Week 51 - How Long

Well, well, well.  This week’s song is a little different, isn’t it?  I must have been channeling my inner Trent Reznor or something.  Let me tell you how it all unfolded.

One of the things I haven’t done this year is build a song around loops.  For those of you unfamiliar with the term, loops are prerecorded snippets of sound – maybe a drum or bass part, a guitar riff or something like that – that can be used as building blocks for a song.  Typically, they are only a few measures long and they come in sets with variations which work together allowing you to create your song.  Using loops, you can build a fairly intricate song without ever playing a note yourself.  In fact, there are folks out there who make a tremendous living doing just that.

Working with loops is a whole skillset in and of itself.  I had hoped to play around with them a bit this year but for some reason, it just didn’t happen.  That is until last week.  Last Sunday night, I decided I’d explore some of the loops that come bundled with Pro Tools to see if anything might inspire me for #51.

After some time, I was coming up empty.  The loops were all great, but for whatever reason – maybe just my mood at the time – nothing was jumping out at me.  I did keep at it for a while though, auditioning cut after cut, and finally stumbled upon a four bar loop based around a shamisen which I’ve since learned is a Japanese banjo-like instrument.  (This is the loop that starts How Long.)  For whatever reason, I liked it and decided I’d give it a go.

I put it down on a track, looped (repeated) it a bunch of times and started to play around with chords on the guitar.  I quickly found that it was working with a simple back and forth G minor/C minor pattern.  I did a quick scratch record of some fast guitar strumming on those chords and began recording other tracks, most notably a tambourine, a shaky egg and a simple arpeggiated pattern on the acoustic guitar.  By the time I was finished Sunday night, I had something that felt, well…interesting.  In addition to the instruments, the phrase ‘how long’ had popped out along with a melody. 

When I revisited the song idea the next morning, I still liked it (which was good).  As I started thinking about what it might be about, something about the feel and the ‘how long’ phrase had me imagining some sort of doomsday figure – a sort of street corner prophet – shouting out to folks as they pass.  With that in mind, I was able to get a rough set of lyrics together fairly quickly.  (These aren’t the most complicated lines I’ve ever written.)  At that point, I turned my attention to the music and production and really spent the majority of the week on that.

Without going into excruciating detail, I’ll just say that most of my time was spent adding and tweaking various instruments and sounds, all the while scared that I was going to end the week with nothing more than a collection of interesting sounds.  As for loops, the only ones to make the final cut were the original shamisen loop and another one with a tambourine rhythm.  (Although I had recorded some live tambourine too.)

As I worked, my biggest struggle was song structure.  It wasn’t falling into a conventional form.  I had developed an idea for what I thought would be the bridge, but was it a bridge?  Or a chorus?  I wasn’t sure.  It was just the middle of the song.

The bottom line is that I carried around a mild anxiety all week wondering if I was going to be writing a last minute quick and simple voice/guitar song Saturday morning because my crazy How Long just wasn’t working.  I also wasn’t thrilled with the idea of releasing a song that had me singing the part of what many would consider a madman.  But it’s art, so I just kept pushing those thoughts down (although they still haven’t gone away.)

Looking back now, it was an interesting week.  It felt a little like one of those reality cooking shows where they give the contestants a few ingredients and say go make something. In this case, it was a simple four measure loop with an exotic feel.  And from that, How Long was born.

I hope you liked it.  I’m not sure if it’s one I’d sit back and listen to over and over again, but I do like how it all came together.  I had to use many of the skills that I’ve learned this year to pull it off.  It felt almost like a final exam.  And speaking of final exams, one more left!  I can hardly believe it.  The finish line is in sight.  As always, thanks for following and have a great week!