Most of the time I have "earworm" tunes that beg for a theme and frustrate the hell out of me. The strongest ones usually will find their theme (they often suggest it).
But the best songs I ever wrote started as short phrases: "It's the shame of coming back home empty-handed", "Sing to me Angelo", or "Where are the flowers that we put / into the muzzles of the guns". The phrases dictate the rhythm and time signature, and the accent dictates the tune - or leads me to it.
But the process is in fact different for each song. The simplest song I wrote was also the one that took me the longest (9 months). The tune - a little like a reflective hymn - came to me first, and immediately suggested the title ("The ending of the day"). At once I knew I wanted to write it as a combination prayer/love song, and I knew the structure of its three simple verses (what they would talk about). But I found it impossible to write the lyrics, though I tried many times. They were coming out too schmaltzy, too introverted or simply too "twee". Then one morning, I sat with my coffeee, lit up a cigar and I knew I was ready for it. It took me 15 minutes and it is one of my favourite songs to date.
I have started to get really frustrated with the "earworm" tunes recenlty; I have been allowing them to control what I write about. So, as of the last month or so, I am making a conscious effort to write starting with the subject and the lyrics. I am pleased with my first result - a song about the despair of transsexuals trying to lead a normal life in the midst of prejudice, and the enormous courage of those who embark on a full sex-change operation. I completed the lyrics before I allowed myself to think about the tune. When the tune came, at first it was too "soft" and melancholy; yet I wanted the song to be triumhant. I changed the time signature into a fast waltz backbeat, with the main tune riding across the top of it. It's ready now. It's called "Toni with an 'I'". And just for the hell of it, here are the lyrics:
Toni with an "I"
George Papavgeris, May 2005
1.You checked in just this morning
You're waiting in your room alone,
White gown with the ties on the back.
Not much there to distract you
There's nobody that you can phone
They'd only try to stop you
But it's too late – there is no turning back.
2.Remember the confusion
Just round the corner after school
When little Jenny kissed you on the lips.
You knew what was expected
But you just stood there like a fool
An actor who was handed the wrong script
3.The taunts and name-calling
Were followed by the beatings soon.
You did your best to take them in your stride.
At home no one to help you,
You might as well be from the moon.
You closed the world around you
And silent you nursed your wounded pride.
4.Then came the recognition
Like bolt of lightning in the dark,
That you were never different – just you.
Inside your isolation
You fanned to flames the little spark
And planned your resurrection
To find the happiness that you were due.
5.The years of pain followed
As one by one the covers fell,
Yet memories cut deeper than the knife.
But now you had a purpose:
That one day nobody could tell
The lie you had been living
And earn the prize of ordinary life.
6.So here you are now waiting,
Your goal is almost within sight,
A butterfly shedding its cocoon.
You pass the time erasing
The "Y" that was never right,
And practicing your new name;
The one that you'll be known by very soon.
(chorus - sung after each couple of verses)
But now it's almost over
For after this you will not have to lie
Your dreams are coming true now
Tomorrow you'll be Toni with an "I"
ALREADY you are Toni with an "I"