Thursday, March 04, 2010

Charity Opportunity... And How I Write Songs

Hello there! I just received a pretty cool email from a fan (and album supporter).

"Hey Kate,
I need to make a donation to the Chilean Red Cross relief fund; I would be anyways, but especially since one of my sister's friends' families lives there.  I was going to do what everyone did on Twitter with their accounts for Haiti (# of followers I get in a month, I'll donate that much to the Red Cross).  Since I have all of 4 followers and almost never tweet, this doesn't work out well for I have a challenge for you - you have 112 followers at the moment.  Spread the word via some tweets, your blog, at shows, etc, and at the end of March, I will donate $1 for every follower you can add."

This fan, Ed K., has already been an amazing support to my career. He was, in fact, the first donor to the new album! If you're not following me on twitter yet, please do. I win, you win, Chileans win, and Ed wins (in the sense that his already large reserve of good Karma will become even more plentiful.)


Next on the agenda... I stayed up far too late last night listening to bits of old songs. For those of you who are writers... do you have notebook upon notebook of unfinished ideas? I have a hard drive full of what I affectionately refer to as "song nuggets." Some of them are good. Some are not so good. Sometimes I write them, save them, and forget they exist until a bout of insomnia has me browsing through the old files.

I've also had several conversations lately about my songwriting process, and decided that it would be fun to put myself out there: post one of these unfinished, barely formed ideas and show you how my brain works.

Here's the mp3, about 6 months old, complete with jumbly lyrics I hadn't settled on yet, 3am vocals, and the sound of me getting off the keyboard bench at the end and pressing the stop button. (Note - the sites that host these mp3s keep going under, so apologies if you've read this post at a moment when the mp3 was broken or missing.)

Here's my process for the above song, explained:

1) The song starts with one little piece, generally what I hope is some unique thought, or some emotion expressed in a way that (again, hopefully) hasn't been done before. In this case, this song started as a metaphor, which occurred to me while driving from Boston to Philly* in winter of 2008. "You were my raincoat, but now you're the rain." I had, at the time, been reflecting on that crappy-post-breakup feeling of how when you lose someone you love, you also lose your support system that you need for that kind of loss. Similar metaphor: getting kicked out of your Social Acceptance Club.

*I tend to remember exactly where I was, which is often in my car, when such ideas occur. The second verse of "Blue Sky Love" was written on Mass. Ave. in Cambridge, heading towards Somerville, between the Lizard Lounge and my old apartment. "Franklin" was written, in it's entirety, on highways 91 and 84 in Connecticut.

2) The idea is either born with a melody, or attaches to one rather quickly. Then it bounces around my brain for a gestational period of 1 minute to 2 years. In this case, it went into hiding and resurfaced after my next heartbreak. (I returned to this song in fall of 2009, at which point I also wrote: Recover, Can't Wait, The Secret, and 2 other heart wrenching songs. Breakups = songwriting juice.)

3) I sit at my piano until a piano part that moves me comes along. The original idea turns into a chorus (or in this case, a refrain). Maybe a verse comes. In this case, I came up with some "filler" for the verse. I don't love it, so it will eventually be re-written, with the L-word omitted, and less space before the refrain. You can tell it's filler by the fact that I sound like I don't *really* know what words come next.

4) Generally, I would write in this order: chorus,verse, verse, bridge, and then I'm done. The order it would be performed in would be: verse 1, chorus, verse 2, chorus, bridge, chorus, or something along those lines, as I'd hate to use the same format every time. In this case, I had an idea for the bridge, which is why the recording has a verse, refrain, and bridge. It's still missing a second verse, and the first verse is tentative.
5) I get into a zone and finish the song. Most of the time, when I have this much of a song, there's enough momentum to finish. But I write songs for two reasons: 1) catharsis 2) relating with people. My sadness meter started edging back towards "pretty ok" around this time, and the catharsis became unnecessary. As for relatability, it would have been forced at this point. So the song will remain a nugget, at least for now.

So, that's how I write songs. And why I write songs. In case you were wondering.

1 comment:

DaSpider said...

Hey Kate,

I'm very similiar with my writing process. Although I have to say for a 3am demo that sounded lovely. :)

I have a hard drive of song nuggets - I suppose it's the modern equivalent of the bag of cassette tapes that McCartney supposedly carried around (I would love to hear what bits he leaves in there).

For me, I tend to be very creative early in the morning with the first cup of coffee. Make a quick demo of an idea with junk lyrics and awful singing. ;) At some point I compile a bunch of them onto a CD or MP3 player and listen to them in the car. Let them distill and try to prioritize them and finish them - leaving the bad ones in the junk drawer. It also helps me group / catergorize them. Some songs fit well together and I start thinking about that at this point.

Anyway, keep up the good work. Looking forward to the new album.

Neall Alcott