Saturday, January 12, 2013

Songwriting: American Roads

Lost Roads (detail), 2011 ongoing

In the past few weeks I've written three new songs, each in a completely different style. Two of them are fully notated for voice and piano, the third is a folk/country song, a kind of shuffle, called "American Roads." I wrote the basic idea for the lyrics a year ago, and set it aside for awhile.

I have three or four additional lyrics in my notebook that are finished and ready to be set to music; plus many more still being worked on. I decided to keep a lyric-writing notebook a year or so ago, after completing Heartlands and continuing to write new songs. With "American Roads," I now have five or six new songs completed and ready to record. That's starting to feel like an album, or at least an EP. I gather them together as they gradually finish themselves, and perhaps will eventually publish a songbook and an album.

Of the three recent songs, one gave me a very difficult time. It took a great deal of work to hammer it into shape, and I felt despair at the writing more than once. In a bit of unintended irony, when it was finished, I gave it the name "Endless." I started out with an idea, and went with it, got a ways into it, then felt stuck. Then there was a breakthrough, a eureka! moment when I figured out what was needed to finish the song. I then had to go back and rewrite the beginning, and still the ending took a long time to get just right. I can look back on it now, and say, this song is actually pretty good. Perhaps only I will ever see the seams where I made changes and fixes.

Meanwhile, in the middle of that difficult process, I suddenly broke away for an afternoon and a completely different song emerged, in a completely different style. "Still/Here" took less than two hours to write down, start to finish, the words and the music emerging at the same time. I only had to change one or two details, in the end, to finish it up and get it done. The results are good, and I've already heard several people say they like this song a lot. It will get performed soon, one way or another. I look forward to that.

During the process of writing these songs, looking at my own creative process, I noted that this writing took so much effort that I was on;y able to sit down and write every other day. One day on, one day of rest, one day on, one day of rest, and so forth. I don't know if that pattern will continue, whether or not it's part of the new normal.

Then I sat down to write "American Roads." As I said, I completely rewrote the lyrics, then sketched out the basic chord changes, melodies, and harmonic ideas. That was all I could get done in one day. I've written this piece as a lead sheet, just melody, chords, and words. The typical song lead sheet, what you find in The Real Book or on a chart for a studio recording session. It's all you get for a lot of folk music, after all, and this song is definitely within my folksong writing zone. With a nod to light country shuffle in it as well.

Here are the first verse and refrain. (Actually, the song structure is two verses and a refrain every time. Technically speaking, then, that's one verse repeated since the pattern is the same.)

Put the kettle on the Coleman
and fire up the truck
load up the blankets and the tent
and turn the radio on

I got this urge for going
right off the deep blue end
a corner of a long sky road
going round a bend

American Roads
winding through the heart
some place I’ve never been
American Roads
open wide for me
and take me home again

When I was rewriting the lyrics, I noticed that my original idea had two kinds of lyrical elements: first, specific moments, with specific references to places and activities I've experienced on various roadtrips; and second, a more familiar trope found in many folk, bluegrass and country songs, all derived from old-timey roots-music threads, which were thoughts about home and rootlessness, roaming and yearning for home. So when I was rewriting, for each set of two verses before the refrain, the first verse is specific, the second verse more philosophic and universal.

There's also a twist at the end, with a repeated refrain with new words that take the song off in another direction. Common practice in folk covers.

So, there you have. Three new songs in a couple of weeks. Very satisfying.

I have a lot of other tasks to deal with for the next few weeks, and I wrote these to meet an audition and performance deadline. I always write well on deadline. Having a fixed target often gets my creative juices flowing. But at the moment I'm in the mood to keep going, keep writing, see what happens. Perhaps I'll work some more on more songs this coming week, in between other creative projects and Things To Do that I must get done.

Oh, by the way, I do take requests.

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10:17 PM  

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