In the last few days, I finished two new songs. One was devised by accident on Friday night and substantively finished by Saturday evening; the other I’ve been trying to write since on-and-off since November 2009, and have just drawn to a close in the last hour.
The two songs have stuff in common. They’re both character tunes and they’re both set in the American South. But musically they’re quite different: one is a wild rap-rock calypso whose lyrics are a nonsense poem, and the other is a Mark Mothersbaugh-style 808 beat and guitar which is also probably the closest thing to rock I’ve written since ‘Bad Calendar’ (for those of you who remember that).
‘Hippo Calypso’ is a tune about the infamous Hippo of the Mississippi, an inebriate with an annoying tail to tell anyone who’ll stop long enough to listen. In ‘The Singular Adventures of Sally the Tumbleweed’, meanwhile, our heroine struggles with an existence plagued by awkward silences (which, if you think about it, exist anywhere a tumbleweed goes).
A hippo ancestor, Anthracotherium magnum, emphatically not the Hippo of the Mississippi
They’re both pretty stupid songs and I love them both, but the difference in time spent writing each one did make me want to note their co-appearance with a little post. Even though I’m getting much more streamlined at writing, there still doesn’t seem to be any kind of relationship between the content or music of a song idea and the time it takes to produce. My whole career so far has been like this: ‘Stuffed Animals’ was a one evening job, ‘An Epiphany’ took over a year. I don’t know which is better, or if there’s any way of telling the difference. I do think there’s much to be said for striking while the iron’s hot: a possible problem I had with ‘Sally’ is that I came up with the story a few months before I decided it was a song, and the more embedded an idea like that gets the harder I find it to follow through on.
Fundamentally, though, the process remains mystical. I’ve no problem with that, because songwriting wouldn’t be what it is if we could explain it. But the dynamic fascinates me: it’s not like a cold, systematic, linear approach to songwriting never works. Ethereal, inspirational goo and hard toil aren’t opposites in this process, there’s a weird mixture of them, and its that mix that determines how the song will feel. These two are very different mixtures, but I think they feel good. I’m looking forward to playing them to you!