Tuesday, August 21, 2007

An Act Of Will: In Which I Rat On Andrew

This is Ben posting.

That January day in 2002 when I reported to Andrew's old house on Harbor Lights drive for my first AP rehearsal was the beginning of my proper education as a songwriter. I'd spent all my high school and college years longing for whatever quality it was that made a person write. Now here I was, suddenly thrown in a silver van with Andrew, Eric Peters, and Laura Story--three people who know how to write a song.

During that first tour, I read a few books by Annie Dillard, one of them titled "The Writing Life." This amazing manual turned out to be the perfect companion to the paradigm shift I was experiencing in the company of Andrew and his little band of merry men and women ("Footsteps To Glory," if you remember.) Until then, I had always envisioned the act of writing a song as a sort of esoteric experience, never an act of will. Now I was assigned topics to write about and given deadlines to meet. Meanwhile, I pictured Annie Dillard in the little, windowless room where she goes to work each day. I watched as my friends examined and reworked their own work with a certain detachment. There was no line too dear to be cut from a song if it didn't contribute to the whole work. Concurrently, I read that wonderful first chapter of "The Writing Life," in which I was instructed to go at my work as a builder, but with all the tools needed for demolition close at hand, just in case.

Needless to say, I continue to attend the Andrew Peterson school of writing jaw-dropping songs. And Andrew is still, in my mind, a writer's writer. Here's an example from this record.

Take "The Good Confession," for example. It's a story song that sets the ancient profession of faith (Christ is Lord) against the changing backdrop of Andrew's childhood. I think he's had the chorus for quite a while ("I believe/he is the Christ/son of the living God"). Every writer I know has bits of songs lying around, little scraps of fabric waiting for a quilt. Maybe he formulated the whole concept for the rest of the song when he wrote the chorus or maybe it came came later. Regardless, one of the first things I learned watching Andrew and the other Footsteps is that a good song either begins with a solid concept or it finds one along the way. The fact that I can sum up this song in one sentence is a good sign. Have you ever listened to a novice preacher go on and on for a good forty-five minutes and at the end you had no Earthly idea what he was talking about? It's the same deal. Write all you want, but let there be some strong connecting force that binds it together or nobody is going to follow you. To further illustrate my point, note that each verse of this particular song has its own concept: the first verse being about a boyhood conversion and the second being about an awakening to the gospel after the typical strayings of adolescence.

From the day Andrew had fleshed out the lyric of "Good Confession," I think he had the sinking feeling that there was something loose about the song, some ballast to jettison. So we worked the song over in soundchecks and in pre-production, dropping bars out of little instrumental turnarounds to make the next lyric arrive right on time, writing little melodies to make the spaces mean something. "The Good Confession" transformed from a potentially self-indulgent trip down memory lane (that sounds harsher than I mean it) into a pretty streamlined song that I think will resonate with people. And it didn't lose its heart and soul. It's not lightweight, candy pop. It just pops.

This is a typical story. I can think of five others like it on this record. I already told you the story of how "All You'll Ever Need" was delivered by cesarean in the eleventh hour. AP cut a whole verse, a good one, out of Don't Give Up On Me so that we can all get to the second chorus a little sooner. On the Slugs & Bugs record, Andrew thought Skye's lullabye just wasn't feeling right, and the remedy turned out to be CUTTING THE CHORUS.

This is how it goes. It's work and it's a thrill. And AP's durn good at it, if you hadn't noticed.


eiszoe said...

I don't think I'm there yet, as far as cutting. I can cut a word, phrase, maybe a bad sentence here and there. But, I've never cut a whole verse or chorus out of a song before (I don't think). I tend to re-write as I write, if that makes sense, but it sounds like the decisions you're making to cut aren't usually made till you start recording, arranging, seeing the song as a performance whole, rather than just as a coffeehouse solo? I'm not there yet, I guess.

lyndsayslaten said...

AMEN! ben! i'm so excited!! what great ramblings. it's great, too, b/c chris and i were talking about "the writing life" not even 24 hours ago - how you have to be able and willing to "demolish" part of the song - even if it's really good - for the sake of the song. (he's writing a really, really good one right now...)

brilliant. you people are brilliant. have i mentioned that i'm really glad this blog exists???

Drew Scott said...

Thanks for those encouragements. Amy will appreciate them, too. It was very helpful reading the interchange several posts back as you guys hammered out lyrics. Not being married to a metaphor or line (or chorus!) is a good lesson in writing, but seeing it fleshed out is a great one. The example on appendix B/M (No More Faith's original verses and structure) was surprising as well.

Andy told Amy to pick up that Annie Dillard book last year. She doesn't listen to me, either...

Taran said...

Ben et al.,

Thanks so much for the reflections on the writing/playing/production process. This has been an invaluable glimpse at how the sausage gets made.