Music Dorkery

The Austerity Program’s Justin Foley Guides You Through the Creation of a Song (Part 4 of 4)

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On June 17, New York noise rock duo The Austerity Program will release their new album, Beyond Calculation, on Controlled Burn Records (pre-order the album here). In preparation for the band’s first new release in four years, we asked our good friend, guitarist/vocalist Justin Foley, to take us through the creation of one song from the album, thereby giving readers some new insights into the creative process. You can catch up on the first part of Justin’s series on the building of “Song” 39 here, the second part here, the third part here, and then read the conclusion below!!!

Last week I suffered through the results of working backwards: finishing the second half of a song first, then trying to figure out how to get there. With the main structure in place, there were lots of little changes ahead. But the music finally came together and the instrumentation locked down.

Now the song needed words. Some bands will start by writing words upon which the song is built. But we’ve almost always been a “play first, then figure out what you’re going to yell over it” type of band.

Or at least we used to be. While the emphasis our music is built upon the rhythm, we’re better now because we’ve learned some things. Things like being deliberate about how vocals are an equal part of the song with the instruments: bass, guitar and drums.

At this point, we had places in the song where lyrics would go. And I know that many, many, many folks have faced this next dilemma: The music-part of the song is there, now what are we going to sing about?

A blank page. What could be simpler than a blank page? Dear Reader, I will tell you that a simple, blank page can be torture. Because it’s not exactly writer’s block that stops the words from coming, at least for me. It’s trying to express ideas in an unfamiliar way, something that’s close in form to poetry. And I don’t write or talk in poetry. I don’t read poetry. I almost never read other people’s lyrics. So getting comfortable with this lyric stuff is a stretch.

But I also know that well-written and delivered lyrics can change a good song into a great one. Not always, but enough that it’s worth it to find the method that pulls words together. And after over ten years, I think I know what works for us.

First: Pencil. Lyrics require revising, switching, changing, messing around and pen does not help with that. No, you want to be scribbling hard and erasing even harder as you pound through ideas. Some people like Fender Guitars and others like Marshall amps; I am a big fan of the Dixon Ticonderoga in my band.

Second: Force myself to work at it. Writing lyrics doesn’t come naturally so I need to push myself to make it happen. This means blocking out time and getting into the environment where working is most productive. And for me that environment is the subway. I’ve had many nights where I’ve left home and ridden the train to the end of the line and back with my notebook just because riding the train helps me focus. Maybe that means the two-hour R train ride to Stillwell Avenue and back. So be it.

Third: Phrases. Making words fit to music means developing an idea of what the phrasing of the lyrics will feel like. For me, this starts with placeholder phrases – nonsense sounds that soon turn into actual words, which then become phrases that mean something. And if those phrases feel right, I pay attention to how they can unfold into what the song is about. A phrase like:

And if your ___ is on it.

For this song, things started with just this phrase. The sound of it worked for a particular part and it seemed like a place from which I could build. At this point I was carrying my designated notebook and a pencil with me everywhere. During spare moments I would open up to the page that said “Song 39” on top but was otherwise blank. Except for:

And if your __ is on it

Frustration. What’s in the blank? If my what is on what? I couldn’t figure out what this part was alluding to, but when I’d scrap it or change any of the words (“And if her ___ is on it?” “And with your ___ upon it?” “Hand lift poor _ his prawn shit?”) I’d come back to the same idea:

And if your _ is on it.

I feel like I spent a lot of time looking at that nearly empty page. Writing something, considering, and then quickly erasing. And then on a Tuesday night, waiting for the subway to arrive on a nearly empty platform, it clicked: name. That was the missing word.

And if your name is on it

With one word, there was now was something to really build upon.

Name on what? A list.

What kind of list? Not a nice list. A bad one. One you wouldn’t want your name on. And since I’m saying “If” your name is on it, it must in fact be on it.

Who makes the list? Someone who can make things bad happen.

Why do they have a list? To make bad things happen, of course.

After hovering over the phrase for so much time – I was probably really stuck on getting the ball rolling for a week or ten days –stuff flowed quickly. I had an interesting idea and the lyrics took hold. The song was about having to face consequences – perhaps for the last time – and the rituals around the consequences.

You go to a tailor, suit out in your best.

Calls to your family and square up your debts

Stop after Mass to receive your last rites

There’s an appointment you’re keeping tonight.

(The only real hiccup was discovering an unhappy coincidence: one key, distinct phrase in the rest of the song was also the title a Judy Collins novel. Could I live with that? After some soul-searching, I decided I could.)

Like the rest of the song, it took work to make the lyrics come together; that was to be expected. But I’ve come to understand that it’s more than just willingness to do the work. For us, it also means figuring out what method of work is successful. It’s paying attention to the process and environment where creating happens and then being sure to get those things in place, just in case inspiration doesn’t magically strike.

There’s always the danger that this will allow one to fall into a rut of what’s familiar, but nailing down the right method – and it sure wouldn’t be the same method of anyone else – is what allows progress to happen. And what’s “progress”? Progress is creating music that expresses something in a unique way – it can’t be said or written or expressed otherwise. It’s making something that it wouldn’t – that couldn’t – exist without you being the one to bring it into the world. It’s the process that ends in something that makes you giddily excited having created some of your favorite music, which is just the best feeling.

Here’s “Song 39” start to finish. Some days it’s my top pick from the new record.

Justin Foley plays guitar and sings for The Austerity Program.  Their new record, Beyond Calculation, comes out June 17 on Controlled Burn Records, and can be pre-ordered here.  Visit them online at www.austerityprogram.com.  All messages about urban bike riding, vegetarian BBQ, and monetary policy will be answered first. You can also get a list of their upcoming tour dates here.

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