Riker's Mailbox

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Biography of a Song - "My Daughter"

Okay. If you're here you most likely know me, and at least have some vague idea, thanks to a relentless barrage of twitter and facebook messages, that: 1. I'm in a songwriting contest, and 2. I use twitter and facebook messages way too much for your taste.

Oh, holy poop. This one was a doozie. Another round of SpinTunes is behind me, so it's time for another song bio. The song, if you haven't heard it, is available for listening here: http://spintown.bandcamp.com/track/my-daughter

Also, people should go to http://spintunes.blogspot.com and vote for their three favorite songs. The votes are incredibly important this round; only 2 people are left competing as this round closes, but alternates may need to be chosen for the final battle, and who is selected depends on popular vote.

The Round #3 Challenge

"Happy to Sad in 4 Seconds". They fucking meant it. We were to write a song about birth, normally a joyous occasion... but we were to make it a real tear-jerker. Now, I'm a generally positive guy. I'm pretty damn upbeat. I don't write sad songs. When I try to write sad songs, they end up being paradoxically happy-sounding. But... once I got over the initial "Hrrg. How am I gonna write a sad sad song?"...I realized my incredible good fortune and got right to work.

First off, I loved the specificity of this topic; the fastest route to writer's block is a wide-open road. Being tightly focused meant I could design the song from the get-go and not waste any time thinking about what the hell I was gonna write. In fact, quite the opposite to the last song, my hook and melody were in my head as I was driving home from the wine bar, again,* and music would be applied later. The song was formed and the story laid out and I rested easy for the week.

Second, I mentioned incredible good fortune earlier. Lemme e'splain...

...no, will take too long; lemme sum up**:

A lot of you involved in the contest are hearing my music for the first time, and so far, you've only been exposed to schizophrenic prog-rock. This is a style of music that only started coming out of me recently. I have a much longer history with other very different styles. I used to play in a bar band. We used to play in an Irish Pub, owned by real actual Irish people. I'm a good part Irish. Irish folk music is in my blood, man. Some of my favorite music to play. I've secretly wanted to do an Irish folk song since the beginning of SpinTunes, but the challenges as I envisioned them just didn't lend themselves to the genre.


Whose music is incredibly well suited to long-form storytelling? Whose music has the capacity for soul-rending heartache? Whose music is not laced with twang and pickup trucks***?

The fucking Irish, that's who.

Round 3 was a gift. I finally got to change gears, and you'll notice I did *everything* differently this time.

The Song Bio

In Rounds #1 and #2, I took chances topically and musically in an effort to be seen as a creative, out-of-the-box thinker. I thought that would give me a leg up against so many competitors that were more experienced than me. It seemed to work on half the judges, and work poorly on the other half, thereby leaving me comfortably, but not impressively, in the middle of the pack. So I knew that if I wanted a chance to get anywhere near the upper half, I would have to hit this topic head-on; besides, if you're going for full-frontal saddity, you don't want to distract from the sadness with cleverness. it would... you know, distract from the sadness...

One thing that adds to sadness, I've learned, is doubt. Negatives have an ironic tendency to feed back positively upon each other, so I knew this song would need a good bit of ambiguity in its lyrics. Since my hook gave away the fact that the daughter was indeed born, I needed to introduce doubt as to whether the sadness was going to come from a tragic loss of another, or from his own failure to be a father or to want to assume the task of fatherhood at all.

The lines she was far more ready than I and would she read blame in my eye were there to force the listener to be a little unsure of who he really cared about. I think he wanted his wife that he already knew and loved, just a little more than he wanted to have a child. Especially regarding the 'blame' lyric.

I struggled with this in particular, because I knew it needed to be included, but I didn't want to detach the listener from the father. This song thrives on empathy, and any concept that breaks your feelings for the character would take you right out of it. But in itself, the idea of blame is a very strong one. We know it's possible that the daughter could apply blame to herself once she understands the circumstances of her birth. So with a positive spin, that lyric about her reading blame in her father's eye could be seen as him worrying that she'll read too much into his eyes, and he can't bear to think of the pain it would cause her to blame herself for her mother's death.

The negative spin, of course, is that human minds are nasty things, and I promise that everyone who goes through something like this will be shocked and disgusted to have at least one thought that they would hate themselves for having. A brain cannot simply shut down its recognition engines when approaching a sensitive subject, and therefore it's inevitable that at some point, a father in the circumstances of the song will recognize that his child's birth was responsible for the loss of his wife. As distasteful as it is to say, and I think this adds to the sadness of the situation, is that the father can obviously love his daughter with all his heart, but on some level recognize that a small part of him does blame her for his loss. He hopes he will be able to hide it, so she doesn't read it in his eyes when the talk finally happens.

My closing lines were included out of necessity in my mind; in the song, I made a choice that some people might find odd: I skipped over the actual death of the mother. You'd think this would be the best place to draw out the tears, and I had indeed written lyrics that covered this part of the story... but my song was already approaching seven minutes in length and I knew I couldn't cut any other parts without seriously reducing the integrity and coherency of the song. So I included the last part as a little epilogue, to allow the listener to go back and fill-in the details: the mother survived the birth itself, and got to meet her daughter before the complications took her life. They had, for a heart-breakingly temporary moment, been a family.

Way to twist the fucking knife, Kev.

The Music

There's not nearly as much to say in this section, as the song is very uncomplicated. I love layering sounds and I love harmonies, but none of that seemed appropriate for a song that's designed to convey the loneliness of loss, so I made an early decision not to harmonize at all, and use a bare minimum of instruments. I actually had a cheap bodhran in my bedroom, a leftover from the bar band days; the skin was coming loose from one side and it was a little floppy, but it was close enough to functional to do the job I needed. But, despite being a far simpler song than my previous efforts, this was the first one that required me to place a call for outside help. There was one instrument I really needed to seal the deal.

Sidney Robert Brown is one of my best friends****, and is a former bandmate from the bar band days I spoke of above. He played darts at the bar when I was just playing music there with a couple friends, but our band started expanding as we focused our intentions a little more. He was introduced to me just as 'Rob'. It came up that he was a bit of a fiddle player. With that, we incorporated him into the band.

Before we all really got to know him personally, we always just referred to him as "fiddlin' Rob", and... true story - To this day, even though we've been great pals for years and his name is Sid Brown, he's still listed in my phone as "Rob Fidlin".

Anyway, as soon as I got the challenge I called Sid up and told him I was going to use him in my song. He was excited, I was excited, and we banged out the entire thing on the Saturday before the deadline. It was really fun to collaborate on a project, and that was the one thing that kept me going through the process, because, if I didn't mention it before... this song really fucked me up. It was hard to write, it was hard to record... not logistically, but emotionally. I cursed myself for coming up with distasteful ideas. I cried thinking about what I was writing. I still cry when I hear the song. But working with Sid was fun and immensely enjoyable. It allowed me to finish.

If I manage to make the cut and get into the finals here, I owe a lot to Sid. Thanks, buddy. May the Force be with you.*****

* - Just because I'm at the wine bar EVERY TIME a challenge is revealed does not mean I'm a lush.
** - HALLO!!! (yadda yadda yadda) Prepare to die.
*** - Damn, Country... you were thiiiiiiis close...
**** - and in another recent matter of convergence, he's also a co-founder of www.starwarsvsstartrek.com
***** - see previous footnote.


  1. AWWWWW!! :') Thanks buddy! I had a GREAT time too. We need to do it again.

  2. I enjoyed (if that's the right word) your song and the bio here with your process. I particularly appreciated the moment in the song where the father has to choose. That seemed to me to add an extra level of both pathos and originality to your story. Thanks for sharing it all.

    Mark a.k.a. OHB

  3. Cheers, Mark! Thanks for stopping by to check it out; I've always been impressed by the amount of thought and development you put into your songs, so I appreciate the compliment! It's been a blast competing with you!

  4. Anonymous1:25 AM

    First time I listened to this it brought tear, and me wondering "wait a sec- where did we get a real IRISH guy from? Kevin? That's Kevin? But-but- HE doesn't have an Irish accent!"
    Listened again today before voting (before reading this, too)...this time tears PLUS an electric shock up my arms and back to my head. Kind of like chills but slightly more painful. Way to painfully wring out a persons heart there, Kev...
    Final comment- Wow!