The Spoken Story
In May 2016, I interviewed a friend of my mom’s who has been living with AIDS for over 30 years. I am always searching for a person who might be interested in sharing their story with me, and my mom told me that her friend was over the moon when she mentioned the idea to him.
We arranged to meet on a sunny May morning by the frog pond at Boston Common. At the time, I didn’t think anything of this, but I would soon come to understand the significance of our meeting spot.
I often have to coax a story from a person I am working with. Most people do not think they have any life stories that are worthy of a song. If you think about the kinds of songs that gain national attention in pop culture, this makes perfect sense. The day-to-day real experiences are cast aside as unworthy in their perceived simplicity and mundanity.
In my songwriting experience, I have found that it is often from the seemingly mundane that the most deep and poignant meanings arise. The story is simply the vessel, a way to cut quickly and directly through the static and white noise of life in order to get to the heart of the human experience. I have become convinced that the subject matter of the story does not necessarily dictate the emotional meaning that is revealed in the process of shaping that story into a song. The two are not as connected as they may seem.
In other words, regardless of what story a person shares, the intensity of the emotion from whatever they are holding onto inside will be revealed. If a person is struggling with a sense of loneliness, this feeling of loneliness will be revealed regardless of whether they share a story of how they make their breakfast in the morning and go about their day or a story about their relationship with their cat.
A person may share a story about running up a mountain, but the emotion they are expressing is about the importance of discovering what great feat they are capable of doing on their own. I have come to believe that this feeling of accomplishment and sense of freedom and independence is so important that it will be make itself known, no matter what story is shared.
Finding the Song in the Story
In any story, there are layers. There can be many different songs from one story alone because there are so many different possible thematic paths to follow. In the story I collected from my interview with Alfredo, I could envision an entire collection of songs about his life.
Alfredo was a willing storytelling participant. He had been sharing stories about his life with audiences from around the world for many years. He spoke for so long (nearly two hours) that I could hardly force my wrists and fingers to by the time I had recorded 11 pages of single-spaced text. I switched to audio and recorded another 21 minutes of story before we were finished with the first stage of the songwriting process.
We went for a bit to eat near Chinatown, shared bits and pieces of stories from our lives, hugged, and parted ways. I returned to Arizona, and the story sat waiting patiently on my computer for several months before I finally sat down to begin the process of shaping the words into a song. I was more than a little intimidated by the prospect of turning 11 pages of single-spaced text and 21 minutes of audio into a song of five minutes or less.
I can spend a lot of time procrastinating out of fear of failure, and this story was no exception. How does one write a song from such an intense life story? I experienced similar fear after interviewing a 90-year-old woman who had survived the Holocaust. I did not feel qualified to write the theme song for this horrific, bigger than life experience, and I worried that the song would be terrible.
Like most tasks in life that seem impossible to accomplish, worrying about the finished product and all the work it entails is completely unproductive. The most effective way that I have found is to start small and to give myself permission to just write a song. It doesn’t have to be the word’s best song. It likely will not be the worst, either.
I experience fear at pretty much every stage of the creative process. After each song that I complete, I worry that I will never be able to write another song again. It is as if there is a finite source for my creativity; at any moment, that well could dry up completely, and I will be done for as an artist.
I forget that I am only an artist, and that the song itself has power. In my experience with songwriting, I often feel like I, too, am a vessel in the process of communicating an element of the human experience through music. Throughout the songwriting process, the song will offer bits and pieces of itself. It is my job to recognize and employ those gifts.
For instance, while recording Alfredo’s song, I listened to many stories from his life. They were all meaningful, in and of themselves. However, there were elements he shared that had a kind of energy and life all their own. They have an imagery that is visceral and live. I could see the image of a young child, alone in the world, carrying the weight of adulthood too young, dipping his arms up to his elbows in the dark waters of a small, hidden pond. Watching the child at the pond as tiny frogs crawled up and down his arms, it was like I was there with him. A vignette so real and moving is one that may speak to many people who listen to it as lyrics in a song. If I can recognize the intense emotion I feel while listening to a part of a story like that, I have succeeded at being an artist.
I will still worry that I may not come up with an interesting or unique melody, but deep down I know that the melody will reveal itself as well. It is important to capture the most vivid and poignant stories within a story to become part of the finished song; where there is emotion, there is music.
After collecting the story word for word, I work with the storyteller to shape the block of words into free verse. I then ask them to sing through the words. Time and again, those very visceral components of the story are the places where the person sings a unique arc of notes. I listen for those notes—which I refer to as melodic germs or melody beginnings—and I set those phrasings aside for shaping the melody of the chorus.
Shaping the Verses and the Chorus
Bringing a song into existence equals success in my book. A finished song is a successful song. The person I work with will likely love it because it is theirs, a song from their personal story. To me, success is in the listening to a person’s story. Listening communicates empathy. Guiding the process from story to song gives a person the opportunity to take on the role of the artist, to create. In a culture where children are silenced at a young age, sitting in the seat of the artist can be incredibly transformative and empowering. Most people I work with are reticent to sing. I have a terrible voice, they tell me. I have written music with many people and have yet to hear anyone with a terrible voice, but they learned that they possessed this discrepancy of character somewhere, and likely at a young age.
In songwriting, as in all artistic endeavors, there are nice pieces of art and then there are pieces that knock you off your feet. While it is true that bringing a song into existence is success, in and of itself, there is a difference between writing a nice song and creating a remarkable one.
What is it that shifts a song from ok to one that bowls people over? I think this has to do with the ability of the song to speak to people from many walks of life in a powerful way. The more the listener can relate to the meaning evoked in the chorus; the more they may feel a personal kinship with the song; the greater their desire to listen to the song and maybe even to sing along. It’s in all of the elements of the song: a rhythm with energy and life, a melody that is familiar yet unique, words that are fun to sing, a story that is captivating. These are some elements that can be the difference between a good song and a great one.
The chorus is another key to a powerful song. A friend of mine likened the chorus to the soul of the story. The words of the chorus are derived from the layer of meaning from the story that holds the most emotion and meaning for the storyteller. The chorus communicates a strong emotion or call to action, an experience that tends to be a universal concept to which many people can relate. Discovering these hidden truths is one of the secrets to writing a successful song.
In Alfredo’s story, there were several possible themes for a chorus. The safety a child experiences at a secret place, for example, or an adult’s desire to practice self-acceptance. Many people had a secret place they would visit as a child when they needed to be alone or hide from life. I used to hide in my closet. I know very well the challenge of accepting my own Self and of how scary it can be to present that self to the world.
How to decide which emotion to shape into the chorus? I tend to write out several possible chorus and then see which one seems to be the most natural flow in the structure of the song.
This leads me to the verses of a song. The verses represent the unfolding of the storyline. They are action-oriented, with lots of verbs and adverbs. The chorus expresses emotion and meaning that was derived from the events of the story. The meaning expressed in the chorus is shared as a kind of transition between verses that offers a pause and a melodic resolution for the listener. It is a reminder of the point of the story, kind of like the lesson from a fable.
There is generally only one chorus that truly makes sense when placed between the events of the story that I fit into each verse.
Here is my first attempt at a possible chorus for Alfredo’s song:
In my mind destiny has its ways
If I am going to live for even another year
I need to live in peace with myself
I need to live in peace with myself
Stay tuned for more reflections on songwriting!