Sunday, November 25, 2018

Awake, Alone, and a Mess - the breakdown

For those who, like me, are interested in how a song came about, here's a pretty detailed breakdown of how "Awake, Alone, and a Mess" came about. This one was pretty involved.

Word of warning: there are no songwriting tips here, nor even songwriting approaches - just an insight into what I was thinking, why I did things the way I did. All of this might only apply to me, or maybe only to this song... still, it might prove of interest, so here it all is! Beginning with a work tape of the song itself:


Chicago
Didn't really play a part in the song as such, just that I started writing it on a train in Chicago, heading to the airport to fly back home to Nashville. Always have a pen and paper handy at all times!

About to board the train in Chicago (and start scribbling down the song)

Threesome
The title came first for this one. Awake, alone, and a mess. It takes those three things. If you are awake, alone, but not anxious, not a mess - well that's ok. If you are awake, with someone, and a mess, that's tolerable too. If you're asleep, well none of the other two count one way or the other. It's that threesome that adds up to trouble.


Nashville
I grew up in a small town in Scotland, and when you heard a siren, it was time to pause and wonder just what had happened, and hope that everyone was ok. Since then I've moved to larger and larger places, and those wails became more common, common enough that you didn't really think of them any more.

The seashore in the town I grew up in

For whatever the reasons, here in Nashville I hear them more than ever, so often in fact that I've begun thinking about them again. For one thing, it made me think how unusual the word "siren" is, because a siren was originally a female creature that would draw sailors to their deaths with a sound so alluring they could not resist but turn their ship to follow it.

Ironic, I thought, as the sirens of this day and age are in no way a pleasant sound, and they are the kind of sound you are more prone to run away from than toward.

  The sirens of the city serenade the night time streets
  No seductive song, but some shrill scream that wakes you from your sleep


Insomnia
I normally fall asleep darn fast, and once there I stay there, til the appointed hour arrives in the morning and I wake up as promptly as I nodded off. For a few weeks though, I'd been finding myself increasingly prone to insomnia, and would lay there for an hour or two, sometimes even give up and get up, and then not wake promptly in the morning either.


Thoughts are never smooth, shiny and pleasant as you toss and turn and try to find the doorway to the realm of dreams, so it was never a fun time.

  And as your staring at the ceiling listening to those sounds recede
  The shadows on your soul outweigh any darkness you can see


Brought to you by the letter "s"
I noticed how I was writing this. Everything was s's, either genuinely or phonetically:

The SirenS of the City Serenade the night time StreetS
No Seductive Song but Some Shrill Scream that wakeS you from your Sleep

.. and so on. This gave a certain rhythm and emphasis to things, something a little staccato, something a little uncomfortable - which fitted the theme and feel I was going for (so it was more than a mere literary affectation to be clever, and I only noticed I'd done it after writing a few lines and realized it was integral to the feel).

S is for "skull"?

I wondered how I'd continue that in a second verse, as there was no way to "s" my way through a whole three verses. A bit of a dabble (there on the train in Chicago) convinced me I could "p" my way through the second verse (yeah, I know that sounds odd, but there you go!)

It was only later back home that I'd wrap up verse 2, and wonder what the heck to do with verse 3, and found to my relief I could "d" my way through that one. Again, this was because it was integral to how it sounded and felt; I couldn't abandon it and had to follow that pattern that I'd set down in the first verse, to keep that sound and feel going.


Tuning Up
I had something of a melody to go with the words, especially "The sirens of the city serenade the night time streets", so that kind of just wrote itself. For the chords, I went with the same staccato feel that the words had, something that felt a bit "on edge", just like I did when restless and unable to sleep. The notes of the melody of course dictated what the chords would be.


Crosstown Traffic
Not the Hendrix song, actual crosstown traffic. Confession - I never learned to drive 'til I was 42 or something. That must sound weird to those born and bred in America, where everyone learns to drive by the time they are 10 (or so it feels). However, growing up and living in the UK, it wasn't necessary to drive - trains, buses, taxis, sidewalks (pavements, they are called back there), all were readily available.

Flash forward to being in a smallish town in East Texas, and there were no sidewalks, and taxis were rarer than gold dust. Eventually being forced by circumstances beyond my control into an office job 30 miles from where I lived, driving was a must.

Dallas by dashcam (when it was pretty quiet)

But I never liked it. It was ok on those East Texas roads, even for someone like me who was naturally nervous of driving (the reason why I started lessons in the UK, but quit before taking my test), and only when I had to head into Dallas with its "four lanes in one direction" did I find it unpleasant. But that was a rare event.

Here in Nashville though, it's a different story. Roads are built for a lot less traffic than they have to support, and it seems like there are a lot less left hand turn filters than I'd expect. Upshot - driving makes me really anxious once more.

Nashville (from an Uber - panic not, I am not taking photos while driving!)

It gave me a lot of things to think about. For one thing, all the other drivers on the road with me did not feel this way - to them, this was a non-event; to me, it was an act of bravery just to be going from A to B. I wondered how many times I was doing something ordinary, that for someone else would take monumental effort. Also, how fortunate those others were, that they could just slide into their car and go about their business without a second thought!

I also decided to turn it into a writing experience, to try and capture how it felt, that level of anxiety... butterflies in your stomach was not even close. This was something much fiercer, bigger, something that snarled; something that sat not in the pit of my stomach, but up in my chest. Hello chorus.

  Tiger clawing in your chest
  Can't find no peace, can't get no rest
  While others sleep like they've been blessed
  You're awake, alone, and a mess


Heart beats
One thing you notice, in the dark in the early hours of the morning all by yourself, is the sound of your heart. Normally it sounds like a nice Precision bass, a steady deep thump; but anxiety changes it, to a short, sharp, higher pitched, percussive retort, firing off in quick succession.

   …poor heart popping like a pistol


The Pressure Is On
And anxiety feels like a weight, a pressure; only it's not constant, not like carrying a large concrete block on your shoulders, it comes and goes, easing off only to come pushing back down.

  Panic presses down on you, pounding like a piston


Who Turned Out The Lights?
There in the dark - even when you have the lights on in your apartment, you are still acutely aware of the dark all around out there - you are just wondering how you will make it through, as each minute drags by slowly. If only day would break.

  Praying you can pull through 'til the pale pink light of dawn


Thanks, Memories
For whatever reason, that time of the early a.m. makes you reflect on things, from way back in your past even. Makes you doubt them, and wonder about the choices you made, second guessing yourself, even if those aren't relevant to your current daily life - back you trot into those times gone by. Thanks, memories, for making a rough situation worse.

  Pleading for some pardon for the paths where you picked wrong

(Aside: initially I thought this would be "for the people that you've wronged", but it didn't sit right with me; not everyone feels they have wronged someone, and the thoughts that flit through your mind to torment you are more general than that, and are about screwing up - took a while to find this variation that I felt captured it better)


Guitar Solo
A kind of odd place for the guitar solo, but it just was where it wanted to go. Wanted something hard, aggressive, rough. On the one hand, kind of like the anxiety itself - but also, kind of like the spirit one gets when determined to fight it and not give in.

These guitars are not solo (since there's more than one of them)

Throw Me A Line Here
Ok, so while it's a song that sympathizes with someone going through a very negative situation, and aims to comfort by showing that they aren't alone and hey others are out there feeling this way too, I did want something positive in there, some active words of encouragement.

  Don't drown in your despair...


Cavorting
It always felt like these thoughts were dancing around me in a circle, mocking and teasing, like imps.

  … those devils dancing in the dark night


More Hope Please!
Back to being encouraging! Remember, it will all seem better in the light of day!

  Seem determined to endure, but they'll dissolve under the daylight
  Dragged down by your doubts, dogged by an all pervading dread
  Dig in deep, you can still defeat, those demons in your head


Bit Of A Breather
I don't normally do bridges, but this felt like it needed one, a bit of a rest from the staccato rhythms, something softer and more gentle, a time to rest a bit and with a reminder that "this too shall pass". And a reflection on the fact that all this comes from our own minds - in some way, we are doing this to ourselves.

Also, most of us who have been through insomnia and/or anxiety have been through it more than once already - on a logical level, part of us knows we will get through this. Never hurts to remind ourselves of that, though it is a hard one to actually take onboard whole heartedly.

  Your mind tells you lies that you can't disbelieve
  But you know you'll survive and be able to breathe
  Clearly
  Once you're free


The Home Stretch
I actually had this variation on the chorus as the only part talking about how you can get through it, before I figured a bridge would be good this time. I liked it, though, so kept it as well as the bridge, and it seemed a good way to come out of the bridge rather than into the regular chorus. Also, wishing it would pass twice as fast was an actual thought I had one night... "I know this will go away, I just wish it would go away faster; now would be nice!"

  You know that this will always pass
  You just wish it could be twice as fast
  Until then I can only guess
  You'll be awake, alone, and a mess

And then one last repeat of the regular chorus after it, because I sympathize and I know that hearing a song, or realizing it's your own mind conjuring these devils to torture you, is not going to magic it away.


The End
That's it. After that it was playing it, recording it, mixing it - but that's a different story for another time.

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