Wednesday, August 6, 2008

How I Wrote The Song: Bloody Little Numbers Game

The first in an occasion series

If you've scrolled about the LJ music on Bandcamp, you'll notice that sometimes there's a blurb that illuminates how a particular song came to be. Oh, okay, I think there's something like that on the All-Night Pillow Fight page, if nowhere else. I can't recall: Quickly, now, go look!

Here, then, a little bit about my song-writing style these days.

By "these days" I mean the days in which I drive to work, to rehearse, to a soccer game -- hours and hours a year spent in the truck, rolling up and down Austin's tarmac maze and the occasional dirt track. Which is nearly every bleeding day. And has been for nigh-on a dozen years.

From time to time you'll see me pull up beside you, singing along to something in my limited jukebox; yes, I'm the oblivious guy belting out that tune, while the truck rocks (rolls?) from side to side as we idle at that red light.

Other times my muse perches shotgun and I find I am humming some unexpected, new melody, usually attached to a lyric (it's a chicken-egg thing) as I drive. This happens rather often, actually: Some line or other twists around the song-writing part of my brain and from it I may derive whole chunks of a song. I don't usually write this sort of thing down -- I'm not studied at reading music, let alone writing it. And, anyway, the chicken scratchings that are left after I drag pen over notepad at the occasional stoplight are often illegible to their creator. What on earth was that word supposed to be? So the best alternative to writing it all down is to repeat whatever line of song happened to sashay between my synapses for as long as I'm driving. Sing sing sing. Repeat repeat repeat. Drive drive drive.

Wherever the mystery melody came from, however, no matter how catchy or contrived, one simple test sorts out the "keepers" from the "losers." If I can recall the melody the next time I get into the truck for a drive, if, after a day in the cubicle or an afternoon chasing a soccer ball or a night working on other material, I can bring that line back to life, it's probably worth it to hunt down a whole song. In recent years this has proven a successful method of song-breeding.

For instance.

Recently I had the line "You better stop beating up on yourself" in my head. I forget exactly what I was thinking that led to the line; I was chastising myself over something trivial, probably, and I thought, "This is hardly a beneficial way to look at your life, mate. You better stop beating up on yourself." I found myself repeating the line, this time with a melody. It mutated and expanded to "You better stop beating up on your-self; there's better things to beat up on." Wry, that. I tried it out over and over again. Pretty solid melody, though, or so I thought. And that's how I left it at journey's end.

Of course, it was not really that good a line, text-wise, but that was what I had and if I could recall it the next time I got into the truck it might be worth pursuing as the basis of a song.

And, as expected, between the time I parked the truck and walked fifty paces to the office I completely forgot the melody that had hatched. Ah well. C'est l'omlette.

And yet, all day long I was aware of that nagging sensation of the promising line. So I wrote down that one bit of lyric. Yes, yes, I said earlier that I never do that, but I was really keen on this one. Alas, or according to form, the melody was gone. I concentrated extra hard on that thankfully slow day and there it was: I found the rhythm of the line and at last the melody came home to roost, too. Though the lyric itself was only a placeholder -- I wasn't about to write a song about self-flagellation. Well, not this time.

And then I lost it again. The melody. Notations on a page in a spiral notebook were useless. Sure the melody went up here and down there, but I'd lost the actual notes. Chicken scratch.

On the hard drive home I drove my mind hard, too, trying to coax the melody from wherever it was. I recited the placeholder lyric and at last the melody ensued: A Good Sign, That. I expanded the melody. And then something else happened and the lyric shifted from "You better stop beating up on your-self" to "Love's just a funny little numbers game" (for no discernible reason: It was what appeared in my head as I repeated the melody, probably as you were staring at me and my rollicking truck at that red light). And that pretty much cracked it: The whole line, "You better stop beating up on your-self; there's better things to beat up on," became, "Love's just a funny little numbers game, a comical calculus." The melody was set. And from there it was relatively easy to stuff all manner of mathematical metaphors into this latest paean to love. The result is the song, "Bloody Little Numbers Game." Which I rather like.

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