Thursday, July 8, 2010

Biography of a Song: Doves

 This is in response to a discussion of songwriting started by Edric Haleen on the TMA forums, which is now ongoing at our new artistic "home", Artifiction. I'm simply moving some of what I wrote there onto this blog for safe-keeping.

Be warned, this "biography" contains sensitive personal information, which - as it's written from my perspective - is subjective and probably completely innaccurate.


Biography of a Song: Doves
To hear a (poor) recording of this song and read the final lyrics, click here.


Never encourage me. I'm going to bother you again with a more typical example of our process, as I previously threatened to do. Here's one where I changed one word.

I got the lyrics to "Doves" in email in August of 2008, though William's notes say he wrote them October 9th, 2005. The inspiration for the song is as follows: Willy had a neighbor who was a WWII vet. This neighbor used to work in the garden every day, and there were a pair of doves that nested in the eaves of his house overlooking that garden. When the old man died, the doves disappeared and haven't been seen since. So this is a song about death and transformation, very different from the previous death song I described.

I happen to like this one. A LOT. One of the things I like is that this song works for anybody with a shred of spirituality, even if you don't know what the lyrics are about. You can imagine that the doves are guardian angels, or animal spirits, or whatever works for you. The neighbor, incidentally, doesn't ever appear in the song. This isn't about him, it's about you, the listener.

When I got this it was four verses, which I read through a couple of times to determine the mood. It starts:
The blind Minah bird, he mocks the dawn
Caged all day, still talks and sings a song
Deaf to morning, noon and night
Dreams of freedom and takes to flight

It was definitely moody, and I could hear immediately that start out with a minor chord. I thought it would probably need to start somewhere around the pitch of conversational speech. I would have started it with an Am if the tune hadn't taken me down to the basement at "to flight", but more about that next verse.

The "Caged all day..." line had me worried, because I couldn't fit it into any meter. Finally I just gave up and decided to play the tune as I'd envisioned it but just compress these words to fit it in there without regard to it. Paul Simon's "Boy in the Bubble" came to mind, where he does that sort of thing a LOT. Turns out that actually performing that is akin to patting your head and rubbing your belly.
The doves don’t roost here anymore
Not now nor in the year before
The nest abandoned while we sleep
Take perch in Eden then retreats

This verse is perfect metrically, and it held the tune when I first read the lyrics. A little wistful. We don't know anything about these doves, nevertheless we're sad that they're gone. As such, the tune doesn't try very hard here, and ends in a downward direction as they retreat from Eden.

The chord progression is Cm / Ab / G -- Cm / Ab -- G -- Cm

The verse also gave me the opening riff, though I couldn't tell you in a million years what thought process took me there. It's basically an improvisation on those same chords.
Seems paradise resides beyond the blue
Where there’s no substitute for the truth
Take wing in disappearing light
And let heaven’s eagle be your guide

[instrumental]

This seems to me to be a proclamation of realization, some denouement that the singer has come to, so it needs to be lifted up (this comes mostly off-mic, and he's just telling us about it). There are probably a million different interpretations of this verse, and it was our intent to leave it open to all of them.

That said, the basic chord progression is dead simple, being 4 repetitions of Ab -- G -- Cm. Anything interesting musically is in the tune and in whatever you choose to add to the accompaniment. In the first line I insert a Bb chord between the G and Cm at "beyond" just for stress. When playing "for the truth" I crawl the base from C to D to Eb to F to give us a little auditory "Jacob's ladder" to the truth, whatever that may be. And after "disappearing light" I allude to the opening riff.

I think the thing that really makes this work is the segue into the instrumental, which is intended to remind you of birds in flight. As such you're introduced to it through an upward progression right up the scale from G-A-B-C-D-Eb in the left hand with the appropriate right-hand stuff going on and then it "opens up" a bit for the doves in flight. I imagine it with the "la-na-na-nah" backing vocals, so threw some on the demo track.

Yes, that's how I think of my choice of chords. I focus on what's important to me, which in this case was only that bass progression, and then fill in what's necessary and natural. There's what I WANT, then what I have to have.
The doves don’t roost here anymore
Not now nor the year before
The nest abandoned while we sleep
Take perch in Eden then retreats

My first draft of the song did not repeat this verse. When William heard it he asked if I'd "repeat it somewhere". "Can you bring the doves back into it somehow?" He was right, they needed a reprise. Prior to this, I'd gone straight into the bridge, which was too abrupt.
And if it’s truly all been done
What’s the use then to carry on
To pass some Rorschach test of life
To comprehend and just survive?

Though metrically it could be a verse, this is the bridge. It HAS to be in that it's so very different in tone from the other verses. It's the Big Question: Why are we all here? Is the meaning of life really whatever you imagine it to be? Is the point of being simply to be?

So it's the bridge. And since it's the Big Question, it has to be a big bridge. And it should be delivered as if you finally had your big chance and you were standing in front of God, ready to get all your questions answered... and he was ignoring you.

Now, Willy would probably laugh if I told him that. He thinks it's hilarious when people read into the stuff he writes. But the process of songwriting for me is exactly that... I take what he wrote, try to extract any meaning that HE had in it, and then try to insert, musically, whatever meaning I read into it, hopefully without stepping on his message. If the process is successful then we have something better than either of us could have produced on our own, and we leave enough ambiguity that the listener can infer even more meanings of his own, making the song personal to him or her.
For paradise resides beyond the blue
Where there’s no substitute for the truth
Take wing in disappearing light
And let heaven’s eagle be your guide

[instrumental]

And once again to paradise. The word I changed was "Seems" to "For". I felt that the repetition of this verse needed to be more forceful in tone. I think that this one word shifts the meaning greatly. The first time through it's a guess or observation; the second time it's a statement of fact. Musically, it continues the more forceful tone of the bridge, as applied to previously established tune. Appropriate modifications are made to the tune.

Again we go to the instrumental of the doves in flight, and this time the song fades as they recede into the distance. I didn't bother with the fade in the demo, but it should be there. When playing it live I end on Cmajor rather than Cminor to impart a more hopeful ending to the song. This is intended to be wistful, yet hopeful; not sad.

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