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I write silly political folk songs (and some that are marginally less silly) and also produce the odd poster or other bit of politically inspired art. Here are songs for you to sing along to and things to look at, read or download. Enjoy!

How to Write Good Songs When You’re Not Very Good

This is about writing the music of a song, when you’re not a very talented musician.

When I was a little kid, my prodigiously talented father quietly resigned himself to the idea that I would never achieve much with music. My brother was able to sing in tune before he could even talk, but I didn’t pick up that talent at all. Luckily, no-one told me this until much, much later.

I was raised in the folk scene, where everyone joins in, and my experience was that people opened their mouths and the right notes came out, so I presumed that when I opened my mouth, the right notes were coming out too. My dad gently led me through the process of learning how to make the right notes, through which process I came to grasp how far from that I had started. I can now sing in tune and on a good day I can tune my guitar, but I’ll never be one of the people for whom music is easy and obvious.

A lot of examples and teaching I’ve seen for how to write a song involves a fair amount of just singing, either along to some chords or without, and finding a melody line you like. My experience of trying to write songs that way is very nearly 100% dissatisfying and leaves me feeling like a cake that’s been decorated with a catapult. I did successfully write one song with voice only, when I was on an 8-hour shift of counting traffic, and had plenty of time and privacy to go back and repeat and try again.

My usual method is to pick out melodies on my guitar, and play around with them until they sound like I want them to sound, and then learn to sing them. It sounds long-winded, and of course it is. It would be far quicker if I could whip them out of the air with just my voice. But this is my reality, and what I experience when I write songs this way is that I get melodies that I like. And that is very satisfying.

I write in a folk style, one feature of which is that the melody is the essence of the song (musically), and the chords are secondary. It’s called ‘melodic’ music – the usual alternative to that is ‘harmonic’ music, where the basis of the song is a chord pattern, which cycles around, and a melody is laid over the top of it. My songs rarely have a cyclic chord pattern (except that obviously the whole thing is repeated in the next verse etc.)

But this writing style works either way. If you’re starting with chords, in some ways it’s easier because you can play the chords slowly as you go, and just pick notes from the chord to make your melody notes, and then put runs between them to join them up. Or you can have complete freedom and start with the melody like I do, and then fit chords to it later.

At first I would depend on my dad to help me work out what chords to play to my tunes. But gradually I got to be able to work that out for myself. But I still take suggestions from other people, and change what I play to incorporate better chord patterns that someone else uses. And I’ve had people comment that they find my music very interesting to listen to, and sometimes very beautiful. So it does work, even though I’m manifestly not brimming with the raw musical talent that many gifted musicians are.

So that’s the main point of this article, just to say that if you’re finding it off-putting trying to write like a talented musician does, perhaps try writing like a much less talented musician does, and see if you might still produce something that you and others enjoy. What follows is just a few of the specifics of how I’ve had some satisfaction in writing, and what a song needs.

Making a Start

This can be the hardest part. How to start your tune. When I write, I more or less always write the words first. I have usually got the lyrics basically finished before I start on the tune. But the more I write, the more I realise that actually I’ve got a tune brewing in my head as I write, so it’s a matter of grabbing hold of a thread of that tune and drawing it out.

Sometimes the hook line is the easiest place to start. That’s where the essence of the song is, and it’s often where I have the clearest idea of how it should sound. I will sometimes belt out something vocally, and see if I can guess what I was trying to produce based on what I actually produced…

Other times, I’ll choose the most important verse, the one that climaxes the song, and write the tune to express what’s going on in that verse. I will sometimes speak the words in an expressive, oratory style and listen to the ups and downs of the intonation, and try to capture that in notes. I’ve had some great starts on tunes a few times that way.

The Elements of a Tune

The simplest place to start is the end. A tune needs to resolve. What does that mean? Well, unless you’re going way outside the box, your tune will be in a particular key. The chord of that key, e.g. the C chord in the key of C, is the ‘tonic chord’ and the note C is the ‘tonic note’. A tune will almost always resolve to the tonic chord, and most often to the tonic note. That gives it a satisfying finished sound. If it doesn’t resolve in that way, it doesn’t sound quite as finished, which isn’t always wrong but is always noticeable.

The tune needs to move. A tune that flows fluidly up and down through all the notes in the scale can end up not having much impact or being very memorable. It has more to say if it spends some time in one place and then moves to somewhere else, and finally resolves. How many different places it moves to depends on the complexity of the story and many things, but a sense of being somewhere and moving to somewhere else is important.

The tune needs a style. Some tunes use a lot of the same note repeated, others use big jumps, others use arpeggios (running up and down the notes of a chord). There are lots of characteristics a tune can have, and it can use a few different ones in combination or to express change, but it should ultimately show a certain character, rather than random selections of intervals thrown together.

Without getting deep into music theory and terminology, which would be boring as well as pushing the limit of what I can knowledgeably talk about, I think that’s enough on this topic. I hope there has been a useful kernel or two in there for you.

22 July 2017, Parody Night at the Dog

I’m a featured artist along with folk luminary Phyl Lobl at the Loaded Dog Folk Club in July, when the theme is parodies.

Event Details:
Sat 22 July, 2017
Loaded Dog Folk Club, Annanadale Neighbourhood Centre
79 Johnston St, Annandale
7.30 (for an 8pm start) until 11pm.

$20/$18
Gold coin for supper in the break.

Check back here or try at http://jam.org.au/moxie/venues/thedog/the-loaded-dog-2017-calendar.shtml for a link to the official write-up as it comes close.

See the facebook event.

By Paul Spencer Posted in Gigs

1 April 2017, Solidarity Choir 30th Anniversary

I’m playing a set of songs at the Solidarity Choir’s 30th Anniversary mini-festival in Marrickville.

Event Details:
Solidarity Choir 30th Anniversary
Saturday 1 April, 2017
1pm – 10pm
Gumbramurra Hall, Addison Rd Community Centre
142 Addison Rd, Marrickville, NSW 2204

Entry by donation
Proceeds donated to APHEDA and RACS

My performance
I’m playing from 3.00 – 3.30pm, including a couple of my songs I’ll sing with the Solidarity Choir.

The Street Food Market will be active from 4pm until 9pm.

See the description on the Solidarity Choir’s website.

See the facebook event.

By Paul Spencer Posted in Gigs

Spiritual

words by Paul Spencer 2016
music adapted from “Wade In The Water”  traditional Negro spiritual

1. If for any reason you want it to look,
Like you weigh a lot less than you do by the book,
Well it may not be honest or completely correct,
But you can take advantage of that buoyancy effect.

And get weighed in the water,
Get weighed in the water, children,
Weighed in the water,
God that’s a terrible word-play.

2. When you’re locked up in a prison cell,
You don’t get to know the guards that well,
But one introduced himself all the same,
He said “Pleased to meet you, Waiden’s my name”.

He was Waiden the Warder,
He was Waiden the Warder, children,
Waiden the Warder,
God that’s a terrible word-play.

3. Just the other night in a restaurant,
We’d all decided what we want,
But the waiters seemed to all be gone,
So I’m tryna tell the kids what’s goin’ on.

We’re waitin’ to order,
We’re waitin’ to order, children,
We’re waitin’ to order,
God that’s a terrible word-play.

When My Blood Stops Movin’

words and music by Paul Spencer, 2016

1. No-one knows what happens when we die,
So I’ll speak for myself, if not for you,
Well nothin’ can be proven, but when my blood stops movin’ it’s goodbye,
It’s the end of thoughts and dreams, or at least to me that seems,
To be the simplest and most likely to be true.

2. Perhaps you plan to have another try,
Just grow a brand new body, same old soul,
Well nothin’ can be proven, but when my blood stops movin’ it’s goodbye,
The line is hard to find between the spirit, brain, and mind,
It’s doubtful that one part outlives the whole.

Chorus:
I won’t go anywhere, I’ll just keep lyin’ there,
But I won’t be called a person anymore,
Then my flesh will call it quits, and I’ll slowly fall to bits,
And my atoms will stay more or less the way they were before.

3. Or will you join the angels up on high?
And dwell in perfect love for ever more,
Well nothin’ can be proven, but when my blood stops movin’ it’s goodbye,
Eternity is fiction, and the same goes for perfection,
I don’t know but I’m reasonably sure.

4. There is no complex doctrine I live by,
The story is both simple and profound,
Well nothin’ can be proven, but when my blood stops movin’ it’s goodbye,
And the lessons it can teach us are as good as those that reach us
By any other path I’ve seen around.

Chorus

Sat 27 Feb, 2016 – Joe & Harmony’s Magic Carpet Ride

This is an experience, a tripped-out peace & love fest. It’s monthly and just started in January, so this one is the second only.

And I’m in it!

The venue is upstairs in the Newtown Neighbourhood Centre (there’s a lift; it’s wheelchair accessible). The acoustics are beautiful and the sound of the unplugged performers is just boosted a little by a single stage mic.

Sat 27 Feb, 6pm
Newtown Neighbourhood Centre
1 Bedford St, Newtown NSW 2042
$15 at the door

Information for artists and guests, contact Joe Flower 0432632057 or mrjoeflower@gmail.com

Paul Spencer at Joe & Harmony's Magic Carpet Ride, Feb 27, 2016

Joe & Harmony’s Magic Carpet Ride #2

By Paul Spencer Posted in Gigs

26 Sept., 2015: Loaded Dog, Annandale

I will be playing an hour set, followed by an hour set from Andrew McKay & Carole Etherton, all the way from Wales with their repertoire of “mainly traditional-style songs either with or without concertina accompaniment.  Also recently-composed songs which sound like they’re traditional, some of which they write ourselves”.

Sat 26 Sept
Loaded Dog Folk Club
Annandale Neighbourhood Centre, Back Hall
79 Johnston St, Annandale
8pm (doors open 7.40pm)
$18/20, BYO, supper available

See the event listing here

By Paul Spencer Posted in Gigs

That Empty Space

Listen to (a pretty rough recording of) the song here:

words and music by Paul Spencer, 2015

            D                                                           Bm                G                                 A
1. It’s been more than a year now, but today I saw his eyes in someone’s face,

D                       G                          Em         F#m       A
So alert, so bright, so clear, but yet so ill-at-ease, so scared, so out of place,

D                        F#m, Bm                  Em               D       G, Bm
And I loved that man,                     like a brother only can,

Em                    A              D         G                                 A                   G             D
And every time he ran from us, I mourned him and I watched that empty space.

2. Of course I was afraid but yet I hoped he’d see the other side some day,
Though he felt he was betrayed, and so one by one he pushed his friends away,
I could see his pain, as he felt that once again,
His trust had been in vain and there was no-one in his corner here to stay.

Bm             F#m                     Bm                               Em
He fell down, he never made it through the storm,

D                                                         G                          Em            F#m          A
We so often tried to reach him and we kept his place inside here clean and warm,

D                                                             Bm
And I thought he would come home, and that’s the thing that makes my heart so sore,

G                             Em                 A                      D
So please don’t tell me      he’s not suffering anymore.

3. We try to comprehend it, to fathom how he came to feel so low,
But that knowledge would depend on having been to where it’s better not to go,
So instead be calm, just extend a loving arm,
And try to keep the harm from him, and all the love you’re feeling let him know.

It’s OK that people die, in the same way it’s OK that seasons turn,
But the Winter frost still bites us, and the Summer sun still causes us to burn,
So please don’t think I’m broken when I cry, now you know what it’s about,
I’m just thankful to be letting it all come out.

4. It’s been more than a year now but today I saw his eyes in someone’s face,
So alert, so bright, so clear but yet so ill-at-ease, so scared, so out of place,
And since he ran in fear from us, I mourn him and I watch that empty space.

By Paul Spencer Posted in Songs

28th June Illawarra Greens Fundraiser Cabaret

ILLAWARRA GREENS WINTER CONCERT

As a performer, I don’t normally support political parties, but I respect the Green Party a fair bit and I want to see the vote swing away from the major parties and towards the left, so I’m behind the Greens at the moment. And it will be a fun night.

When: 7 pm Saturday 28 June 2014
Venue: City Diggers, cnr Church & Burelli Sts Wollongong

Greens Fundraiser, Winter Concert 28 June, 2014
MC: Greg Shand
Performers:
Ecopella – sustainable a cappella!
Paul Spencer – relentless and cheerful folk satire!
The Legs – aka Sally and Friends
JS All-Stars – mendicant musicians rounded up from the mean streets of The ‘Gong!
Interview with Tony Abbott – Dawes and Clarke of the Illawarra!
Raffle and auction – ICAC accredited!

Tickets: waged $25; unwaged $15; under 16yrs $10. For online purchases go to http://www.trybooking.com/EYZS. Tickets may also be purchased at the door.
Enquiries Julie 0439 938 071
Join us for a night of music and laughter and help our fundraising effort!

By Paul Spencer Posted in Gigs

Friday 9th May Marrickville

A new monthly music event at the Addison Rd Community Centre in Marrickville!

Duke’s Place has been running since February and I’m the guest performer in May.

Duke’s Place – Australian songs in concert & session
Friday May 16th

7.30 for 8pm start – evening ends 11.30
$10, bring a contribution for supper

Tritton Hall, Hut 44
Addison Road Centre
142 Addison Rd, Marrickville

Bush Music Club   www.bushmusic.org.au
enquiries Sandra 9358 4886
bmcmail1954@gmail.com

The evening starts with a concert  – 2 hours including the supper-break – then an all-in session until closing at 11.30. For the first time ever, my set list will include traditional songs mixed in with the originals. I’m planning on bringing out some of the songs whose tunes I’ve used for my own songs, as well as other Australian songs worthy of a mention.

By Paul Spencer Posted in Gigs