Lesson 6: Letting The Song Lead

This lesson idea actually comes in-part from a conversation with an old friend & former collaborator Andreas Kuepper:

I agree re the me-too thing. And confess I have probably indulged in that more than I would’ve liked. Experimenting a bit more atm with how the song wants to be written rather than how I think it should. So a bit along the lines of sacrificing the ego I guess quite a challenge really as it’s not so much about my opinion of it but how it feels to me

Dog Walk

In the last lesson, I asked you to put aside ego and make a cover of a song you would not normally listen to.

My cunning plan was to have you step aside from the sense of what a song should be in terms of all the tropes (cliches) of your chosen sub-genre and find a song that simply resonates with you at the story level, despite being in an area that you would otherwise bypass (or even deride). Making a cover that is true to the heart of the song is a humbling and expanding event.

Which brings us to Andreas’ observation:

When making a song, or piece of music. it is so easy to make decisions based on your ego and what you want the song to do next as opposed to allowing the song to lead you to where it needs to go.

Hardwired To Self-Destruct

I hear many a voice saying, but I am the God of my music so it is my role and reason to tell that song exactly what to be. It must bend to my will. 

Okes, so how are you going with that? Really and honestly?? I bet your actual answer is something along the lines of; so far I haven’t but when I get that new Waves Uber-Pro-Gigga-Band-Masticating-Compressinator then I’ll be making great tunes.

Great tunes are never, ever, ever… ever a result of having a new toy. Sure it may seem so when you first hear a track that takes advantage of new technology but let me tell you that most of those tracks are made by truly creative types who leverage their ability to write a good song – with the new hook.

Sadly we also need to admit that we do not live in an age when there is an amazing new technology on the horizon. 1980 had the Sampler but since then we really haven’t had anything that creates a new sound past more processing power (SuperSaw) and finer editing (BroStep) and both of these are played out (as is singing in breathy falsetto).

This week I was working next to another singer/strummer in the 3×3 tent. He also had a nice guitar and pedalboard. He even had a really nice PA. His voice was quite nice and his guitar picking was not bad (when setting up). But…

He did covers and sang in his normal range which was nice but he made the classic mistake of overplaying every line. It wasn’t that Christina Aguilera woo woo thing but that time-honored adding emotive styling to every line thing. You commonly hear it amongst amateurs but (until Whitney) very rarely in pro singers.

He sang Cold Chisel’s “When The War Is Over”. This is a wonderfully powerful song.

Notice how clearly Ian sings the first Verse. His guitar break is very soulful, understated in notes but flowing with feeling. Verse 2 is about as simple. The words are what count. Jimmy creeps in behind Ian and then takes over in Verse 3. Gradually Jimmy ramps up a bit but at no stage does anything hit 11. It could easily (esp with Barnsey in the room) and I know many live versions do but the song became a radio staple for decades based on being pretty straight in delivery.

Moss described the song as, “a pretty fine example of Steve’s songwriting. It all seems fairly straight ahead and easy when you hear it, like all good things are. It’s so simple, but so effective.” Don Walker said, “I didn’t see the potential in it at the time. I thought, ‘another ballad.’ Since then, I know from the reaction when we play it live, this is one of the most loved songs that we did.”

It needs no embellishment. So why did this singer feel the need to inject a whole lot more into the delivery of the song? Lack of self-confidence coupled to ego made him overdo it and as a result, deliver a poor version. Not just of this song but every single thing he did over about 5 hours. In short, it made him very annoying to have to hear.

This singer forgot to let the songs lead him. Instead, he dragged the songs about with his fear/ego combo and he is performing in a 3×3 tent when he could do better.

Ya ya ya ya ya ya

I am repeating myself somewhat with the above. I know it and it is deliberate.

Let us now turn to your music. When you write a piece and come to a decision point, what drives your decision as to what comes next, how to make that bit work?

I would win far more than I lost if I bet that you make those decisions based more on what you think Liam of The Prodigy or Dave of Megadeth did than what the song is calling you to do. This is called “Me Too” thinking. As in I also am going to try to make a clone of “Firestarter” or “Tornado Of Souls” instead of tell my own story.

We commonly blind ourselves to the subtlety of what the music we are writing needs to become; the thing we hear and feel in our heads & hearts. We think that a more compressed 909 or SupererSaw is the solution. Or denser Blastification & Shreddage are the solution. We do this because that is what everyone seems to be doing. It is what everyone on Soundcloud is commenting on.

We are afraid to commit our true self to the wax roll of the ages and, even more so, the scrutiny of others. We’d hate to not achieve the coolth of our musical heroes so it seems safer to clone them than to be yourself. It worked for them so I should be safe to do exactly that. Ya ya ya ya ya ya…

The Walls Came Down

the_towerSooner or later though that ivory tower will topple (as the damned things always do). You will find yourself stalled and blaming the tools.

Find a track you have stalled with on your drive and open it up. Turn off any Looping in the Sequencer so you hear what you have right now played through once. Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths. Forget everything you know about how you are supposed to make music and listen.

Listen to that fragment you have and what you know needs to happen next.

If what you hear is not Zen cool & calm, if it says you would be killin’ it if you made it more like the hero of your genre then step away from yourself and try again.

You are looking for that moment when the music itself speaks to you. It will not likely say put an overdriven 909 sample with side chain to the pads. It will be more subtle than that. There will be a wisp of a feeling that beckons you somewhere. Perhaps even somewhere unexpected and surprising.

It may see you reach for the tiniest 606 set you have and a very simple pattern. It may even lead you to grab an instrument you would not normally use at this point and see you adding a part that is not what you expected or even thought belonged there.

What you should find yourself doing is moving forward with that piece instead of simply adding more layers. The story of your piece is coming into the light for you to follow. (Please read that article just linked if you keep finding yourself stuck in loop hell as it is all about time in music and walks through turning 2 bars into a piece of music.)

You are very likely to get to the end of your new idea (or piece) and wonder not only what you did but how you did it. This is common amongst artists. It isn’t remotely New Agey or anything to do with Gods or Spirits (unless of course that amuses you). What you have done is gotten yourself into The Zone, The Flow, This is the place that athletes seek to be for Peak Performance. The place from whence Chuck Norris is able to defeat the whole Axis of Evil Karate Kids with his pinkie.

We are in fact hardwired to self-instruct if we let it happen.

Money Go Round Parts I & II

If you haven’t already worked it out, everything in this course so far is not a do once & forget sort of thing. You will find yourself going around and re-looking at things. You may even be starting to think that you need to go back to Lesson 1 and look at who you are as an artist. This is normal and actually a good thing.

The day you stop finding ways to let your unique story out in your music is the day you stop being relevant. If you aren’t in the flow of your story then your music will feel stuck. They call it writer’s block.

Homework: Hopefully you are already ahead of me and have a stalled piece out and are finding ways to move it forward based on what the music needs (instead of what you think it should do from your tyrant’s throne).

Action: post your new, improved music online using something like Soundcloud and link it in the comments below. What would be great is if you can show us both the track as you picked it up and how it improved by following the method above. If you can add a few words of explanation it would be even nicer (Testify Brothers & Sisters).

No matter when you meet this course, please feel free to participate actively in the Homework & Action sections at the bottom of each page. Even if this article is old, I am still listening.

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