Write, Cut, Write Again, Cut Again, Write Yet Again

Lately I’ve been focussed on completing a new musical that I’ve spent some time working on. It’s been a case of intense rewriting, rearranging and repositioning to get the show flowing how it should.

I’ve cut songs from the show and every other remaining song has had a lot of red pen through it in some way: both lyrically and musically. Many lines have been totally rewritten and many bars have been cut. My studio wall has little yellow and blue cards blue-tacked on it to help get a visualisation of the structure of the piece. The great news is that Act One is almost done and I’m very pleased with the shape it is in!

But this blog is the story of a song in one particular spot of the show.

It’s one of the songs I cut on this round of rewrites because the feel and intent of the song was completely wrong. When I first wrote it, I thought it fit. And while it’s a lovely song, after the reworking, the song had become totally wrong for that moment in the show. However, part of me still thought that a song should be there — a new one.

So this week I spent some serious time crafting a new song: different feel, different intent, different style, and even different characters doing the singing. I worked it so that it played out the dramatic action it needed to, had a defined purpose, and sat with how the characters needed to interact with each other.

I scored it, demoed it and thought I had accomplished what I set out to do. Job done, right?

Nope.

There was a problem.

My gut – my instinct – was telling me the song wasn’t any good.

Perhaps I’ve been too focussed on it and need time away from it, I reasoned. Give it some space.

So I finished up on it, worked on something else, and put the score away. The following morning I came back to it and had a listen.

The problem remained: it still wasn’t rating for me. I liked it more, but it was just ok. It wasn’t grabbing me.

Maybe it’s one of those songs that I’m cold on but others will like, I reasoned again.

That’s happened before. In fact, in each musical I’ve written there’s always a song that I’m not sure about, but other people love. Most often, the song stays and it becomes an integral moment in the show.

Maybe that was what was happening this time. What I needed was an objective ear to listen to the song.

So I called in my wife for a second opinion.

A note here: we all need someone who we trust to tell us if something is working or not. It’s someone who understands who you are and the process you go through in creating. It’s also someone who understands the need to be somewhat gentle in their critique: after all, you’ve just created something new! There needs to be a little discretion and a little grace, while also conveying complete honesty. My amazing wife is brilliant in these situations. I might not always like what she says at the time, but she’s the one to tell me what I need to hear.

So I played the song.

After the 4 minutes or so, I turned to her and asked the four most dangerous sequence of words I know: “What do you think?”

Let’s be honest here: although I need to hear what she says, I don’t always want to. I’ve just birthed a new song and I’ve thrust it under the guillotine immediately. Part of me wants to hear “Yes! I love it!” — but it might not be what I need to hear. There’s a big difference between getting what you want and what you need (to coin a classic Rolling Stones song). Anyone can give or say what you want, but that’s not going to help you move forward.

I look at her and she looks at me.

And I already know the answer.

The song isn’t any good.

But then she gives me the feedback that I hadn’t been able to admit to myself.

“The song’s OK, but you’ve written better. Stop overthinking it. Do you really need a song?”

And there it is:
1. I can do better. 
2. I’m trying too hard.
3. Maybe there shouldn’t be a song.

And she’s right.

Sometimes we can’t admit to ourselves what we know is true — it takes the wisdom and clarity of another person to speak it into reality. I am truly thankful that I have someone like that in my life.

I let the song go. Cut. Gone. Added it to the other six I’ve already jettisoned over the period of writing the show (which could possibly make an interesting blog in itself — the songs that don’t make it). There was a sense of mental and creative freedom once the decision had been made. I didn’t realise it at the time, but that song had been taking up mental space while I was working on other parts of the show. And once I had put it that song aside, the rest of the process began to flow again. I continued working on the rest of the show, steaming forward and getting some great stuff done.

And then today, just as I’m about to shut down the computer for the day, I open up a blank arrangement and throw my hands at the piano. It’s something that I do: sometimes I’ll belt out a Billy Joel song, or play something I wrote ages ago, or noodle around just letting my fingers do the talking …

… or suddenly realise that I’ve spent an hour fleshing out a new song to replace the one I happily cut and moved on from.

Maybe there’s a song there after all.

But I’ll explore that … tomorrow.

Until next time,

Blog ya later!

Drew

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