Riker's Mailbox

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Biography of a Song - "The Tin Knight"


Ever since my participation in Spintunes #1, I've been writing song bios to accompany my entries. I've actually been doing it for this Spintunes as well, but I have yet to publish a single one of them... in round 1 I just didn't have the time to sit down and write the bio I wanted to in time for the judges to read it. It's still sitting there in my drafts folder, almost-complete.

It got worse when I promised myself that I would publish my bios in order, so when round 2 came, I felt the need to finish my round 1 bio before I could release the 2nd one. And if I didn't have time to get one done, I certainly didn't have time to get two done.

Well, given the circumstances, I've given up on that goal of getting these done in time in order to bang this one out as a last-ditch effort to salvage any good will from the judges. I really didn't expect to be in the running this far into the contest, but from the look of things there's enough of a chance that I could make the cut for round 4, so I'd be doing a disservice to myself and to my competitors if I didn't do everything in my power to take the best shot I can.

Since I feel like my submission suffered from a lack of attention during its creation, I'm especially compelled to write about it here. So here goes.

The Song Bio

As I'm wont to say, this round kicked my ass. Not on account of the challenge itself, but on account of the circumstances in my life outside the contest - I had just completed the move into my new apartment, and the Lightbulb Mouth Radio Hour had been brought back from its indefinite hiatus - which meant I was to resume my role as guitarist for the Write Bloody House Party 2 Band. So this past week I had to try to write for Spintunes while splitting my time between my job, unpacking, and practicing for the new show... which came back on the evening our round 3 submissions were due.

But I'm not writing here to ask for sympathy or leniency - I'm just putting my submission into context. These circumstances were the reasons why this song (and my songs for rounds 1 and 2, for that matter) wasn't one of the full-production prog rock tracks I used to deliver. If I expected to get anything submitted to the contest, it was gonna be one-guy-one-guitar or it was gonna be nothing.

The Music

This guitar part for this song was inspired by a piece of wedding music I wrote for my best friend last summer. I needed a jumping-off point because of the time constraints, and this particular piece had a mood that was equal parts 'upbeat' and 'pretty', and I knew that I wanted my story to have a certain heart-wrenching aspect to it. There's nothing I love more than pairing sad stories with upbeat, pretty music.

I came up with a few snippets of strung-together chords using my patented hunt-and-peck technique, identified in my own mind as 'low', 'medium', and 'high', for their relative ranges in the scale. For reference, the 'low' phrase is the one that mirrors my "I'm a tin knight too" lyric.

To give the ear a little something extra to process, I staggered each part such that every time I played 'low' I was accenting my chords on the downbeat (1 and 2 and 3 and 4), but when I played 'medium' and 'high' I accented them between the beats (1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and). The parts sound more or less the same when heard individually, but there's a neat syncopation that only becomes apparent when I transition into or out of the 'low' section. The verse is a semi-random sequence of the 'low', 'medium' and 'high' sections, interspersed with a few held-out measures of a single chord from the 'low' section. I always start and finish the verse with 'low' as well - it's really the anchor of the song.

For the chorus, I simply took the chord progression of the 'low' section and strummed it out, except instead of resolving back to the first chord at the end, I kept climbing up the scale. Taking us out of the chorus is another appearance of the 'low' section, but with a minor inversion on the last chord - it's the only place where I let the music break character and hint at the dark tone of the story, and it always comes in after the child speaks. I'll describe this in greater detail in the lyrics section.

Anyway, once I had my individual parts constructed, I had the task of building the overall shape of the song. Typically when I write, I compose all my musical parts first and then I write all my lyrics. This tells me how many times a certain part needs to be played before I transition into the next part. It's a step that I can never skip because I rarely write multiple verses or choruses to be the same length as each other. You might say that I write invisible bridges. They extend the song and convey a little more information/emotion, but they sound just like the verse I'm coming out of or the chorus I'm going into. Regardless of my reasoning and excuses, it means that I have to take great care in counting out the number of times "part 1" gets played before "chorus 1", etc.

Here's where it gets interesting. I had a hell of a time coming up with my actual story. I was writing so much, but I was writing around such large holes and they were keeping me from getting any kind of coherent lyric together, that I knew that I wouldn't have time to finish the song if I waited to record the guitar until after the lyrics were finished. I promptly said "fuck it", rolled the dice and recorded a guitar part that consisted of some indeterminate length of each part. I set the length of the song in stone and then subjected myself to an exercise of lyrical pigeonholing.

The Lyrics

This challenge was very cool, and really imaginative. I'm pretty comfortable with myself as a lyricist, and I knew I wasn't going to have too much trouble doing whatever I decided to do, once I actually decided what it was going to be. That, of course, was the hard part. I toyed with the idea of restricting myself to fewer than seven letters; I'm super glad I didn't take that path, for the obvious reason that Edric Haleen did it better than anybody else could have. Ultimately, I decided to go in the opposite direction, writing lyrics that only began with seven letters but sounded like they utilized many more.

By picking the four consonants C, K, T, and W, I was able to produce ten vocalizations:

'K' or hard 'C': kid, cool
'Ch': chosen
'S': cinch
'N': knot
'T': treaty
hard 'Th': these
soft 'Th': thin
'W': winter
'R': wrong
'H': whole

That left me with three spaces for the vowels I knew I'd need to keep things flowing smoothly. A, I, and O gave me what I needed. After these letters were picked, I started a list for each letter and every spare moment I had, I'd add whatever words I could think of under each one. As the list grew, I hoped for a pattern to emerge.

Maybe it's the fact that I'm reading A Game Of Thrones right now, but after a while I noticed a recurring theme in the words that were being appended to the list: knight, king, castle, witch, wizard, armor, chainmaille, etc.

I could read the writing on the wall, as it were... time to write an olde medieval tale.

And I wrote like a maniac. I came up with pages and pages of really cool phrases that I was very proud of. But they just couldn't seem to fit together. I had the idea of 'the tin knight' pretty early on - a Quixotic character that was brave and big-hearted, but looked like a mess. His armor wouldn't be shiny and impressive, and he'd be largely disregarded by the people until a moment of heroism made them take notice. Typical unlikely/underappreciated hero stuff. But no matter how much I came up with, I couldn't wrangle any of these segments into a narrative.

I had eventually realized that I was going to crash and burn without some scaffolding to help piece these things together, so I wrote a short story for my protagonist, using it as an outline for the song. My original intention was to introduce a larger cast of lead characters - the King, the Wizard, the Widow, the Tin Knight, and the Child. I was going to describe each of them and show how all but the child had disregarded the knight, since his youth and naivete insulated him from the cynicism that comes with age. And then a giant monster attacks the city and the knight saves everyone. But he dies in the process. Everyone is happy to be saved but sad that they treated their hero so poorly, etc. etc.

Had I not already locked myself into the confines of a 2 1/2 minute piece of music, I'd have written the full version of the song and if you pressed 'play' at 8pm Monday, you would probably still be listening to it now; we'd be somewhere around verse 243. But I only had those 2 1/2 minutes to work with, so I stripped it down to its most essential parts and started a fresh set of lyrics. I had the idea for the child to idolize the knight, and to imagine that he was the knight himself. The "I'm a tin knight too" hook sprung from this and the chorus is an extension of the child playing make believe, conquering his fears and his nightmares.

The chorus was written first, and the chorus vocals were recorded Saturday night at 4am. I slept from 4-8am Sunday and then had two chunks of song to fill with lyrics. Verse 1 had to contain the entire opening act, and verse 2 had to contain the climax and conclusion. I was going to have to fit a lot of story into a little space, and I knew that I'd over-write myself and run out of space if I started from the beginning.

In order for the story to carry any emotional weight, I needed all the room I could mange to finish each verse strong. Ending each verse properly was going to take a fixed amount of space, but the details leading up to the conclusion (like the length of the knight's battle) didn't have such a need. So, I literally wrote the verses backwards line by line, starting at the conclusion of verse 2 and finishing with my opening phrase.

This also explains the odd cadence of my vocals - the first half of each verse is a run-on sentence because the last half was well-structured and already stuffed into place... and past a certain point I ran out of remaining words to remove.

The end result is a darker story than it lets on at first listen. It's not really a tale about the knight at all, it's a story about how little we understand of the world when we're young, and how that affects us - both for the better and for the worse. In the child's mind, he's going to be every bit as much a hero as the tin knight. And he's uniquely uninfluenced by the knight's shoddy appearance. To that child, the knight is the prototypical Force For Good: noble and unassailable. It's a beautiful thing, that children can see the shine and be blind to the tarnish. It's a characteristic we tend to lose as we age. Of course, there is truth in that tarnish. Death is a horrible, horrible fact of life. We find it easy to make promises when we're unaware of the consequences.

When I was about six years old, the heavy plaster ceiling in our living room developed a large crack, and my dad told me that it was going to fall the next day. I looked up at him and told him not to worry; I'd just stand under the crack and catch the ceiling, and hold it up while he fixed it. I was barely 3 and a half feet tall, but I saw no obstacle in that. I could fix the problem by standing there with my arms up; I was absolutely sure of it. And I was really disappointed when my dad told me I couldn't help. Had I had my own way, not only would I have come up about six feet short of holding that ceiling in place, the falling plaster would have crippled me.

The townspeople can find a small reprieve from their dismay in the child's naive enthusiasm, but they know, even though the child doesn't, that there's truly no one to protect them any longer. The child can promise himself and everyone around him that he'll be the next tin knight, but he's holding up a ceiling he can't reach.