Archiving Embarrassment and Triumph: The Blue Collar Songwriter

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I don’t really consider myself a songwriter.

I spend most of my time as a musician in the sideman position.  A role that keeps me busy learning other people’s songs, coming up with second guitar parts, and singing harmony. Despite my area of expertise lying outside of songwriting, I’ve still managed to write quite a few songs in my years as a musician.

The problem is, most of my songs are mediocre at best, and at worst–especially ones from when I was younger–they’re downright terrible.

Nevertheless, I’ve kept at songwriting in a way that has allowed me to advance beyond some of my weaknesses. I’m like a plumber or a carpenter who, through trial and error, has emerged as a craftsman.  Where some keep a toolbelt and a work shirt, I keep guitars and notebooks.

It is with this attitude that I approach the art and craft of songwriting.

In this blog post, I’ll share fragments of my song archive and descriptions of my songwriting process.  I’ll begin with an honest appraisal of my fits and starts and I’ll end with two of the best songs I’ve ever written.  Along the way, I’ll share some of my archive of embarrassment and triumph.

Archiving Embarrassment

To illustrate my humble beginnings as a songwriter, I’ve created a montage of some of my bad news songwriting from years past.[1]

“Five Second Snippets Of Terrible Songs That I’ve Written”

Letting ya’ll hear those songs feels like being caught masturbating. Here are the other candidate sentences I came up with to follow that collection of wonders:

  • The immortal, blind monkey who randomly bangs on a typewriter throughout eternity accidentally wrote one of those songs and killed himself as a consequent.
  • Letting ya’ll hear those songs is like you watching me as a seven-year-old fail my tee ball tryouts.
  • One time I overheard a drunk man giving a shih tzu a blowjob and it sounded better than most of those songs.

Okay, humor aside, the primary problem with those songs, in my opinion, is that I’m singing poorly written lyrics with a poorly executed vocal line.  A one-two punch that’ll take any singer songwriter out of the game.  You can arguably get by committing one or the other sin but never both.

Despite my weaknesses, I still get my songwriter toys out from time to time and tinker with the medium.  A funny thing is starting to happen:  I am getting a little better at the art and craft of songwriting. I’m still not great, but at least I’m better than I was.

I’d say my biggest leap forward came about five years ago when I addressed my poor singing by getting voice lessons. Amy Lindsey. my teacher, helped me develop technique.

And technique, in my opinion, frees the mind for the creative process.

Now, I don’t claim to be a great singer, but I can get the job done when it comes to harmony.  And when it comes to songwriting, I have a workmanlike approach to lyrics, melodies, and singing.

Archiving Triumph

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Okay, now I’m going to describe the genesis of a song I co-wrote called “Give In, Break Down.”  It was a collaboration between three people spread out through space and through time.

The kernel came from a riff that my friend Steve Tribou had written.  He showed it to me one day using his loop sampler. It was beautiful and ethereal like most of the music that he comes up with.  Sometime later, I experimented with my own loop that used Steve’s basic harmonic rhythm.  I made one minor adjustment to the way the riff fluctuated and came up with some words.

“Give In, Break Down 1”

I probably recorded that idea sometime in 2007–I don’t remember exactly when.

Much later, maybe about a year ago, I was playing some of my loop sample collection for my friend and band mate Brett Staggs. I explained to him the history of the loop and how much I liked it.

I asked if he had any ideas for it since I was stuck.  Brett took a two-second-listen and devised a little turnaround sequence featuring a new chord and the lyrics repeating.  He then offered his idea lyrically for a second verse.

I recorded the new ideas and back to the archive it went.  Here it is in the middle stage of development:

“Give In, Break Down 2”

Then, a couple weeks ago, I stumbled on it again.  This time I buckled down and finished the damn thing.  I came up with a slightly new way of accompanying the rhythm and I wrote a third verse.

The funny thing is, the song took eight years and three people to complete and it’s probably the simplest song on the planet. Really, it’s caveman easy.  In fact, I’m thinking of teaching it to my cat.[2]

“Give In, Break Down 3”

Another interesting example of songwriting-through-archiving came with the song, “Strawman.”  Here, again, I recorded a loop that had impact and charm, saved it, then did nothing with it.

“Strawman 1”

About five years later, during rehearsal, I taught my band how to play this nifty little fragment.  Almost immediately, magic started happening. Bryan William Kinney vocalized a melody while Jonny Southern harmonized in seeming lockstep.  And guess what lucky motherfucker was recording?

“Strawman 2”

I gathered some of the fragments of lyrics Bryan improvised, went home, and penned a verse.

At the next rehearsal, my bandmate Brett Staggs did his trick again:  he improvised a chorus figure that brought the song one step closer to completion. Brett should probably create a smartphone app that writes a chorus melody to existing musical material–he’s truly remarkable at it.[3]

Next came the bridge.  I took the chords of the verse, played them backwards with a new feel, and a bridge was born.  The song practically wrote itself from there.

Here it is live on WDVE Coffee House:

“Strawman 3”

The Blue Collar Musician

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In order to be a working musician you cannot be lazy, you cannot whine about playing other people’s music, and you cannot forget that you are replaceable.

Take care of, and treat with respect, the songs you write as any craftsman takes care of and treats with respect his or her construction.

I long for nothing more than to be this sort of blue collar musician. If you are like me in this respect, I salute you, and I want to know more about you.

Please tell me about yourself in the comments.

End Notes

  1. These are songs I wrote and produced between the ages of 18 and 28.
  2. His name is Mondo and he’s a bad kitty.
  3. I ran the idea past Brett and he suggested this title for the hypothetical app: The Chorus Creationists Consortium (CCC).

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