How to write a song in 32 567 frustrating steps

My songwriting secrets.

In case you would be interested in writing a Jazzinho album, let me explain how it is done. Well, it is rather simple but nevertheless requires a little bit of patience and a fair amount of money. In this post I explain in detail how to go about it; the recipe, the ingredients and the know how. It is all there so you too can record your own. Simple and easy! Think of me as being in the kitchen, and very much like Jamie Oliver, pretending it is all easy and that anybody can do it. In truth, as you have probably already fathomed, you should be prepared for a fair amount of frustration and the occasional tantrum.

Step one : Create a decent melody.

Well, here we go. Step one ! I just start humming a few notes, often while in the proverbial  shower. As I was not trained at Julliard or Berkelee, there is a fair amount of trial an error (understatement). Eventually, I start stringing a few coherent notes that make up a rather basic melody. Most often, at this stage, I have no lyrics, perhaps a word or two; and it usually sounds childish and primitive. Which is good, at least, at this stage, I have the pre-teen audience sorted. On the piano I play around with the melody which leads to a few chords. I then sit at my beloved iMac and  move onto Garageband. This is a simple and quick tool to throw a drum loops or two, a basic bass line, a piano melody, a few pads, may be some strings and what have you. Next step, I lock myself in the vocal booth and improvise a few lyrics. That’s usually when the theme comes together. In my songs the sound of the lyrics has as much importance as their meaning. It needs to sound the way I want.

Real musicians : if you can’t beat them, join them.

Guida de Palma and Luis Barrigas

Me and Luis Barrigas listening to our work being recorded.

On rare occasions, I write everything by myself and it comes rather naturally. In most cases, I struggle a wee bit and, out of frustration, I end up calling someone who knows a little, and more often a lot more about music than I do. In this case I have called Luis Barrigas and Graham Harvey.

Leon Ware

Mr.Leon Ware

For this new body of work, I have also asked Leon Ware, of Motown fame – I know, I’m not worthy -, if he had anything in his bag of Soul goodies. To my great surprise he gave me a fantastic Brazilian song that is also somewhat in the style of “I want you”, his seminal work for Marvin Gaye. Am I a lucky girl ? This was quite an interesting experience. I always wanted to experiment with Leon’s style of multiple vocal layers that sounds to be less structured. The truth is totally the opposite, to sound so natural, it took me hours to place my licks in the exact place. I hope you’ll like it,

Download the lovely duet we have done with Leon Ware.

It is also on iTunes, Amazon and hundreds of online stores.

Lyrics : say something interesting and deep.

Er… yeah. Whatever. Once I have a reasonably good melody, I need some decent lyrics. Believe me, that’s the difficult bit. Well, in plain English : writing the lyrics is the excruciating bit. I tend to think melodically, I see myself as a musician, not necessarily as a poet. Besides, being a woman, what comes naturally is, well, surprisingly, a bit “girly”. Not to everyone’s taste, but guess what? I like it : “Alone, again, naturally !” I can see how I am not full blast in the vibe of our times. I do not have too much of an obvious social conscience. You see, my models are more of the Gilbert O’Sullivan, Burt Bacharach and Hal David persuasion and I totally fall for the Carpenters. Do not get me wrong, in no way do I pretend I’m in the same league, but I fancy myself as belonging to the same school of thought. First, it has to be in English – or does it ? The truth is that English is not my mother tongue and I have been known to struggle a bit. As I also speak Portuguese and French, when I am stuck, I blag my way out by mixing in a bit of these languages. Right. Now that we have the lyrics, the melody, the chords and an idea of the rhythm, what do I do next ? Well, I transfer everything onto Logic and start recording the less basic demo with lyrics, BVs etc… you know I love BVs, so I indulge a lot. In the end I usually only keep 1% of all my ideas. OK, that’s it… I now have what starts to sound like a song.

Graham Harvey

Graham Harvey and I in Lisbon.

At this stage it’s still only a blueprint and I now need to send this to my accomplice Graham Harvey, the album producer, so he too can start having fun. He is the one with all the cool musical knowledge. Within a few days he gets back to me with a real demo of the kind you would send to a major company to find a record deal (OK, not anymore, they hardly exist these days). Graham is also an amazing composer, and I wrote the lyrics for two of the songs he wrote for the album. If you are an Incognito fan, you love his work, as some of the band’s best songs were written by Graham.

Pukka! Bob’s your uncle, we have a song !

Now, we are working on what musicians will record in the studio. I know, I forgot to mention, all this computer programming shenanigan is only about providing a guide for when we get in the thick of it, that is recording the actual track, in a real studio, with real musicians, reading scores and playing real instruments (you know, those weird contraptions that take at least 10 years to learn when you can simply assemble loops purchased online). That’s the arrangements bit. We select what instruments will play, what and when they will play it.

This is the time you start spending money you do not have yet… “It would be lovely to have some strings there ?” Er…. You mean a philharmonic orchestra or just samples ? Well, since music has become the fastest way to go bust, let’s not pussyfoot around the issue and go for the Full Monty. Real strings it is then ! And since we have them for one song, let’s use them on ALL of the tracks, so the album sounds coherent.

Now you have a pretty good idea of the initial steps and how easy it is 😉 Soon, in a later post, I will explain recording the rhythm tracks, all together in the studio, in London. Keep listening! I am.

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New Jazzinho in the making.

Looking in the rear view miror.

Click to download the first Jazzinho album.

The First Jazzinho album

Back in 2003, when major recording companies were multi-billion $ businesses and Napster was still a shiny glimpse in Wall Street’s eye, Guida de Palma and I created Jazzinho, a musical concept that found an audience in many countries around the world. To make sure the albums were up to our expectations, we hired the best musicians : Michele Chiavarini, Chris Franck, Neil Angilley and Ed Motta to name the most prominent. Guida put her great musical talent to create this idiosyncratic style fusing Soul, Jazz, MPB, Electronica with her Portuguese roots.

Seven year itch.

Of course it was not an entirely smooth and joyful ride. Vast quantities of money were lost : many local CD retailers and wholesalers went bust. Some friendships were destroyed, some others flourished. We had great joy, some pain and a few disillusions. In truth, Jazzinho is the second child we never had… a little brother to our beloved Iris. The last Jazzinho album was recorded seven years ago…. and you you know what they say about the seven years itch…. So two albums, many remixes, numerous live gigs and almost a decade later we have decided to record a brand new Jazzinho album. You have been warned 😉

Jazzinho 12" rmx by Nicola Conte on Freestyle

Nicola Conte remix of a track on Atlas, Jazzinho’s last album, produced by Ed Motta.

About this blog.

This blog is meant to be truthful, but, not to embarrass the various participants, unless they specifically allow us to do so, we will avoid naming them. Most of the time, it is I, Stephan, who will maintain the blog. Nevertheless Guida, as well as the musicians, sound engineers, producers, composers, special guests etc… are invited to contribute as well.

Disclaimer

This blog documents our efforts to create a new album. We should not be arrogant and believe we will succeed for sure. We might very well fail. We are now older than when we started Jazzinho but we are none the wiser. Things have changed lately, there’s a lot less money in music than there used to be, and creating good music requires significant investment. Fortunately, a very good and better off friend of ours, who happens to like good music, has offered to sponsor the next Jazzinho; we owe him to deliver the goods..

And now, over to you in the comments below !

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My lovely studio in the attic

Welcome to Guida’s kitchen !

Creating music is very much like cooking (as some might have noticed, I also have fondness for the good food). Over the years I have created a small but perfectly formed vocal booth where I can apply my trade as and when I want. Sometime, even in the middle of the night. It is equipped with the best tools for my voice. This is where I cook my groove. In this case the new Jazzinho album.

My Microphones

Microtech Gefell um92.1s

My Microtech Gefell UM92.1s

Like a chef with his pans and pots, it all starts with good microphones. On the left is my Microtech Gefell UM92.1s, which many consider as the one and only remaining original Georg Neumann  masterpiece, featuring the legendary M7 gold sputtered capsule designed by the Master himself in the late 30s. For those in the know, it is considered by many as the best capsule ever. Still assembled by hand, using the same original materials, process and specifications, in the original factory located in former East Germany, this is the capsule that equipped vintage microphones, like the mythical Telefunken U47 used by the likes of  Julie London, Sinatra and Nat King Cole. It is combined with a valve circuitry for that smooth analogue sound and an almost perfectly flat frequency response. In other words, it is the Excalibur of microphones. Its sound is extremely natural, not too harsh, not too soft and I can use it on almost any instrument.

The Neumann Company was split by the construction of the Wall and, to avoid legal problems with the Western Neumann branch, it was eventually renamed Microtech Gefell, after Gefell, the town where it is located. All the original and legendary technology stayed behind the iron curtain and, in the late 80s, the occidental Neumann company was sold to Sennheiser. It now has been many years that the Neumann microphones, though excellent, have nothing to do with the original brand. When the wall fell, the two companies tried to reunite but Sennheiser put a stop to that by buying both the name and the western factory. The design of my microphone itself is rooted in the 70s, with a weird soviet look to it, but inside, it is Soyouz rocket science.

I also own a few other microphones. I have a Neumann KM86i, Motown’s signature microphone used on most late sixties / early seventies albums. Here we are talking Diana, Marvin, Stevie, Smokey etc. Berry Gordy made a deal with Neumann’s US importer and purchased thirty two of them in one go and got rid of all other mics. It became the microphone the Funk Brothers used on everything from voices, strings, drums etc… It is also the microphone used for the infamous “Je t’aime, moi non plus” steamy duet by Gainsbourg and Birkin. Bardot did an even steamier version that was not released at the time, but this is altogether another story.

Besides these two I also have a classic Shure SM57 and a surprising great sounding and totally cheap AKG Perception.

The vocal booth

Inside the vocal booth

Inside my vocal booth.

This small studio is sufficiently spacious to accommodate two vocalists. It is extremely well isolated but nevertheless well ventilated. I can record myself without a sound engineer, as the keyboards, mouse and monitor allow me operate the main workstation outside. The light is provided by LEDs so it never gets too hot. Anyway, next year well install air conditioning.

 

Outboard gear.

Outboard-gear

Bottom is the Neve Portico II and MOTU 828 MKII at the top.

To make make sure that what is recorded is sufficiently loud and has the aural characteristics I look for, the signal is pumped into a Neve Portico II channel strip combining the absolute best pre-amplification, compression and EQ money can buy. This is the nirvana of sound engineering. With this baby I can polish and remove all asperities from any voice, turn any screech into a soft an creamy whisper.

Once I have the sound I want, using a MOTU 828 MKII sound card, I then convert it into a digital signal compatible with the recording software on my iMac. I usually record my vocals at 24 bits 96Mhz which results in massive AIFF files at a very fine resolution. In plain English, this is more than twice the resolution of a CD : we are talking amazingly accurate reproduction.

Workstation and DAW Software

All this gear is hooked to a fantastic workhorse. Things have evolved significantly since my Atari days at the School of Audio Engineering in London (SAE). Now, I use a simple 16 GB iMac running OSX 10.6 with Logic 9. It has plenty of power and I can download the relevant plugins that I can run native. It is simple, powerful and rather stable.

Monitoring

This is the weak link at the moment. I do not yet have what I want but good things come to those who wait. In due course, I am at getting a pair of Quested S8R. The “crème de la crème” of professional studio monitoring. But, in all fairness, what I use now is rather cool. My good friend Eddy lent me his very own pair of vintage Yamaha NS-10. Those who know will understand: if it sounds good on a pair NS-10, it will sound great on anything else.  I also have a pair of Samson, a legacy of my previous home studio. It does the job though, but I now need something more in line with the rest of the line up.

Hooking up with the rest of the world via ISDN and Skype.

I have set up a separate Mac Mini with a Apogee Duet card solely to to work with Skype. This opens a world of opportunities and means you can both hear what I record and interact with me in real time. I spend hours with musicians all the world to fine tune BVs or lead vocals.

At some point in the nearby future I plan to install an ISDN line. For those who do not know, this is a leased digital line, that you connect if and when you need. It will link my studio to any other ISDN equipped studio in the world. Meaning, if and when I need I can record for projects on the other side of the planet without leaving my home. I can work in real time with people thousands of miles away. I already have the CODEC ( encoder/decoder), it is simply a matter of getting the ISDN line in.

Hey, here it is, this is all I need to get by….

And now, over to you in the comments below !

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