Songwriting: Wilco’s modified verse and chorus technique

I got the suspicion from Wilco: that you could reuse the same lyrics between verses. Some of them at least.

At first I was worried that it might be cheating—it sometimes felt easier to just repeat some of what has already been said. Songs are differentiated by how they are dressed up. What slight of hand is at work to make it magic?

Repeating same and similar phrases mixed in with new phrases recontexualizes what has already been said.

Verse 1

Jesus don’t cry, you can rely on me, honey
You can combine anything you want
I’ll be around, you were right about the stars
Each one is a setting sun

Verse 2

Don’t cry, you can rely on me, honey
You can come by anytime you want
I’ll be around, you were right about the stars
Each one is a setting sun

Verse 3

Our love, our love
Our love is all we have
Our love, our love is all of God’s money
Everyone is just a burning sun

“You can combine” vs. “You can come by”
“Setting sun” vs. “Burning sun”

Now every time I hear one of those lines—I consider the other meanings implied earlier or later in the song. That technique makes the meaning more lush.

And then the chorus and bridge share some language.

Tall buildings shake, voices escape singing sad sad songs, tuned to chords
Strum down your cheeks, bitter melodies, turning your orbit around

Voices whine, skyscrapers are scraping together
Your voice is smoking
The last cigarettes, all you can get, turning your orbit around

Things that have made me cry today

An article Maria Bamford wrote for the New York Times.

A passionate statement on the Backline improv podcast about an excellent scene that took place when an improv team worked together.

A Youtube video of five middle school kids at a talent show in Jackson 5 costumes lip-syncing to “I Want You Back.”

About thirty other things.

My sensitivity levels are off the charts since switching off a medication. Look out, world.

Why I don’t hate oohs anymore

I write songs. Until recently, my songs never had oohs or ahs or any non-word sounds in them.

Why not?

Before we go there, let’s clarify:

ooh, pronounced “oo.” But not spelled “oo.” That just doesn’t feel correct to me. So I go with “ooh.” This has been a point of contention among people who spell things that aren’t words.

Why not use oohs in songs?

Stated reason: They don’t mean anything, and they sound stupid and lame.

Real reason: I didn’t feel comfortable singing ooh because it didn’t mean anything to me, and it felt stupid and lame.

Enter MOsley WOtta, a really incredibly poet/songwriter/rapper/artist.

He taught a workshop at a songwriting camp for high school students that I frequent (as a teacher, not a high school student).

MOsely WOtta had us write a song together at the end of the class—everyone tossing out lines as he led and prompted us.

Once we got a solid six or eight lines in, he said we needed to pick a non-word sound for the next part of the song. I flinched so hard. “No, not you too, MOWO. I thought you were better than that.”

Before I had a chance to complain about his terrible songwriting habit, he explained:

“A sound like oh or ooh can say so much more than words ever could. So much of our communication is non-verbal. Do we really need words all the time? If you can’t explain in words how you feel about someone or something, maybe a noise can explain it. People that speak Mandarin use distinctive contours to indicate tone. When people are very angry, sad or happy, they might supersede words all together and choose noises with only contour and tone (like screaming, crying or laughing).”

He continued, “Or what if you’ve just used too many words? Why don’t you take a second off and let those words sink in. Maybe a non-word noise will be a nice break that lets the words mean even more. And as a listener of songs, oohs and ahs might be the most exciting or catchy part. While the rest of the song may tell the story, maybe the noises just keep things interesting while also subtly driving the meaning home.”

Oh, how wrong I had been.

I wish I remember what MOsley WOtta actually said. The above quote is just a combination of things I learned from him and others since.

I use non-word noises in songs now. But I do promise to take a break from using the phrase “non-word noises.”

A great improv lesson I learned

Let’s store away this moment.

Character and Environment class at Curious. We’re doing a lot of scene painting. Describing our environment to find interesting things.

Jackie and I start a scene as a father and daughter having game night, and Sam steps in briefly to describe a ouija board in the center of the room.

First, I remember feeling so supported when Sam gave us that gift. It was amazing—any worry I had about where to go with the scene drifted away, and I pleasantly knew that if we followed this great gift, it would surely lead somewhere.

(And yes, we did end up contacting my dead wife via the ouija board. And yes, it was lovely fun.)

But the lesson! Yes, the lesson.

The lesson I learned came from our attempt to communicate with the spirit world via the board.

As we began to collectively move our hands across the ouija board to the first letter, I started down at the board, and my teacher interrupted the scene.

“Look at each other and spell it together,” he said.

That had not occurred to me. I guess I assumed either I would figure out what word we should spell, or Jackie would come up with something. Look at each other and spell it together? Okay.

We locked eyes and placed our hands back in the center of the imaginary ouija board to move to the first letter.

“F,” we said together.

At this point I quickly wondered if we would spell “Fuck you,” but let that idea drift away—I was focusing on looking at Jackie and spelling whatever we were spelling together.

As we moved to the second letter and began to speak, it obviously wasn’t going to be “U.”

“… A.”

Okay, it was an A. I didn’t know that was going to happen, and yet that seemed perfectly acceptable.

“… R.”

If you can believe it, I still did not have any idea what we were spelling at this point.

Very calmly we completed the word.

“T.”

And I laughed really hard.

And that is how you can collaborate with others to have fun. Way more fun than you could have on your own.