Sunday, December 26, 2010

Rain Dance: An experiment in free association

Note: This post is a bit of an experiment in itself, offering a close and rather drawn-out look at what went into the writing of one song. I'm not sure how interesting it will be to anyone besides me and the person who inspired the post. Feel free to lightly skim all the lyrical drafts. They're not so much there to be scrutinized as to show how much they changed over time.

* * *

In my last post I talked about how my creative process doesn't involve a spontaneously dashed off first draft. I write slowly, editing as I go. By the time I've muscled my way through a full set of lyrics, it's very close to the final version.

This elicited the following comment from one of Cinder Bridge's biggest fans, whom I fondly refer to as "Dad":

I wonder if you should try an experiment: force yourself to write lyrics without editing, i.e. free associate, just to see where it gets you. If it results in junk, so be it. It will probably seem like jumping out of airplane in the dark without a parachute, except that you don't get hurt when you hit ground.

Well, Dad (and everybody else who's told me the same thing), I have tried this experiment before, with mixed results.

Nine years ago, I met somebody who always free-associated his first drafts. MJ referred to it as the projectile-vomiting method of songwriting. He would feel some feeling very deeply. In an effort to express his deep feeling, words would violently propel themselves from his head onto a piece of paper. Later, he would excavate the results to find a line or two that he wanted to keep.

I envied MJ's process. It was faster than mine and considerably less tortured.

Fast-forward to 2002. MJ threw a party at his place. Around 5 or 6 in the morning, after the crowd had thinned, MJ asked me, "Do you want to learn to write like I do?"

I was game. MJ sat me down at his computer and told me to write whatever. I stared at the screen. For inspiration, he typed in a nonsense line or two for me to follow up on. I stared at the screen.

"Just let it out," said MJ, standing over my shoulder. "Let it pour out."

"Um, you saying that makes me feel more inhibited, not less."

So the experiment seemed a dismal failure. But maybe a day or two later, while riding my bike home, words crept into my head as I thought about what MJ had said and the way he had said it. I went to my computer when I got inside and started typing. It wasn't exactly the projectile-vomiting method, but I was able to jot down some lines without worrying too much about whether they were good. They went like this:

Rain Dance (v1.0)

I don't know what to say to you
I don't know what you want from me
Anymore

I do not understand why you
Feel the need to make me
Just like you

Pour it out, pour it out
You're looking for the rain to fall
Bring it out, take it down
You're looking for a storm

I don't know how long it will be
Before you thnk it's time to just
Give up

I can't decide if I should try to
Run away and hide
Before you do

Pour it out, pour it out
You're looking for the rain to fall
Primal scream, mindless dream
You're waiting for the storm

I wait for you to speak to me
Instruct me on the way I
Need to be

So sure you're right the time is right
Someday soon I'm going to
Fall in line

Pour it out, pour it out
Impatiently look at the sky
Primal scream, mindless dream
You're waiting for the storm

Do your rain dance once again
Gesture towards the sky and then
Realize it's just not coming down

This was obviously not close to a finished project, and I didn't have a vocal melody yet, but it seemed like a good start. MJ liked it. Later on, I attempted a slightly expanded second draft. I'm pretty sure I didn't spend a whole lot of time on this one either.

Rain Dance (v1.1)

I don't know what to say to you
I don't know what you want from me
Anymore

I've tried to tell you how I feel
You won't believe it's real
Unless I cry

I do not understand why you
Feel the need to make me
Just like you

You want a grander gesture
Some proof that I will never
Say goodbye

CHORUS
You tell me
Pour it out, pour it out
Let it all hang down
You want the
Primal scream, fever dream
You're waiting on a storm

The lines on my face don't reveal
Whatever it is that you're
Looking for

[My words are not enough for you]
And you don't trust that I will
Tell you truth

CHORUS
I wait for you to speak to me
Instruct me on the way I
Need to be

So sure you're right the time is right
Someday soon I'm going to
Fall in line

If you don't understand by now
Then maybe you do not
Deserve to know

CHORUS
You beg me
Pour it out, pour it out
Impatiently look at the sky
Primal scream, fever dream
Still waiting on the storm

Do your rain dance once again
Gesture toward the sky and then
Realize it's just not coming down

Fast-forward to around 2005. Lying in bed one morning, I half dreamed, half daydreamed what I would write if I were in school and some teacher tried to make me write poetry (I suck at poetry) as a means of self-expression:

You say you want a better look
But do you know
But do you know
The time it took
To show you what you see

I wrote a second stanza to go along with that when I was fully awake, then forgot about it.

Maybe a year later, Ron the Drummer and I were fooling around with a piano riff I'd improvised. I liked it quite a lot, but had no idea what lyrics could go with it. Then I recalled my forgotten two stanzas.

I think this is also when I realized I could connect those stanzas to the "Rain Dance" chorus, though I may have figured that out back when I wrote them. At any rate, I finally started working seriously to put it all together.

I did not free associate. After scavenging what I could from "Rain Dance" v1.0 and v1.1, I went about my usual way of doing things—writing a line or two at a time, punctuated by long periods of no progress, editing all the while.

Here is a scratch recording of the finished song:



Rain Dance
lyrics by Susan Wenger
music by Susan Wenger & Ron Amistadi


You say you want a better look
But do you know
But do you know
The time it took
To show you what you see

My words alone don't satisfy
You wish to find
The place behind
A hazy sky
The deeper part of me

CHORUS
And you say
Pour it out, pour it out
Let it all come down
You want the primal scream
Fever dream
You're waiting on a storm


I speak to you a gentle breeze
Provided by
A butterfly
Whose subtleties
You fail to understand

My careful lines, they leave you cold
You do not get
The pace I let
The tale unfold
Hourglass and sand

CHORUS
And you say
Pour it out, pour it out
Let it all come down
You want the primal scream
Fever dream
You're waiting on a storm


I feel your fists upon the door
Demand your take
And try to break
Me open for
The mystery I contain

I won't allow your will be done
Give up the hunt
If you don't want
My sunshine
Then you don't deserve the rain


CHORUS
And you say
Pour it out, pour it out
Let it all come down
You want the primal scream
Fever dream
You're waiting on a storm

Pour it out, pour it out
Let it all come down
You want the primal scream
Fever dream
You're waiting on a storm

Pour it out, pour it out
Let it all come down
You want the primal scream
Fever dream
You're waiting on a storm

Pour it out, pour it out
Let it all come down
You want the primal scream
Fever dream
You're waiting on a storm

Do your rain dance once again
Gesture toward the sky and then
Realize it's just not coming down

-----------------------------------------------------------------
Copyright 2006 Cinder Bridge. All rights reserved.

Assessment

On the one hand, this experiment proved that free associating doesn't help me write more quickly. Eventually I have to abandon careless jottings and revert back to ponderous, studied crafting.

On the other hand, I've noticed that "Rain Dance" is different from a lot of my other songs. It's more impressionistic, heavier on imagery—which, interestingly enough, describes much of MJ's work. I suspect that this has something to do with the way I got the initial ideas down.

Maybe I'll try again if I find myself stuck in a rut.

7 comments:

DeppityBob said...

It's a very good song. The lyrics are interesting...even having your explanation, some of the lyrics are mysterious. Impressionistic is right, though...you've painted an emotional picture with a broad brush and short strokes.

Jeff Shattuck said...

I love that you've "showed the sausage being made". It's a cool song.

Here's my two bits on the writing process (this is what works for me):

1) you can't write and think at the same time, so "free writing" or whatever you want to call it is your raw writing stage

2) creativity needs limits, so once you've poured your heart out, go through the rubble and find the good bits

3) now... think... what is this song about... write the answer in one, specific sentence

4) now with your raw writing down and your limits in place, create.

I dunno, this is all that has ever worked for me. Petty, of course, can improvise an entire tune, I can't!

John Wenger said...

You say, "On the one hand, this experiment proved that free associating doesn't help me write more quickly. Eventually I have to abandon careless jottings and revert back to ponderous, studied crafting."

Well, of course you have to abandon careless jottings and revert back to crafting. The whole question is how to start up, not how to end up.

I love the song, by the way, although I am puzzled by the line, "If you don't want my sunshine, then you don't deserve the rain." Shouldn't it be the other way around (except you lose the rhyme from the previous quintuplet)?

cinderkeys said...

Thanks for thinking it's a cool song, y'all. Of all the songs I consider B-sides (and now I'm dating myself), I'm particularly fond of this one.

Dep: I'm glad you don't think "mysterious" is a bad thing. Often I feel compelled, not so much to spell everything out, but to make it make sense.

Jeff: That's really interesting. For the most part I can't NOT think and write at the same time. Every once in a while a lyric will fall out of the sky into my lap -- I get some of my best stuff that way -- but those are far and few between.

Dad: The whole reason I wanted to experiment with a different way of writing was to write faster. I guess some songwriters don't take as long to edit as I do.

As for the line that puzzles you, your way is the more obvious choice and would have worked well in a different song. The way I have it here works better for this particular song, even beyond the rhyme scheme. Maybe I'll elaborate one of these days, but for now I think I'll preserve the mystery and let you puzzle over it a little more. :)

MOS said...

If Dad didn't understand the last line, I don't think he understood the lyrics at all.

I always liked this song, but now that I've read the lyrics, I like it even more.

Judy said...

Really good work and thank you for sharing it with us!

I'm impressed. I used to write song lyrics in college, and have a book of them "some"where... !

I'm also impressed with the fact that your dad is a follower of your blog! I don't think, in all the blogs I follow, that I've ever seen anyone's parent commenting!

Judy

cinderkeys said...

Thanks! And Judy, you should find your lyrics. You may like some bits more than others, but stuff like that offers a fascinating glimpse back into parts of your past easily forgotten.

I'm happy that both of my parents follow my blog, but I wouldn't call that impressive. Impressive is getting people who don't know you to read it! :)