On Songwriting

Linus let me borrow a book called Songwriters On Songwriting, or something like that, which is a series of interviews with notable songwriters about songwriting.  I started leafing through it today.  Turns out Paul Simon generally does things that he finds funny and has a distinct distaste for (his) youth.  Bob Dylan puts on his usual defense mechanism of speaking nonsensically.  Brian Wilson’s insights parrot his therapist — and this being the ’80s, are pretty far gone.  Pete Seeger is nice enough.. But so far I haven’t yet found a single thing elucidating.  It’s more of a “yeah, this thing we do is weird.”  Peter Seeger says you should borrow and steal and change existing songs, which is the most I’ve gotten out of it.  Bob Dylan says there are already enough songs, we don’t need any  more, which is a bizarre way to think, as if a song were a commodity.  Whatshisname who wrote songs for Sinatra and others talks about occasionally straying from 32-bar melodies, and this one crazy time he wrote a 9-bar bridge instead of 8-bar.  Some other guy has a natural talent for rhyming and coming up with lyrics really fast.

Not particularily helpful, especially if you don’t have a natural talent for rhyming, or lyrics, or melody retention, or harmony, or even pitch.  Rather it’s frustrating!  To be cursed with a love of and need for something which comes so easily to some other people.  (Which isn’t to say I haven’t got any natural musical talents — I’m quite proud of my ability to hear and analyze tambres / tone textures, which is useful in emulating synthesizer patches or nailing a particular sound on a recording.)

I’ve hit another one of those moments where I completely lose sight of whatever musical vision I was chasing after and am sort of just free floating.  Though perhaps every song I’ve recorded in the past year is drastically different from one another, for each one I’ve known exactly what I was doing, and it fit into the context of things I know and love.  Acoustic viking adventure with jazz-influenced singing and arpeggiated synthesizers, anti-civ undertones.  Joe Meek inspired freakbeat with mellotrons, Rachel plays one of the characters.  Repetitive beach grunge with weird sampled sounds and subtly stretching my boundaries of discordance.  Film music piano piece ala Michael Andrews.  Short and simple  ’60s pop theme repeated through different treatments, with cynical lyrics ala Magnetic Fields.  All these songs participated in something I was grounded in, all self-coherent with my world.

I have a handful of songs that really fit my vision (before I lost it) but that I just couldn’t finish.  Couldn’t get them to live up to what they needed to be.  Even Dionysian Season didn’t turn out near as good as it should have.  The singing too ambitious beyond my ability, as with the lyric writing — I clumsily failed at accomplishing what I intended, with the effect that could have been accomplished with those melodies and that backing track.  And Rachel didn’t even finish singing it — I had to cut and paste her together at the end and fill it in with my own voice! HA!  Nobody has said anything about that, maybe they’ve thought the effect is deliberate.  Perhaps that vision was too ambitious (perhaps not ambitious enough).

It’s hard to figure out what to do.  I have a song on a comp and think to myself, damn my track isn’t nowhere near as lo-fi and raw as the rest of these, has nowhere near the character.  I’m doing a split with James Rabbit, and for once his songs aren’t amazingly catchy concise pop songs, they’re quite experiemental, and I think my music isn’t nearly as fun or creative.  And it’s not as moving as … And not as deep or poetic as … And the textures and production aren’t as interesting as … And it’s completely insane!  Of course I want my music to have character and be fun and have energy and be interesting, moving, poetic, catchy, etc.  But you can’t embody everything.  It’s unfair to yourself.  Of course none of those other songs stand up to each other on the same criteria!  So it’s silly to hold yourself up to all of everything.

It’s the classic Nietzschean delema.  God is dead.  So where do I get my values from?  My songvision is dead.  I remember it, but I don’t see it — it’s not on my horizon any more.  So what comes next?  I have vague tinglings of doing something unlistenable to, something very uncommercial.  But I’m hoping that will pass, as I think the desire to musically connect with a listener and the desire to alienate cannot be compatible.  Using music to alienate is misguided.  Using communication to declare that you don’t want to communicate.  Skip a step!  Don’t communicate.

Perhaps my old songvision will re-emerge.  I think it was a good one, one I’d spent a lot of time carving out, and there was not any reason for it to disappear.  (Just as there was no reason for me to leave Santa Cruz.)    But these things must be felt.  Though I can think about the songvision–the triumph, the beats, the arpeggiated synthesizers, the mellotrons, the philosophical and personal depths, the basslines, the jangles–until I feel it I cannot follow it.

We’ll see how it clears up.

I’ve also been thinking about the internet as a medium.  In the sense that recorded music is truly enjoyed as sound vibrations reproduced from a set of speakers (issues of warmth and resolution aside), the music files over the internet are not inferior to previous mediums — you get your sound waves moving through air.  The advantages are that it can be free.  Non-comerciality is tricky in a society where perceived value or importance follows commercial viability or value.  Do people consume physical and paid for things differently than free, vaprous things?  I prefer the idea of non-physicality and non-commerciality.  But with internet downloads you’re stuck with computers, which are a higher overhead costwise and environmentally than a walkman+CD, for instance.  I never really thought of that until I stopped using computers and the internet so much and my main computer is mostly broken and I’m thinking about not replacing it any time soon.  That digital music collection isn’t so unphysical as I made-believe.  But I think for the ordinary person these days a computer and internet is assumed.

Also thinking further about the internet as a medium, specifically websites… I’m starting to think this page should be something different than a blog.  Just Another Snake Cult should have a more interesting presence than the ramblings of myself.  But when start to think about design I just want to smash things.  I mean a strong physical urge to take a hammer to a CRT television set.

I’ve been thinking about architecture too.  I like that OMD named their 3rd album Architecture and Morality.  I wish it was actually a concept album on that topic, though Joan of Arc is fine as well.  Architecture and design have such a profound impact on the way we live.  Most obviously socially.  Really obviously ideologically.  A room laid out with a place for a flatscreen TV.  Bam!  A house that separates private property and priving living from the public sphere.  Bam!  No wonder we think and act the way we do.  As creatures of our environment, we become unconcious of these things, they become natural.  Design and architecture is really nasty stuff.  Really dubious.  And as a designer or architect, there is such an inclination to follow the herritage in some manner (or else be groundless and directionless, nihilistic noise), and then the gag reflex — the urge to smash the whole institution, especially TVs.

It’s the same urge with music, with design, with architecture.  But it’s important to remember it’s not just crap or nothing.  With some thought and creativity new ingenious things can be thought up.  Structures can be designed to be off-the-grid (both technically and ideologically), that encourage other ways of living, of interacting, of thinking.  Music need not be commercial nor alienating.  The creative process and its results can be reflections of our own aspirations.  Communicative and inspiring.


  1. Spencer says:

    This was wonderful to read tonight!

    I think we were having similar thoughts in the last 24 hours. I read “Music need not be commercial nor alienating,” and aside from that being a credo to live by, it echoes the bent of this post I just wrote: http://mog.com/Spencer_Owen/blog/2046925

  2. Marlon says:

    Wonderful writing Thor. You need to figure out how to write lyrics this smoothly and concisely. Or maybe try writing a novella and take a break from songwriting? haha. Always a pleasure to read/hear your incites buddy. 🙂

  3. Thor says:

    Good to hear from you guys!
    SPencer — regarding the English Beat song, maybe it’s precisely the quality of being too up to be a ballad and too down to be a dance song that makes it jarring enough to be hit quality. Most people listen to music sitting down.
    Marlon — Blogs are easy. You don’t have to match syllables or phrasing or arc with a melody and arrangement.

  4. David Donovan says:

    You’re right, no one can really expect themselves to be able to fill in all of the gaps when it comes to what they want to be able to accomplish musically on their own. Bob Dylan could never arrange a song like Brian Wilson could and Brian Wilson couldn’t write a lyric as well as Bob Dylan. But at the same time they’re no trying to outdo each other at what the other does best because Brian Wilsons’ lyrical ability wasn’t the most important aspect of his music and neither was Dylan’s ability to really embellish in the arrangement of a song. I think in that way it’s important for people to realize what they suck at so that they know how to make up for what they can’t do if they feel like what they can on their own isn’t enough (which is why Bob Dylan hired The Band and Brian Wilson hired Van Dyke Parks to help write lyrics for him.) I guess what this all means is that your lyrics don’t necessarily need to be really amazing in order for your songs to be as good as anyone else’s, especially if you’re good enough in other important areas (which you are!) for that not to be the most important thing about what you’re making. As for the whole creative vision thing, you’ll get it back! You’ll hear the songs you were working on again eventually, and you’ll see things clearly in all of its color and texture and feeling the way you did before!

    sorry if this seems pretty out of nowhere, your myspace directed me to this link and i was curious as to what your creative process was like 😀

    • Thor says:

      Hi David, thanks for the comment! I’m glad my blog was able to respond to your curiosity.
      As with most inner-crises in life, this one was short-lived, and I’ve since been able to continue to hammer out song after song in a direction that I’m excited about. I’m not being too hard on myself about my lyrics or my singing abilities, as I’m enjoying what I’m doing and growing from it, and hopefully what I lack in musicianship is made up for in character.
      As for specifics about my creative process lately, it goes like this.
      I mess around on my acoustic guitar and some subject will inspire some lyrics which when sung over a chord progression usually end up implying some sort of melody. As I’m generally writing in the vein of psychedelic pop I try to use a lot of borrowed chords or key changes (what David Byrne would call convoluted chord progressions) or mostly try to forget everything I’ve ever learned or figured out about music theory, especially regarding keys and scales and beats per measure and try to let the melody lead the chord changes in interesting directions and at interesting times. But a good song can also use I IV V if you wouldn’t notice it. Anyways, I try to keep it simple too. Like I’ll run a verse through a different treatment the second time through. Really try to make the arrangement dynamic by varying things.

  5. David Donovan says:

    hah, didnt really spell check that post. oh well

  6. David Donovan says:

    Awesome, I’m glad that you got back into a good creative rhythm again! Yeah I definitely relate to everything you said there, I also just try to let the songs write themselves naturally without really thinking about conventional song formats or anything like that, although I wouldn’t shy away from the idea of one of my songs having a more standard song structure if that’s what suited the song best! Good music can sound like so many different things. There’s no one method that works better than another, so I think it’s important to be open to the possibility of any approach being the option that suits what you’re trying to do best!

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