Some Thoughts on Songs and Songwriting

Published: May 05, 2008

As I am about to put an end to an 8-year procrastination on recording my second album, I have gathered some thoughts from that stretch of time, that I would like to share.

I write songs; Folk/Pop(ular) songs (Ill call them folk songs) as opposed to classical (formal) music, to make a simple differentiation which probably leaves many things unaccounted for.
I generally think the following:
A folk song is comprised of three elements.
Chords - Vocal melody - Lyrics

Many of the songs I love express feelings so universal that I and others feel the urge to sing them in the shower or play them around a campfire. These three aforementioned elements are all that isneeded to transfer a song from one person to another. Each person who chooses to recreate a folk song brings to it their instrument of choice and style of playing, their unique voice, and the character with which they deliver the lyrics.

What a thrill it must be to write a song that other people, musicians and non-musicians, desire to play and sing- and to write a song that other people can and do play and sing.

I often think about the world in terms of Platonic forms andideals. I cant help it- its such a satisfying yet wistful way tothink of things.

In this case, I imagine we can see the technical formula orblueprint for a song by way of chords, melody and lyrics, but can neverknow its true perfect manifestation. Would it be every human who ever lived and ever will live singing and playing together at once. Cheesy, right? That would probably sound terrible. And what about the creator of each song? Should not Leonard Cohens
recording of Bird on The Wire from the album Songs from a Room be that songs ideal manifestation? What about the unused takes? Presumably he had some say in the final product butone can imagine so many other possibilities. But the one we have is the one we have; I do love it and I am not at all dissatisfied with what this life has to offer.

When I record songs I am aware of many different instruments andoverdubs I could and arguably should add. But lately I have been thinking that it is better to keep it simple and let the song suggest these arrangements toeach persons imagination. I have trouble committing to a particular arrangement for a song because I am aware of the many possibilities. Maybe if I was a virtuoso guitar player Id come up with something to play that I knew was good enough to be the definitive version. But for now I would rather leave the listener wanting more, and not distracted by a superfluous part Ive added to spruce up the recording. Its titillating when you hear a song suggest its own accompaniment. Youcan sort of hear it in your head but you cant hold on to it.

Sometimes I am suspicious of overly-produced pop songs. Certain stylesare pretty and pleasing to the ear on a moment to moment basis, but Ican only have a fleeting, superficial relationship with these soundsunless they are supported by a solid foundation – the foundation of asong that when stripped down to its elements is still compelling. There are many sentences that come to my mind that if written would make me sound like a purist snob.

But, I was just watching TV and saw a car commercial which used the song Do You Realize by The Flaming Lips. That song is almost impossible not to love the first time you hear it. The pleasure I get from it is also fairly specific to the singers voice and the production, which seem as integral to the listening experience as the chords, melody and lyrics.

So now we come to one of the troubling aspects of Platos forms. In Platos day there were fewer categories of things. There were tables, and Plato could imagine that all tables on earth were an imperfect earthly manifestation of pure table-ness. But in our times, are we supposed to imagine that there exists in the philosophers afterworld, pure those things you open CD packaging with ness? I guess. Why not? But, what about an air hockey table? Is that part table, part something else? Or is it almost pure air hockey table?

I just had a personal epiphany while watching that car commercial. There are songs that can only exist in one manifestation. In Platonic terms, their ideal is on earth. I suppose it can be an equally worthy achievement to compose a song that cannot be broken down into elements. Now Im thinking I need to delve into ideal listening environments and the history of the technology for experiencing music, but not now- maybe later.

Perhaps the reason I am attached to folk songs and strive to create them could be my fear of loss and death; the same reason I need to back up my files onto DVDs and then onto an external hard drive and a server in Hong Kong and then another external hard drive etc. With the folk song, its as if the songs true existence lies in its platonic form, its potential to be played. Not just one recording which could be lost or damaged, even though its not so likely these days when, if the music is popular enough everyone will have a copy on their computer around the world; but a recording could at least become dated, style wise. And if all human life came to an end, it would be comforting to know that your artistic achievements existed in some kind of after world.

Photo credit: Polaroid of some friends and I playing a Neil Young song. I dont know who was holding the polaroid camera at the time- maybe Charlie Smith.

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