“I miss you more and more during this strange and lame period. I figured that for the 10 Sundays I would bring you my own stories and thoughts.” Every week this was at the end of the texts, which you can now read here in its eternity.
11 stories, 10 songs, every Sunday Songwriting Chronicles episode.
Snake: My dear, it’s over now. I’m going to kill you!
Vera: My God! Please don’t! Believe me, you can’t kill me now!
S: And why not?
V: Because I am a singer…!
S: Really?! Then uh, sing something!
In the summer of 2012, I was still living in London and just graduated as a singer with a degree in songwriting. I felt completely lost that summer. “Everyone is a singer, everyone is a songwriter or learning it, the noise is too loud and I am tiny, fragile, and squeezable.” I lived my life full of anxiety about my future. Although I longed for it and was daydreaming a lot, I was focusing on the dark side mostly.
One morning I woke up completely sweaty, seeing a dream I will remember all my life:
I was hiking in a forest with a couple of strangers. We were walking in single file on a green path on the side of the mountain when suddenly an impossibly fat giant snake cut in front of me. I stopped, or rather froze to be honest, looked directly in his eyes for long seconds and waited what would happen.
The snake stretched comfortably at one point, then began to rise so high like a cobra so that our eyes were in line. I remember his voice perfectly, he was gentle but cruel. He said that this was the end of my journey, that I should take a deep breath and give way to his strangling grip. Slowly it wrapped itself around me (it was more of an anaconda feature, oh so many breeds of snake…) and I felt that it was my last chance to stop it with something.
“Wait snake !! You can’t kill me!”
“Why not ?!”
“Because … because … I’m a singer!”
“Really? Then sing something.”
Deep breath then! I had no doubt which song I would sing. I started to sing Nature Boy. All my fears were gone. I sang thinking about Ella Fitzgerald. The snake slowly unwrapped itself from me like some scarf and curled up on the ground. My song put him into a deep sleep. A male member of the forgotten group came over, lifted the sleeping snake and put it in the freezer part of a refrigerator.
Vera: I dunked for the first time and from so far away. Did you see that?
Cool Basketball Dude: Yeah, it was nice. You are good!
V: It seems I have a talent for basketball..
CBD: It’s possible, but repeat ten times more, and if you score for the eleventh time too, then we can talk.
I hear the ancient ideal that the artist creates when inspired. They collect experiences, absorb what happens and exhale it all out creating music, poetry, etc, of course only when they are in the mood. This romantic thought usually comes with a set of environmental requirements, such as a quiet home, candlelight or nice plants, incense, etc. Don’t get me wrong, the thought of these makes my blood move instantly and I can already see myself with a guitar in my hand writing greater tunes than Paul McCartney… but there’s just a little bit of hickup.
Inspiration (or INSPIRATION) is nothing like a winning lottery ticket. I mean, they are alike in that everyone is waiting and hoping for it, but the big difference is that inspiration COMES TO EVERYONE.. AND EVEN MORE THAN ONCE. Unfortunately, it doesn’t come so often to be enough for a lifetime.
The most basic inspiration triggering life situation is to feel depressed. Breakup, mourning, failure… these are perfect to get you in songwriting mood. (Beware!! A simple lethargy, a listless laziness or the average feeling of worthlessness are NOT triggers. Come back later.)
All the other days, months and years when we are “fine”, “excellent”, or just “ok”, means the average working day without inspiration. These days are in majority in my life, so when after concerts (what concerts?!) I discuss the origins of my songs with someone, I always have to disappoint them.
If I took a look at all my published songs now, I could count on one hand the tunes I/we wrote in an inspired state. The rest (an abundant majority) we managed to finish groaning and moaning, standing upside down, putting it aside and picking it up again later, taking it out of the trash, and after a million hours of rehearsals with the band (e.g. deadline).
GAME was born by accident. In an uncertain, floating period. Tag: Inspired Song.
Someone: So, what is this song about?
But what did the songwriter think?!
My first album (Game) has a song titled Kiss & Tell. I’ve recently found a demo version of what I wrote wearing PJs in my bed in London, with my first regular guitar, a muesli bowl and a bottle of water. In those days (let’s call it the Stone Age), not everyone with a laptop produced block rocking beats, leaving me the percussions in the kitchen.
The lyrics flowed out of me naturally, I didn’t even stop to think about the rhymes. I jut left them in their raw form and that’s what you can hear on the record too.
It came as a shock when I was asked in a radio interview what the composition was about. I had never thought about this until then and was struck by the realization that I didn’t even know what my songs were about. I went through the whole record and realized that almost none of the songs are about SOMETHING. Only feelings, people, life situations and desires are expressed, but I never wrote about, “Oh, you left me pig. It huuurts!”
The resolution of this completely uncertain period came when you started writing to me about what a song means to you. For example, someone got married to Cold Fire, others divorced to it. Szél Hozott is a favorite of lot of your kids, while others have told me that this music was not for children at all. 😀
Although I’ve been trying to use a lot more “topics” lately, I still think that music is much more abstract and created for a life completely independent of the author. My songs are about what YOU, dear reader, understand them to be.
Hard. This brand new song is about me finding it hard to be sure of anything in this world.
“Wait, wait wait! I know what this is! It’s that famous thing from that guy… the exact same melody!!”
There was an article a couple of years ago that listed all the Hungarian releases that unmistakably stole melodies/chords/riffs etc. from famous songs. The article had a great impact, music professionals got into huge arguments trying to prove their points pro and contra.
This writing is not about that kind of plagiarism. 🙂
This post is about the phenomenon that if you listen to a lot of music, it sticks in your ears, mind and subconscious. On the one hand, this is great as it all adds up to a huge toolbox for songwriting, but it will also increase the chances of you writing a song that someone else has already written.
This disaster goes like this:
I’m sitting with my instrument looking for chords, experimenting with the tempo and so on. Suddenly I’m tapping onto a nice chord progression, and I feel like my brain is no longer in control, my fingers are pulled to the GOOD chords by some force. WHAT A GREAT SONGWRITER I AM!! Let’s go to the rehearsal space to show the new tune to the others. I bet they will love it. And then… one of them searches Spotify for a song exactly the same as I wrote. The funniest part is that usually these songs aren’t the ones I’m listening to at the time. They are rather the ones that have been waiting deep down somewhere in my subconscious for a long time to finally come out.
The title of this song is only Bring On, otherwise, if I used the whole first line of the lyrics, you would immediately know where I got this fantastic beginning from…
Reporter: Your video has this and this number of views. What do you think the reason is? Doesn’t it bother you?
Vera: I think I have a choice.I could have done a trendier thing, but I didn’t want to.
R: I see… but you deserve more followers, don’t you think?
THE FAILED SONGWRITER (huh!)
Let’s talk about success. About likes, followers, let’s see the numbers.
How many concerts, how many tickets sold, in how many countries, with how many collaborations? How many records sold, where is it on the playlist, how many shares? On how many guitars, how many songs? What percentage of this is your own? Yeah, but divided among how many of you? And how many awards? How old were you when on which tour and which studio recording? How many likes did you have on the one you reached which number of followers with?
I don’t like to answer these questions. Too little to be really successful and too much to feel like I already had it all.
Today’s chronicle comes with a video of a concert where we played in front of a large number of people on an incredibly large stage, in a city where enormous number of people were killed in World War II.
And what I experienced there is not measurable in numbers.
Woman: Hi Vera, I’m writing to ask you if you could teach me how to sing. I can’t read sheet music, nor solmizate. Does it make sense for me to come?
Vera: Hello, it’s nice of you to think I can..come!
TO KNOW AND TO FORGET COMPLETELY
TÁP Theater has a series of performances called ‘Everything is Wrong Vaudeville’ in which each performer shares or performs an embarrassing story from their lives, roasting themselves in front of the audience.
Here is my confession:
I have absolutely no idea what chords I play in my songs. I don’t even know what key my songs are (by heart). I can’t read sheet music (properly). I write every song without having a clue about the harmonics.
Shocking as it may sound: I have a degree in music.
But hold on!! Before we start scolding the British and Hungarian music education system, let me add: my lack of music theory expertise shows only during songwriting. When I have to look for the key, check chords or note down a rhythm, it all comes back! And if I look for notes during the creative process, I don’t even know what’s what. UTTER SCHIZOPHRENIA!
It limits me if I am aware of what is going on during songwriting. I just lose interest. It’s as if my ears and subconscious were communicating and my hands/voice were just following orders playing the sounds.
A bit like this:
Ear: Mmm, I need an anxious chord here.
Hand: Let’s see. How about this?
E: Oh no, not really!
H: This? Or this?….wait…THIS ?!
E: Almost, but something is still missing. That sound: laaaa.
H: I see. How about now?
Let’s clarify something once and for all: you don’t need anything else but your ears to write songs. For singing it’s even more so!
Everything else can be learned afterwards.
I imagined the cover of this János Bródy / Lőrinc Szabó song exactly as it starts. My ears led me, then came the shapes, the harmonies, and the super-educated fellow musicians who unraveled what I wanted to hear..
Man: The concert was great! I just couldn’t really recognize the last song, it’s different on the CD.
Vera: It is, as there are three times more guitar tracks than guitarists in the band 🙂
Woman: For me the second song was strange now. The middle part was groovier. Was it on purpose?!
Let’s start with a question: does it happen to you that you imagine something in a hundred different versions? At the same time?!
Let’s see an easy example:
What a delicious food. It has a different taste in soup than in salad or taken out of the oven. A dominant veggie, you can’t really pair it with anything else. But that doesn’t matter, as it’ll always be in the focus however you prepare it. I often wonder what delicassy to use it for while walking home from the Zsámboki organic gardening.
The situation is the same with songs. There are about five songwriters in my head arguing in the weeks before the recording sessions about how to record the new song. One insists on distorted guitars, the other believes in a lyrical string quartet, while an old blues singer lady won’t like it unless all chords are in minor seventh. And there come the disco heads, the contemporary musicians, the electro producers etc. AND AT THE END… do we have a conclusion? NO.
I can’t fit into one musical genre, I never could. I hear all my songs in multiple versions when I write them and picking one is a horrible struggle. So, there is no lesson learnt: one version must always be chosen.
The good news is that concerts (if there are any..) give a chance to free the songs from their previous clothes and give them a whole new interpretation. I. LOVE. THIS! I finally break free and one of my suppressed voices gets heard.
And here is the next song: Ordinary. Usually more ‘in-your-face’, it got a more delicate form at last year’s Fono concert.
Someone: Hi Vera, I’ve sent it over. Have you had time to check it?
Vera: Yeah, I’m on it. Thanks for your patience!
Someone in a few days: Hi, how about now? 🙂
THE LOST TIME (won’t be found)
Today I want to write about being stuck. About the downs when I have no mood nor faith in myself ever having a meaningful idea in life. You might have already guessed that this is exactly how I feel now. 🙂 I’m three days late with my deadlines and I wince at every messenger notification, not knowing who’s writing:
“Dear Vera, we are looking forward to your reply! :)“
Hiding under the blanket, waiting for time to pass. It’s all over anyway, I won’t be able to restore my image of being reliable/hard-working/up-to-date. Years of hard work is over, the “constantly creating songwriter” mask is off. Now the truth is out. IMPOSTER! Burn her!
On a friendly walk this week, a quote from Jung was mentioned, saying that one should not strive for perfection, but completeness. Climbing down from the bonfire I built myself, I realized that for me, completeness comes with falling apart completely every few months. Now that I share this with you, it even gets a little light and I feel a thousand times more tolerant towards my imperfection. (meaning: IT FEELS SO GREAT TO WRITE IT OUT!)
Not to mention that NIHIL is an essential ingredient of songwriting. Alias:
Let everything fall apart, let there be no beginning, nor end to it. Let there be a big nothing, it could build up to something. Music from silence (e.g.).
Let the “world” think what it wants, I won’t come to terms with myself for them anyway. The next song is exactly about that. (What a coincidence, ha!) One day everything works out fine, the next day it all goes down the drain, and the constant variable is me and the fact that I can grab onto something finally. And if it doesn’t work out, I strengthen myself under the blanket.
Songwriter1: What rhymes with LOVE?
Songwriter2: DOVE or GLOVE?
S1: Oh, no. Pick another word.
S2: BABY? S1: Hmm…that’s so…
S2: Yes, but it can’t be DARLING.
S1: But it could be HONEY! It rhymes with MONEY, hm?
S2:…yeah…that’s super unique…
THE COLLABORATING SONGWRITER
Put your hands up if you know what ‘earworm’ means? If you do, scroll down, but if you don’t, let me tell you now.
Dees-paa-ciito! And you go on singing it with made-up Spanish and soon you’ll be praying to the Gods to get it out of your head, as you are going nuts! But it won’t go. A few days later. Maybe. This is called an earworm.
Songwriters also struggle with this, not just (always) with others’ songs, but with their own stucked ideas. We try the song 1564 times and still the same 3 lame words come, over and over again. Argh!
There are two solutions:
1. Put the song in the drawer to see if we have a new idea for it later! (there won’t be)
2. Call a friend whose brain is wired differently.
Go with the second if you ever want to finish the song. You may still be struggling with rhymes, chords, tempo and style for 3 months, but you have more chances to get it right this way than alone.
All in all, collaborations can work miracles when you’re suffering from a “trapped ego”. As an independent woman I believed for a long time that I can solve everything on my own, and then it turned out it’s not so. But that’s still not the point! If you involve someone else in the creative process, the joint forces are not 1+1, but 1+1 ON THE CUBE!
It’s crucial that it’s not just about songwriting. Doing a creative process with someone is better than alone. Try it! Let it be cooking, home design or dog breeding, creativity multiplies and lifts you. Amen.
Involve someone in the process. I did the same when I started writing Evergreen. I called KozmaKata, who hears music completely differently and twisted the stuck lines just fine.
Musician: You write pretty good songs for a girl! 😀
Vera: Well…you write pretty bad shitty ones… for a man? 😀
Wow, a woman with a guitar?! Uber-sexy! You domina, you animal! You wildcat, your guitar is a phallic symbol, no doubt. And the drumming… wow girl! You play these drums quite confidantly for a woman, just like a guy would do!
Should I go on?
These sentences do not offend me at all. I don’t get mad and I don’t feel objectified by them. I also think that a woman with a guitar/drum is sexy. And I get that she is sexier than a man with an instrument because we see this less.
And now let’s get down to the topic of ‘women in music’. I regularly experience the phenomenon that a confident woman is frowned upon as a domina/aggressor/dictator/authoritarian hysterical diva. Let’s admit, a male leader would never get that. So, starting your musical career with this is not easy, as you have two choices:
1. live up to the challenge and be tougher than guys
2. act like you were a groupie of your own band
It’s a lot of work for me to embark on a journey on the third and healthiest path, where I can be myself without worrying about what the stage manager/program director/festival organizer thinks.
This does not start with the world out there. It’s not “they should understand me,” but “let me know who I am and why I do it”. I am lucky as I was raised learning that with hard work and perseverance I can achieve whatever I want and I am no less than others. But even so, it’s hard to stay calm when I’m asked backstage which musician I came to “entertain”.
So my message is to be bold and dedicated, girls! Weed out our compulsions to conformity and always have an apt answer up in your sleeves when you face a cute little sexist comment. The world changes when we change and we help and support each other in this. We should love guys, but we should love ourselves even more!
little boy: I messed up again! I don’t want to try it anymore, I can’t do it!
mom: No problem, just do it.
lb: But that’s what I’m saying, I keep messing it up!
m: There are no mistakes, just learning!
JUST F+CKIN DO IT
I haven’t learnt as much from my success stories, my awards or the opportunities I had as from my failures. From the fact that it didn’t work out, didn’t happen or I just missed the whole point. That I felt scalded when I got the SMS “sorry, we chose someone else’s song…” or when the sound engineer told me in the studio that “I think you need more practice”.
These situations teach me to fight.
You can experience the real feeling of success when you have struggled. I don’t write “success” but “the feeling of success” because for me, there is no “success” on its own. There is no indicator, number or amount.
If I fight for something and know it’s valuable and important, I become more.
I would like to end the 10+1 SSC with the following message to you: YOU CAN’T MESS IT UP. You can only learn. I got to learn this through numerous painful experience that I would not trade in for all the treasures in the world. I’m scared when I think about how much more there will be, but if I persevere and continue, I’ll be even more proud of myself for learning another lesson.
We had this concert, for example, where we built a catwalk and invited contemporary dancers, we had some of the music come from HD, and we also had pre-programmed visuals. I was so stressed out right before the concert that I literally couldn’t open my mouth, my jaw cramped so bad. In the end, I refused to take any sedatives, I just knew something had to happen. The moment before going onstage, a thought set my jaw free from the cramp: I decided and deeply believed that I couldn’t make a mistake.
Thank you all for this amazing trip!