With my internet back up and lack of posts lately, I figured it’s time to write something lengthy about anything that comes to mind while thinking about one of my favorite bands, Band of Horses. Also, Benjamin Bridwell is one of my favorite Wordsmiths, up there with Conor Oberst (Yes, more recent stuff. Not the whining. No one starts off genius.)
Im attempting to put my finger on the attractiveness of such a group. After having a Band of Horses marathon day, I decided to look a little closer at the values I find that distinguish the good bands from the great ones. Or even good writers from great writers.
around 4:40 they mention some genre specifics. A key quote here is…
You just write whatever you write, you know
Good Versus Great
A key difference between good and great seems to be the idea of being sincere, and natural. One key problem with all art is the subjectiveness of the individual. I think it’s more important to let all your influences come through at once. More importantly, I think it’s crucial to be open-minded and open-ended to influence and inspiration. Take in every genre. I’m trying to find a way to understand how anyone can not like the band, maybe due to genre and the americana/country-indie sound, but it ends up being a degree of resonance. I think a lot of the “indie” population just doesn’t give things a real chance. They pass off a deep listen for a surface value of predictions of sounds and craft they have come to love about a genre they swim in. It comes off as a sort of musical ignorance. Applying values of good and great with genre is as outdated as interpreting the bible literally.
Another factor is the being able to apply the lyric to a human context. Only then does music truly transcend. There’s just something about Ben’s writing that is so simple, honest, and conversational that the added simplicity of the lines, combined with the music, builds up to a a complexity that is unique to music in relation to evoking emotions. Complexity can be a songwriters worst enemy in a market where pop music is taking over. The simplicity of the music and elements should compliment the mysteriousness it hints at. The mysterious that is found in the connection of the heart and mind in any of your favorite songs. Paul Simon said it best
On My Way Back Home is a very simple lyric. It has a certain conversational tone that a lot of songs lack now. You can imagine him saying it or writing it to a friend, rather than it seeming slaved over, or seriously thought upon, even if it was. Good craft is invisible. Bad craft is very visible in cliches, horrible rhymes, and lack of sincerity. But then again, a balance is always necessary. So balance the conversational with the poetic and it starts to color a song.
The clip is also a good example of imagery in songwriting and the importance of visuals, or the imagination to crafting songs. I talk about it in a previous post
Basically, it boils down to 2 types of musical people.
1) A person who listens to music for entertainment.
2) A person who’s interest goes a little deeper and “really listens” to music on a deeper level. A level that factors in value of craft and artistic merit, even if they don’t particularly like the song. Call it critical listening.
You have to consider that there is a lot of grey area between the two. For instance, both can enjoy a concert. The second type may l listen to a song for face value first, pleasing melodies, catchy hooks, rhythm, themes and concepts, but later they listening on a different level. It could be any number songwriting craft values, even production and performance. A lot of the magic in music is the harmony and one-ness of each individual instrument and the unique instrumentation itself. Changing the instrumentation can substantially change the sound and that is part of the canvas for critical listening and music production. You fall in love with sounds and how it captures the feeling of the idea or inspiration. At the same time, music is one of the universal languages, in that it connects the heart and mind
First of all, theres a pool of what’s popularly considered the good, the bad, and the great. The one people jump into and come out dripping wet, soaked with ideas that inflate themselves. I’m a firm believer that everything has it’s artistic merit and something worth looking at closer. It could be a production value, a performance, a word or phrases, and millions of other things. A lot of the times there’s writing value there no matter what. Even in a bad song, you can analyze it, see why it doesn’t work, or why it works in the case of a good one. You can even grab words from the song and make a completely different lyric. The idea is to not just say oh this is good, this is bad, and this is great based on surface value, but to actually know why you have the opinions you have. To learn and understand the techniques that go into distinguishing the good from the great, so you can implement them yourself and so you can argue better, of course. So ditch those wet, sagging clothes. Freeball and have your own insights.
As a sidestep, I do believe there are purely aesthetic qualities we gravitate toward and find resonance in, based on our influences. Answering the all important “why” for yourself will open doors to techniques, and principles no craft music book can teach you. I can’t tell you why something resonates for you. Only you can do that.
When infinite arms came out a couple of years ago, on first listen, I wrote it off and it was skipped during those long iPod car shuffles. I think, in particular, it was Laredo sounding really similar to another one of their previous album songs that rubbed me wrong. I also remember thinking (maybe a little too hard) on how peculiar some lines were like
“…I had a dream that I was your neighbor about to give birth and then everything was really hurt”
Somehow it didn’t particularly strike me as great writing at the time. If you read it as a sentence, it does sound kind of absurd. The words seemed to reflect bad stream-of-conscious writing or free writing.
Now, I’ve found a profound value in it. There is a great deal of songwriting integrity in it. His combination of imagery, honesty, and conversational lyrics really make you feel like you’re riding passenger with him through the duration of any given song. Seeing the clip below, there is no doubt in my mind that would he is singing isn’t sincere. I cannot understand how anyone could differ. Whether the song has some definite meaning to him or not is irrelevant. It’s more about how you write versus what you write about. The atmosphere you translate. Everything has already been said. The idea is just the vessel for the unique human experience offered by music.
What’s this song actually about anyways?
I’ve come to favor songs that seem to be rather expansive, maybe a little more abstract than the typical pop song. I think that it’s more about capturing a feeling or the spirit of the song, idea, or inspiration. Pop or storytelling writing may not work. Instead, opt for a combination of the right imagery, songwriter integrity, and the juxtaposition of certain phrases and words that lead more to an atmosphere for you to explore and find value in yourself, versus a direct idea, subject matter, or story. Writing is very much rewriting. It’s all about the right combinations. The use of craft (rewriting/revision) to translate the atmosphere from the inspiration/idea to the song. To translate a meaning that can’t be found by flipping through the dictionary. Song provides this through a unique sense of music, metaphor, and other craft that has results that most consider magical in nature, similar to inspiration or the muse.
Also, don’t confuse abstraction with complexity. A song can be simple, and lyrically abstract at the same time. Think of simple abstract paintings. Shapes and shit. Or the previous song up there On My Way Back Home. It’s really a reflective thinking song. Thinking is always a bit abstract.
The Album and The Audience
An album, as a whole, should have contrast just like the elements in a song. While infinite arms has some very personal, unique lyric lines and songs that focus on atmosphere, there is definitely some more straight forwardness. The song Dilly is definitely a pop number and just as much a delight as the others.There should be some weird thrown in with the more normal. There should simply be equal representation of “self”
Singer-Songwriter Versus The Band
It’s hard to co-write sometimes. It’s natural for there to be a leader, but somehow these guys have managed to have everyone input and pick only the ripest of songs to compile the album with. It’s refreshing to actually see how much they are really a “band” of guys all after the same transcendence music can offer. Weezer made an album where multiple people wrote songs on it and failed. Band of Horses succeeds in songs like Older.
To cap it off, There is a rather obvious distinction I’d like to also attribute to songwriter sincerity. Due to our societies value on money, there is a large amount of people who just “happen” to be in music that gets pushed on us by media. This isn’t art, but more so commercial, and entertainment based music. This lumps in a lot of people who really shouldn’t be as popular in music as they are in my opinion.
I’ve always particularly enjoyed the group. The two collaborates definitely have some chemistry going on worth mentioning, especially with these unique looks at their approach to making music in their creative space and their creative beliefs.
Dedicated to making expensive sounding hits.
As long as you follow the tangent of your thought and don’t be afraid to let it go wherever, I think you can find inspiration from all over the place
I don’t really have a method…The stuff that was fun and free, done on impulse, always turned out to be the best.
Here is a Johnny Cash song called Flesh and Blood covered by one of my favorite bands, Annuals.
Here is the original
Title: Flesh and Blood can imply a lot of the things just from asking questions around the tile. Fortunately, the intro to the song in the video explains how the song came about leaving out the guess work for us. For me, Cash’s little speech is relatable and I could easily see how the song was written around the sentiment of, as Cash said “God, if you will,” for lack of a better word. Basically the interconnectedness of things. Flesh and Blood is sort of a cliche now days, but you can transform cliches into fresh imagery or statements. Cash saved it with adding, “but you’re the one I need.” This adds depth to the cliche and adds a dimension no one else had. For me, since I love the song, the phrase “Flesh and blood needs flesh and blood, but you’re the one I need” is resonating and moving enough that I can easily see it as the hook of the song. Always write around your hook phrase, or title.
Tone: The song definitely has a particular mood and style. First, it has that country swing to it. Then, it has a sort of observatory appreciation of life in it through the setting and a lot of sense focus making it a happy sort of outside feeling song
Hooks: Different things stick out as attention grabbers for different people, but for me the bass holds the song down. It’s hypnotizing. There’s also background vocals in one part, I love BG vocals. The lyrical content here is the main hook for me. Of course the payoff in the chorus repeating.
POV: he could be talking to a lover, or god or whatever. It’s obvious he wrote it through personal experience as stated in the intro.
Verse: This is important. Right out the gate Cash hits you with one of the Five W’s with a “where.” The first line of the song pulls you in through setting. “Beside a singin’ mountain stream, where the willow grew.” Notice how the rest of the verses contain mainly action, description, and details with specifics and each verse adds a scene, or a chapter if you will, to the big picture that is the chorus.
Chorus: Same as the title since it’s pretty much repeated. The addition to the cliche makes the chorus the payoff and gives the detail in the verses purpose and meaning.
Theme: (idea+opinion) He tackled a big one here. God. He broke it down into details and focused on a particular experience he had and built it back up with small pieces. The end result is context anyone can relate to. Nature, Need, and in the bridge a little despair.
Images: It’s everywhere in the song. Images are accomplished through sense detail and are external detail, not abstract like love, happiness, loss, or other things. Look to the verses for things like the leaf detail, cardinal detail, flock of geese, carved a whistle from a reed. Any description can serve as a valid image. This also links to specificity. What kind of geese did he mention? “a northbound flock of geese.” What kind of whistle? one made from reed. What kind of sky? Baby blue. If it’s in the song, it deserves a specific name.
Powerhouse Words: This can change your writing forever and make it more vivid. This song uses PW extensively. notice the action in the song in particular. For any writing, something has the be HAPPENING. Few songs are merely streams of consciousness. Make something happen. Some action words in the song are sparkled, braided, leaned, breathed, carved, sang, thanked, and more.
Sense detail: Notice how he includes sound (cardinal sings), the word feed is in there, but a bulk of sense detail in this song is sight related because it’s centered around an observation. Don’t be afraid to try others though. For instance, don’t say it rained, say how it felt(touch), or how it sounded. Show don’t tell.
Structure: I’ve never been too good at noticing when somethings a chorus versus just the end of a verse(refrain). The main idea is that you recognize the difference between the sections at least, because a refrain serves the same function as a chorus, the payoff. notice the repetition and order of the verses. Not he could have easily made the 2nd verse the 1st, or any number of combinations.
Rhyme: I don’t care. This song is awesome.
Notes: The whole song is a setup. It gives you a strong feeling that nature is at the core of the lyric, but the chorus addition, along with the bridge, change the song focus. That’s the job of a bridge. To provide a fresh perspective after being stuck in the mindset of a song. It’s a fresh step away from the song. Consider the rule of 2’s. It’s the repetition rule. don’t repeat something more than twice before you change it or you risk boring people. ConsiderThe Beatles song girl. The first two lines of vocal melody are the same, but the third is changed. This also works on a grander scale with verse - V, chorus - C, and bridge - B. Consider the song structure examples and see different variations of the 2 rule on a bigger scale.
V V C B C the verse is done twice before the chorus. don’t give us another one, switch to the chorus.
V C V C B V C Here V+C acts as a single unit. so we have (VC) once then (VC) again so change it up with a bridge! then bring us back. It’s the “Vacation Rule” in songwriting
an important part I forgot to mention in the worksheet would be Subjects. Some subjects in the song are of course the “I ” in the song, leaf, cardinal, day, Twigs, honeydew, geese, and more. With a simple list of thoughtfully chosen, or randomly chosen subjects(nouns) verbs, and adjectives (Powerhouse words) you can write a free write and gain an abundance of raw material to mine and sift through.
Try this exercise. choose about 8 action verbs, subjects, and adjectives at random and do a free write on them. You may arrive at something you didn’t even know you had to say.
Thats the gist of it. Hope this is helpful.
Here is a Song Analysis Worksheet I’ve created after reading a great deal of books about song writing. It basically helps reverse-engineer your favorite songs, the ones that give you the chills, and see the mechanics of how it might have been created by the artist. In return, you can learn to apply some of the techniques to your own material, or just have a clear image of how the song is creating its magic. Some people think songwriters are genius and there is just no way they can write like that, or that some people just have it or they don’t. With this type of thinking, It’s no wonder that yourself, the inner critic, is the biggest creative block for writers and can lead them to never even start. Well, you are wrong. The best way to learn anything is through mimicking and an understanding of the fundamentals. The focus is on lyrics.
Here is a not so quick run down. Right off the bat realize it’s every songwriter’s goal to create an experience in the heart and mind of the listener.
Title: This is usually the hook the song is written around. It’s the “aha” moment, or payoff, that ties the whole song together giving it a purpose. Thats why a lot of songs are written around them. All things lead to the hook and support it in different ways. It’s also an entrance point to the subject matter. It tells the listener how to enter the song. When writing, a title can be used to free write on. The title/subject material acts as an anchor and the free write is the kite that lets you explore the possibilities of the song. you can ask questions as far as possible directions the song could have went in and see which the writer chose and apply the same sort of questions to your own material.
You may notice some song titles fall in a verse in the song or isn’t repeated or mentioned at all. In these type of songs the title acts as coloring of the material. It gives a dimension to the content and shades it a certain way. Its like overcast(mood) for the world(song) you just created.
A cool exercise is to write your own free write to an existing title of a song, or free write around a phrase pulled out of a song. Don’t worry, it’s just artistic stealing, and all your favorites do it. It’s called inspiration and it isn’t magic.
Hook: The title isn’t the only hook in a song. There are several different types that are repeated and may stick out to you more than anything else. It’s different for each person. Ask what moves you the most about the song. Take note of these things. Some things to listen for are rhythmic hooks, lyrical hooks, musical hooks, melodic hooks, and sound-effect hooks.
POV: It’s important to know who’s talking and who they’re talking to. Especially if you are playing off the empathy sense and writing a song from an unusual point of view like how the tree feels about the forest, or the role of the hero in a water world. Another factor is that listeners always assume “I” in the song refers to the singer and thats not always the case. Notice the use of POV in your favorites songs from now on.
Tone: This has a lot to do with the overall vibe of the music but can also be handed to stylistic choices like word choice, and a balance of poetic language with more conversational, direct statements. No one wants to here an entire song of flowery language and detail, but at the same time no one wants the song to be a giant chorus with lack of detail or coloring. vocal delivery plays a great part hear too.
Verse: how is the song introduced in the first verse? How does each following verse go on to add more knowledge, or different dimension of the chorus(big picture). To make sure you don’t leave any important information out, and so that you don’t assume the listener already knows what you mean focus on the FIVE W’s. Who, What, When, Where, Why and throw in a how. Verses are very much focused around “what.”
Chorus: The chorus gives the verse and other sections purpose. From the song you should be able to draw out one key phrase that the song was probably written around. Now that it’s visible, notice how the verses color the chorus a certain way. The chorus is written first a lot because it’s usually a bit more general, not as descriptive and more emotional. The verses are what add depth to the chorus and color it a certain way. A million songs can have a similar chorus but putting the external physical detail(verse) before the internal thoughts and emotions(chorus) will always make the song unique to the writer.
A song without a purpose is like a joke without a punch line
Theme: A lot of times people feel the need to explain or analyze there writing (don’t make any jokes about this post, analysis is my OCD). Writing doesn’t have to explain anything, or preach. Sometimes there is no moral to be had. It’s simply well enough to just invite people to wonder at what you write about. To simply just showcase something without defining it. To break big indescribable ideas like love, loss, friendship, God, or family and friendship down into smaller pieces, details, and build it back up with them. I like to look at theme in songs as an Idea + opinion.
A bird does not sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song
Images: Pretty self explanatory. Notice how they show you rather than tell you things. Certain words and phrases will have you picturing things in your mind without you even knowing it. Proof we are naturally, subconsciously creative.
Powerhouse Words: (specific nouns, adjectives, verbs, and adverbs) These words are what makes the difference between a bored listener and one that’s wondering what you’ll say next. Choosing these words carefully can liven up your lyric and make it breath. Listen to The Shins for a good example.
Sense Detail: Simple. Notice how they involve the senses which makes you experience what they, or the “I” in the song is experiencing. For example, don’t say it rained. Say how it felt, or sounded or use poetic language of simile and say what it was like or some artsy shit.
Rhyme: A worthy mention I guess. A dull cliche rhyme can be a turn off to a song. Rhyming should sound like it was naturally and the only word that could have fit in the spot anyways. Rhyming dictionaries save lives here. Notice if the song has fresh rhymes or if they sound natural. It’s still possible to make a cheesy rhyme work but it’s best to avoid it.
Structure: structure of verse, chorus, bridge and intros and outros in a song play a great deal in the payoff of the experience. You can’t give them everything at once. Notice instrumentation, when something like a tambourine comes in, or drops out. Also the overall order of repetition and the tension/release theory. A song should have a sense of movement and a roller coaster feel for it to stand the test of time. If it’s catchy as hell, make it short so they’ll keep playing it. Also notice some songs have 2 verses before the first chorus or just a refrain - repeated line at the end of each verse.
Notes: Whatever you want to add. I like to add here the weight of verses. If you have to many internal abstract feelings and thoughts in the verse it comes off as light and flimsy and ruins the payoff of the chorus. It also ends up sounding more like telling rather than showing in the verse
On the other hand, if you have to many external details, physical qualities, the section will be heavy. If this happens in the song there may be details that just don’t relate back to the hook/title or big picture of the song and will draw attention away from the message. Add a little air to the heaviness by ending the verse with some abstraction to better transition to the chorus. This is all a Pre chorus does in essence. prepares the seamless transition between sections for a better balance.
The ultimate goal is the goose bumps. You can’t plan to write it at all. It just happens when the conditions are right, so focus on the conditions and the fundamentals. Once you acquired the involuntary response of the chills you are golden. The intimacy of connecting on a level greater than words and higher than music is a rough responsibility but honesty helps a great deal. The thing is, It’s subjective for everyone so, happy searching and writing!
Somewhere in my short span of life I realized there was something more to discover about music. Sometimes I feel pretty lucky thinking I found such an outlet to fill the void. Not only did I find it, it lead to several other things like skateboarding, film, art, and encouraged me to learn writing for the past 2 years. I sympathize for the bored person, or the person who has crossed passed with music but missed the importance of it. But I’m convinced that for every person, there is something of an equivalent of what music has given me.
I know there are people out there who argue that breaking things down into a formula ruins it. That it loses its chance to be an authentic expression of yourself if you use craft. The point to walk away with is that there is a craft to everything and craft isn’t a formula. There are universals to every song, whether you realize it or not, and they are probably the reason you are so attracted to them. The main problem is that these types think if they have a good idea or emotion backing the song is magically translated to the listener and they somehow understand it perfectly. I like to think of these types as the hopeless romantics of songwriting. It’s just wishful thinking. You need structure like repetition, contrast, focus, and techniques to make sure the message is remembered. Hack writers are writers who start with craft, therefore all their good subconscious ideas are filtered before they hit the page. Craft can never sub in for heart. You end with craft. The crafting is the form the writing shifts through (whether it be rough draft to revision, or novel to lyric) to be most effective for an audience. Learning the craft just makes it easier for you to maximize the potential of your writing to effect the hearts and minds of the listener. A great analogy is that the song message is the language, but the craft is the fluency you speak it. It makes sure the message is heard. The songs you love aren’t shots in the dark (well at least the finished product isn’t)
Master craft, don’t let it master you. When you hear a good song the craft is invisible. Also, when you hear a bad song, all you hear is craft. The craft keeps them interested. Once they are there, the humanity and message are up to you. Get the raw materials, words and ideas, down first. The clay. Then craft it. Shape it to be utilitarian like a ashtray or a pot or some shit.
Remember, how you write matters more than what you write about. This is why love songs will never go out of style. There are an infinite amount of ways to say things, unique to each person. What you write about, the idea, is only the package the human experience comes in.
If you have something to say, but no song craft…listeners might not hear you.
If you have song craft, but nothing to say…listeners might not care