The story of a personal journey by guest writer Manicam Saravanamuthu.
How it started…
Song writing is a hobby that I turned to in 2008 after my wife Pearl had a heart attack and passed away suddenly. I found it consoling to write a song for and about her. Different people deal with grief in different ways. For me, giving free rein to emotions helped me to come to terms with my loss. The song was both an expression of sadness and a remembrance of happy times. The blend of music and words was more edifying for me as a means to convey emotions than words alone.
I also hoped my family and friends would share these feelings with me rather than feel compelled to show their sympathy in other ways. Perhaps deep inside, I did not want to accept that I could not deal with it myself. There is a stubborn ingrained streak of independence in me, shared no doubt with other first born males. We are the ones you find lost and wandering in the street instead of simply asking for directions!
My daughter Petra and my brother Jayam were drawn into the journey. For Petra, I think it also helped her to cope as it did me. For Jayam, it was a request for a sympathetic helping hand which he was happy to lend, knowing how highly I regarded his musicianship.
Memories – a song for Pearl
Which comes first, words or music?
An insoluble conundrum, just like the familiar chicken or egg question. So to avoid controversy, I will settle for “It was a bit of both.”
The computer is my working tool for recording my ideas. In the music-first examples, I use the guitar to try out chord sequences to convey my feelings. Then I hum along with the guitar until snippets of melody begin to take shape. Then I try putting words to these snippets. And in the process of singing along to the guitar, I adjust the melody to fit the cadence of the words. After a repetition of this process, I have enough snippets to string together to make a verse. And with more work, I would have additional verses. The middle part, often called the chorus, would be different. It would tend to shift the mood and the feeling to contrast with the verses. Finally, I round off the song with what is called a coda – words and music to bring things to a satisfactory close.
In the words-first examples, the lyrics will be written based on a broad idea (e.g. the miracle of life and how edifying it is when we appreciate its wonder). Sometimes, I dispense with rhymes, as they can be too restrictive. I find that strongly felt ideas can make the verses sound right without rhyming. The lyrics will determine the mood of the song. And I will try and imagine what kind of melody will do the words justice. Sometimes I draw on songs I already know and use them as my starting point. As with the music-first examples, I build up the song in parts, making many adjustments to make the song easy to sing and pleasant to listen to.
The Miracle Of Life – a song for Jayam and Maznah
The Role of Consultants
So far so good. But the first draft of a song is like a rough-hewn piece of furniture. You may be able to discern its features broadly but there are many kinks and wobbles that do not quite fit. And that is where the helpful consultants (no, no, no, that is not an oxymoron!) come in. Petra was cast in the role of ICE – Implacable Cliché Exterminator – and Jayam was MC (Musical Consultant). Petra and I could work side by side but poor Jayam would find his email inbox cluttered with many draft versions of the song. He gamely goes through them all and gives his suggestions and counter ideas. In the course of this iteration, the words and the melody change many times. Until, finally, I am done. But being frugal by nature, I could not possibly discard earlier attempts and often preserve extra versions of the song with different words and a different melody. Sometimes, these reappear as new songs later, sufficiently morphed to disguise their origins.
How long does it take?
For my first effort, I took almost three months. Then I shared it with my family and friends. My good friend Gerard was rash enough to say he liked the song and I at once replied that he would have to pay the price for his compliment by having a song written for him. He had come to visit us in Perth several times and we had long conversations on every conceivable topic, sometimes with the aid of wine to restore flagging spirits. One such chat ended at dawn! Writing the song for Gerard proved incredibly easy and the words and melody came together in an endless flow. Two hours after we spoke, I had finished composing and recording the song and sent it to Gerard who was pleasantly surprised. Jayam says he still likes this best of all my songs.
Friends – a song for Gerard sung by Jayam
The speed of this composition was in great contrast with the long three-month gestation period of my first attempt. In writing the song for Gerard, I did not have time to get any second opinions except in one respect. Petra had earlier advised me not to worry about rhyming as meaningful words could carry the melody convincingly. So I took her advice and used a very loose rhyming structure for the song. The first two lines of each verse rhymed and the third and fourth were freed from this constraint and thus allowed to flow better with the melody. That certainly made it easier to write exactly what I had to say without compromising on the choice of words for the sake of rhyming. And also made it easier to avoid the clichéd rhymes that pop up in songs e.g. June and moon, blue and true.
A cunning use of power!
With my newfound confidence, it became easy to find new material for songs. Family and friends were all subjected to the “I will write you a song” offer which of course they would have felt embarrassed to refuse. Admonitions and advice could be sneaked into songs which would have been harder to proffer in polite conversation. I had suddenly discovered a way to arrogate myself to a pedestal of authority without arousing undue suspicion. Opportunist that I am, I made full use of this power – the sharpness of the pen augmented by the energy of music! To be fair to my victims, I made sure that they agreed with the words before I finalised the songs. Or at least, I gave them a fair chance to object within a very generous grace period of about five minutes! Time and rhyme wait for no man – or woman.
If any of you, my friends, reading this article has not yet been subjected to this form of amiable intrusion, please feel free to ask anytime.
Kittens – a celebration of impishness
Post or perish!
A new development changed the way I disseminated my efforts. My niece Rosa decided to post one of my songs on YouTube. Her father Jayam followed suit, and I was left with no choice. It was a case of Post Or Perish! After a bit of experimenting, I was able to make videos of the music by adding a picture slide show to it. And posting it on YouTube allowed me to send the URL link to my friends rather than clutter their inbox with huge music files. At first, I used photos from Petra’s albums or photos supplied by the aforementioned victims. But I soon found that I could trawl the Internet for good pictures that would augment the impact of the songs. And it was touching (and also a little painful, truth be told) when my friends asked where the beautiful pictures came from. Never mind, they liked the song too, I consoled myself.
Can Love Be? – a song for Petra
Composing for special reasons and occasions
The emotional power of music was something that also helped when my friend Bian San was battling cancer. He found listening to songs that were associated with happy events in his life comforting. When music is played, emotions come to the surface and tears flow freely. I could empathise with him. If I were in the same situation, it would be a relief for everyone to sing and enjoy the music rather than gaze at me with sad eyes. So we had many singing sessions at his bedside. I wrote a song for him based on our reflections and debates on The Meaning of Life and other imponderable matters. He liked the song and asked me to sing it for him many times. And he made me promise to sing it at the service which I sadly yet gladly did.
Writing songs for friends and for special occasions became my occupation. And I kept myself busy because I could contrive to find something special in almost any occasion. Petra’s cat club in Perth needed funds so I rewrote the lyrics of my songs to make a CD “Songs My Cat Taught Me” to sell for the club. We raised some money, almost entirely from our circle of obliging friends.
My father’s autobiography was published in a new edition and Jayam and I sang songs I had composed for that as well as rewritten verses he and I had concocted for songs my father and mother liked.
I had a close encounter with a kidney stone and wrote a serenade to the “Little Stone” the night after it was successfully removed. I even wrote a serenade to my geriatric indulgence, a nifty Porsche Boxster.
More Than – a tongue in cheek Boxster serenade
My god brother’s daughter was given a choice of two wedding songs I had written for her and I performed her choice at the wedding dinner with my nephew Adil on the saxophone.
And when I proposed to Kim, it was also with a song. For our wedding, I wrote her a song too but she was not allowed to preview it as I wanted to surprise her. Besides, I did not want to give her a chance to choose. Preparing for the wedding was busy enough for me. How could I have time to write two or more wedding songs!!!
My Love Is Forever – my proposal to Kim
The Gregarious Loner
It is hard to explain how anybody gets ideas and then puts them down in a form that allows others to share them. Writing a poem or a book can be a lonely process as you need time and space and quiet to shape your ideas into the right form. Painters probably need to be left alone when they are hard at work since they disappear into a world of light and colour and can be dangerous when disturbed. Sculptors are probably even more dangerous as the tools they use to carve wood or cut marble can be lethal weapons when wielded wrongly. Musicians probably need quietness to hear their melodies before putting them into musical notation. Beethoven was an exception as he could hear music in his head even when he became deaf. Mozart of course did not need anything other than pen and paper to write down his unstoppable flow of incredible inspiration. His most cutting insult was to say of another composer’s work “He worked hard at it!”
For mere mortals, composing songs requires perseverance and sources for ideas. To me, the ideas come from my fellow human beings and the events of my life. So I have to be gregarious to get inspiration. But I also need to be alone to do the necessary work of putting the ideas down and knocking them into shape. Obviously, I have to be comfortable and happy doing both these things since happiness and productivity go together. So I have to be that paradoxical creature, The Gregarious Loner.
Logical Tenets Do Not Apply – Erik Satie’s Gymnopedie meets Haiku
In conclusion, let me touch on two points. Some friends have told me that I should write a book in my free time. That is a polite way of saying that retirees have nothing to do with their time!
For me, all I have to say by way of an autobiography is in my songs. They are about my family and friends and events in my life. And they reflect my ideas better than I could express in a book. Most people would also agree that it is less demanding to dip into a three-minute song than to read a heavy book. You can be as selective as you want with songs without losing the plot because each song tells its own story.
The other point is whether one should try and make money from song writing. I have been long enough in marketing to know the old adage “The customer is always right”. You have to give the buyer what he wants. And you have to listen to the advice of intermediaries and agents who know what will sell. The amateur can do what he likes as he is beholden to no one. Except in my case the dedicatee. As long as the two of us are happy, nobody else has to be satisfied (except ICE and MC of course). And sometimes, I just write for my own amusement, and I must say I am easily satisfied.
Old Fashioned Guy – a self portrait
About the writer
The writer retired from Shell as HR Director in 1999. His first wife Pearl passed away in 2008 and he wed Kim in 2012. If you would like to check out any of the songs he has posted on YouTube, click on this link.