Thursday, April 4, 2013

A Digression About Songwriting

Obviously, this is not Part 2 of “The Search For the Holy Grail”. Rather, I just want to share some thoughts about the process of songwriting, and the weirdness it sometimes entails.

People ask me where I come up with song ideas, or about specific phrases within a song, on a pretty regular Basis. Steve, for instance, was vastly amused by the line, “I’m dead as a doornail, from my head down to my shoes”, in Novocain Blues. Why that particular imagery? What made me chose those words to express a level of emotional numbness brought on the loss of an early love?

Honestly … I have no idea. I wasn’t looking for just the right phrase, wandering the streets of SoHo in the rain (thanks Warren Z), like a demented poet whilst mumbling lines to myself until I found just the right one. “Dead as a doornail” just described the feeling to a T, and I ran with it.

Yesterday, Bryan and I ran over to the gas station, on a work break, to get him an energy drink and  to get me an ice cream bar (Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia, covered in dark chocolate, if you must know). While we were waiting to check out with our purchases, a fellow walked up behind us with the largest refill cup I have ever seen, full of ice and some sort of soda.

“Wow,” Bryan said to him. “Mayor Bloomberg would probably  take that away from you,” in reference to the recent attempted banning of huge soft drink containers in New York City.

The guy chuckled, and we all passed the time of day for a moment, as strangers in line are wont to do.

On the way out the door, Bryan turned to me and said, in a quiet voice, “That was a huge drink!”

I replied, “Yeah. I don’t see any reason for the government to get involved, but if you can drown a baby in it, you probably shouldn’t be drinking it.”

Bryan got a big laugh out of that, and asked me how I came up with that particular image in relation to a soft drink cup. And, once again, I had no idea. If you think about it, that’s a pretty gruesome, violent image to come up with in any context, but it just came out of my mouth without me consciously thinking about it.

A lot of songs, or individual lines in songs, come to me in the same manner. A phrase will pop into my head, and I will grab a piece of paper (or a dollar bill, on occasion, if no paper is handy), and jot it down. Some days, as I work in the lab, by myself, I will write down a dozen of these little nuggets. A lot of them never get used for anything.

But, a lot of times, I will be leafing through a stack of these notes, weeks or months later, and something will stand out. One phrase may link with another and form the core of a song. Or, I might find the replacement for an awkward phrase in a song already written.

In much the same manner, I pull my iPhone out of my pocket and hum, or sing guitar riffs or melodies into the voice notes feature, so that I won’t forget them. Recently, I had done just that. Then I went home and worked the music up with my actual guitar, which I then recorded onto my phone.

The next day, Steve brought in the lyrics to a song he had been working on, and asked if I could come up with the music. I put the lyrics on my music stand, and looked at them, then started to play the guitar part I had worked out the previous evening.

It was a near perfect fit, and the song required minimal tweaking to become “Go Get It”, which we are now playing onstage, and will also be on the next CD. It was a weird moment of synchronicity, and I can’t explain it other than to say that Steve and I are on very close wavelengths, when it comes to the music.

Songwriting is equal parts Art, Science and Alchemy, it seems.