Songwriting

The Williamsburg Recording Sessions: Part 2

I spent ten hours in the studio on Friday down in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, finishing up the track for the novel, My Year as a Clown. The story’s protagonist, Chuck Morgan writes a love song for a girl, but doesn’t have the courage to play her the song. Purchasers of the book will be given a code to download a high quality MP3 of the track.

Last month I recorded the basic tracks with Doug Yowell on drums (Duncan Sheik/Suzanne Vega) and Rob Calder, bass (Angus Stone). Declan O’Rourke introduced me to them and studio owner/engineer, Tim Mitchell—Tim’s worked with guys like Springsteen and Sting.

Recording is lots of fun, but its hard work too. It was a tad daunting going into the studio with such great musicians, but part of the reason they are so great is that they are so easy to work with–they also always come up with great parts that serve the song well.

Some of that session was captured by Mark and Carl, a video crew. They’re making a short promotional piece for my website that will be posted soon. There’s lots of extra video bits that will crop up over the next few months also.

At this second session I added a couple of guitar parts. One was an electric part in stereo. I played my 1966 Gibson ES355, which has two separate outputs that plugged into an old VOX amp;, the other, an old Fender Twin. Standing in a room with both amps cranked, playing these parts, its the sort of thing found on a some folk’s bucket list.

The electric part is used as an enhancer, not a main feature, so it’s as much about the tone and sound as it is the actual notes I’m playing.

Over the next few months, I’ll post snippets of that part on its own for those interested.

 

 

 

 

 

Philly Festival Benefit for Sierra Club

 

On a chilly Saturday I had the honor to play a half-hour set at the Philly benefit for the Sierra Club. Lots of great singer songwriters were on the bill during the day, some great bands played in the evening. I’ll post more details later in the week.

 

Thanks for Visiting

When I set out in 1998 to make a midcareer change, Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours rule was still a decade away from being published in his book Outliers. Perhaps if I’d known what was required to acquire the skills to write well I never would have walked away from the comfortable corporate lifestyle.

I’d always fancied myself an artist, but never had the courage to pursue it. I ended up in the music business. Working with artists, I thought I understood their challenges. But until you put yourself on the line, you don’t have any idea what it’s really like to be that exposed.

Many people are drawn to the idea of the writing life—fishing with Castro, running with the bulls in Pamplona, hanging out like Hemingway in Key West drinking until dawn. I too was drawn to this idea, but I soon discovered writing is damn hard. No doubt Hemingway was gifted, but clearly, he also worked his ass off.

To be frank, I had no clue what it took to be a writer and I wandered down many dead ends. And yet not a single step was wasted. Each one ultimately brought me to this very moment.

At RobertStevenWilliams.com you’ll find songs, short stories, essays and blogs on a variety of subjects from relationships, love and yoga, to sports, politics and culture. My Year as a Clown, a novel, will soon be available.  Here, I’ll also chronicle the path to publication.

The poet Edna St. Vincent Millay once said, “A person who publishes a book willfully appears before the populace with his pants down.”

During this journey to publication I had the privilege to meet some amazing artists, from Rosanne Cash to Barry Hannah, James Houston, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Suzi-Lori Parks. Each posses the courage of a warrior, and yet each stands willfully before the public with their pants down in hopes of making you feel something real.

I too stand before you now, pants down, hoping . . .

 

Henry Coe Park, San Jose, CA – I took this photo back in 1983

 

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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