We chatted to her about her recent song ‘Made of Light’ for the project, a collaboration with fellow PSP songwriter Maya McCourt.
1. Have you recorded any collaborations before?
Yes, I am fortunate to have been able to collaborate with many local and not so local musicians … but precisely this one with Maya is my ﬁrst distance collaboration.
Listen to Lizeth’s collaboration, Respiro by
I remember we were talking about that week’s playlist right at the end of PSP phase one. And we were sharing the mutual fascination for each other’s music and some experiences about recording and mixing, and I think it only popped up in the conversation like, ‘We should do a collaboration one day …’ Then the next phase came and as soon as I saw the collaboration station badge, I thought we could take the opportunity.
Yes, we talked about it a little but not structurally, I think we basically focused on how much
freedom each of us would have with our part, and we agreed total freedom and once we put the main ideas together go with the ﬂow of the song. At ﬁrst it was just like ‘I’ll send you some piano tracks, a basic structure, and if the lyrics or maybe a Solo part require changes, we can do it…’ and after I sent my idea to Maya she sent me back three Cello tracks, lyrics, melody and some backing vocals … almost immediately … wow! then I just added more backing vocals.
I think it was mostly through experimentation. I had a couple of chords in my head and once I started recording them and decided to keep it simple and repetitive the entire song came out and I liked the idea of giving space to what could be generated with vocals and cello or maybe some effects. Then I had a conversation with Maya just before uploading the song and she told me that she just had a vague idea for the melody and started singing and recording it, doing some improvisation on the lyrics as well. I was surprised because I had thought of doing something similar and did the same thing with the vocals at the end of the song, so, I think most takes on this one are ‘ﬁrst takes’.
I usually think ﬁrst about the song’s subject and try to imagine about what story I want to tell with my song, whether it’s instrumental or not; and I use that as my creative guide.
This time I didn’t think about it, I just recorded music without thinking about being in control of the end result. I have never done that for a recording. And the process and the result were beautiful!
Logic, Tascam US-144 interface, Akai MPK Mini Midi Controller, M-Audio Nova LDC Microphone.
Deﬁnitely more! Learning to collaborate musically with someone new is an invaluable experience.
Listen to and download ‘Made of Light’ by Lizeth Ruvalcaba and Maya McCourt on Bandcamp:
Interview with Maya McCourt coming soon
Why I Write Songs:
I write songs because I’m too cheap to go to therapy. Actually, that’s not true, and particularly because I currently am in therapy (affordable therapy is a thing, friends, apparently, and not just the kind you find in best mates, or the bottom of a bottle, or in the back of 90s magazines).
But to say I write songs as a kind of therapy is definitely true, and I’m sure it’s true of a lot of people who write songs. In my mind, it’s sort of what they’re there for. I think without problems to sort out I wouldn’t write songs, or at least the songs I currently write. I also write songs as passing the time on interminable night journeys home through London. I seriously don’t know what other people do on the night bus, apart from possibly wish they were dead. Happy people don’t catch the night bus because they’re at home in bed dreaming sweet dreams and not coming home pissed at 4 in the morning after saying they’d only stay ‘for one’. But I digress.
I often find by the time I come to the end of a song; I’ve discovered what I didn’t realise I want thinking all along. For me, songs are the truth I didn’t know I possessed, the careful unpicking of the tangle of thread that is my thoughts. Writing a song, you carefully tease out the tangle, arrive at the beginning that was there all along, and just invisible. Apart from that one song. That’s just about bees. Look, I just like bees. Not everything is a metaphor.
I also write songs to find beauty in sadness. Or to express the beauty in sadness, because I think without that sometimes the sadness would end me, honestly. Art is the expression of emotion. It is a vent, a way of making the cruelty of the world (on whatever level, the individual or the societal) sort of all worthwhile. Also sometimes to get people to sleep with you, which, let’s be fair, is a pretty important task.*
So, a mix between sweet distraction and beautiful acceptance. I get so lost in individual songs, that every song I write, I’m terrified it will be my last, but it never is, there’s always another one waiting around the corner, ready to be discovered, teased out of the tangle. And, y’know, it’s a pretty big tangle, so I reckon there’s probably a few more in there at least. Before I’m happy and my creativity dries up and I become one of those people slumbering peacefully while other people write songs on the night bus. But hey, I’ll be well rested.
*Write good enough songs and you can use them MORE THAN ONCE to sleep with DIFFERENT people. My songs are not this good, but I’ve heard it happens. Beans on Toast has an amusing story about someone pretending his song was theirs to this end, and a woman at one of his gigs being really surprised to find that this in fact was a song by Beans. Imagine writing a song SO GOOD that other people are using it to get people to sleep with them. That’s it, that’s my dream.
Check out Maya’s songs on bandcamp!
Photo by Nick Ed Harris
Tales From The Songwriting Frontline
Three weeks ago I heard a rumour from a neighbour, of a Japanese Garden a bicycle ride away from me. Knowing that I had some songs to write (and thus some subject matter or at least a pleasing environment to find) I filed the rumour in my back pocket.
In a phone call the following evening I mentioned the idea to my friend Jimmy and he suggested I take my passport, I then talked to my friend Sonja the following morning and she suggested a ziplock bag with toothpaste and deodorant, a plan began to form…
To write this week’s song I would take a pretend holiday. All these little accoutrements: the passport, the ziplock bag with toothpaste and deodorant would help ease my mind into a vacation state. I made the boarding pass for myself with a strict departure time of 10:45am and by 11 I was on my bike and on a bon voyage.
The idea of a holiday in my mind ended up forming both the subject matter and the environment for the song A Holiday From Nothing. I landed at about 11.20am and wandered round the gardens ‘til I found a nice spot to pitch up, in a clearing in front of a huge tree. I had my guitar, pen, paper, coffee (of course), and a drum sample that I’d been wanting to use. I played the loop on repeat and played around with chord sequences to it. The (capo’d) C to Bb to Dm was originally something I played around for the chorus which seemed like a good place to start seeing as I already had the title of the song.
Various holiday based phrases found their way onto the page postcards and souvenirs… wish you were heres, ways of saying goodbye. I toyed with the idea of alliteration between farewells and various things I wanted to escape – ta ta to tension, goodbye to grief, but the advice of a (very wise) new friend warned me that this might be too negative a path to take for postive nature of what this song what supposed to be. I kept some of that (postcards to panic and pain) but started to focus more on what I wanted to head towards rather than what I wanted to escape from.
The tree’s size meant that the sunlight was dappled and only fell on the circular spot I’d chosen to sit. The sun moving across the sky meant that this spot moved around the tree rather like the hours of a clockface. I moved with the sun, dragging my setup with me each time. This action made it into the third verse of the song.
After writing and re-writing across three pages I had the draft of the song before me. The chorus chords became the verse chords, forcing me to follow where the melody wanted to go as the verse jumped into the chorus. The lyrics were edited and it was taking shape. I was ready to record the song as a demo on my phone to take home and begin recording properly in my studio. I’m still over the moon with the demo… there’s a moment between the last verse and last chorus when I am interrupted by an elderly couple lost in the park asking me for directions. It’s a perfect moment captured on the demo that feels so natural and lovely… I manage not to miss a beat from playing to conversing, back to playing again… and with the birdsong and the atmosphere of it, I wish I’d not had to change the key so I could have it transition in and out of the middle of the song (I often have to change key between writing and recording… my writing singing voice is different from my recording one). I’ve settled on leaving the conversation in its entirety on the end of the studio version and the original demo recording is also available for all to hear.
Enjoy the song. Treat yourself to a holiday in your brain. So it goes…
First things first, why should you care what I have to say on the subject? It’s a fair question, one I’m asking myself right now…
Some backstory: In 2014, before I began my current project Granfalloon, I challenged myself to write a song-a-week every week of that year. It was exciting and it was maddening, it was frustrating and also deeply gratifying. I learned a lot about myself and my creative process. And, on New Year’s Eve 2014 I finished my 52nd song and I was definitely a better writer at the end of it than I was at the start.
This version of the challenge, The Positive Songs Project, arose from a conversation between myself and PSP’s co-founder Lobelia Lawson, when we were speculating the amount of anxious or sad songs about isolation we might end up writing during the Coronavirus Lockdown this year (2020 for anyone reading in the future… how are ya? Are you enjoying earning money and being able to hug another human being? You lucky thing you!) and in response we suggested attempting a song-a-week challenge with a spin: To write a positive song every week.
So as we’re starting this wonderful and insane journey once again I thought I might jot down some thoughts about what I remember from 2014, and some lessons I learned the hard way, to share with anyone embarking on this Odyssey for the first time.
1. The page doesn’t need to be empty when you start – I’m no purist about writing a new song every week. For me, the page doesn’t need to begin blank. If you have a chord progression that you’ve enjoyed playing for 4 years, or a single lyric that you love but just cannot find a song to put it in, this project is PERFECT for it. If you have a subject matter you’ve been telling yourself you’d write about for ages, that’s a great starting point for a ‘fresh’ piece of work.
2. The creative muscle is just that, a muscle, and you’re exercising it to strengthen it, not to create something perfect straight away. So pencils down when the bell rings! The deadline nature of the project is to strip away the unenjoyable aspects of the creative process (the overthinking, the perfectionism). Imperfection is the best we can aim for in a week. No over-mixing, no worrying if that line is good enough… when the week is done step away from the song. And that Submission Box offers you a wonderful closure so that you can begin the next song. But that’s not to say you can NEVER return to it. Just before Lockdown I was, in fact, engaged in recording my favourite songs from 2014’s set of 52. This of course entailed rewrites, arrangements, orchestration, rehearsals with other musicians, all after 5 years away from those songs. But the reason I was able to build that body of work to pick from, is because when the time was up, I moved on straight away. You’re working on the big picture and coming back for the details later.
3. The only failure is not sitting down to try. I did attempt another song-a-week challenge in 2017. This time I asked a bunch of artists from different mediums to join me (I remember two other musicians, and a stand-up comedian… I might have forgotten someone). From the beginning as each deadline rolled around, excuses would appear rather than music (or jokes…) “I didn’t have time to do it”… “What I came up with wasn’t good enough…” “I didn’t finish it…” Suffice to say this version of the challenge only lasted a few weeks before petering out. I became disheartened with the others’ approach and in the end gave up myself.
But it taught me two things.
Firstly that I shouldn’t have worried what the others were doing, and secondly (and it’s probably my inability to have properly communicated this to them that was the root cause of my frustration), that this isn’t something that you have to come up with excuses for. This challenge is the tool that you’re using to give yourself time and permission to sit down and work your creative muscles. If you sat down and tried to write for 30 minutes, 20 minutes, 10 minutes that week, you have succeeded! And whatever happened in that time is something you can submit that week!
4. Anything can constitute a piece of music, anything can be a song. Over 2014, I submitted 52 pieces of music. Some of those were conventional songs, some were grand studio productions, some were co-writes with others, one was a joke song written on my birthday about my housemate nearly cutting her finger off, one was a 29 second instrumental, one was a techno remix of the previous week’s song, one was a prospective soundtrack piece to an unwritten film, one was a scary story delivered as a monologue by an actor. The scope of this can be a wonderfully freeing thing. I got to try out a lot of different styles and techniques as a result.
5. Rules are only there to give you permission to get over yourself. I love working to a brief. When you can create ANYTHING, you can become frozen by choice paralysis and end up creating nothing. I became fascinated with the Oulipo during 2014. They were a group of French poets who used constrained writing techniques. For example, Perec’s La disparition is a 300-page book which totally avoids using the letter ‘E’ even once! What I enjoy about these rules is the freedom they give me from my own judgement. For example, if I pick up a guitar to write a song and the chord I play is a G major, my kneejerk response is usually one of disgust or self doubt, “A G, Richard? Really? How original…” However, if the rule has been imposed externally, all of sudden I have freedom from that judgement of myself. I can enjoy that G major and blissfully move on to the next chord, thus removing a roadblock to creativity.
6. And finally, the disclaimer… the negation of all which came before… Creativity is and should be, the rule to overrule all other rules! – I think creativity is the Prime Directive of a song-a-week challenge. I undertake this challenge in order to create. The rules of it are self-imposed and only to offer structure when I feel like I’m falling. So whatever rules you are working within for this, disregard them (and this) the minute they get in your way.
Hopefully you found something helpful in these scribblings. Best of luck to you with your song this week!
So it goes…
Richard Lomax (AKA Granfalloon)
The PSP has almost 40 members now! I’m very excited to see what you all come up with for next week. Richard Lomax and I have written our songs and are doing some collaborating this week with various artists and one another – so I’m very excited to share the songs with you next Wednesday!
I’ll be working on site updates in order to make submissions and new member information easier to input into the site for artists. I think if we want this to grow – we need to make sure that you can all add your information yourselves (who knows you better than you?) and the submission information is also proliferated onto the site with Richard or I having to manage or curate the content. (although it will still be moderated for all the obvious reasons!)
Thank you all for joining and hope that you find this project as rewarding as we have so far!! xx