I tried to figure you out

It’s funny…. when things are going well in a creative endeavor, you can work instinctively, intuitively, with your more cerebral side put out to pasture. When things are going badly, there are no instincts — it’s all cerebral. It feels like nails on a chalkboard, or like a robot trying to pick out a bouquet of flowers. This week’s song, “I tried to figure you out” (note the oh-so-precious Dickinsonian lack of capitalization) is an example of things not going well.

Ah, where did it all go wrong? I just wanted to have some fun with a nice, McCartney-esque production aesthetic. This was the week I discovered how hard it is to make something seem free and easy. Paul is no chump, that’s for sure. I went three long rounds with this beast. First, I made a drum loop that was very funky: “boom-boom-BAP-bah-boom-bah-boom-BAP.” That kind of thing. But, this loop bred some unfortunate developments, like my trying to sing the whole song like Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes (who, it should be noted, was one of my original inspirations to sing rock and roll music… his style just didn’t work here).

Then, on Thursday night, I went back and changed all the drum programming, brutally simplifying everything. My thought process: “If I want to make it sound more like the Beatles, then just make the drums sound more like Ringo.” I turned into bed Thursday night with a satisfied mind: Problem solved.

Only to return to it tonight and find that it sounded flat as a pancake. I’m done with it… it’s your problem now. Is this thing salvageable? At least the title is appropriate.

18 Responses to “I tried to figure you out”
  1. Input_Device says:

    man, I’ve been loving the 52 Teeth project with every fibre of my mere mortal soul, I eagerly anticipate the next little quirk of songcraft you delve into next.

    but I was listening to Bass Is High and (keep in mind this was at four a.m. during my late night shift) it struck me that you could probably write a pretty fun metal song.

    then again, this is a blog for Baby Teeth, not Bloody Smashed In Baby Teeth, so yeah…

  2. Demo says:

    For trying to write a free and easy McCartney-esque song, you have some pretty cryptic lyrics in there! Were you actually trying to outdo the guy? A few of those lines wouldn’t make my latte go down any easier….Funny, I think the Swede comes closer to doing what you were trying to do here, maybe because you crafted the tone more naturally to fit a story already in your head, rather than the other way around.

  3. Abraham says:

    input device: thank you sir! I appreciate it. if you’re curious about what it sounds like when we try to write and perform an actual metal song, then you should click here http://www.daytrotter.com/daytrotterSessions/830/free-songs-baby-teeth and listen to the song “snake eyes.” let me know what you think. I’m psyched that you are checking the blog during the late-night shift!

    demo a.k.a. benjamin: yeah, I don’t know what’s up with these lyrics. I didn’t think too much about them I guess. it takes a lot of effort to say a simple thing, mccartney style. (“everybody’s gonna dance tonight… everybody’s gonna feel all right…”) good observation about the swede… it’s definitely a more successful effort.

  4. detholz says:

    The answer = more reverb.

    McCartney just sounds better in a cave. Unbeknownst to most of his fans, Sir Paul is an avid spelunker and cave dweller:

    But seriously, folks, the 1st half of the song strikes me as superfluous. Once the “Why you gotta do that” line is introduced, the melody & bgv’s are all solid gold!

  5. detholz says:

    Oh, sorry, that link is here: Sir Paul’s Cavern

  6. will says:

    ok, i actually like this one; however…to begin w/: perhaps you were a bit unispired w/ this because you defaulted to the “McCartney bop/bouncy bobble-head feel”—common when mimicking Paul(ask my frustrated inner beatle)—just hard to make a song really go anywhere interesting w/ that feel—but u coulda broke it down with some big minor chords(also a common/boring move?)now, were the lyrics directed at ur frustration w/ this song? certainly, ur pissed AT something. i agree w/ detholz—the “why you gotta do that” line ushers in some nice melodic movement. and…after the first “i’m not sleeping anymore…”, my ear hears the melody modulating up a 1/2 step(?) for a measure—then returning to the 2nd “why you gotta…” now, i’m off to listen to “lady madonna”. have a good week! p.s. since ur a guitar god now, how ’bout some early tom petty (“even the losers”, “don’t do me like that”, “here comes my girl”)
    style stuff?

  7. Judah says:

    It’s funny that Will should mention Tom Petty; listen to Abe’s voice at the end of the second iteration of the title lyric in “All that I Can Do” (where the melody goes up)– the inflection is straight-up Petty, IMHO.

    As for this song, it’s striking that a number of comments suggest that the latter part (“why you gotta do that”) would work better on its own, which for me underscores what I think may be the main issue: form. The song feels like a couple of sections knitted together, but without significant contrast between them, which makes it easier to “hear the seams.”

    When I feel like I’m forcing an elision between different sections of a piece, sometimes I experiment with going in the opposite direction, trying out more pronounced, even abrupt shifts in character instead of smooth transitions.

    Perhaps I can better articulate this by pursuing the McCartney/Beatles analogy. This song emerged as something of a “Martha My Dear,” but I wonder if it’s really a “You Never Give Me Your Money” or “Happiness is a Warm Gun” waiting to happen? (Incidentally, two of my favorites, and both resonant with your sound, I think).

    You could certainly take the “why you gotta do that” part and work it up from there, but what about taking the whole song and making the contrasts — melodic, rhythmic, harmonic, textural — between sections more substantial, maybe even expanding it? It’s just a hunch, but I hear some possibilities in embracing the latent sprawl here.

    By the way, your description of your struggle is a thing of beauty in itself. If you can come up with more lines like “like nails on a chalkboard/or a robot picking out flowers,” there may be a surprisingly good meta-song waiting to be written!

  8. Ron says:

    I was expecting a real flapjack snoozer after reading the description, but it wasn’t so bad!

    If I may be so bold as to give advice… remember how recently I was talking about rewriting the same 10-year-old songs forever? Well I think that’s partially due to the fact that as I listen more and more to old recordings… I see a life in the material that I didn’t see at the time of its inception. The tunes start to become abstractions of themselves in my mind, and become something new, or perhaps more layered or developed. Perhaps if you were to put your various demos onto CDs and listen to them here and there while driving between piano students, you might find yourself figuring out new avenues for these pieces in this daydream like state. That’s my two cents!

  9. Abraham says:

    wow, you guys are awesome! I am really touched by the amount of thought you put in to helping me solve this little problem. the internet at its finest, to be sure. this was my first experience at really being vulnerable on this blog about the creative process, and I was richly rewarded for it. thank you.

    detholz: good take. the second half is definitely stronger. also thank you for posting that very revealing link. it’s about time we turned up the heat on this blog.

    will: once again, good to have you back, sir. I think you’re right about that bobble-head feel being hard to induce good things with. and yes, I am a huge tom petty fan but have never really explored that style in depth. it’s a great suggestion.

    judah: this was my favorite take on the song, I think. I would love to really sit with this thing and make it more of an “abbey road”-style suite. the first half as a slower, kinks-like shuffle with lots of percussion shakers and stuff, and the second half more existing as it currently does. it brings up a couple of difficulties though:

    #1: I hope that this whole blog doesn’t unintentionally start to eliminate the idea of revision. i.e., in the rush to churn out new product, am I missing an opportunity to make old stuff better? maybe I (and you) will have to accept some posts that are just radical revisions of old stuff, instead of new material cut from whole cloth. I’ve always been an uninspired reviser, but hey, never too late to learn.

    #2: at the moment, there’s a movement within baby teeth to reduce the number of songs with B-sections…. instead, sticking to a single theme. I guess it’s our punk-rock phase. so I’m less inclined to write a real rock epic right now. then again, the more I deny it, the more it will rise up!

    ron: yeah, I’ve definitely thought about what you said about rewriting 10-year-old songs, since that’s never something I’ve really thought of doing. it’s a good idea. see point #1 above…. your idea, too, challenges my natural instinct to write something and move on dot org to the next idea. but yes, daydream-like states are always the best for songwriting, that’s the honest truth.

    anyway, thanks again to you all for being so thought-provoking.

  10. Ron says:

    Yeah, this was indeed an interesting opportunity for us to help you out. I think it would be wise to sometimes have posts that are revisions, instead of all new ideas. It is indeed the revisions that turn a good idea into an excellent and formidable song.

    More about that stuff… I feel like I’m at the other end of things, that I have a hard time coming up with the original idea. But once I get a starting point, I feel like I really let it take me over, and all these ideas start flowing on how to improve, or extend the idea. Something that often happens to me is that I listen to songs by friends of mine or whatever… and as I listen, new melodies and rhythms and feelings develop in my head, and by the end I’ve got practically a new song. This is most true when I’m mixing someone else’s stuff, and I hear it so many times that I start to make up my own little versions. In fact, just recently, in this quest to find an audio job, I’ve been mixing and remixing this song by my friends The Floating City which they recorded at my house, but never quite finished, in 2006. But now that I’ve listened to it so many times, I’ve made a completely new version of it in my head, with its own melodies, and some new lyrics… but it’s still very much married to the original version. I actually began to record these ideas, and if it turns out well, perhaps I’ll ask my pal Gareth (who wrote the song) if he’d mind me releasing it as a track on some future release of mine, with the credit of “Original song by Gareth Schumacher, rewritten by Ron Warner” or something.

    I’ve seen Cat Power a number of times, and once was like 7 years ago in Belgium. I think that was the time where she made some stage anecdote about how she was finally to that point with her newest batch of songs that they found their way out of her throat effortlessly and naturally. To me that’s kinda a similar idea to what we were talking about here. That is, she had spent enough time with her own songs that they were just bubbling right out of her throat. This is the stage for me where it seems like you can begin to just elaborate very freely on an idea, and subtle changes that make it more you begin to surface.

    So chew on that I guess.

  11. Jon Y. says:

    Well, I’m completely useless as a songwriter, so I have no good answers to your questions, only to say that Judah’s points are really interesting and well worth thinking about. And I second his emotion on the bit about “robots picking out flowers.” That’s a hilarious and fantastically vivid image, maybe with a touch of sadness (Touch of Grey?) as well.

  12. Abraham says:

    ron: yes that is a great story about cat power. it’s really tough to get songs to a point where they just flow effortlessly. also interesting that you enjoy revising other people’s work…. all I gotta say is….. BRING IT ON!

    jon: thank you for the compliment on my robot image. it’s how I feel pretty much every time I approach a flower stand. so, like all art worth its salt, “it comes from life,” as they say.

  13. I’m gonna agree with whichever one of the ‘holz it was that wrote the song takes off with the “Why you gotta do that” vocal break. That’s where I started feelin’ it. The smooth backing vocals are great, after all, most songs could stand to have more oh-oh’s.

    Speaking of oh-oh’s, I’ve been listening to the latest from The Blood Brothers, entitled “Young Machetes” constantly. There is a fabulous ending to the song “Camouflage, Camouflage” when it completely unexpectedly explodes with the line “Whoa-ho-oh, whoa-ho-oh. Death’s just death, no matter how you dress it up.”

    Your oh-oh’s seem to want to segue into a commanding line as well. Perhaps the answer to “Why you gotta do that?” There is room for a buildup of accompaniment there. Something begging to happen, and it’s something compelling. You said it yourself, and it is oh so true, even your outs and ins, so don’t discard your throw away tunes.

  14. Abraham says:

    funny that you should mention that blood brothers song…. my cousin ross put it on a mix for me recently. ok, so I’m listening for this moment at the end… what a crazy song this is! that’s a band, huh?

    anyway, I guess I’ll try to keep figuring this song out… at least it’s generated some cool dialogue.

    thanks as always skipwave!

  15. That’s such a crazy coincidence, because I realized I cited the wrong Blood Brothers song. The ending I’m thinking of is in the song “Lift the Veil, Kiss the Tank.” Both are great songs.

    I’m already hyping the Nov 3 show at Subterranean to friends, coworkers, and anyone who doesn’t run away when I approach.

  16. Abraham says:

    yes, true enough… I couldn’t find those lyrics at the end of the blood brothers tune. but yeah, it is a great track.

    WOO HOO! bring on the hype. it’ll be a great show, methinks… thanks! good seeing you at the wedding as well.

  17. Peter says:

    Well you’re barking up the right tree if you want to get me interested in a song, especially when you mention Sir Paul McCartney. I like this one. Maybe it’s not a candidate for a full-blown live song, but it could be weired-up pretty good for our home-baked project. Especially with Jim and I singing backups and me banging on some pots and pans or something. I like the lyrics. I agree with Jim though that it could be narrowed down to the most important and catchy parts.

  18. Abraham says:

    glad you dig it! it’s definitely a dark horse… but could be fun.

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