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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A Prayer for Educators at the Dawn of a New Academic Year

We interrupt this series providing songwriting tips from some of the best songwriters of the 20th century to offer a prayer for educators at the dawn of a new–and highly unusual–academic year. In a weekly e-mail of encouragement Judson University’s Demoss Center for Worship in the Performing Arts sends to our friends and community members, I recently (only somewhat in jest) referred to this year as one big HELP (Higher Education in Light of a Pandemic), so it’s fitting, then, to begin said year in prayer. In grad school, I became enamored of the prayer form known as the collect (pronounced CAH-lect, as opposed to cuh-LECT), so I use this organizational structure as I offer this prayer.

Just so you don’t have to look it up in the event your day is as busy as mine this week, typical collects feature five parts: 1) the address, 2) the acknowledgment, 3) the petition, 4) the aspiration, and 5) the pleading. In the spirit of the common prayer structure ACTS–adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication–collects help us resist the urge to unload on the Almighty our various laundry lists of requests before we give credit where credit is due, entering “his gates with thanksgiving his courts with praise” prior to asking for that which we feel we need and want. I would be blessed if you would pray this prayer with me as you read, keeping in mind any educators you know personally and the countless you don’t know who are working hard as God gives them strength (whether they choose to acknowledge the Source of their strength or not) to equip the young, the tweens, the post-adolescents, and young-at-heart adult students for future service.

A Prayer for Educators at the Dawn of a New Academic Year

Almighty God, Creator of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen, You have commanded us to love You, the Lord our God, with all of our minds, so we ask You today to strengthen students, staff, faculty, and administrations in the educational institutions of Your world for the various tasks associated with being good stewards of the gifts and resources You have given us, so that we can be equipped for Your Kingdom’s work in a world in desperate need of wisdom for the tasks set before us in these confusing times. We pray this in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The Lord be with you!

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Songwriting Tips from the Experts, Part 6a

p01bqwvhJimmy Webb is not a household name, so young, aspiring songwriters in 2020 probably haven’t heard of him.  I hope this post changes that a bit for the young, aspiring songwriters I know.  Webb, more so than most of the artists in this series, is far better known for his efforts as the second half of the singer-songwriter designation, though he recorded plenty of albums himself.  Because his chapter in Paul Zollo’s book Songwriters on Songwriting is full of so many suggestions of note, I’m dividing his interview excerpts into two sections.  Before those, however, enjoy these wonderful, stunningly beautiful songs of Webb’s sung by Glen Campbell (“Wichita Lineman”), Art Garfunkel (“All I Know”), and Amy Grant (“If These Walls Could Speak”).

I love Webb’s focus on harmonic structure driving melody, as opposed to the other way around.  When asked by Zollo if he consciously strives to avoid chord patterns he’s used previously, Webb concurs, strongly:

There’s no inspirtation in it for me otherwise.  I just don’t enjoy it.  It’s not any fun and I’d rather be chopping down trees or something. . . . So before I ever commit[ed] myself to try to write some idea, I’d have to have some chord structure under me that was inspiring and . . . reasonably original–and I know this isn’t always possible–but if it fell too far below par in terms of just being interesting to me, there’s no way I could write the song.  I’d run out of gas very, very quickly.

Zollo then presses Webb to be more direct.  How, specifically, does he come up with original harmonic structure?

I’m doing substitutions; I’m taking bass notes that are not in the tonic and putting them with another chord.  I’m taking the third out of the right hand and playing it in the left hand, and adding a suspended second to the right hand.  I’m playing around with voices.  I’m moving things–on one chord I have the seventh in the bass.  Which sounds very strange all by itself–if you went over to the piano and hit that chord you’d say that’s not a very nice chord.  But sometimes it depends on the chord that comes before and the chord that comes after.  Sometimes you’re setting up what might be deemed strange chords by placing a chord in front of [them] that’s going to set it off the way you might set off a diamond in a gold band. . . .  And so a lot of it is not just sitting around and pecking around until you find an interesting chord.  But it’s sequencing chords.  It’s stringing them together like pearls on a string. . . .

Once I have a chord that I like and that is different and that [interests] me, I start thinking about where it [should] go.  And then [I work] backwards to figure out how I would set that up.  Where would I come from to get to that place?  And just a lot of trial and error and mathematic free-association.

Sometimes I work graphically and look at the keyboard as if it has nothing to do with music and it’s a mathematical grid.  [I say], “What if I move that there and move [this here]?”  [I’m] not even listen[ing] to the sound of it very much at the outset and just trying to gain another mathematical insight into how to move voices around and not be[ing] afraid to move them around.  [I’m] not [being] shy about something having a peculiar sound at the outset.  And if I start with original material, even if I end up simplifying it, I’m going to be [farther] along the road to originality than I would if I just sat down and played some Gs and some Cs and some A minors.

A self-serving case in point re: Webb’s notion of stringing chords together, sequencing them for interesting effect: Back in the 80s, I was in a band of Judson University alums called Living Proof.  Because our audience was primarily Christian teens, I wrote a song about the benefits of pursuing sexual purity prior to marriage.  The topic was edgy, so I wanted to employ an equally edgy tune.  I set the song in F minor, with the following chord structure for the verses:

Fm – Db | Bbm – C | Fm – Db | Bbm – C . . .

So far, so typical, a minor-key, sorta-doo-wop progression (one, six, four, and five), but then . . .

Gb – C7/E | Fm/Eb – Fm/D | Db – Ddim7 | Eb – C/E . . .

And the choruses . . .

Fm – Db | Ab – Gm7 – C (repeat twice) and then Ab – Eb – Fm . . .

And the bridge . . .

Bbm | C – Fm | Bbm – Eb | Ab – Eb | Db – Fm/C | C/Bb – Fm/Ab | Gm – Gb | Fm – Bbm – C

(If you’re so inclined, you can listen here.  Thirty-five years on, I’d rework some of the cheesy lyrics, but I stand by the music–and dig the slice of  80s-era accompaniment, rock-music-history lovers: oh, the DX7 keys and the gated snare!)

The point, in summary, is this: The chord structure drove the song, and once the interesting chords were in place, the melody almost wrote itself; even the tri-tone leap halfway through the verses nestles in easily with the Gb chord firmly established.   The parallels are not perfect–I get it–but I truly believe this kind of harmonic creativity can and should find its way into contemporary worship music far more often than it does.

More from Webb next week, Lord willing.  The Lord be with you!


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Songwriting Tips from the Experts, Part 5

This week’s songwriting expert, Lamont Dozier, teamed with brothers Eddie and Briandozier Holland in the 60’s, creating a seemingly endless litany of Top 10 hits that helped Motown become, as its PR team professed, the “Sound of Young America.”  As with all the artists in this series, picking only three representative songs is tough, but you can’t go wrong with the Supremes’ “Come See about Me”; the Four Tops’ “Baby, I Need Your Loving”; or “How Sweet It Is (to Be Loved by You)” by Marvin Gaye . . . and that was in 1964 alone!  Of the Supremes’ 12 #1 hits, H-D-H wrote 10 of them.

Last week Carole King talked about the importance of adding perspiration to your songwriting inspiration.  Dozier agrees, calling the effort a “twenty-four job”:

That’s one thing I got out of Motown that was very productive for me.  We got up early and worked late.  We started by punching a clock.  That sort of working regimen stayed with me over the years.  I still get up quite early.  That’s what I do: write songs.  It’s a full day of work every day. . . . It’s a constant work thing for me.  It’s my relaxation, my fun, my everything.  Outside of my kids, of course.  It’s therapeutic as well.  When I’m down, I can work.  That’s what brings me out of it.  And when I’m up, I even work better.

A few questions later, however, Dozier backs off the songwriting-is-life motif just a bit when he credits God for the strength of his career (though I like that he takes credit for his less-glorious work himself):

I can’t take credit for this stuff.  I’ve been too successful too long.  I’m only human, and these things are the makings of God.  I feel that I’ve been thoroughly blessed over the years with an abundance of songs and material.  I’d be stupid to say that there is no force other than my own that is guiding me through all of this.  There is definitely God behind this thing that I do.  Everything I do–that’s good, at least–is a reflection of His hand.

The question thus begged, Paul Zollo, author of Songwriters on Songwriting, from whence comes this series, asks whether a writer must “be a righteous person to be worthy of that source,” to which Dozier replies in the affirmative, preaching from Phil. 4:8 in the process:

I believe so.  It’s possible to connect with the creative source by thinking right and being right.  That’s the secret to having a successful life, no matter what it is.  Thinking right and being right.  And you’ll tap into all these positive forces.  If you walk around negative-thinking, nothing but negative things will come up.  I think about the good things, in spite of all the bad things that are all around us.  I’m always looking for that ray of sunshine.  And it’s always there for those who have eyes to see.

Zollo then asks if Dozier feels melody is as important as it once was.  Though this interview is 30+ years old, some of the same concerns apply:

Melodies in songs are not as prominent as I’d like them to be.  But I think melodies are more on a surge now than they used to be.  We’ve run the gamut.  It comes and goes in cycles.  I think it’s coming back.  The nature of people is to walk down a street and whistle a tune.  So with that in mind, I think we’re going to have melody.  People will buy a good melody if it’s there.  When writing, if I get a gut reaction from a melody, if it moves me, then I know it’s good.  I never pick a melody unless I’ve slept on it, so to speak.  I may write a melody today and then I’ll let it sit by itself for two or three days.  I’ll put it down, ignore it, come back to it, in two or three days, and if it still hits me, I know it’s good.  It’s like hearing it for the first time.  If a melody comes back to me, if I start humming it, if it’s made a mark on my unconscious in some way, then I’ll know it’s melodic and I’ll continue.

I came across some related thoughts from theologian N.T. Wright last week in Worship Leader magazine’s current issue.  Notice his contention that a song’s melody, not the lyrics alone, contributes to the narrative:

Quite a lot of the contemporary worship songs don’t actually have tunes in the proper sense.  They have two or three notes, which they go to-and-fro on and then maybe they have a chorus, which lifts it a bit, but it’s still often not a tune. . . . And the point about a tune is that it’s telling a story.  It’s going somewhere.  And I am very anxious about worship songs which have deconstructed the tune–the idea of a tune–and that’s the radical nature of post-modernity to reconstruct the narrative.  That’s where our culture is.  But we ought to be discerning how to do fresh actual tunes, not sort of past issues, copying what was done [earlier], but actual refreshed new creation tunes rather than simply a scattering of random notes.  You can feel the diffrerence in the congregation when they’re given a real tune to sing.

All the best, songwriters, for your efforts, especially those of you writing for the Church.  The Lord be with you!

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Songwriting Tips from the Experts, Part 4

downloadHad Carole King not moved to L.A. to become part of the early-70’s boho-hippie musicians’ enclave in Laurel Canyon, her output in the 60’s with then-husband Gerry Goffin would have been enough to afford lifelong accolades.  The first #1 single by an African-American “girl group,” “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” was the first of a slew of Goffin-King hits emanating from the songwriting factory that was NYC’s Brill Building.  And had King not recorded a single solo album other than 1971’s Tapestry, her place in the pantheon of influential singer-songwriters would be secure.  “I Feel the Earth Move” showed King could add a bit of r ‘n’ b grit to her songs, while the oft-covered “You’ve Got a Friend,” sung here in 2010 with James Taylor, whose version (partly because King allowed him to release it first) was even more popular than King’s, became a pop-music standard.

Paul Zollo’s chapter with King in Songwriters on Songwriting is shorter than some, but King waxes philosophical over several paragraphs on a couple of key issues for songwriters.

On the dreaded writer’s block, notice the third paragraph’s encouragement:

If you are sitting down and you feel that you want to write and nothing is coming, you get up and do something else.  Then you come back again and try it again.  But you do it in a relaxed manner.  Trust that it will be there.  If it ever was once and you’ve done it once, it will be back.  It always comes back and the only thing that is a problem is when you get in your own way worrying about it.

I’d like to say that I almost never have worried about it.  Because when it seemed to be a problem, when . . . the channel wasn’t open enough to let something through, I always went and did something else and never worried about it and it always opened up again.  Whether it was an hour later or sometimes a few months later, I just didn’t worry about it. . . .

Another thing that I do is I might play someone else’s material that I really like and that sometimes unlocks a channel.  The danger in that is that you’re gonna write that person’s song for your next song.  It’s just sit down and, again, if you’re a lyric writer, read something that you really like, enjoy something that you really like.  Or sometimes I’ll play something of my own that I really like, something that is already existing that is fun.

I’ve harped numerous times on the predictable harmonic structure of so much of today’s contemporary worship music, so King’s thoughts on finding variety in her songwriting caught my attention.  I love the first sentence, and, if I’m honest, I guess I’m advocating for a bit more perspiration in our cwm songwriting efforts.

Once the inspiration comes, that directs where the perspiration goes, where the work goes.  I don’t mean to sound like it’s some hippie philosophy of you just sit down and it’s all flowing through you.  Because there’s a lot of hard work involved in songwriting.  The inspiration part is where it comes through you, but once it comes through you, the shaping of it, the craft of it, is something I pride myself in knowing how to do.

I like to be unpredictable.  For my songs on my album City Streets, the A&R man looked at them and said, “Each song has a different structure.  And not one song has a structure that is recognizable.”  There isn’t one song that’s AABA or ABAB.  They all turn left somewhere.  And that’s something that I work at.

I do not like to do the predictable thing.  That’s not to say that’s it’s invalid to do that.  . . . Because one of the things that I try to be conscious about in writing a song and crafting a song is the concept of bringing it home.  That is, there’s a beginning to a song, and there should be an end of a song, and of course there’s a middle.  And I like to take the middle any place it wants to go.  But whenever I take it to the end, I like to bring it somewhere familiar, someplace that people feel it’s resolved, it’s settled; it comes back home at the end, whatever home means.

I’ll close with a quick case-in-point, re: harmonic structure, though I run the risk of appearing self-serving.  When I was a weekend warrior, I tried as often as possible to add a harmonic twist to the congregational singing, especially on weeks when I had players who could handle it.  For example, I led Chris Tomlin’s “Jesus Messiah” in G (down from his original B), which already adds a ii7 chord (actually, a ii maj. 9 at the start of the measure, given the melody) to cwm’s typical four chords, but I spiced it up even more.  In the twelfth measure of the chorus, where (in G) the harmony has landed on C the measure before, I had the band play an E-flat chord (flat-VI, which turns into a iv with the third in the bass once the melody comes in halfway through the measure) before landing on the G/D and finishing the chorus.

A huge deal?  Of course not.  Something to provide a change of pace, evidence of a little perspiration in the creative process?  I think so.

The Lord be with you!

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Songwriting Tips from the Experts, Part 3

Paul_Simon_at_the_9-30_Club_(b)Unlike a number of pop-music songwriters and songwriting teams who first came to international prominence in the 60’s (Bob Dylan, James Brown, Lennon-McCartney, Holland-Dozier-Holland), Paul Simon did his best work, by most critics’ estimation, in the 70’s and beyond.  (You could make a good argument either way for Jagger-Richards.)  Simon did, of course, write a number of great songs for Simon & Garfunkel, none bigger than the anthemic “Bridge over Troubled Water,” here rendered in one of S&G’s occasional reunion tours.  (Garfunkel, his voice better suited to the ethereal nature of Simon’s melody, sang lead in the original, with Simon harmonizing on verse three; in this rendition, Simon takes a soulful verse two.)

But his solo work, beginning with 1972’s eponymous offering (his one solo album in the 60’s paled next to his writing for S&G), has generally garnered more acclaim.  One of the big hits from that record, “Mother and Child Reunion,” ubiquitous on AM Top 40 radio (1360 WSAI, Cincinnati, the purveyor of the soundtrack of my 8-year-old self at the time and for the rest of my adolescence), originally conceived in Jamaica, presaged Simon’s eventual deep dive into what we now call world music, most notably and, at the time, controversially 1986’s Graceland, much of which was recorded in South Africa during the last vestiges of apartheid.  Aided by a popular video with comedian Chevy Chase, “You Can Call Me Al” brought Simon a measure of hipness that helped counter the charges of cultural appropriation (although few were using that term at the time) and the outrage in some camps that Simon didn’t speak out more harshly against the racial segregation.

Simon is surely one of rock music’s deepest thinkers, and his section in Paul Zollo’s Songwriters on Songwriting provokes much thought.  Hence, for the sake of space, I’ll let Simon’s words speak for themselves here; readers can provide their own application.

On finding the song instead of plotting it out:

I don’t consciously think about what a song should say.  In fact, I consciously try not to think about what a song should say . . . [b]ecause I’m interested in what . . . I find, as opposed to . . . what I’m planting.  I like to be the audience, too.  I like to discover what it is that’s interesting to me.  I like to discover it rather than plot it out.

On audience interpretation of his songs:

[T]here have been people who have interpreted some of my songs in ways that I hadn’t really thought of, but [they] were absolutely valid.  All of the evidence was there and it was valid.  And it was more interesting, sometimes, than some of the thoughts that I had, which just happened to be from my life.  They had a more interesting thing happen in their life.

On the opening lines in a song:

[Y]ou want to have that first line that has a lot of options, to get you going.  And the other thing to try to remember, especially if the song is long, you have plenty of time.  You don’t have to . . . grab [the audience] by the throat with the first line.

Regarding possessing a solid knowledge of music theory:

It can’t hurt.  It can help.  Yeah, there are some problems that you solve by information that only a teacher can give you.  You’ll have a much harder time solving those problems without that information.  You might solve them, anyway.  But why reinvent the wheel when the information is there?

When asked if that knowledge can get in the way of spontaneity:

[Yes,] I guess it can go the other way.  But certainly in popular music and rock and roll, that’s not the problem.  The problem is people don’t know enough.

When asked if patience is the key to overcoming writer’s block:

I think so.  Patience, persistence . . . whichever.  Sometimes you have to be very tenacious, and sometimes you have to give yourself a break and not beat yourself up and say, “Where is it?  Where is it?”  It’s not here, you know.  It’ll be here when it gets here, and that’s it.  There’s nothing more you can do.

On the randomness of visits from the creative muse, what believers would consider songwriting promptings of the Holy Spirit:

I had one period last summer where every day . . . I woke up exactly at 5:30 in the morning . . . with some song in my head.  It was like, “Wow . . . this great.”  Then I began to expect it.  I woke up one day at 5:30 and there was nothing.  That was the end.  It didn’t happen again.  Then big periods of time would go by when I would get nothing; then I’d get a bunch of lines on several different songs for a day or two or maybe three, and I’d think, “OK, here we go,” and then it stop[ped]. . . . But after a certain amount of time, you just get tired and you have to stop anyway and let whatever’s happening beneath the surface bubble around and wait for it to break through.

With this series, I hope to generate ideas for contemporary worship music songwriters.  I recognize fully that some of what Simon shares here (and others will share throughout the series) won’t apply across the board for congregational singing, but I’m convinced enough will transfer to make the effort worth my while (and worth your read).

The Lord be with you!

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Songwriting Tips from the Experts, Part 2

Let me introduce you to a songwriter with whom I’m guessing most folks who stumble across this blog will not be familiar.  To be honest, I’m only mildly familiar with him myself, but having been impressed with what he had to say in Paul Zollo’s Songwriters on Songwriting, from whence come the posts in this current series, I’m inclined to learn some more about him in the months ahead.  See previous posts for more details, but the primary aim of this series is to give contemporary worship music (cwm) songwriters some ideas for improving their craft.

unnamedA cursory bio would note Mose Allison (1927-2016) was a jazz singer and a pianist (“The singer-songwriter Mose Allison might have been a lot better off if he fired the piano-player Mose Allison,” he once said self-deprecatingly), who crossed genres in a manner that makes his jazz a bit hard to define neatly.  Listen to his tunes and you hear all kinds of various influences filtering into his music.

“Parchman Farm” was one of his biggest hits, and you hear a good example of his rough-hewn pianism here.  You also hear him modulate a couple of times, a technique all but non-existent in contemporary worship music, a missed opportunity to bring a lift to a worship song and/or set about which I’ve written in a previous post.

Putdowns don’t come too much more caustic than those found in “Your Mind Is on Vacation,” with its brutally witty opening line, “If silence was [sic] golden, you couldn’t raise a dime” and with its interesting harmonic variations on typical blues I-IV-V chord structure, and I love his piano solo here.

The Who’s Live at Leeds album is generally considered one of the best rock and roll live albums of all time, and Pete Townshend and the lads cover Allison’s “Young Man’s Blues” in their own inimitable style, but one that’s faithful to the angst Allison brought to his lyric a decade before.

Allison’s interview with Zollo covers a lot of ground.  Here he details how he responds when he gets songwriting inspiration.  Believers, of course, would attribute what he describes to the Holy Spirit:

A lot of people keep notes and things and it’s probably a good idea, especially at my age.  But a writer once said, “The only things worth writing about are the things you can’t forget.”  So I sort of took that for my rule.  I wait for the things to keep coming back.  If something keeps coming back, if I keep thinking of that phrase, if I see manifestations of it at different times and different places, then I feel that it’s worth trying to make a song out of.

OK.  That’s one approach, and I get what he’s saying.  A counterargument: I vividly remember an incident from my often-arrogant teenage years when, having come up with a riff, a lick, or a chord progression (I can’t remember the specifics), I proudly played it for my dad, who taught at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music for 40 years.  He expressed sufficient enthusiasm for my creative effort and then, before taking his leave, suggested I write it down, lest I forget it in the days ahead.  “Dad,” I thought to myself, “I know you’re a music professor, and you know your stuff, but you’re obviously a bit off your game today since you clearly can’t appreciate the majesty of this creation, that which even far lesser musicians than I would never, in a million years, forget, such is its profundity.”  You know the rest of the story–and I’ve written down every remotely interesting lyric or chord progression ever since.  (But, hey, if the more-spontaneous approach works for you. . . .)

Songwriters benefit greatly from exposing themselves to all different kinds of musical styles, expanding their artistic palette.  When Zollo opines that Allison’s piano solos seem to have classical-music roots, Allison agrees:

Yeah, I listen to a lot of classical music; still do. . . . Bartok, Hindemith, Ives . . . Scriabin.  I went the whole route.  I started out with the contemporary people and went all the way back to Bach.  And now Bach is the one I like to listen to more than anybody.  It’s amazing, all the things he did staying within the diatonic scale.  His harmonic mode was limited in relation to what people can use now, but he was able to get an awful lot of variation within that one mode.  I listen to all kinds of music.  And anything I really like usually ends up in my arsenal for things to use. . . .

I wonder what the harmonic structure of the average cwm song would sound like if more Christians writing songs for the Church listened to “all kinds of music” more regularly.

And here’s something that doesn’t get talked about too much when we talk about songwriting–the benefit of taking care of yourself physically:

I think the best thing to keep you in shape creatively is to keep yourself in shape physically.  I run, I swim, I do whatever I can to try to keep myself together.  If I don’t exercise, I feel miserable.  But it’s hard to tell.  Feeling miserable, sometimes something comes out of it.

Next time you’re in a creative rut, maybe go out for a jog.

Much more to come in this series, friends, Lord willing.  I pray you’ve been inspired in your creative efforts.  The Lord be with you!

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Songwriting Tips from the Experts, Part 1

As mentioned last week, I am beginning a weeks-long series focusing on specific and practical suggestions for improving the quality of songwriting for the Church.  (See last week’s post for answers to four understandable objections that might arise from this effort.)  The suggestions come from interviews compiled by Paul Zollo in his mammoth tome Songwriters on Songwriting.

Bob DylanI’ll begin with one of the most influential songwriters of the past 60 years, and my personal favorite pop-rock artist, Bob Dylan.  I confess, I came late to this party; I couldn’t get past his voice, and I didn’t know much of his work since he wasn’t a hit-making machine on AM Top 40 radio, which served as the soundtrack of my youth in the 70’s.  It wasn’t until I had been teaching a history of rock and roll class at Judson University for a few years that I decided I had to find out why so many people I respected couldn’t praise Dylan’s art enough.  I picked up supreme Dylanologist Paul Williams’ Watching the River Flow: Observations on Bob Dylan’s Art-in-Progress, 1965-1995, which included a lengthy mini-book about Dylan’s late 70’s conversion to Christianity, handled very respectfully even though Williams wasn’t a believer.  That did it; I was hooked, much to the amusement or chagrin of any who view anything other than bel canto singing to be unworthy of scholarly attention.

Giving only three examples of Dylan’s mastery is painful, but I’m not going to break the51C2QQnT-wL._SY355_ rules on the first post.  Here’s what I consider to be the pièce de résistance of his oeuvre“It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” from the amazing acoustic side of the album Bringing It All Back Home.  (The others on that side are the equally masterful “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Gates of Eden,” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” the latter one of a couple of emphatic kiss-offs Dylan gave to those–especially the insufferably earnest Greenwich Village folk-music-revival enthusiasts–who had anointed him the “Voice of the Generation.”)  “It’s Alright, Ma” features some of Dylan’s most oft-quoted lines: “He not busy being born is busy dying”; “Even the president of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked”; and “Money doesn’t talk, it swears.” Each verse’s complex rhyme scheme is ridiculously structured (AAAAABCCCCCBDDDDDBEEB), and the descending bass notes support the overall tension-and-release harmonic structure beautifully.

Dylan is notorious for leaving great material on the cutting room floor, the most famous example being “Blind Willie McTell,” an homage to the great bluesman that inexplicably didn’t make the grade for the Infidels album but finally made an official appearance on The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3: Rare and Unreleased (1961-1991).  Here’s another song with a delicious descending bass line that fuels an interesting chord progression.

R-2085365-1437050056-1390.jpegUnlike most of the others to follow in this series, Dylan professed a fervent faith in Christ and recorded three significantly overt gospel albums (and always has used biblical allusions in his songs both before and after his “Christian trilogy”).  The best-received of the lot was Slow Train Coming, which is in many Dylan fans’ estimation his best-sounding album ever, courtesy, in large part, of producer Jerry Wexler, of Atlantic Records’ fame.  That said, I like Saved even better–its lyrics more devotional and its music more gritty and less polished.  (The final album is Shot of Love.) “In the Garden,” which details aspects of Christ’s Passion, comes from Saved and features one of Dylan’s most interesting harmonic constructions.  (Recognize Tom Petty in the background?)

Moving on to the Zollo interview. . . .

Dylan, a noted musical sponge, on studying chords:

Do you like jazz?  It never hurts to learn as many chords as you can.  All kinds.  Sometimes it will change the inflection of a whole song, a straight chord or, say, an augmented seventh chord.

On keyboard keys vs. guitar keys:

So there are songs that, even with the piano, which is the dominant sound if you’re playing in the black keys–why else would you play in that key except to have the dominant piano sound?–the songs that go into those keys right from the piano, they sound different.  They sound deeper. . . . Everything sounds deeper in those black keys.

On combatting writer’s block by trying songs in a different key:

There’s a bunch of ways you can get out of [a writer’s-block rut on a particular song].  You can make yourself get out of it by changing key. . . . Just take the whole thing and change key, keeping the same melody.  And see if that brings you any place.  More times than not, that will take you down the road.

Others in this series will have more to say, and I’ll have less to say about them (making more application for cwm songwriting), but Dylan is special, and I’m extra passionate in his case, having myself been an unbeliever for so long.  If this post turns even one or two uninitiated toward exploration of Dylan’s canon, I’ll be pleased.  (He has that much to offer on so many levels, especially if we subscribe to the notion that all truth is God’s truth.)  Send me a note if you’d like a few thoughts on where to start . . . or come visit my class this fall, when I’ll do an entire three-hour session on Dylan.

The Lord be with you!

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Songwriting Tips from the Experts, Prelude

I have for too long complained about the unimaginative harmonic structure of much of contemporary worship music (cwm) without offering much in the way of suggestions for improvement.  Oh, every so often I’ve given some specific exhortation, but I’ve tended to harp more than help, curmudgeonly behavior to which I most definitely do not aspire.

41nVJJH1ahL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_Hence, today I begin a series focusing on specific guidance for songwriters that comes from some of the best composers in pop-music history, courtesy of Songwriters on Songwriting, by Paul Zollo, a former editor of SongTalk magazine.  Zollo interviews many of the biggest names in pop and rock music (and several of its offshoots) in this 730-page behemoth of a book.  Despite some notable absences (Paul McCartney, Billy Joel, Joni Mitchell, Stevie Wonder) and a dearth of entries from purveyors of contemporary R n B and Hip Hop, Songwriters on Songwriting is a must-read for anyone serious about honing compositional skills for any area of pop music . . . which, I would argue, includes cwm.  He begins with Pete Seeger and ends with Me’Shell NdegéOcello, and along the way we encounter the likes of Bob Dylan, Carole King, Dave Brubeck, and Alanis Morisette, among others.

For each post, I plan to highlight one songwriter, share links to three of his/her biggest hits/best songs, and offer quotes from each’s interview with Zollo, words of wisdom I hope will spark some interest for those who labor to put songs on the lips of the people of God in corporate worship.  Before diving in, I want to answer the understandable objections that might arise from this activity:

We can’t use what works for secular pop-rock music as a guide for what works for cwm.  I disagree.  While I will acknowledge a key component of the ancient Greeks’ Rhetorical Triangle–namely pathos, or your audience–is radically different for cwm, a song is a song is a song.  The same basic elements of melody, harmony, and rhythm drive a worship song the same way they drive a secular song; hence, we can analyze how well the melody works, how helpful the harmonic structure supports that melody, and how effectively the rhythm propels both in all songs that are meant to be sung, whether by a soloist, a small vocal ensemble, a choir, or a congregation.

We can’t learn anything about worship music from unbelievers.  I disagree.  All truth is God’s truth, and all but the most hard-hearted of Christians have been moved to tears by art created by any number of folks who would fall into Fanny Crosby’s “vilest offender” category.  Why does that happen?  Because we intuitively recognize and are often deeply moved by the “finger of God” at work even if the artists don’t recognize It themselves.  Like Balaam’s ass, they are involuntarily used for greater Kingdom good, good that the most atheistic in their ranks would be loathe to acknowledge exists.

The whole argument is irrelevant because pop music is for listening and/or dancing; cwm is for congregational singing.  I disagree with the premise (though I agree with the reason used to support it).  Yes, cwm needs to respect perimeters within which congregations can sing well.  OK.  Is Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday” (eight different chords, not counting suspensions) singable?  Listen to that crowd.  That’s some serious congregational singing!  Ditto Billy Joel’s “Only the Good Die Young” (six chords).  Look at the crowd singing along.  Hedonistic song?  Undoubtedly.  Infectious music?  Indeed.  Why should the devil have all the good music?

All this scrutiny is unnecessary; all that matters is that God is honored and the people of God sing passionately.  I disagree.  Strongly.  Here’s what I wrote in the aforementioned post, in the event you don’t read the whole thing:

“What’s the big deal?” some might ask.  God is being glorified.  The Church is worshiping, it can be argued, more passionately than it has in years.  How can that be wrong or bad?  It’s not, necessarily–but it’s also not evidence of worship musicians studying to show themselves approved (2 Tim. 2:15) where the craft of songwriting is concerned.  While I don’t wish to make Rory Noland and Greg Ferguson’s harmonically rich and satisfying “He Is Able” (with its nine different chords!) the standard, and I don’t expect every songwriter to be able to pull off the wildly inventive harmonic structure Jason Ingram, Reuben Morgan, and Stuart Garrard achieved in the first two verses of “The Greatness of Our God,” I am calling for better craftsmanship, as a general rule, in contemporary worship music, especially re: harmonic structure.

I then offered two specific words of encouragement.  The second was to put a moratorium on mid-tempo/power-ballad songs using I-IV-V-vi patterns exclusively.  Gracious, Christendom has enough already!  When I can routinely, successfully, and well in advance call out chord changes of cwm songs I encounter for the first time, we have, as a body of songwriters, become too predictable, and we run the risk of being mediocre stewards of the songwriting gift.  (For an interesting take on this issue, check out this video from Andy Crouch: 32:30 through 36:00.  If you have time for the whole talk, it’s excellent.)

The blog’s first exhortation was to study the masters, and I hope in the series to follow to do just that.  The Lord be with you, songwriters, as you craft music to put on the lips of God’s people!


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