Don Nelson – Songwriting Tip (okay, it’s an essay!)

We put out a monthly songwriting tip to all of our mailing list. I hope you will sing up for it (just go to the “sign up” link on this page). Sometimes we get lengthy ones that are too good to cut down. Here is a recent lengthy one:

I’m pretty sure I met Don Nelson at a songwriting group called “Fertilizers”. I was invited by my friend Rob Maccabee who I’ve known for years from New Basics Brass Band, All Right Now, and hearing him play his amazing songs out everywhere. So I run into Don here and now and he always has amazing insight on songwriting. In fact, I think this guy was BORN to write songs. I haven’t had long conversations about it with him but I think it’s safe to say he loves to read and absolutely loves words. Without further adieu here is Don:

Songwriting Tips – Back Story

So…. this is such vast a subject – the “what”, the “why” and the “how” of writing a song. But for right now let’s set aside huge swaths of that territory and just talk about songs that tell a story or contain some kind of a narrative. Certainly there are millions of perfectly good (great!) and legitimate songs that do NOT really have any kind of narrative arc whatsoever – but let’s stick to ones that DO for now.

So… Once upon a time I saw a painting done in what I think is referred to as “Primitive” folk style. It was a painting of the earth from space – from low orbit – painted in thick rich oils – maybe applied with a putty knife instead of a brush. The earth was heavy and swollen with great slabs of deep blues and plums and greens; with sheets of copper and saffron deserts and mountains; and with creamy bands of scud clouds streaking across it.

The orb of the earth itself filled up most of the canvas but, (in sort of a quintessential folk primitive touch) in the upper left hand area of the picture; (off-world in deepest darkest space), the artist had painted these words in bright mustard yellow against the blackness: “Something wonderful happened here” I saw that painting literally 30 or more years ago but I still remember it fondly.

So… what the hell does this have to do with songwriting?

Well for me at least that’s sort of what I experience when writing a “story” or narrative type of song – at least a successful one. The melody (on a good day) provides slabs of deep blue and plum and green and ochre – the underpinnings of oceans and continents on which the story can rest – with clouds of rhythm stretched and skittering above and across it. The melody traces out some part of the world – my world – real or imagined. It doesn’t have to be a complicated melody – it just has to be solid enough (with the occasional tectonic shift of a bridge or key change) to allow the lyrics to stand without sinking into a cacophonic quicksand. And hovering above it all – and embedded firmly within it and sprouting upward– are the lyrics – that story that tells you: “Something happened here”.

Something wonderful… or terrible… or funny… or heart-breaking… or transcendent. But something! But the lyric doesn’t just tell you ABOUT the event – the lyrics shove you into the damn landing capsule in low orbit over the melody and then drop you into the thick of it. Right in the soup.

You get a quick look at things from above – maybe in the first verse where the dilemma is presented – and maybe that hovering perspective is re-visited during the bridge – but for the main body of the story you’ve got a machete and some flints and a canteen and are hacking your way through the trail of the narrative. Or you’re in a suave rented convertible – sunlit and windblown; cruising your way across melting pavement through the decadent scenery of the narrative. Or you’re in a leaky boat on a foggy night – crossing an ocean of circumstance to a perhaps unknown destination – maybe just some light in the distance. Maybe shoals of destruction. I guess it depends on the kind of story being told – but the main thing is – you are in the thick of it! You forget you are an audience. You forget you are you. (at least in the best circumstances – in the best stories).

So – what is it that happened? What is the story that IS happening? What is the story you want to tell? Let’s say it’s a story about lost love (always a popular theme) – some kind of a lament or a prayer or even a rueful laugh about missed opportunities. The narrative’s introduction – the geometry of the story – hovers in space – where it says in brilliant yellow letters: “Something happened here”.

What happened? “I lost this lover”.

Why? How?

Who was she (or he or whatever) that you have now lost?

Who are YOU?

Why should I care?

Why do YOU care?

So… for me at least – to help answer those kinds of questions and bring some life to the story – I almost always have some kind of a collection of found objects and artifacts  that create for me a Back Story. This is not necessarily a “hook” or any kind of a phrase I may actually use in the song. It’s the staging, the scenery, ambient lighting, and the player’s psychological report – that develops in my mind before and during the actual lyric writing process. The lyrics coalesce around that back-story. For me – the Back Story is the touchstone – that part I can go back to again and again to help navigate my way through the thickets of the narrative. It should be reliable – like the North Star. It should have its own integrity. It can change – but at least at the start it shouldn’t flicker around too much (unless perhaps THAT CONSTANT CHANGE – that flickering – is the point of the story – is at the root of the intention of the song.)

So… almost unconsciously I find that I think about all the small incidentals that surround the protagonist in the story, that lead up to or away from the event itself (a breakup or whatever) and the incidentals that surround the narrator of the story too – the “me” in other words. Am I lamenting? Am I waiting to be hanged? Am I just tired? Am I stupid and obviously not understanding some salient point that the story is conveying to the listener – in other words is the “joke” on me? Have I moved on to a new love? Will I make the same mistakes again and again? Have I learned something? Does anyone learn anything? The back-story floats in the back of my mind and inflects how the actual lyrical story transpires.  Again, I may not incorporate much if any of these tidbits into the song’s actual lyrics – But that’s not really their purpose. For me their purpose is to keep me true to the story – to guide me so I don’t wander off somewhere in the telling of it. These little bits of information help add dimension in the telling of the story – they help but make it more real for me – and hopefully more real for you too. The back story may contain minutia like: The lost love’s name – or her pet name (“butterfly”)  – or particulars about her appearance – especially some slight flaw or imperfection – (for it’s our flaws that give our characters more dimension – that make them more real – more believable – perfection is kind of boring).

Incidentals like: what kind of car she drove (hatchback? Beater? Alpha Romeo?); what’s spilled on its upholstery; where did she leave her ratty old forest green wool coat with the hole in its left pocket that’s filled with flecks of tobacco? What about the smarting hopeful smell of fresh paint on the porch; the sad sepia-yellowed lampshades in the dim living room where you and she used to make love; the dishes in the sink… Maybe there’s something she wrote in the dust of the mirror in the hall – something happy or sad or something about goodbye…. the catch in her voice… the face of the calico cat who stares up at you while you read the lover’s farewell note… the ticking of a clock. Cars and traffic washing by in the street outside. Your own breath. You are building a moment – an event – unfolding an event of some kind. It should feel as if it is occurring for the very first time in that moment of telling it – in this moment – it should be real and immediate and whole for you – no matter where in time the actual story takes place – the past – the present – or some distant future.

In the telling of the story it is happening RIGHT NOW! It’s happening to YOU right now – right as you tell it – right as you sing it – it’s as big a surprise to you as it is to anyone else – and with a little bit of luck it is happening right now to your surprised listener as well. So… sometimes that’s the goal. You are creating (for three minutes or whatever) an entire world where something happened – where something IS happening. You are plunging, immersing yourself and your listener into the atmosphere and immediacy of a real world, no matter how fantastic a world it may be – submersing into that world’s weather – its terrain – its topography – its flora and fauna – its emotions – its uncertainty.

You and your listener are going on a journey. It may be into outer space. It may be around the block. It may be to your lover’s red hair or the back of her neck. The minutia of a coherent back story can really help you paint that picture – replete with its oceans and canyons and dry, dry deserts – that picture that says “Something Happened Here”.

© 2017 Don Nelson

check out Don Nelson’s SoundCloud page here.