Friday, November 18, 2011

Three Chords and the Truth (Turn Redux)

Listen to the record version:

Harlan Howard, a famous songwriter, is said to have described country music as "Three chords and the truth."

I came across this quote in a biography of Hank Williams Sr., which I was reading the first weekend in August of 2006, when I wrote Turn, the third song on Look Alive.

And that very quote is written clearly in my writing journal next to the scribbling that became Turn, which was part of a three day writing binge that also produced a revised and finalized Skeletonskinandsky, and the quiet song Fight.

In case you're scoring at home (what a terrible pun), the chords for Turn are F, c minor, and Bb major.

And that's it.

Just three chords.

I find it interesting because Howard's quote is so simple that it's easy to miss what it actually means.

I also find it interesting that this is almost exactly the point at which my songwriting underwent a transformation from vague to direct.  From trying to write around the truth, to embracing the truth head on, as plainly as possible.

On Turn (and several others), I may have swung a little bit too far to the direct and simple but... I needed to.  These songs are so true, sometimes it hurts to listen to them.

I was trying not to turn my back on love, desperately.  Futilely, as I would later find out.

Anyway, the recording of this tune (typical for the Look Alive sessions) was like opening a new toy on Christmas morning.  I wish I had a demo of the original version, on which I was consciously imitating (gulp) Coldplay.  And boy, was it every bit as boring as a Coldplay tune.  Just straight eighth notes and three chords.  For three minutes.  Gag.

But, as happened repeatedly during these sessions, it changed radically once Jay and Darren got their hands on it... and we very consciously embraced a Motown production aesthetic.

Some percussion, a slightly out-of-tune piano (remedied during the mix by adding a flange effect, to our great delight)... some simple guitar parts and finally some fun layered counterpoint vocals.

And Turn had gone from Harlan Howard and Hank Sr. to Coldplay to Berry Gordy.

An unlikely transformation.

But when you're trying to get to the truth, you do what you have to do...



Whispers in the dark
The night is calling out
To all the lonesome hearts

Flickering in starts
The big star's burning low
And soon it will be gone

When love is overcome
When love is on the ropes
Don't turn your back on love

I won't turn my back on love

Under purple skies
Chicago's crying out
It echoes through the streets

And settles in the dust
Along the silent lake
Beneath the silver moon

I won't turn my back on love


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