I want to talk about the song I just posted for free on my Patreon. If you’ve read my other essays (or hopefully my books!) on the creative process, I think the story of this song presents some interesting parallels as well as departures with some of the other processes I’ve described.
First of all (as I mentioned in my original newsletter about this song), the melody and chorus of this song came to me while I slept. I was dragged out of bed after four hours of sleep with them in my mind. This is not common, but it happens often enough to give me the occasional crisis of my atheist faith. But after writing down the few lines I had, recording the melody on the keyboard, and trying to get back to sleep (I failed), I began with the work of actually constructing a song out of the small pieces I’d been given.
First thing was to lock in the melody, lyrics, and chords of the chorus. I sat at the piano keyboard, singing softly and putting chords behind the melody. It was in G major, but started on the fourth, a C, which is something I always enjoy doing. Then it was quick back to the G, then the relative minor, E minor. A simple 4-5-1 turnaround (C, D, G) and the chorus was done. Easy and diatonic. Not everything has to be complicated and weird.
Now, if you’ve listened to the song and know a little about music, you’ll notice a few inconsistencies with the above information. First off, the chorus of the song you listened to goes nothing like that. It starts on Bm, goes to B7, then an Em/D/C walkdown, holds on the C, then D and resolve to G. Neither diatonic nor rote. Starts on the 6 minor, has a hold on a chord through a couple bars.
The other thing is this: aren’t you a guitar player, Adam?
Why, yes I am. However, I played both cello and piano before I ever picked up guitar, though piano is the only instrument of those two I remember how to play at all. Additionally, if you take any kind of formal musical schooling (I took a lot as a child and a little as an adult) you will learn at least a little piano. It is easily the best instrument to learn music theory on, and though you’ll have to learn the specifics of it on your instrument of choice, the basics can be laid out on a piano keyboard with ease.
None of this explains why I’m playing a still largely unfamiliar instrument to write a song with. It’s because I knew from the start that this was a piano song. Some songs just are. And if it’s a piano song, it should be written at the piano. My mind works in different ways with fingers on keys instead of frets, and I wanted that for this song. I planned to do some guitar backing after laying down the basic tracks, maybe a solo on guitar, but again, if you listen to the song, you know that never happened either.
So why is the chorus not what I woke up with? Because I am never religiously attached to my original idea, no matter (as in this case) how magically it seems to have appeared to me. I was talking with my oldest child about poetry recently, and I said that though poetry is probably the closest thing to pure concept on the page, there’s still a wide gap between a great idea and a great poem. The construction is important, people!
Anyway, I wrote some verses, played around with new chords for them, but it was quite working. I liked the words. I’d taken the theme of memory from the chorus, and written sparse descriptions of memories from my own life—taking liberties wherever I felt like, of course. I’m a songwriter, not a chronicler. The interesting thing to me was that it never occurred to me to make them rhyme. Which is very odd in a song, especially for me. I love rhyming! If you remember me writing about “You’re My Girl,” I talked about how comfortable I was with a very tight rhyme scheme that included interior rhymes. But with the spare nature of the lyrics and the slow pace of the song, there never seemed a reason to rhyme. There is a rhyme in the second verse that I actually considered taking out, but I thought that was contrary to the freedom I was writing with. Let the song rhyme or not as it pleases, I thought.
Again, this was an odd thought for me, a proponent of fierce craftsmanship at all levels of the process, but as I said, this song had some odd departures from my usual process. But I think even the most obsessive carpenter would tell you that sometimes you just have to go where the wood tells you to go.
By this time, I had four verses and a chorus and I took a break. Went for a drive with my wife. By the end of the drive, I’d decided that it was okay if the chorus and verse had the same chords and melody. I’d go with that and see how it sounded.
I did not go with that. When I sat down to record, I suddenly thought to use the chords I’d been trying to play behind the verses as the chorus. It worked great. There’s a natural build going from the B minor to the B7 that was a better fit for a chorus than a verse. I recorded the piano backing, and since it was quite late by the time I was finished with that and the rest of the house was sleeping, I recorded a quiet “proof of concept” vocal. Happy with the results, I went to bed and the gods let me sleep a full eight hours this time.
The next day I was able to sing at full volume and got the vocals down in fairly short order. The only hiccup was that I wasn’t completely sold on the end of the last verse. It’s the only verse that wasn’t a memory—it’s more of an observation. And the last few lines just weren’t fitting. Earlier on I had decided to title the piece “Streetlight Reflections (I See It So Clear),” though at the time I didn’t know why. I do things like this sometimes, trusting my subconscious to tell my why it made that decision later. At this point, I realized that the last verse was the perfect time to bring the title back into things, relate it to memory and loss, and close the circle of the song.
After that, there was a little more tracking to do. I put in organ tracks on the chorus for even more build on the B minor/B7 transition, then a little bit on the last verses to add some build to the song as a whole. I still planned for a guitar solo, but decided it would be out of place. The vocals are so spare and in some places gutting, that I didn’t want to overcomplicate the backing tracks with a lot of instruments. Instead, I brought the organ to the front for a simple solo, mostly melody, to match the nature of the song. Then the finishing touches—EQ, compression, reverb, a little track switching to get all the best takes comped together into one track—and I had another song in the bag.
A final note on attention to detail. In the first line of the very last verse, the word “lightning” would normally be sung with a long “light” and a short “ning.” That’s the way it’s sung in every two syllable word that sits in the spot. That’s the way I sang it on my first pass through. But I knew it was wrong immediately, and on my second take, I shortened the whole word to match both the abbreviated backing on the piano and the concept of lightning and the waiting afterward described in the lyrics. I was proud of that change. It’s a very subtle one, but makes a big difference in how that whole verse lands.