Songwriting Lyrics – With Adriaan Brand: I’m so excited to be posting my first ever guest blog. Adriaan Brand is a personal hero of mine (and a friend), an all-rounder musician with too many talents to mention, including being a very gifted songwriter who composes for a whole array of projects. He first rose to fame as the trumpeter/keyboard player for the Springbok Nude Girls, and is still involved in so many aspects of music including musical therapy, composing for TV and coordinating at the Music Van De Caab Heritage Development Project. This post is beautifully written and very insightful about songwriting lyrics – I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did. Please leave comments for Adriaan in the comments box below…
DO THE LYRICS ‘READ’? A POSSIBLY OLD SCHOOL TAKE ON THINGS…
I remember a conversation somewhere towards the end of the second millennium, between my heart-brother Huyser Burger and Nudie bassist Arno Blumer (himself a fierce deconstructionist) about thinking versus feeling in artmaking. It was hilarious, as Huyser felt he had things down to a simple and workable, unquestionable equation: feeling is new school and very very good; thinking, in any guise whatsoever, is decidedly old school and out of the question. Blumer was tied up in a nasty cerebral knot (which his face mirrored unfilteredly)… he was decidedly anti-thinking himself, but as an entrenched late 20th century philosopher, he reviled statements which reduced anything to simple, absolute and unquestioned ‘truths’. Paradoxically he still preferred thinking, though it was about pulling thinking apart. The conversation lasted hours, getting more and more side splitting and slurred, less and less coherent as the Jagy flowed in a seamless river from behind the Oppikoppi bar down their throats into the magic mushroom infestation their minds tended to be on top of that hill. That night I literally passed out laughing, with a dangerous case of hypoxia myself.
You see, when it comes to songwriting, I come from a theatre music background. In that field, it rarely happens that you wake up with a song in your heart, sing it into your Pro-Tools, play it to your record company rep as a demo, get him or her excited and release it later (like it has been known to happen with really talented pop song writers). I guess the reason is that with theatre you often have only one chance, live, to win over the audience. If the words don’t ‘read’ (i.e. if they can’t hear what the actors are saying) you’ll most probably lose the punters (who are often quite predatorial critics looking for something to rip to pieces) and they give you bad reviews or don’t come again. With pop, especially if you have a dedicated cult following, people listen to your recorded work over and over, willing and devoted enough to decode what the hell you did there so they can exhibit their superior insight into your celebrated mind when talking to fellow fans. Or, well, that’s the basic premise of my impromptu theory here.
What this means is that in composing theatre music you need to think more; be more reliant on technique, revisiting your work, chewing it over, polishing it, testing it against peers, and trying again until you both think and feel you got it right. And this is not always required in pop, where part of the marketability of (especially ‘alternative’) work may involve exactly the extent to which it reveals your tendency to kick and scream against conventions, following your (often alienated) feeling. And the predicament this puts me in personally, is that I listen to pop music, or look at it, through the lense of the readability of lyrics. To be honest, most often I give up on the lyricist and when I need to render the song to someone else, and I hum the melody, or point to a particularly emotive counterpoint line inside the mix where I felt the arranger really spoke to me, offering me a narrative through embedded melodic mobility, actually giving me more information than the lyricist did…
Now, if I could draw together the split positions Huyser and Blumer occupied in that memorable conversation, and the split positionality the lyrical readability dilemma creates between theatre and pop music: I always believe there is a middle way. Why can’t one follow your feeling when setting out on a creative endeavour, and then think about it, polishing it, while retaining enough sensitivity to stop at that magical point just before you start killing it? And, if I am to share this idea with others, encouraging them to balance thinking with feeling, roughness or robustness with cleverness in creativity, how do I package the idea and share it in a chewable way? You start with forcing yourself to teach it to children! You simplify, wrap it up in games, and facilitate learning in such a way that it renders outcomes which are both inspiring and exciting, and authentically owned by your audience. This age group are the fiercest critics, the most honest sounding board, who will show you in undeniable ways “you are losing me!”. And from there, you evolve an adaptation more suitable for university students – who, I’ll have you know, just love it when a lecturer presents something in a fun way. EVERYBODY loves playing – adults too.
Through this white hot tempering furnace, what crystallised are four basic steps on a learning curve towards churning out more reading lyrics:
1. Develop a sensitivity for short, long and medium length vowel sounds and syllables, and look for stress or emphasis in words.
2. Point out that short syllables deserve to be placed in homes which suit them: short notes… and similarly with long and medium length syllables. Experiment with ways to emphasise stressed syllables in melodic lines… “how can I sing this line while throwing the stressed syllable further?”
3. Develop a feeling for how to put a spoken line to a melody without sacrificing the exact rhythm within which it was spoken: clap spoken lines into various positions on a 4/4 bar while keeping the spoken emphasis intact
4. Keep the spoken rhythm, remember the place you put it in on the 4/4 bar, throw it into the air, and let it fall into a melody while you clap.
This is not to say that thinking about the concept of your song, what you want to put in the repeated chorus and in which direction you want to develop each verse, and various other aspects of thinking and feeling about songmaking are not equally important. It’s just a technique to stimulate some thinking about how clearly the words one chooses to convey your thoughts, come across from the listener’s perspective. I have also found myself, that when that horrible thing called ‘writer’s block’ presents itself, falling back on a technique which s reliant on a systematic way of working most often gets you back into the groove. In this way systematised engagement, and thinking per se, can re-start inspiration and feeling too. The two processes (thinking and feeling) need never to be pitted up against each other. The most wonderful songs emerge where these two processes are engaged in a reciprocal dance – fluid mutuality if you wish. And when using both processes, you are also more likely to make your deadline, or to churn out more work, of a suitable standard no less, in less time. God bless BOTH Huyser Burger and Arno Blumer.
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