I was sitting down one night over a few drinks with my good friend, John Mitchell, talking about music, poetry and soccer when the subject of song lyrics and song writing came up. At that point in the evening where the power of drink makes every idea seem like a good one, John suggested that we should write a song together. John is a successful professional musician and I am a chemical engineer and occasionally published poet, so I have to admit I felt a bit out of my league, but I agreed anyway!
Over the next few days, I pulled out some poems I had hanging around but none of them really fitted the bill given that they were basically non rhyming free verse. I had a phrase, though, – “sitting in this motel room/ I could be sitting anywhere”- and I started to develop a character and story around that phrase. The final lyric eventually became the song, “Emma Jean”, which you can take a listen to below. It’s a long way from words on paper to a finished song, and that’s where John’s talent as a singer, song writer, composer, musician and arranger took over (in other words, John did the heavy lifting!). Here’s the song, please, please use headphones to listen rather than just your computer’s speakers, the song is mixed with headphones in mind.
In the end John and I collaborated on 5 songs which, together with 2 songs written by John alone, we have put together on an album.
Click here to preview the whole album, and if you like the songs, buy one, buy them all!! Also available on iTunes (search for “The Mitchell Feeney Project”, no hyphen)
A few notes about the song “Emma Jean”, it was obvious from the start that this would be a country song, it’s about divorce, separation, there’s a child involved, and what could be more country than that? But I wanted to avoid formula, so the story took a twist, at the end, that perhaps disqualifies it as a mainstream modern country song, but hey, never pander! Initially, the song didn’t have the middle two verses, being more accustomed to writing poetry where my rule is “say what you have to say with as few words as possible”, I thought I had said enough. But songs need verses and John told me to flesh it out a bit, so I came up with the lines “Who know why love goes wrong/ It’s not written anywhere” and took it from there. John was right of course, the extra verses created context. Now…over to John!
Writing lyrics for me, is about as easy as giving birth, not that I have experience of both. My lyrics are either incredibly self indulgent or incredibly preachy, or a bit of both. The ability to paint pictures with words is truly an amazing gift and I appreciate that gift in others. My favourite lyricists tell stories and take us to another place and time or share experiences through someone else’s eyes. When I first read Jim’s poem, Emma Jean, I could see that motel room and I could smell the mixture of stale beer and carpet cleaner that is the telltale odour of cheap motels. I recognise it from years on the road with bands.
In the case of “Emma Jean”, the music came quickly. First, it had to be in a minor key, as the story was fairly dark and the background music needed to be sparse with minimal instruments so as not to interfere with the lyrics – just guitar, a little bass, and a touch of southern slide. The vocal tries to express how Emma Jean’s dad would feel in that hotel room – loneliness with a good helping of bitterness. I then wanted to use different instruments to accent the chorus, so I added accordion and trombone and orchestral cymbals. The acoustic guitar( a Larrivee D-50) and vocal are all real, but all the other sounds are digital samples. I recorded it all on my laptop using the program, Logic, and mixed the tunes for headphones to hear the full spectrum of instruments.
As Jim noted above, please use headphones to listen to the sample track above or plug into a good set of speakers.
In our next post, John and I will discuss another track on the album.
Well done! Occasionally people who discover that I’m a poet, but who haven’t read my poetry, ask if I’ve ever thought about setting the poems to music. 🙂 Some of them don’t understand the differences between lyrics and poetry, and the difficulties of moving from one form to the other. You’ve made the crossing!
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Thank you for that, Robert, much appreciated!
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Amazing – I tried to do this with my brother who is an accomplished musician/producer and after he read my poetry he said he couldn’t work with any of my ‘stuff’. He did recommend a good shrink. I am suitably impressed with how your efforts turned out!
Thank you, much appreciated, I’v found that song lyrics require a lot more space, and less compression than a poem. If you start with a poem, the lyric almost has to be culled from it. Thematically, there are a lot of good song lyrics hiding in your poetry, so don’t give up on your brother! (family members are hard to impress!)
Ha ha – yes they are!