Friday, March 26, 2010

A BIG Song Fu Thank You and Wrap-Up


As I write this, it's Friday, and the Song Fu final round voting will end tomorrow.

However, I won't be in town this weekend, and I'm having surgery next week, so I'm writing this now.

At the outset of this contest, no one had any doubt that Mike Lombardo would walk away with it. He does have fans (as he should... music is his profession), while the rest of the contestants are almost entirely unknown outside of Song Fu itself. As I write this, Mike has 5,872 YouTube subscribers and 1,302 Twitter followers. I'm going to guess that they overlap, giving him a pool of nearly 6,000 people he can reach immediately, and who can be counted on to vote for him. No one else in the contest has that, or anything approaching it, so except for the last round, in which Mike shared 2nd place with us behind Denise Hudson, he was in the clear lead. In the early rounds, discussions among the contestants themselves focused entirely on who was jockeying for the remaining places. Now THAT was exciting.

Similarly, in the last round, Mike can and should walk away with the trophy, if for no other reason than he brought the most people to the party. We want people to be aware of Song Fu, and to bring in new talent and traffic to Mike should also have the opportunity to get his ass kicked by Paul & Storm, Jonathan Coulton, etc. (something I wouldn't have looked forward to in any event!).

So congratulations, Mike Lombardo!

In response to some people's questions, I will not have any disappointment in coming in second, simply because I had no expectation that it could turn out otherwise. As I said, it's uninteresting. (I'm not saying Mike Lombardo is uninteresting, folks... he is... I'm just saying that a foregone conclusion has no drama. Speculating about the outcome is as pointless as wondering whether the sun will come up tomorrow).

What does interest me is this.... you don't know us, but you voted.

I never posted any of our work on YouTube until the end of last November. I've got... let's see... 29 subscribers right now. Woo-hoo!, it's up from 24 when Song Fu 6 started. As far as I know, all of my Twitter followers are members of TMA (link in sidebar). I have just a few friends on Facebook (and some family), and as you know if you've voted, Song Fu votes are one household, one vote, so my kids and wife, and more than half of my in-laws have no vote. William Hoover has no Facebook account, no MySpace, no instant messenger accounts of any kind, no Twitter, no YouTube. He does no on-line social networking of any kind whatsoever... his social networking is limited to a weekly poker game.

What I'm getting at here is this... in this final round we can probably account for 50 votes, tops, from friends and family. Other than that, we don't know the people who voted for us. They're not fans (a word short for "fanatic"), they don't follow or "friend" us, or talk to or email us, and they've probably never heard anything we've ever written prior to this. I'm extremely confident that they went to and listened and voted, not for us, but for what they honestly thought was the better song.

To those who voted for our song, we are are most humbly grateful and more than a little surprised. Grateful because you have validated our art, which we've practiced for a long time, but only in the last few months begun to share.

And we're surprised because when all is said and done, and the smoke clears, if the current trend continues we will have ended this competition with almost 250 votes. Never did we think that we would be in the final round at all, and we certainly didn't believe that we could attract anything near the same number of votes as the Rifftones (Song Fu 2) or Paul & Storm (Song Fu 3)!! This is an awesome result, and we could not be happier.

And you did it because of the music. We didn't even promise to wear a cape. :)

Re-Cap of Rounds

I just wanted to state a couple of things about the previous rounds, and about our entries in general. You can link to the songs and lyrics on Bandcamp as I discuss them. I am not going to talk about the competitors, because this will be long enough as it is, and I can do that in another post. This is just about what we wrote, and why.

Our goal was simple. Write 3 songs for 3 challenges, on-time and on-topic.

In general, we determined not to do anything that could be interpreted as a "novelty" song, nor to do any "meta" songs (songs about themselves or the challenge). This was for two reasons... First, we excluded "novelty" songs simply because ever since Song Fu #1, which Jonathan Coulton won, every competitor has had it in his or her head that they have to write novelty songs to place well. We wanted to find out if that assumption was true.... is Song Fu a "songwriting competition" or is it a "novelty songwriting competition"? This was harder to answer than we thought it would be, because some challenges (like "write a song involving a recipe") practically beg for novelty status, and it took some out-of-the-box thinking to avoid the niche.

Second, I hate the idea of us writing meta-songs. Rather than being clever, For us, I see them as being an admission of writer's block (I can't think of a topic, so I'll write about that!). It may often be clever and witty and wonderful when others do it, but we weren't going to give ourselves what would be the easy "out."

Round 1: Summer Rain
Our "song about rain" was a fun one to write, but here's a secret... What you're hearing isn't exactly what was written. We set out to write (and did write) a Carolina Beach Music song... something you could "shag" to (the dance, not the other kind of shag). We wanted something with a regional flavor. But it was pointed out to us pretty quickly that the rhythm (which is a six-count 1-and-2-and-3-and-4-and 1, 2) is pretty foreign to most ears. It sounds vaguely Caribbean crossed with R&B, and might be a little difficult for people to relate to. So we changed the rhythm to the 4-count ballad you now hear. We thank Russ Rogers for suggesting the change... he was right. I still want to record it as a shag someday, though.

'Summer Rain' was also written in the week leading up to Valentine's Day. We were hoping for a challenge for the holiday, so when Ken didn't include that element, we decided to do it ourselves. So our "rain song" includes the chance meeting of two people as they shelter under the same pier, and the birth of their love for one another.

This began a minor "tradition" of us building personal challenges on top of Ken's challenges.

Round 2: We Do What We Do
The challenge was to write a song that doesn't rhyme (repeated lines were OK). To that we added a couple of personal challenges... first, that -- although the song must definitively contain no rhymes or even near-rhymes -- it shouldn't be obvious to the listener that the song doesn't rhyme. They should be able to listen to the whole thing without explanation or pre-amble, and never twig to the fact that it doesn't rhyme. (This was after considering the whole fake-out approach... we were glad of our choice, because there were a lot of fake-outs)

Second, it should have drums... feature them, in fact. I've never written for drums, because I've never played them. So for this challenge I bought an electronic drum kit (not a sequencer... you have to play this with drumsticks) and did a little practice song, "Angels and Demons", which is in answer to an earlier Song Fu challenge ("write a march"). Then I proceeded to spend the week practicing the drums. There is heavy use of toms and zero use of the kick because I like heavy toms, being a Phil Collins admirer; and I was not yet coordinated enough to use the kick.

'We Do What We Do' has an odd structure, by design. It was written as four verses. I broke those up into couplets, with the "x do what x do" tag repeated after each. One of the verses became the chorus. The verses have a simple rock rhythm, which changes into a syncopated rhythm in the chorus. I've heard that described as a "tango", but this song is to a tango what Taco Bell is to Mexican food... it ain't. The song switches between these to rhythms and uses an "inappropriate" jazz organ on top of a "latin" rhythm because rules suck. Genres suck. "Rules of songwriting" are meant to be broken, as are a lot of rule, and if you haven't figured that out in your own lives yet, then refer back to the title: 'We Do What We Do'

We like songs to mean something, and even more than one thing, whether they rhyme or not. :)

Round 3: Primordial Soup (Traditional Recipe)
The challenge was to write a song involving a recipe (not necessarily for food). This begs for a novelty song, and the example given by Ken ('Zydeco Taco') was pure novelty. We weren't going to be swayed from our Rule #1, though. So a topic was in order, and we kicked around a good number of ideas. We chose this one because the title is familiar (and both misleading and exactly descriptive of the song).

Our personal challenges were these... first, I wanted to collaborate. I had never collaborated on the recording of one of my songs, so I wanted to bring in some other artists. Second, there are two topics that are taboo in any mixed gathering: religion and politics. Paul R. Potts bravely tackled politics in his round 2 entry, 'War Criminal'. It didn't do too well, vote-wise, but Paul gets a full bucket-load of respect for me for sticking his neck out and breaking new ground. Edric Haleen had tackled religion in Song Fu 3 ('It All Makes Sense at the End'). But that song, while awesome indeed and fun, is highly critical and cynical. We wanted to see if we could tread that ground without any cynicism whatsoever... how well would a genuinely and unabashedly religious song do in Song Fu?

The song itself describes the first three days of the world according to the Book of Genesis, in the Bible. We wanted to do this in a way that was not cheesy, or trite, or waffling, or sitting on the fence, or anything but respectful and inspirational. We weren't going to do this halfway. So how well can such a song do? The answer is, it can take 2nd place.

Also, I was determined to use the full drum kit, including kick and hi-hat pedal. I'm still no drummer, but I could probably keep up with Mickey Dolenz. :)

We were hoping for a challenge where I could do something upbeat, perhaps on guitar in "rockabilly" style. Once I got the lyrics from William, though, it was pretty clear where this was going to go. So it was back to the piano for me, but the guitar parts (12-string acoustic rhythm and the electric-acoustic lead) were provided by Torsten and Frank Hallman. They gave me a couple of hours of their time on a Saturday morning just prior to going to Nashville so Torsten could record his first album. (Congratulations, Torsten!) The vocals were provided by Janet Lawson and Katie and Daniel Prince, all from our local amateur theatre group, Boogaloo Folk Life Productions.

Final Round: Yesterday Hero/Someday
The challenge was to write a song in two parts... two songs, really. The first would set up a battle or conflict, and the second would be the triumphant resolution of that conflict. It's the first song where we even partially failed on a personal challenge, though we technically succeeded. That challenge was to collaborate remotely with TMA members. We had previously collaborated with people here in my home, but I wanted to try working over the Internet with others.

'Yesterday Hero' is a tribute to American soldiers. But early on we couldn't think of a way to honor them that seemed... big enough. So that multitude of heroes are all distilled into a single hero, and since he represents the courage and might of thousands, we made him a super-hero. Our "Rule #1" turned this into a personal challenge of writing about a super-hero without descending into novelty. So we killed him off. Our song became a tribute to fallen heroes.

The "conflict" here is every conflict ever fought, rolled into one. It is our hero, standing for Truth, Justice, and the American Way, as trite and cliched as that looks in print. To define it, we used familiar headlines of recent disasters and conflicts from around the world, and had them read by six "newscasters" (two of which are real-life radio personalities). All the contributors are listed on the bandcamp page, but I'm not going to risk the ire of Joe 'Covenant' Lamb by failing to mention that HE was the BBC presenter.

As I said, our hero dies, not from some death ray or kryptonite, but killed by the very people he had saved. In earlier drafts it was clear that this was a death cause by apathy and indifference (much as happened to our Vietnam veterans. It's why the lyric reads, "killed by a people he saved" instead of "...the people he saved". ), but in the end we decided that it was the fact and manner of his death that were important, and not the mechanism. So we cut that for length.

Now, for the failure... I wanted 'Yesterday Hero' to be done as a Rock number with a Rock band. So I'd hoped to get a drummer and a couple of guitarists to collaborate. I would add some fanfare... it would really be "a production". That didn't exactly happen... for one reason or another (sickness, scheduling conflict, injury) the people couldn't come together. Normally that wouldn't be of much concern, but Song Fu is deadline-driven, so in the final hours I did the piano and drums myself, and additional choral voices were the fanfare. In my head it's still the band, though, and it would be nice to record it that way someday.

As to why I didn't do the guitar myself... it's silly, really... it's because I was sure of having collaborators, I wrote it in a key I can't play! Even with a capo, there's no transposition that leaves me without at least one chord that comes out as a muddy "THUMP!" So I played piano straight through.

'Yesterday Hero' is straight rock-and-roll, while 'Someday' is a Southern spiritual. As we began our first song with a regional flavor, we wanted to end our last one the same way. It's how we sing down here... not quite gospel, not quite not. It's appropriate for a song that is inspirational without being overtly religious. I'll describe it as "'Imagine' meets 'We Are The World'" (only shorter, 'cause we ain't got all day).

Our challenge in the second half was to not just write a song of triumph, but to reach it from the ultimate loss of the hero. We couldn't bring him to life, but we could allow his spirit to triumph. So we first spend time in mourning, culminating in an instrumental. Then, we allow ourselves to believe that someday mankind will rise above the petty conflicts that plague us. This belief is a statement made by one voice, joined by others, and finally a chorus. As the chorus builds more and more of the voices switch from singing "Someday..." to "Why not now?" and become more insistent until at the end, all voices sing "Why not now?" in unison. Our triumph is that of peace, love, and brotherhood over War.

'Someday' opens with a key change, firstly to get out of the minor chords used in 'Yesterday Hero' and get us into something that could start mournfully before the instrumental and become hopeful at the end without yet another key change. Secondly, to set up a musical "Easter egg" that exists in the second half. It's an in-joke, and no, I won't tell you what it is. If you don't get it, you won't get it. If you do get it, it's hilarious. It's a tricky challenge to do that without ruining the mood of the song. Ask one of the three people who know about it whether I was successful. No, I won't tell you who they are.

The instrumental in "Someday" was originally intended to be done with electric guitar, or an electric bass in the upper register. I also was privileged to receive suggested solos from Joe 'Covenant' Lamb and Caleb Hines. They didn't quite work with the song, which is a risk of doing a specific regional thing... I needed something a bit more "mint juleps and magnolias". So I rooted around in my music box, past the fife, recorder, tin whistle and other stuff, and dug out my Koch chromatic harmonica from among the various mouth organs. I hadn't played it in years, but it did the job quite nicely, effectively bridging the gap from "mournful" to "wistful". From there it was a short vocal step to "hopeful".


Doing Song Fu 6 was a blast. I'm proud to have been associated with this terrific songwriting competition.

We won't be doing Song Fu 7 because of my surgery followed by the fact that I'm cast in our Summer "Boogaloo" production, and I won't have five minutes of free time during that. But we do want to thank everybody involved... Ken Plume for hosting the competition, all of the competitors and wonderful people who hang out at TMA..."Too Much Awesome".

And I want to once again offer some heartfelt congratulations to Mike Lombardo, who really needs to get off his butt and get fitted for that cape. ;)

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Song Fu Update!

Oh, boy. Between work and Song Fu I've been too busy to post to this or to my other blogs, or YouTube for that matter.

Our third Song Fu entry, "Primordial Soup (Traditional Recipe)" tied for 2nd place in Song Fu #6. (click on the title to listen and download it from With 3 consecutive 2nd place finishes, we made into the final round! I've updated the Song Fu Statistic spreadsheets accordingly.

I can't reveal our final entry yet, but it is, I think, the very best of the four we've done for Song Fu. Actually, it's basically 2 songs, back-to-back. Our challenge was as follows:
Your task is to write a single tune that is actually comprised of two individual songs - the first half details a problem to be conquered or a battle to be fought, and the second half is a victorious, triumphant resolution. Both of these halves must feel independent of the other, but may contain an element that bridges the two. Your song must run no shorter than 3 minutes..
Basically, it was to write two songs in the time we were normally allotted for the writing of one. So my free time has been more than a little lacking this week. I can say more about it after it's been revealed at the listening party.
There will be a Final Challenge Listening Party at 8:30pm EST on Monday, March 22nd HERE. Voting on the Final Challenge will commence immediately after the listening party.
I will keep you updated on the place to vote.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

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