Songwriting After The Honeymoon – Part 2 of 4
Often, I’m very passionate about a song when I first write it. But within a week or a month, the initial high of passion and creation will wear off, and I can sense weaknesses in the songs. I get bored by them. I’ll play them on my acoustic guitar for a friend, and I’ll find myself making excuses like, “Probably the drums will make this more interesting.” Or I’ll play half the song and say, “Yeah, you get the idea.”
If the song had really been working, I would’ve known it, my gracious audience-friend would’ve known it, and I would’ve played it all the way through, tapped my foot, and finished big; all with a giant “tell-me-I’m-good” grin on my face. So, when I play a song for a friend, or especially for Ryan, I feel all these signals internally that tell me at what places I’ve got more work to do on the song. It sounds simple, but I basically just pay attention to whether I:
a) Get bored
b) Get embarrassed by the lyrics
c) Don’t enjoy playing a certain part or start making excuses for it
d) Smash my guitar and take up knitting
Another way we find those cues is to make a rough recording of the song and listen back. Sometimes what sounds good in my head doesn’t end up sounding good in my ears. The key, for me, is to not smash my guitar and quit the song and change careers. Instead, I try to hone in on what works well, and I look for advice and inspiration for changing what doesn’t work.
Sometimes, of course, there’s just not enough that I still love about the song to keep it around at all. Over time, a song like that will get strip-mined, with it’s chords going to one song, the verse lyrics going to another, and a little melody being used in some other song later, etc.
Example: The chords for our song “Around the Sun” originally belonged in a song called “Mrs. Marie” which was an inspirational praise chorus to moms everywhere. Some good bits, some nice verses. I liked the idea, but ultimately I wasn’t sure if the song was sweet or silly. “If you don’t take time to shake some booty/ Everything will feel like doing duty.”
It just didn’t come out right, and it seemed unrelatable to most people outside of the cougar crowd.
Most importantly, though, Ryan never latched onto it. Instead he encouraged me to keep searching. We sat down, and he asked me to keep fingerpicking the opening chords, since we both felt those parts were really working. Meanwhile he opened my songwriting journal in search of some unused verse ideas. He found some rhymes and suggested a pattern for singing them, and when we got to the place where a chorus would go, our friend, songwriter Owen Plant belted out a rough version of the chorus you hear now. He sang “moove meee round the suuunnn,” in that high Taylor-esque voice of his. It came out of nowhere, but the idea of being moved around the far side of the sun seemed to match the longing of our new verses, and we said, “Ah! That’s great! Do it again!”
So in this case, even though I was hesitant to abandon “Mrs. Marie,” the input of musicians I respect and trust brought out something far better than I was expecting!
For your listening pleasure, here’s “Mrs. Marie.” Check out the disconnect between the sad, seriousness of the verses and the silliness of the chorus. Also notice several vocal moments that were blatantly lifted from that song and inserted into “Around the Sun.” For instance: “Doing everything, everything/ for everyone else” became “When everything, everything/ everywhere’s just right.”
Sadly, one line I like, “Letting a love song belong on your lips/ you say you would if you could/ but someone has to watch the kids” didn’t make the cut. Will it ever live again? Maybe if Desperate Housewives needs a new theme song I’ll work this one back up. But I’m not holding my breath.
Next up, how being open to a producer’s opinion can make a song come alive in ways you never thought of. After all, that’s why you hire a producer, right? Stay tuned…