June 18th, 2012

The Clouds: “We Make the Rain”

By Bart J Helms

YouTuber drbrink has uploaded video of us performing “The Clouds” (along with many more songs) at Mojo’s in Columbia, Missouri. We’ve been playing “The Clouds” on stage since Big John Fest last December, but it still feels new to me because we’re constantly working on it. (Lately it’s been adding dynamic builds and vocal harmonies, but the bridge is forever under construction too.)

Last August we performed at a wedding on a farm in Northeast Indiana. There was a beautiful, positive vibe all night even with a storm passing through midway through our set. So of course we stayed far too late. Zach’s mom’s house was a few miles away, so the four of us drove there to sleep an hour or two before dawn. When we woke, Lyndsy and I had to head back to the farm. I don’t remember what we talked about on the drive, but whatever was said in combination with the night before left me feeling positive and encouraged. On the way back, I began to write “The Clouds”

One of the good things about living somewhere flat is the sky. Outside of town, you can see for miles around. On this particular day, there was another storm system in the distance. The rain mostly missed us, but we still got to see the beautiful storm clouds rolling by.


Photo by efilpera. (The photo is of Italy, so imagine smaller hills.)

Ordinarily, it’s hard to appreciate the size of clouds. Something about the light that day made these clouds appear massive, like the tumbling mountains of mist they are. As we cruised past fields and farmhouses, it felt like we were moving with the clouds. That we were more a part of that world than the one down here. It was an electric feeling, so I had to capture it in song.

I tried my best to get light and dark to play well together in the chords, but I’m happiest with the structure of the lyrics, as simple as it is. The first stanza was what I wrote on that drive. Though it could be the opening of any blues song, I knew from the start that the rest of the song would have to bring in some emotional depth. The line “we make the rain” was really important to me. Acknowledging responsibility, not waiting for a “big break”,  and accepting consequences seem to be major themes of doing creative work in the 21st century. The final lines are of course an invitation to everyone to go make their own thing. So long as you remember there’ll be some rain and thunder on the way.

The Clouds

My baby and me are like the clouds
We breeze on by,
And I know we might seem rather proud
As we drift high above the crowd.
But comprehend we’ve got the simplest of needs:
A home wide as the unbuttoned sky.
The wild world for our roots,
We’re the mountains that move
Fenced by neither lease nor deed.

I found a fiddle on a shelf
Untouched in an age.
The color left my cheeks where I knelt
In fear that I gazed on myself.
The bow is meant to marry the string.
The shoe meant to rattle the stage.
It’s as grievous as plain
If a nature’s abstained,
If like a ghost a life passes unseen.

All the people chide,
“Won’t you come inside?”
But we make the rain.
You see, we make the rain.

Why can’t we all be like the clouds?
We’ll breeze on by.
The wild world for our roots,
We’re the mountains that move
Fenced by neither lease nor deed.
So disconnect and expel,
Kick your umbrella farewell,
And if you ramble, come ramble with me.
Yeah, if you thunder, come thunder with me.

May 18th, 2012

Sound Sound Sound: Writing Geeky Songs without the Novelty

By Bart J Helms

I like clever songs. Silly songs. Novelty songs. I’ve attempted to write many such songs. I believe making someone laugh is one of the most important things you can do in life. But at some point in the last few years, sitting at the piano to pull together a new song began to feel weighty. If we were going to perform it night after night, it felt essential that each song mean something.

The two traditional routes were out. I’ve never been a fan of confessional songwriting, and End Times is a diverse bunch politically. But there is at least one thing we do all stand behind: science. Not just as a collection of facts about cool things, but as Ann Druyan put it:

It is a great tragedy that science, this wonderful process for finding out what is true, has ceded the spiritual uplift of its central revelations: the vastness of the universe, the immensity of time, the relatedness of all life, and life’s preciousness on our tiny planet.

Take a look at this Hubble ultra deep field photo.
The Hubble Ultra Deep Field
To the naked eye, that patch of sky is a void between visible stars, one tiny patch of black in the sky, but when you look closer you find countless worlds. This is the world we live in. How can that not affect your views? Yet it’s difficult to find songs that express this.

That’s the realization that struck while I was struggling with a song about the more harmful branches of pseudoscience (the anti-vaccination movement in particular). I’d hoped to write something clever, but it was hard to shake off my rage and keep it light. On my coffee table was a copy of Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan’s The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. It made me think about the great statement attributed to Sagan (though apparently unsourced): “Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.” I decided I was having trouble because I wasn’t saying what I meant: that the world is far more interesting and worthy of exploration than most of the drama we invent.

Here’s an mp3 of us playing it live on WDVX’s Blue Plate Special back in March. The lyrics are below.

Sound Sound Sound (live)

We’ve been playing “Sound” live since December, but we’re still polishing it. I hope you enjoy this take, and maybe some day we’ll have a studio version.

Thanks for reading this. I hope to write more song explications like this as we begin to work them into the live set and make demos.

Sound Sound Sound

The world speaks as you and I speak
The starry seas, the tidal leaves parley together.
Syllable by syllable its coda repeats
Through peaceful eves or stormy weather.
So why does the music of last month’s newspapers
Pull on your heartstrings so much greater?
Put down that megaphone I do insist
And turn, yes, turn upon the abyss of…

Sound, sound everywhere
And not a drop of meaning,
Chitchat shed with idle care
While donning profound seeming.
Somewhere something incredible
Is waiting to be known,
Signals lost within the lull
Uncertain, faint, alone.

Listen to the stars
On the backyard radio.
Their blips and squeals have meaning
Above, beyond “Hello.”

Someone’s whispers interfere
With unattended thoughts.
Nonsense flitters lips to ear,
And great unknowns are lost.

This accelerating world
Will leave you trembling, pale.
There’s no escape from dreaming
When you let go of the stale.

Someone’s whispers interfere
With unattended thoughts.
Nonsense flitters lips to ear,
And great unknowns are lost.

Whereof one can’t speak,
Silent one must be

October 6th, 2011

Finishing (On Songwriting)

By Bart

While the SpasmVan cruised north along I-69 for the hundredth time and Zach and Eric bobbed heads to Miles Davis up font, Lyndsy and I sat in the back and talked songwriting. She described her pile of partial songs needlessly gathering dust, and I admitted to having such scraps of my own. I think most songwriters have a folder or notebook filled with the same. Each song consists of a good line here, a satisfactory verse there, or maybe just an idea expressed hastily. Each midway between the idea pile and the first demo. Whenever we revisit them, we find our last attempt to bring the song to a close too weak or – attempting again – we find ourselves unable to summon the right words.

I was in a good state of mind to talk about these things with Lyndsy because last week I forced myself to stamp “Finished” onto four songs for End Times. This always feels like a major accomplishment because there’s often a big gap between the beginning and end for me. Months even. Up to a year in some cases. Since forming End Times, I’ve tried to become more aware of my own songwriting process, and have come to realize that there are two major reasons for the delay in my case.

1. Waiting for Inspiration

The American notion of creativity celebrates the individual who’s spontaneous, who creates because they must, who creates in a frenzy of passion. We picture Kerouac writing furiously at his typewriter surrounded by coffee cups and ash trays. We don’t picture the years of editing that came after the first draft of On the Road. Sitting down at a piano to clock in at 9 am and force yourself to compose doesn’t sound like songwriting to most of us, even those of us who know how many songs really are written that way. I think our contemporary notion of inspiration is very demotivating that way.

When facing an unfinished song, it’s easy to tell yourself that you’re just not inspired today and that maybe you will be tomorrow. This is true on occasion, but generally it’s not productive. I find it really is better to make a genuine effort to write regardless of how “creative” you feel. If the day’s work doesn’t meet your expectations, it can always be unwritten. Still, even believing this, to put that first new word to paper is a tough hurdle, but I’ve found a few tricks to help.

Combining partial songs. We decided that the song “My Dear So-And-So” was missing something. After struggling and failing to come up with anything appropriate, I looked through my unfinished pile and found a song that was clearly going nowhere. Its themes were very similar, so I cut out the best parts and made them into the introduction to “My Dear.”

Make a thematic checklist. When a song is meant to be part of a much larger project (like an album or musical), it’s unlikely that the song fragment has touched on all the major themes of the larger work. Reviewing the songs I’ve been working on, I noticed two major themes developing, and when I next looked at a song missing a second verse, I realized it only touched on one of them. The second verse was written almost instantly once I figured out how to add the second theme.

Make a list of simple alternatives. I don’t know of a list like Wally Wood’s 22 Panels That Always Work for songwriting, but I wish I did. I’ve long tried to develop my own, but I sometimes find that keeping things like fake books works toward the same end when it comes to chords and melodies. When I have one idea and need a second to get a song out of it, I sometimes look at what others have done in the same situation. This often happens with bridges and B-sections, and I’ll just run through a bunch of familiar ideas in the hopes that one will work. My go-to lyric-writing equivalent would be The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, but I’m not afraid to compile a list of rough ideas used by a few favorite songwriters (I find Morrissey and Paul Simon are particularly good at starting in one place and ending in another).

Find a partner. This one feels a bit like cheating, but when you have three talented musicians sitting around waiting on you, it’s silly not to ask them for help. Lyndsy finished “Frustrating Baby” and “Even a Red Hot Mama Gets the Blues,” when I realized all they really needed was a fresh perspective. A similar thing sometimes happens with Zach (usually when I’m stuck on writing a bridge or B-section again). He’s good at throwing out such random ideas that they almost always make me think outside my box.

2. Waiting for Perfection

Having taught writing, I’m big on editing. Most professionals will tell you that’s where the real writing happens. I don’t think it’s any different for songwriting, but sometimes it’s the editing process that bogs down a song. This can happen near the end or in the middle, when self-editing arrests the progress of that final verse. Before words hit the paper, there are so many possibilities for where a song could go, so many ideas and references to be included. When I get down to those last few lines, the pressure to include all those ideas makes any choice feel inadequate. This continues into editing. I tell myself that if only I could find the right word to change, I could convey the meaning more fully or more compactly.

I’ve realized that a song is really finished when I start making changes like the above that I later revert. Perfection isn’t shifting stacks of papers around on a desk. When a song reaches a state where I’m waffling over something as small as a word, I know I need to declare it finished.

It helps that an End Times song will go through a few stages before it’s performed on stage and again before it’s recorded. While demoing it out, I can tell myself that “this isn’t real, this doesn’t count.” I hear a lot of writers do the same, and that this is why author Neil Gaiman writes his first drafts with pen and paper: each decision feels less permanent given that the work will necessarily be edited when typed for the first time.

I also find it beneficial to work on a few songs simultaneously. If I bring one song to the band, the fear that it might not work is powerful. If I bring three songs to the band, it doesn’t matter if any one of them isn’t perfect yet: we’ll figure out what’s wrong together, put it aside, and focus on the other two.

August 10th, 2011

Songwright eBook (2nd Ed.)

By Bart

I’ve updated my contribution to the Songwright 10 Tips for Songwriters ebook.

June 20th, 2010

Songwright ebook

By Bart

Along with 17 other songwriters, Bart added 10 of his songwriting tips to a new ebook:10 Tips for Songwriters ebook, published by Songwright.

August 24th, 2009

Medea

By Bart

A few songs before the debut of “Wake Up Bix” last week, we played another song live for the first time: “Medea.” Here’s a video that explains the first verse:

Peter Ward’s TEDTalk on mass extinctions:

Why write songs about extinction events? The only things I can think of that are more dramatic than that are star formation and star death. Like a good creation myth, the oxygen catastrophe is a story of why we’re here and why there’s suffering in the world.

For how the third verse ties in, I recommend you look up the Lars von Trier film Medea over any starring Tyler Perry.

Lyrics:
A long long time before you were even here
Before your ancestors landed on these shores
The whole world suffocated on something in the air
But it overtook them so slowly they kept on making more
There were green things and brown things growing endlessly
Spilling out their toxins into air and into sea
Every word I’m telling you is true
So please believe me when I say that all of this created you

You can’t divide everything without leaving a remainder
You can’t boil cabbage without splitting a few heads
There’s just so much that you can wrap around your brain, dear
So few hours we aren’t asleep inside our beds
If you’re not part of the solution, you’re the precipitate
Even if you swear to change, the hour’s growing late
Every word I’m telling you is true
So please believe me when I say that this applies you

In ancient Greece there was a man who had a golden fleece
He had a wife and kids but decided to send them back
The first wife she wept and wailed and couldn’t find no peace
For revenge she took her kids aside for a fade to black
The people speak in horror of this woman going mad
But deep inside each one of us is a Medea who’s been had
Every word I’m telling you is true
So believe me when I say that this could happen to you

August 18th, 2009

Wake Up Bix

By Bart

People are asking about our song “Wake Up Bix.” Here’s an explanation.

The above is from Ken Burns’ Jazz. When I saw that again (and watched the bioflick Bix), I knew I had to write a song. His trumpet has become one of the sounds I hear in my head when I’m writing music. (If only I could write to match his ability! Especially in phrasing.)

The lyrics:

Wake up, Bix
If you don’t
Want to miss another minute of this
Open up your eyes
Shake away that sleep
And pull yourself in from the deep
Second fiddle’s
Not such a drag
You know most of us live in the middle
Confess your fear
To the open sea
And realize it ain’t better to leave

Some will settle
Some will bend
Some will let the very road take the pedal
But not you
You’re head is strong
Even though you might be wrong
But one hair
Can always break
The back of the mule unprepared
So please let
A friend take some weight
After all you might find they relate

Wake up, Bix
So you won’t
Ever miss another minute of this
Don’t be afraid
Don’t be scared
Don’t worry ’bout how you compare
You can’t always
Be the best
But you still have to live one more day
Keep your feet dry
And when you’re okay
You’ll realize that you want to stay