Songwriting in earnest

by Chris Roberts, Sanden Totten, Larissa Anderson

Washtub bass player Jon Olson tunes up before the Roe Family Singers perform at the 331 Bar in northeast Minneapolis.
Washtub bass player Jon Olson tunes up before the Roe Family Singers perform at the 331 Bar in northeast Minneapolis. (MPR Photo/Charlie Knutson)
  1. Listen Part 3: Songwriting in earnest

    Aug 13, 2007

[[header:THE ROE FAMILY SINGERS]]

Quillan and Kim Roe are sitting in their living room with their instruments on their laps. Quillan has the lyrics to "Afternoon Song" out, and he looks pleased.

"You came over Tuesday night," Quillan recounts. "We read it a bunch after you left again. We didn't have any ideas and it was still looking like, 'Oh man, what have we gotten ourselves into?' And then I woke up Wednesday morning and the song was in my head. Just like that."

Quillan says a few years ago, all his songs came to him this way. They just appeared in his head, almost fully formed.

"I felt like I wasn't even writing them, like I was just this conduit for them," says Quillan Roe. "And I would wake up in the morning and there would be this song, with the words and the melody and everything. And then it was my job to just put it down on paper. It was a great period of creative juiciness."

But eventually it passed. He's learned to push himself to write songs even when he isn't feeling so inspired. But sometimes he gets lucky, like he did with his melody for "Afternoon Song." He quickly transcribed it from his head to the banjo.

Quillan says nailing the chords and melody helped a lot, but he's far from done.

"I remember the other part of that writing style. There's the burst of inspiration, there's the thing that just comes out of nowhere, but that doesn't mean that it's this perfectly formed thing. It still needs to be worked on," he says.

A lot of that work involves Stephen Burt's lyrics. Roe has been struggling to fit them to his melody, but he's hesitant to make any cuts. He thought at first that the lyrics were too cheery for his tastes. But now he sees them differently.

"The more I work with this song, the more I read it and the more I sing it, the more I feel what I got a glimpse of when you first showed it to me -- there's this underlying melancholy."

But Quillan and Kim don't have time to dwell on lyrics. The Roe Family Singers have a weekly gig at a neighborhood bar, and they need to get their song ready for their next performance.

[[header:THE OWLS]]

For Brian Tighe, the songwriting process started with several quick sketches of melodic ideas, including a bossa nova number. But that version wasn't working.

"It felt a little forced," Tighe says. "It felt like, oh, this is going to be hard."

Tighe had also just learned how to play "God Only Knows" by the Beach Boys, so he tried writing a song inspired by a similar chord progression.

"But I realized, literally it would be a 15-minute song, and I thought everybody would hate me," says Tighe.

The next day, Tighe listened back to all the versions he recorded, and there was something that struck him about his first burst of song, but he said it felt too obvious.

"I didn't want it to be all happy major chords, which this verse was. The thought of these minor chords came in," and he sings those chords,
"and that felt like a nice musical counterpoint. It felt like it kind of made sense with the different emotions in the song, this kind of looking back on youth."

Some of the lyrics were more challenging, like the line that starts "crisp pollen interference patterns." And even though it was a stumbling block, Tighe found a way around it.

"I just kept thinking '60s psychedelic with those 'crisp pollen interference patterns.' That really was the impetus for the break," he says.

But, ultimately, there are just too many lyrics to deal with. Next time we'll hear what happens when Brian Tighe brings his song to the band.

[[header:MATT WILSON]]

Singer/songwriter Matt Wilson is doing OK with putting music to the lyrics. When he first read the lyrics, Wilson said he was crestfallen. He didn't feel they were words he would say or sing.

Since then, his feelings have deepened somewhat, but they've become a little more complicated.

"I feel like there's some magic in there, and some dross," Wilson says. "I think it's an alchemy term. And it's the part that's not magical. It's the part that's just like slag."

Wilson says the wordy lyrics and their lack of rhythm are the slag and dross in "Afternoon Song," which he wanted to address right away.

"In this case, I felt they needed to be turned into lyrics," he says.

To do that, Wilson decided to break one of our rules -- don't alter the lyrics. He changed several lines, trimming here, slashing there.

He even cut out whole groups of words, such as the now infamous phrase "crisp pollen interference patterns."

Wilson says he had to edit them to be able to sing the song. He says if Songs from Scratch was a competition, he would have followed the rules more strictly.

"But it doesn't seem like it's really a competition," he says. "It seems like it's more of a kind of chemistry experiment. We're looking like scientists in this process."

The song started coming together after Wilson got rid of what he considered the excess verbiage.

"I thought of the melody for 'take a blade of grass between your teeth' right away," he says.

And the chanty line that goes, "Take one, take two, take three, take four," that became Wilson's chorus.

Wilson was also able to resort to his bag of tricks, which he says contains about five tricks. It happens in the line leading into the chorus, which goes, "Fifty fifty it'll go our way."

It's got basically this one-tenth grade chord progression that I just can't lay off of," he says.

Despite his efforts, Wilson says he still doesn't feel any attachment to the song. He likes playing it, but he doesn't think it'll wind up being anybody's "desert island" pick.

"I felt like I put the lyrics together the best that I could put 'em together. And then I put a really nice sharkskin suit on it and there it stands. And I'm not really sure if there's any substance there," he says.

Wilson says "Afternoon Song" is finished for now. He says he'll sand the edges a little, maybe throw in some piano filigrees, and see what the band he's assembled adds to it when they meet in the studio.

4 Photos

  • From left, Owls members John Jerry, Maria May and Brian Tighe gather for rehearsal in St. Paul.
    From left, Owls members John Jerry, Maria May and Brian Tighe gather for rehearsal in St. Paul. (MPR Photo/Charlie Knutson)
  • Pianist and singer Maria May of The Owls.
    Pianist and singer Maria May of The Owls. (MPR Photo/Charlie Knutson)
  • Matt Wilson's reflection seen on his piano.
    Matt Wilson's reflection seen on his piano. (MPR Photo/Charlie Knutson)
  • Matt Wilson says that he's a novice when it comes to utilizing the pedals on the piano. He says he mostly just holds them down.
    Matt Wilson says that he's a novice when it comes to utilizing the pedals on the piano. He says he mostly just holds them down. (MPR Photo/Charlie Knutson)
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