Thursday, November 14, 2013

Stained: Specific to Universal

Sometimes I write because I'm inspired. Sometimes I write for the release. Sometimes I write because it's an assignment. I would complain, but writing a song for class is just about the most fun type of homework I can think of.

"Stained" was one of those "assignment songs." For a songwriting class, we were instructed to write a ballad (which was defined as "No faster than 65 beats per minute"). For some people that's easy. For others, like me, that's something of a challenge--my default tempo is around 180 bpm.

So, I was moseying along like a lethargic horse and managed to come up with a chord progression and melody that I liked. Actually, if my memory is to be trusted, I came up with the chorus pretty quickly. I remember making the conscious decision to keep it really simple, because in my mind there is little as boring as delivering a lengthy, verbose chorus at a snail's pace. And then repeating it. So, very early on the chorus was set as this:

Oh, you seep into all that I see
Oh, you seep into all that I see

The problems were the verses. With the chorus set as it was, it felt right to have the verses be lists of the things that "seeped into all that I see." The issue was coming up with what those things were Actually, coming up with things that could be "stained" wasn't really the issue either. In a darker time I had written a poem about all the things that reminded me of someone special and it contained a rather long list of things. No, the problem was coming up with the right things.

In a previous songwriting class, we were introduced to the notion of taking specifics about a situation and tying them into universal experiences. Though I had a LOT of specific details to help me write "Stained," many of them were too specific, some of them were just kind of strange, and some of them made no sense out of context. And while I made a few attempts to add context back in, it just slowed down the song (which you don't want to do when you're already going really slowly).

There was lots of writing and scratching out. Lots of brainstorming and scribbling. Lots of trying to figure out what details from my own experience would resonate with other people. This was a song about my own heartbreak and at the same time it needed to be a song about all heartbreak ever. This needed to be a song that people could play in their heads as they hug their knees trying to keep the feeling of humanity inside and the loneliness and sheer emptiness out. This needed to be a song that I could sing to myself when faced with reminders of sweet moments that would never happen again. This needed to be...a song to cry to.

And for me it was. Perhaps it was the stress of the semester or a myriad of other things on my mind, but the first time I played it through to myself...Sometimes you just know you have it right.

(NOTE: I know the assignment required the song to be slower than 65 bpm, but sometimes songs just want to go a little faster than what the teacher wants...)

By Rachel Oto

Tainted are the city streets, hot French toast and worn out jeans
I pray it will go away
Long train rides and cotton sheets
Rock guitar—these memories are stained
I say, “It’s all okay”

You’ve seeped into all that I see
Oh, you seeped into all that I see

Soccer balls and laser beams
Cypress groves
Oh how my dreams are plagued since you went away
Cups of cola with no ice
Stubborn hair and half-closed eyes
They’re stained with all of my pain

You’ve seeped into all that I see
Oh, you seeped into all that I see

There’s no running without stumbling on
Visions of all the things that we have done
All the blocks, boulevards, stars and stairwells are stained
Oh oh

You’ve seeped into all that I see

Oh, you seeped into all that I see

Thanks for reading and listening!

Be bold.


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