It’s like the chicken or the egg question: which comes first, the music or the words?
I’m happy to write songs in either order, words first or music first. When the words come first I like to tease out a melody, stretching it, bending it, looking for the music in the natural rhythm of the syntax, the flow of the syllables. I was a teen when I started writing shy, short texts like “are you paranoid? are you perpendicular to the wall? are you parallel to the ground? are you paranoid?”. Next I would pull out a big four track tape machine, the Fostex, that my gadget-happy brother Reg offered me. In the privacy of my room, I would sing different overlapping tracks until I arrived at the melody that really struck me as being how it goes. An example of how that sounds can be found in the song Anchor which features vocal overdubs and a more developed sort of paranoid lyric.
Or if you flip it all around and start on the opposite end, one can listen to a melody and tease out the words instead. It’s like deciphering a mystery or untangling a lost story. I don’t generally compose with melodies first so I’m more likely to collaborate and write lyrics for someone else. When we were kids and my brother wanted to learn every song under the sun, he would appear with fake books full of tunes and settle in with his guitar. We spent a lot of time learning jazz standards, picking and choosing our favourites. What else can you do when there’s no colour t.v., no internet, no computers? Ah, the good old days. The fake books were big and fat but even that source of inspiration wasn’t infinite so it was only a matter of time before Reg had to start writing his own tunes. And I had it in my head that I wanted to be Stevie Wonder but as a little blonde girl in Northern Ontario, I was pretty sure I’d have to go to some lengths to accomplish that. The best I could come up with was that I should probably start by writing my own songs like he did. So I was motivated to take Reg’s melodies and sit with my eyes closed, pen and paper at hand, and try to hear the words inside the guitar lines. Sometimes it would jump out me and I’d just trust that those first words that popped into my head would take me somewhere by the end.
Last year, when he told me he was working on a new album featuring a collection of many songs he’s written for vocalists, I was happy to join in and resurrect a few of the songs we’d written years ago. And I asked him to send me some new tunes so we could add some fresh songs to the mix. It seemed right to celebrate his song collection with even more songs.
He sent me a batch of guitar melodies titled things like song #8, Untitled #6, so no hints at all. I went through them, listening closely for songs that felt as though they are speaking to me. Then the scribbling began, the fast forwarding and rewinding, testing the words and discovering a small story. Sometimes it is very visual, other times it has more to do with a mood. And once in awhile there’s just a lot of guitar and I move along to the next one.
One of the first melodies I picked in this recent batch made me feel like I was gliding along somewhere in nature. As I listened I had an impression of being on a bicycle and thought of my cousin Marianne and all her cycling adventures in Provence in France. Imagining how she must feel when she returns there every couple of years, I started writing about the fields of lavender. This left me with the dilemma of singing the word purple several times in a row, not an obvious word to hang on to in a flowing melody but I persisted nevertheless. It is fitting that Reg invited our old friend, the great saxophonist Perry White, to play on this piece as he too is an avid cyclist.
The last song on the album is from a different landscape altogether, a dreamy place that is yet haunted by cold winds and unpredictable weather, and populated with a myriad assortment of birds. This song, which Reg titled Crow’s Call, has a mystical air to it so the story here is not really narrative but more about brush strokes of of imagery, much like the artwork on the cover of the Songbook cd.
That artwork was created by our mother Agatha Schwager for her last exhibition here in Montreal, The Shadows of My Hand. She studied Chinese ink brush painting before producing this last series of artwork and her goal was to express the energy of her ideas in her swift, strong brushstrokes. She told me that after she showed these abstract paintings to her Chinese brush painting teacher and one of his friends, the two men stood together for a long time in silence, contemplating the work. Finally they turned and asked her, “did you study the crows for a long time before you painted them?”. That made her laugh, surprised that they saw crows where she had seen abstraction.
Brodie West’s contribution on this song fits the ornithological theme well. His inventive sounds reminded me of a cardinal so I included a photo of one of my backyard red cardinals on the album artwork to honour this bird’s input, as he is overlooked in the lyrics.
Two other vocalist/lyricists, Luanda Jones and John Alcorn, contributed to Reg’s oeuvre and it is fascinating to hear their lyrics alongside Reg’s compositions. All the songs are consistent and the lyrics are always perfectly in step with the melodies. It’s proof, I think, that the melodies contained the lyrics all along, and we are just the detectives who have peeled away the layers to reveal them.