The Birth, Life and Death of a Song Part 2: Birth
In the first part of our series we discussed the concepts of stillness, darkness, and cultivation. We talked about the importance of creating a unique space from which your musical ideas can be born, and to give them room to grow without the interference of the world and our own tendencies to begin 'working' before the idea has had time to bloom.
In this second part of our series, we'll look at the process of birthing the idea into a coherent form, and beginning to tend the idea, to cultivate it, and begin to shape it.
Also available in this series:
- The Birth, Life and Death of a Song Part 1: Darkness, Cultivation & Birth
- The Birth, Life and Death of a Song Part 2: Birth
- The Birth, Life and Death of a Song Part 3: Life and Death
Birth is the sudden opening of a window, through which you look out upon a stupendous prospect. For what has happened? A miracle. You have exchanged nothing for the possibility of everything.
William MacNeile Dixon
The idea started out as a lullaby. A single lyric, "I will love you tonight." came to me with a melody some months ago as I was putting my daughter down to sleep. It was a particularly hard week at work, and my daughter wasn't sleeping well. The horn of Africa was deep in the throes of a terrible famine, and I had been reading news stories about the work being done there. As I sat rocking my daughter to sleep, I felt so fortunate to have the life that I have and to be able to provide what I can to my family. I began to think to myself that I wished there was a way I could help those people beyond the small charitable donations I was making...It occurred to me that there, in that dark room, the best thing I could do was simply to love my daughter with all my heart.
So I began singing this lyric, thinking to myself that I would love my daughter as an offering to all the people in the world who were suffering, for all the people who were hungry or thirsty, or who might never know the kind of comfort that we were living. And so began the song...a few days later, I scribbled down the lyrics and some melodic notes, and left it at that until I had more time to come back to it.
So now you have an idea, you've captured its essence, and you've decided that you are going to begin sketching around it. Move now to your workspace, studio, or wherever you do your 'productive' creative work. This is where you'll begin to take the seeds of your idea and work with it, nurture it, and begin to slowly shape it into the Song that is yet to come.
The important points to focus on in this step are:
- Don't fiddle too much with sounds - capture the essence of the idea in chords, melody, rhythms - only tweak with timbre and sound selection if it is key to getting the core of your idea across
- Don't edit during this stage - capture any and every sketch idea you have. Disk space is cheap and paper is cheap. Consider every sketch has some 'gold in it' and it is important to catch as much as you can.
- Follow the shape of the idea until you reach a logical end, then continue to sketch.
- Keep your work in this space confined to a relatively small set of tools and sounds. Within these limits your creativity can flourish without distraction.
I've come back to my writing space a few times, revised lyrics, revised chords and revised the melody. I'm now at a place where I feel like I have a good start on the tune, so I'm going to share a snippet of the lyrics and the tune with you.
When I sat down to capture this idea, I didn't have my microphone in the studio with me, so I unfortunately had to use the built-in microphone on my laptop to handle recording duties. This introduced a lot of background noise into the recording, but for 'capturing' purposes, it worked just fine.
Remember - the important thing in this stage is that you're still working with ideas, concepts, and that nothing is sacred and nothing is final. So here are the lyrics:
i will love you tonight
for all the ways I can't even love myself
I will love you tonight
for all the fears that keep me locked inside my shell
And a quick mix of sampled piano and my vocal melody for the verse.
This is more or less the final stage of song-birth for me. You have an idea, you have ideas of how you want to communicate this idea - including perhaps a melody, some lyrics, a rhythm, etc. Now it is time to begin to shape and mold these ideas into something more concrete.
But before you dive headlong into pre-production and production, I suggest that you take another step away from your tools.
Now that the birthing process is complete, you've got this brand new baby song you're carrying around. You could take it immediately to the workshop, but I like to give it a little breathing room first...Walk away from your session with the idea firmly in your mind, and take another walk, go to another room, or just take a break for a few minutes, hours or days.
During this time, ask yourself the following questions:
- What sounds do I hear when I think about this idea? As a composer, sounds are one aspect of your 'palette', so what types of instruments do you hear playing in this tune?
- What other musical artists do you want to sound like (if anyone), or what musical ideas would I like to incorporate into this song?
- What are the key focal points of the tune? The lyrics? The melody?
- What is your signature? What about this song will make it uniquely mine?
Again it is important to be free with these ideas, to capture them as they arise - paper, digital or voice capture, etc. Once you've given this idea some breathing room, you can begin working in earnest on the song...
- What sounds do I hear when I think about this idea? Like most of my tunes, the idea started out with a simple vocal melody and piano backing. For the first several weeks of working with the song, I honestly couldn't hear any other instruments supporting the tune...
- What other musical artists do you want to sound like (if anyone), or what musical ideas would I like to incorporate into this song? As I worked with the song, the one tune that kept coming up for me was Peter Gabriel's "Here Comes The Flood". This is one of my favorite PG tunes, and he is probably my single favorite musical artist, and much of my own musical inspiration comes from his work. I explored his lyric scheme, chords and melody and found some interesting ways I could rearrange my lyrics that channeled some of the energy of this tune.
- What are the key focal points of the tune? The lyrics? The melody? This tune is driven by the main lyric and the melodic hook, but (as you'll see later) eventually the chorus came blaring out of nowhere and I found that the choral hook actually became one of the most powerful aspects of the song.
- What is your signature? What about this song will make it uniquely mine? This is to-be-determined...it has been awhile since I fully produced a song, but as with my past tunes, I think the vocals will probably be the part that stand out...time will tell...
Preparing For School
So here we are with a pretty solid foundation of musical ideas for our song. We've gone from nothing to something, and taken that something and examined it in a lot of ways, helped it grow, given it some breathing room, and built a sort of loose foundation underneath it so that it has a great place to start. It is here that we'll end this entry in the series - by preparing for full-scale song production.
If we carry this analogy that a song is sort of like a child, the song is almost ready for school, and our job is to really prepare it for all the challenges that it will face in the unexpected world of song production. This pre-production phase is fairly straightforward as we've already done some of the steps. But, just to recap, here are the important things to have on hand:
- Song lyrics (if any) - If, like me, you're a digital songwriter, it can be helpful to have a hard copy of the lyrics on hand, so you're not having to switch windows as you're recording. Print out a copy and don't be afraid to mark it up as you're working…
- Song structure/chords/melody noted and captured somewhere. Use these as a reference when you need them.
- Song palette - Hopefully by now you've loosely defined how you think the song is going to sound and what instruments are going to accompany it. This definition can and will change as you enter the full production phase, but having a good idea of the sound in your head gives you a place to start.
- Inspiration - When I'm in the studio, I like to have a few pieces of inspiration around in case I need some motivation or get stuck on an idea. For me these usually come in the form of a book of poetry, a few images or photos, and perhaps a few specially selected songs that might give me some insight in the direction I'm doing with the song. In the case of my song, I'll have a copy of the aforementioned Gabriel tune, as well as some David Gray, whose work also falls a lot in line with the direction I'm going with this tune.
- Clear and ready workspace - As we discussed in the first entry in the series, it is helpful to have your studio workspace clean and ready for action. Make sure all your cables are connected, your machine is in tip-top form (e.g. no annoying software updates demanding your attention while recording, etc.)
- Fuel - Lastly, bring along whatever fuel is necessary to keep you motivated and inspired during the intense working sessions ahead. For me these include coffee, tea, beer, whiskey, chocolate, and maybe some healthy snacks. Oh - and a good night's sleep!
The next stop in our series will be full-scale production. I hope you'll come back to hear where this tune is going.