully, because Ollie was a big, big boy, a 25-Lb orange-tabby love machine). This lump of a cat demonstrated another curious feline behavior that still has me scratching my head. Suffering from urinary tract issues that restricted him to a low-protein diet, Oliver never ate canned food -- in his entire life. However, when someone in the house fired up the electric can opener to crack the lid off some garbanzo beans, Ollie heard that motor from wherever he was (curled up sleeping, no doubt) and came running. It was amazing how fast that fat fellow could move with the right motivation. Here's the amazing thing: somehow, Oliver surmised that "electric can opener equals food." It was an instinct that must have come from some genetic code passed down from one kitty generation to the next.
"So, what do cats have to do with songwriting?" Thanks for asking. I was just about to get to that.
My theory has everything to do with that mysterious, creative concoction known as the pop song—a proven recipe passed down through the eons that mixes together the odd ingredients of music, poetry and rhythm in a two-and-a-half to four-and-a-half minute sound snack -- a munchy treat we writers always hope is nourishing, as well as irresistible.
You see, when it comes to songs, I think homo sapiens (that includes me, and probably you, too) are very much like the feline species. When we hear the melody and lyrics of a pop composition for the first time, we automatically have certain specific expectations. In other words, the way we perceive popular music is actually programmed into us -- by our environment and our experience (as well as, believe it or not, within the very strands of our DNA).
"What exactly do you mean by this bold statement, Mr. Smartypants?" you might be asking. I'll answer that question hypothetically: let's just imagine we're driving to work, say on a Tuesday morning. It's raining, traffic is slow, maybe we're gonna be late—yet, a new song on the radio grabs us by the ears. What do we expect to hear?
First, we're accustomed to some sort of seductive intro that lasts between 10 and 20 seconds. Then we anticipate a verse that presumably invites us into the story by introducing characters and/or a situation, and gives us some clues as to what this ditty -- or masterpiece -- is about. We suppose this first verse, which usually lasts between 30 and 40 seconds, is building toward a chorus or refrain that will sum up the themes of the song and will present us with the most dynamic, emotionally satisfying and memorable part of the piece.
On from there, this song will likely return to a second verse section to flesh out the story. That second verse, in turn, will culminate in a second chorus or refrain. By then, we'll probably remember enough from the first chorus that we can even do a little singing along.
After chorus two, the song will probably take a slight left turn and travel off into a heretofore unrevealed musical and/or lyrical landscape. This section is called the bridge. After crossing (or burning) that bridge, we can pretty much be sure that the upcoming, culminating chorus or refrain will cap off the tune in such a way that it's most unforgettable phrases will take root in our heads, repeating themselves over and over -- for hours, if not days, to come.
Pop songs that take this form have been around for centuries. Take Greensleeves for instance, a broadside ballad that emerged in the 16th Century (Legend has credited this song's authorship to Henry VIII; some have claimed the hot-to-trot potentate penned "Alas, my love, you do me wrong to cast me off so discourteously" for the hard-to-get Anne Boleyn). The "verse/chorus/verse/chorus" shape of Greensleeves has endured intact to this day. That's not to say that pop song structure hasn't traveled down some side roads since that time; but, for the most part, we've come to rely on certain covenants between the songwriter and the listener.
The ultimate result of those centuries of conditioning is that, when we listen to pop music today, we are very much like that chubby lunch mouth, Oliver. The can opener motor revs up (in the form of that tantalizing intro), our mouths water, our digestive juices begin to churn, and we fully expect to be fed something yummy. It's in our genes—passed down from generation to generation, since the bloomin' 16th century or earlier -- and these same expectations are reinforced in the music we hear every day of our lives. We are actually born knowing what a solidly structured pop song is and, when we crank up the iPod, that's what we're prepared to hear.
Now you're probably saying to yourself, "This Rand dude is all about formula." How dare you even think such a thing! (We hardly know one another and we're already having our first argument.) Okay, I'm taking a deep breath and a step back. In my defense, I'm so not about formula.(In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.) HOWEVER (you knew there was a big "but" coming, didn't you), as songwriters, it's to our advantage to be continually mindful of the reasonable expectations of our audience. While we are always striving to find new words and fresh melodies, more creative ways to unravel those same, time-honored plots and express those same, basic emotions, it bodes well for us to also keep our work accessible.
So, within the inherent limitations of the materials available (all the words in the dictionary, those 12 chromatic tones, and a plethora of tempos, time signatures, grooves and dynamics), every time we sit down to write, we set out to construct something familiar -- and yet unique -- something built upon a firm foundation -- and yet groundbreaking. That sums up the day-to-day challenge of the contemporary pop songwriter.
If I were to plop a spoonful of guacamole in Sushi's cat dish—instead of that fishhead pate she loves, she'd look at me with curiosity (being a cat and all) as though she suspected my body had been taken over by an alien walk-in. You and I know that guacamole is delicious, but it's unlikely the cat would agree.
Similarly, if we were to write a song that wandered so far from convention that it either became unrecognizable as a song, or it just didn't appeal to anybody else, then we'd be squandering our time and talent, right? Sure, we write songs for our own creative self-satisfaction; but, let's face it, songs are, more than anything else, about communication. That's why they came into being in the first place. Duh! If we're not reaching and moving other people with our work, then we're not fulfilling the main purpose that songs exist -- regardless of how proud or satisfied we might be with what we've composed. Then, we'd be stuck with an audience of scrawny, pissed-off cats who'd be tempted to ignore us from now on, in that we have now established that we are incapable of delivering the expected reward. There would be no more petting or purring at the footboard of the bed.
Let's keep looking under every rock and around every corner for those fresh ideas; let's endeavor to take interesting perspectives, apply our unique points of view and express things in new ways -- but, let's also try to surround these distinctive color combinations in traditional frames. Let's find a way to bring something special to the table, while giving the kitties the bellyful they crave.
That's how great songs are written. There is never any necessity to reinvent the wheel. But, we can apply some extra zip to the sidewall. We want to turn heads when we arrive—but we don't want those heads to be turning to run away.
Random Thinking, chapter 7... Music and Spirit...
I received an email on Monday, August 17th from VIP member Jim Waxenberg of Phoenix, AZ.
"I really miss your 'Random Thinking' column," Jim began. "When is your web-site going to update?"
Waxenberg's query caught my attention for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, of course, it was meaningful to me because, as a writer, it's always gratifying to know that folks are reading and appreciated your stuff.
Jim went on to say, "Take it from a guy like me... who is really just a guy 'peaking in' to the world of songwriting. Your column cracks open that door to see what's on the other side." (Hey, Jim. Take some credit. You've got a way with words yourself.)
Jim's initial question reminded me of the simple fact that, due to so many other commitments (both creative and biz-related), I had been neglecting my website members -- and failing to get my monthly newsletter out as well.
These Random Thinking chapters don't just spill off my fingertips in 20 or 30 minutes. Usually the light bulb goes on and I feel inspired by some idea or another. Then, I spend an hour or so a day for a week or two, writing and re-writing, until I finally feel confident that I've expressed what it is I intended to say. So, here I am, knowing that I haven't been providing the stuff my web membership signed up for, and yet not wanting to short-change anybody by dashing off some sub-par piece. That just ain't my style, kids.
This may seem odd and out of character, but this is what I'm gonna do to provide something fresh to look at here at MakinStuffUp.net:
Earlier this year, a very nice (and obviously discerning) gentleman named Justin St. Vincent invited me to join a plethora of other writers and educators by contributing a piece to his New Zealand-based website Xtrememusic.org. The subject was "The Spiritual Significance of Music."
Justin recently informed me that he has received so many requests to compile this series in hard-copy form, that he's decided to publish the best 100 contributions in a book. I was very flattered and grateful to discover that my piece was selected and will be included in the publication.
Warning!!! This brief essay delves pretty darn seriously into the esoteric, the metaphysical, some might say the hippie-dippie side of music. But, I'm very proud of it. After all, I'm a child of the infamous '60s. I even feel that I was sort of guided as I wrote down these words (even though I labored over them just as long and hard as I pour over everything I write). Here's my take on this provocative topic...
"Music and Spirit"
Music resonates in the heart, motivates the feet, swings the hips, turns smiles, lumps throats and un-dams tears. Music is physical, visceral, sensual, inspirational, spiritual -- and most of all, emotional. Music uplifts, comforts, touches, discovers anger and sets it free. Music is healing, revealing, hilarious and infuriating. Music communicates where language alone cannot, speaking a universal tongue, transcending all boundaries, racial divides, class distinctions and cultural identities.
Music gets to every truth in the human condition and is as important an ingredient to our chemical make-up as water and carbon. Music is precious, yet disposable and more than abundant. Music is ever-present in our most profound moments and offers us a passageway back to our most significant landmarks.
Those who create music are equipped, nourished and inspired by a God of infinite creativity, the One of which everything and everyone is a part, the unified Force encompassing All. Music wafts on the breeze, flows in streams, sings in thought and conversation and displays its overwhelming beauty in every color and texture of nature. Poet/composers hear its rhythms and melodies in each mundane and miraculous experience of life. Musical souls thrive to sort out and reassemble these available components into new configurations -- time, and time ... and time again == enriching the whole.
Nimble fingers, dexterous lips, powerful diaphragms and sonorous throats give wings and fuel to music's flight. For those who choose to fully develop and display their native musical gifts, life's pathway can lead to joyous triumphs and/or heartbreaking pitfalls. There are no guarantees along this road -- only that disrespecting this godly calling, leaving these tools unused will certainly deprive the bearer, and humanity at large, of something unique, personal, blessed -- and essential. To be born with genius and inspiration is not to be taken for granted. To magnify and share one's God-given talents is a divine mission.
Music is a continuous litany of prayer, the essence of Spirit and a heavenly instrument of love, passion, truth, joy, pain, humor and beauty. Music is God speaking through us, to us, about us and for us. Music brings us closer to and makes us ever so much more like our Creator.
Well, I don't know if these words even give you a quick glance inside that door you mentioned, Jim. I guess can only hope somebody finds some inspiration here. And, I'll try to do a better job of keepin' the MakinStuffUp train from runnin' off the tracks.
Random Thinking, chapter 6... Song Dogs...
On occasion, I've referred to myself as an old "song dog." This casual tag seems an appropriate and consciously self-effacing way to describe my stubborn, dogged determination to keep on "makin' stuff up." As a sincere lifetime dog lover, I've recently begun to realize that the native characteristics summed up in these two, brief syllables are, for the most part, very admirable ones and might even be worth discussing in some detail. So, here I go...
Some years back, when I was first dating Stacey, the beautiful and stalwart woman who has now been my wife for more than (gulp!) 22 years, she had a very close friend named Laura. A small, raspy-voiced armchair-philosopher, Laura was Cloris Leachman's personal assistant -- and, boy, did she have some fascinating tales to tell (but that's another story altogether). Anyway, at one potluck holiday or other, Laura was observing Frosty, my white, long-haired Samoyed. As guests arrived, gracious hostess Stacey instructed each of them to put their dishes with the others on the dining room table.
Frosty stood there watching with rapt attention. As each new offering met the table, the dog's eyes would not stop there, but would follow gravity's path to a spot on the floor directly below where the plate or tray had been placed. "At some point," the dog must have been figuring, "one of those scrumptious concoctions is gonna drop right through and hit the hardwood." Frosty stood, salivating, poised and ready to claim that visualized prize as her own holiday treat.
Seeing Frosty repeat this silly behavior time after time, Laura summed up the personality of a dog in two succinct words. "Always hopeful," she said.
So absolutely true. Dogs never give up the expectation that some morsel will fall to their level for a quick snatch-up. Never mind that a table is impermeable, and there is little chance that anything -- even the smallest tidbit -- would pierce its surface and float to the earth. But, hopefulness endures eternally in the canine heart.
Aren't we songwriters just like that? (Well, at least we always start out that way.) The odds against any one of our songs achieving mass public acceptance are nearly as great as a sweet potato pie slipping through a solid-pine farm-table. But, that rude "reality" doesn't keep us from our quest to compose that elusive hit song.
My little beagle, Millie, is a somewhat more assertive mongrel. Despite my constant chastising, she gets up on her hind legs and jumps, anteater-tongue darting out a full six inches, to steal any scrap within her reach. She'll chew up whatever she latches onto and swallow before she's even sure it's edible. Once she actually ate a clod of concrete. I'm not kidding. Workers were pouring a walkway in our backyard, and the wheelbarrow sloshed some drops of wet mix, which hardened in the grass. That puppy glommed onto a little ball of cement, chewed it up as quick as she could and gulped it down. Amazing!
During our morning walks (it's sometimes unclear as to who is walking whom), Millie keeps her hound-nose to the ground sniffing for anything of interest. Piles left behind by various four-legged neighbors are deemed worthy of extra special scrutiny. When Millie spies a squirrel scooting up a tree or across a telephone wire, she nearly strangles herself straining at the leash, eager for the opportunity to give chase. Not only is it highly unlikely that I would ever free her to gratify her hard-wired hunting instinct, I'll bet you dimes-to-donuts that little pup has failed to thoroughly consider the challenge of climbing a tree. But that lack of planning and preparation doesn't stop Millie's fervent passion for the idea that she might someday get "up close and personal" with one of those grey-furred, bushy-tailed rodents.
Being proactive, like that beagle, is a trait many songwriters share as well. We'll sniff out any and all opportunities to play our songs for anybody and everybody we think might help us get closer to our goals. Too often, like Millie, we lack discretion in this regard, investing misguided faith and too much energy into wild goose chase after wild goose chase. But, a writer needs to track every possible scent and turn over every rock. (Once, while visiting my cousins in Dallas, I lifted a creek-side stone to discover a nest of baby copperheads. The sight of those wiggly little creatures quickened my ten-year-old heart a bit. Most of the time, all you're gonna find is a roly-poly or two, maybe a millipede, some ants and/or a snail. But, you never know what's waiting there until you take the initiative to look underneath.)
Millie often demonstrates another curious behavior. Although she's tuging on the leash I have wrapped firmly around my wrist as we trundle through the neighborhood, she will, on occasion, glance back to check if I'm still walking behind her. That brief eye-contact seems to reassure her, giving her more incentive to press ahead. Although we songwriters often bridle at the "rules" that govern our craft and the apparent restrictions of show-biz, we also seem to like being reminded every now and then that we're still treading the same tepid pool.
Like dogs, we tunesmiths are loyal to our friends and fiercely dedicated to those who feed us. At one point in the mid-90s, I stupidly claimed that I wasn't interested in a Toby Keith cut. The big guy's wide vibrato and sliding-through-the-notes baritone kinda grated on my ears. It's amazing how much better his voice began sounding when he chose to sing one of my songs. And since having a five-week #1 with him, I worship the guy. That vibrato has put groceries on the Bishop table for a half-dozen years now -- not to mention giving us the means to buy the house that table (and my family) inhabits. (And, since that ignorant claim, TK has proven himself to be an admirable marketing genius and one of the most genuine and dynamic recording artists of the last two decades. Come to think of it, Toby even named his record label Show Dog. Hmmmm, interesting.)
The great comedian Louie Anderson used to do a bit in his stand-up routine about dogs. "You can leave your dog out in the backyard for three years," Louie would say. "When you finally open the door, the pooch will come in, wiggling all over, like his tail is wagging him and lick your face, as if to say, 'Are ya mad at me?'"
Over my four decades in this biz, there are several folks who've succeeded in getting my dander up -- you know, by not dealing honestly with me (i.e. screwing me), or maybe by using their position to an unfair advantage. To be sure, if one of those scoundrels called today and said they had a lucrative use for one or more of my tunes, I'd be willing to give a shot at forgivin' and forgettin'. Water under the bridge (even the stinkiest, most polluted kind) can become a distant memory pretty quickly when an ex-adversary surprisingly morphs into an advocate. Like every song dog in the world, I've been left in the backyard many times. But, let me back into your house of prosperity and I might just give ya a big ol' sloppy kiss of gratitude.
Dogs are capable of exhibiting risky and self-destructive behaviors as well. Chaka Kahn, my chow/golden retriever mix, once stole an entire roast chicken from the kitchen counter -- and ate the whole thing, bones and all. A single splintered chicken bone has been known to choke a dog to death. Chaka didn't leave a single splinter behind. Fortunately for Chaka, that ill-chosen repast didn't take her life. Unfortunately, about five years later, mast cell cancer did.
Spud, our erstwhile Jack Russell, applied his powerful jaws and sharp teeth to everything in sight -- including the windowsills and stair railings in our rented house (out of pure boredom). He slept all night in a brand new doggie-bed Stacey bought him, and then devoured the poor, defenseless thing the next morning. Brandy, an adopted lab mix tore all the stuffing out of our couch. This was a statement she made out of spite -- to let us know she didn’t like being left alone. Winston, our dim-witted, inbred, pet-store pug, regularly peed in his own bed (and everywhere else, for that matter).
It may go without saying that these particular negative dog-family-traits are not to be admired or emulated by anyone -- tunesmith, tailor or Indian Chief. However, I know from decades of experience that many creative souls (I'll be the first to raise my hand) are capable of burning a bridge by uttering a poorly chosen word, offering an untimely snub or taking an inflexible stance motivated purely by pride, resentment or ego—and/or ignorance. We're passionate people with fragile ids. Now and again we're gonna offend somebody. It goes with the territory.
Chaka gave my octogenarian mother-in-law a pretty severe bite on her arm one Thanksgiving. I don't know if any PO'd song-scribe has resorted to pulling a Mike Tyson on a co-writer's extremity. It might have happened. I just haven't heard about it. Anyway, biting your peers (or the hands that feed you)? That kind of behavior is definitely not advisable.
I was in Monaco in January of 1975, "babysitting" an artist I was producing. After taping a very tacky lip-synch TV show, one of the other singers on the broadcast approached me. An American songstress, then settled in Germany via a touring company of "Hair," Donna Summer had mimed her way through one of the most ludicrous songs I'd ever heard -- something involving a phone call from some extortionists demanding ransom. I think it was called "Kidnap" or some such cartoon absurdity, and the record was far cornier and more melodramatic than any of those old Shangrilas soap-operatic mini-dramas (remember "Leader of the Pack"?).
Anyway, Donna expressed admiration for the song I'd recorded with my French Canadian artist and asked me if I'd consider producing an English-language version for her. I turned the girl down flat, barely holding back a scoffing chuckle at the very suggestion that I would stoop to such an embarrassment. Within the next two years, that same diva of the laughable "Kidnap" single became the reigning queen of the disco world, with hit after international hit to her credit; I was still some guy who basically implied that Donna Summer would never make it. Burned bridges? Yeah, I've left more than a few of those in my wake.
Be a good dog, not a bad dog. Be eager, optimistic, friendly, playful and affectionate. Be passionate and focused on developing your talents and achieving your goals -- no matter how unattainable those aspirations may appear to be. Be obedient -- in other words, listen to and honor what industry pros ask for. Take extra care to not offend anyone (after all, he or she might be the very person who could, down the road, be in a position to throw you your next bone). Make friends and carefully maintain those relationships -- and be loyal to them. Respect all decision makers— -- whether you genuinely like them or not.
And, above all ALWAYS BE HOPEFUL.
Write on, song dogs. I wish every one of you success and fulfillment in all your creative endeavors. And may more than morsels fall to the floor for you to gobble up.
Random Thinking, chapter 5: Thank you, Dan Seals, from a very grateful songwriter....
On Saturday, March 28th, 2009, I attended a public memorial tribute to a man I never actually met -- personally. It was an experience that turned out to be both revealing and profound.
The parking lot was full, so the attendants waved me into a gas station on Bell Road. I climbed out of my Highlander and commenced trekking across a soggy, expansive patch of grass to a long, steep driveway. I was already about 15 minutes late. My daughter Glendyn had begun her first day on the job at the Nashville Zoo. Just as I was about to leave in plenty of time to make the 3pm event, her inevitable text message came in -- Daddy, can you pick me up? Typically poor teenage timing, but what choice did I have? I had to fetch my kid before I could shake myself loose to make the service.
As I climbed the stairs to the formidable Baha'i Center in Antioch, Tennessee, my cell phone rang. Call ID revealed area code 310. LA calling, I noted.
"Hello, this is Rand." I could hardly mask the impatience in my voice.
"Who's gonna win the Final Four this year?" The man's nasal, New Yorkish accented query failed to ring a bell of recognition.
Although I had filled out my NCAA bracket, picking Villanova over Louisville in the championship game, I was thrown by this unconventional, and rather abrasive greeting. And, its wiseacre tone seemed way out of context with what I anticipated to be a particularly somber afternoon of remembrance.
As it turned out, it was my accountant on the line with a question about the tax return he was in the midst of preparing. After the five minutes it took to sort out that issue, I thought it wise to find a bathroom -- before slipping stealthily into the back of the sanctuary to locate a vacant seat.
A large vocal group had just concluded a stirring, powerful number -- which received absolutely zero response from the nearly packed house of around 500 mourners. There, projected on a screen above the sunken stage area was a massive photo of the man whose life we had all come to honor.
"England Dan" Seals had an undeniably beautiful vocal instrument. And, at a time when I'd all but given up on my dreams of ever composing major copyright, he chose to record three of my songs. Equally -- if not more -- important was his choice not to record a fourth. The album on which my Dan Seals cuts appeared fell a far cry from commercial success. But, the encouragement I received from those recordings was crucial to my psychic health at a particularly fragile juncture in my life.
Those particular three titles all held very special, personal meaning for me. Sixteen years ago, I was all but certain that Only You -- a simple, sincere, devotional love ballad I had dedicated to my wife Stacey -- was my golden ticket to hit heaven. At my first Nashville showcase in 1993 at a Broadway bar, a top Music Row producer approached me after my set, requesting a "blanket hold" on that song. He was determined, he claimed, to record it with one of his acts. With thanks, I smugly refused to grant him the exclusive he requested. A year or so later, another Nashville production whiz took Only You into the studio with fledgling RCA act, Ray Vega. But the song failed to make the session. That was only the first of many times since that BMG head honcho Joe Gallante has headed one of my songs off at the pass (pun intended).
In Certain Circles, a piece co-written with Kim Patton-Johnston (now known as Kim McLean), was as painstakingly crafted as any I'd ever concocted. That one took at least three all-day sessions to wrestle to the ground. Examining the nurture of being among supportive family and friends, In Certain Circles contains a round visual image in every lyrical phrase, and the chord changes form a circular pattern as well.
Such a Sweet Sight paints a picture of wholesome, uncomplicated, American, hometown values. Seals had discovered that song on a comp CD where it co-existed with another tune of mine -- one about life's priorities, called My List. Although Dan strongly considered recording My List, he decided on Such a Sweet Sight instead. For that decision, I'll forever be grateful to Dan. That choice would later make a massive difference in my life -- and the lives of my family. Had Seals cut My List, I'm quite sure that Toby Keith wouldn't have.
So, there I sat in a gorgeous temple, surrounded by replicated Persian architecture, under ceilings at least 40 feet high, from which massive, masonry, bowl-shaped chandeliers hung, bordered by huge, rectangular skylights that revealed fluffy, white clouds traversing across a blue, spring, Tennessee sky. Participants would walk casually to the lectern to deliver a poem, a letter or a reading from Baha'i scripture. Then a group of singers and musicians would gather and perform a song. No one was introduced. No one identified him- or herself. When each segment was over, there was no acknowledgment or response from the crowd. It was a place and a ceremony where every ego, even every individual identity had evidently been checked at the door.
I noticed that most attendees held a program in their hands. Having arrived late, I had not been given one. I only assumed that this program revealed the names of the speakers, the performers and their chosen contributions. Then, Dan's widow Andie stepped to the microphone.
"I know this is unusual," she said, emotion filling her voice. "But, I wanted to explain that Danny requested that there be no mention of his career or any performances of his songs today." She talked briefly about her husband and his devotion to his music, his children and his Baha'i faith, a practice of peace and a belief in the universal divinity of all people.
"Anyway," Andie concluded, "I don't think Danny would mind if we listened to his favorite song."
The grieving widow returned to her front-row seat and began to weep quietly, being comforted by her own certain circle. Meanwhile, a man strode purposefully onto the stage and carefully positioned two microphone stands and a chair. Then nothing happened. A full three minutes passed. Oh, my rational mind concluded, Dan's favorite song is silence. We're listening to the "song of silence."
My logic was wrong, however. Because, at last, a woman entered the far side of the sanctuary, followed by a man gripping an acoustic guitar by its neck. The woman was thin, and her long, bushy, dark-blonde hair was pulled back casually in a sloppy ponytail. She was clad in slacks and a sweater. The man, middle aged, mustached and losing his gray hair, positioned himself and his instrument in the chair in front of one of the microphones. After a go-ahead nod from the woman, he began picking an ancient and unmistakable theme -- Greensleeves.
"Alas, my love, you do me wrong to cast me off discourteously..." Allison Krause's crystal-pure tone grabbed every molecule of air in the space. When she arrived at "Greensleeves was all my joy," her voice soared into the stratosphere. If Heaven is within earshot, Dan Seals was surely listening there. And he had to be delighted with this vulnerable and glorious rendition of his all-time favorite piece of music.
For the first time in my 59 years of life, I envied the deceased. If only, I found my private thoughts jealously longing, if only my memory might someday be honored in this fashion. To have Allison Krause sing at my funeral, I would surely have traded places with Danny Wayland Seals that afternoon.
But, Dan suffered for two years with the lymphoma that stole his life at 61. I do not covet his painful passing.
After a lengthy, 60-voice choral performance -- a stirring, neo-classical composition devoted to the Baha'i faith -- an unidentified spokesperson took the stage to thank the attendees on behalf of the Seals family. Just that suddenly and just that anti-climactically, the service was over. There was no reception, no opportunity to share feelings or reminiscences.
As I made my way to the exit, I picked up a copy of the program from a box on the floor. On its cover was a photo of Dan in his latter days. Inside the fold was a prayer by Baha’i prophet Abdu 'l-Baha and a roman-numeralled list that included such scheduled segments as "Musical selection," "Welcome and Introduction," and "Reflections." No names, few credits.
I will forever be grateful to Dan Seals for choosing three of my most personal songs to ride upon the wings of his incredible voice. And, I will always be equally as thankful that he left My List behind for rough-and-tumble Toby Keith to discover and make into the major copyright I had given up on ever having. By attending this somewhat peculiar tribute, I was able to discover the real reasons why Dan Seals chose to record those particular songs from my catalogue.
"The song had to stir him emotionally," friend and manager Tony Gottlieb explained in the March 27th edition of The Tennessean. "If it didn't raise the hair up on the back of his neck, it wasn't in consideration."
Being a true artist of intense faith and genuine integrity, Dan only recorded songs that deeply resonated in his heart and soul, songs that spoke the truth of the man he was. Knowing that, I am more honored than ever that some of my music and lyrics spoke for that man.
May God bless your immortal soul, Dan Seals. And may your family, friends and fans be comforted in this time of enormous loss.
Random Thinking, chapter 4 (The Hoo-haw About Taylor)...
Lately I can't help but notice a good deal of scuttlebutt surrounding a youthful, gangly singer/songwriter named Taylor Swift.
"Taylor Swift is a joke," was one succinct and rather bitter assessment coming from a Music City careerist. We were in the midst of a recent "Tuesday morning chat," sponsored by the Nashville Music Pros website. (Young Ms. Swift is continually derided amongst country culture snobs for her modest vocal acumen, her teen-themed love songs and her overt reach to pop crossover.)
On the flip side, Rolling Stone included the industry sensation in their annual "Best of Rock" issue last May. "Swift is a rare blend of goofy teenager and polished saleswoman, which has let her tap into a huge market of country-loving teens, observes the magazine -- with absolute accuracy.
Young Ms. Swift is also committed to writing honest songs.
"I don't think honesty is ever something you should regret," she says. "I figure if I'm going to cover things up and try to hide the way I feel and try to be perfect all the time, people are going to see through that...
"And also," she concludes, "if you're trying to change yourself all the time to adapt to what you think you should be, you're going to run out of things to be after awhile." Certainly words of wisdom coming from a recent high school grad.
Bottom line -- these statements reveal a very smart kid who embodies all of the absolute essentials that could easily amount to a sustained career on the fickle crest of the pop music wave. She has oodles of self-awareness, is unafraid to be emotionally honest; AND she knows exactly who her fans are and precisely what kind of songs those fans will believe coming from her. Those qualities, enhanced by a highly motivated work ethic, have added up to one of the hottest pop commodities on today's pop music landscape.
Swift established that work ethic on a MySpace page, which has hosted over 40 million visits. From the get-go, the awkward girl, sometimes taunted by her high school peers, used social networking to find her fans and convene with them. There, she listened and responded to their deepest concerns and passions. And in her quavering, breathy voice, those devotees heard the truth about themselves. Using short, rapid, repetitive, tiny-ranged musical phrases attached to truthful lyrical confessions floating over simple chord changes, Swift convincingly and consistently proves that she is a writer/performer who understands the heartache and desperation of being a teenager -- of falling in love, losing love, and surviving to love again.
Some might find her chosen subject matter insubstantial. However, as songs are primarily emotional things, what juicier raw material could a writer draw from than the passions of teenage love? We've all been there, exhilarated by life's beginnings and devastated by its sudden endings, through the demolition derby journey leading from crush to break-up to crush.
After all, pop songs have obsessed over young love as long as pop songs have been pop songs. In my opinion, Taylor Swift is one of today's finest purveyors of a tradition that goes back to "Jeannie With The Light Brown Hair." Do we ridicule Cole Porter, Hoagy Charmichael, Irving Berlin or the Gershwins for writing love songs in the pop stylings of their era? Of course not. Or, how about the Beatles? Certainly "Love Story" is scads more sophisticated than "Love Me Do," or "Please Please Me" and hits the bullseye with today's teen audience as accurately as Lennon and McCartney did with their first, simple, passionate songs of teen love in 1964.
Now, I'm not predicting that Swift's "White Horse" will be as lasting as Berlin's "What'll I Do" or McCartney's "Yesterday." But dad-gum-it, Brothers and Sisters, every time I hear "White Horse" on the radio, I get a big ol' lump in my throat. It's beautiful, nakedly honest and smart. And the song is rendered with sincerity and vulnerability. Here's a kid who is laying her beating heart out there for us to examine. And that, my friends, is exactly what the best recording artists do.
Regarding the young lady's obviously limited vocal chops... Let's face it, she simply wasn't blessed with the pipes of a Carrie Underwood, Trisha Yearwood or Martina McBride. Without the intervention of a good fairy or genie empowered with unlimited wish fulfillment capabilities, it's unlikely that Swift will ever develop that kind of power, control or range. But, refresh my memory -- did Paul Simon or Carol King ever experience the kind of brutal bashing Swift receives over her weak vocal performances? And, honestly, neither Simon nor King could ever hit a note squarely. (In the country genre, Swift's voice is probably the equal of Eddie Rabbitt or John Michael Montgomery -- and comes pretty darn close to the very charming Deana Carter.)
Not that Taylor Swift has accomplished (and may never achieve) a composition of the substance and import of "Bridge Over Troubled Water" or "Natural Woman." But her many detractors consistently fail to look beyond her vocal inadequacies, so they can't allow themselves to acknowledge her incredible communication skills. Besides, the kid's barely 19 years old as of this writing. Give her a break, why doncha!
What it boils down to is this: Taylor Swift works hard and writes superbly crafted songs that appeal big time to her core audience -- because she knows that core audience intimately and how to speak directly to them. It just goes to prove, once again, that innate talent is not the most important factor in the equation.
Still, the teen superstar says she's a little surprised by how fervent her audience is. "What blows me away the most," Swift confesses, "is that anyone actually cares what I have to say." (Okay, that I find a little hard to believe.)
Lastly, let's examine her pop-crossover appeal. Country purists have always snubbed those who reached out for mainstream audience. It goes back as far as Patsy Cline and Eddie Arnold, then Eddie Rabbitt and Crystal Gayle, Kenny Rogers and Barbara Mandrell, on through Garth Brooks, Faith Hill, Rascal Flatts, Keith Urban and the new kid on the block, Taylor Swift. Fact is this: the hardcore country audience will always be small (around a half million or so max). The artists who have kept the "country" genre vibrant and growing have always been the ones who've crossed over into the pop world. Like Garth Brooks and Dixie Chicks before her, Taylor Swift is bringing in bucket loads of U.S. currency to an ailing industry. Music Row should be ever so grateful for that.
I recollect the cast party after closing night of the Lake Oswego (0regon) High School drama department spring production, "Camelot." I was a 15-year-old sophomore, dancing cheek-to-cheek with my girlfriend, Randi Lechner. (Randy and Randi - pretty cute, huh!) I had played the role of the ultra-egocentric Sir Lancelot in the Lerner and Lowe musical and was nearly as full of myself as the character I'd only just portrayed.
Randi, a year older than me, was a petite pistol, a very cute, strong-willed pixie -- with a sharp wit, a lot of opinions and the will to express them. Earlier that same year, returning from a Drama competition in Tillamook, I'd made the grave error of falling asleep next to her on the school bus. A sharp pain in my bicep brought me out of my slumber. I awoke to discover Randi wacking my arm repeatedly with a coat hanger. Evidently, she didn't feel it was chivalrous to snooze like that, leaving her without an alert bench-mate to keep her company. (Certainly dozing off was very un-Lancelot-like.)
Anyway, back to dancing cheek-to-cheek at the party. The song was "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'" by the Righteous Brothers, as powerful a break-up ballad as has ever been written (and incidentally, the Mann/Weill/Spector masterwork is now the most-played song in the history of pop radio. Woo-hoo!). I looked down, surprised to see tears streaming down Randi's cheeks.
Somehow, without a word being said, I knew what those tears meant. We broke up that night. It was perfect, romantic, tragic, high school drama. We both knew our flame had died, and we both feared we would die without it. All we had left was this massive theme song to remind us of the moment when we both realized our year of youthful passion had been spent.
Somewhere in America tonight, a pair of teens will call it quits. There will be tears and a whole lotta pain. It will be too late for him and his white horse to come around. A song, co-written brilliantly and sung barely adequately by a teenager, raised on a Christmas tree farm in Pennsylvania, will provide the score for the sad parting of the ways.
Songs are one of the important ways by which we measure our lives. Taylor Swift, standing at nearly six feet, writes songs that are a large measure of millions of young lives in our world today. Don't sell her short (pun fully intended).
Write on, my dear friends. Be honest as well as crafty. Express the truth of your feelings and be unafraid to return to visit your most heartfelt memories. Maybe you will provide the soundtrack for the next momentous turn of events in a pair of young lives. After all, isn't touching other humans what we're here for?
BTW, Randi Lechner is now known as Randall Platt. She is a successful novelist who writes for young adults -- pretty close to the exact same market for whom Taylor Swift carves her perfectly sculpted songs. You can check out my ex-girlfiend's splendid work at http://www.plattbooks.com/
Onward and Upward,
Random Thinking, chapter 3...
January 13th, 2009, debut night for Season Eight of American Idol. Ten thousand hopefuls have shown up to audition in Phoenix, Arizona.
One wanna-be rock star catches my attention. A clip showing this outgoing young gent ripping open his shirt, exposing his chest and screaming to the gods on high is played repeatedly in montage segments. Then there is more footage of this nefarious fellow getting all teared up over his long-shot lust to be crowned this year's American Idol.
Wearing a bandana around his fine, straight, jet-black hair, earrings, leather pants, and sporting a perfectly pasty, studio-tan pallor (not easy to pull off in blazing AZ), this guy has cultivated his rock-star image to the N'th degree. However, as a cubicle worker in an office by day (absolutely nothin' wrong with that), it seems Bandana Man has never actually been in a band, nor has he spent any time developing the vocal stylings he is about to unleash on the judges. We soon discover that he actually came out for the auditions because a whole lot of people have told him that he should try out for the show.
Now the dream of stardom has taken such deep roots in his heart that the poor fellow literally weeps every time he talks about making the show. Then, when the judges inform him that his voice doesn't really measure up and they unanimously point thumbs down to sending him on to Hollywood Week, Bandana Man refuses to stop singing. He can't face the awful reality that this is the end of the line for him.
At 27 years old, he reminds the judges, "This is my last chance!"
Vainly, Bandana Man even attempts to change his vocal style on the fly, in a desperate attempt to please the panel. With tears in his eyes, he pleads for a chance to prove himself, swearing that he'll apply every ounce of his energies to doing "whatever it takes" to live up to the judges' lofty expectations.
But, it's already too late for Bandana Man. He wasn't prepared when the opportunity arrived, and some very large security guards are summoned to encourage him to leave the audition room.
Sliding into full blubbering, he finally resigns himself to make a heart-crushing exit, leaving behind the echo of one, final parting protest... "I wore leather pants in the Arizona heat! What else am I supposed to do?"
My question is this: are you that kind of songwriter? I'm not asking this to be mean. But, really. Are you the kind of writer who puts a couple of hours a week into your creative pursuits, writes a handful of songs and then, when "the industry won't give you a chance," you feel cheated, burned, victimized?
Of course you can work in a cubicle, or on a construction site, wait tables in a restaurant, or teach a classroom, sell insurance and still call yourself of songwriter. In fact, even if pragmatics require you to have a day gig to make a living, if your dream is to find success as a songwriter and you feel you have some talent and inspiration and you're actually applying yourself to achieving that dream, I urge you to call yourself a songwriter first. Be a songwriter who sells insurance or teaches school or lays bricks, not the reverse.
But, you should only use that designation IF you're actually doing the work required.
Songwriting is a 24/7/365 job. Being a writer requires a certain practice that starts with looking at life through a different, perhaps more discerning kind of lens and listening to the sounds around you with a curious and highly tuned pair of ears.
What I mean by that is this:
Every book you read or movie you see, every conversation in which you engage, every TV commercial you endure, every billboard you drive past could be the source for your next inspiration. If you're not paying your full attention to the world around you (that bombardment of input that comprises modern life) you're neglecting to stake a claim in a gold mine filled with precious song ideas. They're floating around you right now.
If you haven't collected at least 100 song ideas, you're not doing the work. If you don't carry a notebook around with you and jot down phrases, or tote a hand held recorder to document little melodic hooks, you're not doing the work. If you arrive at your songwriting sessions with no ideas, you're not doing the work.
If you expect that writing and demoing a half-dozen songs is gonna make you a million bucks, you're probably deluding yourself. A half-dozen hit songs can certainly make you far more than a million bucks. But, the likelihood of any one song becoming a hit is so remote that you scoring with every one of your first batch is the equivalent of winning two consecutive powerballs and a trifecta.
Songwriting is a craft that requires constant development. The more you practice, the sharper your tools become. But, look out kids! Here is the hard, cold fact...
THERE IS ABSOLUTELY NO DIRECT RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE EFFORT YOU PUT IN AND ANY REWARD YOU MAY (OR MAY FAIL TO) RECEIVE.
There is only one certainty: if you don't put in the work, you definitely will not receive the reward. If you're driven to succeed as a writer and you put in consistent effort to improve your skills, you will improve your chances of success. But, the risk is all yours. You could go to your grave without ever having seen a single dime for your investment of time, talent and resources. But, quite frankly, if you're doing it for fame and fortune, you're probably in the wrong business anyway.
Unlike a job that compensates on a hourly basis, with a commission or a salary, there is no direct relationship between the effort you put into songwriting and the treasure you receive. A sales-person, for instance, can predict fairly accurately that a certain number of calls will yield a certain percentage of presentations. A certain number of presentations will result in a predictable number of sales. Those sales will compensate with a certain commission or bonus, etc.
On the other hand, a songwriter may spend 20 hours a day, seven days a week, for 30 years refining his or her song-craft with nothing to show for it but some encouragement from parents and a few close friends. And, there's actually no guarantee of encouraging words. There is NO relationship between effort and reward.
A newly deceased songwriter is greeted by St. Peter, who informs him that he has the choice between an eternity in Heaven or Hell.
"Well, let's check out Hell first," says the songwriter, probably thinking he'll run into some old pals.
There, a group of songwriters sit around a conference table bitching and moaning about how the business is completely unfair and how they never get any cuts.
"That's just like life," the recently deceased song scribe observes. "I don't want that. Let's take a look at Heaven."
When they arrive there, Heaven is exactly the same scene. Dissatisfied songwriters, sitting around a conference table grousing about the business and not getting cuts.
"Wait a minute," protests the visitor, "this is just like Hell."
"No, no." St. Peter corrects him. "These guys all have co-pubs."
Get it? The writers in Heaven have a larger equity in the nothing they're making on the songs that aren't getting recorded. But, they're still dissatisfied with the results of their creative labor.
Nobody ever said the music business was fair. Why then, do songwriters always complain about it?
We are blessed to spend a good amount of our time being creative. Makin' stuff up is a great gig. Every writer should be grateful for every minute he or she has to bring those creative inspirations to fruition.
There will be dues to pay, with more disappointments and set-backs than forward progress. We've chosen an avocation (or, if we're really lucky, a vocation) in which, as Jimmy Webb so accurately says, "...best case scenario, 90% of our work will be completely ignored." Either accept that and take joy in the process, or find a business that has a direct effort-to-reward ratio.
Don't be Bandana Man. Leather pants in the Arizona heat? Give me a break! A few hours of sweaty legs ain't nothin'. Every time you put your specific expectations out there for the success of any one song, you're inviting a steamroller to squash your heart into a big red pancake.
Do the work. Keep writing, re-writing and making friends. Enjoy the process and the camaraderie. Get more feedback from people who know stuff. Make more friends. Improve your craft. Cultivate your friendships. Make great demos. Put your head down and keep plowing ahead.
You never know when you're making progress, or how far you've come until it happens. And the only way it's ever gonna happen is if you keep doing the work and find gratitude in the privilege.
Otherwise, it just ain't worth it.
Here's to your inevitable success,
Random Thinking, chapter two......
You know what happens during struggling economic times (like the ones we're in now)?
First, folks start losing confidence in the economy. They don't trust where that next buck is coming from (or sometimes IF it's coming at all). That trepidation makes 'em reluctant to spend the money (or use the credit) they do have. Then, all the businesses that rely on the constant circulation of this unspent money have to lay people off. So, lots of people lose their jobs. And, of course, jobless people have even less confidence in spending.
It's easy to see how this lack of faith tends to snowball quickly. As more and more distrusters hoard, less and less money circulates. Thus, the economic spiral continues downward. A little queasiness about bucks can balloon into a self-inflating prophesy.
Okay, that's plenty enough from the bleak side. Because, for those of us who apply ourselves to the higher calling of songcraft, there is a very bright beacon out there in the murky darkness of this current disaster. FACT: during every financial downturn in recent history, the public at large has turned to uplifting music and lyrics to find solace and escape from the toxic stress caused by pervasive money-worry.
Think back to the incredibly inspired (and now-timeless) songs of the 30's: All of Me, Love is Here to Stay, I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter, It's Delovely, Where or When, In the Still of the Night, My Funny Valentine, I've Got the World on a String, Moonglow, Pennies From Heaven, They Can't Take That Away From Me, It Ain't Necessarily So. The list of titles goes on... and on... and ON: phenomenal songs (and, BTW, all very lucrative copyrights - to this day).
The Depression was actually ushered in by that rambunctious tune Happy Days Are Here Again. Wow! What a musical thumb of the nose to the crash of '29! So, my compulsively creative friends, let’s ask ourselves, "What does this aforementioned group of pop classics have in common?"
Even though these compositions emerged from the most desperate decade of the last century, each shares a common spirit of optimism, romanticism and idealism. Every one is uplifting, encouraging and inspiring in its own way. Even now, these songs send us on a two- or three-minute virtual vacation - painting better visions than the often-dire pragmatics with which we are faced in the course of our daily adventures.
Okay, occasionally a Brother Can You Spare a Dime slips through - as that brilliant workingman's musical manifesto did in the form of two hit versions in 1932 (one by Bing Crosby, the other by Rudy Valley). There have been some brilliant and darkly themed (i.e. more lyrically "realistic") songs that reached a wide audience during despondent times. Ironically, however, the preponderance of the hits from the '30s took on a positive, rosy demeanor, depicting life as an experience that holds far greater and more pleasant possibilities.
You could say that the pop tunesmiths of the era were simply doing their civic duty - by sending encouraging notes of buoyancy out into the world.
Flash forward to the late-'70s - a time of staggering interest rates, uncontrolled inflation, a shortage of petroleum and very high unemployment. Taking a quick review of the record biz during that period, one can't help but notice that people were doing much more partying than they were party-pooping. This uncertain half-decade enjoyed sales of 12" albums on an altogether unprecedented scale.
Of course, there was the disco craze. To distract ourselves from the lines at the gas pump, our low-set thermostats and that ugly, over-20-percent prime interest rate, a lot of us headed off to the dance floors to keep warm and hustle our cares away.
The double-album soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever sold something close to 30 million units worldwide and gave the Brothers Gibb a third life - one that totally eclipsed their already-impressive earlier incarnations. Donna Summer released hit after hit, while selling a plethora of records. Barry White, Ohio Players, Evelyn "Champaign" Smith, KC & the Sunshine Band, The Champs, Hot Chocolate, Chic, Kool & the Gang, and others also had multiple chart successes.
Admittedly, the dance songs of the '70s (i.e. "That's the way, uh, huh, uh, huh, I like it, uh, huh, uh, huh" ad infinitem) don't exactly stand up to critical scrutiny the way the Depression's pop classics do. Most, like the tedious KC hit just mentioned, were fairly banal and dreadfully repetitive. But there are a few titles that stand out: Don't Leave Me This Way, Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now, She Works Hard For the Money, Never Can Say Good-bye, We Are Family, Stayin' Alive, How Deep Is Your Love (and several other Bee Gees standards).
Even neo-classics like Jimmy Webb's MacArthur Park were discotized. And, picking up on the escapist trend, rockers like Blondie, Bowie, Rod Stewart and the Stones got into the act, cranking out their own big dance-floor grooves.
Those of you (and there are many, I'm sure) who disdain disco in all its forms, DESPAIR NOT! The Carter-era recession also birthed some rock and pop sensations that rivaled those spawned by the night world of mirror balls, the incessant throb of 120-BPM, four-on-the-floor pounding and the drug-induced, pointy-collared posing that came along with it.
The album feeding-frenzy of the second half of the '70s was actually primed by a journeyman, blonde-curled, Brit guitarist/singer by the name of Peter Frampton. It seemed like the double live-disc, Frampton Comes Alive, held the #1 spot on the Billboard chart for most of 1976. On Frampton's heels, Fleetwood Mac scored zillions of sales with some very interesting songs and intriguing textures (not to mention an ever-fascinating real-life soap opera). Arena-rockers REO Speedwagon, Foreigner, Bad Company, ZZ Top and Boston thrived. The Doobies, The Cars, Olivia Newton-John and Pat Benetar all got their licks in, establishing their individual musical stamps and making off like platinum bandits in the midst of challenging economic times.
The late-'70s and early-'80s spawned some excellent and unforgettable songs too: Hotel California, I Wanna Know What Love Is, Takin' it to the Streets, Allison, Hit Me With Your Best Shot and Go Your Own Way - to name only a few.
So, here we are, watching the curtain raise on 2009, tumbling into a perilous chasm marked with warning signs that indicate some very ruff sledding ahead: banks failing, stock market floundering, debt rising, jobs evaporating. It looks bad - REAL bad. The darts of doom and gloom are whizzing our way. And, as much as we try to bob and weave, we'll be hard-pressed not to get poked by some of them. Beware, the venom they carry is poisonous - and those toxins have every potential of infecting our collective soul.
After all, we've already been thrust into uncertainty - with the weakening of album sales, due to file sharing and downloading. But, despite the rapid changes digital technology has brought to our music-delivery systems, there are still major musical copyrights being created every day. A single hit song in today's world makes heretofore-unmatched casholla - multi-millions, in fact. So, even though the landscape looks different, pop music is still a very important part of contemporary culture. And there are many new ways for your songs and mine to reach the masses and get 'em all singin' along, while harvesting bushels of long green.
Although hit radio still continues to expose music and artists to the world, other new media has expanded the ways our creative work can find its audience. The flock of new cable TV networks producing original content always seek songs to fill the soundtracks for their broadcasts. Even daytime network soaps have gone to using original songs to score episodes and reinforce characters. Getting a song on Grey's Anatomy or in an iTunes commercial can spell instant stardom for an artist - resulting in spiked sales and a logo-rhythmic explosion of public awareness.
Social networking sites like MySpace and video-hosting sites like YouTube enable any and all of us to create viral campaigns that can take on a life of their own, ultimately reaching millions of fans - without the money and resources of a major label.
And all the while, remember, the public at large, under the weight of these difficult financial challenges, will remain starving for songs to inspire and distract them from today's doldrums.
So, let's not forget our role in this tragicomedy. We are the jesters, the muses; we wield the color amidst the greyness. And, should one or more of us strike the right chord (or chord progression, combined with a phrase or two of language), in the form of a song that resonates with and moves the despondent multitudes to elation, we will not only have spread some joy across a hapless horizon, but we will soon be reaping the bountiful rewards for making a real contribution to curing the world's positive-energy crisis.
When we sit down to write our next masterpiece, let's think about what we can express to the world in our music and words that might help to lift our fellow human travelers out of this horrible muck. (Maybe for only a three quick minutes - but that's a start, right? And don't forget - those hooks keep on playin' in people's heads day and night, thus starting a contagion of healthy germs.)
It's time to offer up a ditty (or an anthem) that brings cheer to your unfortunate neighbors. Find a memorable icon phrase that resonates in your heart. Get a nice little groove going. Then put those essential ingredients together in the mixing bowl of your creative mind and cook up a song that speaks personally and unpretentiously. Surely millions out there will strongly relate to your musical inspiration - IF you frame it with craft and integrity (and, of course, IF the world gets the chance to hear it - that's were your self-marketing chops and dogged persistence come in handy).
Your stories and themes don't have to be particularly profound, or even particularly original. (Fresh helps a lot. I always encourage fresh.) Apply reliable, proven templates - but address your ideas using your own unique voice, from your own point of view. You'll be surprised at how many music lovers will immediately relate to what you're compelled to express.
Yes, write what you know. But, don't slip into the self-pity-party attitude. (Sure, it's a drag you can't afford a spare tire or that your utility bills sucked the ho-ho-ho out o' Christmas. Believe me, I can relate. But I seriously doubt if anybody wants to sing about that stuff. Seriously!)
Look at those song titles from the '30s. During hard times, folks wanna hear messages of redemption and possibility. We wanna believe in the ideals of true love and how the little guy can achieve victory over those ominous Powers that Be.
Feel it (or at least dream it). And write about it. Give it a melody and a beat.
We've got our work cut out for us, my fellow craftspeople. We're in the trenches, on the front lines, facing an formidable foe. OUR ENEMY IS FEAR. Are you one of the brave potential heroes who will be willing to stand up and race into the fray? Or will we find you cowering in your foxhole sucking your thumb?
Come on! Load up your weapons, put on your helmet and flak jacket and take aim. Fix your scope on the heart of man. Maybe one of your shots of love and hope will ricochet to the top of the charts! (Maybe that's why they call it "number one with a bullet.") Maybe you'll be one who defies those impossibly long odds. Can you picture yourself standing there as the smoke clears, with medals pinned to your chest, your pockets overflowing with treasures beyond your wildest dreams? Should that miracle happen, you will also be able to take a measure of pride that you spread a little bit o' comfort and joy around.
It's gonna happen to someone. It might as well be you.
Random Thinking, chapter one...
I believe the best way to learn is to do.
While I encourage every aspiring tunesmith to read (and hopefully enjoy) my new book, Makin' Stuff Up, to attend songwriting seminars, take courses, enter competitions, buy and listen to music, and get out to hear great songs by great writers, I think sitting down persistently with your instrument and/or a pencil and paper and "makin' stuff up" yourself will ultimately make the biggest positive difference in your songcraft.
You can watch videos and/or read manuals about driving a car. But, as most of us know well from experience, taking the wheel and putting your foot on the accelerator is something that can't be fully explained (or mastered) until you finally strap yourself into the driver's seat and turn that key.
Fortunately for us songwriters, it's typically not fatal when we lose control along the Tunesmith Turnpike - as we all inevitably do every all too often - and find ourselves careening off a cliff. All writers live in a sort of virtual cartoon reality. When we get flattened by a steamroller, we have the ability to peal our pancake-selves off the pavement, shake our shapes back into something resembling our original form and do it all over again.
Yeah, it can be a heartbreaker when one of our creations doesn't turn out as great as we hoped it would. And yes, it hurts when that certain piece of which we're particularly proud fails to receive the acceptance we expected. But that's gonna happen more times than it won't, so get used to it! We all need to develop a pretty thick epidermal layer to survive the slings and arrows of this brutal biz.
Songwriters Hall of Famer Jimmy Webb says, "...best case scenario, 90% of our work will be completely ignored." By 'best case,' I'm going to assume that Webb is talking about a writer of his stature. If nine out o' ten of Jimmy Webb's songs will languish in complete obscurity, what does that mean for you, or for a writer like myself who has achieved a decent track record? (But honestly, my discography can't sniff Webb's boots. The Webb-ster's responsible for at least a dozen pop classics.)
What that means to me is that you (and I) need to man up and face this music: simply writing a good song isn't good enough. As we're constantly competing to steal a little bit of attention away from future Hall of Famers (i.e. Jeffrey Steele, Craig Wiseman, Rivers Rutherford and Dianne Warren, et al) we need to endeavor to write extraordinary songs, songs that are fresh, inventive and bullet-proof.
But none of us is gonna write a potential classic every time out. And, we will end up in more than a few ditches along the winding road to Hitsville. The question is this: how and what will we learn from our all-too-frequent fender benders and fiery rollovers? Unless we have someone we can trust to give us honest, articulate and helpful criticism of our work, we could be doomed to spinning out and slamming into trees until we pack it all in from frustration. And believe you me, the excitement and exhilaration of crashing and burning wears off pretty quickly.
Wouldn't it be incredible to know that, pretty much every time out, you're gonna be able to stay on course and make it to the end of the race? Wouldn't it be a huge comfort to be assured that your latest, possibly greatest inspirations will have a real chance to realize their highest creative potential?
In the olden days, instead of spending so much time on all that book learnin', an aspiring young talent would apprentice for a craftsman, sit at the masters feet, ask questions, observe and soak up those time-honored techniques and philosophies. Wouldn't it be incredible to apprentice for Jimmy Webb, or Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, or Allan and Marilyn Bergman, or Burt Bacharach and Carol Bayer Sager? Unfortunately, few writers are blessed with firsthand exposure to greatness.
So we write, and we play our songs for whomever will listen to them. The missing piece of the puzzle (for most songwriters) is access to truly constructive feedback from knowledgeable, concerned, articulate professionals. While you can compare your latest composition to a thousand examples of iconic, genius wordplay and inspired, unforgettable melody (by the writers named in the last paragraph), what you really need to know is exactly what you're doing right and where you might be going astray. You need to know where your work-in-progress is succeeding creatively and where it could use some improvement. Then, more often than not, you could use a nudge, a clue how to overcome your song's weaknesses. Sometimes you need somebody who knows a thing or two about a thing or two to suggest, "Try this..."
From my lengthy sojourn as a songwriter - and my more recent delving into the longer forms of verbal expression (screenplays, stage plays, books, etc.) - I've found that the most critical, and often neglected key to excellent writing is persistent and conscientious rewriting. And, for me, rewriting is often the most enjoyable and fulfilling part of the process - especially when I've identified exactly what my goals are.
When I play a song for someone I trust - a friend or colleague, a pro with the talent, experience (and courage) to tell me exactly what he or she actually thinks about my new offering - I'm hoping to discover how my song is effective and how it falls short. This gives me the information I need to re-address my music and lyrics and make this composition into the best song it can be.
Take advantage of the Makinstuffup.net Feedback Loop. It's the best song-mentoring value on the Web. Our certified coaches will provide you with the kind of informative instruction that will help you make your songs better songs, more competitive songs and, ultimately, more fulfilling songs.
Imagine seeing your latest original, unpublished composition displayed as one of this month's 10 best new tunes submitted for critique on The Feedback Loop. (If you believe wholeheartedly in your song, apply your coach's suggestions in your re-write and re-submit to improve your score.)
Makinstuffup.net is intended to be a virtual apprentice program that allows you to learn by doing. We are focused on one thing only: improving your songcraft, one song at a time.
I can't wait to hear your newest inspiration. So, send me what you've been makin' up!
All the best to you and yours,