What Kind of Witch Are You?
There’s a difference between creating for yourself and creating for someone else, and for pay to boot. When I’m writing music for me I can make it whatever I want. One of the more freeing things about the Donny Who Loved Bowling project is that, since we’re not trying to be a “rock band,” there is no template, no single rule we are required to follow. Even in my solo rock stuff –-which is also not really aimed at the radio– I allow myself to skirt certain conventions, the most obvious being direct lyrics. The initial disruption caused by hearing “I Am The Walrus” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” at age 12 never wore off, and to this day my lyrics remain pretty darn abstract, as though “She Loves You” never sunk in quite as deep as the later, loopier Lennon. This lyrical tic earned me the title “Captain Incomprehensible” from my former songwriting partner.
Writing “to assignment” though…it’s another story. I run up against rules and conventions, especially when a certain style of music is requested. If a director or client asks for old-timey music or punk or something a nun with six weeks of piano lessons might play to lead schoolchildren in a singalong, I’ve got to pick a certain palette of notes, specific instrumentation, melody, lyrics, harmony. I have to figure out, what are the specific signifiers of that style, and how do I incorporate them into a new piece in such a way that it sounds like what it’s supposed to be?
I’ve been working on a theme song recently for Witch Girls Adventures, a pencil-and-paper roleplaying game marketed toward “tween” girls. The client emailed me a bunch of lyrics and requested a song that sounded, well, like tween pop. Which, since I’m not a twelve-year-old-girl, isn’t exactly in heavy rotation on my iPod. I’m much more partial to my Radiohead and Beatles. I don’t hate the stuff but I don’t seek it out either.
It’s been a fascinating process. I found myself listening intently to music I wouldn’t pay much mind to under most other circumstances, discovering the heavy craftsmanship behind what many musos write off as dumb pop music. I also had a heck of a lot of fun and got to work with a really talented young singer. Now, ultimately I’m not gonna give Marco Marinangeli or Matthew Wilder any sort of run for their money, but you can be darn sure that the tricks I learned producing a tween-pop tune are gonna somehow work their way back into my personal projects. Some of those guys do some sick, sick stuff with vocal layering.
What can we learn from working in genres from which we traditionally steer clear? Have you found value buried in something you’d previously derided, disliked, avoided, ignored?