Thursday, July 20, 2006

Song Writing: Nothing That Matters

Nothing That Matters
by John Hitchens

There ain't no point in blaming
It's nothing that I planned
But still I guess after the latest mess
I'd hoped you'd understand
Point the finger at me
It's not a chance you'd miss
But nothing we've gone through
When it was just us two
Could prepare us for this
Now you just leave me at the door
Without a goodbye kiss

There's promises we've made
Many things we've left unsaid
And quite a few callous words or two
Before I left your bed
I'd like to try to patch it up
It's always in my plans
But with promises broken
And words left unspoken
I doubt that there's a chance
Now I just leave you at the door
Without a backward glance

Nothing that matters comes easy
Sometimes what really matters never comes at all
It just leaves you feeling empty
Leaves you with nothing at all

Some nights I dream of you
Most nights I dream of her
For it's only in dreams that good things it seems
Happen to occur
Now here we are together
With no one else in sight
But even at this table
We're not even able
To talk without a fight
So let's just leave it at the door
And one final last goodnight.

Nothing that matters comes easy
Sometimes what really matters never comes at all
It just leaves you feeling empty
Leaves you with nothing at all

Song writing is an intensely personal experience, and there are as many different types of writing processes as there are artists. I can only give you my approach, which will no doubt be radically different from Helen's, for example.

With me, generally, it begins with the chorus. Some people grab a title and go with it, others get a theme and start to write from first line of first verse right to the end, but I get a chorus. It is not something I look for, but usually some sort of catch phrase will grab my attention, and then *bam* I have the whole thing in my head - the first two lines of the chorus, complete with harmonies, chords and other musical arrangements. I don't even have to write it down in case I forget, so vivid is the moment. Eventually I will write it down, and attempt to create a full blown song. Let's take a look at the second song I ever wrote, to see the process.

In this case, I had the idea that "nothing that matters is easy", like the idea "the course of true love never did run smooth". A sudden burst of insight sparked the idea that sometimes what really matters just doesn't come, for whatever reason, and that's just the way it is. So I had the basis for a song. I had been listening to a bunch of Springsteen at the time, so there was no doubt in my mind that this would be a guitar/harmonica song. I fleshed out the chorus, and then needed to work out the verses.

Quite often, I just write down the chorus and never progress further - I have many finished choruses lying around without a song attached to them. Here I decided to play on the theme of a marriage breaking down. It is important to realize that my songs are not auto-biographical, but they are plausible. I like to think of them as a path another John may have taken, somewhat akin to a collapse of the wavepoint function of John in the Many Worlds Interpretation around a different plausibility ("Hereafter, in a better world than this, I shall desire more love and knowledge of you"?)

Here, the verse starts vague, as I am not sure yet what I am writing about. I finally manage to firm it up into that familiar sordid story of another woman. Here, the man is so world weary that he can't even bring himself to care anymore. When does the need to leave finally overcome the inclination to stay?

If I was to release this song to a publisher, I would have to work on it a bit. There are three long verses. These each could be chopped in half to give six short verses. Since six is too many for a song, we should cut it down to four. The writing needs to be taughter so we can tell the same story in 2/3 of the words. Perhaps some development can happen - not much actually happens in this story. The author spends 150 words basically hinting he is probably leaving. An excellent model might be Glenn Frey's "Tequila Sunrise", which shows great economy in plot advancement. The chorus has lines of unequal length, which makes sense when one realizes it was written in the idea of a ragged, Springsteen-ish monotonic mumble, but not so good if you want a universal appeal.

Stylistically, I tried to make verse one about actions, and verse two about words, to set up a bit of a contrast, On the same note, verse one seems to be about the woman's reaction, and verse two about the man's. Thus verse three ends in a mutual decision to balance things and bring closure to the subject. I have a few triplet patterns to break the rhythm, which may or may not work, but are now so securely ensconced that I can not now imagine removing them. I also add a few interior rhymes (rhymes within a line like And quite a few callous words or two") to enhance the sound. I also synthetically created a motif at the end of each verse to give the audience an easily identifiable recurring theme, which looks forced, but will have to do for now.

Now, if the words come first, how do I find a melody? When I write my verses, I have a rhythm track in my head. In this case, I was writing to the meter of "Devils and Dust", while envisioning a tune (can you envision a tune?) akin to "Philadelphia" (both by Springsteen for those one or two non-afficionados in the world). The next problem was to make sure my melody was NOT "Devils and Dust". I started about a third above the Devils and Dust, and then tried some random notes. I got something workable, and then I put in some chords with a walking bass line (C G/B Am G) for the triplets and the song was mostly written. I just needed to check that it didn't subconsciously duplicate a song I had heard before. I think the tune is a bit too happy for the subject matter, but you can't have everything!

The last thing to do was work out the harmonica part. This posed certain difficulties, as I did not own a harmonica. In fact, I did not even know how to play a harmonica! Thus I bought a harmonica in C major (this allows you to play in the keys of C and G) and started to learn. This song was written in G, so that was not a problem. I worked out a bit of a harmonica interlude to go after the choruses. Now to put it all together.

I bought a harp holder, so that I could play guitar and harmonica at the same time, and fired up the song. I now remembered why I hate the key of G (although it is a great key to play in). I can not sing in it!! My voice fits the key of C perfectly, but in G I am either too high or too low. Now my sisters can understand why I grumble about playing everything in G. I tried switching to C, but the chords did not sound right, so G it is. Maybe I'll get Tony to sing it ...

Anyway, if I ever get a car that can take me to Kitchener, I'll have to play it for my sisters.

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