The Process: Development / by Marcell Marias

Let me let you in on a secret. 

About 75% of what I write is crap. 

Is that pretty blunt? 

It’s meant to be. 

Because it’s true. 

I really don’t know how other artists work, but most of the time, my initial ideas for lyrics, songs, and melodies aren’t good enough to present to my Other, let alone anyone who might spend money on it.  It doesn’t mean I abandon those ideas.  Most of that stuff ends up turning into something that’s pretty decent.  But my music doesn’t spring fully formed from the head of Zeus.  It takes work. 

That’s not really that surprising, is it?  Saying otherwise would be like an author saying that their first draft is *THE* version of the book.  Or a sculptor looking at a rough-hewn lump of iron and going “This is complete”.  The creative process is…well…a process.  It gets better when you spend time on it.  One of the best things that my consulting producer Anthony suggested I do at the beginning of the project was to write for an hour a day.  Don’t have a goal… just write.  Get the ideas out on paper. I have a ton of ideas and songs because of that.  But very few of them are acceptable as written; they’re incoherent and random.  A good song says something, even if that something is abstract or metaphorical.  It still needs to be tight. 

As I mentioned in the last entry, a song will have most of the critical elements in place only if I am lucky.  Most of the time, I instead have a handful of riffs, some lyrics, and some vague idea of a melody.  At that point, it’s laying down a simple drum loop to kick things off (working without a metronome is asking for trouble) and literally sitting down with a guitar or a keyboard, throwing things up against the wall, and seeing what sticks.  If the melody is more defined, it’s usually easier to make the music around the melody than the other way around. But either way, it’s all about finding what ‘serves the tune’.

‘Serving the tune’ is a philosophy I learned early on in my career.  It’s the notion that every song you write has a natural tempo, groove, vibe, dynamic, and flow… you just need to find out what it is.  It’s a goal-oriented method that starts immediately with your beginning building blocks.  A sad, brooding tune will tend to have certain qualities; a fast, intense song others.  The tune will take its’ natural channel because of that. 

This is the place where verses, choruses, and bridges are crafted (intros and outros come later).  Most of the time, I will want distinction between all these parts so listeners know what’s coming up.  But that’s not always the case.  Again, every song is different.  Some songs don’t ‘ask’ for that.  “Only As”, from the early scratch tracks, only ‘asked’ for 2 parts, with the keyboard solo evolving out of a variation of the verse groove.  And yes, this kind of thing has been done before.  Want to know what inspired the music?  Check out ‘Controversy’ from Prince’s album of the same name.  I dare you. 

This really doesn’t take as long as it sounds.  Once things get rolling, like attracts like.  Guitar ideas suggest keyboard lines and vice versa.  Melodies suggest harmonies.  Bass grooves imply drum grooves.  And if I am with one of my collaborators, it’s usually a matter of having to stop adding layers to the idea.  After all, the goal is to get an idea of what the song COULD sound like, not total completion of the song. 

Once I have the outline, I will fill it out with a few instruments (usually keys, guitar, and bass so it’s a good representation of what I think the final song can be) and send it out to Vic, Kelly, Tanya, and Oily.  I will ask for their opinion.  A response of “Wow, this sucks” means I have missed the mark.  A response of “I don’t know what to do with this” usually means the same.  And that’s okay.  I have a hard drive full of ideas that haven’t quite found their voice yet.  If it clicks, then it’s up to the singers to work with basic melody lines, or if I haven’t come up with one, to make one up.  Tanya likes working without a net.  Kelly prefers melodies more defined.  Oily is somewhere in the middle. 

While the singers work on their part, I am usually writing more songs.  Of late, Vic and I are working a lot together.  I like his vibe.  I am more cerebral and metaphorical; he’s more gritty and sensual.  He also has a cool sense of groove that keeps me from going totally black metal on everyone. 

Once a song finally passes muster, then the real fun begins: Commitment.