37 weeks. Am I still on track? I hope so. I think so. But I’ve got a head cold and a sore throat and it’s had me feeling a bit off kilter this week. Maybe that was the inspiration.
Whatever it was, Off Track really kicked my butt. I set myself the challenge of writing four songs in a row without using the acoustic guitar, this one being the first. You see, I’ve written all but one of my 52 in 52 songs hunched over the acoustic. (The one exception is Remember Me which came first as words and melody in my head while I was sitting quietly and thinking about what I hoped to accomplish with the song.) Anyhow, given my acoustic guitar habit, I thought it would be ‘good experience’ for me to write at least a few of this year’s songs using an alternative method. And seeing as we’re at week 37, I figured I better get cracking.
I should also mention that my little four week challenge is not just about breaking my acoustic habit. It’s also about intentionally starting with the computer, playing with sounds and beats and seeing what comes of it. The basic thought is to get some electronic ideas in place and then try to work lyrics and melody around that. And that was how it went with Off Track.
The whole experience was very different and a bit of a roller coaster ride. Sitting at the computer and playing around with sounds and creating beats was a lot of fun. It was liberating. And it wasn’t too difficult to have some initial ideas in place by the end of my first session, ideas that I liked. But the challenge was then, ‘What next?’ I had hoped that some lyric ideas would jump out at me while I was creating some of these new sounds (just as they do while sitting with the acoustic) and I’d use that as a springboard. Well, it didn’t go quite so smoothly.
After that first session of laying down some sonic ideas, I spent the next few writing sessions sitting there at the Pro Tools workstation, listening back repeatedly to what I had created and hoping for some sort of inspiration. A melody. A phrase. Just a couple of words. Anything. But I got nothing.
It was disconcerting to say the least. And so it was on to Plan B, something I should have done right away. The single best place for generating lyric ideas seems to be in the car while listening back to rough guitar recordings off my phone. So I pulled out my iPhone, held it up to the speakers and recorded a pass of what I had created. For the next couple of days, whenever driving out and about, I’d play it back and see if any ideas would pop. And that’s when I finally had a little breakthrough.
The first ideas I had that seemed to stick were the opening lyrics of ‘I’ve been running through the streets, crawling through the fields’. I had a few others too, and soon after the subject idea of being stuck in between, still having a ways to go but having gone too far to turn around, the limbo state that I love to write about. And with that as my starting point, I was able to work up a set of draft lyrics over my next couple of sessions, which I refined as the days passed.
As for the recording, just about everything you hear was generated by the computer. I started by playing around with drum sounds and created the pattern you hear in the song. From there, I began auditioning various synth sounds and would hear a part in my head, figure it out on the computer and record it. Repeat and rinse. Chord changes were dictated by the lyrics, so I was making tweaks throughout the process.
After a short while, I had four or five synths playing back to my beat. I then added a shaky egg part and record the vocal ‘pahs’ you hear every other beat 3. In the end, the only ‘real’ sounds you hear are my voice (with a head cold) and the shaky egg.
One final note… Beginning the song on the computer, playing around with sounds and getting things to feel a certain way gave me an advantage toward the end of the week. Once I finalized my lyrics, I just needed to record vocals and essentially start mixing and tweaking. (Which of course, still takes a lot of time.) Most weeks, I finish the writing process toward the end of the week and I then begin thinking about recording and production. I may be at a point where I could sit and sing and strum the song for you, but I still have to think about how I want the finished song to sound, what the instrumentation will be and other such details. That is a time consuming and quite frankly intimidating part of the process for me. So while creating Off Track was overall stressful, that stress came relatively early in the process. There was no midnight Friday panic of ‘What am I going to do? This just isn’t working!’ I was at a point of mixing and tweaking which I tend to enjoy a bit more. It will be interesting for me to see how this will play out in the coming weeks.
And so my friends, it’s on to #38. I hope you enjoyed Off Track. I hope I didn’t risk losing anyone with the ‘different’ sounds. If so, please hang in there. These next few weeks are about experimentation for the sake of learning and the greater good. And I promise I won’t do any beat boxing.
With that, thanks for following and have a great week!