bob dylan

How tall is your song?

So you’ve written a song. Now, how do you play it?

To me, the answer often comes down to understanding the nature of your song. In other words, its character.

How tall or short is it? What does it like to wear? Is it weepy or joyous? Does it bark at you, or sing you to sleep? Does it sit you on its knee to tell you a story, or seduce you into doing things you’d never dream of doing?

Once we’ve written a song (and often during the writing process) we’re getting to know this song. And certainly once the song is written—the raw structure, the chords, the lyrics—it becomes a matter of presentation. This can include anything from the key you’re in, to the style, to the tempo, to the feel.

If you’re like Bob Dylan, you might choose to vary these elements from night to night — depending on how you’re seeing things. This is artistry. This is seizing the mercury of life and transmuting it into the physical realm in order to marvel at it, share it with others, give us a glimpse of the impossible. To help us better know the unknown. That’s what songwriting is, that’s what performing is, that’s what this whole thing is about.

I remember one student who had written a great song called “Break Something,” about a man who had come unhinged under the mad pressures of life. The concept was fantastic, the lyrics brilliant… but the delivery was lacking something. He was playing it in sort of a folksy strum. It was laid back and placid—whereas the actual content of the song was the complete opposite.

Together we wondered, how could we use style to reveal more of the song’s natural character? Well, if I’m in the land of Folk and I need to add more wildness, I take a step to rock n roll. And if from rock n roll I still want to add even more menace, danger, and out-and-out unpredictability, I go to rockabilly.

And that’s what we did. We reimagined “Break Something” from a back porch strummer into a a hot-rodding, slicked back, swaggering, loose cannon of a rockabilly song.

Off came the 2nd fret capo and we found ourselves not in the bright and sunny strum of D-G-A, but in the open-chorded mayhem of E-A-B. Gone was the laid back tempo and we ratcheted things up to, well, a break-neck pace. Out went the plaintive vocal delivery and in came a growl and a hiss and a bite that infused every line with danger. Do you see what I mean? We’re demonstrating the content of the song in the style in which we execute it.

Every song has a character to it. Discover it—and use every tool in your arsenal to reveal it to your audience.

How Would I Hold You? A Question and a Song

How would I hold you… if the sky was falling down?

This is what I asked myself in bed with my wife one night.

That’s often how songs begin for me. With a line that just appears. Over the years, you train yourself to notice them. Little things people say or phrases that cross your mind.

OK, here goes.

P.S. After you listen to the full song below, listen to me croak out the initial seeds of the idea.

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Brother Paul Fails Jingle Exercise, Pens Life Story Instead

Download MP3 here.

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This one has a bizarre backstory.

My friend James asked me to write a jingle for Gillette. He works with a music company that does lots of advertising work.

This seemed like a pretty big opportunity. They wanted to rework the idea of “the best a man can get”. OK, I’m down.

I had this little bit of a song called Pastor’s Blues. It had a rolling acoustic guitar riff that felt like it touched on the Dylan / Springsteen vibe they were going for. So I finished it up, the only trouble was adding “the best a man could get” into the chorus. How could this be done and not be cheese city?

My father in law taught me to sing to the one you love. I thought maybe if the man in the song were singing to a woman about how she was the best a man can get, maybe it could touch on something real.

I don’t think this had been done before. My recollection of the Gillette theme song was more of one bro singing words of encouragement to another bro.

So that’s how I played that card. I put a whole pitch together around it–take a look.

The song never made it past the agency so you won’t see any men shaving or diving off cliffs or flying helicopters to it anytime soon, but that’s just fine by me ‘cos now I get to keep it for myself.