Photo by Ivan Karczewski.
17 March 2018
Auckland Town Hall
Love Me As I Am
by Mahinaarangi Tocker
Performed by the entire cast of the Auckland Arts Festival's tribute concert.
I had the privilege of performing in a musical tribute to the late singer/songwriter Mahinaarangi Tocker last weekend on the tenth anniversary of her untimely death in 2008. She was a close friend, and while the event and its preparations elicited a high degree of emotion, it also made me think a great deal about her music and my experience of her creative process.
Mahinaarangi chose to make her music a priority. She had trained and worked as a nurse, but she actively decided her songs and her unique voice would take precedence in her adult vocational life. She described a clarifying conversation she had with her father at this time. He was profoundly aware that this was a challenging lifestyle, but wise man, supported her decision.
Estimates vary pretty wildly as to the actual amount of material generated by Mahinaarangi – in the last week I’ve seen figures cited from 600 to 1000 songs. But there was no doubt that she wrote often. There was a wellspring of words and music within her that she drew on. And it generated a significant repertoire.
She most definitely had one. Both vocally, and compositionally – from the topics she chose, the rhythm and melodic tics she wrote to the vocal inflections and largely improvisational guitar technique she played. Nothing was particularly studied – she didn’t read music or take tuition, but her songs were inherently and deeply hers, and she didn’t particularly care for comparisons!
And I mean catholic with a small ‘c’ as in her capacity to listen to other artists' music – she had one of the largest NZ album collections I’ve seen and a voracious appetite for reading all sorts, even on one tour devouring Harry Potter – the first adult I’d seen do so! She loved watching others perform across genres from folk to classical, on the marae and in church, with allies and affiliates across the musical and cultural spectrum.
She connected with many people at a highly personal and authentic level - in the music industry, in her whanau milieu, and across a myriad of causes from mental health to adult literacy, Maori rights to gay/lesbian issues. She had a view and wasn’t afraid to defend it. Though she was respectful, good humoured and polite, she could call it when needed. And when and where she could, she would help.
I hope you continue to enjoy and explore her music – it’s all over the internet, but here’s a live clip from early days. And if you have an itch, scratch it. If you have a loose end, lose it. Fill your life with things that really matter to you and forget the rest.
RIP Mahinaarangi Tocker
The exercise reiterated for me why co-writing is such an important skill to learn and practice, so much so that when fact checking for this blog, I noted that Berklee College of Music is now offering a senior level course in Collaborative Songwriting. Of course, a many great songs have been written as collaborations between two or more songwriters. In musical theatre, collaboration was the rule, with lyricist and composer working in separate domains, yet with a combined output that contributed some of the most popular songs of the mid-twentieth century from The Sound of Music to Oklahoma. Perhaps the premium example of collaboration where artistic success translated into commercial reward was that of John Lennon and Paul McCartney whose individual efforts subsequent to the Beatles' collapse aptly illustrated that the sum is greater than the parts.
Back home, the 2017 APRA Silver Scroll Award for Songwriting went to a three-way collaboration between Ella Yelich-O'Connor, Joel Little and Jack Antonoff for their song, Green Light. Furthermore, of the eleven #1 singles on the Billboard Hot 100, six were collaborations, including the #1 song of 2017, Shape of You. Let's just say collaborative songwriting is seriously trending!
Whether you're a track and topline writer or prefer the immediacy of hands on instruments real time in the band practice room, there are some tangible benefits to co-writing. Firstly, it can stimulate you. You can wind up interfacing with songwriters you may not know very well, if at all, and create music you never would have written on your own. Secondly, it makes you aware of what you have to offer. Sure, you'll have strengths you may already know about but co-writing can often reveal new aspects of your own creativity you haven't uncovered. Thirdly, you can learn a thing or two from other writers, be it a go-to technique or a more general problem solving approach you can put to good use.
Working collectively can really nail a song's intention too, giving you a good reality check on a song's ability to capture a audience. And from a personal style perspective, you have to be present, leave your ego at the door, yet know when to speak up and put your nose to the grindstone to make the fledgling song its best.
The good news is that the joys of technology are so helpful that you can work collaboratively with folks everywhere - in different towns or different countries, in real time or overnight- all useful for shaking up your songwriting. And co-writing can be socially supportive, bringing new creative compadres into your network. You know, like fun, as singer-songwriter Jason Mraz describes his co-writing experience with Raining Jane.
Because they’ve been a band for about 15 years, they have this awesome ability to create foundations of music... Everyone brings a different instrument to a circle and we start jamming. Maybe somebody has a progression in mind, or maybe we just collide until we find something we like. Once that bed is happening, the four of them start rocking out like a band, and oohing and aahing, putting backing vocals on sections to create a beautiful wave of music that I then begin to improvise on, surf all over, and start telling my stories....
When we all agree that we like where something is going, we stop and everybody goes off and does free writing. They pass them all to me and I go through them and I decide what feels good to sing, what works with the story. It’s a ton of fun. Lastly, it’s great to collaborate because you have to show up. If I’m collaborating with only myself and my guitar, it’s easy to put it off, and then I am tired and I don’t give myself the best experience. But when I create a date with Raining Jane, we say we are going to start at one o’clock, we start at one o’clock, we jam it, and it gets things done.
Talk more soon
ps bookings are now open for both the Akaroa Songwriters Clinic ( 1-3 June @ Queens Birthday Weekend) and the Wanaka Songwriters Clinic ( 19-21 October @ Labour Weekend).
First of all, she was at pains to point out the time commitment it takes to creating a full length album, particularly with the number of artistic hats she sports. Utopia has taken her two and a half years to make. For a long time, as is her wont, she was creating it without a huge idea, just working.
Björk fills in more details – 'I write one song per month, sometimes two months'… 'Eighty per cent of my music is me sitting by my laptop, editing. Weeks and weeks on each song'.....'It took me three months to mix the album'
Time is also spent on rehearsing other musicians who perform on the recording, arranging, conducting, tracking, mixing, editing, working with producers. She spoke of the Friday Flute Club, the 12 piece all-female flute ensemble who met at her cabin every Friday for some 50 or 60 days to rehearse and prepare for recording.
And here’s she revealed another aspect to her musical make-up - Björk has played flute from the age of 6. Songwriting is an amalgam of musical creativity and experiences as well as an individual’s linguistic heritage and influence. I’m not saying that every songwriter should rush out and learn the flute, but that what has helped shape each songwriter is never the same, and this hugely contributes to each person’s unique output of lyric and melody. Those with some experience of learning an instrument tend to be more comfortable with creating and manipulating music, but not always. Sometimes, it’s just means the ability to be quicker explaining what you want to achieve to other musicians.
Thirdly, she spoke about how she works with her own emotions, up and down, often at a profound level, binding them eventually with music, refining them into a single album. Her music involves her exploring small triggers connecting ‘emotional coordinates’, matching technical difficulties with musical aims…
In some ways, Utopia is a ‘lighter’ reaction to her previous ‘break-up’ album, Vulnicura described as ‘bleak’, with one song Black Lake having Björk at her most vulnerable and bitter. The point being that she’s not afraid to dig deep, but neither will she shy away from using her full palette of feelings.
Finally, she spoke almost incidentally about being an active listener. She’d come to the interview after going to a gig the night before. The reporter described her as ‘off-duty’ then, but somehow I think that’s not often. Another time, she wrapped herself in loads of coats, lay down on the moss and listened to an audiobook of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. And she worked with a friend who researched flute myths around the world on her behalf, ping-ponging ideas back and forth by email. But all ingredients are put in Björk's pot to season her heady brew.
Look forward to hearing some of your own heady brews!
ps If you’d like to season your own songwriting this New Year, join us for the Songwriters Retreat @ Hanmer Springs over Waitangi Weekend (2-6 February).
pps Just a reminder, early bird tickets close this Friday January 5.
3. Intervals and rests.
A word about what's actually not even there in songs. Space! Where will you put your nothing? The space vertically between notes is called an interval, and it can be up or down in pitch. The space horizontally between notes is called a rest and it can be a very short time or several bars worth. It's space that makes us wait and long for the next line or the next beat. Think about where you put nothing in your song. We need some of that too!
Try this exercise today. Here is a short lyrical phrase: I want you in my life forever
Use this lyric above, write and record the following variations a capella ( with no backing - super basic!) on your phone
1. An eight note melody that rises throughout the phrase.
2. An eight note melody that falls and rises throughout the phrase.
3. Try it at 120 beats per minute - an uptempo rhythm
4. Try it at 90 beats per minute - the downbeat version.
Feel the difference! Let me know how you get on.
ps Pleased to announce that the Song Doctor Mailer has been awarded one of the Top 75 Songwriting Blogs & Websites for Songwriters in the world. Well, fancy!
pps Preparations are going well for the upcoming Songwriters Retreat this Waitangi Weekend Feb 2-6, 2018. Thanks so much for all your bookings and inquiries so far - exciting! Prosody, and how to really incorporate it into your songs, is a topic we'll cover in detail on Monday Feb 4 ( first session) Retreat Day 3. Get into it!
To really connect with an audience, you have to be able to show them what you see, what you hear, what it feels like when you touch someone or something, how you move, what your surroundings smell like - jasmine scented flowers or a stale beer soaked carpet or what the wine (or his lips) tasted like. By using your senses very specifically in your lyrics, you are able to create a clear and unequivocal experience for the audience - so they feel or smell or see exactly what you do - very quickly. You will literally draw us in.
It's the difference between a car or a little red Corvette, a road or a dark desert highway, footwear or my blue suede shoes.
External details make powerful images
Often the words that will work extremely hard for you in your lyrics creating the details of a scene or describing a specific character are adjectives. Use your five senses (touch/taste/smell/sound/sight) plus movement to sharpen up your lyrics. And put the concrete images you conjure up in the verses, so we find out what's happening where to whom. This who/when/where trifecta gets us on the same page as you - the songwriter - very quickly. How you use verbs will also pump up the interest level in your song. Verbs create action in your lyric - it's the difference between get/do/be and stab/shake/race.
Internal details are what's inside
the hearts and minds
of your main characters.
The feelings and thoughts that motivate the characters in your songs are more intangible, harder to describe, but are the basis for your song's existence. They tend to make up most of the chorus, the emotions that songs can express so well from I Will Always Love You to You make me feel like a Natural Woman, from Unforgettable to She Loves Me (Yeah Yeah Yeah). Here's the place you go to town with expressing what your character is really feeling.
And because you've outlined what's going on really clearly in the verses, we'll be ready for your big moment. The title of the song often encapsulates it. And the more universal the feeling or thought is, the larger your audience will be.
Actively choosing to use this split between external and internal details within the lyric of your song may feel foreign at first. And you don't have to use all your senses all the time! What to leave out is as important as what to leave in, but this technique is a powerful tool to help you write better songs.
Talk more soon
pps here 's the Wanaka Songwriting Clinic crew being awesome
pps for those who have a whole lot more songwriting to do, join us next year on the Songwriters Retreat, Hanmer Springs Feb 2-6. Songwriting 24/7.
It seems blindingly obvious but a song has to say something for an audience to listen. And an audience has to care about what is said before it can hear it.
Note there are two sides to this songwriting coin. What you write and what we hear. This is one of the biggest challenges for a songwriter who seriously wants to improve - to consider what the audience wants to hear and how they should hear it.
What??? Isn't that selling out, writing to order, becoming a puppet for the market?
Not even. It's asking yourself can you create art we want to listen to.
This is Emily Warren. She's a Grammy award winning songwriter.
In a very relevant APRA Songhub seminar, she said this.
Songs are still supposed to be about the truth, like songs ideally are supposed to be an expression of you. The perfect recipe is you’re telling the truth, you’re being honest and you’re putting it in a way that’s simple enough that a million people can hear it and say ‘oh my god, I feel the same exact way, and I can sing along to that'.
If you want to write songs for yourself in your bedroom, then do. That's a wonderful form of self-expression, like writing a sound diary. But if you want us to listen to you, then you have to have something to say that moves us, that we can understand, that makes us dance or at least tap a foot, that is meaningful to us in a bleak moment, that we can sing in the shower, that makes us want to kiss the girl next door. Not necessarily all at once, but your song needs to connect with us wholeheartedly! We need to feel something when we hear your song!
What you say is up to you - the artist. It is your taste, your opinion, your view of the world, your musicality, your experiences that make up your completely unique artistic perspective. No two people can write the same song - there's so many ingredients in the recipe and at least two languages ( words AND music) being created at the same time in a song. Sure, you can be influenced and you can emulate, write in the style of, but you can't write a Bruce Springsteen song anymore than Bruce could write one of yours.
So, unleash yourself! Tell us something - make us an offer we can't refuse!
Don't know how to get started? Try answering these questions as truthfully as you can. Don't analyse your content at this stage - just blurt it out on your screen or notebook.
1. Things I should have said.
2. Things I shouldn't have said.
3. Things I want to say.
Take as long as you like. Write as much as you like. There are no wrong answers. Reckon you'll write yourself some real gold in amongst it!
I look forward to hearing more!
ps we have one remaining spot on our Wanaka Songwriting Clinic Oct 20-22
pps for those who have a whole lot more songwriting to do, join us next year on the Songwriters Retreat, Hanmer Springs Feb 2-6
I went to a very enjoyable concert yesterday by Auckland band, the Bads, where one of the band members told the audience a great story against himself. Brett Adams is a formidable guitarist who, along with his co-conspirator vocalist/songwriter Dianne Swann plus assorted musical colleagues is currently touring their latest release nationally. Brett’s guitar skills are also much in demand as a skilled sideman to many other NZ performers, including the legendary Tim Finn.
( This is the Bads live in Napier - Brett on the left and Dianne, right.) Photo Andrew Caldwell
The story goes like this. Brett and Tim are touring just as a duo across the US and have to play a show in Colorado, where the snow piles high in winter - very high. Having chugged a good 9 hours or so to their destination, they arrived only to be told that, ‘due to the weather’, the show had been cancelled. Tim’s reaction was priceless. He said let’s go to the hotel and write a song. As you do. In Brett’s anecdote, he wryly remarked that wasn’t the reaction that he'd had. And that the song Brett had started writing then took a good ten years to be completed describing himself as ‘less disciplined than Tim’, whereupon the Bads played his tune.
As well as a great intro to a song’s genesis, this story highlights the difference between the musician who has songwriting front and centre in his life, and the musician who has a different focus. There’s no doubt the guitarist is extraordinarily disciplined to be able play as well as he does night after night, with such a variety of artists and repertoire. But having your songwriting process so close to your heart so that when you get a block of unexpected blank time, you can pick up where you left off is a state of being to aspire to. There’s never any time wasted because you always have something at your fingers tips to tap into. It’s what tunesmith Jimmy Webb calls continuity and rappers call flow. You ‘re able to switch between writing and ‘real life’ modes quickly and easily
The trick is that the relative effort of getting to that creative sweet spot is far less for those who write regularly, who practice their craft often, for those who, as the weightlifters say, do the reps. It’s keeping a mindset of ‘downtime = song time’ or ‘unexpected delay = songwriting hay’. It’s also being aware of the positive feedback loop that comes from finishing drafts. The more you do, the better you get. No different from running scales or shooting hoops. So, when you get ‘extra time’, that’s seen as an opportunity, rather than a drag and that you have to ‘pass the time’.
My guess is that Tim Finn, a skilled and very experienced songwriter, thought ‘yeeha - snowed in, with no expectations on me, no commitments I have to fulfil…. plus the added bonus of unimpeded access to a really good guitar player …I'm a kid in a candy store’. If indeed it was even that conscious, because I suspect that's just how he rolls but I would love to hear what his final output was from their canned Colorado gig.
Talk more soon.
PS if you'd like to pump up your songwriting muscle, check out our Songwriting Clinic this Labour Weekend in Wanaka
Nowadays, it's pretty easy to record draft tracks on ipads or lap tops, and ping them off as wee mp3s and 4's. This is an important part of songwriting - working up drafts of your songs, listening back with fresh ears and for sharing with collaborators or bandmates. Just even remembering a tune or snatches of lyrics can be so easily captured now and the results backed up on a drive smaller than your thumbnail.
So, then what? Here are some possible outcomes/purposes for a recording of your song to think about.
Is your recording to get your song on the setlist of your band? Is it to show songwriting collaborators? Is it audio for entry into songwriting competitions or to put up on YouTube? Is it for radio broadcast, to entice a publisher, a producer, a video director, a really awesome vocalist to work on your material? Is it to get more live work from venues or festival organisers? Are you going to sell it digitally or physically? Independently or with label support?
Each of these outcomes has slightly different requirements for a recording - some you can easily achieve yourself. With the advent of DAW's and hard drive recording programmes, ever cheaper computers, it's totally possible to knock together a cheap home project studio for a few hundred. You can go piece by piece, get a condensor mic, headphones or powered speakers. Whether you set up in your lounge, your bedroom or your garage, having something you can capture basic and clear recordings of your songs is an important first step. There's always someone with more/better gear than you. Start simple and don't get too bamboozled! As monitor and live sound engineer Gil Craig says 'If you can operate an ATM, you can work a home recording set up'
A harder question to answer is what size audience can you command? What demand is there for your material? A strong indicator is how many folks turn up to your shows and what songs EITHER stop them in their tracks OR whip them into a frenzy in the mosh pit. A crowd pleaser live doesn't necessarily make the best radio or internet delivered song, but if there is strong live support for your work, then there's a good chance you've achieved some market penetration and could monetize that, industry parlance.
Finally, what resources do you have to devote to the process? How much time do you have? It does take time and resilience, a willingness to try things out, to say yes and sometimes to say no! Who do you know? A strong rhythm section, a great guitarist, an electronics whizz that can give you the beats you need? Do you know someone actually already involved in the recording, mixing and mastering of contemporary music, someone who's released material before who can advise you on arrangements and production? Check out your favourite local recording credits, and approach folks. Reach out! In my experience, NZ musicians are really generous with time and energy, they want to play and will consider a 'development' rate, even a shout for the right person. What money can you bring to the table? For beers and pizza, for petrol, for lunches? If you can offer those who pursue music professionally a little folding, it can go further than you think. But you don't want to outstay the 'favour' welcome. There's mates rates, and then there's get off the grass! Be appreciative and give credit where it's due. Folks can always say no too.
Whatever you can put into recording your music will pay off in your development as a songwriter and each improvement in the quality of your songwriting, your musical taste and judgement, your recording equipment, rehearsal process and personnel used and time you put into developing your skills will definitely show as you make more recordings, just as the more practice you do, the better you play.
Talk more soon
ps email me if you'd like to do my brand new online songwriting course - How do I write better songs? It's short and free!
Just put COURSE in the subject line of the email.
pps click here to join us this Labour Weekend for the upcoming Songwriter's Clinic in picturesque Wanaka
KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) is a great acronym to have at the front of your songwriting brain at all times. Here’s why. It reminds us that songs are short and they travel in real time. It reminds us that songs are heard. We hear them. It reminds us of the purpose of songs – they provoke emotion – we should be feeling something. It reminds us that we, your audience, should be able to remember something about your song after ONE listen. It reminds us that we should be able to sing along – not necessarily professionally, but at least in the shower or in the car in a traffic jam,or while we’re vacuuming or when we’re slumped on the couch heartbroken, sobbing under a blanket. Oh yes, my friends – keep it simple, stupid!
Simple does not mean shallow or dumbed down.
Simple does not mean easy to write. If it was everyone would be doing it!
Simple can be two chords – Eleanor Rigby, two words - Anchor Me, or two notes -Yesterday.
Simple means one story well told, one emotion well reached, a connection made with an audience.
Simple asks what are you trying to say, and expects an unequivocal answer.
Simple is authentic. Simple is uncomplicated.
Simple touches your heart and makes you listen.
And it’s not just my view….
Concision, admittedly, is the essence of pop: its discipline, its challenge, its genius. To tell a story or sum up an attitude in a handful of sung verses or a salvo of hip-hop rhymes, and to unite them with music that lodges those words in memory — and, at best, also summons the feeling behind them — is a songwriter’s job description…. Yet musical or verbal complexity can easily add clutter rather than depth, not to mention idle pretension. That’s why popular music regularly goes through back-to-basics purges like punk (both the 1970s and 1990s editions), electro (with iterations in every decade since the 1970s) and for that matter rock ’n’ roll itself. New York Times
Here’s how. Look at each of the building blocks of your song and see if you can do things, well, simpler!
1. The Point. What are you trying to say? What is the intention or purpose of your song? Is it easy to understand? Will enough of us care about it? Can you explain clearly what your song is saying in one sentence? Universal messages of love in all its forms, songs of longing and hope, sorrow, collective anger or outrage or something upbeat and danceable to get you through all have their place. From my experience, this is the bit that most newbie songwriters skip over.
2. Lyrics. Do you use everyday, conversational language? Like you're talking to us. Is there at least one image that helps us see what you see, clear as day? Do you have the title in the chorus? Does the title tells us the point of your song? Does your story keep reinforcing your song’s purpose?
3. Structure – does the shape or form of the song allow the purpose of the song to clearly unfold. We know where we’re going. There are verses, a chorus, maybe a bridge. It has pieces that are put together in a way we expect, with
a beginning, middle and an end.
4. Chords – the progression is strong, maybe even the same throughout the entire song. This is trending in pop songwriting now. Royals uses the same three chords throughout and they’re all major. (D/C/G).
5. Melody – the tune is easy to sing and easy to learn, in a range that everyone can sing (not more than an octave plus two). The melody is made a repeated motif (small group of notes that builds the melody, like words make a phrase). Yesterday uses a three note motif made of just two notes. Key professional songwriters like Max Martin start with the melody. Just saying....
6. Rhythm - your song has a clear groove or beat. It makes people move - a little or a lot. At same stage, preferably in the chorus, all the elements in your song hit the first beat of the bar.
7. Unplugged – if the song works with just you and a guitar, or just you and a piano or just you singing, and people get it, you’ve got a song!
8. Repetition – you repeat stuff – the chords you use, the melodic motif, the title in the chorus, the chorus, the groove.
Simple means that we can hear and understand each of the building blocks of the song. How all the pieces of the puzzle fit together is what makes the magic!
Talk more soon,
Charlotte Yates +021 685 561
ps I'm running a free workshop on this material this Saturday 13 May 10.30am-12.30pm @ Te Takere, Levin.
Hi, I'm Charlotte Yates and I can help you get better at writing songs.