Back to it! - Part one

Following is the first of many posts about the creative process that this blog was supposed to have been set up to explore. Here goes:

I get inspiration from a variety of places. Sometimes I'm not inspired at all when I'm writing a song. Sometimes it's just a matter of sitting down and making choices. In the case of the new Parks & Recreation song, which I'm tentatively calling Don't Get Caught Up In Your Dreams, I wasn't at all inspired. You see, gathering dust on my bookshelf at home is a stack of 90 min. cassette tapes (remember those things?) on which I have recorded tiny snippets of song ideas over the last, well, four years or so. Every time I come home with an idea or something, I grab my hand held tape recorder (remember those?) and sing a melody into it. Usually these melodies are short pieces of a potential song. They might be a verse and a chorus worth of material. They might even be less than that. But I start with the melodic idea. If I have words right away, I'll sing them and just mumble the rest, or sing gibberish. Then I hit stop on the machine. If I have time to work on the song further, I will, but if not, I leave it for another time. Well, it seems that the moment those little ideas stack up on the cassette, they leave my brain. So I decided that, rather than try to wrack my brain for new material, I would listen to each of the cassettes, starting with the most recent, and make a catalog of the old ideas, with a mind toward making the best ones into songs. On the first cassette, which spans a time period from 2002 until now, I cataloged roughly 100 ideas. None of them fully formed. The one that became
Don't Get Caught Up In Your Dreams is the first one I really liked.

The Mike Johnson on the cassette sings just the melody for the chorus. But when I heard him sing it, I immediately got a verse in my head. It was instantaneous. I stepped away from the stereo, went to the piano, and started singing and playing a verse, mumbling gibberish. The first melody that came out was the one that stuck. It's rare that that happens for me, so I went with it. Next, I filled in the chords. This was more difficult, because I had no idea where to start. So I started plinking around, looking first for a comfortable key. I found E. Then I started playing, and my first instinct was to step right away up to f# minor, then again up to g# minor, and back down again. Now I had a stepwise chord progression, and I liked it for the verse. I especially liked it because at the moment when the melody moves upward, the chords start moving downward. In the past, I always used to think that you had to have a different chord progression for the verse and chorus. I saw an interview with Paul Simon where he said it was fun for him to try and use every chord in a key in the song. So if you got stuck, you could just start the next section of the song on a chord from the key that you haven't used yet. But I have always admired the music of the Smiths, who's chords repeat themselves over and over again during the course of a song, and Morrissey lays a different melody on top of it. They manage to carve the sections of the song out of the same material. Listen to How Soon Is Now? or Shoplifters Of The World Unite And Take Over. So I wondered what would happen if I sang my chorus over the same chords. Lo and behold, they worked! The only thing I did was substitute an A for the f# minor at the end of the phrase in order to make a slightly stronger movement back to E.

The lyrics came next. Here, I got off the piano, got out a clean sheet of paper and my rhyming dictionary, and started to sing to myself. The lyric on the cassette was:

Don't get caught up in your dreams my son
There's a world beyond
And it's yours

Well, you can see that they're a bit hokey. But I seemed completely unable to sing anything else over that melody. So I decided to go with it and see what I could come up with. Those are the lyrics for the chorus. So I started singing the verse, and I came up with:

Well I dreamt I saw the White Cliffs standing over me
With the Channel splashing sea spray in my face

I really liked that image, but again it was a bit hokey, I needed to bring it down to earth. Well, the line "aisle 3" for the word "me" kept coming up in my head. Suddenly, the story came into my head. This song would be about a Walter Middy kind of guy, who daydreams through his life. He's a simple guy who lives in the suburbs and commutes to his job at some SuperStore or other, but he has frequent hallucinations. I liked this idea because 1) I could take license with rather fantastical lyrics 2) that theme is in keeping with the next Parks & Recreation album's theme, which is all about the suburbs. So I came up with the next few lines to end that stanza:

Well I dreamt I saw the White Cliffs standing over me
With the Channel splashing sea spray in my face
But then someone yelled, and an endcap fell on aisle 3
And the cleanup stole my whole ten minute break

But I have to go right now. To be continued!