Northern Thorns

Dance Rock | Seattle

Tag: songwriting

So Many Riff Ideas

I feel like a bottomless well of rumba rock guitar riffs. My phone is full of like 200 voice memos, each one a recording of me whistling a theme after a count-off. No shortage of vocal motif ideas either. The more I listen, the more I hear.

Finding time to sit down and string them together into a song is the hard part. That, and lyrics.

Voice Memos

Voice Memos

Kinda New Tune Comin’ – Malevolence

Northern Thorns had been performing a song called Malevolence for quite a few shows, though I’d taken it out of our live set and never put it on Soundcloud because I don’t consider it finished. When I completed Kill Me Again, I replaced it with that in¬†the set.

It’s about a string of killings/disappearings/suppressings of pan-African leaders during the cold war, and how the 1960’s kicked off a renewal of imperialism that had existed on the continent since the European age of discovery. The lyrics, which need a bit of work still,¬†include an adapted piece of a Patrice Lumumba poem:

 

“These hosannas, tuned to your sorrows, give you hope of a better world to come.”

Especially because of the subject matter, and because I am a white American man writing about black African struggle, I want the words to be their best form before I release this one. I’m taking December to edit charts, rerecord parts, reimagine melodies, etc. where I think that’s needed. This song will be getting a whole new comping pattern and more. I’ll get it out online before 2017.

Also, thank you Google for this entirely helpful definition of the word ‘malevolence.’

Malevolence definition

Syllables, cont.

I should add to the thoughts from last entry, I love the sound of the syllables in the Lingala language. Tons of vowels, super round sounding and sung warmly. And the Congolese/Belgian pronunciation of French is also really beautiful, strong and smooth and not as slippery as French spoken in France itself. They occasionally sing in other languages, English and Spanish, though not often.

My own lyrical ideas almost always originate in syllabic sounds. The words and sometimes even the entire subject matter follow from that. I hear a melody, decide if it’s better suited to guitar or voice, and if it’s a vocal melody the next thing I hear is the sounds of the words. Filler or nonsense words, initially.

The other thing I wanted to mention today is that a single fiery Orchestre Viva La Musica song that I discovered (it’s in the blog post from the 14th) has got me on a new music kick again, and for that I’m grateful. Time to write and record some new stuff, very soon.

Sound of Syllables

I’ve never been a fan of poetry on a page. But since I started writing lyrics for this project (I hadn’t written lyrics in a very long time prior to this, long enough that my previous work is basically just teenage breakup angst), I’ve really observed that setting words to music adds something. Something that’s hard to put your finger on. It’s a piece of the puzzle, the whole story of a work, in a similar way that a music video will add yet more depth to a song. How much more profound is David Bowie’s Blackstar as a result of the accompanying video? The words written on a page just don’t hit as hard, at least they never have for me. In fact, many lyrics in print form I would mistake for completely trite. The song makes the poetry.

The words have to flow smoothly. This can mean they rhyme, and I’m a great fan of double couplet rhyming and deep rhyme schemes. But more important to me is that good vocal lines are always somewhat conversational. The notes in a vocal melody can convey inflection. A meandering line that has a lot of movement might evoke incredulity or anger, depending on the movement and the note order. If you were to speak the lyrics to someone else in conversation, and the sentence lilted up or downwards at the end of a phrase, the vocal melody should reflect that. Paul Simon is the guru of conversational singing, though I constantly look to the entire hip hop genre for great examples as well, whether rapped or sung.

And, the sounds of the syllables need to sit comfrotably on the tongue and in the song. I have often changed words that I like only because I can’t deliver them naturally in the song. Bjork is a master of syllables, probably the best I’ve ever heard. She has such a command of them that she can create striking new timbres with just pronunciations. I’m always amazed when I listen to her.

Paying heed to all these things will make the vocals in a song sound natural, classic, flowing. And the ideas conveyed in the words will come across more clearly and sink in deeper, without the listener being aware of it in a lot of cases. Great songwriting is a marriage of words and music. And lately I can’t get excited about instrumental music. That may be another thing Pollens did to me. I’m addicted to the human voice as instrument. It’s so old, so primal, so ecstatic, so unconscious.

All this is the main reason lyrics are so difficult for me. It’s like a Rubic’s Cube; they have to be approached from so many angles at once.

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