“No Trains on the Rails Today”: Political Songwriting

In #Canada they are trying to ram through a gas pipeline over the objections of #Wet‘suwt’en chiefs, despite the fact that legally (by treaty, which has been at least theoretically recognized by the courts as legally binding on the Canadian state) they are custodians of the land to be traversed. After the RCMP moved in to force the pipeline through, Mohawk in eastern Canada blockaded a major rail line, and other #solidarity actions are taking place as well. Meanwhile, politicians claim to still be all for #reconciliation with #Firstnations– but apparently this cannot extend to anything that might impede natural resource extraction.

Like any form of songwriting, political songwriting is actually pretty easy to do but much harder to get quite right. The jury’s still out on this particular song, but remember, a song is not a treatise or an argument. It may capture a set of thoughts and feelings around an issue. Or it might tell a story that brings the issue to life in some way. If anyone wants to know more about this issue there are many good sources out there (as well as some very bad ones), but one book that very much informed the lyrics here was The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King.

Songwriters tend to shy away from songs that directly take a political position for a number of reasons. One is that such songs tend to be divisive, and so songwriters who are trying to reach a broad audience can end up shooting themselves in the foot if they alienate too much of their audience. Also, as I mentioned, songs don’t lend themselves to in-depth examination of the issues. So the songs can end up becoming little more than slogans in service of a cause. Which is fine- that’s serving a purpose- but as art it can be very limiting. On the other hand, be too subtle and poetic and you’re not necessarily taking a clear or direct stand anymore.

So why write political songs? Because we write about what matters to ourselves and to others. After all, people still write religious songs even though that’s very much a niche market as well. If you feel something inside and you’re an artist, your art will probably end up communicating that in some way.

 

 

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My June 2019 ‘5 in 5’ Songs: A Review

Songwriting is a craft, but it is one that allows for some intense self-expression. You can learn the tricks of the trade just by keeping your hand in over years and years and by listening carefully to what others do. So, you twiddle the knobs and manipulate words and music. Sometimes you end up with a bland load of blah. But sometimes, you get a whole lot more than you bargained for. Something like the terrifying truth, in some form, comes roaring out from your subconscious. What do you do then, when it seems like you maybe revealed a bit too much or tapped into something that’s too hot to handle?

You try to assess the songs as songs, not as therapy or prophecy. We’ll see how that goes.

In this sequel to my post about the March 2019 5 in 5 challenge, I won’t go over the same things again. Instead I’ll provide a little background and then review each song.

I wasn’t expecting to participate in the 5 in 5 challenge in the first week of June. I thought I’d be busy. Plus, I’d been sick with the flu. I was still unwell when the first prompt arrived. But somehow, I was driven to complete all five songs in five days.

My theory is that my illness lowered my inhibitions to such an extent that I didn’t really think about what I was writing and performing beyond what I needed to do to complete and record each song. My voice was not in good shape, and so I had trouble hitting some notes. But (serendipity!) the rawness of the vocals added a gritty desperate edge that suited the songs. My not feeling well, and the mood I was in as a result, also made for a cranky set of songs overall.

It was good that, in addition to the usual prompts, optional musical prompts such as “use only three chords” were provided. Are you kidding? Me only use three chords? Maybe I’ll manage it someday… But I did use some of the other optional prompts.

Okay, let’s review the songs themselves:

Never Mind– I like the lyrics, and I like my phrasing of them- although it’s a bit tricky and I slipped up once or twice. Interesting rhythm in the way I sang, “Even on tiptoes, it’s a stretch I suppose”, for example. The chorus (which I’d already had lying around for a couple of years) may be a tad passive aggressive. The melody maybe sounds a bit too much like previous minor-key verse/ major-key chorus songs I’ve done. I’ll give it a 70/100.

Heavy Heart of Stone Wow, this is heavy stuff. We’re getting into emo-goth territory here! Interestingly, this bleak howl of a song was the one that got by far the biggest response from the 5 in 5 community. I’m not always depressed, I assure you! I was a bit embarrassed by this, to be honest, but it isn’t bland, I’ll give you that much. I took the “heart of stone” prompt and made into a symbol of depression masked as indifference. I sang it pretty well, I’d say, and while the recording quality is lo-fi it has an atmosphere that suits the subject matter.  I’ll give it a 75.

Pressure– As with “Never Mind,” I took words from the list provided and spun lines out of them, and the theme that quickly emerged was “pressure”. But I this case I came up with the music first, based on the optional musical prompt (I don’t remember what it was- probably a set of chords), recorded a backing track and then composed the lyrics over that. Another minor-key melody. Nice melodica solos. The singing’s pretty good; could be better in places. The intro, featuring wordless chanting, gets things moving nicely. And I like the harmonized ending. I’ll give it a 75.

Still Life– Superficially, at least, this is lighter than the previous songs on this list. It’s a pretty melody but I can’t help but think of it as a bit schmaltzy. But maybe I’m just a bit embarrassed by the emotions coming out here. I’ll give it a 60.

Clarity– This doesn’t seem quite finished. In response to the prompt of having a two-line chorus AND being the prompt of being cleansed of something, I made the chorus into a mantra. I’ve done that before: I did that on “Stop Thinking About You’ on my “Words and Things” album.

It doesn’t seem to work so well here. Maybe the trouble is that the music I came up with for the chorus isn’t quite right. I do like my singing on this one. I especially like how I sang the line, “I mean well, but well, what does that mean?” It’s a good line: I came up with it some years ago and have been waiting for the right thing to put it in.  I’m not sure this is it, though. The pacing of the recording is sloppy. I’ll give it a 55, with room for improvement.

After recording these songs I developed a throat infection, which only goes to show that perseverance in the pursuit of creation isn’t always wise.

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Now Out: Points of View

Now available on Bandcamp:

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How I Fared in the March “5 in 5” Songwriting Challenge

NOTE: The June 2019 challenge did include additional, optional musical prompts. More on that in an upcoming post.

Sometimes ideas for songs just come to me. Mostly that’s what happens. But sometimes it’s good to seek them out.

I’ve done that every now and then- last year one time I went through the free local newspaper in a cafe, jotting down choice phrases. Out of some of those
came a song called “Shooting Stars”, which is on my new album “Points of View”.

In March I participated in Songfancy’s 5 in 5 Songwriting challenge (https://www.facebook.com/groups/5in5songchallenge/) based on
lyrical prompts provided. Doing that, I wrote four songs (and one co-write) that I otherwise wouldn’t have written, so it was a worthwhile
exercise for that reason alone.

During the week of the challenge, our internet provider at home went AWOL. This made it hard to get the prompts and impossible to post anything in a timely manner. So no, I didn’t write five songs in five days, nor did I even write them in the order in which the prompts appeared.

The first song I wrote was based on a list of words including “graceful”, “glass”, “coast”, and “refract”. It became “Some Kind of Escape Plan.” ( I will re-post this song a bit later.)

Another word list, including “delicate”, “linen”, “misty”, “leaf” and “leaning” resulted in the words for “Leaves in Waves”. Setting these
words to music took a couple of tries each and some finessing- I’m nowhere near as melodically gifted as Elton John, who’s reputed to set all the lyrics
given to him to music in 15 minutes or less. But the recordings came out nice, at least.

The prompt “how did we not get caught?” led to one of my very few story songs, about an old man who had an affair many years ago, whose wife has since passed on
and who now sometimes meets his old mistress for tea. It’s called, of course, ‘How Did We Never Get Caught?”

I was already playing around with words for a song about not giving up in the face of harsh difficulties when I got the prompt “staying in”, so I
came up with “Stay in the Game”. I’m still working on that one.

But another participant in the challenge came up with lyrics on the theme of ‘staying in’ called “Love is Staying in (Me)”, which I set to music.
It’s one of those pretty, sad, wistful songs.

None of these songs would have emerged in the form in they did without the Challenge. And it was good to actually collaborate on a song with someone.
If I have a criticism to make of 5 in 5, it’s that all the prompts were lyrical. Sarah Spencer, the songwriter behind the challenge, added optional musical cues for the June Challenge, of which more later…

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Words… and Things- Updated: Now Out

20180914_130737_20180914142650851_20180914142815689_20180914142928624_20180914143202545This is now available on Bandcamp.

It’s an acoustic album featuring me on guitar and ukulele. I also play melodica and some percussion here and there. Most of all, I sing the songs. One track, “Words”, is a capella. That’s the oldest song of the bunch; one of my very first songs, in fact. The newer songs tend to be the ones where I play the uke. Here’s the track listing:

  1. Open Mind
  2. Let’s Be Friends
  3. The Reason Why
  4. Words
  5. Revealed or Unraveled
  6. Keep on Keepin’ On
  7. To Lose a Friend
  8. That Song
  9. Frivolity
  10. Impressions of Impressions
  11. Got to Be Joking
  12. Impressions
  13. Waiting Song
  14. Stop Thinking About You
  15. But a Dream
  16. It’s Time

Here’s a rough mix of the opening track, “Open Mind”

And here’s a performance of “But a Dream”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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“Man of Mystery” EP Now Out

The EP includes two new tracks. The really new song is “Man of Mystery”, a sort of spy movie spoof, while the EP ends with a new version of “A Song (Summer Heat)” with revised lyrics. The lyrical revisions are my only reason for re-recording it, really, but the arrangement also came out differently which makes for a neat contrast. And then there are tracks from recent albums Imaginary World Tour 2017, Interesting Times and Now the Robots are Dancing… in Summer Heat.

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Video: Performing “Walk A Long Time”

About a year ago, my guitar broke. I decided to put off repairing it and instead focus on playing a ukulele I’d obtained the year before. Before long I was writing songs on it, including this one, a song from the 2017 album Imaginary World Tour 2017.

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New release: Imaginary World Tour 2017

Now available on Bandcamp:
More details about the album here.

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Upcoming Release: Imaginary World Tour 2017

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The last couple of albums I’ve made have been mostly acoustic home-made affairs: mostly me recording at home with a guitar and ukulele, some melodica, and vocals. This album has come about from me from me experimenting with writing songs on the ukulele and in unconventional tunings on the guitar.

I wrote the words for “Autumn Leaves” a few years ago and about a year later found they fitted the mood of a song I wrote in Open G tuning. I don’t write many love songs because I don’t think I’m much good at it but my singing on this is pretty good at conveying the emotions of the song. Another open-tuning based composition is “The Days Draw In…” which was originally recorded last year but was finished up about a month ago.

My first song written on the ukulele, “To Get Away From it All”, came out on the last album, “Interesting Times”. In the same vein as that dreamy instrumental, and
also featuring melodicas and voices, is “You’re Never Alone With the Stars At Night”. “Walk A Long Time” is a more sprightly uke-based number, while “When We Were Two” is a sad, contemplative song.

“Paper Airplanes Soaring in the Sunshine” features singing but no discernible lyrics, since I sang mostly gibberish to begin with and then reversed many parts of the vocal track as an experiment. It has a sort of haunting melody but who knows what it’s about?

“Talk About the Weather” dates back nine years, and this recording’s been in development for a few years. Some things take a while to finish. So did “Shimmer On”. Based on a bass riff I came up with at a friend’s house, it took a while to develop into a track and then into a song. This also features some bass and electric-guitar playing by my friend and frequent collaborator Shane Watt.

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Autumn Leaves (video)

It’s autumn, but still warm enough to run through songs outdoors. This is “Autumn Leaves”, which I wrote a couple of years ago. It’s in “open G’ tuning.

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