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Feedback from Ireland’s Declan O’Rourke

This week I had the good fortune of getting assistance on some of my songs from the Irish singer-songwriter Declan O’Rourke. If you don’t know Declan’s work, visit his site.

Paul Weller said this about Declan in the April edition of the UK music magazine Mojo:

“He writes the sort of classic songs that people don’t write anymore, songs that sound like they’ve been around forever . . . Listen to Galileo, which is possibly the greatest song written in the last thirty years.”

There are no right or wrongs in songwriting, but there are clearly better choices. Declan’s made a lot of great choices over the years. What I love about his attitude is that he’s into wrestling with a song for months, agonizing over each word, prepared always to kill his darlings if necessary.

We spent several hours on a Skype call the other day. I was in Westport, CT; he was in Galway. By the time we finished, the sun was rising in Ireland.

We came up with some great ideas on how to improve my songs and for the past few days I’ve been trying to work those in.

It was a great experience putting songs on the workbench to tinker with its mechanics. Declan’s insights often resonated. Here’s a glimpse of how we did this.

The Context for my song “Maybe.”

In my novel My Year as a Clown, Chuck, the protagonist falls hard for his yoga instructor, but she’s not in to him. He writes a song that he doesn’t have the guts to show her. The reader or course, gets to see the lyric. I thought it would be cool to give the track away as a promotional vehicle for the book, and I was a great opportunity to get Declan’s input prior.

The song, “Maybe” was in reasonable shape before Declan heard it, but I knew it could be better. Here’s the first verse and chorus:

Sparks crackle in the air, smoke smolders in the brush
I’m blinded by the glare, feels like a high-school crush
Maybe she loves me
And she don’t know it
Maybe she loves me
Just can’t show it — maybe that’s it
Maybe she loves me
But she can’t risk a lot
Maybe she loves me, Maybe not

Declan felt the first verse could use another line to better set up the chorus. To be honest, I wasn’t feeling that, but when I revisited it, I got what he was saying, in fact, it was damn obvious. It’s amazing what happens when you’re too close. So I wrote a bunch of lines and opted to go with this one:

Sparks crackle in the air, smoke smolders in the brush
I’m blinded by the glare, feels like a high-school crush
And I doubt that she’s aware, I’m thinking about us

The addition sets up the first line of the chorus much better:

…Maybe she loves me and she don’t know it

Declan also felt the last line of the chorus needed something. He also thought there was no need to have ‘Maybe Not.’

I’ve been playing this song live for awhile and the audience always responds favorably to ‘Maybe Not.’ But I knew what he was saying. We already know this, so why squander the most important line in the chorus?

We talked through a number of options as well as the need for a slight rhythmic change to create more drama. At some point we came up with this:

…Maybe she loves me but she can’t risk a lot
Maybe. Only she knows

The shift in perspective not only adds more punch, it makes a much stronger title.

The second verse had my favorite line:

Pull the petals off of daisies, I could pull all afternoon
One flower in a field of maybes has our fate in its bloom

I loved “Field of Maybes,” but Declan said: “You’ve already got a ton of Maybes in this song.”

He was right, but it wasn’t easy to kill one of my darlings, an expression Annie Lamont uses in her excellent book about writing called Byrd by Byrd. I took out the ax and swung swiftly. Here’s what replaced it:

Pull the petals off of daisies, pulled before they’re in bloom
Is what I’m feeling so crazy, is what I’m feeling too soon

This carries the narrative forward and provides the set-up for a deeper meaning when we hear the chorus a second time.

The bridge was in good shape providing a nice melodic and rhythmic change. Lyrically it did the job, but Declan felt that the last line could be cleaner, he also said I should lose the “Maybe.”

If I had the power to stop picking flowers
This could be the hour I break her spell — cause
Maybe she don’t, she don’t love me, and I don’t want to know

Admittedly, I’d struggled with the last line of the bridge, so when Declan said this, I knew I had to simplify it.

…If she doesn’t love me, then I don’t want to know

That’s where “Only She Knows” resides at the moment. I say ‘moment’ cause you never know.

Looking back on this process, “Maybe” always played well in my set. It was a perfectly acceptable song, but these tweaks, some more substantial than others, have improved it significantly. Given its role in my upcoming novel, I’m really pleased that I had the opportunity to get Declan’s input and that I put the time in to rewrite it yet again.

I’ll keep you posted on when I head into the studio to record what I’m now calling: “Only She Knows.”

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