HomeJournalMusicDownloadsShowsFacebook artist pagetwitter feed



SAC Challenge Week 6 Blog: Songwriting as “Work” - Lessons Learned

This week I decided not to do either of the challenges. I concentrated on making the Matt Dusk song as good as I could.

I won't go into that. Suffice it to say that the week was largely spent cleaning up the production elements and making more carefu choices. Then lyrics. the second verse got conmpletely replaced, so did the bridge, and parts of the chorus. Feels much better now. I don't know if it is what Matt is looking for (authentic to his voice, but something like Lana del Ray would be cool ...?) I know it's authentically his voice, and it does have a groove, if a little subtle by comparison to the reference tracks, but maybe it doesn't go pop enough. We'll see.

So this blog is going to be about what I’ve learned during the Challenge. And that’s hard to describe. I have guessed at a number of things that I may call “lessons” but I can’t say that any of them are true. Still, here they are.

I should be clear what I mean about “work”, in the title above . I always work hard at songwriting – I work to improve my craft and use it to make my songs as good as possible. The Challenge certainly provided plenty of opportunity for that kind of work, as would any artistic enterprise.  

But it also exposed, to some extent, what it’s like to write songs as one’s “work”, i.e. as the kind of thing you do, or do in a certain way, in order to make money. The pitching part of the Challenge, including its competitive aspects, (which became more prominent as we began to call people “winners”) really reminded me of lessons I’ve learned in my "work" life – lessons that for some reason I didn’t foresee applying here, but of course they do.

Lesson 1: You’re here to solve the client’s problem

I noted in a post on the Facebook page that writing to order in the music business is about solving the client’s problems, same as in any other business. This is less satisfying than, and quite different from addressing our own or our audiences’ needs and interests. The client wants what they want, not what the songwriter wants.

Lesson 2: However, the client often doesn’t know what the problem is, or won’t tell

However, and also as in other businesses, when the client tells you what they want, it often isn’t what they really want.

For example, on the ad pitch, the coaches faithfully forwarded good songs that described the joys of childhood, as the writers saw them. What was preferred, however, didn’t deal with those joys at all, nor did the song that was actually chosen originally for the commercial. Those were songs that expressed affection in a non-specific way – an adult’s affection for a child.

Why? Well, first of all, the pictures told the story. Telling it again in the lyric could only run at cross-purposes with the story in the images. To be fair, the brief did not explicitly tell us to put specific childhood pleasures in the lyric.  However, if the client had said that the images were going to be a child strapped into an SUV playing with her dad’s smartphone, we probably would have spent less time describing running, dancing, and catching frogs – all of them traditional childhood images, but they would have sounded weird with that image.

So yes, like other clients I have known, this one issued an RFP that lowered the number of useful submissions by asking for something the client didn’t want, and not asking for what they did want. 

I’m not grousing about it – or only a little. In the consulting world, I sometimes spent 10 days in a team working on a competitive “request for proposals” submission only to see the client choose a proposal that was completely different from what they described. It’s frustrating but it happens everywhere. Recognize that it happens, move on, and next time try to get better intelligence in advance.

Lesson 3: Clients may want inspiration but it makes them nervous

In “working to order”, there is certainly much less inclination to take risks. In the Challenge, I took a lot of risks, in the pop and commercial song challenges, and in the TV one as well, partly from my own interest in pursuing something different, and partly cause I figured, why be like everyone else?

That’s probably not a winning strategy. I guess that in general, clients err on the safe side. Give them a song that sounds like, say, Feist’s 1-2-3-4 and don’t include a lyric that might offend, annoy, or exclude anyone. Broad appeal is the goal. And be very careful about “quirky”. One man’s “quirky” is another man’s “bad”. I’m not being snobby about that – it’s just what happens.

But sometimes, taking a risk might be the right thing, the thing that makes you stand out. Who really knows?

Lesson 4: Make-up matters as much as good bone structure

In this field, professional presentation of your work means good production. I’m glad the Challenge stressed that aspect, though it was hard for many of us.

I know a bit about production, and was hoping to use the Challenge to sharpen my skills. Like anything else, you can have the gear and the ears, but you have to practice. And I did manage to refine some of my techniques so I can be faster.  But I’m nowhere close to some of the others in the Challenge. Some of you folks are really good at this. So, more work to do.

In the Challenge, the importance of production became clear in the early stages. I was glad when Lily posted her note on having pitch-ready production. It seemed to confirm what I already felt, that yes, you could write a good song, and work till all the fat was off, but without artfully applied make-up, you're not going to the Prom. Some people see inner beauty – most do not.

Lesson 5: You need resources

Part of the production lesson was the importance of great vocals. Again, it just makes the song better. And that means, if one is going to pitch a lot, one needs access to a lot of great vocalists. Our networking here helps … but to be affordable? Maybe … or maybe on an exchange-of-favours basis. How to make that work?

And then along came James’s student’s “Pepsi Next” commercial, which seemed to go in the opposite direction at first. The vocal is not terrific in a conventional sense. But it made sense when I thought about it. It is a great vocal for that particular ad, though it might not be in others. The message was right – that was the main thing, so they added production elements to his guitar/vocal until it was right. That’s good – not a lazy client, in that case, but someone who could see past the surface and imagine the possibilities.

Lesson 6: Critical feedback is hard to come by

The Challenge may not reflect reality in one way. It’s all done by social media, and part of the intention is community building, so basically, people provide encouragement; hardly anyone gives the kind of critical feedback that helps you improve. People generally don’t, online. The things you would hear face-to-face, in a writers’ workshop, are not going to be said by people who don’t know you in a post. A few people (and thank you!) were brave enough to offer criticism, but most didn’t - me included.

In the Challenge, the only really critical feedback seemed to come if a song got forwarded, and 90% of the songs can’t be forwarded.

Now again, I didn’t give many people the opportunity to comment on my songs at the times they could comment. At the beginning, I was racing hard just to keep up. I didn’t feel like asking for comments when I knew myself what had to be fixed, and by the time I was ready to hear from people, it was time to post the final version. And then it would be one of scores of songs just posted and unlikely to attract much comment.  I listened myself to about 25 songs each week – beyond that my ears were useless.

Just once, I was able to post lyrics and then an incomplete song for comment. And I did receive feedback then – but it was largely the “great work” kind of comment, which is lovely to hear (and something I did too, again) but …  

In the absence of feedback – again, as elsewhere in life – my brain invented stories to explain why I’m not being successful. Most of us do, I think. Unhealthy imaginings that make your heart sore to no purpose.

So, I imagined that my pop and commercial songs weren’t forwarded because I indulged myself in quirkiness. Maybe. Insufficient production values? Maybe. Other times, I just didn’t get it at all. I heard people's songs that I reckoned should have been forwarded, and I didn’t get why they weren’t. The country challenge was a total mystery to me.

But one thing I have learned elsewhere is that people just see things differently. Songwriters I know and respect can be diametrically opposed in their opinions about a song. You don’t understand why, sometimes even when they tell you why.

beyond the feedback question, there is the value of community-building in the Challenge, and that's real. Others took better advantage of it than I did, though I did do one co-write, correspond with one person, and I got involved in some group discussions.

Perhaps the best thing is to work within a small sub-group of 10 writers where you can get to know each other well enough to provide critical support. I’m not sure trying to connect with 120 other writers will really improve my songwriting or my pitching.   Is that a possible structure for future Challenges?

Lesson 7: Time management is essential

Again, songwriting, done this way, is like any other “work” in that you have to manage your time. In the Challenge, you only get the time to do each thing once. A week for writing (especially co-writing) – adding in blogging, reading others blogs and posts and Real Life -  just doesn’t leave the time to throw a recording away and start again – like if you figure another key would have been better … so get it done early and keep it simple.

I’ve learned that it’s great to leave time to listen, go away and come back. That means getting the idea right in the first place – rather than jumping at the first thing that comes along, then getting a simple recording down, and taking the time to leave it and come back to it. I was jumping into the production elements too early in my first attempts, and locking myself in to music that wasn’t always the best.

Lesson 8: Do the right thing, then do the thing right

That’s an adaptation of an old management training phrase. In this work, I learned it’s better to spend time making sure that the song is telling the right story – assuming you know what that is – before you get into serious work. Sometimes a song’s meaning develops organically from a phrase. Many of my best songs have done that. But in this context, that may mean that I develop a great song that has nothing to do with the brief. Better to get the story straight in my head before lyrics start to come flowing.

Then, when I’m sure I’m writing the right song, I can get to work on crafting it, slowly and simply, avoiding unnecessary complication – there are no prizes for sophistication.   

And remember, anything, anything at all, that bothers me must be addressed. Don’t leave problems hanging.

Lesson 9: It’s still an art

Bizarrely, given all the stuff above, it is still necessary to be inspired.

Not all clients want that, many want only what is conventional and derivative, but some do. But mostly you need it for yourself. If you aren’t treating music as an art, as self-expression, then why do it?

Of course, inspiration will frequently lead us astray from the clients’ brief. Which leaves you working like a locksmith, patiently forging beautiful keys in the hope that they will fit this, or some other lock, someday.

Lesson 10: This is not for everybody

Clearly, the pitching and writing-to-order element makes songwriting into “work” work. Which is just me whining. Of course it’s “work”.

But if I were being rational about it – and that’s not all that common, actually – I would acknowledge that there is work out there that pays a whole lot better with a tiny amount of the risk.

In every cultural industry, primary creators take the greatest risks for the least reward, as James Linderman made clear in one of his posts. That’s just the economics of supply and demand – there are too many of us, and the lack of economic incentive (i.e. money) doesn’t stop us from working, because the satisfaction of writing something great still drives us to do it. So gatekeepers can be casual about talent – there’s always more of it – and treat creators badly. I know all this – God, I’ve written studies about it (which paid a whole lot better than actually doing it!) – but knowing why it’s happening doesn’t help me feel better about it.

And the Challenge brings all this to a head. It’s given us a taste of “sales” in the songwriting business.

I love songwriting. I will never stop songwriting.

I don’t love sales.

I can be good at sales, I know that from other businesses. But it’s easier to sell – in fact you are probably a better salesperson – when you can be objective, when your heart is less engaged. And my heart is in this.  All of our hearts are.

So, I have some lessons learned, real or imagined. I don’t have any answers. All I can say is, good luck to all of us, and see you again soon, I hope!


It’s Love, not the Law, that follows your trail (week 5)

A 19th century Dexter – i.e. a somewhat justifiable serial killer?


After an exhausting morning finishing up the vocals and a rough mix, I upload “long List of Losers”, scribble the rest of the blog, and sit back. As always, a little let-down when I listen to the finished product. I resolve that this week I will get it done early so I can have the chance to fix the final mix. And keep it simpler.

DC James suggests maybe we should all do piano/vocal or guitar vocal. Seems like a great idea to me. I know that there are real pitching advantages to connecting to someone who can do great vocals, and great production – that’s obvious from the songs that get passed through – but for this week, I will put that aside.

I watch the Hozier video and think, well, ok, a guitar/vocal will work fine here. Later, of course, we learn that isn’t the version to listen to, but the fully produced one. And then the client says both are ok. But I stick to simple.

I go snowshoeing in the heavy spring snow with my wife and brother. We return exhausted, but on the way I have an idea for a song. There is a beautiful old tree on the route, and I’m thinking about a grandmother oak, and what that might mean in a “Blue Ridge” folksong kind of way.


What if the singer is a person – not in the plot, but a kind of Greek Chorus - who follows this serial killer around the US, and the song is his song to her? I’m starting to think Banjo/Vocal. By the time we get home I have a verse and a half.


I fiddle with my son’s banjo and record a couple of good ideas that might work with the lyric well. He has left the fifth string off. Works for me, though, since I have only once played a banjo professionally. In my mind I imagined a slide banjo but can’t find my bottleneck so we’ll live without that.

I decide to do some research, get online and deduce that the show we are looking at is based on acquitted but widely suspected axe murderer Lizzie Borden, I try to find the movie that the series is spinning off, since it’s the same actors and production team and will presumably have similar production values, but can’t access it from Canada, and have no time to get around the geo-block.

But clearly it’s not set in the Ozarks, and my original idea may not fit. I wrestle with that – after all, sync music rarely has a connection with the story, and it’s better that way, since you don’t want the music to contradict the story in the show. Very general love songs and so on seem to be what works. My idea is probably way too specific.

So I back off that. Instead, I write a backstory for the singer, nothing to do with the actual show, and make that my reference point. The story is complex and fits with what I know of the show, (I do some research on American mistletoe, which is already in the song) but not within its plotlines. It could be a sub-plot but it isn’t. And I decide to tell none of the backstory in the song. The lyric should be consistent with it, but never make explicit what the story is. That way we still get the darkness, but no specifics that might interfere.

In the middle of the night I wake up and finish the lyric. It turns out to be his song to the Dexter character. Since they don’t know each other, and have never met (different social classes) the connection is supernatural in some way, based on whatever happened (we don’t know) at the Grandmother Oak. It’s called, “Watch Over You”. Not quite a love song …   Later, the line "watch over you", which ended the chorus, comes out. So the title has to change.


I watch Youtube videos of all the artists recommended. They don’t help. they should, but they seem inconsistent with each other, and without seeing the movie, I have no idea how this music can fit with this production idea - though to be sure, it seems that the production has little or nothing to do with the real Lizzie Borden.  I suspect it’s making little effort, beyond costuming, to be “period” but can’t know that. Again, I wonder why the brief doesn’t provide more information: surely the submissions would be better.

But I hear the Carolina Chocolate Drops, which is the first hint that what i am thinking about might work.


So, stop whining and get back to writing!

I trimmed my lyrics and posted them to the Facebook page, hoping for comments. Time pressures have stopped me from really experiencing the whole networking side of the challenge, but now that I seem to be making a few connections with people whose music or blogs really hit me, it may be starting to happen, so perhaps some will comment.

Meanwhile I made a recording, changing lyrics to fit the music as it develops. This recording requires different technique. I figured I would record the banjo separately so I could add the amended lyrics later, but that didn’t work. I didn’t feel like the vocal was locked in to the banjo. I tried setting a tempo track to follow my changes but that didn’t work either – I take too many liberties with the tempo on this one, and locking it down caused a loss of feeling. So I elected to do them together. Not a hugely wonderful idea since I am not comfortable on the banjo, but I got something down.

Very interesting comments from a range of Challengerators and coach James Linderman. I think about them all. Angie adds a comment about writing from the heart (or hypothalamus), which I agree with. On this one, it may not seem like it but in fact I am consciously disregarding what I’ve learned about writing music for background, which seems to be “go for bland and inoffensive” and I’m writing what appeals to me personally and hoping that it appeals to someone else too.


4 in the morning – wake up and tend the fireplaces – a cold night, again. Also write down a few lyric changes and one chord change.

Later in the day, I record again. I have lots of small lyric changes. Every week I have different production techniques, and on this one I go for just recording the banjo/vocal together “off the floor” (lots of microphone bleed) and edit around my mistakes. I just keep playing till I get it and then edit. I’ve done this before on songs that need a lot of time freedom and can make it work, though the editing is very finicky.

I post that and the reactions are very positive, which feels excellent! James decides that he’s good with the grandmother image now – I altered that to say “the” grandmother oak, since Melodie also remarked that she thought it might be a person.


Away. But listening to reactions.

I decide, though no one has commented on it, that the music for the bridge is not right. The problem with having a chorus that starts on V is that you can’t end the verses or the bridge on V. And my bridge really wants to end on V, the way it is now. Tweaking won’t fix it so I have to root it out and start again.


I try recording the new bridge and edit it in. Better. But not perfect. I’ll have to do it again Monday.    

Done  - posting the revision. Pretty happy with it, even after posting.



Long List of Losers - a cowrite with Hartt Goldman for week 4

So, like everyone else, I’m (on the one hand) sighing and saying, “Country? I can do that!”, and (on the other hand) saying, “edgy?” How edgy, exactly? And what kind of edgy?
Cause there’s country edgy that is frankly misogynistic, or at least, callous. And I’m not going there. I decided early on it had to be a song I could believe in.

And there’s also Ralph Murphy’s dictum, “A song is a script to make a singer look cool in front of women.” Outrageously cynical in its way, but true, in my mind, at least to this extent: if you’re writing for a male singer, don’t make him look like a jerk.

So this is in my mind as I message Hartt Goldman – we had decided in week one to write together at some point and this looks like a great chance. We send each other some titles. (I follow “Nashville rules” to the extent that I try to write country from a title.) I like one of his ideas, which I will not write down because he might use it later, and he likes one of mine, called “Girls with Boyfriends”. That’s a title that started somewhere totally else but could work in this context. To Hartt, it conjures up a picture of a guy talking to a girl, who keeps telling him she has a boyfriend but also keeps flirting with him.Potentially a good country situation, so we skype to get started. We talk for a long time about the premise and the story – much longer than usual, but with all the “edge” ideas above it’s necessary, cause this is tricky. Does the guy look like a jerk for coming on to a woman who’s telling him she has a boyfriend, flirty or not? Is he pathetic, for trying and losing? Is she bad for flirting with someone else when she’s attached? Does she really have a boyfriend, or is she just saying so, and if so, why? How does this work?

We cast about with some other ideas, but ultimately we come back to this one – if we can solve the problem, we’ve got a good situation to work with. We try to think of a storyline where our hero and heroine can be ok.

It seems like the only one is this: she does have a boyfriend, but he deserves to be dumped and she knows it and says it. That suggests another approach. What if they know each other, are good friends in fact, and she is complaining about her boyfriend? What if she does that habitually, and he listens, all the while thinking, why does she do this? She should be with me!

Frustration – and loud frustration, can give it “edge” – as long as she eventually begins to see that it’s true, that he is the right guy for her.
This seems workable, so we start, on a chorus. Hartt comes up with the opening line “Long Line of Losers.” Zing – new title! After some other choices, we add to it  – “You’ve had a long line of losers, and one good friend.” We both like this - the story in a nutshell.

From here it flows well. Some agony over the third line of the chorus. And the first line of the song is crucial: what about, “Yeah, you’ve got a boyfriend, but he’s not here”. Seems attention-getting, and usefully ambiguous, the listener won’t know what the story is, from that, and will perk their ears.
The first verse has to describe the whole situation, so the second line becomes, “another night you come second to poker and beer” OK so we know the boyfriend’s a bad guy, and inattentive.

Then the verse has to end with, “And I’m still nodding with my sympathetic ear / But we’ve been having this talk, for too many years.” There – that’s the whole situation. The pre-chorus tells us about his frustration with all of this complaining, and then we’re into the chorus. All works.
After two hours we have a story, two verses, two prechoruses, and a chorus. No music at all – but a feeling, uptempo, loud country-rock, expressing his frustration. Hence edge – can’t be romantic-comedy material.

We are happy, and we go away t for two days, to work on music and tidying up lyrics.


A slow day. I try different versions of the chorus in the morning, since the version we tried on skype really raced through the lyrics and would have ended at 1’36”! I like some of them, record 3 and Dropbox them to hart for his comments. We are to meet again on Thursday.
In the afternoon I do a google check and find a Montgomery gentry song with the same name. Totally different idea, and of course titles can’t be copyrighted, but all the same – it’s a fairly recent song and I’d rather not have the confusion. I mull it over and come up wioth 4 other close (but free) titles that would work in the song – long list of losers, long line of lovers, big bunch of boy-toys – and send them to Hartt for his ideas.   


We skype together again, and this time it is slower – we’ve drifted apart a bit on the way that we hear the song. I’m still into the singer’s frustration, which makes it a bit harsh, and Hartt is feeling it can’t go too far that way and should say more about how he loves her. We go back and forth, and find lines we can both be happy with.
We haven’t one much together about music but I have sent hart some sketches and he has sent me some. They aren’t very similar.

Now I send Hartt a complete guitar vocal – except the bridge still needs work. Meanwhile, he records a version with his band on his iphone. It uses the same tune, but it a lot slower – makes it kind of roadhouse, which is very cool. But I am trying to finish a version since I have zero time on the weekend, so I can’t adapt. We decide to post both.

Friday - Monday

We go back and forth on email on Saturday and Sunday but are not moving forward and decide we have to skype again, which we do late Sunday night. We agree on the final lyrics - and we're both happy with them, which feels great!

Monday morning I record the new vocal and a harmony and make a rough mix. Post!

Little time on the blog. But it’s strange to realize that a week that promised to be easier actually was more frustrating than earlier weeks – both for me and for others. Hard to know why, exactly, although several comments about how some of us are not happy about the state of country music may have led to this. Or maybe it’s just week 4 and the strain is showing!


SAC Week 3: the Ad challenge

Overall this has been a fun week. I worked pretty quickly – I had to, because I only had a couple of days to do it, and anyway I suspect that many commercial gigs would also want a quick turnaround, so it seemed like a good exercise to do it fast. I’m quite happy with the result – it matches the listing well, I think, and it was fun to pull out my old compositional technique to match all the editing requirements.

One thing this challenge is teaching me is that to do this every week, with this variety, one would need access to a lot of different vocalists. Ideally, this one would be sung by a kid or a woman who can really do a kid’s voice – a voice actor, really. Add that to a baritone for Matt Dusk’s tune, a young woman or girl for week 2, and now a young man – probably a tenor – for week 4. I start to understand why the demo studios in Nashville perform a useful service – one-stop shopping, any voice or instrument you want. Does anyone know of studios in Canada that can provide that degree of professional variety? To suit the songwriter’s budget?

Creative Brief:

by:  Heather Gardner, Music Supervisor, Vapor Music

The spot features a child so we’re looking for something child-like, light and playful, fun, capturing the moment and that captures the spirit of a child. However, we don’t want to be emotional or heart-stringy — we’re looking for something that’s purely fun. You can definitely be somewhat quirky, while appealing to a mainstream TV audience.
A few references they’ve given us in terms of tone are The White Stripes’ “We Are Gonna Be Friends”, “On The Radio” by Regina Spektor, Sheryl Crow’s cover of “Sweet Child O Mine”, “Big Yellow Taxi” or “Mushaboom” by Feist. We also like something along the lines of Karen O’s tunes for ‘Where The Wild Things Are’. We’re open to different instrumentations.

Lyrics don’t have to be perfectly on spot on thematically, but speaking to childhood (in a fun way, not in a nostalgic or longing way) is great. Female or male vocals are A-OK.
The spot is 60 seconds in length, with 30 and 15 second cutdowns, so your submissions need to be at least 60 seconds long, but be able to capture the same sentiment even if only 15 seconds was being used. Including the full length track is always best as it allows the editor the maximum flexibility in hitting the right points in an ad with specific lyrics or musical moments.

Instructions to participants:

Post a link to your song and blog in the comments section below by midnight, March 2, 2015. Music Supervisors always need the right music yesterday.  This is your chance to show Heather you can respond to a creative brief and turnover something quickly that meets the request.  Good luck!


Well, that’s different. I’ve written “to order” before – and I have done one ad piece. With ads, there seems to be this extra issue - the brief doesn’t identify the product or the advertiser. I know it’s not a jingle, but some identification … if you knew you were writing for Dodge Ram you would have a very specific image in mind to meet, and you’d work around that very specific voice, too.

Still, this seems to be the way they do it in the ad industry, so it must work.

One thing I would definitely ask, if this were a real pitch, and not an exercise, is how old is the child who is featured? Very different approaches, depending on the age of the child depicted. So … I’ve decided to assume some specifics, as if I had answers to those questions, for the sake of realism in the exercise.

  1. The child is young – 3-5, maybe 6. So the lyric can depict that understanding and reality, rather than an older kid.
  2. The product is actually pitching to adults, not children, but a happy childhood is part of the appeal, somehow.
  3. I don’t really have a week. More like 2 or 3 days.

This last one fits ok, because unexpectedly, I have to prepare some music for a memorial service on Friday. So Thursday to Sunday is gone, and some time on Monday to Thursday to prepare music for it. I’ll get 3 days of time to complete it at the most.  

But still, a challenge is a challenge, isn’t it?

On this one I need to pull out my composer chops from long ago. Starting …. Well, lyrics are less important, and often are removed to allow the voice-over clear space, so let’s start with a catchy little tune that periods in 15 seconds or slightly less. To the keyboard and DAW!

10:45 OK so I have a tune and two verses. I had to vacuum the basement - housework and songwriting go well together, I think. Except everything is in A cause that’s the vacuum motor’s only note!

The song is based on a saying of my youngest when he was about 6 – “You Adults! You think drinking coffee is fun”. This, delivered with considerable contempt, became a family saying, and now it’s become a song.

I set down the tune but it’s an 18 second phrase. That’s fine for the 60 seconds, but not for the 15 and 30. Tempo a bit faster? Yeah, that worked. The tempo’s ok since this is a 24 bar phrase.

Now for a bass line. All piano so far.


Worked some more on lyrics, not much progress.

Most of the day went into transcribing a 4 part arrangement of a hymn. But not a usual hymn – the original arrangement was more like Palestrina, very contrapuntal – very tricky to capture its essence on guitar/vocal.


We leave on Thursday for Toronto, so I’m taking the day to finish this.

The lyrics came together in the morning, so that was fine. My simple tune needed a b section, so that was the next project – it took longer than it should because I got lost trying to write straight into the DAW. When I turned back to guitar and vocal it came together pretty quickly – and there it was. A 60 second kid-like tune, with easy edits to 15 and 30, and done.

Now to produce. I won’t have my vocalist till next Monday, last minute, so I need to get everything else but the mix together now.
Let’s see – I’ve been using an upright piano sound, and may keep it still, but I’m liking the uke for this. So I record that. For bass, a tuba. Settle on the exact sound later – more brassy or more mellow. But the part is there and makes sense as a contrapuntal bass line.

What else – not much, I think. Get out the box of kid’s instruments – pennywhistle has vanished since the last PC crash – pity. Use a piccolo in the B section. Or some world instrument flute … write that. But some percussion. Try a shaker track – good, then a tambourine – 3 tries to find what I want.

Some comping on the uke now, and some initial balances and compression to make sure everything is fitting before I’m too committed to this instrumentation. Might bring back the piano – it’s out of the mix for the moment.

Seems to be ok. Lock it down till Monday.


Back from Toronto. Last listen before I left made me feel the whole thing was too heavy. So I cut back the uke sound, made it lighter. I tried using my classical, capo’d up for a high tenor uke sound but that didn’t work. Replaced the piccolo with a glockenspiel and the tuba with an upright bass. Altogether feels lighter now.


Now for the vocal! Melodie did this again for me – worked great. She’s not a little-kid specialist, but it has the feel. Three takes, a little comping, and we’re there.

I decide not to do the 30 and 15 – they're not asked for though they could easily be done by anyone with the stems, and there’s a few choices. The 15 second could just be the first or last verse, dropping lines 3 and 4 for a voice-over. The 30 second would be first or last verse, plus the B section instrumental for the VO, and then add back in lines 5 and 6 (which are the same as the verse) to wrap. It’s all pretty modular. A little technical challenge, but it’s all worked out.
Pretty happy with it.



Normality - the Rob Wells challenge: Week 2

I apologize in advance that this post is so long. As Oscar Wilde said, "I didn't have time to write a short one." If you're not in the mood just skip this and go to the demo for "Normal".

Here's the lyrics, as finished

Normal                                   words and music © David Keeble, Feb 23, 2015

G G+         My boyfriend’s weird, he embarrasses me 
C Cm        But I love him so–oh–oh  passionately
G D G /     Yeah, he’s the one - so thoughtful and kind
My girlfriends think that he’s totally strange
And yeah there’s a couple things I gotta change
But they don’t see - they think I’m out of my mind

They want me to be Normal
But I am never gonna think small,
I’m not waiting on a phone call
To sell burgers at a strip mall
I’m gonna dance like Isadora
And he will write a graphic novel
We’ll be artistic and informal
And no no no no not normal

So, yeah he’s a bit of an unusual guy
He chooses his food with a twelve-sided die
In the lunch room - cause that’s existential
My parents don’t mind him; they say he’s pretty clean
But I heard my dad say, “I didn’t know it’s Halloween.” 
And they worry – about his earning potential.


Eb /                  Next year we’re both gonna graduate
G /                   and return to the planet of our birth
Eb /                  We’ll lose these crazy aliens
G Em               and say goodbye to Earth
C Am7            earth  earth

Cause we don’t wanna be Normal
We are never gonna think small
Every night I tell my journal
That we’re gonna be immortal
I’m gonna dance like Isadora
And he will write a graphic novel
We’ll be artistic and informal
But no no no no not normal

And I don’t wanna be Normal
Cause I’m a master of the curve ball
And I’m not waiting for a phone call
To be a typist in the town hall,
I’m gonna dance like Isadora
And he will write a graphic novel
We’ll be artistic and informal
But no no no no not Normal
No no no no no not Normal
No no never never Normal

Here's the music on soundcloud:

david in kitchen

and here's how it happened:

Monday 9:30 a.m.

The Checklist:


Actually, I’ve been with Rob in a workshop and watched him do a demo production (at Songstudio) and the message was very similar, so this challenge wasn’t too surprising.

But a week for this, huh? Maybe I should have signed in at 9 o’clock – I’d have the extra half-hour. Sorry, folks, I’m not reading your blogs for a while!

Someone just posted on how hard it is to write a great pop hook … well, yeah. Maybe I should spend my time working out an unbeatable system for winning the lottery. No, stop that. No doubts! Forge ahead!


Spent the day in Ottawa, necessary errands. Getting home, I try an old title which I know has a good hook, and work on that for a while. Then I have misgivings – it’s not totally sexy but maybe it’s too much for the 13 year olds.…


So next morning I post my doubts. The replies are reassuring on that point …. or not, depending what you think 13 year olds should be singing. Allister has a good point about authentic voice and language for the 13-18 year olds. Of course the young have their own language, as did I at that age, and I was not happy to hear it co-opted by adults. I decide to go with simple English, not try for the current jargon. If and when there is a singer, those modifications can be made to their sense of what they should sound like. After all, these singers are in their twenties – they’re over the hill too!

I work on the sexy one for a while and then turn to another idea, a concern for all of us, fitting in. It’s called “Normal” and I kind of like it.

Then my wife Melodie comes home with a new idea. Why not use the thought I put in a song some time ago - a father’s concern for his daughter? We talk about it and agree it has to be put in the girl’s voice. It works, as she says, because every daughter wants a father who loves her. Right she is. On the other hand, this sounds like a serious song.

Now I have three active ideas. Time to focus. I decide to postpone the somewhat sexy one in case we get an R&B challenge for an older FV later; also postpone the serious one, and try to have some fun with “Normal”. My day job is seriously no fun at the moment, so I need a break. Besides, "Girls just wanna have ...", right?


I go back to work on “Normal”, determined to complete the lyric today, working with my tape recorder.

I like the first line, “My boyfriend’s weird, he embarrasses me / but I love him p-p-p-passionately”. It’s quirky (see checklist) and it gets your attention, my fundamental criterion for line 1 of any song.  I like the way the story is developing. This is fun – although it quickly becomes more than a bit quirky, it’s quite quirky. This is one for the D&D and goth crowd. But why not – a lot of these teen songs are about empowerment … why only empower the cheerleaders? Maybe a singer could get into boosting the geeks? And anyway, they’re My People.

I hit the chorus, with the opening line, “they want me to be normal”, which I like as a hook, but quickly come up against the first real technical problem: only one word in English rhymes perfectly with normal – “formal” (or informal).

Hmmm. I hate rhyming dictionaries but I turn to Rhymezone even though this has never worked for me, so I don’t know why I do this.   But this time it’s ok. The near-rhymes for “normal” are weird and a bit wonderful in a very quirky way; and when I add the “all” rhymes there’s quite a selection. And the modern style is much more open about near rhymes and no rhymes. Usually I hate writing this way, but when the song is meant to be more clever than heartfelt perhaps it’ll work.

While I’m doing lyrics I think about tune and chords. I was thinking about Leslie Gore – who died two days ago. I had never realized that she wrote her own biggest hits, including the monster, “It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to”. A few years back I had thought about that song – it has really interesting chord changes, and tight lyrics. It’s really quite good, though when young, I mocked it mercilessly. Well, it’s not Leonard Cohen, is it? but for songcraft it’s hard to beat.

I amuse myself playing it, and reckon that maybe I can “pay homage to” some element, turned around. Not the verse – those changes are so distinctive, and so difficult to write a melody to, her solution may be the only one possible. But the opening lines of my chorus could have an augmented chord as the second change. Wouldn’t it be nice to reintroduce the augmented chord to pop music - and it has a real 50s/60s feel? I decide to try it on, and start working on a tune. The tune I come up with suggests another 60s teen hit, but different, and I like the flavour.. 

By the end of the day I actually accomplish my goal of getting the lyrics complete, with a tune, and start to think about production. Unfortunately, while I have been channeling my inner 15 year old girl, (and reading young adult fiction – that’s how dedicated I am) my inner 15 year old can’t sing outside my head, so I have to start thinking about a singer - or insert a large-diaphragm condenser into my brain.


I start to produce the demo. I’ve already decided the ukulele is the way to go. (If it sounds odd to you in the demo, it’s an 8-string tenor uke) But I need to settle on a key – I ask Melodie if she will sing the demo and she agrees – good, so I can work with her range. But now I have to settle on a tune. I thought of a new one, waking up, but now I don’t know what I like – the first one, or a more heavily altered variant, or this new idea. I play them for Melodie.

She has to go out and I have the SEDJ (sudden emergency day job) to finish off. I do, and send an invoice (yay!)

I lay down a guide track on the uke and add a vocal so I can settle on section structure in order to get the drum track finished (knowing where to change up, where to fill, etc.) I use the existing key on the uke, knowing I may have to re-record that. It works ok, but now my idea for the bridge isn’t leading back into the chorus the way I thought it would (the chorus is V and the bridge insists on ending on V). So scrap the bridge tune.

Thinking of Leslie, I try out the flat VI major chord instead. It works fine but still needs a long turnaround to get back but that’s ok ‘cause I wanted to extend the bridge anyway to end on a lyric that is now beyond quirky and all the way to really strange.

Anyway get that done and down, and I can work on the drum track. It’s starting to be fun again.

Now I work on lyrics again, as ideas come to me doing odd stuff around the house, dishes etc. I like the alterations. Sometimes you really can’t hear how a line works until you get it all dressed up …I have five minutes so I throw in a clap track and double it for the chorus.

Then I try a bass line. But I use a bass sample and midi so I can transpose if I need to. Sounds truly horrible. Maybe a synth bass will be better. Stopping now for the day to make supper.

Later I google “Normal” lyrics. A necessary check point to see who’s pissed on this fire hydrant before me. And always a tense moment. But it’s clear. There’s 3 other songs in English that were popular enough to hit the top 100 hits and all are very serious. Not like this at all.


I look at the Checklist. Doing ok, I think.

Away we go.

I don’t want any more instruments – it’s busy enough, so I concentrate on the bass line first. I find a good synth for it – fat but with an edge. It feels very Latin on the chorus, and I try straightening it out and then decide to stick with it and emphasize it. I work out some fills in the spots the drum leaves.

Then get the melody down in midi so my singer can learn it. Drop that into Sibelius and produce a lead sheet for her, makes it easier. I make my final changes and freeze the lyrics.

But then, crisis.

All the way along I have been feeling that this is a fun song, one that celebrates eccentricity and empowers people who have no desire to be “normal”. But as I stop and look at it, I think, “what if someone thinks the song is making fun of mental illness?” In pushing the quirkiness, has it gone too far? Is it possible to walk that tightrope? Or would anything like this attract that criticism? Panic – do I have to throw the whole thing away?

OK, I’m back. Panic averted – when in doubt, wash dishes. There’s only a few places that needed fixing. The joke, from the beginning, is that she finds her guy a bit embarrassing cause he is a little eccentric, but (a) she loves him anyway, and (b) she ha no desire to be “normal” herself. I was pushing the joke too much by gradually revealing that he’s more than a little eccentric – by the bridge he seems quite delusional. That’s where the “making fun” resides. So that part comes out. And part of the second verse and the chorus repeat.

But why not use the bridge to talk about her devotion to him instead? Make it clear that she loves him, if not why. And she can put up with the other stuff or change it. So what if her guy is a fixer-upper? Aren’t they all? In women’s minds, anyway? Back to work.
Two new bridges later, I am back to something like the original but it seems ok this time. Other parts needed fixing too and they got that. I think the song works now, better, though for a while it seemed lifeless.

I have rarely had a song that needed so much re-working. But it seems to respond to it.

My singer came back and we settled on the range: the original key seemed ok but later it seemed high to me, her power notes weren’t hitting the right parts of the chorus. So we took it down a minor third. The uke part needed some tweaking then (new fingering) but I got it recorded and in some ways it’s better. I gave her a CD mix to learn from.

What’s left to do? I don’t want to overproduce. Maybe some electric on the bridge? So really it’s mostly vocal, cleanup of timing, and mixing to go.
I’m thinking now I might repeat the bridge. Since I have other material that I like and the song is only 3’ long … but no, trim the fat. And keep all those extra lines in case James Linderman wants one replaced!


We rehearse three times and away we go. Good stuff.

Some comping corrections and I mix and I burn it – then upload time.

And as usual, the last minute doubts – is this really as good as it can be? I can hear engineering flaws. I go back and fix the ones that are most obvious. Could I mix for another hour? NO it’s already very late. I upload again.

I love quick deadlines but the problem is you can’t walk away from the song and come back to it fresh, which is the only way I know to get perspective. Well, if there’s no co-writer it's the only way. I should have used the coaches this week but ... somehow I have trouble sending something for evaluation until i've fixed all the problems I can hear mysself, and on this one, that took time.

So week two is a wrap. On to week three.  


Dancing - SAC song challenge blog week one:

It’s been a great week, as it turns out.

Last week, on Friday, I had a Sudden Emergency Day Job (SEDJ) pop up and I really groaned. I thought it might ruin the whole challenge. And it did steal some hours but in the end everything has worked out. Let me take this day by day.

Monday morning

So, first stop after hearing Matt’s challenge was to listen to more of his videos, and make some notes on his voice. Good solid range – power notes around middle c but his baritone has an edge and can cut through the mix so the lower range isn’t an issue. Best not to cover it up but you don’t have to avoid that range.
In fact, it’s my range, with the same power notes so I can just write for my own voice and it ought to work ok! That never happens – too many tenors in the music business!

Then I listened to the suggestions of what he likes. The groove in the uptempo tunes is interesting. It’s in the bass and other instruments – the drums are a kit – not EDM – and are playing pretty straight 4s. Good guitar chunks – reminiscent of Motown but lots of notes. I’m playing with maybe using something a bit latin jazz-ish, which I suspect he likes, mixed into a pop groove.   

The downtempo tracks have interesting steady chord progressions – “All of Me” uses the “One of Us” progression (in the minor, I, VI, III, bVII), Lana Del Ray’s  “video games” (love that tune) has a very interesting chord progression. Very cool song but the mood is very dark - a song that seems very young in parts but really quite bleak -– probably not the way to go the song is to be authentic for Matt’s voice.

Had a thought about some old lyrics that I never used – just a sketch – and pulled them out for a look. They would suit a downtempo song but I think I’m going to go uptempo for this, at least at first. Start with a groove, see where it takes me.

1 pm

Now I’ve got a groove down that I like – bass and drums. It’s very basic, a bit more funky than the ones I heard. Just four bars but it’s the start of a verse.

5 pm

Had to take a break there but I’ve begun to noodle a melody and some chord changes – I think I know where the chorus will fit – but so far no lyric ideas. I think he’s going to want a love song judging by previous postings … but I really haven’t much clear idea. So now it’s time to invite inspiration.

Tuesday 9 am.

Woke up with some odd dreams, involving a radio show (Canadian Spaces), Taylor Swift and an Arab prince with entourage … So far I don’t see a song in any of that. And now I have to SEDJ for a while.

That kept me busy till 7. Had some thoughts about a lyrical start – spent some time seeking inspiration from the urban dictionary – I know, how weird. But it works better than a rhyming dictionary because of all the random entries.

7:20 pm

And then suddenly I got something!

I know what to do now, starting with a title I thought of summer of 2013.

As often happens, it begins with a picture of a moment in someone’s life. This time, it’s a guy in his twenties – he’s watching his wife/girlfriend dance - at home – she’s dancing like she’s a kid, and he recognizes that wild spirit in her.

So that’s verse one started. Very excited – this was a real visit from the song fairy – the first in a long time.  It seemed to be a moving song – but happy. So I thanked the SF and promised I would work hard on this one, and not waste the inspiration. But I had to stop there after I recorded it – visits from the SF are exhausting though elating.

What’s really great about this is that I resolved earlier that I would only write a song I cared about – I wouldn’t dumb down the message to try to be acceptable. Matt could certainly do this – but it’s a song I would feel good about singing myself. And the chord sketch fits great with the groove I’ve got.

So later I brought my little sketches down and transferred them to the DAW for safekeeping (I record live as I write on a portable machine, sometimes ad libbing, sometimes to get down an idea as I think of it, or I’ll lose it.) So now I’ll have it in my head overnight so I can start again in the morning.

Wednesday 5 am.

Woke up with a bit of Dylan Thomas–like lyric in my head. Went downstairs and wrote a variant down, and added to it – looks like it could be the bridge … went back to bed.

Wednesday 10 am

I’m transcribing what I wrote yesterday evening. Nice music – but it’s a mystery to me now why I thought it was so great last night. In the cool light of morning it just seems okay – with lots of lyrical issues still.

But – I made a promise. It may be work to re-discover what I thought was there but I’ll do it.

Wednesday 12 pm

Spent the last hour and a half on lyrics - they are working out better now. First verse is in good shape and so is the chorus. Second verse is just a sketch and so is the bridge – the bridge may have to go in a totally different direction.

I’ve brought the key down a half tone to put the power note I the right place – but that might change since the tune in the chorus doesn’t pay off as well as it should. I moved the tempo up too from 106 to 111. I’ve recorded it that way so I’ll evaluate later. The slower tempo may be better for feeling …  and I’m not sure all this stuff is in the pocket with the groove, so there’s still lots to do.

Thursday 10 am.

In the shower, singing the chorus. The shower is a good place to find lyrics but the digital recorder doesn’t work too well in there.

Thursday 3:30 pm

– no chance to do any more on the song – SEDJ took the whole day. Then we went out last night to see the Sadies in Carleton Place. Crazy show - got home very late.

Friday 9 am

Feeling my way slowly into the day. May be a day to lie low: sometimes I let a song sit idle in my head for a bit. Maybe it’s just laziness, but I believe it can develop when I’m not working on it. If this had a tighter deadline I would just do a work frenzy instead but a whole week feels luxurious …. Also, I always think a song is wonderful when I’m working on it, so it can be useful to spend some time away and hear it fresh when I come back to it.

Friday 1 pm.

But then I got the guitar out and the laptop and started noodling the bridge, I knew what it had to be – the future of the couple – cause the first verse sets the situation, the chorus is the emotion, and the second verse is the backstory – the life they’re leading right now and how this precious moment lights it up – so the bridge had to take us into the future of the couple – what he could see down the road. And then I finished up the choruses and noodled an idea for an ending.
All second person so it passes the Pat Pattison intimacy test ;)  I still feel something when I’m singing it, so maybe what I felt at first hasn’t entirely gone away. Or I’m just a mushball. Anyway, I don’t care, the song is now complete – some tweaking – and I will start producing it tomorrow!


One step forward; two steps back.

Frst, I found that I couldn't post my blog safely on Friday - something was clearly weird about the wordpress site. I emailed tech support.

While I was waiting for tech support I started producing the tune. Once I had basic drums, bass, guitar and vocal I tried a harmony vocal, which was horrible.

Then I sat back and listened. Didn't like it. Just not working.


Tech support wrote back to say that almost all the files on the wordpress blog had been hacked - throughly. So I deleted the entire Journal blog and I'm posting it now as a regular html page.

Rewrote the second verse. One of the things I hadn;t realized was that all the second verse lines were shorter than the first verse, so the melody became awkward and duller. Leaving space is good but this was too much.

And I'm thinking about redoing the whole groove and the changes in the chorus. It pays off, but not as well as it should. Perhaps I am getting too complicated, there. More trimming and rewriting to do. Always a challenge to correct problems in rewrites and still keep it fresh and spontaneous.

Putting it away for now.