Anti-intellectual notions, (which I discovered have sadly invaded 21st century software), came up today when John and I were watching the Andrew Marr political programme on BBC television. A guest referred to the two party political system as “FUSTY”. I thought perhaps it meant ‘congested,’ but wasn’t sure, so we looked it up in the digital New Oxford American Dictionary:
adjective (fustier, fustiest)
smelling stale, damp, or stuffy: the fusty odor of decay . . . ”
It was surprising then that Oxford’s went on to use this as an example: “old-fashioned in attitude or style: grammar in the classroom became a fusty notion.” ?! We decided the Oxford’s definition was doubly ironic, since people who use dictionaries tend to care about grammar, and because there seems to be an “odour of decay” around a dictionary that is anti-grammar!
This was a bit of a jumping-off point for me. I spent some time musing on the sad decline of Oxford’s, and the world in general. If I apply this problem of anti-intellectualism to the art of songwriting, it brings forward the issue of style versus content, which has for a long time been an important issue for me. Recently, it seems to me that these two aspects of music production are in mortal combat.
I have always thought that “old fashioned” can be magically transformed into “classic.” “Classic” can become the very thing that determines your longevity and adds value or weight to your work. Style is never more important or valuable than function. A loop, or a riff, is not a song. Courting popularity will eventually lead you to have to make the all-important choice of whether to pander to the lowest common denominator, or to move in the direction where people can respect you as a serious creative individual. Like a house, a song must still be built on a solid foundation; i.e. technique.
Usually, I’ll play the chords of a song I am working on in several keys and several tempos before determining how to perform it. I use a digital hand-held recorder, a capo and a metronome. Back in ’90-’91, when I studied with a singing teacher, she suggested I should try and write with a capo to ensure that I was singing in the best key for my voice. I’ve found this a great approach, as it is much easier to change keys on the fly.
With experience, I have discovered that it is always best to sacrifice the better-sounding key on my guitar for the best key for my vocal range. Nobody else will ever know what the guitar key was that I preferred, but they will certainly hear when my voice sounds more comfortable than it would have been singing too high or low for my range.
Elephant in the Room has been in process since 2017. The title came first (you heard a rough recording and read lyrics of on a previous blog). Recently I experimented with changing the key to better suit the mood. But eventually I had to decide that it was best placed where I originally wrote it, in the key of C. It’s a funny thing, because the key of C is traditionally a ‘'cheerful’ key. Yet, this song clearly sounds melancholic. There are always exceptions to the rule. On this song I tune my guitar to double dropped D. Translated for the layman, I have tuned my guitar to DADGBD from the standard tuning EADGBE (a capo is placed on the 5th fret).
I have made a small modification to the lyric. The elephant in the song becomes more familiar. As you can see, one word can have a big impact.
Excerpt from Elephant in the Room lyrics:
If they think
I can’t see
Your so pink
If they think
I can’t see
He’s so pink
Elephant in the Room © Lesley Young (SOCAN). All rights reserved, 2017.
Hear the previous draft of the song on my earlier blog
Writing Your Way Out.