Sad songs

Listening to: Elliot Smith. Waltz #2.

I’m working on a new song called We’ll Dance Like We’ve Never Met. It’s a sad song in 3/4 time, kind of inspired by Elliot Smith, who wrote an amazing waltz about his mother and abusive stepfather. (That’s Waltz #2. There’s also a Waltz #1.) It’s on the album XO, which is a brilliant collection of sad songs. The kind of stuff John Lennon would have written if he’d suffered from acute depression.

So I’ve had Elliot Smith on the brain. As well as persistent regrets about “the one I sent away.” You know what I’m talking about. The relationship you completely bungled because you were stupid and selfish and unable to appreciate kindness because you were looking for other stuff that you later discovered wasn’t worth very much.

All of that adds up to the blues. Or even better, I thought, a really sad waltz.

Up to this point, I’ve written a Jerry Lee Lewis -type thing about my dog sleeping in the bed and a show tune -ish song, entitled “Literary Love,” which starts off with a blues intro about Dido and Juliet: “Tragedy, it’s not for me. Heartbreak is not my style. If I’m gonna have a literary love, I want it in the bookstore aisle.” Completely silly songs that I used to learn how to add chords and change keys. But I suddenly felt like writing a real song, a love song. Which for me, these days, means a sad song.

Or maybe it was just Elliot Smith rattling around in my head.

The tune is pretty simple. Built around an A minor triad. What I needed to learn, though, was how to keep a simple tune from being repetitive and boring. L showed me a few things.

First, the unresolved phrase. I like this. Especially in a song about regrets and not being able to go back and fix everything you messed up. So an A minor tune, with phrases that sometimes end on B, fits. Lesson two, make small changes to the tune for a surprise. So for one bar, I take the notes up a whole step. Seems like nothing, but a whole step is a big difference.

Finally, the Big Lesson: Change the chords. This is a magical thing, keeping the tune the same but putting a completely different set of chords underneath. Start sad, inject a little hope, then rip out the heart. All done by changing the chords.

So now I have two simple verses. With no words. (I’m working on that.) Just something that sounds kind of sad. And then my chorus: “What do we do, when there’s no me and you? We’ll just dance like we’ve never met.” Finally, the middle. Which is the part I like best. It’s just a dance. A waltz. Instrumental with a nod to Chopin.

Give me another week to work on it, and then I’ll post something for people to hear.


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