Monday, June 13, 2011

A weekend in Zakland (or, how to write songs without trying)

Some people will disagree with me on this matter, but that's okay. I am now going to tell you how to try to write a song.


As in, don't try. Some people made fun of the wisdom of Yoda, but when the Jedi Master said, "Try not. Do, or do not. There is no try," that little green guy was onto something. I didn't used to understand this, but now that I'm on the fast and slippery slope to Curmudgeonville, I am fully in favor of this philosophy.

Four years of writing on the Zak Blog, and this is the first appearance of Yoda here. The force is strong in me today. Better late than never.

Anyway, don't try. That's what I was doing on Friday afternoon: I was busy not trying to write a song. I did, however, swing my desk chair around, and there were several guitars sitting there, so when I went outside to have a smoke, I took one of the cheap ones with me... you know, the kind of guitar that if it drops and breaks into 50 pieces, you won't cry very much. Anyway, I took it out to my patio, and something mildly interesting happened: as I stood there not trying to play anything in particular, my hand grabbed the guitar neck in an odd way. "Odd" in that in made an interesting group of notes. I liked it.

I didn't think at that point, "Hey, I'm writing a song!" Instead, I thought, "There's an interesting series of notes." A chord does not make a song. I mean, it could, but chances are that you're a little more creative than that, and might like to add another chord or two to make the act of writing your song a bit more of an expressive experience. So, I let my hand drift down the neck of the guitar and strummed another chord, this time a very standard G chord. And that's all I did. I went back to the odd Bb chord, then again to the mundane G chord. Keep in mind that at no point did I start to convince myself that I was writing a new song. Instead, I was simply standing on my patio, playing some chords, and having a smoke.

Kids, don't try this at home. Here's the goofy chord I played that inspired what eventually became my newest song. You could call it an F with a Bb bass. You could call it a Bb Maj9. I call it pretty. Seriously, don't play this unless you have nimble fingers.

When Kat and I got out of bed on Saturday, we spent the morning relaxing. We'd been doing things lately, and sometimes it's really nice to not do anything at all. That was the plan: do nothing. That's a great time to actually do something. You don't have anything to get in the way of doing things when you have nothing to do. In that frame of mind, I recalled that I'd been playing with those chords the day, and decided to see if they still sounded interesting. They did. Then, while showering, I did some humming (if you think only non-musicians sing in the shower, you're way off base), and I found myself building upon the couple of chords I'd put together earlier.

After dressing myself and having coffee, I sat at the computer while Kat sat at hers, and I started imagining a structure for the song. Not that it was a song, mind you! But I did imagine that if I had some drums under the chords I was playing, it might bring some cohesion to the sounds in a pleasing way. So, even before I'd finished thinking through how the whole thing would come together, I started programming in some drum beats (the miracle of modern technology allows me to do these things). After awhile, it seemed like I'd put together enough beats for something to play along with, so that's what I did.

This may look like a digital audio interface with a song on it (if you're an audio geek like me), but I assure you, there is no song here. Anything resembling a song is merely an illusion.

I didn't do it all day. Every so often, I'd walk away from the music and hang out with my son, play some video games, stroll around outside, and so on. But since my inspiration to make something musical didn't go away, I rolled with it, and came back to the computer to once again launch Pro Tools and continue wherever I'd last left off. At some point, it was getting late, and as opposed to forcing myself to stay up late just to wrap up the song (something I would have done in my teens and 20s), I just turned everything off and walked away.

A good omen happened on Sunday morning; I awoke still immersed in my new little tune, as in, I was humming it as I got out of bed. Good sign. After the morning routine, I was back at the computer. At this point, I'd decided to start experimenting around with some different sounds for this tune (the song itself tends to dictate for me how it will be arranged). I plugged in a few synth lines for the verses, choruses, and bridge, and then put down an acoustic guitar line and a bass line over it all. It was starting to shape up.

Once again, I didn't attempt to force the process. At any point that I felt I'd run out of mojo, I would have closed the Pro Tools session and found something else to do with the remainder of my weekend. However, the juices seemed to keep flowing, so I kept going. Keep in mind that while I was recording the musical idea, I wasn't recording it. For all I know, I may start again from scratch when it comes time to committ the song to something people will listen to forever. At the same time, my ideas for the song were specific enough that I wanted to capture the entire vibe as well as I could. That meant that while I did bother to flesh out the details, I didn't get bogged down by them. Each pass at guitar and bass were single-pass takes that indeed included some mistakes. I didn't let that stop me at all, nor did I bother fixing them. There will be time later on to do that stuff. The main thing was to get the full idea down as quickly as possible, and I was happy to do just that.

Later, I recorded a couple of guitar solos that I'd planned for the end of the song. Finally, before the night was done, I did a very fast mix of the tune and exported an MP3 file that I could listen to anywhere without having to open up Pro Tools each time I wanted to hear it. And that, friends, is where it stands right now.

I may use high-tech tools to help with recording music, but for basic writing of music and lyrics? My important needs are a pen, paper, and a large cup of caffeinated something or other.

It's still not a song. Songs are musical pieces that are sung, and since there are no words and only the faintest idea for a melody that I could barely, it doesn't qualify as a song by any definition. However, it is a starting point for a song, and hopefully it will continue through its current embryonic state and grow up to be a song sometime soon.

1 comment:

Thea said...

Funny, Zak... you were writing music. I wrote some lyrics that just hit me like a ton of bricks this weekend. It wasn't a poem. It was song lyrics with a tune and all... I totally get what you are saying in the intro to this post about not forcing the process. I could have never done that if I actually tried.