I took the train home last night from Flatbush to the Upper West Side. It’s a ride that takes about an hour at the hour I was doing it (midnight), so I had ample time to enjoy my favorite subway activity—listening to podcasts. Fresh off of a recommendation from my friend Max, I was listening to the podcast Song Exploder, which I would highly recommend to anyone who engages in the creation of music (as well as any non-musicians who want a peek behind the musical curtain).
It‘s a podcast in which musical artists explain everything that went in to the creation of a particular song of theirs, from the emotions/experiences behind the lyrics, to the discovery of a cool riff, to the musicians who helped record it, to the idea behind the mix, and more. Its sometimes deeply personal, sometimes highly technical, and often very insightful.
I was particularly moved by the episode featuring the singer, songwriter, and producer Héloïse Adelaïde Letissier (aka Christine and the Queens), who talked about her 2018 song Doesn’t matter. On the surface, it just sounds like a slick, well produced, kind of tough, good pop song. But when you really listen to her lyrics and tone, you see that the song is brimming with existential despair. And when you listen to the podcast, you see that every musical choice she made was either directly or obliquely related to capturing this sense of desperation.
The end result is a beautiful catharsis. In the podcast she describes catharsis not as something that feels good when you’re doing it, but as just a natural and necessary release. This song allowed her to feel and express her emotions in a direct way, free from over-analysis or shame.
This week, in the course of writing my song, I too tried to capture a more direct and emotional relationship with the sounds I was creating. I spend so much time in front of a computer screen manipulating the minutiae of the sounds, that I can sometimes forget the fact that for essentially all of the 200,000 years of human existence, music only existed in our minds, hearts, bodies, and instruments. If you wanted to make music, you had to get off your ass and make it happen live!
I realized this week that I’ve been missing the “get off your ass” portion of the music making process as of late. As a cure, I spent a lot more time in the recording booth with this song than I did with last week’s song. I’m not saying that this makes this a better song, but I will say that it was a lot more satisfying to create.
Sitting in front of the computer screen with Logic Pro X pulled up can sometimes give you the illusion that your music can and should be “perfect.” But here’s a secret—most people don’t want to hear perfect—they want to hear real. And more importantly, it is just way more fun and satisfying to record a wacky vocal line than it is to digitally iron out all the warts and wrinkles in your song.
I was improvising some spoken words to this song, and while I ultimately ended up scrapping all of them, I did discover a line that I think sums up the spirit of this song, and something I need to remind myself from time to time:
You’ve got to find a way to be an animal.
That is to say, I sometimes practice the very “human” art of overthinking things. I’d be better served by just moving my body and making some noise.
Speaking of noise, here’s my song.