One of the best songwriters maybe ever. I don't think everyone gets him, at least not at first, but when he hooks you, his genius unfolds. It's not just the words, its the twists of melody and harmony, and how the notes and chords sweep the words along. I'm a big fan, obviously, but if you are unfamiliar, do your self a favor and check it out. I started with the album XO, and my writing, production and taste in music hasn't been the same since... all for the better I like to believe.
Case Study: Say Yes by Elliott Smith
A cold start and a nice descending chord progression played on acoustic... simple right, almost seems like its just another folkie doing his thing.
I'm in love with the world trough the eyes of a girl Who's still around the morning after
Then the acoustic guitar becomes two acoustic guitars, panning immediately in time for the second half of this first verse. You also have an electric guitar appearing too, with his voice being doubled as well... maybe this isn't so cookie cutter after all. And I want to point out the lyrical/rhythmic phrasing here, without getting too music geeky, its so easy to follow along, and sing along... and the words are pretty straight forward and honest... simple and honest usually wins for me. More on that below.
We broke up a month ago and i grew up i didn't know I'd be around the morning after
Followed by the guitar playing the melody, panned on the right side still, then the second verse. Same simplistic beauty as the first. Again, that phrasing, and I love how the first three notes of the melody start by going up in register, as the guitar/bass line is moving down... yay for counterpoint! In general, the melody has more upward movement too.
It's always been wait and see A happy day and then and then you pay And feel like shit the morning after But know i feel changed around and instead falling down I'm standing up the morning after
Then the bridge, instrumentally, pretty much the same thing is happening... the doubling of the vocals, the electric guitar panned right, the acoustic doubled with one more or less down the middle, and the 2nd one panned to the left. That electric guitar is almost playing more lead type stuff, nice double stops... Also, worth it to mention that the bridge, depending on how you count it, is a five measure phrase.
Situations get fucked up and turned around sooner or later
And then back to a quick verse: This is the first time in the song that he gives away his control, "you tell me"... I never knew what to make about that line, is he resigned to his role, resigned to play the fool, and he just doesn't care, or is there something more... the next section, I think, answers this, but I always wondered about this lyric, as if this is the point in the song where the main character is teetering... whats going to happen?
And I could be another fool or an expection to the rule You tell me the morning after
The second bridge! He harmonizes with himself, which he does really well, does it with two voices an octave apart too, which is a little bit different than what you would normally do... in a classic pop sense anyways... Other than that, it's the chord changes, and the extension of the bridge and phrase that is so cool, especially on the word "is" (and notice the electric guitar mimicking the vocals there too)... any you guitar playing songwriters out there, check that second chord out (thats how you use an augmented chord!). Lyrically, this is where he answers my earlier question, to me anyways... its not up to him who loves him and who doesn't. Just like its not up to me who loves me and who doesn't, who cares for me and who doesn't... these are all things out of my control, but we still have to ask. It's worth it in the end, even after the rejection, to ask someone to care for us, to ask someone to say yes. This moment right here, this is why I love this song, and its arguably one of my favorites by one of my favorite songwriters. Simple. Vulnerable.
Crooked spin can't come to rest I'm damaged bad at best She'll decide what she wants I'll probably be the last to know No one says until it shows and you see how it is They want you or they don't, Say Yes.
And how does he end the song? With a dash of optimism... i think. And wraps it all up in barely over two minutes.
I'm in love with the world trough the eyes of a girl Who's still around the morning after
If you're a fan, there is a new documentary on Elliott called Heaven Adores You, you can find more info here: https://www.facebook.com/HeavenAdoresYou
What song or artist should I do next??
I'm not really a fan of Reggae, as I'm sure my old friends (and old band mates especially) can attest to, especially living in such a small hippie town for so long before moving here to Nashville. It often seemed like it was everywhere in little ol Ithaca NY. It's not that it isn't good, there is some great stuff out there, especially some of the older recordings, but in general, I always felt distant from it. Maybe I was just over saturated with it at one point and got jaded. But once upon a time, when I first stared to play the guitar, I learned Bob Marley's Redemption Song. The intro lick was easy, but for the beginner still posed a little bit of a challenge, and the chords were all nice and simple. It was, and still is a great camp fire song. And truth be told, I had heard Dave Matthews perform it, so it was obvisouly cool (does Dave Matthews count as a guilty pleasure now?). This was when I was young, impressionable, and susceptible to the hippie jam band culture, and I inhaled it all whole for a long while. Only to reject my younger musical ways as I got older and grew into my own skin.
Which brings me to last night, as I'm driving my car home and listening to the radio. When the song starts to play and I hear that opening guitar lick, my immediate instinct is to switch the station, and my hand reached out to do so. But for some reason I stopped, hand hanging in the air, half way to the radio dial. I started to listen, really listen again. And the words cut through all the bullshit in my mind. I was reminded again of what I knew at such a young age, the lyrics are genius, and even more so moving. Not because they are clever, or hip, but because they are honest, and go way beyond the initial meaning. And I'm not going ot really get into what that initial meaning is, or pretend to understand the mind and soul of another man and his intentions for writing a song, but I will say that the lyrics are undeniably universal. And I was reminded that maybe some things from my past are worth rediscovering, and that I should suspend my auto-discard impulse response. Who knows, maybe I'll dust off the old patch work pants... probably not.
What stories from "yesterday" can teach you something new "today"? What songs have new meaning to you in your life today?
photo taken off the internet, not from me :)
always keep a pen and pencil near (or your iPhone).
sometimes you need the idea for the song before you write it, meaning, it's helpful to have the hook already, something that we can all relate too. the rest of the song usually just writes itself once that ball is rolling.
we will write shitty songs, it's inevitable. when we keep at it, we will also write good ones, maybe even great ones.
try writing with a secondary instrument, or even an instrument that you don't know how to play at all. this can sometimes spark that 6th sense/creative instinct that can sometimes lie dormant.
all of the ideas are already out there, floating around in the air, listen for them, and they will find you. there is an endless amount of creativity out there. it will never end.
eavesdrop on other people's conversations. they sometimes say the coolest things. there has been more than one occasion a line has fallen in my lap by sitting at a bar with my note pad by myself and listening to what people are saying around me.
copy the greats. do it, you'll be better for it. i need to do this one more myself, but every time i have, i've learned a ton.
words matter. for some, they come really easily, for others, the music comes way easier. whatever is your case, words matter, so take your time with them if you need to.
all you need is three chords and the truth- sometimes, but most of the time this is absolute bull shit. take away the three chord stipulation, and leave the truth part.
now to contradict myself, simplicity rules! when i graduated with a jazz degree, i had to put at least two seventh chords in every song, and guess what, most of those songs sucked!
if you want to write a hit song, sometimes you have to pander to the lowest common denominator. if you want to write a great song, speak your truth. rarely the two meet... al least speaking from a lyrical point of view.
write all types of music, pop, country, rock, edm, classical... try your hand at everything you can. you'll learn something new from each category, which can be channeled into your own personal work in really cool ways.
lastly, JUST KEEP DOING IT. writing is a skill, it is a craft. the best writers do it all the time, yes, as i mentioned above you are guaranteed to write a bunch of crap, but as you do it more and more, you'll start to see what works, what mechanisms exist, and the best way to apply them. you'll learn to strengthen your voice, and be more confident in what you have to say. you'll learn and you'll keep getting better.
what songwriting tips or ideas do you have? what are some of your thoughts concerning other artistic processes? please share!
My dream client is someone who values adventure. My dream client is someone who loves to create, breathes to create, and lives to inspire. My dream client is a singer/songwriter, or a band, or a one (wo)man band, or... I love being a mad scientist, locked away, inventing textures, and sounds. I love mixing. I love the gear I have, and the gear I can't afford. Gear-disease, it's real. My dream client allows me to help them achieve their vision, a sonic "dreams come true". Who is your dream client? What type of person do you want to work with? ps: Every studio should have at least one Beatles book somewhere for your perusal. It is law.