SAC Songwriting Challenge #6 – Holiday Classic

I’ve had a Christmas idea kicking around for a while, so that was the first thing I thought of when I read this week’s challenge.

I wanted to tell a story instead of just listing off a bunch of Christmasy images. I grew up in Detroit so there was usually snow in December, but here in Vancouver it’s not that common to have a white Christmas, which I do miss. Instead of whining about not having any snow, it seemed more interesting to have the singer trying to cheer up somebody who’s bummed about the green winter landscape. Maybe they’re stuck inside, it’s Christmas eve, pouring raining instead of snowing, and he playfully asks the other person what’s on their Christmas list.

What’s the relationship? Young love is always relatable, why not make it their first Christmas eve together. And what’s on her list? Seemed kind of shallow to have her list off a pile of bling. Maybe they’ve abstractly hinted about wanting a future together, but neither one has come out and said anything directly yet. So our down-to-earth girl takes a deep breath and decides to take a chance. All she really wants is a family someday and a place for that family to live.

So now it’s out on the table. She’s a bit nervous, since she’s not totally sure how he’s going to react. And to his credit, our singer doesn’t run out into the stormy night. He seems pretty agreeable to her wish list. And when he has a chance to reply with his own, he’s wanting all of the same things. Two love-struck kids dreaming about their future together on their first Christmas eve. Sweet.

I started playing around with a major 7th chord on the guitar and fell naturally into a swing kind of rhythm. Once I payed closer attention to what I was picking I realized it was in 5/4 meter, which seemed a little too “outside” for a Christmas tune, so I added another beat to shift it into 6/8. Nice for waltzing around the tree. A hooky little melody sprung out of one of the verse lines, so that made its way into the guitar part. When it came time to demo, it felt more natural to play it on the piano instead of guitar. I called in my good friend AJ Turner to sing on it, who has a stunningly good voice and a sunny disposition to match, all positives for a song like this.

Will it become a classic? Who knows, but hopefully someday at least one young couple will hear it on the radio when they’re curled up on the couch during a rainstorm on Christmas Eve, and it will give one of them the courage to take a chance. Or, at the very least, make them smile.

SAC Songwriting Challenge #5 – TV Series Pitch

Looking at the Hozier reference song’s lyrics I tried to picture what was going to be happening in the scene. He’s talking to a woman, someone he wants to be alone with, although she seems a bit, shall we say…unstable. And if you’ve got a thing for someone who’s unstable, chances are you’re going to be feeling a bit unhinged as well.

The word “crawling” came to mind, since this person would probably do anything to be with their lover, regardless of how debasing it is. From there I did some object writing trying to focus on the feeling of overwhelming obsession, also incorporating the theme of the show which is pretty dark.

I came up with a melody based on the pentatonic scale, which is what the Hozier song does as well. Some of the lyric lines I had previously scratched out were a perfect fit for parts of the melody, other spots needed more elbow grease to marry the two. Now it was finally time to pick up the guitar.

I tried a few different open tunings and settled on DADGAD which gave it a modal feeling, neither strictly major or minor. I normally put a lot of thought into chord progressions, but this song seemed to want to be simple harmonically as a background to the melody and lyrics, so it’s mainly two chords (possibly a first for me) with a bass line run that follows the hook.

Next thing you know…dark and obsessed. I had a great singer lined up to do the vocal, but he had to back out at the last minute and I ended up putting down a scratchy take with my ailing throat. I guess some extra edge can’t hurt on a song like this.

SAC Songwriting Challenge Week #4 – Edgy Country

So, edgy country this week. I write a lot of country, I even lived in Nashville for 5 years before coming to Vancouver, so this is in my wheelhouse. And once again, thank you Ron for nixing bro-country, hick-hop, or whatever else they’re calling the crass, soulless, paint-by-number turds that corporate entities like Clear Channel keep shoving down the FM radio pipes.

But I digress.

I’ve got a lot of potential country song titles in my Evernote list, so I knew I would have a lot more to pick from compared to the other challenges so far. My eyes landed on a title I had scribbled down 2 years ago, and for the life of me can’t remember where it came from. It was “don’t shoot, I’m one of the good guys.” Definitely inspired by classic westerns and cowboy movies, but looking at it from a modern relationship perspective as in “don’t shoot me down.” And the firearm reference should be worth 1 point on the edginess scale.

Once you get into your 20’s, there’s a very strong possibility that a person you’re interested in romantically has been royally screwed over in their past by someone of your gender. And in a very unscientific survey, it seems that women have more dirty-rotten-no-good-$@#%&-ing-creep stories per capita than men. So I had to figure out a setting for the singer to declare his upstanding moral character to the girl who’s caught his eye.

And what better place than a bar? I mean, if this is supposed to be edgy, they’re not going to be at a choir rehearsal. Another point on the edginess tally. I sketched out a few thoughts, wrote down some items that might give someone good-guy status, and mapped out a plot line for the verses and bridge. Sometimes I’ll get the lyric mostly there before picking up a guitar, since melodies usually pop up in the process, and if I at least have some rhythms in mind it’s easy to plug in notes. I know a lot of writers do music first and scat the melody to see what words surface, and I’ve done that at times. But I seem to struggle more with finding the right words to fit a melody’s rhythmic pattern than I do creating a melody for some words. Maybe because there are a few hundred thousand words in use in the English language but only 12 notes.

Since Ron asked us to shake things up a bit, I took a spin through the country music top 40 to see what kind of tempo or feel might fit this song. I settled on 90 bpm, which is slower than I was originally hearing it in my head, though it seemed to fit nicely as a mid-tempo. With guitar in hand I strummed around a bit and a neat little chord sequence came together. I tend to like colour chords, the ones outside the diatonic scale (for instance, Bb and Eb chords in the key of C), and this progression shifted tonalities a few times. Maybe too exotic for FM radio’s current four-chord diet (easy, there, big fella…), but that should be worth another edgy point.

I woke up the next morning with a little melody fragment in my head, so I kept humming it until I got downstairs and captured it with my iPhone. After breakfast and delivering the kids to school I fleshed out the melody some more to fit with the chords I had. Now it was lyric time.

Like Pat Pattison always preaches, I tried to dig up lots of imagery. What caught this guy’s eye about the girl? How does she react that makes him say “don’t shoot?” What else makes him a good guy? Scribble, scribble, revise, revise…it was taking shape. A few lines didn’t sit quite right, so they were in the “to be replaced” category, plus my wife’s perceptive ears got caught in a few places. But overall it was close to being finished, I was liking it a lot, and it definitely had some edge to it.

I put down some guitar tracks for a demo, then sang a (very) rough vocal. I even had to come back a few times to re-record changes to the lyric as better words came to mind. It’s not done til it’s sent out. I usually let songs sit a few days before tracking, but I was heading out of town so there were only four days to turn this one in instead of seven. But I think it’s got potential, so I’ll be hiring in a session singer in the near future to recut the vocal since that’s the most important part of a demo that’s being pitched to the country market.

Hope you like it. And if not…don’t shoot.

SAC Challenge Week #3 – Writing for Advertising

The first thought I had after reading the creative brief was “considering I’m the father of 6 and 7 year old boys, something’s wrong if I can’t write a half-way decent song about the joy of childhood.” Another layer of challenge added to the challenge.

I’d written a song a few years ago about my boys growing up called Little Hand, definitely a tear-jerker ballad. I think it’s a natural pull for songwriters to go to that sentimental place when talking about kids, especially their own. This challenge would be another good impetus to stretch out beyond where I normally might tend to go on a song like this.

We used to sing all kinds of nursery rhymes to the boys when they were younger, so I played through them in my head. When I got to “one, two, buckle my shoe” it morphed into “one, two I can tie my shoe now,” followed by “three, four, out the back door.” That seemed like an interesting path to go on, put the child out in his yard and see what happens. Normally I work from a title first, but I figured one would show itself eventually. A melody had popped into my head with the buckle-my-shoe line, so I used that as a scaffold to hang more verse words on.

The boy’s backyard would be a rich place to mine sense bound images. So what does he see? How about a dog — he could throw a bone or stick to him. He could also play in the sandbox, ride a pogo stick, look for bugs, all the standard-issue boy stuff. Maybe a little too standard…bordering on run-of-the-mill. The phrase “beautiful day” came to mind for the chorus. A nice sentiment, a little too familiar to be a keeper but it would work for now.

Back to the verses. I spent some time thinking like a young boy (much more familiar ground than thinking like a teenage girl for week #2), both from my own childhood and through the eyes of my own kids. I’m still struck by how imaginative they can be at that innocent age and how blurry the line is between fantasy and reality. I wanted to tap into that wild, unfettered imagination that easily turns a box into a car, or spaceship, or house. So if a kid can do all that, it’s pretty much anything goes, which became my title.

James Lindemann had suggested to someone in this challenge that they have a child sing on their demo which seemed like a good idea, so I taught my boys the song and recorded them in my studio. For the track I started with a steady kick drum, which gave the chorus a marching feel. The reference tracks gave license for quirky instruments, and you can’t have a marching band without a tuba. Or a piccolo, for that matter. Before I knew it, the track was in full marching mode which really gave it a feeling of energy and fun. And like the song says…anything goes.

SAC Challenge – Week #2

An explosive pop hit, eh? Cool.

Granted, the majority of what I write these days is in the country genre. And a lot of dance pop is full of clichés (“up all night in the club!,” etc) which isn’t very creative. Then again, so is a lot of country these days (tailgate, anyone?)

But I like well-crafted pop, and with all the R&B and Motown I absorbed growing up in Detroit I thought this challenge could be fun.

I usually start with a title, so I scanned through my title list in Evernote to see what might work for the teen girl market. Had a few contenders, but one title that I had in my Country list jumped out and got me thinking — New Star In My Sky. I was thinking of it as a metaphor for a new love that makes the singer’s world seem brighter, better. And teenage girls seem to like love songs.

After finishing an evening bi-coastal Skype co-write with Lucy LeBlanc, Maryjane Viejo, and Roger Beckett at 10 pm, I thought I’d try and hash out a few lines while the proverbial creative juices were flowing. Plus, I’m a night owl and I’ve done a lot of my best writing between 10pm and 2am.

Once I had a few lines down things seemed to click and the ideas starting coming. Love being in that zone. Was trying to picture what it would be like before this new person came into the picture, then came up with images connected to stars to describe what a difference they’ve made. Definitely a second-person POV song, directed towards the new love. I tried to write it using language that would work coming from a teenager, but giving them credit enough not to be overly simplistic. A few hours later I had a first draft lyric that I was quite happy with, and some melodic ideas to flesh out the next day.

Some time at the piano gave me a chord structure and a working melody, so next I worked up a track. Singing it myself was not an option, so I got AJ Woodworth (an incredible singer out here in BC, and a sweetheart to boot) to come over and put down a vocal. A little mixing (well, more than a little, that’s one of the fun parts for me), and up to Soundcloud it goes.

Looking at the lyric I realized that it could totally work as a country song as well. If I had tried to write it as a country song from the beginning I would have taken a completely different approach, and I’m not sure it would have turned out as well.

New Star In My Sky
© 2015 Michael Nowak (ASCAP)

Used to hide my feelings
Desperate for some healing
Acting tough, concealing the truth
Life was one big hot mess
Stumblin’ in the darkness
Nothing left me breathless til you

I just had to look up, look up, look up

And like a new star in my sky
You came and filled my world with light
Never knew love could burn so bright
Yeah right before my very eyes
Everything changed in just one night
With a new star in my sky

Didn’t waste my one wish
Sealed it with a sweet kiss
I been waiting for this so long
Nothing could be better
I’m betting on forever
Loving you is where I belong

I just had to look up, look up, look up

And like a new star in my sky
You came and filled my world with light
Never knew love could burn so bright
Yeah right before my very eyes
Everything changed in just one night
With a new star in my sky

I just had to look up
I just had to look up
I just had to look up then I saw you

And like a new star in my sky
You came and filled my world with light
Never knew love could burn so bright
Yeah right before my very eyes
Everything changed in just one night
With a new star in my sky

Diving In

I’ll be honest, blogging isn’t exactly a natural inclination of mine. Not that I don’t enjoy writing prose…I guess it’s just that I’d rather be writing about someone else instead of my own self. Or putting that energy into a lyric. But who knows, by the time this is over I might actually come to like it…

I’ve been writing songs for a big chunk of my life, and I’m always up for new challenges. When I heard about “six songs in six weeks” it seemed like a fun way to stretch myself and write some songs that I might not otherwise aim for. Well, so far so good. I certainly wouldn’t have woken up last Monday morning and said to myself “this week I think I’ll write a groove-based contemporary song for Matt Dusk!”

Thinking about more contemporary lyric ideas has gotten my song-idea radar pointing in a different direction than usual, that’s for sure. I was at the mall on Saturday and as I was people watching, a young couple got me musing on relationships in today’s age and, next thing I knew, I had a new song title and a few opening lines. Not quite the right direction for Matt, but a fun song that I’ll definitely write at some point.

Musically I’ve been thinking about tones and moods for this first challenge, experimenting with some beats and different chord progressions, just generating lots of ideas and seeing which one has the most potential. I’ve also got a co-write booked, thanks to Lucy LeBlanc setting up a 4-way coast-to-coast Skype session with Roger Beckett and Maryjane Viejo.

And on that note, it’s back to the grooves…