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April 2021 - Song structure, instrumental minimalism & A Deal In The Dark.

A lot of pop/rock music writing can feel a little formulaic. I’m often left disappointed when I’m enjoying listening to a new record and I feel I can easily predict when the middle 8 or instrumental break is coming (sometimes even what it’s going to do!) It’s unfortunate how writers tend to rely on these cookie cutter structures in lieu of substantive content.

Now don’t get me wrong, pre-choruses, middle 8’s and instrumental variation are all integral parts of a songwriter’s arsenal and when utilised properly they provide a welcome contrast within a song. The Beatles We Can Work It Out or Carole King's You've Got A Friend are a couple of positive examples that come to mind.

At the moment, I’m feeling a greater admiration for artists like Joni Mitchell and Bruce Springsteen for their ability to reject these effective methods of “keeping the listeners attention” in favour of strong lyrical content across multiple verses.

A dedicated listener can tell they’ve been agonized over, written and rewritten. The attention is kept through a combination of the vocal cadence and the strength of the storytelling.

Joni Mitchell - Coyote

No regrets, coyote

We just come from such different sets of circumstance

I'm up all night in the studios and you're up early on your ranch

You'll be brushing out a brood mare's tail while the sun is ascending

And I'll just be getting home with my reel to reel

There's no comprehending

Just how close to the bone and the skin and the eyes

And the lips you can get

And still feel so alone, and still feel related like stations in some relay

You're not a hit and run driver, no, no

Racing away, you just picked up a hitcher

A prisoner of the white lines on the freeway

Bruce Springsteen - Cautious Man

Now Billy was an honest man he wanted to do what was right

He worked hard to fill their lives with happy days and loving night

Alone on his knees in the darkness for steadiness he'd pray

For he knew in a restless heart the seed of betrayal lay

One night Billy awoke from a terrible dream calling his wife's name

She lay breathing beside him in a peaceful sleep, a thousand miles away

He got dressed in the moonlight and down to the highway he strode

When he got there he didn't find nothing but road

Billy felt a coldness rise up inside him that he couldn't name

Just as the words tattooed 'cross his knuckles he knew would always remain

At their bedside he brushed the hair from his wife's face as the moon shone on her skin so white

Filling their room in the beauty of God's fallen light

Much of the music released in the last year or so, feels a little like fast food. Enjoyable in the moment but it can leave an icky feeling of emptiness soon afterwards.

It’s as though the songs are written to a pop music template by someone with nothing to say. Even in live performances there’ll be a drum loop or the introduction of triggered samples. All bells and whistles to distract the listener from the shallow lyrical content of the song.

With A Deal In The Dark I made a conscious effort not to be tied to the poppy verse-chorus-verse-chorus structure. I let the piece be as long or as short as the narrative demanded, to give the story some room to breathe. There are six verses and one B section that breaks the rhyme scheme... not your typical song structure! It will undoubtedly leave a lot of listeners feeling a sense of... “it should go like this...” but that’s okay.

In order to further give the song a woozy, changeable sense of time and place, the lyric alternates between past and present tense in each verse. (This technique is something Yeats uses a lot and is something I’d like to make more use of in future songs.)

For the fellow guitar geeks out there, I'm playing a Gibson J-35 through a Fishman Loudbox Performer acoustic amplifier.

We also recorded a full band version, which was sooo much fun to make and you can hear a snippet of it below.

I’ll probably release the full band version soon, but for the moment (as you can probably tell from the writing above) I’m on a minimalist kick and I much prefer the song stripped back with only acoustic guitar and vocal.

Enjoy! John

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