3 Reasons You Should Create Something Now, (Even if you aren’t creative!)

I am surrounded by amazing, talented, creative people. Being around amazing, talented, creative people is infectious.

City Church Savannah Logo
City Church Savannah Logo

Within the small community of City Church Savannah, I have been afforded the friendship of individuals who have worked on major Hollywood films, people who have taken creative jobs with Pixar and Disney, a young man who was mentored by John Legend, and a team of award-winning filmmakers. The bar is set high if you want to garner any praise or attention within my circle of friends. The entry level is literally, world-class. I am not certain how many places outside of Nashville or Hollywood can boast such a population glut of talent.

It was one of these talented people who led me to write this column. Dylan is a captivating soulful vocalist and an exceptionally smart guitarist. I knew these things. What I didn’t know was that he is also an avid doodler. With a wide-eyed excitement, he showed me a diverse cast of hand-drawn characters he has been creating over the last few days. Now keep in mind, one of Dylan’s roommates is a prestigous art college graduate with a major in animation. And while Dylan seems to possess a raw artistic ability, I believe he would be the first to admit he is still early on in his study of the craft.

Dylan Puckett
Dylan Puckett

The more I thought about Dylan’s doodle endeavors, the more mental health benefits I began to realize in the idea of seeking out these new sorts of creative outlets.

REASON 1: CREATIVITY IS GOOD FOR YOUR WELL BEING

Dylan, as I said before, is a proficient guitarist. It would be easy and natural for him to express himself creatively on this instrument. Many years of discipline and practice got him to that point. It would also be natural, however, to wonder how someone who has successfully “climbed that skill mountain” as a musician could take pleasure as a novice artist, especially while surrounded with people who are more talented and experienced than he is. It reminds me of a story from Robert Fulghum’s book, Uh-Oh: Some Observations From Both Sides of the Refrigerator Door.

Robert Fulghum
Robert Fulghum, Uh-oh… (1991)

Ask a kindergarten class, “How many of you can draw?” and all hands shoot up. Yes, of course we can draw—all of us. What can you draw? Anything! How about a dog eating a fire truck in a jungle? Sure! How big you want it?

How many of you can sing? All hands. Of course we sing! What can you sing? Anything! What if you don’t know the words? No problem, we make them up. Let’s sing! Now? Why not!

How many of you dance? Unanimous again. What kind of music do you like to dance to? Any kind! Let’s dance! Now? Sure, why not?

Do you like to act in plays? Yes! Do you play musical instruments? Yes! Do you write poetry? Yes! Can you read and write and count? Yes! We’re learning that stuff now.

Their answer is Yes! Over and over again, Yes! The children are confident in spirit, infinite in resources, and eager to learn. Everything is still possible.

Try those same questions on a college audience. A small percentage of the students will raise their hands when asked if they draw or dance or sing or paint or act or play an instrument. Not infrequently, those who do raise their hands will want to qualify their response with their limitations: “I only play piano, I only draw horses, I only dance to rock and roll, I only sing in the shower.”

When asked why the limitations, college students answer they do not have talent, are not majoring in the subject, or have not done any of these things since about third grade, or worse, that they are embarrassed for others to see them sing or dance or act. You can imagine the response to the same questions asked of an older audience. The answer: No, none of the above.

What went wrong between kindergarten and college?

What happened to YES! of course I can?

And who can forget the words of Jesus written in Matthew 18:3?

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Maybe that seems like a turbulent segue to you, but it truly is not. For we were CREATED in the image of our CREATOR. (Genesis 1:27-28) Creativity is interwoven within your very DNA because you were made ‘reflecting God’s nature.’ I even suspect that you might not achieve everything you were appointed to accomplish in this life until you purpose to unlock your inner creative potential.

Your brain responds favorably to this exercise. A study from Missouri State University in 1999 concluded:

…Creative activity contributes to successful aging by fostering a sense of competence, purpose, and growth. Artistic creativity also facilitates successful aging by encouraging the development of problem-solving skills, motivation, and perceptions that translate into a practical creativity in the way these individuals manage their everyday lives.

Go, bears! ;)
Go, bears! 😉

So yeah, back to Dylan and I discussing cartooning. I shared with him that waaaaay back when I was in music college I farted around with making a comic strip revolving around the lives of eager, yet hapless kids trying to start a rock and roll band. It was perhaps a way to laugh off the daily struggles of managing crazy musician personalities.

Class, meet Ricky Rockstar. (that’s his stage name, of course)

This is embarrassing. :)
This is embarrassing. 🙂

I confessed to Dylan that I was never able to convincingly draw my characters when they turned their heads. This made character interaction seem unnatural, and this ‘skill hurdle’ grew from a pesky obstacle into a decades-long stop sign. Upon hearing my struggles, Dylan excitedly found a pen and a scrap of paper, and began frantically drawing a series of 3D cylinders with rotated guide lines and features. In about 30 seconds, Dylan showed me how I could have overcome my limitations. And that brings me to the 2nd reason to create.

 REASON 2: YOUR CREATIVITY CAN HELP OTHERS

You may have never stopped long enough to realize that practically every thing you experience each day was meticulously created for your consumption. You woke up in a bed that was designed for your maximum comfort. You took a shower thanks to a system of water treatment and distribution that didn’t ‘just happen.’ You brushed your teeth with a toothpaste that was specifically-formulated using ingredients from all over the planet to give you fresh breath. (at least I hope you did.) Then you put on clothes that may have went through a thousand tweaks and revisions during conceptualization. You may have taken a car or bus to work. That invention alone is a combination of a million ideas working in harmony to facilitate your safe arrival to your destination.

I could continue this, but I think you get it now. Your entire day is spent consuming the creativity of others. Even when we turn it all off and go enjoy nature, there is a supernatural hand at work. What I suggest, is for you take a break from consumption, and try a hand at production. Produce something. Make something out of nothing. There’s truly nothing like it.

Get creative!
Get creative!

I can hear you now. You’re never going to be able to learn to sing, play an instrument, write a novel, design a car… And even if you tried, no one would be blessed by it. My answer is simple. You are wrong. You may not have discovered it yet, but there are people desperate to consume what you are meant to produce. Finding out exactly what that looks like is one of the great mysteries and secrets of life.

Take my friend, Sarah, also originally from City Church. She is a top-notch vocalist – can harmonize on the fly, and leads worship with effortless command of the stage. But it was the blog she created that really blew me away. In it, she opens up about her struggles with bipolar disorder. Not just the sanitized Christiany parts we can all easily digest – but the real tortured struggle she fights each day.

Sarah Phillips
Sarah Phillips

That is such an inspiration to me. I am shamed by my struggles. I always attempt to project an image that I always have it together even when I do not. Sarah, on the other hand, is willing to open up about her private life for the betterment of others. And, that isn’t the only thing she writes about on her website. She also has recipes, detox, beauty tips, and a whole lot more! (check it out) She and her husband, Max, have created something capable of sharing her learned experiences with the entire world. This is valuable, and something worth emulating. And this leads us to the 3rd reason…

REASON 3: YOUR CREATIVITY IS VALUABLE

A funny thing happens when you become a producer. People start consuming your work. Some people may actually like it and begin seeking it out. This is wondrously fulfilling and presents opportunity for monetization. At this point, you should seek out a more business-minded person to maximize your earning potential. I am sadly not yet an expert in that field. 😉

That being said, it isn’t all sunshine and roses when you release your creation to the big, bad, ugly world. Be prepared for the haters. No matter what you make, some people won’t like it, get it, or want to be bothered by it. This is okay, and part of the process. Vincent van Gogh sold a grand total of 1 painting in his lifetime. Steven Spielberg was denied entry into USC’s film school twice. Dr. Suess’ first children’s book was rejected by 27 publishers.

How do you find the confidence and perseverance to mail out that 28th manuscript? I am not sure. I can tell you, as an artist, the compliments often mean little and the criticisms can hurt too much. It takes courage to create. This process makes you stronger. Strong people become leaders, and leaders are infinitely valuable – whether you get a paycheck for it or not. You can use this hard-earned personal value to greatly affect your world.

FINAL THOUGHT

When you become mindful of what it is like to be a producer, you take this unique worldview with you into your daily consumer life. Did you really like that book you read from that independent author? Send him an email and let him know.

Is there someone on your social media who always goes the extra mile to make you laugh? Don’t just “like” it. Express to them how their efforts make your world a little better place.

Has this column inspired you to flex your dormant creative muscles? Awesome! Maybe then, you could…


Pre-order your copy of Gregory’s new CD, Almost Alive, on iTunes.

A Non-Partisan Guide To Watching Election 2016

This is not a column for the people who live politics 24/7. This is a short, helpful primer to allow you to speak knowledgeably about the topic tomorrow as you watch the returns come in with your friends and family.

Clinton Vs. Trump, Decision 2016
Clinton Vs. Trump, Decision 2016

The Scoreboard

Candidates compete to win the popular vote in each state. Each state is allotted a number of electoral delegates based upon population. Larger states have more delegates. The margin of popular vote victory in each state is unimportant. A win of a single popular vote will award the entire slate of delegates to the victor. (Maine and Nebraska can split their vote.)

There is a grand total of 538 electoral votes in play. Winning 270 is necessary to become the next President of the United States.

The Starting Line

There are a number of states which reliably vote Democrat or Republican each election. These states will invariably be “called” immediately upon the closing of the polls. Because of the time zones, results will come in for the East Coast states first. If you want to have any idea who is going to win without having to stay up all night, analysis of a few key races here may be all you need.

Based upon latest polls as of November 7, 2016
Based upon latest polls as of November 7, 2016

The farther to the right or left the state is listed denotes the lead the candidate currently has in the state. For example, there is no one who reasonably predicts California to vote for Donald Trump, or for Alabama to back Secretary Clinton. In an effort to predict the winner, we can sort these expected outcomes into the columns above and reach a “Starting Line” score of 203-164 favoring Clinton, with 171 delegates remaining in the “toss up” category.

Swing States

This is where the election will be decided, and will monopolize television coverage throughout the night. The biggest prizes of Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio will be the focus. Since Hillary should have a significant lead, Trump can not afford to lose many of these states and be successful. Donald needs to win at least 106 out of the 171 toss up delegates to be victorious.

Early Indicators (How to look like an expert!)

The ginormous question mark this election cycle is about the accuracy of the polls.

Several recent worldwide polling efforts, including the Brexit vote, have proven to be wildly inaccurate. The East Coast returns will give us our first indication of what we can expect. Although Trump still trails in most polls, supporters argue that his popular support is weighted down due to under sampling and the Bradley effect. Under sampling refers to the ratio of Democrats to Republicans included in the poll results. These are often based upon the previous election voter turnout. Trump supporters believe that the Republican turnout will be greater than that of 2012. The Bradley effect is the belief that those who intend to vote for Mr. Trump are less inclined to admit it publicly for fear of being ridiculed, and are therefore under counted.

  • SOUTH CAROLINA, GEORGIA

These should be easy victories for Donald Trump. If these races are not called within a half hour or so of the 7pm poll closing times, it would signal the start of a long night for the Manhattan businessman.

  • NEW HAMPSHIRE

This is in the “toss up” category, but has voted Democrat 5 out of the last 6 cycles. If Trump can win here in deep blue New England, he may very well carry the Midwest “rust belt” state of Pennsylvania, almost insuring him the Presidency.

Final Conclusion

I believe early on it will be apparent if either candidate is outperforming their polling. If it is Hillary doing so, you can go to bed confident in knowing you will wake up with a female President-elect. Her lead is already substantial. If Trump is beating the polls, try to figure out by how much.

swing
Current lead in each swing state

Trump will need to overcome a 1 point margin to win Florida and its 29 electoral votes. The toughest challenge would be to win Virginia. He would need to outperform his polls by over 5%. Winning Virginia is not necessary for an overall Trump victory, however. If he can manage to get actual voters to turn out a single percentage point ahead of his current estimate, he would win Florida and New Hampshire out of Hillary’s column and eke out a narrow 270-268 victory.

map2016

So, as you can see, the margin is razor thin! It should be an exciting night, for sure. Be sure to get out and vote if you have an opinion. Treat each other with respect and dignity, no matter who they are pulling for. Remember we are all Americans out there and will have to live with each other when this whole thing is over!

Old Glory!
Old Glory!

Pre-order your copy of Gregory’s new CD, Almost Alive, on iTunes.

A Proverb a Day Keeps the Stupid Away

My pastor’s wife asked me an interesting question a few months ago during a small group meeting. She asked me what the ‘guide word’ was for our family. She said her family’s ‘guide word’ was truth. Over the last few years as our families have grown closer, I have been blessed many times to witness that guiding principle at work in their lives. I am sadly a bit more jaded, and perhaps a little too quick to dismiss ‘truth’ as a romantic ideal incapable of being properly held for too long in mere human hands. Truth seems to often exist as a matter of viewpoint and opinion, and not as a universal constant.

That being said, I had never thought about defining my family’s world view in the manner of a one-word term. Nevertheless, I knew immediately what the correct word was for us: wisdom.

From an early age, the story of Solomon inheriting his father’s throne has always intrigued me.

That night God appeared to Solomon. God said, “What do you want from me? Ask.”

8-10 Solomon answered, “…give me wisdom and knowledge…—for who on his own is capable of leading these, your glorious people?”

11-12 God answered Solomon, “This is what has come out of your heart: You didn’t grasp for money, wealth, fame, and the doom of your enemies; you didn’t even ask for a long life. You asked for wisdom and knowledge so you could govern well my people over whom I’ve made you king. Because of this, you get what you asked for—wisdom and knowledge. And I’m presenting you the rest as a bonus—money, wealth, and fame beyond anything the kings before or after you had or will have.”

2 Chronicles 1:7-12

tissot_the_wisdom_of_solomon
Solomon administering wise judgment. 1 Kings 3:16-28

As a young man, I saw this story as a wonderful starting place, and began to seek for the secret of life within the God-inspired proverbs of Solomon. Later, I would realize the ‘secret of life’ was actually quite well-covered in another writing by Solomon, Ecclesiastes. However, that is a story for another day.

When I first read Proverbs, I was amazed at the wealth of daily-applicable advice pouring out from the pages. And it’s all right here, screaming out in plain view just waiting for someone to listen. As a matter of fact, this exact idea is introduced in the opening chapter.

20-21 Lady Wisdom goes out in the street and shouts.
    At the town center she makes her speech…

22-24 “…Idiots! How long will you refuse to learn?
    About face! I can revise your life.
Look, I’m ready to pour out my spirit on you;
    I’m ready to tell you all I know…

Even as I grew older, I would revisit the book of Proverbs, often amazed at how many nuggets I had forgotten. One day in 2008, I read a comment from presidential candidate, Mike Huckabee. He said he had read a chapter in Proverbs every day since he was 18-years-old. Now, ignore whatever you think of Governor Huckabee’s politics for a moment and think of the beauty of this idea. There are 31 chapters of Proverbs and a maximum of 31 days in a month. I don’t necessarily agree with everything he believes, but this study approach resonated with me.

Mike Huckabee speaking in Las Vegas (2015)
Mike Huckabee speaking in Las Vegas (2015)

Yes, I am aware some months do not have 31 days. Thank you. Feel free to double up on the 30th, should you wish.

I am not going to tell you I get my chapter in every day, that would be a lie in that rare ‘universal constant’ way. That being said, I am able to grab quite a few each month. Usually, I read through slowly, meditate on the instruction, consider any application I could or should immediately make. After that, I will often have the chapter read to me on my phone while I listen and try to take it all in. I consider this a great daily starting point for prayer, Bible study, and introspection.

Don’t think of this as some sort of tortuous drudgery you have to complete each day to earn your spiritual gold star sticker from God. It is opportunity, possibility, and excitement that you get to freely access. Right now!

Maybe you aren’t very familiar with Proverbs. That’s why I’m going to give you a very small edited sample of what is waiting for you each day when you make the decision to dive in.

DAY 1

Dear friend, if bad companions say—“Let’s go out and raise some hell.
    Let’s beat up some old man, mug some old woman.
Oh, friend, don’t give them a second look;
    They’re racing to a very bad end,

DAY 2

God gives out Wisdom free,
    is plainspoken in Knowledge and Understanding.
He’s a rich mine of Common Sense for those who live well,
    a personal bodyguard to the candid and sincere.

DAY 3

You’re blessed when you meet Lady Wisdom,
    when you make friends with Madame Insight.
She’s worth far more than money in the bank;
    her friendship is better than a big salary.

DAY 4

Evil people are restless
    unless they’re making trouble;
They can’t get a good night’s sleep
    unless they’ve made life miserable for somebody.

DAY 5

The lips of a seductive woman are oh so sweet,
    her soft words are oh so smooth.
But it won’t be long before she’s gravel in your mouth,
    a pain in your gut, a wound in your heart.
She’s dancing down the primrose path to Death;
    she’s headed straight for Hell and taking you with her.

DAY 6

You lazy fool, look at an ant.
    Watch it closely; let it teach you a thing or two.
Nobody has to tell it what to do.
    All summer it stores up food;
    at harvest it stockpiles provisions.
So how long are you going to laze around doing nothing?
    How long before you get out of bed?

ant_giphy

DAY 7

Talk to Wisdom as to a sister.
    Treat Insight as your companion.
They’ll be with you to fend off the Temptress—
    that smooth-talking, honey-tongued Seductress.

DAY 8

“You—I’m talking to all of you,
    everyone out here on the streets!
Don’t miss a word of this—I’m telling you how to live well,
    I’m telling you how to live at your best.

DAY 9

If you reason with an arrogant cynic, you’ll get slapped in the face;
    confront bad behavior and get a kick in the shins.
So don’t waste your time on a scoffer;
    all you’ll get for your pains is abuse.

DAY 10

The more talk, the less truth;
    the wise measure their words.

DAY 11

The world of the generous gets larger and larger;
    the world of the stingy gets smaller and smaller.

DAY 12

Good people are good to their animals;
    the “good-hearted” bad people kick and abuse them.

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DAY 13

A refusal to correct is a refusal to love;
    love your children by disciplining them.

DAY 14

The person who shuns the bitter moments of friends
    will be an outsider at their celebrations.

DAY 15

The empty-headed treat life as a plaything;
    the perceptive grasp its meaning and make a go of it.

DAY 16

Moderation is better than muscle,
    self-control better than political power.

DAY 17

A wise servant takes charge of an unruly child
    and is honored as one of the family.

DAY 18

Words kill, words give life;
    they’re either poison or fruit—you choose.

DAY 19

Mercy to the needy is a loan to God,
    and God pays back those loans in full.

DAY 20

Switching price tags and padding the expense account
    are two things God hates.

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Sorry, Macklemore, you’re gonna have to pay full price. 🙂

DAY 21

You’re addicted to thrills? What an empty life!
    The pursuit of pleasure is never satisfied.

DAY 22

The poor are always ruled over by the rich,
    so don’t borrow and put yourself under their power.

DAY 23

Don’t stealthily move back the boundary lines
    or cheat orphans out of their property,
For they have a powerful Advocate
    who will go to bat for them.

DAY 24

Don’t laugh when your enemy falls;
    don’t crow over his collapse.
God might see, and become very provoked,
    and then take pity on his plight.

DAY 25

Don’t work yourself into the spotlight;
    don’t push your way into the place of prominence.
It’s better to be promoted to a place of honor
    than face humiliation by being demoted.

DAY 26

You’re only asking for trouble
when you send a message by a fool.

DAY 27

Don’t brashly announce what you’re going to do tomorrow;
    you don’t know the first thing about tomorrow.

DAY 28

God has no use for the prayers
    of the people who won’t listen to him.

DAY 29

If you let people treat you like a doormat,
    you’ll be quite forgotten in the end.

DAY 30

If you’re dumb enough to call attention to yourself
    by offending people and making rude gestures,
Don’t be surprised if someone bloodies your nose.

DAY 31

Leaders can’t afford to make fools of themselves,
    gulping wine and swilling beer,
Lest, hung over, they don’t know right from wrong,
    and the people who depend on them are hurt.

If any of this pulls at your heart the way it did mine, I encourage you to pick up this habit. Wisdom is the key to open many doors.

I wouldn’t get legalistic with it. If you sit down to read a chapter and realize you’ve missed the previous 3 days, don’t feel obliged to go back and catch up. Just start with whatever day of the month it currently is. Don’t give yourself the excuse that you do not have the time. Feeling like you have multiple chapters waiting on you could seem burdensome.

I hope this blesses you the way I feel it has me. Happy reading to all of you. Remember, my family is always recruiting for the wisdom ‘guide word’ team! 🙂


Pre-order your copy of Gregory’s new CD, Almost Alive, on iTunes.

How a Musician Listens To Music – An Examination of “Heathens” by twenty one pilots

There’s a short story I vaguely remember reading in high school concerning a young man and a old steamboat captain navigating the Mississippi River. The obvious guess would be that it was a Mark Twain tale, although my meager attempts at Googling the exact title for you proved fruitless.

american_queen_steamboat_history
Steamboat on the Mississippi River

Nevertheless, the general gist of the story involved the boy beholding the wild wonders of the river for the first time in the company of this seasoned pilot. The boy pointed out various areas of interest, remarking on the beauty and grandeur of the scene. Toward the end of the yarn, the captain explains to the kid what went through his mind while looking at these same wonders. He did not view the river with the same wide-eyed awe of the child. While the kid stood slack-jawed at nature’s visual feast before him, the captain surveyed the various information for actionable intelligence. Where the boy saw “gorgeous white caps atop troubled waves reflecting silver rays of sun,” (Don’t blame Twain for that little bit of poetic diarrhea, remember I couldn’t find the actual text.) the grizzled veteran warned that those ripples were an indication of shallow water which could cause the heavy-laden vessel to run aground.

These types of examples went on-and-on where the knowledgeable captain divined dangers to be avoided and helpful information hidden in plain view within the picturesque natural landscapes.

The story struck me as terribly tragic.

It was easy to imagine that years ago, the experienced pragmatic captain was also the same impressionable young man overwhelmed by the initial magic of the river. Something had inspired him so deeply that he sought to make his living there. The final cost for that fulfilled dream was for the curtain of illusion to be forever pulled back. Any sense of romantic mystery buried within his heart would be completely laid bare. He could never look at the river again the same way as you or I might do so.

complete_mississippi_9-min
The Mississippi River in the fall

“The deeper your understanding of music, the more magical it will seem.” – Me, a long time ago.

Even as a student, I acknowledged this sullen concept, yet reassured myself, “Don’t worry, Greg. This can not happen to you as a music student. As a matter of fact, the deeper your understanding of music becomes, the more magical it will seem.” Today, I play the part of the weary captain, and I deem that statement as, at best, slightly naive.

For over 25 years I have worked this river of songs. I have produced, written, performed, and taught. I started analyzing music before there was an internet to search, and throughout its infancy when much of the crowd-sourced information was incomplete or incorrect. Decades of prepping songs for students and cover bands have given me a skill set not accessible to the general public or casual armchair musicians.

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Where one might hear a “sick drum beat,” I am probably rummaging through my memories to recall if the percussion sounds come from a sample pack I have worked with in the past. I am listening for the tell-tale signs of midi-programming and quantization. I am identifying the fundamental frequencies of the kick and snare while listening to the balance between the drum and cymbal elements. Unless it is something truly bizarre, I will already know the time signature, tempo and basic beat structure well enough to reproduce it at a later time, should I wish. As a producer, I will hear and identify the levels of compression and time-based effects applied to the track. I could tell you the decade the beat was produced, or at least the decade it was modeled after, if new.

8441731_make-music-in-the-cloud-like-waka-flocka_e8ad665e_m

Is it possible for me to still be emotionally moved by that sick beat?

Certainly, but I can no more ignore those thoughts and insights, than you can look at combinations of letters and not see words. So, it gets…crowded. It is sort of like going to Disney World as an adult. It is still amazing, but you can’t help but realize that it’s really just some kid in the Mickey costume no matter how hard you try to suspend your disbelief.


All right, let’s get to it. The purpose of this is to simply spend about 5-10 minutes listening to a song and then jotting down what jumps out to me about it.

So, my expertise is primarily rock music. Let’s go to today’s Billboard Rock Top 40 chart.

2016-10-22

Looks like “Heathens” by twenty one pilots holds the number 1 spot. I’ve heard of the band, but not any of their songs. This should be fun.

Okay, looks like this is on the soundtrack for the movie Suicide Squad. I’m not a big superhero movie guy. Oh, well. Unimportant.

Disclaimer: these are only my quick thoughts and may be as incomplete and inaccurate as the early internet. 🙂

0:00 INTRO

  • Synth pad fades up with heavy tritone dissonance. Putting out the creepy vibe.
  • Let me grab my guitar… Cool, sounds like a “B” note, with the “F” buried under it.

0:06 VERSE 1 CHORUS 1

EDIT: Assumed this was a verse until getting through more the song.

  • Piano, heavy chamber-like reverb with a long pre-delay. Panned about halfway to the left. Transients seem a bit squashed. Comping pattern is the “rocking” back-and-forth 8th note deal. You hear this everywhere. Time signature is 4/4.
  • Last chord of the progression is non-typical. “Normal” would be for it to be minor, yet it is unmistakably major. Chords are C, Am and E. (bVI – IVm – I) The tonal center seems to fall on the E. If the chord were E minor, it would be easily labeled as an E Aeolian song. The major variant puts the song into the harmonic minor family of modes. This is E Phrygian Dominant. The “G” note of the C Chord would be problematic in a soloing situation, but it would be easily avoided assuming you had half an ear.
  • Melody remains within the E Aeolian structure. It’s almost as if the E chord was made major at a much later time in the writing process. There are disturbing conversational voices panned hard left and right, and a monotone childlike voice droning on the “E” note tightly mirrored to the lead singer.
  • There is a cello-like string pad providing some bass frequency support. The lack of dynamics make me seriously doubt it is a ‘real’ acoustic instrument. Otherwise, it would probably be pushed up more prominently in the mix.
  • “Cricket” sound, “B” note on the 2, “2 &”, 4, and “4 &.” Usually, this same idea is performed with palm-muting a heavily-distorted guitar. This sounds different, however. Perhaps a dirty string sample?
  • Lyrically, rhyming pattern is AABB, with the A’s being perfect rhymes and the B’s being imperfect. Meaning seems fairly straight forward, describing a tough group of people to infiltrate. Knowing the “Suicide Squad” link, this makes sense.

0:28 VERSE 2 CHORUS 2

  • Bass seems devoid of string noise and imperfections. Probably keyboard-based, seems like a near sine-wave. C note is really low. Goes up to the “A,” even though it would be closer to go down. The bass line curiously traces an E minor arpeggio (mimicking the melody, by the way) on the way down to hitting the root of the E major chord. During the 2nd section, the bass skips the third scale degree all together, descending from the octave, to the fifth, to the root.
  • Cello is now pumping out constant 8th notes on E in the mid-range.
  • Kick drum is hitting on the 1 and “3 &.” Snare is thin, but still acoustic, not much reverb – typical of dance beats, falling on the 2 and 4.
  • Section is repeated, so lyrics and melody remain the same. The creepy factor is jumping out, and it is easy to see why. Word choices like “heathens, sudden moves, and abuse,” coupled with the E major chord which “shouldn’t be” based upon the melody makes things feel uncomfortable. – Obviously, this is by design, and effective.

0:49 CHORUS 1 VERSE 1 (part 1)

  • Drum beat remains the same, although the Hi-Hats become syncopated. The rest of the instrumentation, minus the piano, drops out. The piano plays a single chord at the beginning of each measure.
  • Chord progression has now abandoned the Phrygian Dominant key and has regressed to chords from the more natural E Aeolian scale: C  Em  Am  Em (bVI – Im – IVm – Im)
  • Melody has remained within the E Aeolian framework, now the chord structure has aligned.
  • Lyrics become more interesting and metaphorical. (Verses often are.) Again, word pictures are important. “Loved one day, docked away,” can imprint in many ways on its listeners. “Guns, brains, hand grenades,” trigger primal alarms inside of us which demand attention and reaction.

1:00 VERSE 1 (part 2)

  • Chord changes happen more quickly. (C / Am / | Em / / / | C / Am / | B / / / | / / / / |)
  • We have the 2nd appearance of a harmonic minor key when the B (V) chord hits. This time in the key of E.
  • Rhyming pattern is AAABB. Worth noting is the AAA’s are all the same word. Even the same phrase, “sitting next to you.” I think songwriters often avoid this technique, perhaps considering it ‘lazy.’ I disagree, it is very common for speechwriters to hammer the same phrase over and over again to add emphasis. This is the same idea we see here. The 2nd pair is a clever imperfect rhyme, tying the “eh” sound in “said,” with the “eh” syllable at the end of “forget.”
  • The childlike monotone voice that had been droning on E, finally descends to D# for the B chord. The “E” note was the third in the C major chord, the 5th of the A minor chord, and the root of both E major and E minor. The B triad is the first of the song that does not have an “E” note in it.

1:13 CHORUS 3

  • I quit listening…although I noticed an “Ah” Choir type patch adding to the soundscape that wasn’t there in the previous chorus.

FINAL THOUGHTS

  • There was much more going on here than I feared I would find when I formulated this article. The reality is, most popular music is stone cold simple. That’s okay. That doesn’t make it bad or not widely enjoyable. It just means there just isn’t much to analyze and discuss.
  • The biggest songwriting technique I observed was the use of the ‘unexpected’ and ‘out-of-place’ major chord to foster a sense of tension and distrust.
  • Word pictures were highly effective in selling the mood.

The biggest majority of those sentiments came to me during my first play through. Grabbing the chord changes were fairly instantaneous once identifying a starting point. Some of the lyrical interpretation was a little more thought out as the study progressed – but can you see how “crowded” it is in my head when I listen to a song? The reverse to this is when there is nothing musically interesting happening. Now, I hate it because I feel as if there is nothing to glean. Truth is, I hate almost all music. Maybe it’s sad to hear a musician say that, but there it is.

This particular song may not enter my regular playlist, but it is fair to say there is something of musical value here. (I’m certain the band with the number 1 track in America will be so relieved to hear I approve of their efforts.) My point is, it isn’t just smoke, mirrors and pretty boy faces at work. This is quality songwriting.


We, as songwriter and performers, need the energy and enthusiasm of a supportive crowd unencumbered by such mental musical baggage.

I am convinced the story of the steamboat captain wasn’t actually about an old man revealing to a sailing novice the things of which he did not yet know. There probably never even was a young man. I postulate it was simply the captain remembering how the river once spiritually affected him when he was just starting out. That’s the river we need to draw from to keep us from growing cold and cynical as we pursue this craft.

You can go to Disney World and have a great time. But, if you want to have a magically enchanted experience, you had better take a kid or three with you and look at that mouse through their eyes.

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My wife, Lora, and our 3 children at Disney World, 2004

Pre-order your copy of Gregory’s new CD, Almost Alive, on iTunes.

My Songwriting Method – 3 Steps That Could Work For You

Every time I sit down to write music, something comes out. And, at the risk of seeming like a braggart, much of it is stuff I am proud of.

Many of you may be tempted to stop reading right there. That isn’t your experience, so how could someone who has never experienced a writing block help those who have? Well, I can’t promise this will turn you into one of Tin Pan Alley’s prolific songwriters, but perhaps I could give you an alternative method which may lend results.

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Many people, when addressing this issue, compare it to assembling a jigsaw puzzle. They describe the process of fitting together the song sections, harmony and melody and so forth until the pieces complete a beautiful portrait. This metaphor is quite lacking, in my opinion. Songs don’t typically come wrapped in a box, just waiting for you to solve, revealing a preconceived composition.

Instead, a more accurate comparison would be to that of a junkyard artist.

 

STEP 1: Find some junk.

You see, you first have to acquisition the junk you start with. Maybe you have a vague overarching vision, or maybe you don’t. Either way, you still need to take that trip to the dump and find some good bones to get started with. This is where I believe I excel. The reason is, I’m just looking for ANYTHING of use. A nice chord progression (I love those!), a clever word combination, a killer guitar riff, a catchy melody, a theme or topic that can be further mined, – just something somewhere I may potentially be able to use. Maybe it’s a verse, a chorus, a bridge, I literally don’t care. Sometimes, I just find a guitar or synth patch that is inspiring, and let it lead me. The point is, you are dumpster diving, and nothing should be beneath you.

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I rarely attempt to complete a song all at once. Perhaps not having that pressure on me helps the ideas to flow. Just look for anything useful. Once it gets out, we move onto step 2.

STEP 2: Catalog the junk.

It doesn’t matter how great that cool song idea you had last week was if you can not remember it today. And, please, spare me the, “If it was a great song, you would never forget it,” routine. For example, while you might possibly be able to recite to me the complete lyrics, melody, and chord progression from your current favorite song, you probably couldn’t have done it a few weeks after hearing it for the first and only time. You can’t even always remember where you put your keys or TV remote. Stuff gets lost. Stuff gets forgotten. Deal with it.

I have a simple method. Write crap down. Record it. Get it digitized into a folder on your computer. Make two sub folders, one with written notes, one with scratch recordings. If there are any unique musical pieces, make sure they get recorded, as well. Possibly transcribed, if you think it is necessary. Make sure it gets backed up to the cloud.

It is at this point where something wonderful happens. You have to name it something. I once considered this a curse, as I often do not know where the little nugget I had just mined is headed. Nevertheless, there is the Windows machine with its incessant blinking cursor just waiting for you to decide.

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So, since you have to name it something, you have to ask yourself, what does this little piece of art bring to mind? What feelings or memories does it provoke? It doesn’t have to make sense to anyone but you. And, you can change it later, should you wish. Again, there is no pressure or judgment here. Being relentlessly critical comes much later, if at all.

Here’s the catch. You have to do this often. Schedule time for it. Don’t dread it. Don’t limit yourself by thinking you can only write about what you know, or have personally experienced. An exciting life may make for a great movie, but a ‘boring’ life is often more enjoyable to live. Just because you’re a housewife doesn’t mean you can only write about changing diapers and making bottles, for example. (Don’t get me wrong, that could be a hit!) You can write about anything. You are permitted to create entire worlds out of thin air, just like a novelist. Working as a producer within self-made limitations can be very freeing and helpful. As a writer, though, these seem to only hinder. Get rid of them. Start things you have no idea how to finish, it’s okay.

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Step 3: Revisit Your Library

At least a few times per month, play through your scratch recordings library on your computer. Refer to the written/digitized notes as you do. Don’t feel any compunction to do anything with it, you owe it nothing. Just let it soak in.

If I had to chart out percentage-wise how often I worked on Step 1, versus Step 3, it would probably be about an 80/20 split. Usually, when I sit down to write, it is to visit the ‘junkyard’ for pieces of interest like I described in Step 1. The other 20% usually happens when I get something in my head throughout the day from my library. When something that ‘soaked in’ starts growing. It is usually at this point that I pull a song out and start working on it some more. Again, I don’t put any requirements on myself to finish it, or complete a certain amount before quitting. Maybe this technique works for you to do the laundry, wash the dishes, or to exercise. What this never does for me, is prod my consciousness into a greater state of creativity.

Many times, these individual pieces will fit together in surprising ways to form a single song. Don’t be afraid to transpose the musical key of the segments around to facilitate this idea. Even though one junkyard find may have been a verse about war, and the next was a chorus about being a bus driver, it doesn’t mean they can’t work together! I never force these “marriages,” but they often occur.

marriage-2

I suggest a tortoise and hare approach to any creative effort. If you consistently do a fair amount everyday, your catalog and idea library will grow much faster than you could possibly adequately produce it.  Perhaps you could farm out your songs to other talented performers, or group them into themed album releases. Whatever you decide to do, at this point, you are now a functioning songwriter. Congratulations! It happened. Go do something amazing with your abilities!

A Songwriter Is Like A Junkyard Artist

Here’s how:

  • No one is going to tell you when you are done.
  • Lots of people won’t “get it.”
  • You have to put in the time to find what you build with.
  • You need to store what you find until you are ready to assemble.
  • You aren’t required to have a complete vision to start.
  • The skills needed to assemble are improved with practice.
  • It doesn’t have to make sense to be good.
  • You’re making art, that’s good enough.

Pre-order your copy of Gregory’s new CD, Almost Alive, on iTunes.