Thursday, July 26, 2007

Song structure & the art of arranging

Verse/chorus/verse. That was the working title of Nirvana's last studio album 'In Utero'. That & 'I hate myself & want to die' - no kidding, it really was.
Interesting that someone who was a master of arranging would be digging at the most common form of pop song structure - verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge/verse/chorus. I guess it showed his growing apathy toward his craft, but that's another blog altogether..

Song structure is where it's at. The ability to surprise, to take your listener somewhere they're not expecting to go. Why not throw your bridge in after the first chorus? Throw out the chorus's altogether and only have verses. This is what's meant by song structure, arranging the different parts of the song.

You might start with a riff which over time develops into your verse. This might lead into a chorus, so to break the song up you develop a bridge which might change the rhythm of the song - slow it down, speed it up, give it more depth, whatever. So then you have your different parts which then need to be arranged into a coherent order, hopefully in a way that keeps the listener interested and can show them something they weren't expecting.

Song structure, the art of arranging your song.

For a masterclass in songwriting, arranging & song structure check out the first track on Nirvana's 'In Utero' - 'Serve the Servants'.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Lyrical content

Writing lyrics is like pulling teeth. Sometimes they tumble out, other times it's like squeezing blood from a stone. I have a theory that sometimes the songs not ready to come into physical form so it refuses to reveal itself. When this happens it can hold the song up for months, sometimes years. I've got a song I started in 1997 that I've never finished cause I haven't been able to figure out it's structure or lyrics. They'll come, but in their own sweet time..

There seems to be two types of songwriter - ones that start with words & build a song from there & others that start with music and add lyrics last. I'm the latter, I wouldn't say I'm a poet or anything but I do try to write interesting lyrics. The less cliche the better. The last thing you want is a killer track with lyrics you're too embarrassed to enunciate clearly. Yes, this has and does happen to me. Not every lyric is a home-run, sometimes you just have to admit what you've written is tripe, but what the hell - someone might find something truthful in it..

There's two types of ways of coming at your lyrics, personal experience or storytelling. I tend to be a mix of both, you may not want to give too much away, but sometimes it's unavoidable in the completion of a track.

I'll leave you today with a track called 'the old man & the sea', it's kind of a sea shanty and is a pretty good matching of lyric to music.
You'll have to come see us if you want to hear the tune.. ;)

'I'll take the rain, & I'll take the fog
To live my live on the ocean
& I'll take cold & I'll take the wind
To live my live on the sea

I gave my life to the ocean
I lived my life for the sea
I gave my heart to the salt & the breeze
Yes that's the life for me

I left my home, when I was a boy
To learn the secrets of the sea
I laughed, I cried,
& other men died
But I was born on the ocean

I gave my life to the ocean
I lived my life for the sea
I gave my heart to the salt & the breeze
Yes that's the life for me'

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Practice, practice, practice

Makes perfect apparantly. Soon see about that.
We ran through the set on Sunday & couldn't drop either Lover or Masquerade so we're gonna play both.

Secret Garden
Broken pieces
Im your lover
City Streets
Only a fool

Guys are picking up the new tracks amazingly fast, but we're only gonna have time for one more practice - on the 21st Aug, the night before the show. Unfortunately Mikes going to Vietnam so we can't do anything about it.
Hopefully it will suffice.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Riffs & Hooks

The most important thing to me is that the main riff of a song or the main chord progression is a big enough hook that it makes people want to move. Whether that means dancing, nodding their heads or just tapping their feet. This is the only criterior that I judge whether a song gets fully developed or not.
There are degrees of poppiness - sacharrine is unacceptable - I want my hooks to be intelligent and surprising. Not so obvious that you're sick of it after five listens. They should be immediate in a live sense that if you're a first time listener of the song you can still enjoy it, but it should reveal itself to you slowly over a number of listens so you only really understand the strength of the song over time.

What is a Riff?
A riff is a short musical progression that when played over & over becomes the main body of a song. Probably the most famous Riff in rock music is 'Satisfaction' by the Rolling Stones. da da dadadaa da daadaa followed by Mick Jagger's fantastic lyrics

'I can't get no/ Satisfaction
When I'm watching my TV
& a man comes on & tells me
How white my shirt can be
But he can't be a man cause he doesn't smoke
the same cigarettes as me'

Says it all really. That's the perfect combination of a killer riff backed by killer lyrics - everything rock music should be, rebellion, the threat of violence, sexy. You hear Satisfaction in the right environment and you know you're listening to the real thing.

What is a hook?
A hook is the term given to the indefinable characteristic in music that makes you want to dance. What seperates 'Hit me baby one more time' from anything else that Britney's done? Or 'Living on a Prayer' from other tragic hair band songs. They have the same chords as other songs, played pretty much identically to thousands of other tracks but for some reason when you hear these songs you want to dance.
This is what's meant when saying that a song has a hook. It grabs you & makes you want to move. The ability to write a riff with a hook is what defines a songwriter, great ones do it over & over - Lennon & McCartney - lucky ones stumble over them by accident & almost never manage to write another one - The Bodyrockers - and average ones might come up with something every now & again.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

How it all started

Sometimes I worry I'm leaving things too late. I'm 34 chasing a dream that most are done and finished with by my age. My friends are settled in careers and family life & I'm still out here doing basically what I was doing 10 years ago. I never thought it would take this long, when I was 25 I thought I was a year away from being discovered. I wasn't.

Still, I feel I'm a pretty lucky person to have known what I wanted & where I'm going since my early 20's. A lot of my peers often tell me they have nothing to be passionate about so I'm lucky in that respect.

I've felt since my late teens that I had something important to contribute, at the time I was playing rugby pretty seriously & presumed that that feeling meant I was going to be an All Black, music to me then was just something I listened to when I trained.

Then one day while listening to something it struck me that I understood what the artist was doing - the structure of his song, what he was playing - it was kind of like understanding a maths equation for the first time. I was in the States at the time & I decided when I got home I'd need to get a guitar & start working this stuff out for myself.

I came home & a friend of mine had a guitar body in his shed with no bridge or nut, so I carved some out of bone. They were so big that the action on that guitar was twice the size of a standard guitars. It made pushing the strings down so hard that it killed people's fingers to play it, I think that's why I became a strong rhythm player, it was such a tough guitar to play - & I started with the heaviest strings available - I could only play barre chords. I would play E then slide up the frets - F, G, A, B etc. That's how I learned to play, it's called a power chord. All of the first songs I wrote were major chords, simple but effective. I still remember the thrill I got when I first strung that guitar, it was exciting, I knew I was onto something.

I really liked that guitar but ended up wrapping it round our clothesline in a moment of creative frustration, something I've regretted since. I've had other guitars, but that one was special.

So that's how I started all this.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The Band

The band is as follows:

Myself; Guitar, Vocal
Carly; Percussion, Vocal
Graeme; Bass, Vocal
Mike; Drummer

Note Mike is the only one that can't multi task. This is why he is a drummer. Just joking Mike. He is in fact a very smart man. He builds bridges & tunnels.

Practice went well on Sunday, although my voice kept breaking like a twelve year olds. Whenever I go long stretches without singing I feel like I lose months worth of training. My vocal chords need constant use to stay at their optimum.

City Streets is coming together. It's a track that's been on the periphery of my music-consciousness for a while, just developing over time. It has great potential, I think it's a closing track. The last one on the album. Masquerade is something I never thought would develop past the jamming stage, but both Graeme & Mike love playing it, so we might have to play it live just to see how it goes. If we do go with it we'll probably open with it.

I can't figure out how to save music attachments as web links so cannot post any music yet, but I'll figure it out.

Monday, July 9, 2007


Hi all, I've created this blog for friends & family that are interested in following our band 'Pisces'. When catching up with people I haven't seen for a while I'm invariably asked 'how's the music going?'. This is a way for you guys to keep an eye on things and it also gives me a chance to keep in touch and let you know how things are going. It also allows me to avoid the whole myspace thing, which is kind of impersonal. I like the idea that my friends and family can check on what we're doing, but no randoms can just stumble onto us - which could possibly be a bad thing..

I'll try to figure out a way to get audio links so you can check the bands recording & live sound - I'm sure there's a way.

I'll leave it here for now - our next show is Aug 22 up at San Fran, hope to see you here.
Possible setlist:

Broken Pieces
Secret Garden
City Streets
Only a fool

Would like to get 'I'm your lover' in but Masquerade's sounding pretty explosive at the moment so it might have to sit this one out.

Peace, M.