Hey blog readers, I'd like to present the first in a series of questions and answers called "Ask the Independent Singer/Songwriter." Recently one of my regular blog readers emailed me with a list of music business and creativity-related questions. Rather than answering privately, I proposed the idea that I post the questions on my blog, and answer them here for the universe to read. The asker agreed to the idea, so here we go. As time goes on, I'll be occasionally posting these questions, and sharing my answers. If any other of you readers have similar questions, feel free to email me the questions privately at this address: rundman at msn dot com. I'll post your questions anonymously, and offer up my answers.

TOPIC: Sharing new music with others

• How far into the creation of a song do you share any of it with anyone? Who would you play it for? Would it be a chorus, a verse and chorus, or a complete song (albeit a rough version of it)?

Usually, nobody hears it ‘til it’s totally complete. Some of my songs have taken a decade to finish, and I’ve been very careful not to leak any ideas, melodies, or riffs until I know that it’s done. When I finalize a new song, I usually do a quick acoustic demo recording of it, just so I don’t forget how it goes. (Sometimes those first-time first-take recordings have become the album versions…for example “Every Town’s The Same” and “Canticle for Departure.”) Then I usually play the song solo-acoustic for my wife Dawn. One I’ve got it memorized, I’ll try it in front of an audience. When I first started writing songs I used to trade unfinished lyrics and music idea tapes with my friend Richard Bruxvoort-Colligan…and we’d each get “attached” to the unfinished and unedited songs by the other person. Then when the final album version came out, we’d each miss the early in-progress versions (most recently, Richard told me he liked the earliest version of “Song for Melanie Daniels” after hearing the final version that appears on my CD Myopia). So, as fun as it was to share the songs as they develop, I’ve learned to keep them much more private.

Another similar rule I have is this: once a new song is recorded in some sort of “final full-band” arrangement, I almost never let anybody hear that version until the actual album is manufactured. The reason: oftentimes that recording won’t “fit” on the forthcoming album (for space or content reasons), and there’s a chance that the lyrics/melody will be totally scrapped in favor of a newer, better lyric/melody. For example, I have a new song called “Daniel and Peter and Thomas” that I started recording back in 1999. Over the years it has had two OTHER totally different sets of lyrics (the first was the original attempt at “Are You Speaking Through the Radio” which was re-written for the Sound Theology album, and the second was called “My World is a Blur Tonight”), and as time progressed, I knew that those other lyrics weren’t the right ones. Finally, in the past year, I discovered the lyrical angle that I’d been waiting for, and the song finally snapped together beautifully. So I’m really glad that those earlier attempts didn’t leak out to the world.

• How much do you let others “mess around with” one of your new songs?

Usually, the only person I let mess around with my songs is my wife, Dawn. She’s an editor, by profession, and is also an excellent song editor. She’ll catch any grammatical or continuity errors in the lyrics, and most importantly, she’s got a “phonographic” memory for other songs, and she can catch me anytime I’m accidentally and subconsciously stealing a melody or riff from another song. My ultimate nightmare is that I write a song that I totally love, and I make a recording of it, only to find out that I subconsciously ripped off the melody and hook from some popular hit. (Here's a great brand-new interview with one of my songwriting heroes, Eric Bazilian of the Hooters, where he admits to subconsciously ripping off "Don't Fear the Reaper" by Blue Oyster Cult on a song on the new Hooters album! Oops!) Dawn is really good at saving me from that horror.

I remember once in the ‘90s I wrote a song that I totally loved, and I was convinced that it was one of my best compositions. After making a 4-track recording of it, I realized that I had totally ripped off the melody and idea from a Pearl Jam song! I was shocked and embarrassed, but thankfully I had never gone public with the new tune. However, every time I tried to re-write the music, my brain kept going to Pearl Jam. The only way I could salvage the song was to turn it into a collaboration, so I sent the lyrics to Richard Bruxvoort-Colligan (who never heard my Pearl Jam rip-off music), and Richard set my lyrics to new chords and new melody. The result is “If I Ever get There,” which appears on my Sound Theology album. Thanks Richard, for saving that song!

Another more recent example regards the song "By Grace" which appears on my album Protestant Rock Ethic. I had written lyrics that I totally loved, and had some nice music written as well. In an unusual situation, I played the acoustic demo of the song for my musical friend Joel Vaughn (co-writer of my song "Waiting for the Rain"). Joel heard "By Grace" and instantly said, "Wow, that chorus sounds like Jude Cole." Sure enough, there were some exact melodic intervals that I had unintentionally stole from Jude Cole's awesome song "Worlds Apart." Panic! Thank goodness Joel caught me before I recorded the song for real. My brain was so locked into the Jude rip-off that I knew I had to involve another writer to save my song. So I emailed the lyrics to my uber-prolific friend Nate Houge and asked him to write some music for them. Within an hour or two, Nate emailed me an MP3 with my lyrics set to an entirely new melody and chord structure, and it was beautiful! The song was saved! So that's the version of "By Grace" you hear on the album...the way it was truly meant to be.

The one situation where I’d ever let somebody mess with my song ideas is if I had decided to involve a co-writer. Usually I’ve done this if my own ideas have failed so many times that I just can’t get out of the hole. Most recently I did this with my cousin Bruce. I’d had a good lyric idea for many years, but it was full of flaws, and all the melodic/chordal ideas I tried were failing. Last Fall I spent an afternoon co-writing with Bruce, and he agreed that my initial idea was worth salvaging. Together we grabbed onto one small detail of my initial lyrics, and we focused in on it, and discarded all the other ideas. We built a new song around this small detail, and used a nearly-forgotten series of chords that we’d experimented with a decade ago. The new lyrics and the old chords merged perfectly, and we got a new complete song out of it. Bruce’s presence and good ideas were essential for me to get out of the corner I had painted myself into.

Finally, the other situation where I’ve allowed someone to mess with a song was when I had hired a real producer. Usually I produce all my own records, but with the Public Library CD I had happily turned over all the creative reins to my producer and musical hero Walter Salas-Humara. Walter chose the 11 songs from the album from about 30 tunes that I sent to him to consider, and during the recording process he requested a change to one of them. We were tracking the song “Cuban Missile Crisis” and just as we were about to record our first take with the full band, Walter said “This song needs a bridge. You need to write one.” The song was already really wordy, and I knew there was no way I could write more decent lyrics instantly, so I said “what if I turned the 3rd verse into a bridge instead?” Walter said “I don’t care, it just needs a bridge.” So everybody left me alone with the Wurlitzer electric piano for about 10 minutes and I morphed the 3rd verse of the song into a bridge instead, with entirely new chords and a new melody. The band tracked it, I sang it, and that moment became my favorite part of the song. Walter’s ability to see far ahead in the process amazed me throughout the recording of the album. If I’ve got a brilliant producer that I trust, then I have no problem allowing the songs to get altered for the better.


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