Sometimes, as a musician, the sounds you want to hear aren’t at all made by the way you want to play…
Right now, I’m living in two time periods simultaneously: I’m rehearsing my old songs with my Berlin band, and writing new music by myself. It feels strange, jumping back and forth between the two headspaces from day to day. Each requires very different things of me, and yet both are aimed toward the same destination: learning the mechanics involved in making sounds I want to hear.
Why “mechanics”? Back when I first started writing music, I quickly discovered that the things it felt good to listen to weren’t necessarily produced by the things it felt good to play. For example: it felt really good to strum the guitar, all six strings. However, the sounds in my head didn’t include strumming, or even all six strings; the guitars I heard were noodling, cut-up and rearranged, like hip-hop samples. So I trained myself to play, sing and phrase in ways which felt strange and not at all intuitive, in order to create the sounds I wanted to hear. It’s like shadow puppetry: what the hands do and what they convey can often be completely unrelated. Sometimes, conveying “ease” involves difficulty; sometimes, saying more means saying less.
My music is all about the notes I don’t play – and not-playing is completely at odds with the inclination of your average musician. Space – to trust in it, to play it, essentially – is really, really hard.
I’m still explaining this idea to my Berlin musicians, the same as I did with my Sydney players years before. Once again, I’m training players to play less – to take things away, not just notes but also dynamics, almost to the point of roboticism, before finally bringing them back in.
Even though they have only two chords, songs like ‘Hook Me Up’ and ‘Babylon’ aren’t so easy to play. Each has a single bass phrase, repeated over & over; each has a drum pattern that loops and never has any fills (I think I even banned the crash cymbal for the recording of ‘Babylon’). But they’re still pop songs, with pop song sections, which me and my players try to delineate with the most restrained of dynamic shifts. It has all the tension of a drama class exercise, where actors share a dialogue using vocalisations or gestures, but no words. Powerful things can be conveyed without the most obvious of tools – and these songs would change completely if they were played any other way.
I keep learning this lesson myself, every time I do live vocals with techno DJs at Berlin parties. As a lyricist (and an overthinker), it’s humbling to discover, time and again, that the most effective things I can sing are “ooh” and “yeah”, as simply, as sweetly, and as repetitively as possible.
And as I said: I’m doing this with my writing too. I’m currently training myself to make aloud the new sounds in my head. Just like much of the music I’ve already made and of which I’m most proud, the feelings I want to convey, and the feelings I have while conveying them, aren’t necessarily the same. And when I get through rediscovering this all over again, I’ll be sharing what I’ve made with you.
Meanwhile: here’s Paul Simon and Dick Cavett chatting about songwriting (featuring a work-in-progress ‘Still Crazy’ – wuh):
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Ray Mann plays live in Berlin this month – dates & deets right here.