Songwriting part 5: Intimacy and Distance

This is about being closely far away. While I do most of my songwriting either solo or with Samuel Vincent,  there’s a co-writer I’ve not mentioned – someone who I’ve never written with in the same room. Kellee Green. I met Kellee when she played piano on recordings of The Goodbye Notes, and occasionally played with us at gigs. She’s a truly great musician and now plays ukulele as well.

Years later, we now write by exchanging emails containing lyrics and audio. There’s excitement and apprehension as these songs we’ve built are sent and received as zeroes and ones. As a lyricist it’s remarkable to be anticipating an email which suddenly lends musical colours to your black and white words. As the moment of creation recedes into the distance, seeing a song you co-wrote performed live for the first time is an unrepeatable experience I love to repeat. These songs are a few samples of the material we’ve co-written.

You May as Well Smile

We can rebuild him: reconstructed elbow

We can rebuild him: reconstructed elbow

In recovery from having broken my elbow, unable to play music at all, and simultaneously high and low on painkillers, I painstakingly picked out some lyrics (I’d broken my writing hand) and sent them to Kellee, who come up with this song, she said, while she was waiting for her children’s head-lice treatment to act. The original demo she sent me, along with its dogs barking and birds singing, has an incredible charm.

Its vintage style sounded like the song has always been there, yet it very much has its own life.  I fell in love with the song, and not for the first time, couldn’t believe I’d had something to do with its creation.

Once I could play again (drawing on physiotherapy, Radio Birdman songs for the strumming arm and… love) I learned it and played it whenever I could. Its themes of optimism came to sum up for me the period of recovery. Further on,  the song’s listeners have pointed out meanings in it that I hadn’t anticipated, and it’s now making its way into the repertoire of at least one uke club – check out this ‘play along’ video that a chap called Stewart has created over in WA.

Ukulele in My Pocket

Kellee had started a group called The Pockets – four  ukes,  four part harmonies – and asked me to come up with some lyrics that had ‘something to do with ukes and pockets’. I put some words together and this song came into being, again via email. This is the first time we played it live. I can hear the nerves in my voice.

We chased similar themes through Ukulele Birthday, and exchanged drafts of audio which whittled the tune down, cutting a bridge. Tyrone made a film clip for it which would have gone viral except he forgot to include a cat.

Kellee’s ability to compose for every single element of a lyric encouraged me to economise within my writing, pushing me into multiple drafts, whittling it down before I share it,  yet not being prescriptive about what might be a chorus or a verse. So far The Pockets have performed neither song, but Tyrone and Lesley have stepped into the breach.

We’ve written several tunes which The Pockets now perform live, but they’ve not been recorded yet. I’m thinking of Hold My Hand and Half Full. Though the band began performing vintage tunes, and there’s been an influence there in the songs Kellee and I have written for them, the vast abilities of those particular musicians as performer/arrangers means we’ve come up with tunes that transcend genre.

There’s one tune in particular, a show-stopper called Dawn which I hope you’ll hear one day. The starting point for the lyric was ideas around the selkie woman, but they words go beyond this. Kellee’s vision for multiple harmony parts must have influenced the composition, but I don’t know. All I got was a demo with Kellee singing all the parts, and an amazing moment where I saw the band play it live for the first time.

Lookaftering

Kellee’s father was very ill for a time, and she wanted to write a song for him. I’d not met him, nor had any details about what was going on, but I felt I could put together some words as a gesture of support. I am learning first hand from the momentous minutiae of family life, and my own recovery from a significant injury that caring and being cared for is an exchange that is deep and deceptively simple.

I put together these words, and another demo came back. Even the thin sound of an i-phone demo told me the song was something special. The song was subsequently recorded as a studio demo (though not played live yet) by The Pockets, and given to Kellee’s Dad,  who happily has since recovered.

Kellee and I have created quite a few more songs that have stayed in the vault as we’ve learned to write together. Some of these are great, some are works in progress –the progression has not only been in the works themselves, but in the nature of the musical collaboration. Some simply just haven’t been played by anybody yet. I’ll get my publisher onto that.  I don’t have a publisher.

This isn’t about the songs as recorded music, exchanging detailed mixes, more the combined impacts of musical/lyrical impulses on a song’s structure, both of us working towards an unarticulated, invisible, inaudible end-point. The song develops its own life.

Intimacy and distance

The period of exchange as a song is edited arranged is similar to my collaboration with Sam, with whom i’ll get together to arrange and later perform the works,  but with Kellee there’s no face-to-face at all. Life, especially with children and real jobs, is busy, so that means it can be hard to put aside the time to write something big – but if you can snatch half an hour, you can put a dent in a song. There’s been plenty of other instances where lyricists and composers collaborate remotely, though this wasn’t something we set out to do. It’s a different kind of ‘flow’ – more episodic, I suppose, as the composition begins to structure itself.

We’ve talked about getting together to write, but haven’t really done so yet, and maybe we don’t need to. It’s a maxim that luck is where opportunity meets with preparation, and I hear the evidence of that in the passionate detail of the songs Kellee and I have written.

It’s an intimate process, writing a song. The words and music come from you, but you then need to distance yourself from them to edit, shape and structure their composition so they’ll mean something to someone else. A collaborator, and then an audience. An audience that as a writer,  you may never see. Kellee and I live in the same town, but we may as well be in different countries. Which makes the musical connection that much more treasurable. There’s intimacy and distance in creating works to do with quite personal things, yet allowing the songs to self-structure and articulate something that is of us, but not us.

part 1 part 2 part 3 part 4 part 5

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