Wednesday, 18 July 2012

The Cowboy Special

I really, really want to do an update on All Of The Strands as well as something cool and amazing about the Turning Heads project, but wheels are turning and I don't want to post anything further until there's something more concrete to share.

So instead, I thought I'd begin a series giving some background to the songs we write. This one is about Tombstone, but I'm calling it:

The Cowboy Special
So one day, back when we had a band called Eye Opener, Tristan and I had a day off work and he came over to my place to hang. My wife and I were renting in St Marys (that’s a suburb in Australia for those of you who don’t know, and are wondering just how big Mary would be to have a house on her to rent) and our house was situated rather handily right on a main road that led to the industrial area. Compression braking trucks all night long. It was, however, incredibly convenient if you had a particular wish to be run over by 20 tons of haulage soaked in caffeine tablets and methamphetamine. 

We had the “office” (a loose term for the room with the computer, piano, all the boxes we still hadn’t unpacked from the last 2 moves, and any other junk I’d accumulated) right near the road, and Tristan and I were sitting on the piano stool and office chair tossing ideas around for songs while the trucks roared past. By “tossing” I mean “screaming over the sound of the traffic.”

Eye Opener was Tristan’s baby, really. People who don’t really know me are surprised by this fact, but I’m actually incredibly shy and enormously reticent to share something I’ve written unless someone else likes it, so I’d played music with him for almost a year before I even ventured a song forward. Being the kind of bloke he is, he was of course insanely supportive and encouraging and demanded I write more, and to remember that it was initially his project and his material, it showed an enormous lack of ego, which is also rare in the musical world.

Now, songwriting, as a collaborative process, is kind of like parliament. If you’ve got two sides who both represent the “people”, and both sides are politicians, the same as the other, you’d assume that at some point there would be both consensus and progress, but instead they sit and bitch about the other side, make snarky comments, and then go home not talking to each other. The same is true with musicians. You might be lucky enough to find guys who get your music and can build on it, and even that is rare, but when writing,  you’re trying to come up with two elements, a musical concept that conveys something, and then lyrics that the musical concept enhances. 
Trying to write lyrics with someone in that context means getting someone into the headspace where the music was composed and to understand both the emotion and the intent, and that’s nearly impossible.

Well, Tristan was the one person I’d played with who totally got it every time. So we were sitting down, two guitars out, and I was mucking around with a little guitar line on his guitar to see how it felt to play.

“You know what that sounds like?” he said.
“Like a Western movie or something?” I replied.
Totally. We should write some lyrics!”
“About a cowboy?”
“Riding to a town called Tombstone!”
“Oooooh, gold! And if it’s Tombstone, we could make it a twist ending, where he was dead all along!”
“And when he gets to the town, they’re all waiting for him, because they’re all dead too but he doesn’t understand what’s happening!”
“And it’s never night!”
“We have to fit the word ‘tumbleweed’ in there somewhere. And ‘sunset ride’ because that’s the last ride a cowboy does before he dies!”
“Oh, gold! Ok, so we’ll start with ‘been riding these hills...’”
“Gun by my side?”
“Nice. ‘Remembering days / when better men died’? Because it could be during the civil war or something?”
“And he’s died in a battle? Awesome. Now, ‘Just me alone, here on the plains’?”
“Nice, empty desert feel. ‘Looking for a small town / where someone knows my name’?”
“Done! Now, what do you reckon we have a line that sort of repeats as a consistent theme about Tombstone each time?”
“Oooooooh, you’re on fire. ‘In the distance, I see a Tombstone’?”
“‘And the names they had were their own!’ Like, it’s outside the town and the name of the residents is on there ‘cos they’re all dead? But he doesn’t get it yet?”
“HA! Ok, second verse! ‘Their empty streets’...”
“‘Reminders of home.’”
“‘I see tumbleweeds...’”
“Ha! You fit it in! ‘And they set the tone.’”
“‘The sun, it beats down,’”
“‘I’m burnt by the light,’”
“‘I long for the cool’... we need to get him wondering why it’s always sunny and hot.”
“‘Has it ever been night?’”
“Ok, so now he’s in the town and needs to catch on. ‘The town, its name was Tombstone...’”
“‘And it seemed I was well known?’”
“Nice! Two verses down! Third verse! How about the town people come out and surround him and, like, welcome him but it kind of creeps him out?”
“Genius! ‘Faces appeared, the dust stung my eyes,’”
“‘I said I’m just here for some supplies’?”
“Cool! ‘They said to me, son, I do believe,’”
“‘That once you’re here, you’ll find you never leave?’”
“Perfect! Now the twist! ‘Then I turned, and saw a tombstone...’”
“‘And the name inscribed was my own!’”
“Siiiiiiiiiiiiiiiick! Ok, then we can drop it down for the final verse. Like his warning to other cowboys or something.”
“Yeah, but he’s dead. Maybe he can join the town and welcome the new people or something.”
“‘So if you ride / alone on the plains,’”
“‘If you see Tombstone, remember the name,’”
“‘It’ll welcome you in, don’t try and hide’,”
“‘For this will be your sunset ride!’ We found a spot for it!’”
“Awesome! Let’s sort of repeat the first chorus line now.”
“But, instead of ‘their own’, we can put ‘our own’ because he’s now a part of it.”
“Perfect! ‘In the distance, you’ll see a tombstone, and the names inscribed are our own.’”
“Done! How long did that take?”
“Ten minutes.”

As I said, songwriting is all about emotional content and connection. Except when it’s about a stupid idea you both build on.

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