AMusic June Newsletter
Adam Mitchell Music
June 11, 2015 Hi everyone,!
I hope your summer is off to a fine start – or winter, in the case of those of you down unda!
As I’m sure most of you know, the great B.B King died in Las Vegas on May 14th. I wanted to say a few words about B.B. because he’s being widely hailed as a great figure in music history and deservedly so. His “Live at the Regal” album, recorded in 1965, is considered an all-time classic and he was probably responsible for introducing more people to the blues than any other guitar player alive.
I was lucky enough to see B.B. play several times and, although I’m not a blues player as such, watching B.B was an education nonetheless. When he played quietly, he played so quietly I was on the edge of my chair and then, when he turned up, and his band along with him, the effect was incredibly powerful. Such dynamics really brought the performance to life and made it hugely more effective than it would have been by simply playing at the same, monotonous level, beginning to end. Thereafter, I always tried to incorporate similar modulations into every performance of my own. It always made for a more dynamic performance and a stronger sense of involvement for the audience.
One night in the 70’s, I saw B. B. playing at the Village Gate in New York City. Turns out, that night was also an education, although of a different sort. He had an opening act called Elmo Morris. Elmo was wearing a lime green, polyester, leisure suit and was, without a doubt, the worst singer I had ever heard in my life. Couldn’t sing in tune and couldn’t sing in time. Oh yeah, and in spite of his Afro, he moved with all the grace and aplomb of a white accountant. Even worse, B. B.’s band was backing him up and they were, well, just terrible. I couldn’t understand it. What could B.B. be thinking? I’d heard BB before, never with an opening act, but his band had always
been phenomenal, one of the best around. By the time poor Elmo had finished torturing the audience, the club owner himself could have gotten up and sung and the audience would’ve loved it. Then, the lights came up, the band kicked into high gear, and the great B.B. King himself hit the stage. The audience leapt to its feet and the show hadn’t even started! No fool, Blues Boy King.
B.B. was, without a doubt, the most ‘human’ sounding of all the great blues players. He really could make his Gibson 335, “Lucille,” talk. His vibrato was totally unique and both his playing and his great, great, singing were iconic and instantly recognizable.
For B.B. King at his effortless best check out this incredible performance with Gladys Knight, both of them at the height of their considerable powers. And young singers, please note: Gladys doesn’t need to be auto-tuned! She actually can drill each note right in the middle, just by ear, no technology involved! What a concept!!
So, farewell to B.B. and let’s check out a few new artists, some of whom, hopefully, will also have significant, if not historic, impact.
Looking at the current Billboard top songs, the first thing I noticed is that “Uptown Funk” is still at #15 after 28 weeks on the charts. You may remember that I said that the songs with the best lyrics tend to have the longest life. Well, “Uptown Funk” is fun, catchy AND a great lyric and, what do you know, it’s still hanging around. That kind of longevity puts a lot of money in a songwriter’s pocket.
It’s fun, right? And in case you’re wondering whatever happened to fun, I’m happy to say there are still a lot of fun, well-written songs on the charts. Here are three I particularly like.
“Honey, I’m Good” – Andy Grammer https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=honey+i%27m+good+andy+grammer
“Dear Future Husband” – Meghan Trainor https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ShlW5plD_40 “Shut Up and Dance” – Walk the Moon https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6JCLY0Rlx6Q
Another current hit that really stood out is “Bright” by the young family band, Echosmith. It’s a beautiful idea and a new take on love that really pays off.
Also, for a slightly different reason, please check out…. “Want to Want Me” – Jason Derulo https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rClUOdS5Zyw
I think this video is pretty lame and unoriginal but what saves the song is the real, put-you-in-the-moment, immediacy of the lyric, particularly in the verses. And notice how effectively the verse phrasing alternates between tension and release. One line quick and urgent, the next, more stretched out. Unfortunately, the chorus, which should be your strongest and most memorable part of the melody, is pretty uninspiring but the producers, who clearly knew what they were doing, put in the syncopated, 80’s-style synth stabs to inject a bit of drama and make the chorus far more memorable than it otherwise would have been.
Okay, so a question now: in any of these chart-topping, huge money-making, very successful songs, was there any point in the lyric at which you didn’t understand what was going on? Were you, even for a moment, confused as to what the point of the song was? I’ll bet the answer is no. And that’s because songs that are confusing don’t get to be hits. Write it on your forehead. Songs that are confusing don’t get to be hits. In fact, songs that are confusing don’t get to be heard at all! Except, reluctantly, by your mother. And even she’s not likely to give you more than a half- hearted “That’s nice, dear.”
Lack of narrative clarity is the single most common songwriting problem I see, and I see it more than all other songwriting problems put together. The lack of a clear, easily understandable story line, from beginning to end, will kill your song dead, even if you have a melody written by McCartney.
So, if you haven’t heard me say this before, let me say it again; it doesn’t matter if you know what you mean. The audience has to know what you mean! They can’t read your mind. They can only read your lines. So, if you’d like to broaden your audience beyond your bedroom mirror, any time you think you’ve “finished” a song, play it for several friends, give them permission to be honest with you – in fact, insist on it – and ask them to point out anything at all that they don’t quite get. If you do this, I guarantee you’ll be surprised how things you assumed were clear, are not, in fact, once they leave your brain and get out in the real world. And it may take a few times before you and your friends are comfortable with this, but developing this kind of objectivity – eliminating ambiguity – is essential if you want to be a writer whose name may one day appear at the top the charts along with some of the others we’ve looked at here.
If you’d like to learn more about writing hits, and improving your songwriting, whatever level you may be at, please visit me at www.adammitchellmusic.com and www.songcoachonline.com.
All the best for now,