Songwriting Part 7: Sacrificial Music & Visual Lyrics

This is a weird combination of words – it sounds like I’m going to be writing about soundtracking a violent ritual, but that’s not the case. I was told a new building at my workplace had ‘sacrificial walls’ installed – I understood this to mean it had a renewable frontage in front of the structural wall, which could be removed if damaged. I liked the phrase. The term has some other meanings, gathered around the idea of temporary measures and mouldings, but essentially it means a surface that offers shape to, but does not actually become a permanent part of the finished product.

telegraphI recently resolved to write a song a day for 10 days, to ‘demo’ stage – lyrics and music – and did so. As I write this, I’m on holidays, but a songwriter’s never really on holiday. Often when I’m writing a new song, though I’m open to creative play, everything ‘matters’. Any element could be part of a ‘final product’. This time around I wanted to subvert that pressure, even if it’s just a perception, through the creation of music which isn’t intended to be part of the finished song – the purpose of the sounds would be to influence and shape the lyric. That’s the focus. It’s not about creating disposable music – that’s easy enough to automate, but rather investing in the creation of compositions that may not survive the process.

If you follow this blog you will know that I have various outlets for the words and music I create, none of which have commercial drivers and I had no particular aim or destination on mind for what I was creating. Sincere singer/songwriter material emerged alongside more absurd material. The lyrics themselves, however, were also shaped by a different approach to writing.

Artists Book

I had a collection of writings – some half-formed, others in fragments – which  formed my central resource for the exercise,  so I wasn’t starting with a blank page. These existed in digital and handwritten form, or combinations of the two – hard copies which I’d scribbled on.

starsI collected and curated these lyrics in an artist’s book, comprised of images clipped from discarded textbooks about flight and boats and horses. Whatever I found visually appealing in the charity shop. I’m not a visual artist, but felt like getting crafty and was looking for variations on my ‘ways in’ to writing – modes of thinking with my hands. I was also interested in collecting, representing and framing lyric drafts that are usually discarded – to honour process as well as product.

I’d created lyric books before – but they had been about compiling drafts that were largely complete and doodling in the margins, rather than documenting their creation, which was what I was playing with, as it turned out.

I should surface my influences here – the surrealist idea of the exquisite corpse, in which new artefacts are assembled through conjunction of existing words or images. Two artists I’m lucky to know – photographer Martin Smith (who often physically cuts narratives into his images) and illustrator/film and theatre designer Jonathon Oxlade, who created an artist’s book for a project we collaborated on some time ago. Exhibitions I’ve seen recently of Mora, Whitely and Kentridge, all of which have included notebooks and working drawings are obviously on my mind as well. Musically I’m listening to earlier versions of Beatles and Dylan tracks they dredge up and sell. The visual element of Fionn Regan’s songwriting practice is also interesting.  I just like peering back into the evolution of songs. In a way that’s what I was tracking in my own process.

cloudlessI worked visually first, and then cut up and pasted printouts of the lyrics to the images. Sometimes I made aesthetic decisions, such as gluing a ‘wintry’ lyric to a collection of similarly themed images. Sometimes it was more random than that. A lot of it looked like crap, I’ll admit – the kind of thing that would get you kicked out of a scrapbooking workshop – but thinking that it’s crap is often the thing you do before you quit, so I tried not to judge too much, and let the materials speak to me. Sometimes I changed my mind and ripped and shifted the lyrics, resequencing them, or moving them from page to page. I liked what it did to the paper- the ripping changes both surfaces. If you have the time, it’s quite a nice way to while away an hour. It’s visual, it’s playful – it’s not art – but it does connect you to the kind of cutting and pasting you used to do in primary school – a physicalizing of ideas – an embodiment of the act of composition.

These formed an unfinished folio of a dozen or so working drafts (and the addition of some more complete lyrics – strays that needed a home) which I gathered with a bulldog clip within the hard cover of one of the books I’d destroyed – the one about the history of human flight. I quite liked that idea of enclosing these messy words between covers which had formerly housed some of the clumsy, whimsical and impractical devices humans have invented to bring about the seemingly impossible. This process also formed a pile of colourful strips crumpled scraps and off-cuts on the floor – a manifestation of the idea that what you’re composing is partly shaped by what is discarded.



With this collection on the table, and a little time and a quiet house, I sit down to play. It’s almost like I’m interpreting the work of someone else, though I know that not to be true.

I’m working with garageband, on an ipad mini, a usb mic and my guitars and ukulele. I’m going to make this sound easy, but it’s not, necessarily. I’ve practiced this kind of demoing process (for about 30 years) to the point where it’s quite enjoyable. A very long time ago I used to do it with two cassette decks.

The thrill of this practice is in building up layers of music that form pleasant or interesting textures that distract me from my other deficiencies. I’m also not too bothered with getting things ‘right’, either sonically or in my playing. Good enough will do.
I open the book and find a lyric I’d like to play with. Or I start with music and do that later. I find a rhythm sound I don’t mind on the machine. I put together a riff or some chords. Something that will do for the moment. I add another part. I add another section. I sense how a lyric ‘sits’ with this music. I may flick to another one, or indeed combine two ideas, ripping and re-sticking fragments.

brick wallThe music then begins to inform rhyme, scansion, length of line and verse, location and ‘weight’ of verse or chorus. The music is of finite length – the software automates number of bars, etc, though I do tend to shift this about a bit. I’m OK to have a section that’s 11 bars long if the music asks for it. The arrangement of the music itself provides surprises on the way through that speak to the emerging lyric.

head for numbersI’ve been listening to Sandy Denny/Fairport Convention’s ‘Who Knows Where the Time Goes’ and George Harrison’s ‘All Things Must Pass’, really enjoying the early versions of each, and realise they have quite similar chord patterns, a guitar voicing I really like (that also occurs in The Faces’ ‘Debris..Paul Kelly’s ‘How to Make Gravy’…etc) Given that this process is about creating music that may never be heard, I invent my own variation on this sequence, a languid arrangement which I even play Ronnie Wood style electric guitar on. This genre-play distracts me from the need to create anything particularly original. One particular lyric sits well within the time framed by the music so I start to shape the words I’ve written to fit.

I’m singing them as I go, so they’re not just black marks on white paper, but rather sounds in the air. This is where music meets lyric – they converse and flirt. Music’s an equal player in this moment, unrestrained, and able to respond to the text.

In this mode the sound of a word is more immediate. Written as ‘Days’: sounds like ‘Daze’; ‘Comma’ sounds like ‘Karma’. A word written as ‘Not’ sounds (in a song about string) like ‘Knot’. There is literally no pun intended, but there they are. Alliterative lines that seemed contrived on paper flow quite well off the tongue.

balloonMelodies arrive – they’re pretty ‘obvious’, going up and down predictably and somewhat hamstrung by my limitations as a vocalist. But I’m not judging them for that, because they will eventually be discarded. I enjoy harmonising so that’s what I do. A chorus may have up to four of my voices on it. The words are dignified by being sung. Some don’t seem to deserve it. They’re cut, shifted or changed. Prepositions are added or subtracted to the words sit tastily in the mouth.  Song structure is there, but a bridge might end up in slightly the wrong place. I’m not going to shift it because it doesn’t matter. Nothing is fixed. It’s quicker to shift it with scissors and stickytape so that’s what I’ll do rather than fiddling about with the audio.

The ipad allows me to play alternative scales on virtual instruments, by wiggling my finger about. So I do a bit of that, then sing along to the melody it brings about. The music pushes me to the very top of my vocal range, and even beyond. It’s mildly embarrassing at best. Even the built in autotune can’t disguise the effort I put into hitting those uncomfortable notes, but the lyric is enjoying the ride, so why not?

With the project now ongoing, I find I’m waking up with ideas that I can realise in the morning. A song with mainly numerals for lyrics responds well to the simultaneous time signatures I’ve been playing with elsewhere. Slight discordances in the music I jam together reveals the potential for the song to be in two halves, and leads me to cut a superfluous verse. The music tells me it’s not necessary to explain something that the song itself is already doing.

I can write about whatever I want. I’m not servicing a market or genre. I can write about the Voyager, a winter day, a piece of string, November 11, a sleepless night, what a cat’s dreams might be like. I’ve been around the block a few times with songs and the best thing about the best of them is that they’re usually about something other than they may initially seem.

forgettingI have long experimented with the potential for subtraction – that is, the removal of lyrics – to form the concept for a song. I’m thinking about the effect of memory loss on relationships and play with the lyrics becomes visual, not only in editing wave-forms and performance, but also as I render the lyric on paper, literally cutting out the words I’m removing to reveal blue sky.

I happen to really like the music I come up with for this piece, a gentle waltz, and when my ipad fails, and it looks like I’ve lost the audio I’ve been recording, I feel bereft, and realise the self-generated illusion that I’ve been working under. The idea that ‘the music doesn’t matter’ has helped the creative process, but I’ll certainly miss it when it’s gone. That’s why it’s sacrificial rather than ‘temporary’ or a ‘holding form’.

string handSome of what I make is crap. Loosening up the creative process, playing with visual ideas and sacrificial music, doesn’t always improve things. I have an idea to create a song that has lyrics about being a ‘Hidden Track’. The song, if ever completed, would, itself, become a hidden track, a sweet idea that died in the late 20th century. The music, poorly played and unremarkable, influences the lyric, but not to the point where it no longer seems clever-clever and contrived. Still, it’s useful to know that the idea really didn’t have legs.

Some lyrics lie un-used. They’re closer to the colourful paper off-cuts that I put in the bin when I was getting all crafty than anything I’d want to re-use. Some music is un-used as well. Because I’m a bit of an archivist (really, not a hoarder) I’ll hang on to these bits and pieces, because you never know when they might come in handy.

Some music I quite like, and may keep, even in conjunction with the lyrics. Most I will sacrifice, in the knowledge that it’s been a positive influence on the lyrics, which themselves are likely to change in their unknown future.


The ‘finished’ lyrics are the beginnings of another process, when my co-composer may survey and choose from them as words on paper, and apply their own compositional skills in shaping the lyrics into songs. Has my music ‘soaked in’ to them somehow? The music created will take these words to a new place, and there will be more changes to come.

I’ve shifted the parameters a bit, challenging the things I thought I already knew how to do, but more importantly, opened up the creative process to qualities of emergence – allowing things to unravel rather than unfold. Afterwards you can see how you got there, but while you’re in the middle of it, you’re more unsure.

weatherI’ve allowed the materials to manipulate me, rather than the other way around. I’ve lowered my guard, and allowed music to more freely play and sometimes lead the way in shaping text. I’ve been aiming for that elusive moment, that instant where you surprise yourself. At the end of the process I have indeed written a song a day for 10 days. Sometimes two songs a day. The folio contains 16 songs, glued and stickytaped, amended in pen and framed by images from old books.

I compile the demo collection an audio playlist which I listen to, appropriately enough, when I’m driving to the dump, or as it’s now called, the Resource Recovery Centre. The sun punches the suburbs as I drive out of town with a full load. Some stuff is waste for compaction and landfill, some green waste will compost new growth somewhere, and other items will be recycled.

Read part 6 here

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