Nur Ein 4 (2009)
Source of the Light (6/7/09)
It's kind of difficult to describe the genesis of a song. "Genesis" is really the wrong word because it's more like a "big bang." I know this is different for other songwriters, but for me, especially if there's a deadline, there's usually a lot of sitting around waiting. Sometimes that means strumming a guitar or noodling on a keyboard. Or, if the title is unusual, there may be some research involved. But mostly, there is waiting and frustration. But when it hits, it's exciting and it usually sets off a rapid chain of events resulting in the basic structure of a song. Then, everything slows down again and the craft takes over, with lyric-writing taking center-stage.
For Source of the Light, that moment came when I happened upon the chunky guitar riff that opens the tune. If I remember correctly, the first line and the riff happened simultaneously. I can't say for sure how all the parts fell in to place after that, but the propulsive drive of the rhythm guitar certainly suggests the rocket-ship scenario described in the song, yet another metaphor for trying to work through a difficult relationship and find your way back to the feelings that brought you together in the first place. The anthemic ending, with its "what we need is exactly what we have/what we have is exactly what we need" sentiment, suggests that the answers to our questions and problems are usually right under our noses. I enjoyed making this section of the song, sending a demo to some friends and asking them to come up with harmonies or descant backing vocals and was delighted with what came back as it was so different than anything I would have imagined. (Thanks Elaine and Roy!)
frank caravella - lead and backing vocals, guitars, bass, piano, synth
austin wagner - drums
elaine diMasi - backing vocals
roy walter - backing vocals
Hit Record (5/31/09)
When I was a kid, I listened to music that was decidedly not commercial. I wasn't anti-radio, especially since just about every style was represented on the radio in the 80s, but my friends and I were definitely focused on music that was not going to be hitting the top of the charts or even the Top 40 for that matter. So it was kind of fun to write a song with the refrain "I don't want a hit record" even if I don't feel that way at all. I would love a hit record! Please buy my album! (I currently have no albums for sale.)
Hit Record is a little bit of me trying to be Elvis Costello or even Tom Petty. It's a rollicking rock and roll style I rarely employ and I think it would fit in well on the utopian FM station the song kind of suggests. The bridge is the section that either turns people off or makes them love the song (and also prevents me from playing it live, unfortunately). Let me explain. My challenge this week was "genre hop." My approach is rather gimmicky (and–confession time–uses loops I did not create) but is tied in with the lyrics so I think it works all right. I really like the lyrics, which are simple but pretty clever on the whole. A song I had kind of forgotten but was nice to revisit.
frank caravella - vocals, piano, guitars, bass, programming
austin wagner - drums
Spider to the Fly (5/25/09)
Spider to the Fly is a song that has grown on me over the years. Well, three-quarters of it has. That ending is still pretty lame. I found myself in a precarious position following the sonnet challenge of What Once Was Grand. This time around, we were asked to write a through-composed composition, meaning none of the sections repeat. Obviously, this is unusual for a pop song, which is typically in verse-chorus form with a lot of repetition. My issue was that the sonnet had pretty much pushed me in that very direction the previous week (there is very little repetition in What Once Was Grand) and I was concerned that repeating myself would result in my elimination. (And it almost did—I made the cut just barely). The challenge also took away my strength, which is writing catchy hooks. I really struggled with this song and almost quit in the middle but my wife basically forced me back into the studio to finish so I have her to thank for that. (Thanks Chris!)
I like a lot of things about this song. The lyrics are evocative yet it's not clear what they're about. I think it's about a metamorphosis, which seems to make sense in the context of a through-composition. The second section, with the guitar riff in 7/8 time, is interesting in that it consists of two layered drum loops, one in 7/8 and one in 7/4 so there this slight windshield wiper effect. I employed some choice Logic brass samples to serve as connecting devices between the rock sections. And then there's the ending. I was trying to create a feeling of stasis—being caught in a web—with this endless cycle of ascending major chords and ambient sound. I just never really got it to be as effective as I had hoped. I have considered returning to this song to rework it but it's doubtful that I will. I find the imperfections to be somewhat charming now. Such an odd song. Not a single, but maybe a surprising deep cut!
frank caravella - vocals, piano, guitars, bass, programming
What Once Was Grand (5/15/09)
Poetry and lyrics are not the same thing. I think they each have their advantages and disadvantages. You can get away with the most insipid lyric if it is backed by a brilliant melody. (This couplet from The Beatles' Something always comes to mind: "I don't want to leave her now/You know I believe and how.") With poetry, you can use words that would rarely work if sung and you don't have to worry about hooks or repetitive devices like refrains or choruses. There's a lot more freedom there.
So any time I'm faced with using a poetic structure as the basis for lyrics, I find it challenging but also pretty satisfying when it works out. My goal is always to make the poem work without the music but still have it work as a pop song. For What Once Was Grand, my challenge was to write the lyrics in the form of a sonnet and I chose the Italian or Petrachan form, which has the rhyming scheme a-b-b-a a-b-b-a c-d-e c-d-e. The first eight lines are supposed to be one sentence and many poets employ semicolons for the sake of readability. Ultimately, I knew I was writing a song and allowed myself to let it run on a bit, knowing the musical setting would break it up. The ninth line is supposed to be turning point, a volta if you will, moving the poem from proposition to resolution. I don't know if mine is obvious in the poem, but the dramatic shift is evident in the music. I cheat a little bit in performance by repeating the first word—it's all supposed to be iambic pentameter—but again, this is a pop song and there needs to be some leeway. For the sake of rhyme and meter, I also lied about the 8th Mazurka being Opus 29; it's actually Opus 7! (our protagonist's memory, like mine, is suspect)
frank caravella - vocals, keyboards, guitar, bass
austin wagner - drums
Karaoke version! Click here!
This is me complaining about the title and challenge for Nur Ein IV, Round 2: I know I promised 50% less whining this year, but I can't think of a title I have less interest in writing and the challenge makes it even worse by putting a stranglehold on the lyrics. I can "think outside the box" as much as the next guy but I will find it an unsatisfying chore to fulfill this round's requirements.
And then I wrote one of my most popular songs so I guess I should shut up. Said one reviewer:[The song] takes you on this delightful, bizarre and at times touching journey about two odd strangers, their separate, broken worlds and how their unchecked emotions lead to true Schadenfreude. Musically it’s as amusing and fascinating as it is lyrically. Awesome.
What else can I say? It's fun writing comedy because you can allow yourself to be clever with lyrics and music in ways that hardly ever present themselves in serious music. (Like rhyming "spleen" with "property lien"!) The hardest part is being concise with your lyrics while telling a story in a linear fashion. This was a lot of fun and always makes me think I should try my hand at writing a musical. Someday!
frank caravella - vocal, programming
john nolt - vocal
Bullets and Lovers (4/26/09)
Sometimes a song leads you down paths you would ordinarily resist. I'm very happy with my song Bullets and Lovers but I don't agree with or condone the lyrics at all (they seem to be encouraging suicide or homicide or both!). At the same time, I don't sing them ironically or sarcastically. So it's a little touchy because I think a lot of people automatically assume that every song reflects the opinions or feelings of the singer (even more so than the songwriter!). I believe this to be truer for pop music than literature, poetry, visual art, classical music, etc. So take it from me: not every song is autobiographical. They're just songs.
My challenge for this song was to come in under two minutes and include two verses, a chorus, a repetition of the chorus and a solo! This was a fun challenge and, although I didn't win the round, I feel like I really nailed it. My song is kind of an homage to Pavement or maybe Built to Spill. It's noisy but melodic and it has some tricky little meter changes that accommodate the lyric in a very organic way. The song is also well-balanced, I think.
frank caravella - vocals, guitar, bass, programming
Sleep Tight (4/19/09)
There's really almost nothing special about my Round Zero entry for Nur Ein 4. Someone called it a "90's Brit-pop b-side" while another said "some rhymes...are too lacadaisical (sic) for the music." Everyone seemed to agree it was "breezy and pleasant." And one person was astute enough to recognize the bass as the "unsung hero." (The bass, not the bass player. ;) My favorite comment is that it sounded "effortless." That's just about the greatest compliment ever.
So what do I think? I pretty much agree with all that stuff. This is a throwaway, but a fun throwaway. It's an exercise in building a pop song and really understanding how the parts fit together in a pleasant package. The bass was really fun to play and I made sure to feature it prominently in the mix. The whistling is there to fulfill the challenge but I worked a reference to it into the lyrics so it didn't seem so random. In fact, the whole lyric is directed toward the kind of person who "whistles (his/her) way through life" with no regard or concern for the damage accruing in his/her wake. One of the fun aspects of Nur Ein is that I often write songs about things I would never think of without that little spark.
Fun fact! I cannot whistle. It's true. Getting a song challenge like "must include (human) whistling" was very stressful for me! Luckily, I have a friend who is a whistle master and it takes very little to get him to share his gift.
frank caravella - vocals, guitars, bass, programming
john nolt - whistling