Monday, January 24, 2011

A Quick Swim in the Sea of Music with Nick "Sea of Otters" Ciavatta

If you only know Nick Ciavatta from his many appearances in bars and clubs throughout New York and New Jersey, you could certainly be forgiven for thinking that the singer/songwriter's speaking voice is as booming loud and in-your-face as his performing voice. In truth, the impressive way Ciavatta has, for over twenty years, utilized his industrial-strength vocal cords to belt out sardonic songs about prima-donna-ish rock stars and lawn-obsessed misanthropes belies the soft-spoken and gregarious personality lurking beneath the surface.

Talking to him in person, one quickly realizes that Ciavatta is about as friendly and down-to-earth as they come, and it's easy to hear why people are eager to recruit his rich, warm tone for everything from Sears and Clear Eyes commercials to voiceovers for the Charlie Rose show. He is, however, an artist first and foremost- one who's not only out there performing his own stuff, but also playing midwife to other up-and-coming musicians by interviewing them on his website or featuring them at his weekly open-mic show in Jersey City.

In the spirit of that generosity, we asked Nick to share some of his songwriting methods and insights with Tune Tipster. Here's what he had to say:

Tune Tipster: Your songs have been described as a mix of folk and punk. Is that blend intentional? Do you find that to be an apt description?

Nick Ciavatta: I’m not sure if anything about my songs is intentional-they are all just happy accidents, as far as I’m concerned. As far as a label for my music goes, it’s been described as Folk/Punk, Alternative Funk, and even Alt Pop. I like to think of my style as “Experimental Uptown Jugband Stomp.”

TT: OK, that's one I've never heard - definitely sounds like a niche genre. (Laughs.) Okay, well, how about your lyrics? They seem to be far more thought-provoking and satirical than the average rock song. Where do most of your lyrical ideas originate?

NC: Thanks. To be honest, I really wish I knew where they came from. Not to sound mystical or anything, but after I write a song I often wonder where the hell it came from. I ask myself, “Did I really write that?” I wrote a song called “Disclaimer” years ago and didn’t realize until relatively recently that the song was actually about myself and this phase in my life. Pretty freaky, huh?

TT: Very freaky! So, do you write your lyrics before the music, vice versa, or both at the same time?

NC: That’s a great question, and it varies. For the most part, I mess around with a musical theme and then write the lyrics-usually in a 20 minute session. But, I’ve also written entire songs in my head before I even pick up an instrument, which sounds more impressive than it actually is. I’ve also set my poetry to music as well, so I guess the short answer is that it varies.

TT: Have you ever had to throw away or re-work words you really loved simply because they weren't gelling with the music?

NC: Absolutely-I’ve actually had to scrap entire songs because I didn’t think they were any good, or perhaps they sounded too much like another song. I’ve probably scrapped as many tunes as I’ve kept. I find that I am more focused now than I was when I was younger and tend to only write when I really feel that I have something interesting to say.

TT: With that in mind, how do you know when you've written a good song? What do you consider the finest song you've ever written, and why?

NC: Wow-that’s a tough one. I’d like to say that I judge a song by audience response, but there’s more to it than that. When I debut a song at a gig and I don’t get fruit thrown at me, I consider it a win. Other than that, it really just goes by the way I feel when I play it. If it feels good to me, it’s a keeper. I think, and some may disagree, that the finest song I’ve ever written is “Anti-Social Butterflies” because I think almost anyone can relate to it, and it feels really good when I play it.

TT: Do you set aside time to write, or is it pretty much whenever inspiration strikes?

NC: I wish I could be so organized, but it really is whenever inspiration strikes. Unfortunately my muse keeps strange hours.

Find more artists like Nick Ciavatta at Myspace Music

TT: While I agree that "Anti-Social Butterflies" is your finest moment, I think "Dressing Room" is probably your "poppiest" song - in the best possible way. Did you make a conscious decision to write a more accessible tune, or was it merely a happy accident, as you say? Do you ever set out to write a "hit" song, for lack of a better word?

NC: Believe it or not, I actually wrote “Dressing Room” in the actual dressing room at CBGG’s in NYC many years ago. There was another band in there that was going on before us and they spent about an hour doing their hair and makeup; yes, it was at the tail end of the hair metal days. They looked very glam, but forgot to tune their instruments, and thus sounded like crap. I wrote that song about them and other musicians who care more about fame and getting laid than their music. I don’t think I’ve ever set out to write a “hit”, but I would be thrilled if one of my songs achieved such status. I think the closest song I have to a hit would be “Life Without Pills” which everyone seems to love and request.

TT: Lots of your songs have unusual chord sequences and unique chord configurations. Is that the Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart fan in you, or is it something else?

NC: Another great question! I suppose I am influenced by Zappa, who was brilliant, but I was writing songs before I really got in to Zappa or Beefheart. I was influenced by bands like Queen, King Crimson and the Beatles and Stones as a young guitarist. I would have to say the two biggest influences on my guitar style would be my Uncle, Ren Selvaggio, who was my first guitar teacher and mentor as a child. He was a jazz player in the style of Django Reinhardt or Les Paul, and I think that’s where I first learned about strange and wonderful guitar chords. My other mentor as a child was Buzz De John, who helped me refine my style. I owe a lot to both of them, and learned a lot, not just about music, but life in general from them.

TT: You used to play a lot of shows on the Jersey shore, but now you're primarily based in New York and Jersey City. Do you find a difference in the feel of the crowds? Has it forced you to alter your material or your playing in any way?

NC: I did play a lot on the Jersey Shore and in NYC and Hoboken back then and I love all the crowds. The great thing about the NYC, Jersey City, and Asbury Park music scenes is that the crowds are so open-minded and accepting of original music. I haven’t had to change a thing about the way I play, and wouldn’t even if I were asked to.

TT: Will Sea of Otters (Ciavatta's band before he went solo) ever "swim" again?

NC: We actually are currently swimming under the name “New Otter Review” these days, which features Pat Lally, my cousin and partner in crime on guitar and vocals. Pat was in Sea of Otters and we have thought about doing a Sea of Otters reunion show with former members in the near future. Keep checking Friggin Fabulous Radio Dot Com for updates!

TT: Don't worry, we've got it in our favorites. (Laughs.) Finally, what's the best advice you can give up-and-coming songwriters?

NC: My advice is to network, network, network! Use My Space, Facebook, YouTube and Linked In to your advantage and find someone that is dedicating to constantly updating your social networking status. It’s also helpful to hook up with a great publicity firm such as Cyber PR, who will work really hard to get your name out there. Oh, and get your music on a Ford or Campbell’s Soup commercial as soon as you can!

Find out more about all things Ciavatta here!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Destroy All Instruments!!!

Okay, that title might be a little extreme, even though I know a lot of people would like me to destroy MY instruments, but there is a certain wisdom to be found in those words. In fact, it reminds me of some of the best songwriting advice I ever heard, which came from none other than Barry Gibb of The Bee Gees. (Not directly, mind you, it's not like Barry and I sit around shooting the sh*t about how to groom your chest hair, or anything.)

Now, I know some people might scoff at The Bee Gees for their disco tunes, but those people are sorely misguided because The Bee Gees are, in fact, extremely gifted songwriters who have written some of the most diverse, enduring and popular tunes of the last 40 plus years. Not only that, they can wear the sh*t out of white pants suits.

Anyway, what Barry said, and I agree with from personal experience, is that songwriters should, from time to time, write away from their instruments. What this means is it's a good idea to get away from your favorite composing tool and try to come up with melodies, rhythms, and harmonies in your head, if possible.

While this may sound difficult - especially if you're in the early stages of songwriting - it does help to free you up from learned or ingrained patterns of behavior and keeps you from falling into a rut. For example, if you write on the piano, you may find yourself always starting with an a minor chord and then going to a G magor chord immediately after. If you write in your head, you may surprise yourself and shift to a g minor chord or something equally adventurous. Or, you might do six bars of a melody before changing the harmony, instead of your usual four or two.

Similarly, you can try writing on a different instrument than you're accustomed, if you are able to do so. Hell, sometimes it's more exciting to write on another instrument that you DON'T know how to play because it ooften takes you places you would never go once you get a little theory in you.

So try stepping away from your instrument to write; don't let it be a songwriting crutch. Try writing in your head riding the bus to work one day or late at night lying in bed (quietly of coruse, so you don't disturb your significant other). You may actually surprise yourself and come up with something innovative that you really like. Plus, you can always go back to your instrument of choice and fill in the blanks if you get stuck. That is, unless you took the first line of this blog to heart and threw your guitar in the fireplace or something...

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Myths and Fallacies, Part 2

Here's another in our ongoing series of misguided beliefs which can sabotage the budding songwriter.

Fallacy #2: The more notes in a song, the better it is.

I like to call this the "prog-rock" or "virtuoso" myth. There are tons of technically proficient musicians who can make their fret boards or drum sets literally burst into flames with crazy, animated, frenetic playing. There are also tons of songwriters who feel that they must write to accomodate said musicians by packing tons of notes, crazy chord changes, and tricky time signatures into every song.

Usually these writers/musicians send aspiring, would-be writers/musicians into fits of glee. And 99 out of 100 times I could care less. Someone once said that the notes you choose not to play are just as important as the notes you choose to play, and this is 100 percent true. Crazy soloing and long elaborate scores may have their place, but too many people look up to these writers and performers simply because they are doing something they can't. It is not enough to write thousands of notes: the secret is to select the most effective notes that communicate the feel you want. Otherwise, you're just talking and talking, and you're not really saying anything.

So unless you're writing for King Crimson, keep it lean and mean.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Be Thought-Provoking, Don't Tell People How to Think

Songwriters often feel very strongly about things and urgently feel like they need to share their message with the world. This sort of impulse goes with the territory of being an artist, I suppose, although some feel the need more acutely than others. Young songwriters in particular often feel the need to try and make people change their ways, or see the world from their point of view.

However, I want to caution you to tread lightly when trying to "convert" the world to seeing things your way. This is not to say that you shouldn't feel passionately about things or even that you should compromise your view. If you feel strongly about a subject, you should definitely express your feelings about it.

This is more about being effective in your modes of expression; what good is shouting at people and telling them "what they should do" if you're only going to turn them off and make them even more determined to ignore your pleas? No one wants to be lectured to or told what they're doing wrong. To do so comes off as the height of arrogance and serves mainly to alienate the listener.

At best, songs that chastise the listener in the second person serve mainly to galvanize fans who are already converted to the singer's viewpoint and agenda (i.e. the proverbial "preaching to the choir"). While these songs DO have a place within certain genres (punk, heavy metal), and can help "rally the troops," they primarily serve a cathartic function and the writer shouldn't expect much in the way of actually changing anyone's behavior. (You probably shouldn't expect much change, either way, actually.)

My personal view is that it's much better to seduce the listener, or give them food for thought, rather than try and jam an opinion down their throat. Any moral debate actually worth having is loaded with nuance and grey areas - no one really needs a song telling us how immoral it is to shoot someone for kicks - and the mature songwriter recognizes this fact. As a result, he tries to shed more light on his own viewpoint or, best-case scenario, he gets people to question something they may have taken for granted in the past. (Leave aside the fact that most people only want entertainment and don't listen to popular music for enlightenment or politics and would consider it foolish to do so.)

To illustrate my point, let's look at two songs on the unlikely song subject of vegetarianism. First, consider the well-known title track from The Smiths' 1985 album, "Meat is Murder." If you've never heard it, check it out here:

While The Smiths recorded some great songs and remain a critic and fan favorite to this day, you really have to wonder who THIS song is appealing to exactly, and whether or not I agree with the message of the song is beside the point. While the goal might be to "unsettle" the meat-eating listener with the sounds of animals being led to slaughter (and there's no doubting Morrissey's sincerity and passion), I can't really imagine anyone listening to this and changing their carnivorous ways. Good intentions aside, it just comes off as too petulant, overwrought, and condemnatory to be effective. As a result, the song serves only as a self-congratulatory anthem for the already-converted, and I doubt even THEY enjoy listening to the repeated moans of a doomed bovine.

Now, contrast "Meat is Murder" with this song from 1982, "Torture Me" performed by punk legends The Damned and written by band member and avid animal rights activist Captain Sensible:

"Torture Me" is about the exact same topic as "Meat is Murder." but is arguably far more effective, despite its lesser-known status. Why is this? Firstly, the equally-earnest Captain Sensible, rather than playing the righteous accuser (even if that's the hidden intention) adopts the first-person role of an animal being slaughtered for food. As a result, he immediately casts himself as victim as opposed to moral judge. This is a clever move, and also one that forces the listener (if he's paying attention at all) into an unfamiliar perspective.

Secondly, the band offsets some of the gruesomeness of the imagery by couching the lyrics in a pretty but sad and plaintive piano melody. Rather than putting the listener on the defensive, this strategy makes the listener even MORE receptive to the subject matter at hand. However, despite the alluring effect, the music remains consistent with the tragic theme of the lyrics.

"Torture Me" is a thought-provoking and imaginative approach to a moral issue that's difficult to broach in the context of popular song. And, while Captain Sensible's moral message may be exactly the same as Morrissey's, his M.O. is completely different. Admittedly, like "Meat is Murder," "Torture Me" has probably never won any converts. However, which song do you think is more LIKELY to give the neutral listener pause? Which song do you think the neutral listener would rather hear if he's already decided on the moral issues? Which one feels more like "preaching to the choir"?

As I said earlier, I have no doubt that Morrissey is quite sincere in his unwavering support of animal rights. Perhaps he would argue that venting his moral outrage on behalf of his fans was the whole point of "Meat is Murder." Fair enough. However, if an artist isn't going to appeal to anyone outside his faithful flock, then he's verging on the artistically insular.

Besides, where is it written that the goal of a songwriter is to "make people think like me"? That's an arrogant goal and possibly the height of folly. Don't fall into the trap of trying to overreach the limitations of a pop song just because of your moral certitude or blinding ambition to bring enlightenment to the masses. Recognize the strengths and weaknesses of your genre and make them work for you.

If you want to make people think, don't tell them what to think or how to think. Try showing them things from a different perspective and let them think for themselves. If your point of view is worthwhile, you'll gain far more converts and fans by stimulating their minds than you will by admonishing their actions.

Give people food for thought, but don't jam it down their throats. Even if it's meatless food for thought.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Cons of Inconsistency

One of the big secrets to writing effective pop music is consistency. In fact, I believe this is one of the MOST important skills an aspiring songwriter can master, but still one of the most overlooked.

By consistency I mean that certain elements of your song need to remain relatively stable as in order to give the impression of a cohesive whole. In general, your tone, theme, mood, subject matter, voice and point of view should all stay within a certain "range" and any wild musical or lyrical shifts ought to be the result of carefully considered design as opposed to haphazard chance.

How many times have you been on youtube and listened to an original song with lyrics all over the map? How many times have you listened to a new song that was pleasant enough but it feels oddly bipolar or schizophrenic (and not in a good way)? How about songs that start off with solid, concrete imagery, then lapse into the realm of the abstract, before finally turning into a jumble of clich├ęs? Many of these problems can be traced to a lack of consistency.

Here are some of the more important types of consistency to keep in mind while writing "pop" songs.

1) Consistency between lyrics and music.

All else being equal, you want your music to roughly match the feel of your lyrics. You might have some great words you're just DYING to use, but don't assume you can just randomly graft them onto the first catchy melody you come up with. If your melody sounds like a sweet lullaby, combining it with a political dissertation on war in the Middle East won't work 99 out of 100 times. Listen to your music. What's it saying? Listen to your lyrics. What music expresses the emotion therein?

With this in mind, I am fully aware of the way a writer might use tools like irony to pair a happy melody with a sad lyric, and vice versa. Or perhaps a writer could employ mechanical beats to provide dynamic contrast or undercut a particularly passionate lyric. These types of maneuvers require a particularly deft touch, however, and most of the time they play off the consistency our ears expect.

2) Consistency of Pronoun Use

Unless you're deliberately obscuring your lyrics for some artistic reason, you want to be clear on who did what to whom, and where and when it happened. Too often I read lyrics and I can't figure out what the hell's going on because the pronouns are either shifting or unclear to begin with. Did "he" run off with "her" brother? Or are "you" running off with "him" because some OTHER "she" betrayed "us" both? Just like normal writing, you want your pronouns to be clear and consistent.

3) Consistency of Tense

Hoo boy. Here's another common trap that writers fall into: The song starts off in the present ("He's driving all night, looking for his girl..."), then shifts to the past at some point ("Then he FOUND her in that diner..."), then back to the present for a second verse, and then suddenly we're in the past again! Unless you're HG Wells, you want to avoid all the funky time travelling, especially when describing a specific event at a specific point in time. If the song's events are in the past, keep them in the past. If they're happening in the present, keep it in the present.

Of course, there are songs that start out describing the past ("I went out searching") before moving into the present to describe something that's happening now ("…but NOW I have you"). However, it's still vital that you keep the tenses consistent with the song's narrative time line, and any switch in tense should be clear and logical.

4) Consistency of Voice.

Whatever voice you start the song with, that's the one you want to carry throughout (unless you have a thematic reason for switching). So, for example, if your "voice" is happy, conversational, and uses "everyday" language, don't abruptly switch over to angry, professorial or pretentious language in your chorus. This seems like obvious stuff, but too often people get tripped up trying to make a line work where it plainly doesn't, just because they're enamored with a particular phrase. Writers need to learn to sacrifice parts (even parts we love) for the good of a song's overall consistency.

More to come…

Friday, May 28, 2010

Downplaying the V Chord, or Death Cab Vs. The Dominant Five!

A lot of budding songwriters ask me how they can make their tunes less "obvious." In other words, they want to avoid those moments where the song seems to be screaming out, "GET READY, 'CAUSE HERE COMES THE CHORUS!!!!"

While that type of predictably is sometimes a good thing - it makes a song especially easy to reemember and sing - there are other times when you want to be a bit more surprising. There are myriad ways to achieve that kind of subtlety, but one of the best ways I know is what I call "downplaying the V chord."

As you probably know, the V chord and the V7 chord have a very strong pull toward the tonic. For example, if you play a G7 chord in the key of C, the listener has a very strong expectation of hearing a C chord next. When you couple a G7 chord with a very "climactic" high note, this can reinforce the listener's expectations even more. So here a few simple ways you can take the "edge" off of the V chord, thwart the listener's expectations, and create musical complexity.

1) Replace the tonic with a subsitute chord.
After playing a V chord (G in the key of C), you can easily surprise the listener by moving to, say, vii (A minor in the key of C) or iii (E minor in the key of C) instead of going to the I chord (C major).

2) Modulate to a whole new key.
You can pretty much modulate anywhere when the V chord falls at the end of the pre-chorus. If your pre-chorus ends on G (V) and your chorus begins on C (I), experiment with writing a new chorus in any one of these keys, for starters: D major, E flat, or A flat. (Then try to return to C for the next verse or section.)

3) Hit a "down" note on the dominant V chord, or an "up" note on a tonic I.
Structure your melody so it dips down when the harmony is soaring "up" in anticipation of the chorus. Conversely, try hitting a high "dramatic" note when you play the stereotypically "peaceful and at rest" tonic. For example, in my song "Send me a Sign," the bridge ends on a V chord (C major, in this case) before returning to the main progression of  I - flat VII - IV - I. (F, E flat, B flat, F). However, the melody dips DOWN on the last couple of bars of the V chord, before soaring up for the I chord (which is actually the beginning of the next section.)

4) Ditch the V altogether!
Lots of songs gain their power from a certain amount of tonal ambiguity, flirting with other keys or medieval modes. By avoiding certain chords (or using them sparingly) you can make your songs more mysterious, moody and subtle. For example, Roxy Music's "Mother of Pearl" has a whole second section which consists solely of  D - A - E - E   (flat VII - IV- I, also known as a double plagal cadence) repeating over and over. This gives the song an almost mystical, trance-like feel which is well-suited to the song. Or, consider Death Cab for Cutie's "Soul Meets Body" which employs only three chords: D minor, F and C, to be exact. On first insepection, the song appears to be in D minor natural or D dorian, (or possibly even C major or F major, based on chords alone) but by carefully skirting the "A7" the song retains an elusive, "ghostly" feel - again mirroring the lyrics quite nicely. For practice, try writing your own song that eschews the traditional V and V7 chords.

With just these few tips and ideas in mind, you're ready to start writing far more nuanced songs. Once you've mastered the art of writing "less obvious" melodies and chord progressions you can even mix things up by alternating between the straightforward, on-the-nose stuff and the more subtle material - sometimes within the same song.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Heavyweight Titles, Part Two

Hey, remember that killer song "Once in a While" by the phenomenal 90's rock band Dishwalla? Remember how it TORE UP the airwaves like a bad-ass mother back in 1998 and continues to crop up in regular rotation on just about every rock station you can think of??? What about that cool 1999 song "It's Saturday" by alt-rockers Marcy Playground? You couldn't get AWAY from that one. Man, I still can't get that one out of my head.

No??? You don't remember EITHER of those songs??? Hmmmm. But I'll bet you dollars to doughnuts you DO remember Dishwalla's "Counting Blue Cars," doncha? (You know, the one that goes, "Tell me all your thoughts on god... cause I'd really like to meet her...") And I KNOW you remember Marcy Playground's infectious little ditty called "Sex and Candy." Ah-ha! Sure you do!

Now, some people would argue that the reason we know the earlier hits by these guys is because they were musically better songs. Maybe. Other people would say those bands had their 15 minutes of fame and radio was ready to throw them under the bus. Maybe again.

However, I personally believe that part of the problem was not just a (debatable) lack of quality in the follow-up singles, but a distinct lack of "hook" in the titles. Now, I'm not a big fan of either song, but when you first hear titles like "Counting Blue Cars" or "Sex and Candy" (before hearing the songs themselves) you DEFINITELY want to know what they're about! "Once in a While" or "It's Saturday"... not so much.

You might argue that you didn't know the Dishwalla song was called "Counting Blue Cars" and you still remember it anyway, but WHY do you think you heard it in the first place? Songs don't just play themselves on the radio. It's quite likely that programmers and DJ's were intrigued enough by the title to give it a few spins when it debuted, and then the title, along with the lyrical novelty (god as a woman) and song's overall catchiness were enough to keep the song in heavy rotation.

When I worked at a radio station and the song "Once in a While" came out, I vividly remember looking at the CD case (before playing it) and thinking, "Well, that's the end of Dishwalla." Not because the song is bad, per se; I just knew it was gonna be kinda generic and ordinary. And sure enough it was.

Of course, I need to stress that you CAN still have a hit with ordinary, banal tititles, as many of you will no doubt be quick to point out. Sure, there are tons of hit songs by huge bands that have cliched or poor titles, but that doesn't mean weak titles aren't a hindrance in general.

Yeah, sometimes a song just cries out for a title like, say, "She" or "Tonight." But when you have a relatively ho-hum title, you better make sure the song blows the listener out of the water on every other level, because you're starting the race with a handicap. Sad to say, unless you're already on the level of Lady Gaga or U2 people just aren't going to be that eager to hear a new song titled "I Love You." (Well, maybe some people will be.)

More to come...