July is the month… I wish would never end…
I’ve quoted this line from my song “July” in every seventh-month email since 2016. But interestingly enough, there’s been no similar reference in any of the blogs leading right up to today. I know this because I just performed an investigative search through all the previous July blogs on michaelaba.com - a quick, fun trip down memory lane that might need to be continued this August and beyond.
True, 2016 isn’t exactly ancient history, but nevertheless…
Anyway, this might be fun to talk about, because I’m currently in the midst of writing a new batch of songs, using what for me is a highly unusual approach. Which ties into the history of “July”.
Let me explain…
OK - first, a Beatles-related side-note. George Harrison once claimed the best songwriting advice he ever got from John Lennon was to try and finish as much of the entire song as possible when the initial inspiration strikes. And in later interviews, John reported how these moments often come when you’re least inclined to follow-through; you might be sleepy, or grouchy, or in the middle of a movie, with a million other things on your mind. But the gift of a song is usually worth the sacrifice.
Well, I of course have never been a Beatle, but I was heartened to reflect on how this method is generally consistent with the way most of my own compositions came to be. I never usually begin with the firm intention of writing a song, but if something has been stumbled upon, I’ll try to flesh the melody and lyrics out straight away and figure out later whether or not I appreciate (or even like) what has just been produced. And after a year or so, an album’s worth of original songs might be sitting there, ready to be recorded.
But “July” did not materialize in this manner.
I’d grown used to working long and hectic summers in Martha’s Vineyard. My co-workers and I would find ourselves increasingly ready for the season to end, especially after the outrageously busy month of August. To this day, the arrival of Labor Day brings a certain amount of exhausted relief. But wasn’t this, I eventually considered, akin to wishing for time itself - and therefore parts of our lives - to vanish into thin air? Should we really be rooting for days and weeks of beautiful weather to abruptly pass us by?
So I tried to change my way of thinking. I found myself intentionally making an effort to somehow elongate time, especially during early afternoons on the beach. This enforced delusion is probably still abandoned every August, to be truthful. But July was different to begin with; the crowd not so demanding, the pressure not so great, and the waters only recently warm enough for swimming. I began to find ways to make the most of each precious day.
And this almost comical attempt at positive thinking is what inspired the song “July”.
Yet for at least a couple of years, all I had was the first line.
“July is the month I wish would never end”.
While I have a few other examples of unfinished compositions sitting around for long periods of time (checking out the most recent collection now, I can see how both “Here I Am” and “Bitch” also belong in this category), “July” was rare in that I had absolutely NO IDEA where to go, either musically or lyrically. I enjoyed singing the one-line chorus against a dangling three-chord progression from my acoustic guitar, but my confidence “July” would ever emerge as a completed song was shaky at best.
But when I finally attempted to see what might come from a more thorough revisit, I was somewhat stunned when REAMS of appropriate lyrics began to tumble out. (For the sake of space, I won’t reprint them here.) The music of the verses, with no previous inspiration, simply showed up. “July” seemed to have been waiting for just the tiniest bit of attention from me, and then - voila! A full and complete song emerged.
The finished version can be heard on the second CD on the Songs page of this very website - feel free to listen now!
I sometimes ponder the more mystical aspects of songwriting. Had I tried to write “July” in my usual manner, utilizing John Lennon’s valuable counsel, would the lyrics and verses have gone in a totally different direction? Or is there a chance they would have ended up being EXACTLY the same? Because when a song feels complete, even the author sometimes comes to believe the end result was somehow preordained. There’s no way to be certain about any of this. More than likely, you compose on different days (or years) and get different words (and/or music). But really, who knows? One can’t help but wonder…
What makes all of this relevant to what’s going on with me now? Well, I’m currently writing a batch of new songs in a similarly experimental manner. My brother Tom persuaded me to get an iPhone recording app for when those unexpected musical ideas pop up and I can’t be bothered to follow the sage advice of the Beatles. And almost immediately I was able to capture the essence of an original song that otherwise would have ended up lost. While I eventually had to conjure up actual lyrics to replace the nonsense words, the finished version sounds almost exactly like the original recording. Probably for this reason, “When I See You Again” remains one of my favorite songs from the most recent collection.
And wouldn’t you know it, for the ensuing two and half years I’ve been lazy and have mostly recorded “snippets”, brief song fragments that seemed to have come from out of the blue. For whatever reasons, I’ve been reluctant to go back and see what any of them might have amounted to. But a few weeks ago, another quick song idea came my way and I challenged myself. For Christ’s sake, we’re all in COVID-19 isolation anyway and most of us will never have this kind of free time again. Strike while the iron is hot and finish the damn thing!
So I did. And the resulting song, called “Thought I Had You”, came out well, in my humble opinion. With, once again, seemingly REAMS of lyrics.
(I may attempt to write another never-ending blog one of these upcoming months to analyze why I seem to be getting so much wordier as I age…)
Because of this satisfying result, I next challenged myself to check out and work on those hastily-recorded snippets. The idea was to start from the oldest and move forward, discarding along the way whichever portions felt like they might have been written by, I don’t know… Danny Partridge. To my shock, there were 24 potentially brand new songs waiting to be rediscovered!
I’m now halfway through the writing process and have yet to discard a single snippet.
This is such a different method of songwriting for me. Many of these fragments and ideas feel like the remnants of a long-forgotten dream. I’m finding myself attempting to figure out what the song is trying to be, usually after having fleshed out the music to a degree. Sometimes the words and melodies write themselves. Other times I’m stuck for hours on a single line. Snippets #13 and #14 appear destined to emerge as finished songs, leaving ten more currently-unheard snippets to go. This has been a time-consuming but worthwhile experience so far. Songwriting has suddenly and unexpectedly become the creative outlet of the summer.
So this time around, I’m hoping August is the month that never ends. I’m determined to get this project done.
And then, of course, I’ll try to record everything. Hopefully you’ll be able to hear the results on michaelaba.com someday soon.
Or, at least, hopefully by next July.