Great, Britain

November 17, 2012

Play the song here!

You led the largest ever empire
And though the times have changed since then
In so many ways your lasting legacy lives on
It casts a giant shadow even bigger than Big Ben

The Bard still treads all the world’s stages
We thrill to Christie’s mysteries
By your tales from Scrooge to Harry Potter we’re entranced
Among the very best world round, near everyone agrees

Bloody brilliant
For all the things you’ve written
I must say, “Bravo”
You’re so great, Britain

Yes, Hollywood is known for movies
And Broadway musicals win fame
Nothing’s more American than good old rock and roll
But Brits in these endeavors roundly beat us at our game

The Oscars always love the British
Lloyd Webber shows play on and on
From Adele to Zeppelin, countless first-rate music stars
And then there’s Chaplin, Hitchcock, Python, Beatles and James Bond

Awfully awesome
You bug, but I’ve been bitten
With success august
You’re just great, Britain

A populace one snip our size
Have you a genius gene?
Is something in the water?
It’s not likely the cuisine

For all our pride, compared to you
Our record’s rather poor
Would we do better to declare
Dependency once more?

From Newton to the web, et cetera
The world is changed for all you do
And, just think, if we consider all the British Isles
Then you would claim James Joyce and Shaw and Wilde and U2

We shan’t forget our auld acquaintance
The one we raise our glasses to
Though politically your days of dominance are past
Still, culturally the sun shines bright and never sets on you

Darling dearest
It’s you with whom I’m smitten
You give such delight
You’re quite great, Britain


The Challenge

Edric Haleen, a regular participant in the SpinTunes songwriting contest, occasionally spearheads a “Songwriting Cycle” in which a group of songwriters create challenges that are randomly distributed to each other. In this way, an album’s worth of songs would be created, with a complete cycle of challenges given and received. Non-competitive, just for fun. I enjoyed being a part of Songwriting Cycle #1 and regretted missing the deadline to get involved in Songwriting Cycle #2. Having judged SpinTunes #5 this past Summer and had a chunk of time off of writing, I was glad to participate in Songwriting Cycle #3.

This time, Edric had everyone pose two challenges, and we could all pick which one we’d do. When the challenges were randomly assigned on October 26, 2012, I received Kevin Savino-Riker’s challenges: either (1) write a song inspired by another country you’ve visited (not a country in which you’ve ever resided), or (2) write a song inspired by another country you’ve never visited (again, not a country in which you’ve ever resided). I chose the second.

The Concept

In a way, this song may exist because of the 2012 Summer Olympics.

Though we had three weeks to write, I was really busy at first and didn’t get to sit down to any real work on the song until four days before it was due. Before that, I casually pondered what I might do and trusted (and hoped) that incubation would help get the job done.

At first, I thought I might write about Taosim and China, but along the way I remembered some thoughts I’ve had for years, about how many British music acts I like, and more generally about how the British Isles often seem over-represented in lists of great achievers in many areas.

Well, the Olympics this year, of course, were in London. Though I didn’t watch much of them, I did see the opening ceremonies, which highlighted British achievements. After the Olympics were over, I was interested in the medal statistics, seeing how the “big winners” were really not so big when you adjust for national population, GDP or team size instead of looking simply at the absolute number of medals won. Some apparently “lesser” nations actually were revealed to be among the most capable.

Somehow I think all this was in the back of my mind leading me to ponder praising Britain in a similar way.

The Lyrics

Much of the writing just flowed, including the basic notion behind the title as an opportunity for a congratulatory lyric. The choruses quickly took shape, based around the rhyme words for Britain, the adjectives preceding “great” being rhymed with the words at the end of the prior line, and those words themselves being alliterative with the words in the first two lines.

Most of the challenge with the rest of the lyrics had to do with editing. I didn’t want this to turn into a gigantic list song, and that could have been all too likely when you consider the breadth and depth of British achievement. But I did need to get across something of that range, and in a way that would make an obvious impression.

The arts seemed a good focus, since the names would be more recognizable than those in lots of other areas, and then it became a matter of choosing iconic examples. I went especially with a few who are literally in the record books, and beyond that was helped out by the happy realization that I could suggest a lot from A to Z with Adele and Led Zeppelin. The “Newton to the web” line at least makes a nod to the enormous contributions that lie beyond the arts.

Narrating clearly from a U.S. standpoint seemed a good opportunity to stress the point of the song rather than just giving anonymous and monotonous praise. One thing I particularly like is the ambivalence in the middle of the song from the second verse through the bridge. We revolt against England, gain independence, and in many ways come to dominate the world, and yet there are the Brits, aging gracefully past political domination and still being great at so many things, including areas that seem iconic for the U.S.

That second chorus really exemplifies the tension. “Awfully” has the double meaning of “very” and “badly” and stands in contrast right next to “awesome.” Another double meaning for “just” as both “very” and “merely.” Britain “bugs” in the sense that we can be bothered through our jealousy, but we’re also bitten by the bug so that we can’t help but appreciate. Then in the bridge we can’t help throwing in a dig on British cuisine (stereotypically thought not to be very good) amidst the inferiority complex.

I’m also pleased with a couple of references. The Bard line plays on Shakespeare’s famous “All the world’s a stage” monologue, while the line before the last chorus gives a twist to the notion that the sun never sets on the British Empire.

The Music

Musically, I often like to write pastiche and enjoy trying it in all sorts of styles. I also sometimes like to play with interpolations of and variations on other composers’ themes. Both of these things can tend to be a disservice for me in terms of my showing in a contest like SpinTunes, where they can smack of a lack of originality. In this non-competitive cycle, and given the nature of the challenge, it felt right to do a traditional British Isles folk song and riff on some known tunes.

The verses were mainly inspired by Danny Boy and, because my influences are what they are, the various “Letter Home” songs from the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Song and Dance, and also Feed the Birds from Mary Poppins. The Auld Lang Syne interpolation in the final verse wasn’t planned ahead but, instead, a happy accident that fit with what had already been put in place.

The choruses were mainly inspired by Country Gardens and Rule, Brittania!. The latter also appears explicitly, first somewhat hidden as the English horn’s harmony beneath the uilleann pipes playing (essentially) the chorus melody, and later in full view at the close of the song.

I purposely kept the arrangement simple. Maybe that’s because I only left myself a few days to do all the work. Maybe because it works for the song. Maybe I chose to write a song that would work well with simple arrangement because I only had so much time. In any case, the sparse arrangement and old-fashioned piano sound are meant to suggest a pub performance of a traditional song.


You can check out the Songwriting Cycle songs at the Happiness Board, or at BandCamp, and you can get directly to Great, Britain at Bandcamp — but you can listen and download for free from BandCamp right from the player at the top of this post.

I work hard on the songs and the site, giving away a lot of stuff for free. If I could make a living by making art, I could make — and give away — even more. That could actually happen if everyone who listened contributed just a little bit. If you’ve enjoyed some of my free music or other content — on the site, through downloads, however — why not take a second and make a contribution to support me in making more? Just click on the Donate button in the right sidebar. Thanks!

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Not Cool

July 15, 2011

Caught Red-HandedCaught Red-Handed!
Warning! The Offhand Band usually strives to write satisfying songs that are cool for kids, fun for families and great for the grown on their own. In part or whole, we believe this song doesn’t fit that description. Proceed at your own risk! Learn more.
Play the song here!
Play the video here!


I’m a player; piano, that is; my apparatus
My forte, fo’ sho’; play for pay and also for gratis
There’s haters, not well-tempered, elevator relegaters
So raters, debaters, let’s talk Joanna status

Verse 1:

Keyboard so versatile, play almost any style
Clavier smart as Xavier with Cerebro guile
Far more than a C chord, still people be bored
Players deplored, ignored until we’re Eeyored

Waller would knock your socks; Jerry Lee genuinely rocked
Now it’s often mocked and even on the chopping block
Not a classical piano man? You’re pushing Tin Pan
In cool music country, you’re at sea instead of inland

Yellow Brick Road or 52nd Street
Have to face to face it, haters feel no heat; aces beat
Fiona, disown her; Rufus, doofus; no-one jealous
Of Hornsby or Amos or the famous Bareilles

Wonder, blunder; Newman, subhuman; Connick, bubonic
Carole King and Cullum, just the cancer kind of chronic
Benny was Bjorn to play, but people hate A-B-B-A
And Jims Webb and Steinman? Too passe, way

Now The Fray and Coldplay don’t get such profuse abuse
Nor do Queen or keen Keane or Radiohead or Muse
The eighty-eight’s not all they bait; they get fewer glares
But Ben and Nellie? Only swell ta fella piano players

Kanye’s are major, but as players, we minor
Said you want us fled? Fine, yer the headliner
To your eye, you see Marvin Hamlisch, Burt Bacharach
Wanting fly? You’ll be starvin’, famished, skirting snack attack

Chorus 1:

Not cool
Just like 7-Up, un-cool-a
Does it make you dozy?
Not cool
Not hot, but cool as Cholula
Nothing ever froze me
Like Popeye and Albin
Said, “I am what I am”
Never had it, can’t lose it; could “Woe’s me,”
But that’d be fool
I didn’t choose it, it chose me
I’m not cool

Verse 2:

Even less top for you than piano pop?
An album’s not the only flop some ivory-ticklers drop
Burt, Marvin, Elton, Billy, ABBA and more
Got cred for another bore: a musical score

Musical theayter, where they burst into song
And so say every hater, “It’s the worst, bang the gong”
But almost every art form needs disbelief suspension
Stand by and let me try some apprehension contravention

Andrew Lloyd Dubya, does he rub ya all wrong?
Post-”Phantom” fate, a bit bantamweight, but cat can comp a song
With Tim Rice, words splice and knit to nice writ benefit
A Brit wit who’ll make it fit and sometimes even land a hit

Do you know how fond I’m of Sondheim?
Like language was made for him, he goes beyond rhyme
Blazingly on-time with phrasing and scansion
When this Pieta of theatah’s in the house, it’s a mansion

Want cool? Cole, the top; which school? Ol’
And Loesser is more, even co-wrote “Heart and Soul”
Bawd to awed to guffawed you gotta applaud the Broadway songwriter
Roast-and-toasting most from coast to coast and boasting that they’re brighter

Not all cheesy junk, “Bring in da’ funk” had rap, and “In the Heights”
Even The Who, Green Day, Bono and the Edge have tripped the lights
I’d hope that you’re hip now that I’ve performed this patter
But I sense no evidence will dispense this anti-matter

Chorus 2:

Not cool
So square, unlike a hoop hula
Make you want to mozy?
Not cool
Anyone, anyone? Bueller? Bueller?
Try but I can’t pose me
Like Popeye and Albin
Said, “I am what I am”
Never had it, can’t lose it; could “Woe’s me,”
But that’d be fool
I didn’t choose it, it chose me
I’m not cool


In the world today, no-one’d choose to be gay
With musical taste, I daresay, you also can’t self-betray
Pray and downplay as you may, try to spay, stray and sway
Say you want it nee? It won’t obey; here to stay
Like piano prodigy Gaga, me, I was born this way

First LP I ever bought: “Hooked on Classics”
Leave you sour as Vlasics? Get me ass kicks?
Sensibility Jurassic? So do you deem it daft?
You see a load of crap? To me, a lode of craft

On troubled waters, need a bridge away from “Ishtar”
In dire straits, I shoulda learned to play the guitar
Then, I bet, instead of fretting, I’d be getting it far
More portable, affordable, still chordable
Compared to a keyboard, a bull; unchortable

Then there’s the vocal: not my focal, I’m no singer
When I croon, don’t bring a socle, you’ll see soon I’m second-stringer
My Cletus voice a yokel, it’s my fingers do the zingers
Can’t I simply say the words, no-one run through the ringer,
With only short notes and no pitch on which to linger?

Verse 3:

But those who stir my slumber most, down to the apple core
You know their name and number, yeah, yeah, yeah, the Fab Four
So much to say, and I don’t have all day
But cross the nations and generations no-one cuts like they

Broke the rule then built the school, always so eclectic
Acoustic and electric, the keyboard and the plec trick
Want to hear the case they found the place where magic lives?
Not every act gives the language whole new adjectives

Arrangements and references show Beatlesque preferences
Distinctive details a disciple deploys
XTC, TMBG and ELO show deferences
The list is long, and some are strong, still they’re decoys

No-one can rule like the lads from Liverpool
For the masses, yet passes as full-of-joys geek noise
Realized what they prized, careless of cool
Yeah, wouldn’t it be nice? Wait, that’s the Beach Boys

Choruses 3 & 4:

Not cool
Just like 7-Up, un-cool-a
Does it make you dozy?
Not cool
Not hot, but cool as Cholula
Nothing ever froze me
Like Popeye and Albin
Said, “I am what I am”
Never had it, can’t lose it; could “Woe’s me,”
But that’d be fool
I didn’t choose it, it chose me

Not cool
So square, unlike a hoop hula
Make you want to mozy?
Not cool
Anyone, anyone? Bueller? Bueller?
Try but I can’t pose me
Like Popeye and Albin
Said, “I am what I am”
Never had it, can’t lose it; could “Woe’s me,”
But that’d be fool
I didn’t choose it, it chose me
I’m not cool


The Nutshell

The challenge: a melody-free song when I thrive on music, an ultra-cool genre when plenty of what I listen to, play and write is often thought uncool. My solution: flip rap’s braggadocio into self-effacement, wearing musical uncoolness as a badge of pride, while also realizing I should be grateful for a chance to not worry about my singing voice.

The Challenge

I was one of 26 contestants moved into Round 2 of the SpinTunes #3 online songwriting competition. Only 21 completed Round 2 entries on time. On July 10, SpinTunes announced that six contestants were eliminated, leaving only 15 to move onto Round 3. My entry, Program aids food stamp users, tied for 4th, so I was really pleased.

I was feeling like I was, in a way, a round ahead of myself compared to SpinTunes #1. In Round 1, last year’s Step Back Swooperman was derivative and squeaked by, just like this year’s All Over. Then, Another Universe also more or less squeaked by Round 2, its solo piano and unspecific story not so well-received. But in Round 3, I found my footing with Will it, placing third with a well arranged pop song with a specific story fairly well told, a description which can also apply to my current Round 2 entry. Last year, pretty much everyone involved, including myself, though that my Round 4 shadow Ballroom Dance, involving a genre-based challenge, was my best work of the competition. Did I have that to look forward to now in this year’s Round 3, and then who knows what in a possible Round 4 if I made it through?

The challenge for Round 3 was, indeed, and coincidentally, genre-based: “Top That – Write a rap. For anyone who has any experience rapping, you get the added challenge of making your rap about a work romance. That added challenge doesn’t apply to those who have never rapped up until this point.”

My immediate thought was that I was sunk.

I don’t listen to much hip-hop and even less rap, and the hip-hop I do listen to is eclectic crossover stuff like Outkast, Gnarls Barkley, N.E.R.D.,, with lots of songs that have no rap at all. Outkast even once said of themselves that if they were white and did the exact same music, people would compare them to Beck instead of considering them to be hip-hop artists. I’d never even considered writing a rap before. I like lots of music, but my tastes, or at least my abilities, as a writer tend toward the traditional, sometimes stylistically, but almost always in terms of the foundations of song craft. And melody is usually a part of that. All too often, what I write ends up pretty uncool. And rap demands cool.

I quickly thought twice about hoping for my best work in the competition so far. But by the time the song was done, at least in my opinion, it would turn out that I’d made good after all.

The Concept

For these challenges, I usually like to try to come up with a song that has two reasons for being. The first, that it meet the challenge in a meaningful way, and second, that it end up as much as possible a song I might have written on my own independent of the contest and challenge. I find this approach especially necessary with the technical/formal challenges where the lyrics could be about just about anything.

For me, then, the content had to go with the form, with rap. A song with no music, written by someone who prizes musicianship and song craft? Instead of that being a disadvantage, I decided that the rap could itself be about music and musicians that I like.

I recalled some notions I’d jotted down in the past about how I’m not a cool songwriter, the issues I just mentioned about song craft. This also seemed a nice form/content match, since self-aggrandizement is a common element in rap music, so here would be a twist: self-effacement.

This led quickly to a number of ideas. Piano pop as uncool. The piano as particularly less cool than the guitar. Musical theater, kids’ music, and classical music, all of which I like and inform my creative output, but all of which are often thought uncool. Shout-outs are common in rap and hip-hop, and I’d have plenty of opportunity for that.

While I was thinking about all these ways my work and my tastes could be looked down on by others, it seemed only natural for me to also ponder the many reactions I’ve gotten through SpinTunes about my voice. I know it’s not great, and that’s a big issue for me with these challenges, because I really consider myself a writer and not a performer, or at least not an entertainer, and in any case certainly not a vocalist. Now here was a rap, an opportunity to not have to worry about my singing voice. One more thing to bring up in the rap itself.

There seemed the obvious possibility of drifting into parody and irony here, but that’s not what I felt I wanted to do. Surely a lot of the content would come across with humor, but I intended to take things somewhat seriously, since I’d essentially be defending myself in various ways, at times uncertain, at times stand-offish, at times more confident. Given this tone I was planning for the words, it seemed clear that the music would also have to take itself fairly seriously. Minor chords and an overall menacing sound.

With rap and hip-hop often sampling other music, I thought I’d look for some of the more famous, older, public domain piano pieces to use as the basis for a fair amount of the music, twisting them into a serious rap underscore. Ironic that I said just last round how I shouldn’t do anything derivative ever again unless it was explicitly asked for in a challenge. It may not have been directly asked for here, but it’s certainly appropriate to the genre.

The Song

I often write a lot about the song itself, parsing the lyrics. If I were to start that, though, I feel like I could go on forever, annotating every little reference, every pun, every rhyme both end and inner, alliteration, wordplay, etc. Instead, I’ll talk mainly about what’s not there, and then just a few other things, and that’ll be plenty to say anyway.

Lots of ideas were adding up, yet I also had too many different angles, and too much detail in every angle I went with. As lengthy as the final lyric is, there’s lots that just never found its way in.

I would love to have talked about Schoolhouse Rock, the Sherman brothers, Menken and Ashman, and other Disney music, how Warner Brothers cartoons introduced me to so much music, including classical music. A number of the artists I did include have written family-friendly musicals and songs, but I didn’t mention any of that. In the end, only the Popeye reference has anything to do directly with entertainment I remember from my own childhood, and that only coincidentally for the appropriate quote, since I never considered his cartoons to be among my favorites as a kid.

You can imagine that I had lots of other artists in mind for the things I did talk about. More piano-based musicians, some obviously uncool and others with a more cool reputation. Some outside of rock/pop altogether like Joplin and Mancini. Gershwin, who I love, would have been an obvious mention, but for all his reputation, he’s not enough of a legend in musical theater per se for me to have mentioned him in the limited space I had, and I didn’t mention anyone specific in the classical world, so off he went. There were more Beatlesque bands, and also a number of songs I had in mind that were from more guitar-based rock bands but that famously use piano.

Each of these areas could have had a whole song devoted to it, and then there would have been more space to explore. But not for this song. All these things ended up going away.

With music, I’d thought initially of having each verse based on different music in addition to the bridge having a unique basis itself. I considered Listz’s “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2.” Beehoven’s “Fur Elise.” Some Gilbert & Sullivan for the verse on musical theater. Joplin’s “The Entertainer” to underscore the Beatles verse, since I was talking about them being such groundbreaking entertainers. I quickly realized how scattered the song would sound, not to mention how too much melody would detract from the words — not a problem in non-rap songs, but obviously a problem here. On top of all this, I also wanted the song to sound serious, and I wasn’t going to get that so easily with the G&S and Joplin tunes. Trying them in minor keys, they came across as Halloween parody material. Trying to reharmonize them, they’d just seem odd.

So in the end I went with just one very famous piano piece for the verses, “The Celebrated Chop Waltz, ” by Arthur de Lulli. Don’t recognize it? It probably won’t help for me to tell you the composer name is an alias for a woman, Euphemia Allen. But it will help to tell you that the piece is better known by its own alias: “Chopsticks.” It’s there, under each of the three verses, the only difference being it moves up an octave with each verse, so it becomes more and more noticeable. The alteration of its waltz rhythm to a song in four helped give it a cool (if common) groove, and I drastically reharmonized it to give it a quality that’s both effective enough for R&B music and generally serious.

With the bridge talking about classical music, I felt it was a perfect opportunity for a separate musical reference. Looking for a similarly well-known piano piece that I could also move from waltz time into four, one was already there on my list of famous candidates: the Piano Sonata No. 14 in C? minor “Quasi una fantasia”, Op. 27, No. 2, by Ludwig van Beethoven, better known as the “Moonlight Sonata.” The consistent groove across verse and bridge felt great. Harmonically, I didn’t really change anything, since the piece had such a great, serious quality already, making it an ideal break for the bridge. I simply took stylistic liberties to make it fit with the overall song.

I knew I wanted a four-stanza bridge. The sonata starts with three relatively short, and familiar,”stanzas” before moving onto some longer ones that I think only those more familiar with the piece would tend to recognize. My solution was to start the bridge with the third “stanza” as an introduction, and then backtrack to the beginning and do the first, second and then repeat the third. The arrangement would make it all feel like natural development, with the first iteration of that third stanza a bit underplayed.

One ultimately popular piano piece I didn’t even allow on my to-be-considered list because it wasn’t in the public domain, but I was glad to have an opportunity to reference it in the lyrics: “Heart and Soul,” which though not from a musical itself had its lyrics written by one of the greats of musical theater, Frank Loesser.

Structure/development: The first verse starts off talking about how the piano, and well known piano players, can be looked down upon. The chorus stresses the uncoolness while also introducing the idea that for some it can’t be helped and may as well be embraced. Next verse segues with some of the piano players having done musicals, and there’s a conscious redirection to try to defend this art form which is even more widely considered uncool. There’s more confidence and optimism, but the verse ends with a suspicion that nobody’s convinced. The bridge gets more personal, highlighting the notions from the chorus about owning up to who you are, and also bringing in some of the tangential thoughts about classical music, guitar and singing. In the final verse, there’s much more confidence, since The Beatles’ status is certain, and based in great part on how they pursued what was meaningful to them regardless of what would be considered cool. And yet even that verse ends with the Beach Boys reference, which is at once maybe a bit funny but also reiterates the self-questioning that’s gone on throughout. So the song grows in optimism and confidence as it develops, yet with self-acceptance always being darkened by persistent self-questioning. Yeah, that feels like me, all right.

Arrangement: Appropriately, there’s no piano. Appropriately, with the song mentioning gong and guitar as foils, both appear in the song. In addition to some more obvious hits, all the cymbal-like noises in the bridge are actually gong sounds. The synth pad changes from section to section, and I particularly like the last two. I found one with a curious “backwards” sound that reminded me of some techniques associated with the Beatles, so that worked for their verse. In the final chorus, the first chorus to even have a pad, there’s a pipe-organ-like synth, which in addition to just having a great dramatic feel also echoes, with the i to Flat VII chords changes, the main theme from Phantom of the Opera. That musical is not only itself mentioned in the song but is, underneath it all, a story about a misunderstood composer who just wants to be accepted, and so also thematically appropriate for the song. Vocally, all that supplements the first-person rap is a little bit of singing in the chorus. The bass makes the title accusation, while the pair of harmonizing tenor voices add further criticisms. The rap narrator is sandwiched between the lower and higher pitches, defending himself from attacks on all sides.

Bridge: First, Hooked on Classics really was the first album I ever bought myself. Now I want to talk about the gay thing. Like Jerry Seinfeld said, “I’m not gay. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.” But this is a theme I’m fond of and actually wrote a song about before: Come Out. I think we could all stand to learn a thing or two from people who come out of the closet because they feel it’s important to acknowledge, rather than deny, who they really are, for better or worse, even if the world around them won’t think it’s “cool.”

Final verse: It’s shorter than the first two verses. There’s obviously plenty else I could have said about the Beatles, but I just didn’t think anything else necessary to say. After the long bridge, with the song already being pretty long, I also liked the idea of simply accelerating toward the end. One other thing that highlights the completion is the change in the end rhyme scheme for the final half of that last verse. For the first time in the song, instead of couplets (or related patterns of consecutive lines with the same end rhyme), there’s now an alternation, ABAB, and the B is even carried over across the two stanzas. Both of these things, especially the B rhyme — deploys, decoys, geek noise, Beach Boys — seem to help drive the song to completion.

There are probably a lot of objections and questions that the lyrics bring up. As just a few examples: Don’t people other than piano players like Ben Folds and Nellie McKay? Isn’t ABBA not a very heavily piano-based band? Who really lumps Stevie Wonder in the piano pop category? Plenty more. I made conscious choices, simplifications for sake of drama and color. Chalk it up to what I said in the song: art needs suspension of disbelief.

The song ends by talking about the Beatles not caring whether they were cool and how that would be nice. One of the thoughts I had throughout the writing process was that that kind of not caring about cool, that knowing others may think something uncool and you do it anyway and are fully okay it, that not needing others to think you cool, actually makes you as cool as it’s possible to be. Though I didn’t end up saying that directly in the song, hopefully that’s what comes across.

In the end, I have to say that writing a rap was a revelation. I enjoy composing so much, and really do enjoy and appreciate traditional song craft so much, that I automatically gravitate toward marrying music and lyrics fully. And rap is such a performance-based form, while I’m such a writer-not-performer. With all this, I just never really thought about rap. But as I dug in, I realized that I could still be very creative with music, had free reign to go crazy with lots of what I enjoy most about lyric-writing, and that I could deliver a song without any concern about my sub-par singing voice. “Can’t I simply say the words, no-one run through the ringer, / With only short notes and no pitch on which to linger?” Yeah, I can, with rap.

I don’t imagine this could possibly become an exclusive direction for me, but it’s great to know that it’s something I can pull off while having an absolute blast with every aspect. And I do think it’s my best work so far in at least SpinTunes #3. How glad am I that this challenge didn’t appear in SpinTunes #2, which I missed? Extremely.

And I’m proud to say that the entire rap vocal track in the recording was done in one take. Not the first take, but one continuous take. What you hear, though, isn’t exactly that full, uninterrupted take, but that’s only because a handful of small rewrites occurred to me only very late in the game, after I’d truly thought the writing was all done. “Compromising” that single full take was worth a few overdubs for the wordplay.


You can check out the Round 3 songs at SpinTunes, or more permanently at BandCamp, and you can get directly to Not Cool at Bandcamp — but you can listen and download for free from BandCamp right from the player at the top of this post.

I figured that a video would be a good way to help the song get some exposure, while also just being kind of amusing in itself. So I made one. You can play it at the top of this page right below the audio player.

At first, my attitude was to help clarify the lyrics as much as possible. But since I was essentially limiting myself to a slideshow, and since I was limiting my slide photos to whatever I could find through Google’s image search, it wasn’t always so easy to clarify everything. In the end, the video now has a bunch of its own references and visual puns beyond the lyrics. So be it, it’s fun.

In the YouTube video description, I added formal writing credits and a list of name checks and references just in case they might help the video be found a bit more often through people’s searches. Here’s all that below, since it might as well be here instead of only at YouTube, both for posterity and also to help along figuring out the lyrics.

“Not Cool” by The Offhand Band; Music & Lyrics by Mark S. Meritt; parts based on “The Celebrated Chop Waltz” (a.k.a. “Chopsticks”), by Arthur de Lulli (a.k.a. Euphemia Allen), and Piano Sonata No. 14 in C# minor “Quasi una fantasia”, Op. 27, No. 2 (a.k.a. “Moonlight Sonata”), by Ludwig van Beethoven

Name checks and references:

Johann Sebastian Bach / Well-Tempered Clavier
Elevator music
X-Men / Professor Charles Francis Xavier, a.k.a. Professor X / Cerebro
Winnie-the-Pooh / Eeyore
Fats Waller
Jerry Lee Lewis
Billy Joel / Piano Man / 52nd Street
Tin Pan Alley
Elton John / Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
Face 2 Face
Fiona Apple
Rufus Wainright
Bruce Hornsby
Tori Amos
Sara Bareilles
Stevie Wonder
Randy Newman
Harry Connick
Carole King
Jamie Cullum
Benny Andersson
Bjorn Ulvaeus
Jimmy Webb
Jim Steinman
The Fray
Ben Folds
Nellie McKay
Kanye West / We Major
Marvin Hamlisch
Burt Bacharach
7-Up / Uncola
Jerry Herman / La Cage Aux Folles / Albin / I Am What I Am
The Gong Show
Willing suspension of disbelief
Andrew Lloyd Webber / The Phantom of the Opera / Cats
Tim Rice
Stephen Sondheim
Michelangelo Buonarroti / The Pieta
Cole Porter / You’re the Top
Frank Loesser / Heart and Soul
Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk
In the Heights
The Who / Tommy
Green Day / American Idiot
Bono and The Edge / Spider Man: Turn Off the Dark
Patter song
Hula Hoop
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
Lady Gaga / Born This Way
Hooked On Classics
Vlasic Pickles
Simon and Garfunkel / Bridge Over Troubled Water
Dire Straits / Money for Nothing (“I shoulda learned to play the guitar”)
The Simpsons / Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel
The Beatles / Golden Slumbers / You Know My Name (Look Up the Number) / She Loves You (“Yeah, yeah, yeah”)
Apple Corps
They Might Be Giants (TMBG)
Electric Light Orchestra (ELO)
Joyful noise
The Beach Boys / Wouldn’t It Be Nice

I work hard on the songs and the site, giving away a lot of stuff for free. If I could make a living by making art, I could make — and give away — even more. That could actually happen if everyone who listened contributed just a little bit. If you’ve enjoyed some of my free music or other content — on the site, through downloads, however — why not take a second and make a contribution to support me in making more? Just click on the Donate button in the right sidebar. Thanks!

If you’d rather buy some music, that’s great, too! Visit the Shop.

Either way, I really appreciate your support.

Program aids food stamp users

June 29, 2011

Caught Red-HandedCaught Red-Handed!
Warning! The Offhand Band usually strives to write satisfying songs that are cool for kids, fun for families and great for the grown on their own. In part or whole, we believe this song doesn’t fit that description. Proceed at your own risk! Learn more.
Play the song here!

Northeast resident Mary Johnson uses food stamps,
putting groceries on the family table.
She said, “I’d felt ashamed, but when you need, the shame goes away.”

Though she’s grateful for all the help she’s been receiving,
still, whenever she reads a food product label,
she’d like more healthy options for her children each day.

“When there’s so much we once had that’s all gone from our world,
it’s hard just keeping my family well fed.
I know there’s lots of big things going on in the world,
but all the little things are big for us,” Johnson said.

Now, North East Community Center has a program,
and all users of food stamps qualify for it,
with discounts on the freshest local produce in town.

Health Bucks coupons are good at area farmers markets.
Whether Johnson would like to serve fresh or store it,
her family now eats healthy local food all year round.

“When there’s so much we once had that’s all gone from our world,
it’s hard just keeping my family well fed.
I know there’s lots of big things going on in the world,
but all the little things are big for us,” Johnson said.

“The same world that makes breaking news of moms who kill their babies
makes cans from distant factories and beans and broccoli grown
in other countries so much cheaper than the farm stand down the road.
We’ve no place for a garden, but best as we can, I believe we should tend our own.”

“When there’s so much we once had that’s all gone from our world,
it’s hard just keeping my family well fed.
I know there’s lots of big things going on in the world,
but all the little things are big for us,” Johnson said.


The Challenge

There were 60 sign-ups for the SpinTunes #3 online songwriting competition. Only 37 completed Round 1 entries on time. On June 26, SpinTunes announced that 11 contestants were eliminated, leaving only 26 to move onto Round 2. My entry, All Over, placed 22nd, so I more or less squeaked by.

Judges generally liked my song, with standout qualities being a strong keyboard performance, the story, and some judges enjoying the Beatles referencing. On the other side, the drums were thought too quiet, the vocals too loud and not very high quality, and there was some feeling against the Beatles referencing as derivative. I can’t say I’m too surprised at any of this, including the relatively low ranking.

It occurred to me after I’d submitted the song that I’d started SpinTunes 1 with derivation as well, with my Round 1 entry Step Back Swooperman being heavily influenced by John Williams’ Superman film score and also having a first line that directly quoted a well known song. Since it hasn’t stood me well yet, I suspect I’ll avoid that level of referencing in songwriting contests from now on, unless it’s explicitly asked for. Just as in that previous contest, I knew I’d need to make SpinTunes 3′s Round 2 a real departure from Round 1.

The challenge for Round 2: “BREAKING NEWS! – You‘re writing a topical song. The challenge is pretty wide open, but there are some restrictions. Topical is going to be defined as something from a headline in a newspaper no older than 2 weeks from today. You can use your local newspaper or a major publication. You‘re even allowed to use the online versions of major publications. You will be required to include a link to the story that inspired your song, or attach a scan from the newspaper.”

My immediate thought was that there was too much possibility, and no particular news stories coming to mind that I’d want to play with. I started what could have been an extremely long slog researching, only to have the researching, and my initial thought, soon enough lead me to an unexpected idea.

The Concept

I don’t subscribe to any newspapers. I hardly ever read any newspapers. I don’t watch much news on television or read much on the internet. My first step was simply to visit the New York Times website to browse the headlines. The challenge came out on a Sunday, so there was plenty to look at. Nothing, though, leapt out at me. A few possibilities, but nothing really grabbed me.

I thought about why I don’t keep up much with the news. It’s because I find that most of it is just not relevant for my life or the lives of anyone I know. What is relevant I usually find out about somehow. So what was I going to do, find some big news story that I didn’t really care about and that other contestants might use anyway? Look for some quirky story out there to purposely try to do something novel, keeping my fingers crossed I might find something I actually cared about? I could be looking for a needle in a very big haystack.

Instead, it occurred to me that I should look for an ultra-small, ultra-local story in an ultra-small, ultra-local newspaper. Not simply to find a unique story that other entrants wouldn’t cover, but to find one that exemplified the notion of little things meaning a lot, a story that might be as especially impacting for someone’s life as the vast majority of news stories, especially larger ones, are fundamentally meaningless to most of us. It wouldn’t necessarily even matter how I personally felt about the story — if it could be highly meaningful to someone, that in itself would make for a meaningful song for me for this particular challenge.

The only newspaper I had around was the Northern Dutchess Focus, put out by the Poughkeepsie Journal and delivered for free, weekly on Saturdays, containing a few articles but mostly ads. In the Focus from June 25, the day before the Round 2 challenge was announced, I found a small article I thought might work really well. On this scan of the original page, there’s a tiny article in the lower-right corner about Health Bucks, a program that helps food stamps users save extra money at a couple of farmers markets. There’s a very similar article on the Poughkeepsie Journal website. If you’re curious, there’s a more extensive article about the topic at the TriCorner News website.

So here was this edition of the Focus, distributed just to a few towns in Northern Dutchess County. Here was an article inside that could hardly have taken up less space. Yet it was about something that could potentially make a significant, positive difference to some people, as well as to the area in terms of fostering local farming and business.

Since my whole notion was to show a big benefit to someone’s life, I decided the song would involve a fictional beneficiary of the program. Someone who had fallen on hard times and was now a food stamp user, but someone who was aware of the difference between globalized, factory-farmed foods and local fare which was healthier both physiologically and economically. Someone who lamented that the same system that made ridiculous stories into big news also led to his or her own hard times — and also made local food cost, ironically, more than food grown using all sorts of chemicals and machinery, processed in factories, shipped across highways or even from other countries, sold in giant buildings air conditioned year-round, etc.

I pondered having the character find out about Health Bucks in a free weekly paper just as I did. The character might naturally be thankful because if it had only been publicized in a paid daily publication he or she might never have found out about it. There could have been a nice opportunity to comment about how free papers are all they could afford, and yet that means there’d be little chance they’d pay for anything in the advertisements that make up the bulk of the publication.

If there was going to be a story, though, I thought that it might as well be a newspaper story. Song-as-journalism: with a headline as its title, and the lyrics taking on the familiar combination of newsy prose and attributed quotes. Visually, except for line breaks, it could look just like an article in terms of upper/lowercasing and punctuation, right down to the “down-style” headline.

Were I to use the inverted pyramid and write a proper article, though, song structure would be a bit of a nightmare. It would almost have to be simply an article set to music, more of a recitative than a proper song. Instead, I decided it should be a proper song that was fairly newspaper-article-like.

The Song

The “article” — which, to be clear, is my own creation and not an actual published article that I set to music — is written as more of a human interest piece than a news brief, more like what in much magazine or television news, not what we’d typically see in a newspaper article of this size. Rather than opening with the core facts, the stage is set with a fictional subject, Mary Johnson, and her general situation.

A local article would normally say where Johnson was from, and that would need to have an obvious connection to the story. With the North East Community Center running the Health Bucks program based on a donation from Sharon Hospital, and the coupons being accepted at both the Millerton Farmers Market and the Amenia Farmers Market, I felt I needed to economize, even though it meant leaving some relevant parties out of the song. Since the community center runs the program, and since Northeast is the town in which the Village of Millerton is located, I made Johsnon a resident of Northeast and ended up referring by name only to the community center and its Health Bucks program. Apologies to the hospital and the farmers markets!

It might be unusual for someone to talk publicly about using food stamps, so I gave Johnson a quote specifically about how she’s over any shame about it. She’s grateful to have the help but wishes she could afford healthier food for her family.

The chorus is written as a quote, where Johnson makes the core point of the song: the importance of little things even in the face of bigger stories in the world. The quote, and the chorus, ends conspicuously with the attribution, “Johnson said,” making for some newspaper ambience while also stressing that the song is giving voice to someone who generally would be ignored by both the media and society in general.

The song kicks in with a new groove, and the second verse reveals the happy development to Johnson’s story: the introduction of the Health Bucks program. Her hope for healthier options “each day” is now fulfilled “all year round,” amplifying the happy direction the story is taking. A second chorus, though identical in lyric, now takes on a little more optimistic tone, with the Health Bucks program being a little thing that’s actually making a big difference for the Johnson family.

In the bridge (which incidentally sneaks in the challenge title, “breaking news”), Mary talks about some of the larger issues and connections I’d pondered. I realized that an “article” of this length just wasn’t the place to go into a detailed anti-globalization screed, but here she at least hints at those notions. There’s reference to not only large-scale agriculture and food disrtibution but also, obliquely, to the Casey Anthony trial, an actual current “big” story. All of it is posed as wrapped up together in dysfunction.

Mary concludes the bridge by pointing out that, although their home doesn’t have enough room for them to grow their own fresh produce in a garden, she still believes in the more general point about “tending one’s own garden.” This seemed a nice connection between the farm/produce topic of the song and the more metaphoric sense of tending one’s garden relating to a focus on the local in terms of farming, business and news.

As the song develops, Mary gets much more voice. Looking at the first three sections, she has the small quote in the first verse and the long quote of the first chorus. The last three sections are essentially entirely Mary’s, with two repeats of the chorus with the brief attribution, and the bridge being entirely in her voice. The repetition of chorus throughout, and the bridge with no quote attribution, are not at all what we’d find in a newspaper article, but they suggests a sense of escaping the bounds of the article on the written page for Mary to be increasingly heard.

Musically, the song has a feel that I quite like but seems to me not typical of most things I’ve written. Maybe the title led me to think about Sufjan Stevens and his odd, longish titles. Maybe the newspaper conceit led me to think musical theater. Maybe last week I was listening to too much of my Badly Drawn Boy station at Pandora and heard too much of him and the Flaming Lips, whose influences may not be so obvious here, but I feel them. Or maybe I’ve just heard too much 1970′s mellow gold and educational documentary background music in my lifetime.

The verses involve a fairly simple underlying chord progression, though the chords are decorated for a more colorful, uncertain sound. The melody note that ends each verse stanza is one of these more decorative “off-chord” notes, drawing out that sense. The melody shifts a bit in the second verse, with “food all” rising to a higher note than the parallel “children,” echoing the new optimism. The same happens with the word “well” in the final chorus.

The chorus change keys a few times, with a lot of similarly colorful chords and inversions. Where the verses were in E major, the chorus starts in G major, then moves to D major, then at the last minute comes back to E major again. Throughout, the melody is more fluid than the verses, appropriate for Johnson’s extended quote compared to more formal journalistic prose. It’s worth noting that “little things” are the only words in the chorus sung quite so quickly, on “littler” notes, highlighting that crux of the whole song. The second and third choruses have a small change in the D major section of the chord progression, adding some clarity.

The bridge also has a rambling melody, even more appropriate for this mini-rant on globalization. The first three lines are all sung on one breath. It’s as if Johnson can’t get her thoughts out fast enough. The section is in E minor, with much more conventional chords, progressions and harmonies, almost giving the aura of a traditional protest song, though there is some more colorful harmonic tension toward the end. All of this is meant to underscore (literally) the comments about globalization as being systemically fundamental to all in the world that gives rise to the situation in which Mary finds herself.


You can check out the Round 2 songs at SpinTunes, or more permanently at BandCamp, and you can get directly to Program aids food stamp users at Bandcamp — but you can listen and download for free from BandCamp right from the player at the top of this post.

I work hard on the songs and the site, giving away a lot of stuff for free. If I could make a living by making art, I could make — and give away — even more. That could actually happen if everyone who listened contributed just a little bit. If you’ve enjoyed some of my free music or other content — on the site, through downloads, however — why not take a second and make a contribution to support me in making more? Just click on the Donate button in the right sidebar. Thanks!

If you’d rather buy some music, that’s great, too! Visit the Shop.

Either way, I really appreciate your support.

All Over

June 16, 2011

Play the song here!

Jo Jo was a man
Who had a best laid plan
Such amazing things he could become
Alas, there was a lady
Power mad and so shady
And she kept him down right under her thumb

When she failed to duck
A sanitation truck
Ding-Dong! She was finally gone
Without that witch Loretta
Jo Jo knew he’d be better
Off he went to turn his happy life on

All over
All over
When it’s over, you can finally just be
All over
All over
When it’s over, you can finally be free

Found a gal named Sal
To boost his own morale
What she’d do for him, there was no end
He headed for the top
It seemed he just could not stop
But not only Jo Jo needed a friend

Stumbled on her cries
He saw it in her eyes
How he’d take but he hardly would give
He saw what he’d become
He kept her under his thumb
He wondered, was he still deserving to live?

All over
All over
When it’s over, you can finally just be
All over
All over
When it’s over, you can finally be free

To leave her like that
Would just be one more selfish thing
He had no right
But if he stayed ’round
To make it up, that just might bring
Him to the light

From that very day
The two would find a way
To be giving as good as they’d get
Yeah, Sal and good ol’ Jo Jo
Found the way to their mojo
Was to live a life they wouldn’t regret

Even at the end
They still could both depend
On each other to see it all through
The worse as well as better
They forgave even Loretta
And when they were gone, the two of them knew

All over
All over
When it’s over, you can finally just be
All over
All over
When it’s over, you can finally be free

All over
All over
When it’s over, you can finally just be
All over
All over
When it’s over, you can finally be free


The Challenge

After participating in its first go-round but being too busy for its second, I got involved with SpinTunes #3, an online songwriting competition where people submit original songs they write to meet challenges handed out by a panel of judges. The challenge for Round 1: If You’re Happy And You Know It Raise The Dead – Write a happy song about death.

Immediately upon seeing this challenge, I smiled. My interest in psychology over the last several years has taught me about the connection between fear of death and dysfunction in life. Also, for the last several months I’ve been reading a lot of Joseph Campbell, in whose work on mythology recurring themes are death as necessary to support life and therefore something that must be embraced in order to really live, and also ego death as the path toward all of that, i.e., both being okay with death and fully living life. So the idea of being happy about, or least very okay with, death is often on my mind.

The challenge arrived on Thursday, June 9, with submission due by the end of the day Sunday, June 19. I was due to be away from Friday through Sunday of both weekends in between, and behind on a bunch of other things. I often do an Appreciative Inquiry to foster the creative process, and it’s even helpful to do it when ideas are flowing, to help develop and focus them. In this situation, though, the time constraints and the familiarity of the topic left me feeling okay about both simply incubating over the weekend and likely moving ahead on Monday without an AI.

The Concept

With time to think, I started pondering different ways one might be accepting of death. There was simply looking forward wisely to the close of a life well lived, taking comfort in the good that can happen while one is alive. That reminded me of Billy Joel’s song, “Goodnight, My Angel,” which had echoes of the Campbell perspective. A hated person could die, making life easier: “Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead” from The Wizard of Oz. Even suicide, where clearly one is choosing death as preferable to a very sad life.

Initially on learning of the challenge, I thought about a quiet song, with a heart-beat percussion, and the rest would come in quietly, meditatively, communicating the basic ideas from Campbell, and then all would go out except the heart-beat, showing that death is just life continued, not an ending to fear or regret but a transformation.

As I spent the weekend pondering these other things, though, I realized I had something else on my hands. A story, in which one chorus communicating the “okayness” of death could reflect the different ways death was okay as the story progress — and I always like it when a lyric can take on different meanings as it recurs. The story would be about someone who thought life would be much better after a hated influence dies, but then it would turn out that the hated influence lived on through him doing similar things to others. Feeling guilty, he’d become suicidal. Finally, he’d realize that the only way out was to break the cycle, to transcend his own ego, to get free of the past, and do good things for himself and others. And through this, a life well lived, and being okay with his own death.

Now that all sounds rather lofty, and I suppose it is, but there was another aspect to what I had on my hands after those few days of incubation. Just as those other songs had popped in my mind, as I pondered this challenge, I found myself seemingly inexplicably singing The Beatles’ “Get Back” to myself. Soon enough, I realized that its theme of getting “back to where you once belonged” was relevant. Getting back to your source, before poisoning influences and ego inflation, to a state where you could be one with yourself, with others, and even with death. And after all, this was to be a happy song. So rather than the mystical meditation I was originally pondering, suddenly, I had an upbeat pop-rock story song on my hands.

I obviously ended up using “Get Back” as more than just a thematic inspiration. I like playing with genres, mimicking other things. And here I was having pondered The Beatles and Billy Joel, two of my favorite musical acts, and both of whom are known for their own wide-ranging use of pastiche. When there are countless Beatlesque songs that riff on various of their stylistic tropes, I figured, why not “Get Back”? Thus, not a sequel, but simply an alternative, as if Paul McCartney were to have written the song instead about the new story I now had in mind.

The Song

The story of the song is pretty self-explanatory. I sometimes like to go heavy into analysis mode here and pick things apart, but it seems mostly superfluous here. So I’ll just note a few things.

The first few words of “Get Back” kick things off here as well, but things quickly change. Soon enough, it’s clear that Jo Jo and Loretta have been recast for a new story. They’re simply not the same people as in the original song, and a new character is also introduced. A different story, a different song. One of the other song inspirations finds its way in as well, with the “Ding-Dong!” and “witch” references.

Repeating the rhyme of “become” with “under his/her thumb” reinforces the fact that history is repeating, that the witch didn’t really disappear. If Jo Jo can become what he despises, then the implication is that Loretta was just another victim in a chain. Just as Jo Jo comes to see Sal as worth giving to rather than taking from, and himself as worthy of life rather than death, the same goes for Loretta, who they come to see as deserving forgiveness. All are humanized rather than dehumanized as demons unfit to live or tools only to be used.

There is some illumination imagery in both Jo Jo’s wanting to “turn his happy life on” and also in the notion that setting things right could “bring him to the light.” Older notions of a happy life are giving way to newer, more mature ones that can break a vicious cycle. In the end, “when they were gone, the two of them knew” — they somehow still know even after they’re gone, suggesting that their illumination transcends death, that death is further along a continuum with life rather than marking an end.

The line is even more important because, though the song has three choruses to reflect three different ways of being happy about death, there is a fourth way in the song which is the most crucial of all, hiding a bit without its own more obvious chorus to draw it out. It’s the ego death, in which the “I” is gone but life goes on, that allows one for the first time to “finally be free” to connect with others, and even death, without fear. So the line can also be read, when their egos were gone, the two of them now knew something they could put into practice for the rest of their lives, finding transcendence not only in death but in life as well: Heaven on Earth.

Musically, there are a number of motifs from “Get Back,” though my Billy-Preston-inspired solos are far sloppier than his. Still, despite the parallels, it’s once again clearly a different song. The verses and choruses are more involved, with added length and/or less repetition. A bridge is added as well as a third verse, all in the service of telling a more complete story.

There’s also a bit more to the harmonic progression, though it doesn’t take much when “Get Back” was essentially a two-chord song (I and IV) except for the brief use of a third chord (VII) in the “crash-crash” moments. I used that third chord to make more thorough three-chord progressions, I-IV-VII-I in the verses and I-VII-IV-I for a little variety in the chorus. A few extra chords are brought in for the “crash-crash” and the bridge.

The chorus progression is a very common one, maybe best known to many listeners from another Beatles song, “Hey Jude” and its “Na-na” coda. With that song also being very life affirming, I took the opportunity to make an additional reference by bringing in the symphonic horns from the “Na-na” section for the final chorus repeats.

Before I seized on the “Hey Jude” reference, the song was in the key of A, just like “Get, Back.” With “Hey Jude” being in F, I decided to split the difference and move the song to G, which was just as well since the high notes would be a bit easier on my voice. A side effect of this key change happens at the very end of the bridge. Here, just as in “Get Back,” a few electric piano chords quiet things down, followed by a signature Ringo Starr drum fill. In “Get Back,” those chords were built on D, which was the IV for the key of A. Here, those chords are the V for the song. Had I kept the song in A, they would have been on E. Because I transposed to G, here they were back on D just like in “Get Back.”

The last musical element I’ll mention is the final fade. In my SpinTunes 1 Round 3 entry Will It, I talked about how the Pet Shop Boys led me to only use final fades when I thought there was a really good thematic reason. In that song, emotional pain had “just begun” at the end of the song, so the fade suggested its continuation. In my Songwriting Cycle 1 contribution Do It (Duet), the characters had just found a new groove that felt like it would go on and on. Likewise here, with the notions of transcendence and a continuum of life to death, a final fade seemed appropriate.


You can check out the Round 1 songs at SpinTunes, or more permanently at BandCamp, and you can get directly to All Over at Bandcamp — but you can listen and download for free from BandCamp right from the player at the top of this post.

I work hard on the songs and the site, giving away a lot of stuff for free. If I could make a living by making art, I could make — and give away — even more. That could actually happen if everyone who listened contributed just a little bit. If you’ve enjoyed some of my free music or other content — on the site, through downloads, however — why not take a second and make a contribution to support me in making more? Just click on the Donate button in the right sidebar. Thanks!

If you’d rather buy some music, that’s great, too! Visit the Shop.

Either way, I really appreciate your support.

Do It (Duet)

September 30, 2010

Play the song here!

Player: The board games are out, the markers and paints
The buildings, cars and animals, too
I’ve run outta room, so off I will go
To someplace where there’s more I can do

Worker: Just wait, not so fast, we’ve got to clean up
Player: Not now, I’m in the mood to keep playin’
Worker: That’s always your mood, to put the work off
Player: You know I just don’t care what you’re sayin’

Player: Don’t do it
Worker: When do I get my turn?
Player: Don’t do it
Worker: When will we ever learn?
Too many people don’t clean up after themselves
Don’t want to be afraid of our closets and shelves

Worker: Just do it
Player: Worried ’bout what gets done
Worker: Just do it
Player: I’d much rather have fun
Both: There’s something that I really wanna do, so let’s just hop to it
Player: Don’t
Worker: Just
Both: Do it

Worker: When we leave a mess, bad things can occur
A trip could mean a hospital stay
And even if not, it might break our stuff
Thus leaving us with nothing to play

Player: You worry too much, you just need a rest
Worker: From what, when you just string me along?
Player: I’ve got just the thing, now, where did it go?
Worker: If we’d cleaned up, it wouldn’t be gone!

Worker: Don’t do it
Player: Worried ’bout what gets done
Worker: Don’t do it
Player: I’d much rather have fun
Too many people living too bored and too sad
Don’t wanna be like them, I just wanna be glad

Player: Just do it
Worker: When do I get my turn?
Player: Just do it
Worker: When will we ever learn?
Both: There’s something that I really wanna do, so let’s just hop to it
Worker: Don’t
Player: Just
Both: Do it

Both: I want one thing, you want another
But perhaps we two can find common ground
What if both things could help each other?
Could some sugar help the medicine go down?

Player: Hey, board game, watch out, right there in your box
Worker: A black hole sucks your pieces right in
Player: And here’s a T-Rex who eats art supplies
Worker: And looks just like an art supply bin

Player: There’s still so much left, all over the place
As if hit by ten meteorites
Work: Well, lucky for us, Space Rescue Team’s here
Heroically setting all back to rights

Both: Let’s duet
Worker: We’ll get everything done
Both: Let’s duet
Player: While we have lots of fun
Both: The puzzle’s now complete where before there were pieces
Like peanut butter and chocolate makin’ a Reese’s

Both: Let’s duet
Player: We can both share a turn
Both: Let’s duet
Worker: That’s the best thing to learn
Both: There’s something that we really wanna do so let’s just hop to it
Player: Sure
Worker: Yes
Both: Let’s duet


The Challenge

Edric Haleen, one of the participants in the first SpinTunes songwriting contest, decided to create a project to tide people over during the wait between SpinTunes 1 and SpinTunes 2. A number of participants from SpinTunes 1 and other past songwriting contests he’d done were invited to collaborate on A Songwriting Cycle, in which each participant created a challenge, and challenges were distributed randomly among all the participants. In this way, an album’s worth of songs would be created, with a complete cycle of challenges given and received among the songwriters. Non-competitive, just for fun. Having talked myself about songwriter-generated challenges and non-competitive songwriting collectives, I was pretty interested!

When the challenges were randomly assigned on September 10, 2010, I received Jenny Katz’ challenge: write a duet that’s not a love song. All our songs were due before October arrived.

The Concept

Though we had a leisurely (compared to contests like SpinTunes) three weeks to get the work done, I was fairly busy for about the first half of that period before I could get started in earnest. In the meantime, it had occurred to me that typical love/pop duets usually have both singers expressing a similar perspective, whether it’s love for each other, or regret over love having failed, or whatever else. Pop music generally can’t stand dialogue, which would come across as too much like musical theatre. Since I was barred from writing a love duet, I found myself naturally moving away from all pop duets and toward musical theatre. I could do a sort of mini-musical, with two characters, each with different wants, and the duet being a dialogue between them about the dramatic conflict.

This led me, as I’m sort of generally wont to do, to think about resolving their conflict by having them come together in the end. Somewhere in this, it occurred to me that “do it” and “duet” would be a great and relevant pun for the lyrics, since each of them wanted to do something different at first, and later they’d find that they could work together, i.e., duet together. This duet I was to write would become a duet about duets themselves, a meta-duet.

I started thinking about one person wanting to do something fun, and the other wanting to get some work done — there was a rhyme, fun and done. Another notion that popped into my head was the Reese’s peanut butter cup, whose classic commercials had two people upset that their respective chocolate and peanut butter had gotten mixed together, until they actually tried it and realized it tasted pretty great — an ideal metaphor for conflict giving way to collaboration.

When I finally was freed up to start working on the song, though I had these promising ideas to go on, I went ahead and did an Appreciative Inquiry to help things along. Taking the ideas I had so far and knowing that I wanted to do something all-ages appropriate as I generally prefer to do for The Offhand Band, I defined my main topic as a kid-friendly resolution to work vs. play.

Pondering the idea of turning work into play reminded me of the movie Mary Poppins, in which one of the classic songs is A Spoonful of Sugar, about precisely the idea of making it fun to do the work of cleaning up the children’s nursery. As the song says, “In every job that must be done there is an element of fun. You find the fun, and snap, the job’s a game.” Here, there was something about the work itself that lent itself to being done playfully, since the cleaning up itself involved toys and so could be done as if playing with them again.

Pretend and role-playing had also come up separately as something worth looking into, and I thought about how my daughter had even more fun riding her bike one day when she pretended it was a horse that she was riding. This reinforced the Poppins notion about layering pretend on top of another activity to add extra enjoyment.

The whole idea for the song basically popped out from there. A kid has played with toys, wants to play with something new but doesn’t want to clean everything else up first. Someone does want to clean — could be a parent, another kid, or even just another side of the kid who was playing. They each want to do one thing and have the other go along with it — “Just do it.” And they each want the other to stop trying to do the conflicting thing — “Don’t do it.” At some point, it occurs to them to try to get what they both want, together, at the same time. They realize that clean-up itself still involves the toys and therefore can be done in a playful way, where the fiction of the playing ends up accomplishing the job of cleaning everything up. They realize how well they can work together, and their previous pleas give way to a joint one, “Let’s do it,” instead phrased as “Let’s duet,” reinforcing that they are actually doing things together now as a team.

For a collective songwriting effort based on cooperation as opposed to the competition of a contest, maybe this topic, resolving conflict with a win-win, was something I was subconsciously drawn to.

A Children’s Song?

While I wanted to do something all-ages appropriate, this was starting to feel even more overtly like a kids’ song than most Offhand Band songs. It started with a conflict between fun and drudgery, something everyone can relate to but particularly kids. Then candy bars showed up. Finally a story actually about kids and toys. I was a little reluctant to go too far with the kids’ angle for a few reasons.

First, even as The Offhand Band, I really prefer songs that are genuinely enjoyable for all ages, as opposed to kids’ songs that are done in a way that adults can also enjoy. It’s the difference between The Beatles’ Here Comes the Sun and anything by, say, Justin Roberts or Laurie Berkner, who are both quite good, but unambiguously kids’ artists. It happens sometimes, sure, but more often than not I try not to be a kids’ artist, just particularly all-ages-friendly.

Another reason was that one thing I’m especially not crazy about from generally all-ages-friendly artists is when very traditional and conservative kinds of “directives” for children are incorporated into songs without regard for kids’ actual motivations and feelings. Telling kids to say I’m sorry instead of worrying about whether they’re sorry, instructing them to clean up when they don’t yet see the value of doing so. The kids’ artists I like most take some pride in not doing plunky, tinkly, old-fashioned little kid music, in doing more “real” rock/pop instead, and rock is supposed to be anti-establishment. But there’s little more establishment than telling a kid to say thank you regardless of whether the child feels gratitude, or put away their toys just hoping they’ll develop the habit regardless of whether they value order. And some of these kids’ artists I otherwise like do set just those kind of lyrics to their cool rock music. I never wanted to muddle up messages like that. In fact, one song on the OHB’s debut album, Whaddaya Say? (The Saga of Sam), actually satirizes how parents do this sort of thing to their kids, and it’s no coincidence that it’s got the heaviest rock sound of all the songs on the album.

Finally, a different challenge in the songwriting cycle was, in fact, to “write a children’s song — one that both kids and parents (but particularly kids) will love!” I didn’t want anyone to feel like I was trying to step on anybody else’s toes or somehow show off by doing two challenges at once.

In the end, though, this song wasn’t really about telling kids to clean up toys. It was about the notion of win-win, how two people with seemingly conflicting desires can find a way to both get what they want. Cleaning up toys was just one possible way to tell that bigger story, and it was a way that basically offered itself up to me, that I didn’t at all go out of my way to find. Plus, I was going more musical theatre than rock/pop, so I was somewhat off the hook in terms of any concern over the anti-establishment issue — not to mention that win-win really is a pretty anti-establishment message anyway. Finally, having kids as characters (or at least one kid, the one playing with toys) doesn’t seem to me to require defining a song as a kids’ song, and even if it does, except for that one fact, I approached everything else about the songwriting as if I were writing for a general audience and not just kids. If it comes across as a kids’ song, that’s just because that’s what emerged from the creative process, so I decided to let myself off the hook of any concern about working with two of the cycle’s challenges. Maybe it’s a kids’ song, maybe it’s not, it doesn’t really make much of a difference to me. So there! :)

The Lyrics

Lyrically, the song more or less took care of itself. The challenge became about structuring the dialogue so that both characters could equally have their say, and so that the tension could be made clear and then give way to resolution.

In the first verse, the first half is sung by the “Player,” who sets the scene and the playful desire. The second half begins with the “Worker” and is a line-by-line back-and-forth to establish the conflict. The first chorus begins with the Player telling the Worker, “Don’t do it,” don’t start cleaning up, with more back-and-forth and the Worker clarifying the importance of cleaning, getting a chance to counterbalance the Player having had more say in the first verse. The second half of the chorus reverses things, with the Worker beginning with “Just do it,” just clean up, and a parallel back-and-forth, followed by both singing together that they really want to do what they have in mind.

The second verse and chorus are an exact mirror image of the first in terms of who talks when, who gets more or less say at each point, who is imploring who to “Just” or “Don’t” do whatever it is.

The bridge has them singing together, wondering if they can find common ground by accomplishing both their goals at the same time. Rhyming sufficiently with “common ground” and nodding to the Poppins inspiration, the bridge ends with them asking each other, “Could some sugar help the medicine go down?”

The third verse changes things up. The first half is now a back-and-forth exchange, expressing that they are working together now, in contrast to the first two verse’s having each first half as a monologue. In the second half of the verse, the Player expresses concern that there’s still a lot of mess left with two lines of dialogue, almost as if threatening to revert from collaboration to a monologuing, conflicting stance. The Worker, though, uses the same amount of dialogue to respond in a way that keeps them working together — they remain on equal footing, and the collaboration sticks.

This leads to the song’s culmination in the third chorus. Finally, they evolve their imploring to “Let’s duet.” Throughout the chorus, there’s now more of both complementary dialogue as well as lines sung together. One line sung together is the Reese’s reference, which is reinforced by the rhyme depicting how the puzzle of their situation is now complete, integrated, collaborative, “where before there were pieces.” And unlike most lines sung together, these puzzle/Reese’s lines are sung not in harmony but in unison, showing them to be on the same page.

The Music

I wanted music that was playful but not overtly child-like, and I also wanted to convey through the music the separation giving way to collaboration. What came to mind were songs like It’s the Hard Knock Life from Annie, Love Song by Sara Bareilles and I Hope I Get It from A Chorus Line, all of which have rigidly rhythmic and separated chords played over sporadic bass notes. This seemed to convey nicely the separation between the two characters’ initial stances, while also offering an opportunity for a feel that was both cute and appropriate for musical theatre.

Just as Love Song finds a way in its choruses to provide more of a groove, something similar could be done later in the song as the characters come together. The first two verses and choruses are piano solo, with some building rhythmic elements. Once the bridge hits, the piano opens up stylistically, followed by bass guitar coming in, then some light percussion. With the third verse, the bass, drums and subtle aspects of rhythm and harmony increase in color, giving way to the third chorus where everything hits a really big musical groove to show the characters finding their own groove in their activity together.

Another way I wanted to convey the distinction between the characters was through harmony. The Player would be more obviously major/happy to reflect the desire for fun, the Worker more minor/sad for the seriousness of working and cleaning up. Verse 1, beginning with the full stanza for the Player, revolves around the basic chord progression G Am D, with these chords themselves as well as some harmonic variations all being fairly pleasant and innocuous. In verse 2, with the Worker coming to the fore, the first two chords flip their tone, becoming Gm A and then followed by the D, with all the chords having harmonic variations that offer a bit more tension compared to the first verse.

The choruses and bridges would provide, in their own ways, some more color and ambiguity, reflecting the characters coming together whether for better or worse. In the third verse, when the characters are finally getting on the same page, the chords are based around G A D, all major chords. Each character/verse on its own had a bit of happy and a bit of sad, and only together does everything become happy/major. All this reveals play on its own to have a hidden emptiness (the minor chord in verse 1), and work on its own to have a hidden benefit (the major chord in verse 2), despite their initial impressions of, respectively, pure fun and pure dourness.

The basic contrast between G and Gm was also capitalized on in the introduction vamp which is also repeated between the first chorus and the second verse. It’s really a G and a Bb chord, but with G in the bass, Bb comes across as Gm7. So this vamp that appears twice encapsulates the harmonic tension that drives all the verses of the song.

One final way I incorporated the character contrast through composition was in melodic phrasing. Originally, the whole song was written with the bouncy, swingy feel that is most obvious throughout. It occurred to me, though, that the Worker’s character could be enhanced by having a more rigid phrasing. Except for a couple of solo spots and harmonized lines, all of the Worker’s lines in the first two verses and choruses have this rigidity.

In the third verse, the rigidity switches up somewhat. In the first half, the Player has the rigid phrasing while the Worker is more fluid and syncopated, showing them each taking on the other’s perspective. In that second half of the third verse, when tension seems to reappear but is then resolved, each character has a rigid line followed by a fluid line, showing simultaneously that they each have incorporated both sides and that, fundamentally, tension is now resolved from rigidity to their flowing, collaborative groove.

One last aspect of the music that highlights the contrast is the vocals. Since the characters needed to be identifiable and distinguishable, I recorded myself singing both parts, but I used Digital Performer’s “Spectral Effects” to alter the quality of the vocals. I felt it important to alter both parts rather than just one, because I didn’t want either character to be able to “claim” my unaltered voice, as if I saw myself more in one role than the other. With the effects, I was able to make the Player sound higher/younger and the Worker lower/older, without altering either the pitch or the tempo of the recordings.

A last comment about the vocals involves their two-part harmonizing. Most of the time in pop music, when there is vocal harmony, the lower part is usually the melody and the upper one a harmony. This held true throughout the choruses of the song, with the Worker on melody and the Player on harmony. In the bridge, though, it felt right to keep the Worker low and the Player high, but to have the Player singing the melody, both because it just seemed to sound better this way and also because it provides another way that their typical patterns alter over the course of the song as they head toward collaboration. I don’t know if it comes across the way I intended — perhaps people will still hear the Worker’s part as the melody in the bridge. If you can help it, listen for the Player as the melody in the bridge.


You can check out the Songwriting Cycle songs at the Happiness Board, or at BandCamp, and you can get directly to Do It (Duet) at Bandcamp — but you can listen and download for free from BandCamp right from the player at the top of this post.

I work hard on the songs and the site, giving away a lot of stuff for free. If I could make a living by making art, I could make — and give away — even more. That could actually happen if everyone who listened contributed just a little bit. If you’ve enjoyed some of my free music or other content — on the site, through downloads, however — why not take a second and make a contribution to support me in making more? Just click on the Donate button in the right sidebar. Thanks!

If you’d rather buy some music, that’s great, too! Visit the Shop.

Either way, I really appreciate your support.

Ballroom Dance

August 10, 2010

Play the song here!

My little Nonna Bella used to tell a tale to me
Of all her lovely times back in old Italy
Where out on the piazza filled with lotsa people there
They’d eat and drink and dance out in the country air
I asked her, “Teach me how to dance like you did”
She said, “I can’t remember how to do it
I’m old, and anyway, those dances may not be for you
When not in Rome, why do as Romans do?

Ballroom dance
Why not go try a class?
Ballroom dance
Don’t just sit on your backside!”

Aristocrats in old Vienna floated round and round
The men in powdered wigs, the ladies, poofy gowns
A ballroom so magnificent, each surface blazing gold
That’s where they did the waltz back in the days of old
Compared to them, I feel just like a beggar
Say “Austria,” and I think Schwarzenegger
If I were an archduke then maybe waltzing would be grand
But I prefer Franz Ferdinand the band

Ballroom dance
Just try it and you’ll see
Ballroom dance
But waltzing’s not for me

A steamy night in Buenos Aires, couples barely dressed
At times open embrace, but mostly chest-to-chest
Expressing their passion longingly, and in their mouth, a rose
But frankly, I don’t want bleeding gums or pollen up my nose
Sometimes I can’t tell the steps from cha-cha, rumba or samba
And when teacher says, “Feel your burning desire!,”  Ay, caramba!
The fancy footwork’s frustrating, and don’t even mention the dips
For Latin and spicy I’ll stick with my salsa and chips

Ballroom dance
Just try it and you’ll see
Ballroom dance
But tango, no esta por mi

A hundred Slavic peasants, what a happy bunch of folk, A-
round the barn they gaily barrel, yes, they’re rolling out a polka
They get their fill of beer and sausage — that feels like my speed
Except it goes so fast, please, slow it down, I plead!
How did they do it after full days farming?
Two minutes in, my breathing rate’s alarming
We spin ’til I’m so dizzy, it just doesn’t seem so wise
Now, polka dots dance right before my eyes

Ballroom dance
Just try it and you’ll see
Ballroom dance
But polka’s not for me

My other grand-maman, she came from Paris — that’s in France
I’ve seen her drink red wine, but, no, I’ve never seen her dance
She’s watched me hoof around the world, but never as in Rome
She says that I should try a step from my own home
If so far I just feel malaise, ah, c’est la vie
Who knows, perhaps someday, instead, joie de vivre
A foxtrot, quick-step, jitterbug, or Lindy Hop or swing
But, ’til then, dancing doesn’t seem my thing

Ballroom dance
I tried some, now I see
Ballroom dance
Perhaps, one day, for me


The Challenge

Spintown decided to launch the SpinTunes songwriting contest. The challenge for SpinTunes 1 Round 4: Musical Road Trip – Write a song using at least three different ethnic styles. The music from each of the three parts of the song should give the listeners a mental image of a place or group of people from a certain area.

My Round 3 song, Will It, fared much better than my songs in the earlier rounds, placing third. However, all but two contestants were being eliminated for Round 4, so I just missed that cut. Adding a however to the however, the contest rules provided a chance for eliminated contestants to get back in if one of those two entrants failed to make a submission on time. In third place, I had more motivation than anyone else to shadow Round 4. Even though time was going to be very tight for me, I decided to go for it, especially given the nature of the challenge.

I’ve always loved playing and composing in different musical styles, so this challenge really appealed to me right out of the gate. At the same time, I’m much more experienced with pop music idioms and less so with ethnic styles, so this challenge was also challenging for me. I knew I needed to find an idea that would work in itself while also letting me use ethnic styles that were at least somewhat familiar to me, minimizing the amount of research and trial and error I’d have if I went with less familiar styles.

One notion I had from the start was using the various styles to provide different versions of what was, underneath, the same song. This would allow the whole piece to be unified not only by topic/story/lyrics but also by the essence of the music itself, despite the stylistic variations. I also felt this would be both a good challenge for myself as well as possibly something to distinguish my entry, on the chance that others might not take this approach.

The Concept

Though I felt my writing had benefitted in the first two rounds from using Appreciative Inquiry, I hadn’t used it in Round 3, and I ended up placing much higher. I don’t really believe there’s a causal connection there, but the Round 4 challenge was such that I felt I basically just needed to see what ideas I could come up with that would allow for multiple ethnic styles brought together. That specificity led me to some basic brainstorming and to feel that an AI wouldn’t really help much in this round, so I skipped it once again.

I came up with probably about two dozen ideas. Some that I liked quite a lot would have required far more time and work and possibly research than I’d be able to put in before the deadline. Some involved musical styles that I could do confidently enough, but I wasn’t sure they would really count as ethnic, even though they might give a sense of people and place. Some might have benefitted from foreign language lyrics, which I wasn’t in any position to do.

Needing to balance the strength of the ideas themselves with my abilities and familiarity with different musical styles, and also wanting a topic that would make narrative sense of everything being sung in American English, I found myself drawn to one of the many ideas on my list — the notion of someone taking a ballroom dance class and sampling the different styles.

Ballroom dance includes a number of swing dances, and I’ve written many swing-based songs over the years. However, I ruled these styles out for this challenge, feeling them to be not technically ethnic enough. Still, swing dances are only part of the standard ballroom repertoire. Competitive dancesport typically includes waltz, Viennese waltz and tango, as well as other Latin categories such as samba, cha-cha and rumba. Less formally, ballroom classes — like one I took in college — can include polka and other dances. Here were a number of musical styles in which I’d already written in the past. Some examples:

  • One of the centerpiece songs from Cupid’s Arrow, the first full-length musical I wrote, was Let Her Know, an upbeat rhythm and blues number that had, for comic effect, waltz and samba breaks in which Cupid tries to teach someone how to dance. There were the multiple styles in one song as well as the dance connection, including two ballroom styles.
  • Many years before Mel Brooks did his own, I started writing a musical adaptation of The Producers, including a tango for the moment when the main characters devise their devious plot.
  • In the next full-length musical I wrote, The Right Circles, a suite of songs based on around a theatrical audition were set to a Strauss-like waltz. Except for the 30 seconds per section rule, another song from this show would itself have met the SpinTunes challenge. Three Historical Figures had a playwright and songwriter improvising tunes: DaVinci’s was sung “like a Venetian gondolier,” Napoleon’s with a “mournful, French cafe sound,” and then there was the “Einstein Polka.”
  • Latinize, beginning as a tango and shifting into samba, talks lovingly and laughingly about the joy of dance, and Latin dances in particular.
  • I’d also written a vals — a form that combines waltz and tango — for the Turner Classic Movies 5th Annual Young Film Composer Competition.

Aside from my own familiarity with some of the relevant styles, I felt the notion of a ballroom dance class lent itself nicely to the challenge. Different dances are covered from week to week in such a class, giving a good reason for one musical style to come after another. Waltz, tango, polka and other Latin styles could work well. Rather than just a laundry list of dances and styles, though, I felt I needed a reason for a song to cover this ground. A story. Why was someone going to this class? This led me to think that the student wouldn’t like each dance, making it that much more important to have to try out each one. And that led me to wonder why this person would want to learn to dance in the first place. Given the challenge, even the explanation of the student’s motivation would need an ethnic style, even if it was outside the ballroom repertoire.

Since all non-swing ballroom dances have European roots in whole or part, it seemed natural to look to other European styles. I thought about someone growing up with images of dances from someplace in Europe that didn’t spawn ballroom dances. My earlier work in these various styles gave me a couple of options — Italian and French.

Thus, an Italian grandmother paints the picture of dancing in her youth, but she is now too old to demonstrate or even remember the steps in order to pass it on, so she suggests her grandchild take a ballroom dance class. For fun and to support the notion of dancing, I’d use a tarantella rather than the “gondolier’s” ballad style I’d used before. With dissatisfaction about the ballroom styles and now a non-ballroom style introducing the story, it seemed natural to have another non-ballroom style to create bookends. Hence, the French chanson at the end, with another grandmother, suggesting that the student stop looking to foreign dances for inspiration. The student ends the song considering the possibility of swing dances — the ballroom styles I’d written off as not ethnic enough for this challenge.

Interesting that Italy and France, two romantic countries, are essentially unrepresented in ballroom dance. And perhaps a little strange to have a song about ballroom dance include musical styles from outside the ballroom repertoire, while excluding many standard Latin ballroom styles and all American ballroom styles. But it all made narrative sense.

Ironically, I really like ballroom dance, and dance in general. Like I said, I took a ballroom dance class in college, where I first learned waltz, tango, polka, cha-cha, jitterbug and probably a couple of other styles as well. In high school, I did a comic ballet in the musical Anything Goes. My wife and I took a swing class for about a year before our wedding, and we choreographed our own first dance. And in my early 30s, I took a year of tap at a local dance school. So I felt a little bad writing a song that seems to frown on dance. Still, it all made narrative sense. Plus, it’s clearly the story of one particular person who is only saying that it’s “not for me,” not making a judgment about dance in general. Finally, the student remains open to the possibility of enjoying other dances not yet tried. So hopefully I’m off the hook in terms of disparaging something I actually like.

The Song

Musically, I really enjoyed the idea of taking a single basic song and setting it in different styles. The changes might be somewhat abrupt, but this would give a comic effect appropriate to the song’s concept. Just to have something to go on, I started writing in the tarantella style, coming up with the basic melody and a colorful but simple enough chord progression, which I later realized has some resemblance to that of I Could Have Danced All Night from My Fair Lady, which seems oddly appropriate.

Eventually, though, the song would never appear exactly as originally written in any of the five sections of the final product. The tarantella essentially kept the original melody, while all other sections have some stylistically appropriate melodic changes. Tarantella itself simplified the chord progression dramatically, down to just I-IV-V, appropriate for the style. Waltz brought a somewhat radical reharmonization, and tango its own noticeable changes to the harmonic progression. Polka and French chanson are perhaps closest to what was originally written, though their chord progressions are identical to neither each other nor the original. Even so, throughout, the melody and overall character of the song remain essentially in tact across all five sections, with changes only as appropriate to serve the needs of the shifting ethnic styles.

Instrumentation was something I wrestled with for a bit. I thought about doing a piano solo, which I knew I could make sound really good, but as good as I could do, I felt it just wouldn’t come across well enough for this challenge compared to orchestration. Deliberately, though, I kept the arrangement somewhat small, almost as if for an actual small band to perform. That idea came from researching arrangements for the different styles and seeing that most are usually done by only a few musicians. The tango, for example, is typically played by an orquesta típica, a sextet comprised of piano, double bass, two violins and two bandoneons. Accordions could feature prominently in many of the styles I was using, as could piano and bass. Tarentella more or less requires tambourine, which I also added to the tango. A drum set made sense for tarantella and polka. I left accordion out of the tarantella even though it could have been appropriate, since I thought it would make its entrance more dramatic with the tango. Different accordions follow in each of the polka and chanson. The strings in the waltz compromise the small-band nature of the other sections, but that seemed necessary for the style. I left strings out of the tango since I was satisfied with the sound without them, but I did add a tuba in the bass of the polka.

While I’d originally thought to do a separate samba section, the song was already looking to be somewhat long, and five sections seemed like plenty, especially when one, the tango, was already Latin in flavor. The samba did briefly insinuate itself into the tango section for comic effect, though, with the lyrics at that moment pointing to some other Latin styles of ballroom dance.

Speaking of lyrics, there are only a few others I’d like to highlight. “Don’t even mention the dips / For Latin and spicy I’ll stick with my salsa and chips” has a sort of oblique double pun, with the dancing dips also referring to the salsa which is itself a dip for the chips, and salsa itself also referring to the Latin dance of the same name. In the polka, the peasants “barrel” around the barn as “they’re rolling out a polka” — punny references to famous polkas such as Beer Barrel Polka and Roll Out the Barrel. Their beer and sausage, says the narrator, “feels like my speed,” only the narrator then switches from talking about preferences to the actual speed of the dance, which is just too fast. Beyond these few things, the song pretty much wears its lyrics on its sleeve, everything else to be taken basically at face value.

Since I’m just the kind of person to notice such things, I couldn’t help but wonder if this song turns out to be a critique of globalization. The narrator is tantalized by foreign things, but never finds satisfaction in them. The initial inspiration is peasant dancing — the Italian tarantella — which the student cannot access. Another peasant style seems to be the best fit — the Slavic polka — but even this doesn’t work. Everything else — waltz, tango, chanson — either is genuinely urban or is associated with the urban — Vienna, Buenos Aires, Paris — and jibes even less for the student. In the end, the student comes to see the need to pursue something closer to home, as opposed to more dances that have immigrated across national and cultural boundaries. Is the message of the song “dance local,” a cultural corollary to various messages we hear about ecological health? Will even the swing dances disappoint, being likely more urban than the narrator’s apparently rural and peasant-like tastes? Or is it this just a silly ditty that doesn’t mean much of anything? You decide :)


You can check out the Round 4 songs at SpinTunes, or more permanently at BandCamp, and you can get directly to Ballroom Dance at Bandcamp — but you can listen and download for free from BandCamp right from the player at the top of this post.

I work hard on the songs and the site, giving away a lot of stuff for free. If I could make a living by making art, I could make — and give away — even more. That could actually happen if everyone who listened contributed just a little bit. If you’ve enjoyed some of my free music or other content — on the site, through downloads, however — why not take a second and make a contribution to support me in making more? Just click on the Donate button in the right sidebar. Thanks!

If you’d rather buy some music, that’s great, too! Visit the Shop.

Either way, I really appreciate your support.

Will It

July 23, 2010

Caught Red-HandedCaught Red-Handed!
Warning! The Offhand Band usually strives to write satisfying songs that are cool for kids, fun for families and great for the grown on their own. In part or whole, we believe this song doesn’t fit that description. Proceed at your own risk! Learn more.
Play the song here!

The pains have just begun
But we’re prepared, expecting all goes naturally
Upon first light, the babe to breast
She’ll stay with us for all the rest
No nursery
All together as it’s meant to be

And then when doctors done
Back home to where our family future feels so bright
We’ll live to give a strong attachment
All life long without a catch
But on first light
We find out that there’s something not right

Will it be okay?
It’s not up to me
Not anything to do or say
Will it be alright?
Can’t will it to be
Want all my fears to take their flight
To stop, to end
Will it ever be okay again?

Arriving, all seems fine
Nine months, no complications through this very day
The sweat, the pain, through all the hours
The triumph that will prove your powers
But now you pray
One quick touch, then they took her away

It wasn’t your design
A newborn and her parents in two separate rooms
The bonding never comes to pass
She crying trapped behind the glass
You’re helpless, too
Their machines hold her instead of you

Will it be okay?
It’s not up to me
Not anything to do or say
Will it be alright?
Can’t will it to be
Want all my fears to take their flight
To stop, to end
Will it ever be okay again?

Back home they finally come
But they don’t feel a family yet, they self-condemn
Mistakes are made, they’re sad and rough
They wonder if they love enough
Just what’s the stem?
Is it what happened, or is it them?

They wish that they were numb
Attached to expectations, they can never win
Perhaps if they can just let go
Accepting that they’ll never know
What could have been
Maybe finally their love could begin

Will it be okay?
It’s all up to me
In everything I do and say
Will it be alright?
Must will it to be
Just stop my putting up a fight
I’ve got to bend
Or I’ll never be okay again

The pains have just begun…


The Challenge

Spintown decided to launch the SpinTunes songwriting contest. The challenge for SpinTunes 1 Round 3: Happy To Sad In 4 Seconds – Write a sad song about birth, a moment that is normally a happy moment, and make it a real tear jerker. You can’t use the words “Happy” or “Birthday”.

Just as in Round 1, my Round 2 song, Another Universe, had fared pretty poorly with the judges, barely passing me into the next round. Though much of the point of that last song was the contrast between the verses depicting a bland current life and the more lively imagined universe of the chorus, the biggest critique of the song seemed to be that the verses were lacking. There was also sentiment against the song being perhaps too generic and also too minimalist in production. Some more general comments made by one of the judges made me realize that I’ve been allowing myself to be too swept up in the nature of each challenge, and that it is more important to simply write great songs that happen to meet the challenge. My Round 3 song would need to be stronger and more specific throughout. Also, since the judges continue to weigh production despite the contest being nominally about songwriting alone, rather than continue with the minimal piano-centric approach I’d settled on in Round 2, I conceded to it being worth putting in extra time and effort on production for this round.

When the Round 3 challenge was announced, I wondered if it would be possible to meet it while sticking with The Offhand Band’s main “mission” of creating songs that are all-ages-friendly and ideally positive in nature. A few possibilities occurred to me, but I wrote them off, feeling that they wouldn’t allow me to write a song that could stand up to the judging as well as possible. I came up with the idea of a warning label to let visitors know when some content here may be worth screening first before letting just anyone at it. I suppose, then, that I have this challenge to thank for leading me to expand The Offhand Band’s possibilities.

Considering the broadstroke possibilities for basic plots, it seemed obvious that something bad had to happen, it would likely end badly, and then those around afterward would either live in depression, live in denial, or grieve healthfully and move on. But what about a bad thing that happens and ends well? This could still be a tearjerker, as the challenge demands. But the challenge also demands sadness, so this might be seen as a compromise.

I had a notion, though, that suggested a way to take a bad event, give it what at first seems a happy ending, and then reveal it to be not an ending at all, with things remaining pretty bad afterward in a different way. I felt this would make for a unique and powerful take on the challenge topic compared to the basic plots.

Despite benefitting last round from doing an Appreciative Inquiry even when I’d initially felt I could skip it, I did skip it this time, because I simply felt confident enough in my initial sense of what direction to take.

The Concept

A sad birth story would be painful for practically anyone, staying with them for the rest of their lives. There is, though, a kind of person for whom it could be particularly tragic. Because of their values, not only would the situation itself be more painful than for most, but even if the situation were overcome, those very values could continue causing despair.

Parents engaged in a natural family living lifestyle, including approaches like attachment parenting and unconditional parenting, often believe strongly in providing powerful connection and support in infancy and childhood as the very means to help children naturally achieve healthy development. High priorities for many of these parents include natural childbirth, breastfeeding, co-sleeping, baby-wearing and stay-at-home parenting. They would feel very strongly about maintaining physical contact with the baby almost continuously from birth, nursing as soon after birth as possible and continuing as the exclusive means of nutrition for several months or even a year, and even having the baby sleep in the same bed with them. Sending the baby to a separate nursery room alone or to get nutrition from other means would be anathema for months, even years, yet no time more than the crucial first days of life.

Beginning labor believing that all was well and having such a strong and particular vision of what would happen afterward, a serious medical issue that demanded immediate separation would be devastating. Bad enough to be uncertain if your child would even survive. Far worse to go through that while also believing that each minute apart in the service of physical health could cause lifelong emotional damage to the child.

Underneath all this, though, would be a terrible, ironic truth. Truly unconditional parents would lament each moment of the crisis, but if they got through, they’d simply be grateful for the child’s survival, treating each day as a gift, an opportunity to make the child feel loved. Parents who couldn’t get over what may have been lost through the crisis, though, would reveal themselves to be conditional at heart. Rather than genuinely valuing love as unconditional parents are supposed to, they could attach greater value to an image of the perfection that they believed love leads to, and could therefore find themselves unable to fully love a child they see as less than perfect.

For these parents, even with the initial crisis overcome, that trauma is merely the beginning. With their idealized expectations of the child and themselves, neither the child nor they themselves can measure up. Every time they see a flaw in their child, they’d wonder if it was because of the birth crisis that was out of their control or because of their own ongoing failings as parents. The gap between reality and and expectation undermines their ability to provide the very things they believe all children deserve. Constantly plagued by the pain of that discrepancy, they would be forced to choose between either living a life of self-inflicted misery in which they harshly judge their child and themselves, or confronting the darkness inside themselves so that they might eventually align their hopes with reality. Only then could they become the parents they really want to be, helping the child grow up with as much genuine nurture as possible.

The Song

Opposing forces run through the story. The heat of pain increases as happy anticipation gives way to the terrible crisis and then again as the parents torture themselves emotionally as life goes on. At the same time, the nature of the pain is too much for these parents to bear, causing them to cling ever more to their expectations, denying reality, and so there is a simultaneous trend toward the cool of detachment. These streams, running at cross-purposes, and the ways in which they cause similar notions to change meaning in different contexts, are woven into the music and lyrics.

The music begins somewhat poignantly and quietly, a solo piano ballad, though one with busy motion. The feeling builds gradually, first when a synth pad comes in midway through verse one, then with ride cymbals upon the first chorus. Afterward, the song kicks in with bass guitar, acoustic guitar and full drum set. When the second chorus is done, bass and electric piano become frenetic — Muse was my muse for this climactic section. Through these macro patterns as well as various details along the way, the music conveys the growing sense of pain and conflict.

The lyrics tell a narrative fractured in two ways.

The plot itself is somewhat unstuck in time, with a sense of chaos and confusion that the music conveys as the song develops, perhaps as if the entire story is behind told in hindsight, by someone who keeps running over the various parts of it in his or her mind, first this, then that, all in circles, all repeating.

Labor begins along with the first verse, and the parents declare the vision they’ve had all along and the preparations they’ve made to achieve it. At verse’s end, they jump ahead to the moment when they realize something is wrong. The first chorus expresses the uncertainty and helplessness of the crisis, perhaps even the very first moment when nobody in the family really understands the nature of the crisis.

Verse two jumps back to arrival at the hospital, then forward to the tremendous sense of empowerment coming from going through unmedicated, natural labor and birth. That’s followed by the horrific disempowerment of the immediate separation of child from parents, then to some time later on when all are knee-deep in the crisis. The second chorus’ lyrics are the same as the first, as if all the family members just can’t get the uncertainty out of their heads.

The third verse reveals that the birth crisis is at some point overcome but that there is still more to the story, the pain continuing because of the parents’ unique emotional situation. The final chorus, with only slight rewording, conveys a completely new kind of uncertainty — one not about things outside one’s control, but about things very much in one’s control, if only one finds the courage to act.

The last line reiterates the first, meaning something new, but simultaneously giving that sense of the story swirling back on itself, repeating over and over in someone’s mind.

The chaos of fractured narrative is not the only distinguishing element of the lyrics, though. The story is told from shifting perspectives, amplifying the sense of chaos while, as in chaos theory itself, also hiding a definite sense of pattern and order within.

The first verse is told in the first person, plural, “we” — the collective family unit, expressing the notion of how they want things to be through their best laid plans. The second verse is told in the second person, as if they are dumbfounded by the crisis and can’t fully admit how out of control they feel. Finally, the third verse is told in the third person, plural, “they” — complete detachment, just as the parents are now feeling because of their reality gap.

Throughout, though, the choruses are in first person singular. The core feeling of uncertainty and fear lingers at all steps along the way, and it can only be experienced by each individual. Indeed, the choruses could be any of the family members talking — the mother, the father, perhaps even the child. The last chorus may seem primarily about the parents and how they must take responsibility for themselves, their expectations and their emotions in order to be the parents they hope to be. Yet it could just as well be the child, somewhere inside knowing that she must take responsibility for herself to the very extent that her parents are unable to do so for her. Even this, though, does point back to the parents, since they believe that the child can only become a healthfully independent and responsible adult if they can model it for her first.

The initial moment of uncertainty somehow remains with them, experienced over and over and never forgotten. The final chorus stays with them as well, but insists that the feeling will stay with them only as long as they are unwilling to give up their unrealistic expectations. That realization is itself the seed of a path back toward the optimism that started the song, but the path will be a painful one, through the traumas that led them to have unrealistic expectations in the first place. They must choose their pain — detachment and self-judgment everlasting, or self-confrontation. The latter may seem more daunting, but through the pain is the only way past it. As of the end of the song, no choice is made, only an attempt to muster up courage.

One way I wanted to draw out the contrast of the beginning and ending of the story was by using words in different contexts to mean different things. The core example is the chorus. The contest challenge inherently suggests fear and powerlessness, and this chorus speaks to that directly. “Will it” is both a question wondering what may happen in the future and a declaration that about people making things happen. “Okay” and “alright” at first refer to the fate and health of the baby but later on to the potential attitude of acceptance, as in being okay with something despite having alternate expectations. All these terms are doubly turned around by the way the last chorus turns helplessness into taking responsibility. Other examples:

  • “The pains have just begun” — First, they are the labor pains. Later, they are the pains of the emotional growth the parents will need to undergo and had no anticipation of when they first decided to enter parenthood. On that note:
  • “Expecting” has the double meaning of being pregnant and anticipating that the birth will go well, giving way to “expectations” in the sense of hopes and fantasies out of touch with reality. Likewise:
  • “Attachment” first refers to the parent-child bond, but later refers to the way that people are “Attached to expectations.” Ironically, one kind of attachment makes the other kind impossible. In order to be an effective attachment/unconditional parent, one must be detached enough to not get too swept up in one’s own hopes and imaginings.
  • “Upon first light” is not repeated with a different meaning but is used more than once, first to show their hope, then “But on first light” providing the first utterance of the crisis that contradicts that hope.
  • The choruses, all about fear, refer to the fight-or-flight response: In the first two choruses, the narrator simply wants “fears to take their flight,” to go away. In chorus three, the narrator wants to “stop my putting up a fight,” revealing that all along, with the fears never having gone away, those involved have been resisting their fears. Only by letting themselves actually feel their fear may they be able to get past them — and consequently past the fight-or-flight response.
  • A more minor pun, “She’ll stay with us for all the rest” is a reference both to co-sleeping in the family bed and more generally acknowledging that the child will stay with the parents through everything, unconditionally.

More Musical Details

Some final comments on the music, with a little bit of technical language that hopefully won’t bar understanding.

The song begins with an intro based on some chords very common in sad and dramatic music, which I’ll talk about as they appear in the song’s key. An Fm is followed by a Db, with Eb thrown in between though only with Fm and Db in the bass. It almost seemed cliche to use these chords, but cliches work for a reason, plus there are interesting evolutions from this pair of chords, noted below.

The verse chord progression is composed of a series of fairly rich but not too complex chords, including diminished, augmented, seventh and ninth chords. Underscoring them is an ascending bass line that is on one hand simple and linear but, on the other, a little unusual in moving all the way up from Bb back to F via half steps. All of this serves to build tension and uncertainty.

The chorus progression is built mainly around a chord with a name that is exactly right yet seems odd: the minor major seventh chord (mM7), sometimes referred to as The Hitchcock Chord based on its use in his films. Other chords are more dissonant, but there is something pure and horrifying about this chord, even when played very simply and softly. Although it can be found in chord progressions, I’ve felt that, in its purity as a frightening sound, it seemed very static, as if paralyzing someone with fear, coming out of nowhere and with no possible place to go afterward.

A unique property of this chord, though, suggested a progression to me. Using an FmM7 as a reference point, the notes of the chord are F, Ab, C, E. Remove the root F, and we’re left with an Ab augmented chord. But those three notes are equidistant. Travel four half steps repeatedly, and you end up repeating the sequence, Ab C E over and over up and down in pitch. That very fact means that these three notes can each serve as the root of an augmented chord — C augmented and E augmented contain the same exact three notes as Ab augmented.

Throw in the F to turn it into a mM7 chord, and one quickly realizes that, just the same, there are three mM7 chords that can be made, keeping the Ab, C and E and changing only the root note to be a half step above any of one of these three notes. Above the E, we get the FmM7. Above Ab and C, we get AmM7 and DbmM7 respectively.

Note, then, that two of the three mM7 chords in this trio are F and Db — the roots used in the intro, themselves four half steps apart just like the notes in the augmented chords embedded inside the mM7 chords. Using the three related mM7 chords consecutively, then, there is simultaneously the sense of fear from their general quality, the notion of paralysis since so much of the harmony is preserved as one moves through the three chords, and yet also a sense of motion and development that resembles but is much richer than the movement from Fm to Db.

Moving from the C7/E at the end of the verse, one expects to come back to Fm as happened midway through the verse. Even changing this to the scarier FmM7, it would be a somewhat predictable move, making the scary less scary. To enhance the feeling of fear and uncertainty in the chorus, the chorus begins with an apparent key change, introducing an AmM7 and sounding a bit terrifying as it’s intended to. From there, movement through the trio involves FmM7 and DbmM7, preserving the relationship to the intro but casting it in a new light. The progression then seems to resolve with the consonance of an Ab, though from there we go right back to AmM7 and the cycle repeats one more time, this time moving from Ab through a few other dramatic chords that bring things back to the verse. Somehow, these mM7 chords, despite their inherent horror and stasis, play nice and make for a poignant chord progression that seems ideal to go with the lyrics of the choruses.

After the final chorus, when the first line of the lyrics is repeated as the last line of the song, a repeated intro phrase gives way to an Fm/C and then a Dbm before turning around through C7 back to the verse theme. This is yet another alternate casting of the cliche Fm-to-Db. We’d have a DbmM7 with the addition of a C, and though there is no C simultaneous with the Dbm, the C was very prominent in the Fm/C immediately preceding. This suggestively evokes a bit of the terror of the chorus chords and highlights, as an alternative intro, the beginning of a new painful life chapter.

The final musical element I wanted to mention is the fade at the end of the song. I grew up on pop songs with ending fades, but they don’t seem quite as common anymore, and it rarely occurs to me to use a fade in my own songs. Part of it is simply that there is no fading when composing on most instruments, including certainly a piano.

Another part, though, is an idea that made an impression on me from an unlikely place. I once heard the Pet Shop Boys explain that the fades at the ends of their songs suggested that the songs never end, that somehow, somewhere, they play on and on. Though I kind of like the Pet Shop Boys, I thought this was a pretty pretentious thing to say, a rationalization for what most pop songs had been doing for years anyway as opposed to anything genuinely special about their own music. Ever since then, unless there were a particular aesthetic or symbolic purpose, I figured there was seldom a good reason to do a fade.

Seldom, though, is not never. When a song ends with the notion of something just beginning — like pains that have just begun — the situation seems ripe for a fade. So, at the end of the song, we hear an instrumental verse fading away, suggesting that the story, and the pain, is nowhere near over.


You can check out the Round 3 songs at SpinTunes, or more permanently at BandCamp, and you can get directly to Will It at Bandcamp — but you can listen and download for free from BandCamp right from the player at the top of this post.

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Another Universe

July 7, 2010

Play the song here!

The clock is ticking
Sand spills away
Some things may happen
Yet all’s the same
I feel I’m standing
On solid ground
But what’s below it?
Could it fall down?

There in the mirror
It looks like me
But something’s missing
I just can’t see
Outside, a smile
Within, a frown
Only the clock hands
Go all the way round

But in another universe
Everything’s reverse
Life is sublime
There’s another me
Dancing fancy free
All the words rhyme
Each to their own rhythm
And I’m right there with ‘em
But that’s in another place and another time

It’s love or money
They’re foes or friends
Selfish or selfless
Uses or thems
Choose Column A or
From Column B
We can’t pick both sides
Nor in between

Through life I tiptoe
Eggshells each spot
I’m scared of changing
And scared of not
It doesn’t matter
Just who’s to blame
If I do nothing
Then life stays the same

But in another universe
Left and right converse
No ors, just ands
Calm instead of strife
Grabbing hold of life
With all three hands
Nothing is neglected
Everything accepted
Everyone just understands

Yes, in another universe
Everything’s reverse
Life is sublime
There’s another me
Dancing fancy free
All the words rhyme
Each to their own rhythm
And I’m right there with ‘em
But that’s in another place and another time

Spintown decided to launch the SpinTunes songwriting contest. The challenge for SpinTunes 1 Round 2: John Hancock Time – Write a song where the choruses are a different time signature than the verses.

My Round 1 song, Step Back Swooperman, had fared pretty poorly with the judges. Though these weren’t the only reasons, their comments made clear that my singing and production — both of which I know full well are not core strengths of mine — held some responsibility. Though I write songs to fulfill their own potential independent of what I as a performer or producer can do with them, I figured I’d be better off with a different approach, playing down the vocals and the production. For Round 2, and probably afterward as well if I were to make it that far, I thought that as much as possible I’d stay in a tighter vocal range and take a minimal, more piano-oriented approach to the rest.

When the Round 2 challenge was announced, with constraints only on a very basic element of the music and freedom to do whatever else we might want with the music and especially the lyrics, I quickly had a cascade of thoughts that brought me to an idea for the song.

First, I immediately decided that I wanted to write about a topic that would itself make the time signature changes meaningful instead of arbitrary. What occurred to me right after that was the notion that the different time signatures could represent different times — different time periods in the experience of a narrator, who would be describing a significant contrast between them. Given that time signatures “feel” very different, it seemed obvious that the two time periods should evoke very different feelings for the narrator. Right away, I thought that the song should begin with the narrator describing life as it is in the first verse, while the chorus could describe not only a different time but one that hasn’t even happened yet, a hoped-for time. At that point it was clear to me that the verses would describe a somewhat troubled, confused and dissatisfying life, contrasting sharply with the fantasy of the choruses.

This seemed a strong enough idea that brainstorming happened easily, ideas just coming to me. Many of these initial, fast-and-furious ideas for lyrics would end up finding their way into the song, including the recognition of the fantasy as merely a fantasy, as “another place and time.” This would seal the connection between the content of the story and the form of varying time signatures defined by the challenge, making things clearly non-arbitrary as I’d hoped.

The basic musical framework also just popped up. Thinking of a life of stagnation, I imagined someone at work or school watching the clock, just waiting for things to end. I also pondered how lives of dissatisfaction and conflict are usually wrapped up with dichotomies and dilemmas, in which we feel caught between two choices that seem unable to co-exist. The tick-tocking clock and the dualistic thinking both suggested not only lyrical content for the verses but also 2/4 as their time signature. The chorus fantasy would need to depict a more holistic life where nothing needs to lose in order for something else to win, and life flowing effortlessly as a result. The circular, fluid, waltzing feel of 3/4 time was the ideal choice both for musical feel as well as symbolism. From there, the main musical themes of the final song popped out quickly as well.

As time would go on, I would discover many opportunities to create depth in the meaning underneath the musical structures, and I’ll go into more detail on that below, in a section just for those who are interested in that sort of more in-depth interpretation.

I was very tempted to just forge ahead with the song, skipping an Appreciative Inquiry since I’d already gotten so much to go on with both music and lyrics. However, knowing full well from experience how AI can bring tremendous benefit not only in terms of spurring initial brainstorming but also in terms of bringing depth and focus to a project, I went ahead and did an AI on the core idea of different times.

Through the AI, a lot of what I discovered was no surprise at all, strongly affirming all the more spontaneous creativity I’d already done. However, a recurring theme in the AI was surprising, at first seeming too far afield, but then turned out to be a nice addition which even led to the very title of the song. This came about because the AI brought up stories like Back to the Future, Groundhog Day, Rashomon and (though nowhere near the classic status of the others mentioned) Click. All of these involve powerful notions of alternate realities, and often the distinction between some of those realties as sought and others as something to be avoided, the notion of one of the realities being the way things are supposed to be.

I’d also come through the AI to a complex notion about the value of fantasy. Fantasies and hopes seem, on the face of it, optimistic. But sometimes the fantasy itself is like a vicarious experience, leading us to never really get out of our status quo. Otherwise, even if a hope is actively pursued, if it is met too often with failure, the very existence of that hope can become associated more with the disappointment rather than with the actual hope itself. Even in these times, though, the hope may be all we have to keep us from giving up entirely.

The richness of these ideas made me realize that I could incorporate them in an emotionally resonant way, without turning the song into a science fiction tale. Physicists theorize about the existence of an infinite number of universes and how similar many could be to our own, including even alternate versions of ourselves with slightly different life stories. This seemed to gel with the story I was already trying to tell. Thinking about one’s hopes as something that might already be real in “another universe” seemed a colorful way to nail the tension between the narrator’s real and imagined lives, as well as the tensions I was just describing as inherent to the notions of hope and fantasy themselves. A parallel universe, and therefore the narrator’s hopes, would seem very far away, given that these other universes are incomprehensibly inaccessible to us. At the same time, it would all also seem palpable, the fantasy closer to realization, in the sense that it would be how things already really are somewhere, not merely a wish for how things could be or would be.

Another notion that came up in the AI was the idea of action needing to be taken to create change. Time can pass, but just because one finds oneself at some other time doesn’t mean anything will necessarily be different, at least not in a fundamental way. In the AI, the story of Gandhi came up, and the courage he and his followers had to have in order to take action in the face of those seemingly more powerful than they were. Rather than merely paint the pictures of two different times in the song, then, I could also bring up at least the notions of action, courage and fear that would come into play in actually creating change for a stagnating life. Without this, the song, painting two realities but doing no more, might end up just embodying the very kinds of dilemmas it critiques. The suggestion of action would make the song itself more of a story with direction, just as the narrator wants in life.

You can check out the Round 2 songs at SpinTunes, or more permanently at BandCamp, and you can get directly to Another Universe at Bandcamp — but you can listen and download for free from BandCamp right from the player at the top of this post!

I always intend for my songs to stand on their own for the listener. These stories behind the songs are here because some, including myself, find it valuable to explore the creative process. With most songs, I wouldn’t bother describing too much more detail about thematic interpretation or especially music theory. For this song, though, the strong connection between music and lyrics that inspired the very idea for the song kept working its way into so much of the song’s realization. This makes a deeper excursion into the workings of this song seem worthwhile, at least for those who may be interested. If you’re not one of those people, feel free to just skip down to the bottom of the page to leave a comment if you like. Otherwise, let’s go deeper into another universe.

A Closer Look

Some musically technical language is used to keep things from being longer than they already are here. Hopefully the main ideas will come across even for those who don’t fully understand the music theory.


The introduction is just a few seconds long, lone notes suggesting a ticking clock. The 2/4 time signature is established. It may feel more like a 4/4 tempo with each line of the verse’s lyrics taking up one measure, and 2/4 is usually used in marches and polkas with 4/4 being used most other times a piece has a completely even beat. In 2/4, though, and with extremely short measures so that four are needed for each line in the verses, the song’s tempo can remain exactly the same as we move from the verse into the chorus and have each section keep an appropriate feel. This signature, then, simply makes more musical sense for the song, not being imposed merely for the sake of enhancing the symbolic meaning the number two has throughout the lyrics.

As for the tempo itself, the song begins at 120 beats per second, which also works equally well on two levels. Musically, it felt ideal. Thematically, it makes the “tick-tock” happen in real time.

Only days after putting this intro in place, I realized that the tick-tocking, on two Ds an octave apart, is nearly identical to how the song Anything Goes begins in the 1962 revival of the musical of the same name (I was in a high school production of this show). That song’s first line of lyrics, sung a few seconds in: “Times have changed.” I now imagine I’ve made a subconscious nod to Cole Porter’s great song about the difference between the way things are and the way things used to be.

Verse 1

To convey the narrator’s feeling of emptiness and uncertainty in the verses, I wanted a sense of sparseness both musically and lyrically.

The words come in short phrases. The bit of silence between each line, as well as the fact of each line being split across four measures of music, nod to the sense of fragmentation that will become clearer as the song goes on. Odd numbered lines don’t rhyme at all, while even-numbered lines are in pairs, though mostly with imperfect rhymes. All of this supports the sense the narrator has of feeling somewhat lost, incomplete, off.

Musical accompaniment is fairly bare underneath. In the first stanza, each chord is played a single time underneath the “ticking clock.” In the second stanza, the ticking is gone, introducing a brief call and response, the higher-pitched chords suggesting the reflection the narrator sees “there in the mirror.”

In the recording’s mix, the piano is (as it was from the beginning of the Intro) pushed to the right in the stereo image, and given a very airy reverb, creating that sense of space in which to get lost. When the vocals begin, they are pushed to the left, with less reverb. All this not only gives each musical element a bit of space for the ears. The vocals and instruments are separated from each other, thematically appropriate. Further, the narrator is put in the position of “not being right.” Through the different reverb settings, the narrator is alienated from his empty-sounding surroundings.

The final things I want to describe about the verses, and in particular this first verse, are the musical sound, especially the chord progression, and the transition to the chorus. The chord progression in particular plays a far more crucial role in the song than a number of the things I’ve just mentioned. Both the progression and the transition, though, are much easier to explain by first talking about the chorus.

Chorus 1 — Chords

The very concept of the song involved the chorus being its own distinct, separate world from the verse, one in which the narrator might find wholeness, a resolution to all concerns, a sense of cyclic and effortless flowing. This was the motive behind the 3/4 time signature. Thinking about these notions, I also quickly came to consider an ideal progression for the harmonies underlying the chorus.

The circle of fifths shows some of the most basic relationships among the twelve notes (or, more technically, the twelve pitch classes). While an octave matches a note with a higher or lower version of itself and so makes for perfect harmony, it is essentially too perfect — colorless, static. The next closest and most consonant interval is a fifth — the distance between, e.g., a C and a G. There is some color to the interval in itself, but far more important, even though the fifth is harmonically just a drop removed from an octave, there is an implied movement. Starting at any pitch and moving by fifths (or, more technically, an equal tempered fifth), one passes through all twelve tones, eventually returning to the original pitch.

That implied movement has tremendous implications for music, including its having embedded within it one of the most basic building blocks of harmony. Descending from a note (and especially from a simple chord based on that note) to the note a fifth below (and especially to the chord based on that note), as from a C note/chord to an F note/chord, provides a powerful sense of resolution. That resolution can move, in turn, around the entire circle of fifths. It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that this is one of the central defining features of most of the music that most people hear.

With the circle itself being a classic image of wholeness, the 3/4 meter providing a sense of circular movement, and the circle of fifths providing such a basic sequence of resolutions, it seemed an obvious choice to have the chorus’ chord progression involve a counterclockwise movement (as is technically the case) around the circle of fifths. Using major chords for the most basic kind of resolution, one after another would lead all the way round the circle, and the happy fantasy would be established.

Musically, though, this is actually not at all obvious. It’s incredibly rare for a piece music to traverse the entire circle of fifths in sequence, whether through chords or notes, and trying to do so could easily tend to sound like a technique exercise rather than an actual song. I started with a section of the circle, beginning on a G major chord as home base, since the song was in G-based keys in order to best suit my vocal range. Rather than rush to C, I added some color with one common way of realizing the resolution, by moving chords from G to GM7, then to G7, which desperately wants to resolve to C. After one measure of each of these, C resolves to F, which repeats the pattern to FM7 then F7 resolving to Bb. From there, the remainder of the circle is simple major chords, one per measure.

The melody is crafted to minimize the “exercise”-like nature of the circle of fifths. One phrase occurs twice during the first half of the chorus as it moves from G to C to F to Bb. A new phrase is repeated twice over the next four chords, and a final new, longer phrase rests on top of the final four chords of the circle. The magic number three phrases in all, sounding hopefully like a “regular melody” rather than a technique brushup.

Verse 1 — Chords

To contrast with the circle of fifths and its sense of completeness, the obvious choice for the verses seemed to be to use half of the circle of fifths. “Something’s missing” because the chords wouldn’t “go all the way round” like the clock hands the narrator watches, and the inability to “pick both sides” would be inherent as well. An incredibly common chord progression, especially in jazz standards such as Autumn Leaves, would do basically this.

The verses would be in the key of G minor (related to Bb major), so as to both contrast with the chorus, minor/sad vs. major/happy, while keeping them also the same in a significant way, showing them to be alternate versions of each other. Here, then, is a simple version of the progression in G minor:

Cm F Bb Eb Am D Gm G

The progression goes counterclockwise, forming a semicircle when it cuts directly across the circle of fifths from Eb to Am before continuing the counterclockwise path, leading back to where it began. I was concerned, though, that this progression was too common, and in any case might not feel right for the lyrical content. Still following a typical circle of fifths logic, it didn’t provide a distinct enough world of its own compared to the chorus.

I then recalled the chord progression from Hotel California by The Eagles. In G minor / Bb major:

Gm D F C Eb Bb Cm D

Like the Autumn Leaves progression, about half (in fact, in this case, exactly half) the circle of fifths was used, including another combination of major and minor chords. It takes, though, a more curious path, zigzagging among the first three pairs of chords, followed by an abrupt trajectory across two more chords to bring things back to where they started. This casting about seemed related to the narrator’s feeling lost and perhaps buffeted about by a life that cannot be controlled. Further, whenever two chords adjacent in the circle appear consecutively in the progression, the movement is clockwise, creating tension rather than resolution and therefore providing another nice contrast with the chorus’ progression.

Even so, there was something that felt off about this progression, too simple. The narrator is supposed to feel off “solid ground.” But here was a balanced combination of major and minor chords, all of which were formed in root position with a strong bottom. It didn’t yet sound like an appropriate underscore for the narrator’s disempowerment. A bit of playing around led me to this:

Bb/F D/F# Ab/Eb C/E Gb/Db Bb/D A/E D

This may look very different, but the respective progressions have quite a lot in common. The final chord is identical. The D/F#, C/E and Bb/D are simply inversions of the correlated D, C and Bb chords, sharing all the same notes, just put in a different order from top to bottom. The Bb/F shares two of three notes with the Gm, and those two are arranged the same way in both cases.

The remaining chords are less similar on the face of it but serve similar harmonic purposes. The Ab/Eb and Gb/Db are similar to minor versions of the F and Bb from the first progression, while both the Cm and A/E serve as tension-filled lead-ins to the final D.

The progression itself has some of the same basic character of Hotel California, going through a pattern before an abrupt change in path, but this is even more pronounced. The first six chords actually draw a pentagram within the circle of fifths, a complete cycle within itself now that there are two Bb chords. And yet, after reaching that second Bb, there is still the abrupt shift to A/E and then to a second D, these two chords pointing a path that would lead logically to G, but that move is never possible within the verse. Things get sucked back into the pentagram and the cycle repeats with a second stanza. It’s almost as if the chord progression traces a strange attractor which describes the chaos of the narrator’s life and the futility of trying to escape it.

To go with this progression, the melody is crafted to be a bit melacholy, as much as possible given the major chords underneath. Half steps are used next to notes from the underlying chords to add some dissonance, allowing the melody, sung by the narrator, to add to the complexity above and beyond the use of major chords. The narrator’s singing betrays the supposed happiness of the environment.

Now, there were odd colors coming from these new chords, including implied minor/sad tones, despite the fact that all were actually major chords that “should” sound happy. Now, the chords were scattered more throughout the circle of fifths rather than simplistically occupying one hemisphere, half still missing but that fact being more disguised. Now, all but the final D chord were inversions, i.e., not having their root note in root position at the bottom, and leaving as the only root chord the one chord that demands to go to the key’s root chord, G (or even Gm), yet the verse doesn’t allow it to. Now, the melody was adding tension as well.

Far better than a more obviously sad progression would, this seemed to gel really nicely with the verse’s sense of a confusing, superficial, incomplete life that might have no “solid ground” below. The progression makes sense and yet, at the same time, produces an “off” feeling much like the narrator goes through life with.

Transition and Chorus

With the contrasting chord progressions, time signatures and stories in place for verse and chorus, they needed to be connected. As the first verse approaches its end, the time signature shifts into 3/4 in time for the verse’s final two words, including one extra word/syllable compared to the previous stanza. At this same moment, the pan shifts over the course of the one measure that contains those two words. Vocals and piano shift places, piano left and vocals now right. As the chorus is about to say, “Everything’s reversed.” All of this suggests that the fantasy is intruding on the narrator’s “real life,” as if the narrator is daydreaming. A moment later, we are into the chorus in earnest.

In the chorus, not only are the harmonies and the time signature different. The feel is busier, bouncier, happier. The vocal reverb remains the same, but the piano reverb has changed, the environment much less ghostly. The words flow more freely and articulately. Life is more full.

In contrast to the imperfect scheme of the verse, as the chorus now says, “All the words rhyme.” Indeed, where the verse’s loose scheme was about pairs of non-rhymes and imperfect rhymes, the chorus has a very tight scheme based around the number three. There is a triple rhyme providing a superstructure for the chorus as a whole — “sublime,” then “rhyme,” and culminating in the key word “time” that sums up the very inspiration for the song. In between, there are couplets — “universe” and “reverse,” “me” and “free,” “rhythm” and “with ‘em” — but there are three of them, so the chorus affirms the transformation of twos into threes.

The song-related imagery throughout — “dancing,” “rhyme,” “rhythm,” all of which participate in rhyme since even “dancing” produces an inner rhyme with “fancy” — affirms the deep connection the song makes between form and content, music and lyrics.

Finally, on the most basic musical level, the chorus begins with a G major chord in root position. The Gm (or, more specifically, the Gm7) that was implied (by the Bb/F) in the verse has been transformed, and the dominance of inversions has given way to root positions, giving the narrator more stability. The M7-7 resolution pattern above veers a bit from this, but in a colorful way that complements the sense of resolution rather than detracting from it. Aside from that added pattern — which itself exemplifies the dominance of three over two by taking three chords and three measures to move from one position on the circle of fifths to the next — all chorus chords provide solidity in root position.

Toward the end, though, just as the fantasy of the chorus disrupted the reality of the verse, the formal transition happens early here once again. With once again two syllables to go, the time signature shifts back to 2/4, along with the pan neutralizing the stereo reversal and the piano reverb going back to its original airiness. It is as if the narrator has been woken up from a dream before it could be completed. The music and lyrics have both told of the shift from one time to another, leaving the narrator back in empty, confusing reality.

Additional Verses and Choruses

The chorus finishes with its final word sung on a G as we move back to the verse’s chord progression. Combined with the underlying Bb/F, we have the sense, for the first time, of a genuine minor chord, the Gm or Gm7 that has up until now only been implied as the verse progression starts. It is as if the tension between the two worlds itself contains a unique element, a bit of reality that neither world contains on its own. The presence of an actual minor chord, even if only present through the combination of voice and piano, acknowledges the possibility of actually facing unpleasantness directly, rather than having it either hide under a pleasant facade as in the verses’ strange use of major chords or cast aside completely by the chorus’ fantasy of blatantly pleasant major chords. At this same moment, the tempo increases a bit. All these elements suggest some growth to come in the storyline.

Before beginning the next verse in earnest, there is an instrumental interlude. It follows the exact same chord progression as the verse, but half as much time is spent on each chord. The instrumental melody that lies on top is itself a truncated version of the complete sung melody from the original verse. With the themes of incompleteness and fragmentation brought back to the fore, the second verse expands on these notions.

The narrator mentions a number of common dilemmas, seeming to gain some awareness of just what lies underneath life’s shaky ground. When an issue becomes that polarized, the conclusion is that it’s possible neither to pick one side over the other nor to choose some moderate option. Underneath the words, the chords are played with a simple low-high-high-low accompaniment pattern, suggesting the polarity and opposition — low-high on one side, it’s reverse immediately following, the two constantly cycling around each other, like the swing of a pendulum that can only go back and forth between extremes.

At the start of the second stanza of the second verse, the narrator mentions tiptoeing through life, and the piano mimics pizzicato strings to suggest this cautious movement. The narrator is facing the truth of the situation, realizing that change may only come through action and that fears may have to be confronted in order to do this. Where imperfect rhymes were perpetuated in the first stanza, here the rhyme pairs are perfect, as if the narrator is starting to think more clearly.

Once again, the final two words of the verse begin the musical transition, this time not only through time signature, stereo pan and reverb but two additional elements. Instead of just one measure and a fairly seamless transition from verse to chorus, the height of the narrator’s hesitation gives way to a tremendous build across four measures, providing a step by step path from the D (down through C, B, and A) as it moves to resolve with the upcoming G that bursts forth in the next chorus. That build is heightened by a significant acceleration of tempo. It’s as if the narrator intends to force fantasy into reality through sheer will.

The second chorus describes that other universe as a place where dilemmas are resolved. Left and right are not opposed as they are in the current reality’s politics. Instead, they converse, they reconcile. The reference to “all three hands” comes from author Daniel Quinn and his colorful way of describing how one can get out of one’s own box, one’s own paradigm, to find solutions for what seemed like intractable dilemmas. What’s required is thinking about “no ors, just ands,” as in game theory’s notions of win-win games as opposed to win-lose games. In this song, all of this seems to go particularly well with the idea of an alternate universe, denoting not just a metaphoric shorthand for resolving dichotomies but the possibility of people being truly different in that other place, as if they may actually have a third hand to use.

Musically, the second chorus shows a subtle evolution. Where the first chorus was primarily about simple major chords in root position, this second one is filled with a two-step resolution from most chords to the next. In the bass, the root is followed by the third, while in the treble the harmony moves the chord from major down to a 7th. In these opposing directions, there is no opposition, but rather the complementary harmonic motion from one chord to the next counterclockwise around the circle of fifths.

The third chorus repeats the lyrics of the first, but the music has further evolution. The three-step major-M7-7 resolution used sparingly in both previous choruses is now riddled throughout, used for every chord change around the circle. Likewise, the bass now has its own three-step motion, from root to second to third. Where ones dominated the first chorus and twos dominated the second chorus in terms of how the chords resolved, threes now dominate the third chorus.

This final harmonic evolution for the choruses is particularly bright, almost too bright, as if the narrator is too entrenched in fantasy — which we’ll soon find out is likely the case. Before we do, I simply want to point out a macro observation about the song’s structure up until now. There have been two verses in 2/4 time, and three verses in 3/4.


Up until now, there have been just two main sections — verses and choruses. But we should know enough by now to realize that three transcends two. Can the song really be over with the final chorus?

The fantasies of a dissatisfied person are almost invariably likely to be unrealistic. If such people could truly imagine a reality that could work well, they would probably be able to create it. Their lack of ability to do so proves how skewed their thinking — and their fantasies — must be. A truly workable reality would surely have some of the elements they fantasize about and hope for, but just as surely it would have at least some resemblance to their lives as they already are.

If there is to be another reality that the narrator can actually live in, it obviously cannot be in an unreachable separate universe. Neither can it simply be more of the current reality. It would have to involve some kind of blend.

Following the third chorus, then, is something that appears to be familiar in many respects but remains unique in crucial ways — an instrumental “outro” that provides a definitive third section for the song, transcending the two types of sections that came before. As we’ve just seen it must be, it is in key ways a hybrid of verse and chorus. The bouncy feel is very obviously carried over, keeping the jazzy 3/4 feel from the final two choruses. The chord progression hearkens to the verses, but things are also rather, and importantly, different.

A chord progression highly related to Hotel California’s — and therefore also to the progression used in this song’s verse — is found in, among other places, Chim Chim Cheree from the musical Mary Poppins. In an interview on the soundtrack CD, the Sherman brothers, who wrote the score, talk about the evolution of that song’s chord progression. Starting off as something more heavy and simplistically minor, they considered it a breakthrough when they reharmonized it, giving it a “richness” that made it more “universal… not strictly minor.” Here it is, transposed to G minor:

Gm D+/F# Bb/F C9/E Cm9/Eb Gm/D A7/C# D7

Like Hotel California, this has a blend of major and minor, and it makes a lot more “sense” to the ears than this song’s verse does. Unlike the Eagles’ song and like this song’s verse, it includes a number of inversions. Unlike either the Eagles’ song or this song’s verse, it has more harmonic complexity, going beyond basic major and minor chords.

The Sherman brothers’ declaration of its “richness” and being “universal” suggests that it has something not present in these other progressions. Embellishing it to enhance that notion, I arrive at:

Gm7 D9/F# F6/A Cadd9/E EbM7 Gm7/D Ahalf-dim7 D7

Most obviously important, the piano has its first genuine minor chord — the Gm7 that was implied in the first verse and present but hidden as the first chorus’ last word was sung. Now, it is here in earnest. Unpleasantness has been allowed into the experience of life, but not merely or simplistically unpleasantness, because the progression contains no simple major or minor chords. The chords are all more complex than that, and with a different type of chord for each root note. Inversions are used in many places again, but here they leave us feeling a sense of order and direction rather than rootlessness. The major-M7-7 pattern is related to the first three chords here, and the notion is expanded on, with this progression having a continiguous, linear bass, broken only by the sensible clockwise-around-the-circle-of-fifths resolution from the final chord back to the first. The progression has, at its bottom, as its foundation, a path that is in many ways as solid as the paths the chorus showed, without being as simple.

With all this color and logic even beyond the Sherman brothers’ progression, these chords are meant to symbolize, at least compared to the rest of the song, the richness of real life in all its complexity. It contains pleasant and unpleasant in many shades, none exclusively black or white, none purely major or minor. It seems an apt resolution to the dilemma the narrator has between the chaos of current reality and the delusion of idealized fantasy. It is, in some sense, what reality is supposed to be — or, even, the reality that was always there underneath the narrator’s experiences and imaginings.

True to form, this chord progression is repeated three times. The first simply establishes the progression through the jazzy 3/4 rhythm we were already experiencing — whatever else life may hold for the narrator, the lively, flowing, circular feel of the chorus fantasy is preserved here. Next, the chords are simplified back a bit as a new melody is added, affirming the section’s identity as novel for the song and suggesting that change is inherent to a workable life. Finally, change continues, with everything integral — the time signature, the progression, the new melody — taken into a stylistic shift. This last iteration is much less bombastic, maybe even a bit cute and winking. It ends with a brief coda in which a “sad” G minor chord is played bouncily in each of its three inversions, one measure each, giving way at the last moment to a pleasant G major chord in root position. All of this is as if to suggest that this reality that will work well is going to be not only more balanced in the vein of the new outro chord progression, but also more quiet, more modest, outgrowing any need for grandeur, in fantasy or otherwise — and that, in the end, despite what happens along the way, everything turns out okay.

Of course, there is only music. Instrumental. No vocals, no lyrics. The narrator has not yet taken action and so has not yet begun to create this reality. As an instrumental, the outro represents merely the possibility of that new reality.

In the stereo image, the piano moves to center over the course of the first instance of the new chord progression, as if to substantiate it as a new reality. Audio is balanced, centered, for the very first time. We can only now realize that, as the pan had vocals and piano repeatedly shifting places, the left and right were never really conversing as the narrator hopes for in the third chorus. They were always separate and just swinging past each other, never integrated. The narrator may have been “not right” in the verses and “right” in the chorus, but that has meaning for the rest, the narrator’s surroundings. The fantasy world itself was “not right” while the real world, dissatisfying though it may have been, was, in some sense, “right.” Inherent all along was the message that the narrator must accede to reality, accepting even the unpleasant as part of life, in order to get a place where things wouldn’t feel off any longer. There was, indeed, something “right” about each of the two worlds the narrator bounced between.

What can’t ever be known from listening to the song is that, as the piano was centered, so was the vocal track. Maybe one day the narrator will get the gumption to act, to become cause and contribute to the changes that are so desired. Maybe one day the narrator will figure out what path to pursue to a workable reality, one very different from either dwelling on current reality or escaping to an unrealistic fantasy. Should that day arrive, this “real” chord progression, and the balanced stereo image, would be there waiting, ready to put the narrator’s words and deeds squarely (or is it roundly?) in the same space (and time) as the new possibility described by the outro’s music.

I work hard on the songs and the site, giving away a lot of stuff for free. If I could make a living by making art, I could make — and give away — even more. That could actually happen if everyone who listened contributed just a little bit. If you’ve enjoyed some of my free music or other content — on the site, through downloads, however — why not take a second and make a contribution to support me in making more? Just click on the Donate button in the right sidebar. Thanks!

If you’d rather buy some music, that’s great, too! Visit the Shop.

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Step Back Swooperman

June 25, 2010

Play the song here!

It’s not easy to be me
Child of a superhero
But it’s not that Dad’s off saving only strangers
While he treats me like a zero

Au contraire, he’s always there
Swoopin’ in most every minute
Always helping me to finish every little thing
As soon as I begin it

Homework answers by the score
So my scores are kind of crummy
With his Superbreath he cleans up all my messes
And he lets me win at rummy

Does heroics on his own
Tells me it would be traumatic
It’s no wonder he can leap tall buildings while
The highest I can do’s the attic

Though your Superintentions mean well, I suppose
The only super thing you do for me is Superimpose

Step back Swooperman
My style is cramped
My progress prevented
Development damped
I can’t get very far
As long as you’re party-pooper-man
Step back Swooperman

Hanging out sometimes with friends
Maybe going to the mall
But no matter where I go, your X-ray vision
Always sees me through the wall

Every little thing I do
You just have to have your knowledge
What on Earth will happen when I’m fighting bad guys
Much less partying in college?

Yeah, it’s nice that you just want to know I’m okay
But with your constant Supervision, how can I find my way?

Step back Swooperman
My style is cramped
My progress prevented
Development damped
I’m not asking for much
Just stop being such a snooperman
Step back Swooperman

Harder than you think
To grow up with falling not allowed
Now I’m on the brink
Since I’m not using it, I’m losing it now

Maybe I will steal away
And become a supervillain
Wreaking havoc so you’ll have to clean my messes
I’m sure that would be fulfillin’

Massive crises every day
Is there no-one else to brave ‘em?
Maybe if you just gave everyone a chance
They wouldn’t need someone to save ‘em

Step back Swooperman
My style is cramped
My progress prevented
Development damped
I might make a mistake
At least I’ll be Shake-My-Stupor-Man

Step back Swooperman
My style is cramped
My progress prevented
Development damped
I might make a mistake
At least I’ll be Shake-My-Stupor-Man
Step back Swooperman

Spintown decided to launch the SpinTunes songwriting contest. The challenge for SpinTunes 1 Round 1: I’m A Marvel, And I’m A D.C. — Write a song from the point of view of a superhero or supervillain.

Doing an Appreciative Inquiry on the subject, I quickly became interested in playfully critiquing our typical notions of superhero/supervillain. Thinking about how disempowering it is for “the masses” to always need saving by superheroes, I related that to helicopter parents — always hovering over their kids, providing “help” even when their kids don’t really need it. With helicopters and many superheroes having the ability to fly, the connection seemed particularly apt.

Some Googling on these kinds of parents revealed mention of them as, in fact, “superhero parents,” swooping in too often for their children. The rhyming connection between “super” and “swooper” seemed too good to pass up. Immediately, the idea and title for the song popped into my head. If Superman constantly swooped in as a parent the way he did as a superhero, he’d have a child who had a hard time getting to know his own superpowers, perhaps eventually rebelling to become a supervillian.

With many superheroes’ and supervillains’ origin stories involving their parents and/or traumatic/unpleasant experiences, here was an opportunity for a superhero himself to be the very origin of a supervillain, ironically creating his child’s unpleasant experience by acting exactly the same as he does in his role as a superhero. This nicely fulfilled my initial goal of tweaking our typical notions about what it means to be these kinds of characters.

Some more messing around with the word super led to fun puns with “superintentions” and “superimpose,” as well as “supervision” with its nice connection to X-ray vision. I love lyrical jokes like these, as well as alliteration and tight rhyme schemes including inner rhymes, all of which I brought into the lyric. But beyond these, I tried to have the song not just express the kid’s feelings but tell his story as well. This origin story would show his growing older without really getting enough of a chance to grow up, until finally he must get what he wants by striking out on his own in the only way he knows how, the only way he’s been allowed to act all along.

In the first verse, in addition to wishing he could help with his dad’s heroics, he’s clearly expressing things from the standpoint of a younger kid. Homework, bad grades and playing games are his concerns. In the same vein, the first chorus has him complaining, childishly, about his dad being a party-pooper.

With the next verse, he’s a bit older and trying to gain independence, spending time away from home with friends. But he still can’t ever really get away and wonders what will happen as he looks ahead to college and beyond. The second chorus also grows up a bit, moving on to a bit of justified paranoia and the request that his dad simply stop being such a snooper. In the bridge, he expresses how he’s finally “losing it,” with the double meaning of losing the skills he’s not using (“use it or lose it”) and also becoming enraged.

This leads to the culmination of the story. The final verse shows his plans to become a supervillain. He makes clear that wreaking criminal havoc would be just living up to the expectations his father has had of him all along, giving his dad a chance to continue cleaning up his messes. The final jab at his dad comes when he undermines the very idea of being a superhero, suggesting that people wouldn’t even need to be saved if they were just given a chance, i.e., the chance to cultivate the best in themselves that his dad never gave him. The last chorus affirms the greatest amount of maturity he can muster, admitting that he might make mistakes without his dad’s help, but at least he’ll get out of the mind-numbing helplessness inflicted on him by Superman / Swooperman / Party-Pooper-Man / Snooperman. He’ll become Shake-My-Stupor-Man — for the first time he’ll be a man of his own, on his own terms, even if his mistakes may involve supervillainy.

Musically, I wanted something that would play with both the drama and the humor of the story. John Williams’ score to the 1978 movie Superman jumped into my mind — a phenomenal score that is both serious and playful, from an obviously relevant movie that is itself also both dramatic and fun. Riffing on well-known superhero music would match the lyrical riffing on both the superhero mythos in general and the Superman story in particular.

Experimenting with the main theme’s famous ostinato — the rhythmically repeating low notes that underscore the march — I realized I could come up with a very different tune to lie on top. As the song evolved, I found many other musical elements inspired by the Williams score, about a dozen in all — see if you can catch them :)

Knowing I didn’t just want a serious, orchestral march for the entire song, I wondered if there was a way to incorporate more of a pop song feel as well. I realized that the ostinato had an interesting relationship to some typical reggae rhythms. More effortlessly than I imagined it would, a reggae-flavored pop tune flowed out of the orchestral seriousness, blending well musically, lending some nice musical humor, and going well with the son’s aging into a teen. With these two main styles sometimes showing up on their own and sometimes combined, along with the bridge pulling winkingly (and liberally) from the John Williams score’s “Can You Read My Mind” theme, the song ended up with a lot of musical color.

In addition to the musical references, I also nod in the first line of lyrics to the Five for Fighting song Superman (It’s Not Easy), which seemed appropriate for the difficulties this son of Superman was facing.

You can check out the Round 1 songs at SpinTunes, or more permanently at BandCamp, and you can get directly to Step Back Swooperman at Bandcamp — but you can listen and download for free from BandCamp right from the player at the top of this post!

I work hard on the songs and the site, giving away a lot of stuff for free. If I could make a living by making art, I could make — and give away — even more. That could actually happen if everyone who listened contributed just a little bit. If you’ve enjoyed some of my free music or other content — on the site, through downloads, however — why not take a second and make a contribution to support me in making more? Just click on the Donate button in the right sidebar. Thanks!

If you’d rather buy some music, that’s great, too! Visit the Shop.

Either way, I really appreciate your support.

Moondancing Billie Jean — My Michael Jackson Tribute

June 26, 2009

I was never a huge Michael Jackson fan, but I did really like a lot of his stuff, and in general I thought, despite whatever else one might think about him, he was a pretty fantastic songwriter.

I’d been playing around with Billie Jean for a while and decided this was the time to put it out there — Michael Jackson by way of Van Morrison. As a tribute to the late moonwalker, the first half is Billie Jean in the style of Moondance, the second half a mashup of the two.

I think it a testament to Michael’s genius that his work can be not only brilliant in itself but translate so well into other styles.

I keep the Offhand Band YouTube channel for original stuff, so this performance is on the Potluck Creative Arts channel and here through the wonder of embedding. Enjoy.