August 14, 2011

30 Songs #3 - Dilemma by Design: Disjointed Down-Tuned Decision-Making

Honey White guitarist Brian Wolff bends reality yet again, here at Nicholby's in Ventura 4/20/05.

Most of my lyrics have taken a long, long time to finish. It's tough for me to pin down a piece of music with one emotion or interpretation, and it's even tougher if that piece of music isn't mine. Since I'm an infrequent composer compared to my bandmates, the latter happens way more often—and while it's always a fun challenge to interpret their tunes in a lyrical way, I want to make sure it's done right. When someone does you the great honor of letting you work with their music, you have to do it justice, you know?

I bring up this idea because it was the driving force behind my lyric for "Dilemma by Design," a Honey White song that's so new we haven't even done a full rehearsal of it yet. You can get a vague idea for the song via this demo Bryn and I put together, using an instrumental take from HW's December 2010 rehearsals:

We overdubbed Bryn's vocal part in April of this year after I finished the lyric, and added "Dilemma" to the 2011 quickie/freebie "Corridan" E.P. of new (and new-ish) Honey White songs, but to date the band hasn't actually played that song as a song yet. Still, I tipped the scales and included it at this point in the "30 Songs" series because lyrically, it's an effective sequel to the previous two, "Fatal Flaws" and "Mercy Rule" (but more on that later).

The lyric may be new, but the tune itself dates from about 2003 or 2004, when Brian first sent a self-produced demo to Bryn, Bill and I. Brian had just moved from Isla Vista/UCSB to San Francisco, and was churning out tons of disjointed, experimental pieces that basically blew our minds. He de-tuned his guitar, from standard down to D, so this piece became known as "the Drop-D song." Here's what the instrumental version sounds like:

mp3: "Drop-D" (instrumental version, circa 2004), by Brian Wolff.

It's a fantastic recording, but I believe it's sadly lost as a multi-track—Brian's PC imploded not long after he recorded this. It arguably doesn't even need lyrics, but again I saw it as a great challenge to write an irregular/non-linear lyric, just to see if I could meld my old style with Brian's new stuff. I feel kind of fortunate that I pulled it off, because if I hadn't I'm sure Brian would have done something brilliant with it as part of his new Neuro Farm project. If you've been following the Honey White news recently, you've heard about them already. Their debut album is very cool:

I so wanted Honey White to play "Bubble" from the above album, because it's my favorite Brian lyric of all time, but the 17/4 time signature is a pretty big hurdle for me and Bill to jump. Instead, I hope we can play lots of "Dilemma by Design" instead. Anyway, Brian's tunes are inspiring to write for ("Blacking Out," "Sweet Oblivion" etc.) because he seems to think about music and composition in ways that never occur to me as a compositionally-impaired bass player. Here are the lyrics:

"Dilemma by Design"

Sometimes she says the strangest things
So I only listen to her when she sings
But then I have to play along
And even if it's someone else's song

I could trust her because
She said just take your time,
It's all right, you'll be fine

Except I feel like I've been
Living in a world without sin
So many ways to lose your cool
So many ways to bend the golden rule

If you just take your time,
It's all right, you'll be fine

They say creation is divine
But it feels like dilemma by design
My job is so easy until
I lack the strength to go in for the kill

It looks fine now, but man oh man, this one took a while to get a handle on. I think the chorus came first—long before I'd even figured out what the theme would even be—so it sort of hung around for a long time just taunting me. Like "you'll never lash me to your type of rigid little lyrics, you bastard." But I did—and it took a fairly ugly 4-6 month period in 2010/11 to inspire that.

Why? Well, like I said, this one's about work—but inversely so when compared to "Fatal Flaws" or "Mercy Rule." Those two were loosely about the general banalities of a job (and of finding/keeping/staying interested in a job). "Dilemma" is more concerned with the ambiguous, and frequently un-envious, idea of middle management. Worse, it's about middle management screwing up a job/career I really enjoy: my past 7+ years as a professional creative. God, what a yuppie way to describe it—but of course I am a yuppie, which is just more grist for the mill here.

See, in my experience the marketing & design biz is a frustratingly contradictory thing. The balance between unbridled creativity and disciplined work is a precarious one—but I'm merely one in a long line of artists who have to deal with this reality. I side-stepped the music business version of this idea—lashing boundaries and limits to imagination—but ran into it head-on in design and web development. For better or worse, someone else is calling the shots—usually the person writing the checks—and in some cases that person often misunderstands the marketing process, as well as a designer's role in that process. Lack of respect often goes hand in hand with that. Not every client does this—indeed, the great majority of our clients respect our ability to help them get where they want to and need to be—but some are hard to work for even when you have to do it. That happens in every industry, though, so it's not like this is a unique observation.

Furthermore, it's obviously not always on the client, and it would be silly to pretend so. I've always felt weird about the ways people have to compromise when running a business; juggling finance, promotion, networking, inspiration, creativity, and the blurry line between art and commerce can be tough for anyone. I've seen otherwise smart, talented creatives fall on the wrong side of generation gaps, technological ability gaps, intuitive gaps, experience/inexperience gaps, and basic communication skills gaps. Sometimes they get right back up and sometimes they don't—and I've fallen victim to this stuff myself—but that's how we all learn, right?

But I should stop telling tales out of school before it gets me fired (yeah, right after a promotion, I know)—so let's get more figurative here, just for a bit. The "she" pronoun mostly refers to the Muse—an idea that I found fertile for other recent lyrics—but it's no coincidence that I primarily (and gladly) work with (and for) women, both as clients and colleagues. Whoops, there I go again with the real life stuff.

Anyway, all of that got poured into the "Dilemma" lyric, and that helped push it over the top into the "finished' pile. It's actually the most recent one I've finished, too—so it still may get tweaked a little here and there as we play it more often. That's about all I can do for this one, so tune in next weekend for some much older stuff.

Song stats:
Music by Brian Wolff (2004)/Brian Wolff and Honey White (12/2010).
Lyrics by Keir DuBois, April 2011.
Appears on the following albums:
Corridan E.P. by Honey White

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