Cutting Songs (And What To Do With ‘Em)
Last month, I wrote about the challenge I was having with a particular spot in a new musical where I felt I needed a song, but just couldn’t get it to work.
The good news is, I now have a new song that fits the bill! Success!
But it got me thinking: what happens to all those songs that have been cut? And why do we cut them in the first place?
I love getting the “extended editions” of albums: you know, the ones with “bonus tracks”, “b-sides”, demoes, scratch recordings and more. For me, it an insight into the writer or performer that the normal release doesn’t always give. I’ve noticed that these early-days or “unreleased’ recordings are becoming more popular to release perhaps because of the desire to know more about how everything on the album actually came to be.
See, I reckon there’s a special alchemy that occurs between the original concept of a song to its final release. There’s a magic. So much happens in that period of time, but as a consumer or audience member, we don’t often get to experience it.
Lin-Manuel Miranda gives us a brilliant look at his process in the extended edition of the Moana soundtrack, and also on the Hamilton Mixtape. On Jason Robert Brown’s website, you can listen to a huge collection of live takes, demoes and alternate versions (check out his blog entry about his music). Grab the original French version of Les Miserables and compare it to the later English releases. There’s massive changes. Even something like Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s Starlight Express has several differing releases: all with different songs, with different lyrics, and some songs that don’t make the cut after the initial release. In the pop world, artists as diverse as Taylor Swift, Bon Jovi, Helloween, Prince, P!nk, Billy Joel, The Beatles, etc., etc., etc., have releases that feature B-sides, Voice Memo versions, early unused tracks, and alternative versions. Do an iTunes search and see if your favourite artists have them. Sometimes, some of the best songs are the ones that don’t make the album release (have a few personal favourites that fit this category!).
As a musical composer myself, there’s a strange relationship when it comes to cutting songs. It’s a weird situation: the realisation that even though you’ve worked hard on creating something and poured your heart and soul (and time — lots of time) into it, it’s not quite right. Something’s off. Something doesn’t sit the way it should. Something just tells you it’s not what you really set out to write.
And yet, you don’t want to admit it to yourself because you created it. It’s the metaphorical creative child of your own design, heart and talent. You want to defend it, stand by it, for all of its flaws an inadequacies. Even after a period of time, there’s a connection with it because it’s a echo of who you were at that point in time. To consider it as “not right” is almost to slap yourself in the face with your own hand and risk thinking that what you do has no value.
While that’s certainly not the case, having to face cutting a song for whatever reason can be daunting. For me, there’s four realistic options:
1: Go Into Rewrite Mode
Figure out why the song doesn’t work and set about fixing it. Is it a lyric, a chord structure, a melody, tempo, key, arrangement, or something else? What is the thing that’s telling you it’s not right? After all, you created the song, so you have the license and the power to do whatever you damn well like to it!
I remember reading an article about Def Leppard when they started working with Mutt Lange on the High ’n’ Dry album:
“I remember when he [Mutt Lange — Producer] heard us play a song called When The Wind Blows and said: “It’s all right, but slow it down, it’s too fast. And those lyrics suck.” I thought, okay … That song became Let It Go.”
- (Classic Rock Magazine, Ed. 232, Pg. 81)
The Beatles were willing to change time signatures to get a song right (check out the demos of “I’ll Be Back” on Anthology 1). Billy Joel changed musical styles to get the elements right (“Only The Good Die Young” started off as a reggae track and then became a shuffle. “Christie Lee” started off as a swaggering boogie and was straightened for release. You can hear the early versions on the “My Lives” collection.)
Pretty much any song written undergoes a process of rewriting, some more than others. Ultimately, before you decide that a song isn’t going to work, see if you can rework it first.
2. Store It Away For Another Situation
It could well be that the song is great as it is, but it doesn’t suit what you need it for right now. It could well be that killer song you need later, but at this moment in time, it’s not.
Andrew Lloyd Webber did just that with the music for what became “I Don’t Know How To Love Him” for Jesus Christ Superstar: it was originally called “Kansas Morning” before having a lyrical rewrite. Going back to Billy Joel, the song “And So It Goes” was written during the Innocent Man period, but didn’t fit the album, until it appeared years later on Stormfront.
I’m sure there’s thousands of examples where the song was right, but the purpose or project wasn’t. I have a selection of songs that I’ve cut from shows that I would like to use in the future. I don’t know if I will, but they’re there if I need them. I even have a collection of songs from musicals that were never finished, for one reason or another. They’re great songs, and they are available to me when the time is right.
You may even use them for an “odds and sods” collection or project. Some of my favourite albums came about because the composer created such a collection. Jason Robert Brown released Wearing Someone Else’s Clothes and Stephen Schwartz released Uncharted Territory. Both albums showcase songs that weren’t used in the projects they were originally written for. You may even find that the random songs you have work as a song-cycle or theatrical piece. JRB’s Songs For A New World began as a collection of individual songs he had written for different projects.
So, store the song away — but don’t forget that it’s there for future use!
3. The Song Simply Sucks. Admitting this isn’t easy — let’s be honest, we all want to defend the very thing we’ve birthed. And fair enough too. But sometimes you just have to go “meh” and put the song in the bottom drawer of your cupboard. I blogged about this last month.
Just about every songwriter will have a collection of songs that will never see the light of day. Why? No matter how avid a fan you are, it comes down to the simple fact that they suck. Early on in my composing career, I wrote a whole musical that I binned soon after. No script survives. And there’s only one or two songs that have ever been heard. Even the title of the musical was crap. 95% of what I had worked hard to write was rubbish.
But here’s the amazing thing, even though the song was three types of dog poo, you have learned something about the craft, and certainly what not to do. The musical I mentioned above taught me a huge deal about character development, dramatic tension and intention, and songwriting. I also discovered the “big ballad”, and learned how to craft it. So, while you may have to deliver your hard work to the ‘bin’, rest in the knowledge that you learned something in writing it.
It’s easy to feel defeated after writing a song and then coming to the conclusion that the destination isn’t quite where you expected to be. However, it’s all part of the process — and you can’t expect to write perfection (or even great music) every time!
So whether you repurpose, rewrite, reuse, or just reject the song; it’s all part of the journey of being a songwriter.
Blog ya later!
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