Ah, the rare love song rears its ugl… uh… beautiful head. Whatever. Love songs, happy songs… they just don’t come naturally to me. Anyone who has spent more than ten minutes with me and gotten beyond networking and small talk knows that I’m a snarky cynic for the most part, but with an unexplainable general optimism about people and life that not even the last two years has been able to squash (though not for lack of trying).
So why are happy songs so difficult for me? Superficially, I still have these weird hangups that date back to childhood and trying to write poetry or lyrics, and knowing that “The sky is blue, and I love you,” while effective, wasn’t art. At least not to me. I kept trying to find deep metaphors or phrases that would explain what was in my head, while simultaneously making people think of me as a true artist.
Whatever that is.
- My Girl Ray Toler 4:20
And this was all before I learned about solipsism and nihilism and what not. Suspecting that there’s at least a decent possibility that there’s nothing but now, that it doesn’t matter anyway, and that with a few exceptions in history, you will be forgotten within a generation or two no matter your accomplishments is enough to squash the happiness out of any song. Hell, it’s enough to keep you from writing a song in the first place, unless it’s a song about the futility of the universe. And I’ve written a couple of those.
Like many other hermitical introverts, I do not have the internal vocabulary and toolbox to process my own emotions efficiently. I have emotions – a lot of them – but unlike the majority of humanity (at least according to Jung), I look at the world through a mostly logical lens. When strong emotions come to the surface, I don’t always know what to do with them.
Ever see a dog just break out into a totally crazy run, grabbing toys on the fly and tossing them in the air for no reason at all? The current popular term for this is now “the zoomies” and every dog gets them. So do I. That’s what it’s like when my emotions bubble over beyond my Vulcan-like ability to analyze and properly express them. And I don’t mean just the good ones – this is true when I’m furious, frustrated, or confused as well.
So what happens when I’m so full of schmoopy, glurgey, syrupy, lovey-doveyness? Sometimes I’m just really touchy-feely and hug a lot. Other times, you get a song like this one. A superficial expression that still does nothing to capture the depth of happiness and love within me.
The first happy song that really stood out to me as being a personal landmark was called “So Much Love” and I wrote it maybe ten years ago or thereabouts. I was so sick of negativity in the news and people acting like it was the worst time in human history that I wanted to point out that there was love everywhere you looked, if you would just bother to look. The old woman walking her dog. A family in a park. The stranger who paid for the person behind them in line.
That was the first song where I sort of ignored that inner poetry-critic (who’s a right bastard, frankly, and wouldn’t know real poetry if it walked up and bit him on the ass) and just wrote simple, unfiltered, straight-ahead lyrics, on purpose at least.
I’ve Never Written Her a Love Song
So we come to Mary, my best friend, companion, and partner for almost 30 years. Mary and I are a great example of “opposites attract.” I am logic, she is emotion. I am the planner, she gets shit done. I solve the world’s problems while she changes the oil on the car. If anyone deserves a love song, it’s her, but I just don’t write them.
In fact, if you think of sad songs about broken or past relationships as love songs of a type, I’d written love songs to many women, but not her. And that’s sad and wrong, but creativity is a weird thing. Maybe some people can control it, but I certainly can’t.
What I can do, though, or at least have learned to do in the last twenty years, largely with Mary’s help, is recognize when something in my soul (look at me being poetic) wants my attention. I used to ignore that, either through laziness, hesitancy, or just being tone deaf.
When I finally wrote a love song to Mary in 2018, it was… it’s complicated. Or maybe not. In under two minutes I was able to say most of what I’ve said in (as of this point), 793 words so far in this post. In fact, scroll down, listen to that and come back.
But here’s the miracle: the song was about me, it was about all of my internal bullshit and turbulence, it was about how she wasn’t going to get a love song out of me. And she understood that it was a love song. It was about her. It did reflect the depth of what I feel. The difference is that Mary has the both the brains and the heart to hear what I’m saying, even when I’m not saying it.
And I don’t know – maybe that was the key to finding that dusty room in the back hall of my brain where this part of me lives. Because the next year, I took a tentative step closer to a real love song with I Find the Strength, a vaguely Grover Washington Jr. smooth jazzy thing. While still talking about a ton of darkness, at least I could say something loving in a more direct fashion. I’ve included that one in the playlist below as well.
As an aside, I don’t want to give the impression that I’ve never written music for Mary. There have been several tracks that are things she was feeling (Moxie’s Lullaby), or a style she wanted me to try (The Thirteenth Prime), or about subjects she cares about (I Know It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere).
So here we are in 2022 and I’ve written what is, I believe, the first straight-ahead, sky-is-blue-I-love-you song I’ve ever written without being veiled in a dripping miasma of ennui. Or at least the first one that didn’t meet Select-All, Delete about ten minutes into writing. And I’m pretty happy with it.
More importantly, I think she likes it, too.
Composition and Production
Ok, so this is a bit of a weird one, because this isn’t the track I started writing today. In fact, I was 90% done with the track that appears tomorrow, jamming the electric piano part a bit, when I hit the two chords that anchor this track. And this is when I listened to that voice that Mary helped me identify. I saved where I was, opened up a new project, got those chords down, and then went back to the other project.
The next morning (this morning? Song-A-Day time is a distorted thing sometimes), I sat down to mix what would have been my track for February 13 and opened up that small sketch project where I stored the chords instead. No idea why… I was an hour away from having my track done and posted, but I was compelled.
The chords felt kind of upbeat and jazzy/housey to me. Anywhere in the 117 – 120 bpm range would have worked, but I chose 119. I really wasn’t thinking about a song at this point, just the groove. Lyrics weren’t even on the roadmap, but as I recorded in the bass part, arranged the drums and loops, and just soaked in the overall vibe, the melody started forming.
Then, on a hunch, I tried a couple of chord changes, just to see where I’d go for a chorus or a bridge, and immediately the lyrics to the chorus were there and, inexplicably, ended with “My Girl” which is about as generic a love song hook as it gets. But it felt right.
It’s… a Song?
Ok, so it’s going to be a song. I went back into the arrangement and started laying out verses and choruses. I was deep into manic composition and production when I was interrupted by that harpy of a love of my life, who had the nerve to tell me that she’d cooked me a meal and that it was almost time for the Super Bowl halftime. (I don’t really care about football much, but the halftime show promised to be a spectacle). Sigh, ok fine. I’ll eat. I’ll watch Dre and Snoop. And then BACK TO WRITING!
Ding dong. The neighbors took us up on that offer to come over and watch the game. And we all did. And then we watched the next two episodes of a show we’ve been watching together. And all the time, I am writing this music in my head and feeling like a general grumpy-pants because, damn it, I WAS/AM IN THE ZONE!
Game’s over. Show’s over. Neighbors say their goodnights. Mary says her goodnight. I warn her that I might be singing, but that I can do it in the morning. She tells me to sing, it wont’ bother her. She’s a saint.
The structure was largely set, but I still didn’t have lyrics. Ok. Time to write lyrics. Love song lyrics. Happy love song lyrics.
Here are some statistics for you. In this song, there are five lines and 24 words in the chorus. There are three verses, each four lines and with 18, 16, and 17 words respectively. A total of just 75 words. And it took hours. The chorus was pretty close to formed on the first draft, but those verses. Oh, the verses. Do you know how many times I deleted and retyped the word butterfly? Or wrote an entire verse and deleted it immediately? (“There’s not a cloud in the sky, so don’t you move, I’m gonna show you why, we’ve got nothing to prove.” 🤮)
These were so hard. And they’re so… easy. They are predictable, trite, all of the things that my douchebag inner poetry-critic (now perpetually 22, wearing a beret, and smoking clove cigarettes) was trying desperately to Select-All, Delete. You know what else? They work.
If Paul McCartney can have a #1 hit where the ONLY words in the chorus are “I love you,” repeated over and over, then what the hell am I doing even thinking about erasing these? The only important thing is, “are they true?” Yes they are. On we go.
At this point, I had the piano, bass, beats, and vocals, which I was singing as quietly as I could at 2 am. I did the background vocals first, because they’re in falsetto and I’ve been noticing that my falsetto is getting really broken after singing full-voice. I’ve never needed to warm-up before, but maybe as I get older it’s something that I need to do. I definitely need to do more exercises to get my range back. I can tell it’s been going away. Lead vocals were done pretty quickly and, for some reason, most of the soundbites wouldn’t let me edit pitch, so the vocals are untuned. They sound decent to me, though.
The song still isn’t finished – I can still hear things I’d like to add – but with the addition of the beeowwwwwww chords in the chorus and the stringer synth with those lovely 70s/80s high notes hanging over everything, it’s in “very good demo / indie release” territory.
Once again, the Brainworx SSL 9000 J channel strip plugin just makes it all sound good. As I wrote in an earlier post, I’m sure the model of the SSL circuits is very good, but it’s about providing direct, immediate, and easy-to-understand access to the things I really need to do, all in one place that really has changed my workflow this year.
Effects-wise, there’s not a ton going on. I have an autopan on the second solo part and the “ice hit” noise sounds that bounce from side to side during the solo. There’s a phaser on the strings, and my normal Eventide presets for my vocals. A little echo, a little reverb sauce, call it a day. Or a really early morning. Whatever.
I do laugh at my backing vocal overkill approach, but it sounds so good. If you like my backing vocal harmonies, I’m glad. If you don’t like them, you can blame The Carpenters, Queen, and Styx.
The entire production occupies 43 tracks, 11 of which are drums and 21 of which are background vocals. That’s after I redid the Oooohs and removed the additional six tracks with lower parts. And I sang it all while the woman who’s been so patient with my slow emotional journey was (probably pretending to be) sleeping in the next room.
Love is weird. Love is awesome.
There’s not a cloud in the sky It’s crystal clear You’re like a butterfly But stay right here Chorus Let’s not get up too soon We’ll lie in bed till noon Then we can make our way To another beautiful day My Girl Let’s run away today Just you and me We’ll go on a holiday Beneath the sea Chorus I’m not too good at subtlety I guess you knew But I will spend eternity Loving you Chorus
- Drums: XO, Stylus RMX
- Piano: Spectrasonics Keyscape
- Bass: Trilian
- Synths: K5000S, SYSTEM-8, Streichfett, PolySix, MonoPoly
Some of Mary’s Favorite Songs
- Watching the World (Tiny Little Window) Ray Toler 3:40
- Peter Tricks the Magpie Ray Toler 3:50
- The Orrery Ray Toler 3:23
- The Verdant Wasteland Ray Toler 7:16
- Somatic Cube Ray Toler 4:50
- The Wire Heart Ray Toler 4:45
- Into the Black Ray Toler 3:38
- The Sixth Prime Ray Toler 2:20
- Cellin Ray Toler 3:04
Some of The Songs Ray’s Written for Mary
- The Lights Ray Toler 2:54
- The Sixth Prime Ray Toler 2:20
- I Know It's Five O'Clock Somewhere Ray Toler 3:16
- I've Never Written Her a Love Song Ray Toler 1:50
- I Find the Strength Ray Toler 2:45
- Let's Shoot the Moon Ray Toler 4:41
- Nothing in the Universe Ray Toler 3:11
- My Girl Ray Toler 4:20