A New Christmas EP That Put a Smile on My Face This Weekend

mass-anthemAt the end of a sometimes frustrating week, at the end of an often difficult semester, and at the end of a frequently laborious year (but at the beginning, praise God, of a still hopeful Advent season), I was made aware of the latest recorded offering from Mass Anthem, a Nashville-based pop group compromised, in part, of former Judson University students of mine.  Mass Anthem Christmas features a few fresh arrangements of familiar Christmas fare, a song or two new to me, and a beautiful instrumental.  I commend it for your holiday listening pleasure.  After listening to the EP, I enjoyed some of Mass Anthem’s back catalogue, as well, and was reminded of my fondness for their sweet vocal arrangements and tasty production values.  If you’re new to this group, I think you’ll enjoy this introduction.

The Lord be with you!

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Bidding Farewell to The Practice

We interrupt for one week this series on songwriting to bid a fond farewell to an important voice in the contemporary American church, The Practice, a contemplative worshiping community self-defined as “seeking to live our everyday lives more fully in God’s presence so we might be formed by Jesus to be like Jesus.  We long to become the kinds of people who can put Jesus’ words into practice for the sake of the world.”  The six pillars upon which the founders, seven or so years ago, built this ministry promote being Kingdom-focused, equippers, practice-based, ecumenical, Eucharistic, and community-driven in all their endeavors.  Founded by Aaron Niequist and a number of curators, the ministry has been led most recently by Jason Feffer with a similar band of wonderful co-laborers.  Ironically enough, this contemplative community was birthed in the midst of an institution not known for serenity and introspection, the suburban megachurch, in this case, the most influential suburban megachurch ever, Willow Creek.

It’s to Willow’s credit that this “experiment,” as Niequist initially defined it, has lasted for these several years.  To support for as long as Willow did a ministry so intrinsically out of step with Willow’s (and every other megachurch’s) MO or raison d’être or defining ethos is indicative of a level of high-mindedness not often seen in the pragmatism-rules world of contemporary American ecclesiology (especially as seen in larger churches, whose management strategies so often seem as influenced by Wall Street as by the New Testament).  Indeed, The Practice, loved by many (full disclosure: I am in those ranks) for its breath-of-fresh-air willingness to defy all the prescriptive how-to’s deemed common and essential knowledge for “doing church” in the 21st century, was also feared by some for its embrace of a big-tent Christianity, including dipping corporate toes into pre-Enlightenment ways of understanding our common faith (i.e., stuff that doesn’t lend itself readily to highly polished and produced worship experiences).  Their informal motto down through the years, “Sunday is not the main event,” has run counter to so many of the unspoken messages coming from so many contemporary American churches.  So credit where credit is due to Willow’s leadership team’s endurance, grace that runs out at the end of 2020.

20201108_181222Over the years, the Judson University Choir has been privileged to contribute once or twice a year to worship at The Practice, singing in the round over and with those assembled.  These services have been a highlight of our usual year’s worth of choral ministry, so it felt particularly special to help lead last night, near the end of the run for The Practice.  Protocols (good and proper) at both Willow and Judson meant I traveled with only four of the Choir’s officers, and half of our contribution came in the form of pre-recorded, in-concert videos of the Choir down through the years, which we have curated on the Demoss Center for Worship in the Performing Arts’ YouTube channel.  Still, as with so much of our response to the pandemic, anything was far better than nothing, and it felt sacred to be gathered, even with a small subset of the usual, to serve and worship together.  An archived recording of the entire service can be accessed here.  (Dig our just-purchased, duck-billed-platypus-looking singers’ masks created by a NYC Broadway company.)  

At the end of the service, Jason Feffer mentioned the possibility of The Practice moving forward as a church plant, unattached from and unsupported by Willow.  I hope this happens.  The Practice has addressed a real need in the contemporary American church, one only exacerbated by the pandemic, which has turned all churches into media producers, an existential reality potentially Darwinian in its impact on local congregations, with the fittest churches able and willing to invest in HD cameras, sufficient bandwith, and the like, and the least fit scrambling to keep their doors open.  Those smaller fellowships that do survive COVID-19 might very well end up determining that the worship practices heretofore deemed immutably necessary for cultural relevance in 2021 and beyond no longer make sense for them in our current reality.  And that might look a lot like The Practice.  Here’s hoping.

The Lord be with you! 

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Songwriting Tips from the Experts, Part 11

dan-fogelbergI get to feature a Land-of-Lincoln homeboy in today’s post, Peoria-born Dan Fogelberg, who died far too young, 56, of prostate cancer back in 2007.  I’m partial to the singer-songwriters anyway, but I’m especially partial to Fogelberg, whose “Longer” my wife Lea and I had sung at our wedding.  I had played that song in a Crosby, Stills, and Nash-type country-rock trio back in my high-school days, along with other Fogelberg gems like “Part of the Plan” and “There’s a Place in the World for a Gambler.”  If you’re new to Fogelberg, you might know “Longer” and perhaps a couple of other classic songs in his canon, both of which resonate with me: “Leader of the Band” (his father, like mine, got his start in bandleading; enjoy the backstory at the beginning of the video and the outro) and the poignant “Same Auld Lang Syne.”

Fogelberg would not, I don’t think, have described himself as a born-again Christian, but he was a very spiritual person.  When asked by Paul Zollo, in the magnum opus Songwriters on Songwriting, how songs come to him, he put it this way:

I can’t sit down in a room and say, “Okay, I’m going to write a song now.”  Or make an appointment with another songwriter, which I find absolutely ludicrous.  But I know a lot of people in Nashville make their living doing that.  That’s not my style.  My stuff has to come from the Creator.  It has to come from an inspirational source.  And therefore I’ve gotten very patient and learned to wait.  And when I force myself, it usually doesn’t work.

Zollo asks about stylistic ruts all creatives find themselves in at some point in their lives.  Fogelberg was no exception:

[Y]ou try consciously to avoid [repeating yourself].  Every time you go back to one you say, “That’s too typical, try something else here.”  But I don’t have the chops to really be able to say I’m going to write a [jazz pianist] Dave Grusin piece because I’m a guitarist first.  So I think I have pretty decent technique so I can keep it from getting too trite, but there’s definitely a style to my playing.  Which I think most songwriters have, which is fairly simplistic.  If you’re a writer you don’t really have time to devote to being a really technical player.  So for me, piano is always a second instrument.

At the end of the interview, Fogelberg quotes Eagles’ bassist Timothy Schmit saying the best parts of songwriters are “the beginning and the end,” testifying to the real work involved in crafting an excellent song.  Zollo then asks if finishing a song releases a feeling of satisfaction for Fogelberg:

Absolutely.  Absolutely.  If I think it’s a good one.  In my criteria.  I’m pretty tough on myself.  A lot of stuff I’ll let go if I don’t think it’s worth the time.  When you do a good one and it’s finished, it still feels good.  It still feels great.  Songwriting to me is the ultimate reward, [the] ultimate thing I do.  It’s the most mystical thing I’ve ever experienced–and I don’t know what this is about–I do it and I don’t understand it and it’s just so amazingly unconscious.

Zollo follows up with a question as to whether Fogelberg gets a better handle on this mystery the longer he writes songs, and it gives the latter an opportunity to profess a belief in some Creative Being at work in his life:

No.  I sure don’t.  It’s given me a little more faith in a greater being, certainly.  But it’s still unexplainable.  And at some point you’ve got to make that leap from the intellectual process to blind faith, basically.  You’ve got to learn to trust those feelings.  You’ve got to use the Force, Luke.

I don’t know if Fogelberg put a Name to that Creator before he died (I hope so), but I’m grateful for his honest and spiritual music that takes me back to the soundtrack of my adolescence every time.

The Lord be with you!

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Songwriting Tips from the Experts, Part 10

Very rarely do the best baseball players turn into the best managers.  Sparky Anderson’s lifetime batting average was .218; Tony LaRussa’s, .199.  Mediocre numbers on the field didn’t stop either from becoming the only two managers to win a World Series title in each league.

cf495a3cI feel the same way, in some respects, about this post.  Todd Rundgren had one ginormous hit, 1972’s “Hello, It’s Me,” a delicious confection of pure pop sensibility, with intriguing chords and progressions and a lyric that serves as Exhibit A for introspective singer-songwriters.  Though no one refers to Rundgren as a one-hit wonder (to the contrary, his followers are known to opine that “Todd is God”), chances remain that if late Boomers and Gen Xers don’t know “Hello, It’s Me,” they (let alone Gen Yers and Screeners) don’t know him at all. (To his credit, Rundgren branched out into all kinds of styles across the spectrum–giving solo concerts accompanied only by his own voice and a computer adding bgv’s–witness “Honest Work”–or recording albums live to tape with no overdubs, to recapture the old-school appeal of musicians sitting around making music together–e.g., “The Waiting Game.”)

Nevertheless, Rundgren’s offerings in Paul Zollo’s Songwriters on Songwriting are as insightful as any other’s.  To wit:

On trying to write a hit:

I think, ideally, music is not self-limiting.  That’s the problem with [trying to write] a so-called hit record[:] you are trying to read other people’s minds and you’re not necessarily writing toward an ideal.  

On his particular songwriting process, one that, I think, would help broaden the landscape for writers of contemporary praise and worship music if they would give it a try.  He’s speaking in 1989, but his use of the adjective disposable could be deemed appropriate in 2020:

I’m looking for . . . a musical form in the underlying structure as [much as] I am in the melody and words that go over the top of it.  And once I have something and I’m satisfied with the infrastructure, that suggests to me a whole other range of things that I can do.  It also helps to constrain me in a certain way, to refine parts of the song. . . .

I think nowadays I’m spending a lot of time on that almost as a reaction to disposable music[, which] is what prevails generally in the industry.  But there are a lot of times when I just take an experimental approach and do things that I’m not absolutely sure are working but which help me to break out of crystallized thought processes about the way the music should be written.

On the industry (he’s speaking of pop music, but the few friends I have in the Christian music biz might be tempted to agree–at least in more cases than an idealist might expect.  If it walks like a duck. . . .):

My personal feeling is that a record company can break any record they want.  The record business is basically corrupt.  And they can make the public conscious of anybody they want if they spend the money to do it.  And it’s just who they choose.  Most of the people working in the record industry have no imagination or integrity.  And that’s why things are the way they are.  They’re looking for repeats of previous formulas. . . .

The point of being a musician is to go out there and create music and communicate it to people.  And it’s an illusion that the only way you can successfully do that is with the record companies.

So [becoming a success by industry standards] is one of two things: it’s either luck or prostitution.  You’ve got to decide, “If I’m going to be a songwriter, I’m going to have to devote myself to that craft . . . and not try to depend on making a living on it.”  Because if you depend on making a living on it, you have to do one of two things: You have to go out, find a connection, schmooze them, and try to get in that way, or you have to consciously prostitute yourself and write whatever is the currently acceptable style of music.

Guitar or piano for songwriting?:

Mostly I write on piano and occasionally . . . guitar.  I usually know which because of the kind of song I’m writing.  I’ll very rarely write ballads on the guitar.  Or those kind of harmonically complex songs; you can only get six notes out of the guitar.  It really depends on what you can do with your fingers and the tuning of the instrument.  The piano is much more flexible in that sense.  You have more options.

Favorite key?:

If I have a melody in my head, I’ll find the key that goes with it.  I have a tendency to go for keys that are easier to play for make, like C or F.  But if the songs demand that I start playing all over the black keys, that’s what happens.

I hope the musings of the past few months, though some are a little provocative, have spurred some ideas for contemporary worship music songwriters.  We’re in a hard season, and often great art comes out of coronavirus-type trials.  The Lord be with you as you write!

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Songwriting Tips from the Experts, Part 9

Hero_JacksonBrowneJackson Browne burst onto the pop-music scene in the early 70’s, a wunderkind of sorts compared to older artists with more-established pedigrees.  While generally not considered in the absolute top tier of singer-songwriters, his excellent oeuvre nevertheless represents an easier onramp than that of some of his more vaunted peers–less obscure than Joni Mitchell, less acerbic than Neil Young, less obviously stoned than David Crosby.   There’s lots to appreciate in the Browne canon, but neophytes might start here: “Doctor, My Eyes” was his first major success as a performer (dig the 70s feathered hair), “Running on Empty” hit the charts as part of a concept album describing life on the road, and “The Rebel Jesus” served as a Christmas carol of a different ilk.

Browne’s interview with Paul Zollo for the Songwriters on Songwriting is filled with gems.  Here are a few:

On a metaphor for the process of songwriting:

Songwriting is like building guitars.  You save wood for many years until it’s ready, until you want a piece of wood like that, and you make an instrument.  Or you may have the back and sides, but you don’t have the wood you want for the face of the guitar[, so you find more wood that will work and finish the project].  The metaphor is beautiful because a song is like an instrument in that it can be played by anyone else, and it can [lie] around for years and somebody can pick it up and play it again.

On the struggle not to repeat himself:

I have probably played the same stuff over and over again on the piano.  I was doing a concert, and I sat down at the piano and started playing a new song in D, and the crowd started clapping even though they’d never heard this song, because what I was playing in D [sounded like] what I always habitually play in D on the piano, and they thought it was a song they’d already heard.

I have to play for hours to try to go to new places and develop something different.  [To that end,] I think singing while playing is such a big part of writing for me.

On the appropriateness of his tendency to preach in a song, especially “Lives in the Balance,” a look at American covert military operations in Latin America:

There are times where you have to put aside your preference for being smooth or hip, and simply shout, “Fire!”  If it’s a matter of something like whether your country’s going to war, that’s important.  At the time [of “Lives in the Balance”], I just thought it would be worth it.  I value my career, of course, but I don’t value it so much as to preserve it at all costs.  Like to be quiet during a Holocaust.  I felt that I needed to say what I knew.

And I also believed–and I’m not sure that this is borne out by events at all–that if you told the American people what was going on, that they would do the right thing.  I’m not sure it’s as simple as that anymore.  I can’t say that I have the certainty that I had, at the time, that that was possible.  People have a huge capacity for self-delusion and it’s no longer a given that if you show them the truth, that they’ll do the right thing.

Interesting thoughts, these, especially given that they were offered almost 25 years ago.  On a lighter note, here are his thoughts on forsaking the at-all-costs quest for a song’s perfect rhyme:

I don’t think it’s important to rhyme perfectly.  I used to be pretty obsessed with it.  I didn’t even want to rhyme a singular with a plural. . . . I would go to great lengths to change the line so that it would be [perfect, so] that it would rhyme with “time” instead of “times.” . . .

[I became less obsessive when I began] appreciating a lot of songs that don’t necessarily rhyme at all–especially blues. [Rhyming is] just something we do.  It’s almost like a crutch.

A song will sound fine, if it rhymes, even though it [might not] say a thing.  That’s the thing about songs.  There’s a lot of forgiveness in the medium because people are used to hearing stuff that doesn’t necessarily mean anything or make a lot of sense. . . . 

You can open up a whole structure and form by choosing to rhyme less often.  Sometimes, when I’ve been writing a song and kind of aware that I [don’t know at all what I am writing about], I tend to rhyme way too much.  Sort of like a stepping stone–like you’re going from rhyme to rhyme trying to get something going.

Blessings to all the Church’s songwriters for your important work.  The Lord be with you!  

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Songwriting Tips from the Experts, Part 8b

At this point, it might behoove me to bring anyone who’s joined the discussion recently up to speed.  The primary motivation for this lengthy series is my conviction that contemporary worship music (cwm) has more to offer than what often is currently on display.  I’m 56, so I certainly qualify for curmudgeon status by age alone.  But I also have a doctorate in worship studies from an institution, the Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies (Jacksonville, Fla.), that opened my eyes to the riches to be mined from pursuing a broader range of expressions in worship, and my thesis was based on a massive, weeklong project that foisted upon college students in a Spiritual Enrichment Week chapel series at Judson (then) College congregational singing from genres to which most were unaccustomed: Catholic psalm singing, Taizé chant, Jesus People-era contemporary Christian music, Negro spirituals (yes, I’ve recently been told by African-American scholars that “Negro” is the correct adjective), and Reformation-era hymnody.  (The results were enlightening.)  So I know I bring considerable energy to any discussion of cwm related to congregational singing.

I laid out the arguments for looking at pop songwriters for suggestions for cwm in the first part of the series, and I’ve been quoting from Paul Zollo’s Songwriters on Songwriting for a couple of months now.  We’ve covered the likes of Bob Dylan, Carole King, and Lamont Dozier, and we have phenomenal songwriters coming up, including Jackson Browne, Suzanne Vega, and Bruce Hornsby.  This post looking at Leonard Cohen is the third two-parter in a row.  It’s fair to ask why the last three composers (the others were Jimmy Webb and Frank Zappa) received two parts and great songsmiths like Paul Simon were covered in one.  Simply put, and in the spirit of limiting the research, I’m using only Zollo’s book, and some of his interviews run longer than others.  Were I to consider others’ opinions of, say, Dylan, I’d be writing about him for the rest of my life, such is the volume of great commentary generated by his work.  Suffice to say staying with Zollo’s interviews elicits enough gems to justify the time spent but keeps this blog from becoming an all-consuming distraction.  Now, on to more Leonard Cohen:

Leonard-Cohen-Photo-ullstein-bild-Getty-ImagesOne of the hallmarks of Cohen’s work (and, I would argue, that of the best songwriters) is his attention to detail.  When Zollo quotes Jennifer Warnes, who says Cohen once told her “the most particular answer is the most universal one,” Cohen confirms and then elaborates:

We seem to be able to relate to detail.  We seem to have an appetite for it.  It seems that our days are made of details, and if you can’t get a sense of another person’s day of details, your own day of details is summoned in your mind in some way rather than just a general line like “the days went by.”  It’s better to say, “[W]atching Captain Kangaroo.”  Not “watching TV.”  Sitting in my room “with that hopeless little screen.”  Not just TV, but the hopeless, little screen. . . .

I love to hear the details.  I was working on a line this morning for a song called “I Was Never Any Good at Loving You.”  And the line was–I don’t think I’ve nailed it yet–“I was running from the law, I thought you knew, forgiveness was the way it felt with you” or “forgiven was the way I felt with you.”  Then I got a metaphorical line, about the old law and the new law, the Old Testament and the New Testament: “I was running from the law, the old and the new, forgiven was the way I felt with you.”  No, I thought, it’s too intellectual.  Then I thought I got it: “I was running from the cops and the robbers too, forgiven was the way I felt with you.”  You got cops and robbers, it dignifies the line by making it available, by making it commonplace.

Cohen speaks here to the process of revision, of not settling for decent when very good is within grasp, with just a bit more effort:

Zollo: You mentioned how much you discard of what you write.  Is your critical voice at play while writing, or do you try to write something first and then bring in the critic?

Cohen: I bring all the people in to the team, the work force, the legion.  There’s a lot of voices that these things run through.

Zollo: Do they ever get in the way?

Cohen: Get in the way hardly begins to describe it.  It’s mayhem.  It’s mayhem and people are walking over each other’s hands.  It’s panic.  It’s fire in the theater.  People are being trampled and they’re bullies and cowards.  All the versions of yourself that you can summon are there.  And some you didn’t even know were around.

Cohen jests, of course, and I’m not advocating that level of scrutiny for cwm necessarily, but it would be nice to get a sense periodically that an inner critic was at work a bit more often in cwm, a genre that, unfortunately, begs this kind of satire: “How to Write a Worship Song in 5 Minutes” and “A Worship Song Written in 5 Minutes.”

The Lord be with you!

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Songwriting Tips from the Experts, Part 8a

_107376795_cohen1_bbcAs was the case with Bob Dylan, I came late to the Leonard Cohen party, and I’ve been catching up ever since. Non-aficionados will at least recognize “Hallelujah,” his best-known song, one covered by a slew of artists over the years. (This clip comes from his latter-day tours, which featured one of the smoothest bands you’ll ever want to hear; witness the organ solo at the three-minute mark.) Another classic is “Bird on a Wire,” shown here in 1979, before Cohen’s voice dropped about an octave due to years of smoking and old age. Like Dylan, Cohen, raised Jewish, appropriated Christian imagery in his lyrics throughout his career. The title cut from his final album (not counting a posthumous release), You Want It Darker, is one such example, featuring the sprechstimme (hybrid speech-singing) he often employed for his final albums.

Cohen spoke frequently about the labors of songwriting, which manifested themselves in frequent creative spurts followed by long dry spells.  His own worst critic, Cohen no doubt left some great stuff on the cutting room floor, so to speak.  Here he describes the process by which he winnowed his work in the interview Paul Zollo did with him in Songwriters on Songwriting:

I find that easy versions of the song arrive first.  Although they might be able to stand as songs, they can’t stand as songs that I can sing.

Let’s just stop right there and ask ourselves how often we hear decent songs (or sing decent songs in church) that might, with just a little more care, have become excellent.  Cohen continues:

So to find a song that I can sing, to engage my interest, to penetrate my boredom with myself and my [lack of interest] in my own opinions, to penetrate those barriers, the song has to speak to me with a certain urgency. 

To be able to find that song that I can be interested in takes many versions and it takes a lot of uncovering.

“To penetrate my boredom with myself and my [lack of interest] in my own opinions”: These are phrases we’re unlikely to hear too often in our fractured times, unfortunately, when all of us, across all political and theological spectrums, seem so self-righteously assured of our own infallible wisdom.  Indeed, part of Cohen’s appeal, this near-disconcerting self-effacement, comes through frequently in the interview.  Here’s his humble take on the the creative muse:

If I knew where good songs come from, I’d go there more often.  It’s a mysterious condition.  It’s much like the life of a Catholic nun.  You’re married to a mystery.

Cohen had strong opinions, but they were infused with grace, most likely due to the whiplashed nature of the critical consensus of his work throughout his career, sometimes the darling of the intelligentsia and sometimes the butt of their scorn.  Fame is fickle, and so he refuses to take the bait, when Zollo suggests Cohen’s line “[t]he maestro says it’s Mozart, but it sounds like bubble-gum” means Cohen finds a lot of fault with current songwriting:

Some stuff is being promoted as junk and it is great art.  Remember the way that a lot of rock and roll was greeted by the authorities and the musicologists and even the hip people.  And when people were putting me down as being one thing or another, it wasn’t the guy in the subway.  He didn’t know about me.  It was the hip people, writing the columns in the hip newspapers, college papers, music papers.

So it’s very difficult to see what the verdict is going to be about a piece of work.  And the thing that really makes it an interesting game is that each generation revises the game, and decides what is poetry and song for itself, often rejecting the very carefully considered verdicts of the previous generations.  I mean, did the hippies ever think that they would be the objects of ridicule by a generation?  Self-righteous and prideful for the really bold and courageous steps they had taken to find themselves imbued in the face of an unmovable society; the risks, the chances, the dope they smoked, the acid they dropped?  Did they ever think they would be held up as figures of derision, like cartoon characters?  No.

And so it is, with every generation.  There’s that remark: “He who marries the spirit of his own generation is a widower in the next.”

I wonder how many popular contemporary worship music songwriters might find themselves metaphorical widowers in the years to come?  

More from Cohen, Lord willing, next week.  In the meantime, consider giving him a listen on your favorite streaming source.  The aforementioned You Want It Darker is part of a late-in-life trilogy (of sorts) that also includes Old Ideas and Popular Problems, both of which address mortality and loss in wonderfully poetic ways.  If you’d like to wallow in one of the smoothest touring ensembles ever to back a singer-songwriter, you can’t go wrong with any of his live albums, particularly Live in London and Live in Dublin.  

The Lord be with you!


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Songwriting Tips from the Experts, Part 7b

frank-zappa-9540382-1-402We feature more this week from the always mercurial, occasionally obnoxious, often puerile, never boring mind of Frank Zappa, courtesy of the interview conducted by Paul Zollo in his Songwriters on Songwriting. As noted earlier, though Zappa died in 1993, and though his thoughts concern the pop-music industry, we can easily apply much of his content to the worship-music industry in 2020. I am not going to bother to change all the male-dominant language here. Please apply his words across the genders:

Zollo: So what would be your advice to the young songwriter when he sits down to write a song–should he concern himself with writing a good hook or should he simply try to write a great song?

Zappa: It depends on what he wants to do.  If he just wants to make money, he should copy everybody else’s stuff, which is what everybody else is doing.

Zollo: But you can only do that for so long.

Zappa: It depends on how good a copier you are.

Zollo: How about if you want a career in songwriting?

Zappa: Basically, it’s a career in being a fraud.  It’s just like when someone says, ‘What is your advice to a young composer?’  I always say, ‘Get a Real Estate license.’  You can’t earn a living being a composer in the United States.  But as far as being a songwriter goes, you can make a lot of money if you will listen to what everybody else has done that has been successful and tweak it around to the point where you can convince an accountant at a record company that you’re fresh, new, and original.  This is usually accomplished by changing your hairdo periodically and having a good wardrobe.  That’s basically the business you’re entering.  The idea of writing a nice tune is the farthest thing from the minds of the people you’ll be doing business with, and that is the reality of the business.

Harsh?  Zappa is just getting warmed up.  Here’s his response to the assertion made by other songwriters Zollo referenced that there hadn’t been a good melody written since the early 60’s:

I’d say that’s probably true because the basic thrust of today’s music is dance music, especially for Americans, who have an incredibly limited concept of what rhythm is.  If you look at the typical dance rhythms that motivate an American dancer, you’re very close to march music.  It’s boom-bap-boom-bap, and if there’s anything more than that, an American’s feet get tangled up.

So you start with a basic sort of fascist marching beat, and then you add a few parallel fifths to it (if you want to be heavy metal) and make sure that your melodies don’t have anything shorter than an eighth note.  Make sure that there is an incredible amount of repetition in the composition because you’re presuming that when people are out there semi-marching and pumping their buttocks up and down that they couldn’t really comprehend any more than a five-note melody.

If you were to do a statistical analysis of some of the most popular, big-selling tunes that have been on the market in recent days, you’d see not too many notes, the chords don’t give you too many surprises, and the beat is boom-bap.  So if you want to do that and make a lot of money, it’s not too hard to learn.  But if you want to write the great American tune, I would say to get a Real Estate license.

As previously noted, we run the risk of apples-to-oranges comparisons in this series when we employ secular artists in our attempts to improve the songwriting for the contemporary Church.  That acknowledged, let’s analyze Zappa’s concluding paragraph above where contemporary worship music (cwm) is concerned.  

  1. “[There are] not too many notes.”  Current CCLI #1 song: four notes in the verse phrases, each repeated three times; five notes in the bridge phrases, each repeated over and over.  What Zappa doesn’t mention re: melody but what is true for much of cwm is the melodies tend to be conjunct (stepwise, with very few leaps).  That’s true for this song, which features one-step melody lines throughout the examples above, save for two separate two-step leaps (i.e., just shy of drones).
  2. “[T]he chords don’t give you too many surprises.”  Of the top 10 CCLI songs, eight utilize only the holy quartet of cwm chords: I, IV, V, and vi.  The other two use those four, but one adds a ii, and the other adds a iii. 
  3. “[T]he beat is boom-bap.”  The cwm equivalent of the dynamic Zappa decried in the early 90’s is the power ballad.  Of the top 10 CCLI songs, nine can be considered power ballads–the only one that would qualify as an up-tempo tune completely distinct from power balladry would be “This Is Amazing Grace”–and of that nine, eight of them have recommended tempo markings between 56-82, with the average in the mid 60’s.

Is any of this evil or heretical?  Of course not.  But does it, perhaps, point to the cwm industry as regularly bereft of creativity, frequently beholden to what has “worked” recently, and often stuck in a rut dug deep by four-chord, mid-tempo power ballads?  I encourage you to examine the evidence yourself.

The Lord be with you!

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Songwriting Tips from the Experts, Part 7a

downloadBack at the beginning of this series, I fully admitted that sometimes searching for songwriting help for contemporary worship music (cwm) among pop songwriters ends up comparing apples to oranges.  There is still merit in the pursuit, of course, even when the analogy breaks down on occasion, but not all excellent pop songwriters come to their craft from a perspective that can be fully embraced by the Church, their talent notwithstanding.

Frank Zappa (1940-1993) serves as a case in point.  His pop songs, usually extremely well written, often employ scatological/sophomoric lyrics designed to provoke and, sometimes, offend.  Moreover, some of his best work isn’t in the pop realm at all; his forays into jazz and classical music, though hard to digest for uninitiated ears, are often worth the initial aural struggle, and his first-rate fusion electric guitar playing has been praised by aficionados.     

Ultimate Classic Rock lists the following as Zappa’s top three songs (all of which, blessedly, are free from the R-rated weirdness that accompanies good swaths of his pop-rock ouevre): 1) “Montana” became a fan favorite in live concerts, a typically off-the-beaten track lyric set to dazzling accompaniment in spots (and that’s Tina Turner singing bgv’s); 2) “Joe’s Garage” pokes fun at the rags-to-riches garage-band trope while giving a mini-history of pop music; 3) and “Cosmik Debris” satirizes the new-age, cosmic truth-seeking so prevalent in American culture in the 60’s and 70’s.  

Caveats acknowledged, Zappa nevertheless has much to suggest re: the craft of songwriting that could elevate the average cwm song.  Here he discusses freeing up one’s notions of chord structure:

I started writing my own music in which the thirds were omitted from the chords.  That seemed to give me more latitude with the melody because if there’s no third in the chord then you’re not locked into an exact statement that your harmonic climate is major or minor.  If you have a root, a fourth, and a fifth–or a root, a second, and a fifth–your ability to create atmosphere and imply harmony by having a variety of bass notes that will argue with the suspended chord gives you, for my taste, more opportunities.  Then the melody line can go back and forth between major or minor and lydian [one of the harmonic modes] or whatever else you want with ease.  You have more flexibility.

When Paul Zollo, from whose Songwriters on Songwriting this excerpt is taken, laments that some writers don’t even know what a third, harmonically speaking, is, Zappa places part of the blame on pop music’s culture of awards.  One doesn’t need to make too great a leap to apply the same criticism to any modern-day awards honoring cwm.  Zappa, no doubt, would opine that, in many cases, we award mediocrity.  The best stuff, surely, is rarely recognized.

I think that when you have award shows that glorify the most ignorant among us for doing things that are called excellent merely because they’ve achieved large numerical sales, it is not much of an incentive for a young songwriter to come along and say, “I want to learn how music works.”  Because there’s just no reason to participate in the construction of music on an intellectual level when all you have to do is just get lucky one time and then have the record company do the payola.  Then you will be the next guy standing in line to get a major award.  So that’s the message that is sent to the marketplace for all the new guys coming in.  And there’s no glamour to doing the laborious job of developing a personal theory of harmony or a personal feel for how you want to do rhythm to function in your work.

Those are harsh sentiments, and believers might push back here, giving all kinds of rationales for simplistic melodies, harmonies, and rhythms in cwm; talking about a songwriter’s or a song’s “anointing”; and articulating a host of other things Zappa neither cared about nor had any spiritual authority to address.  OK.  But ask yourself if this exchange with Zollo about pop music in the 80’s and 90’s doesn’t apply just as well to cwm in the year 2020:

Zappa: Any songwriter who had to choose between being rich and being timeless, if he chose timeless, he’s probably out of a job.  There are just too many commercial pressures on the guy at the end of the food chain, the guy who writes the song, because before he thinks about anything else, he’s already looking at airplay or looking at MTV. . . .

Zollo: But isn’t it possible for something new and great [i.e., well written with musical excellence] to be heard–even if it doesn’t fit the pat hit-making formula?

Zappa: Not unless there’s a massive change in attitude at the distribution level, which includes the places where music is dispersed–radio, TV, jukeboxes, whatever–until current values disappear.  Until then, there is little hope that a person who is doing anything other than formula swill will have an opportunity to have his music recorded, let alone transmitted.

Again, at some level we’re comparing apples and oranges, but they’re both fruit, and the concepts of common grace and universal truth would suggest even an atheist like Zappa has something to offer cwm songwriters.  

The Lord be with you!

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Songwriting Tips from the Experts, Part 6b

08 November 2017 – Nashville, Tennessee – Jimmy Webb. 51st Annual CMA Awards, Country Music’s Biggest Night, held at Bridgestone Arena. Photo Credit: Laura Farr/AdMedia//ADMEDIA_adm_CMA2017_Arrivals_LF_479/Credit:Laura Farr/AdMedia/SIPA/1711091927 (Newscom TagID: sfphotosthree108284.jpg) [Photo via Newscom]

Two weeks ago we heard from Jimmy Webb in this ongoing series on some of the best songwriters of the 20th century. Webb’s father was a Baptist minister for 20+ years, and Webb cites his time in church as formative to his musicianship. It’s for that reason, he says, that he likes flat keys–because the church organist, like most, preferred to play in flats as opposed to sharps. E-flat, A-flat, and B-flat are some of his favorite keys.

I was particularly impressed with Webb’s thoughts on allowing harmonic structure to dictate melody, as opposed to vice versa. We begin with one more thought on that concept:

[I’ve found that] interesting chords will compel interesting melodies. It’s very hard to write a boring melody to a really interesting chord sequence. The chord sequence will push the melody around in really unexpected, interesting ways.

Webb, like all writers, suffers from a lack of inspiration at times, to the extent that he assumes he’ll need to help prime the creative pump:

It always feels like it’s the first time for me–I have to get it going. It’s sort of like warming up for tennis or vocalizing before you sing. . . . Sometimes at the beginning it just seems like an impossible task . . . until you plant yourself, put your hands on the keys, and actually push one of them down. Make yourself push one of them down! Sometimes that’s really hard for me to do. I sit there and I go, “I don’t want to play a G. And I don’t want to play a B flat.” It all looks unpromising. And I just sit there, and I have to make myself play. I say, “Play. Play one note.” And that way I get myself going, very slowly sometimes. And then momentum builds and I really get into the joy of it. And I’m going, “Oh, look–there’s the piece I need right there!” You know, I’m like a kid with a jigsaw puzzle. A glittering magical jigsaw puzzle.

Others in this series have touted the value of setting aside the writing for other activity in the midst of the creative process. Here’s Webb’s take, with particular emphasis on eschewing the tendency to fall into familiar patterns:

I’m doing a lot of watercolors, and I’m thinking in a different matrix. I’m not thinking frequency and meter and words. I’m thinking about colors and it’s a different flowing state of mind. . . . And I like to totally submerge myself in something like that. Or I like to go fly. I like to fly airplanes. I do anything, really–build a model ship, play tennis, which I do every day–and get submerged in those things. Because it’s like a brain scrub. And it just washes out the old notes that are hanging around. And all the old prejudices that are hanging around. Any old chord pattern that is lurking back there wanting to be copied. I never want to be ambushed by something I’ve retained, suddenly rewriting something I’ve already written. That’s my worst nightmare. So the idea of a scrub,just blowing out the brain, and starting with a fresh brush, if you will, is important.

Finally, Webb extols the virtues of recording songwriting sessions for future posterity. Keep in mind this interview was conducted in the early 90’s, the technological tools available to songwriters today make this process even easier:

I have a tape machine that sits on top of my piano . . . and I tape everything I do. Most of the time I don’t refer to it at all but sometimes, forty-five minutes into a writing session, I’ll play a chord pattern completely by accident and I’ll know instantly that I’ll never be able to do it again. And immediately I go to the tape recorder and go back. And maybe, if I really like it, I jot it down. . . . That’s why it’s real[ly] important to have a tape machine running. Because if you’re playing along and all of a sudden you make a mistake, and it turns out to be one of those glorious God-given mistakes, chances are you’re not going to remember how you did it. If more than five or six seconds elapse before your find it again, you may not find it. It was a mistake, you see.

Been there, done that, where not writing down stuff in the moment when the inspiration happens is concerned. Never again!

Blessings, songwriters, for healthy brain scrubs and creativity as you write! The Lord be with you!

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