Showing posts with label songwriting. Show all posts
Showing posts with label songwriting. Show all posts

29 October 2018

I'm Only Fakin' It


by Steve Liskow

A few days ago, one of my favorite writing workshop venues announced that they're offering a four-week class in songwriting to start in November. It required no knowledge of music (Always a plus in my case), but said voices and instruments were welcome. How many of each will show up is an intriguing question--I love synecdoche-- but I won't be one of them.
Bill Arnold on the keyboard is a real musician and songwriter. Beldon the bass player is a multi-intrumentalist. I'm just trying to stay out of their way as we rehearse Bill's musical.


I play guitar adequately and have a keyboard I punish occasionally but can't really play. I have a basic understanding of music theory, too, but songwriting is a mystery to me, like brain surgery, drawing, and serious cooking. I have two recipes, and one of them is coffee. I already have enough skills I'm poor at without tormenting people with bad songs, too.

Oddly, I've written three stories with a fictitious song that's crucial to the plot. In Blood on the Tracks,
I wrote enough lyrics for a song so people could understand how Woody Guthrie put two and two (or maybe that should be four-four) together and tied the song to two characters he was investigating. I knew just enough theory to figure out how a good musician could make a mistake playing that song in the studio, too. I have a vague idea what the song might sound like, but that's all. It was enough.

A few years later, "Look What They've Done to My Song, Mom" used a non-existent tune, too. Someone claims the song was plagiarized from him and he ends up dead mere paragraphs later. That happens in my stuff. I didn't write the music, but I discussed the rhymes and rhyme scheme in the verses so people could fill in the blanks. I know most of the words but have never really thought about the melody or chords.

I have another story that's out looking for a home and gathering rejections along the way that has my most complete non-song yet. I wrote five verses that tell a story nobody understands (I was channeling the Sherlock Holmes story "The Musgrave Ritual") and the characters have to figure out the music by listening to an old cassette. The song is loosely based on old Appalachian ballads and I know the chords and melody pretty well. If that story ever sells, maybe I'll try to put the whole thing together and play it at an open mic--and see if I can pass it off as an obscure oldie.
Bill again, in the hat. Kit Webb, in red, plays about five instruments well.

I'd love to have people think it was a "real" song. I don't see myself writing any more of them unless I come up with another story idea that calls for it.

A little learning may be a dangerous thing, or it may be just enough to get by. What do you think?

06 November 2017

Killer Tunes


by Steve Liskow

I've played guitar since the Monkees hit it big, and I read music (a little) and know (a little) theory, but I don't write songs.

I've been known to commit poetry under extreme circumstances, but songs have more technical demands than I can handle: melody, rhythm, lyrics, harmony, maybe even a bass line...and that's all assuming I can sing, which is still a topic of heated debate.

Strangely enough, several of my stories involve made-up songs. I had to convince people they're real to make the stories work.

In Blood On The Tracks, my first Woody Guthrie novel, we learn that dead singer Jeremy Garth wrote a song to Megan Traine. At the recording session, Meg blew a chord change and her mistake caused lots of bad stuff to happen. Since the session was years ago and Guthrie is only a so-so guitar player (probably a little better than I am), I had two problems. First, how would he figure out that the song was written for Meg? That was easy because I could put a hint into the lyrics. But how could Guthrie surmise that Meg made a mistake years after the fact?

That took some thought. I know just enough about music to recognize typical chord progressions, and I changed one chord so it wouldn't quite fit the rest of the song. It took me about half an hour to create a logical chord sequence for a song no reader will ever hear. Once I had it, I knew how a brilliant musician could make the necessary mistake, too. Several musicians have told me they enjoyed the music background in the book, and nobody has ever had any trouble believing what happened. I still have a general idea what the song sounds like, but don't expect to hear it on my next CD. Don't hold your breath for the CD, either.

Two other stories explore musical plagiarism. "Hot Sugar Blues," which appeared in the MWA anthology Vengeance (and was nominated for an Edgar) tells of a white blues singer who copied a song he heard a black man perform in a southern bar. I had to make it logical that he'd have trouble figuring out the chords until the performer showed him what they were, so I had Deacon Maddix put his guitar into a special tuning.
Keith Richards, Stephen Stills, David Crosby, Joni Mitchell and Richard Thompson all frequently re-tune for different voicings in their songs. Robert Johnson's early blues are hard to figure out, too, partly because he had amazing technique, but also because he played most of them in different tunings so he could use a slide or reach unusual notes. Johnson gave me the idea, and I put Maddix's song into a tuning I've never heard anyone ever use. Maybe someday I'll try playing a song in that tuning to hear if it even works. Maybe I'll do it for that same CD.

"Look What They've Done To My Song, Ma," in last summer's Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, casts Woody Guthrie and Megan Train in another musical mystery. A man claimed that a singer worked with him on several songs, but released them without giving him any credit or royalties. Since the singer was known for her lyrics, I could work with words more than music, and had far too much fun creating esoteric rhymes. I even made one song use the rhyme scheme AAAAAAAA, which is harder in English than in the romance languages with an inflected ending. I simply listed the words that rhyme. I'd hate to try to write verses with those words that actually made sense, though. Maybe that's why someone ends up getting killed.

Right now, I'm polishing another story that involves a song. Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes classic "The Musgrave Ritual" may have been my unconscious starting point because I was on a panel with Lindsay Faye, who recently published a collection of "new" Holmes stories. The song in my new story seems to be an obscure old ballad, but the characters suspect it's really much newer...and that the message is dangerous. I've written out five verses and even have a general idea of the chords and melody.

Look for it on the second CD I don't plan to produce.



08 May 2017

The Song Remembers When


 Family Fortnight +  Leading up to the International Day of Families on the 15th of May, we bring you the tenth in a series about mystery writers’ take on families. Settle back and enjoy!

The following article is by my darling daughter, Karla Lee. Seems as if writing just runs in our genes. As for the song, Johnny Cash said it's one of the best ever written.
— Jan Grape
Karla Lee
Karla Lee— songwriter
The Craft of Songwriting

by Karla Lee

I’ve been dabbling in writing my entire life. I have a book of poetry that I wrote and illustrated when I was eight years old. It is handwritten on 3-hole loose leaf notebook paper with strings of orange yarn holding it together. At 12, I kept a diary (who didn’t?). At 16, I wrote poems full of angst, longing, and mystery. In my 20s, I started journaling about random thoughts, jobs, experiences, friends, heartbreak, happiness, which I continued when my life flowed its course into marriage, children, moving, divorce, personal challenges, triumphs, frustrations. In my 30s, I wrote a children’s book. (I received several nice rejections letters. I realized children’s books are much harder to write than one would imagine.) In my 40s, I took a creative writing class at my local community college. At the encouragement of my instructor, I submitted a few pieces to the literary journal and a couple of them were published. It was thrilling to see my work in print. Here I am in my 50s and I’m still journaling, currently in a five-year journal, which I find is a format that suits my lifestyle perfectly! It just takes a couple of minutes to jot down a few lines before I turn in at night. Writing has always been a large part of my life, but it has always remained just a hobby.

The writing format that has been my favorite since I was a teenager is the song lyric. I like the fact that it’s a short-term commitment. I can usually write a complete song lyric in a couple of hours, at least get the first draft finished. To me, it’s kind of like sitting down to solve a word puzzle, but with a lot of emotion thrown in. My mission is to succinctly convey a feeling or experience. Words are expensive in a song, so every one of them has to count. The meter has to work from line to line and it has to rhyme. If you’re lucky enough to play an instrument, you have the added bonus of being able to put music to the words, and suddenly, it’s alive! What a rush!

I live in Nashville. We have some of the best songwriters in the world. Writing GREAT song lyrics is a huge challenge. I’m not talking about songs that make us dance, although I love those too. I’m talking about songs that make us stop and listen. Songs that make us think. Songs that make us cry. Songs that take us and shake us to the core. Here in Nashville, publishers and recording artists are not looking for GOOD songs. They’re looking for knock-your-socks-off, stop-in-your-tracks songs. We have a saying in Nashville that a great song consists of three chords and the truth. It’s all about telling a believable story.

I don’t have any major “cuts”. But I’ve studied the craft of songwriting all my life and continue to write in my spare time. In Nashville, we sometimes say that songs aren’t written, they’re RE-written! It’s important to not be “married” to the first words/rhymes/lines that pop into your head. Yes, get them down on paper. But, once I have a first draft, it’s time to ask myself some tough questions:
  1. Will the opening line grab people and make them keep listening?
  2. Is the hook STRONG?
  3. Have I said something in a way that nobody else has ever said it before?
  4. Are the lyrics conversational?
  5. Does each line further the story along, or are some of the lines “throw away”?
  6. Is there a beginning, middle, and end of the story?
  7. Does the story make sense? Is it believable?
  8. Is it relatable in a personal and a universal way?
  9. Are the rhymes too predictable?
If I can’t answer yes to most of these questions, I need to keep working on the puzzle. A lot of songwriters settle for their first draft instead of taking the time to craft the lyric into something special. One song that I think is a beautiful example of someone taking the time to get it perfect was written in 1993 by Hugh Prestwood and recorded by Trisha Yearwood. Obviously, much of the “mood” is lost without the music (for full impact, pull it up on your phone or computer and listen while you read), but the wordsmithing is magnificent.


The Song Remembers When
by Hugh Prestwood
I was standing at the counter
I was waiting for the change
When I heard that old familiar music start
It was like a lighted match
Had been tossed into my soul
It was like a dam had broken in my heart
After taking every detour
Getting lost and losing track
So that even if I wanted
I could not find my way back
After driving out the memory
Of the way things might have been
After I'd forgotten all about us
The song remembers when

We were rolling through the Rockies
We were up above the clouds
When a station out of Jackson played that song
And it seemed to fit the moment
And the moment seemed to freeze
When we turned the music up and sang along
And there was a God in Heaven
And the world made perfect sense
We were young and were in love
And we were easy to convince
We were headed straight for Eden
It was just around the bend
And though I have forgotten all about it
The song remembers when.
I guess something must have happened
And we must have said goodbye
And my heart must have been broken
Though I can't recall just why
The song remembers when

Well, for all the miles between us
And for all the time that's passed
You would think I haven't gotten very far
And I hope my hasty heart
Will forgive me just this once
If I stop to wonder how on Earth you are
But that's just a lot of water
Underneath a bridge I burned
And there's no use in backtracking
Around corners I have turned
Still I guess some things we bury
Are just bound to rise again
For even if the whole world has forgotten
The song remembers when

Yeah, and even if
    the whole world has forgotten
The song remembers when.


©1992-1993
Trisha Yearwood

In thinking about lyric writing and the questions that I ask myself to make a song as strong as it can possibly be, I realize that these questions apply to all writing, no matter the format. Taking the extra time to dig deeper and search further is worth it. This is when the magic happens. It’s the difference between mediocre and amazing.



Karla Lee is an office manager for an engineering company in Nashville and has two grown sons. When she’s not working or writing, she spends time traveling and having fun with friends.