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Saturday, 5 September 2015

Making an album, part 7: How not to write a song for Shania Twain

A few years ago, I was asked to provide some material for an up-and-coming young female country singer. A friend in the business who was familiar with my writing style (I was going to use the phrase ‘writing prowess’ there, but that would have been a bit of an exaggeration) thought that I might have some songs which -given the right treatment- could have worked for this particular vocalist. My name was passed to the singer’s manager, who also happened to be her mother. After a perfunctory phone call (“I’ve been told you write songs. We’re looking for songs”), an appointment was made for us to meet. I packed my guitar and notebook and drove out to a big house in the country, about a mile and half from the middle of nowhere.


Upon my arrival, it was made clear that the singer’s mum /manager (let’s call her The Mumager) was the director of operations. I was led into a room that could have passed for a middle-sized function suite (complete with its own stage) and it was explained that I would be auditioning my songs to her before she decided if the enterprise was to proceed beyond first base. I’m being polite here when I say that she was not the kind of person who liked to waste time with idle chit-chat. Inasmuch as I had expected anything, I thought that I would at least have met the singer before introducing her to the songs which, in my head at least, had ‘surprise country smash’ written all over them, but the daughter was -as yet- nowhere to be seen. The Mumager, with a small hand gesture, invited me to take the stage and perform. She positioned herself on a chair a few feet from the raised platform and, from that distance, looked like the smallest and possibly the toughest audience I would ever have to play to. There was no point in trying to crack a joke to ease the tension, because the meagre conversational scraps of our opening exchanges had made it obvious that my sense of humour and hers had about as much in common as scrap metal and scrambled eggs.

Mindful of that ever-useful mnemonic beloved of all performers (TNT MAFFOY – ‘Try Not To Make a Fucking Fool of Yourself’), I had come prepared with a number of possible contenders for the surprise country hit of the year. I assumed that The Mumager’s idea of country music would have been based on songs she had heard played by proper country musicians. As I’ve stated in some previous articles, I’m not a particularly gifted musician, let alone a gifted country musician. My playing style, such as it is, could best be described as ‘tipsy welterweight’; I don’t really do finesse and, rather than tease a melody out of a guitar or piano, I’m more naturally equipped to bludgeon the instrument with some ham-fisted chords. Accordingly, I figured that each song would require an eloquent preamble; rather than let The Mumager judge my songs on what she was about to hear, I needed her to judge them on what I imagined they could be, given a bit of investment and finesse. Before essaying the first strum on each song, I tried to explain how a recorded version might sound, given the proper backing. Imagine, if you will, Woody Allen trying to talk his way out of being whacked by one of Tony Soprano’s henchmen; that is more or less how my song pitches were delivered.   
“This one could turn out to be a bit like Shania Twain, if we arrange it properly” I heard myself saying. Somewhere in the background, a clock ticked. Slowly.

There was little to glean from The Mumager’s inscrutable expression, although as the audition went on, I began to suspect that my preambles were going down about as well an attempt to get her to buy into a time-share in a beaten-up caravan in Arbroath. I introduced another song. “This one would sound a bit country if we added some pedal steel” I said, probably sounding a bit feeble. Or, now that I think about it, actually sounding feeble. In my experience, one of the biggest mistakes a songwriter can make is to let people hear something that isn’t finished; where the songwriter can hear the glorious possibilities of embellishment, imaginings of beautiful harmonies, echoes of eloquent guitars, the layperson just hears whatever is placed in front of them.      

As I ran through my various would-be country classics, The Mumager said nothing, although she did nod her head occasionally. I didn’t know if that was a good thing or a bad thing, but, given her almost complete lack of chat, facial expression or interpretable body language, I chose to take any occasional nod as a positive sign; perhaps, inside, she was all cartwheels, laughter and pure country joy. Five songs (and five rather laboured explanations) later, the audition was over. The Mumager said “We’ll do number three”. And that was it; the first part of our business had been conducted, leaving me glad that the pool of sweat on the stage beneath me had not been deposited in vain.        

The daughter was called through from the west wing and we were finally introduced. I played the song for her and –thankfully- she seemed to like it. We ran through it a few times until we found the right key for her and, before I left, I gave her a handwritten copy of the lyric to practise with. A few weeks later, we were in the studio recording a decent version of the song but, sadly, it didn’t turn out to be a surprise country hit; this, I realise, has been a recurring theme in my musical career.   

Of the five songs I pitched that night, one had seemed to me like a stand-out candidate (and it wasn’t number three). I had the feeling at the time that they would (and should) have picked song number four: ‘Read my Lips’. 

Like the vast majority of songs that I write, this had started with some chords on a guitar or piano, before I improvised a vocal melody over the top. Only after that initial ‘brainstorming’ phase would I have considered a subject matter, a title and some words to suit the mood that had been set by the basic components I had already put in place. As I played around with the chord sequence and melody, I had not only pictured someone like Shania Twain singing it, I also had the distinct feeling that it would somehow have suited a lyric with a universal theme. With, however, no pressing need to finish it, the song was filed away in my burgeoning ‘one-day-I-might-do-something-with-this’ file. Once I had accepted the assignment to try and write a hit for someone, it seemed like an obvious choice. I drafted, tweaked and re-drafted the lyric several times until it felt just right. I imagined a tight rocking band delivering the backing with some real torch and twang, while Shania belted out an empowering lyric along the lines of my-man-gone-done-me-wrong-so-he-can-sling-his-hook-and-I’ll-be-just-fine.
I thought that the tune was catchy and that the universal theme gave it some extra hit potential, but with my modest track record I don’t suppose many folk would see the percentage in betting on that. The Mumager was unmoved by the song (and my sales pitch), so ‘Read my Lips’ was consigned to the ‘pending’ file.  

Writing a pop lyric presents a different kind of challenge and is, in some ways, harder than writing something just to please yourself (which is what I usually do). It’s quite easy to write lyrics, but it’s rather more difficult to write good lyrics and, in my experience, even harder to write good lyrics for someone else.

A few years ago, I was in a band in which I had to write for another young female vocalist. She had a lovely voice, she looked the part and she had some pretty good ideas of her own, but her lyric-writing pace could best be described as ‘sluggish’ and I often had to push matters along in order to get new material into our set. A man in his forties composing for a woman in her twenties was not necessarily a recipe for insightful writing and, in my desire to increase the band’s productivity, I tended to steer very firmly to the lyrical middle of the road, drafting lines that were, for want of a better term, generic. 

I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with generic lyrics, but –sooner or later- you’ll find that you’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name and it’ll feel good to be out of the rain; or, as is more likely, nobody will have a clue what you’re talking about. I know that for some writers, this is actually something like a state of bliss. It is often the case (for a variety of reasons) that songwriters don’t particularly wish to be understood and plenty of folk have sustained entire careers on being vague and evasive in their songs.

Perhaps one of the reasons that Coldplay –to take but one example- have sold so many albums is that, in addition to the fact that their music is relatively easy on the ear, their words are usually just vague enough to have a broad appeal.

Take the lyrics to ‘Yellow’:

Look at the stars,
Look how they shine for you,
And everything you do,
Yeah, they were all yellow.

I came along,
I wrote a song for you,
And all the things you do,
And it was called "Yellow".

So then I took my turn,
Oh what a thing to have done,
And it was all yellow.

Your skin Oh yeah your skin and bones,
Turn into something beautiful,
You know, You know I love you so,
You know I love you so.

What does that even mean? I’d suggest that the answer is ‘nothing’; or maybe it’s everything. These lyrics are so vague that any notion of meaning is conferred entirely by the listener. ‘Yellow’ can mean whatever you want it to mean, which in pop music terms, probably makes it a good (that is, commercially appealing) lyric.

Take, by way of contrast, Joni Mitchell’s ‘Song for Sharon’. Here’s the opening few lines:

I went to Staten Island, Sharon.
To buy myself a mandolin
And I saw the long white dress of love
On a storefront mannequin
Big boat chuggin' back with a belly full of cars...
All for something lacy
Some girl's going to see that dress
And crave that day like crazy
On a storefront mannequin     

In addition to delineating a very personal and perceptive observation, these lines prepare the listener for the complex subject matter of the song. In exploring the idea of the path not taken, ‘Song for Sharon’ compares Joni Mitchell’s life -that of a successful musician- with that of a friend who has “a husband, a family and a farm”.
Mitchell acknowledges the powerful attraction of that “long white dress of love” (and all that it implies) then reflects on the lifestyle choices she has made in pursuing her muse. The lyric explores the tension between, on the one hand, her need to create art and, on the other, the desire for love, constancy and security.  

In the final lines, she sings:

But you still have your music
And I've still got my eyes on the land and the sky
You sing for your friends and your family
I'll walk green pastures by and by

This is open to interpretation, but not in the same way that ‘Yellow’ is open to interpretation. Where ‘Yellow’ trusts the imagination of the listener to sprinkle some fairy dust over its prosaic phrasing, ‘Song for Sharon’ probes the complexity of big life choices. In laying out the consequences, regrets and rewards of opting for the life of a musical free spirit and rejecting the role of wife and mother, Mitchell sketches her ambivalence so skilfully that, by the end the song, we’re not really sure which woman has got the best deal.

There is no right way or wrong way to compose a lyric, but ‘Song for Sharon’ is clearly the work of a poet, while ‘Yellow’ could easily have been written by someone employed to churn out greeting cards for Walmart. I’d love to sit at Joni’s end of the song-writing table, but it’s a very long table and the reality is that I’m way down at the other end, using the wrong cutlery, knocking over the condiments and trying not to slurp my soup. But at least the songs on my album will make a series of statements that I’ll be reasonably happy to make. And, although ‘Read my Lips’ may have been written with the specific aim of having a hit by putting words into someone else’s mouth, it’s still something that I’m proud of. If I hadn’t had to audition this song, I might never have gotten around to finishing it. The discipline of pulling it all together, the imagining of Shania Twain performing it, improved me as a writer.

The Mumager might not have cared much for my material, but her daughter is now doing very well for herself on the Irish country circuit; by the sounds of it, she wanted something closer to old-school country than I could provide. My recorded version of the song is very close to what I had in mind when I wrote it. The band (Les, Fraser and Peter) absolutely nailed the arrangement, with Peter’s country-tinged guitar, in particular, bang on the money for the mood I wanted to create. 

On the subject of the album, work is now moving into the closing stages. I’ve recorded around 50 pieces of music and they currently sit in three distinct piles, each of which will hopefully see the light of day pretty soon.

More will be revealed shortly, but -just to be on the safe side- I have left instructions in my will that, in the event of my sudden death, the entire body of work should be performed at Hampden Park with a 60-piece orchestra, a male voice choir and Shania Twain on lead vocals. 

And, if we can swing it with her management, I’d like her to be dressed as Catwoman. 

3 comments:

  1. Excellent piece, excellent story. Coldplay lyrics, eh?

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    Replies
    1. Thanks, Tim! Yes, Coldplay have managed to make a little go a very long way.

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