Monthly Archives: May 2014

SONGWRITING: What we can learn from the perfect music of Scandinavian artists

scan-helloThat’s right– we can learn a ton from bands and singer-songwriters from Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. Seriously. I can’t think of better songwriters… in which the craft comes absolutely effortlessly. This is also true with Iceland, but we’ll talk about that some other time. There’s gotta be something in the air, in these three countries. These people know how to write killer songs.

 

It all started with ABBA, who, without a doubt, are probably the best pop band of all-time. That’s a broad statement, but it’s basically universally accepted that ABBA kicked ass. I mean come on… Waterloo, Honey Honey, Fernando, Dancing Queen, Take A Chance On Me, the whole nine.

Fast forward a few decades…. I don’t give a shit what anyone says, “The Sign” by Ace of Base (called the “New ABBA” at the time)… is probably in the top five of the greatest pop songs of all-time. I still fucking worship that song, and it’s a big reason why I love well-written music…. and it pisses me off when people discount that song and the group, just because every douchebag and airhead at the time were bumping the jam in their cars on their way to the mall in 1994. Still… holy shit, what a perfect song. FUCKING PERFECT SONG. And also, “All That She Wants” was quite good, too. But not as good as “The Sign.” However, “All That She Wants” needs to be recognized as a socially-conscious contribution to pop music…. I’m sure all of us know at least one woman who is a little careless about her sexual endeavors, and/or a bit too eager to have a bit too many kids, even though she may not be a good mom to the first of the litter. But I digress.

Right around the same time everyone was getting sick of Ace of Base, the Cardigans came out with their international smash hit, “Lovefool.” The first few seconds I heard that song, I knew I was going to be a lifelong fan of the Cardigans… I still remember the exact moment I heard “Lovefool.” I had a horrible job as a carpet-cleaning assistant, to a man named Ken who smoked cigarettes and drank coffee ALL DAY (so much so that his breath was so toxic, I could barely stand it, if he talked to me on the way to the next job. I made sure I had my headphones in, always listening to an awesome mixtape I made, so I wouldn’t have to converse with the guy. But again, I digress…. we were about to start cleaning the carpet in some shitty apartment, and there was this tiny radio on the counter that some painter had left or something. I immediately flipped it to the good modern rock/alternative station… and a song ended… and that perfect intro for “Lovefool” came on… I was like “whoa!!! Who is THIS!” Then, Nina started singing… and man, I was in love.

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The Cardigans almost broke up for good in the early 2000s… they had written a new album, but fought so much that they scrapped it all, took a break from each other, and re-grouped and wrote another album called “Long Gone Before Daylight”… which in my humble opinion, is one of the best albums EVER… and the best Cardigans record. They followed up with another record, Super Extra Gravity, which wasn’t as good, but still good. They’ve been quiet since then (2005), but hopefully we’ll hear some new music from them.

Side note-– when I try to write my BEST songs… when I really try to write something great… I think of the Cardigans, and their arrangements and brilliant writing. If you are following this blog, do yourself a solid by at least revisiting their records First Band On The Moon, Gran Turismo, and Long Gone Before Daylight. The first is a bit on the kitschy pop side, but when you get to Long Gone Before Daylight, you’ll realize their songwriting went through the roof during that tumultuous time, and matured in the best way.

Since the Cardigans came out, I believe the indie/alternative/folk music has absolutely flourished in Scandinavia…. from Mew to First Aid Kit, Sondre Lerche to M2M/Marit Larsen…. to Hello Saferide and Oh Laura… my god… can music get better than any of these bands? It’s tough to top most of them, writing-wise.

Side note 2— Check this…. I have a soft spot for 80s hair metal. Yes, I do. One of the songs I LOVED tremendously when I was 13-14 was “Little Fighter” by White Lion (yes, the same band who wrote “Wait” and “When The Children Cry”. It’s probably my all-time favorite hair metal song. Would you be surprised that the lead singer is from Copenhagen, Denmark? The hooks in a lot of White Lion’s hits are unarguably AMAZING… especially throughout “Little Fighter.” I’m going to post the video, below my list of bands you need to listen to.

I realize that this entry isn’t going deep into theory… but it doesn’t matter. If you are having writer’s block, you need to discover (or re-discover) Scandinavian music. And when I talk about all of these artists… none sing in their native tongues. They all sing in English. So there’s no excuse for you not to check them out, being as I am American, I write this blog in English (the only language I can speak fluently). Definitely check out the following bands:

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The Cardigans (keeping great, pushing-the-bar songwriting alive and well)
White Lion
(if you like your hair metal/pop served hot and with lots of spicy hooks)
Mew (could they be the Danish Sunny Day Real Estate? Yeah, I’d go so far as to say that)
ABBA (if you don’t mind the whole retro/70s pop sound)
Ace of Base (at the very least… listen to “The Sign”, “All That She Wants”, and “Don’t Turn Around.”)
Hello Saferide (if you love your indie pop served with a side of sarcasm/blunt honest, and pop culture references… dude… seriously, they deliver in spades)
Lykke Li (you might remember her hit single “Get Some”, a song thought to be about how she loves sex, but no… it’s about how women in the music and film industry are oversexualized… brilliant song, and brilliant artist)
Oh Laura (nice Americana-ish sound… they don’t sound Scandinavian at all sometimes… definitely listen to “Joni Mitchell Song”)
Sondre Lerche (wow… this guy can WRITE. My favorite recording of his is the Dan In Real Life film soundtrack… CHECK IT)
The Radio Dept. (awesome shoegaze/electronic pop weirdness… love them.)
First Aid Kit (unbelievably great sister folk duo… their songs are and sound WAY beyond their years… tremendous maturity, talent, and honesty… and oh my god, the vocal harmonies!!! I’m so psyched to be seeing them live in less than two weeks!)
Marit Larsen (indie/folk stuff from Norway… she was half of the pop duo M2M, who are also fucking AMAZING)
M2M (I will NEVER, EVER, EVER tire of the song “Don’t Say You Love Me”, nor will I tire of “Pretty Boy” or “Everything You Do”. They wrote their own stuff, too… at ages 15-16!!)
Celestial (listen to their album “Crystal Heights” and float away on the twee/indie-dreampop beauty)
Ephemera (from Norway….. my god…. WOW. The writing… the WRITING!!!! The vocals!!!)
edit– HOW THE HELL COULD I FORGET Kings of Convenience??? Often called the Norwegian Simon & Garfunkel… FUCK. Check them out, too! And all their side projects– The Whitest Boy Alive, Erland Oye’s solo stuff, etc)

And, as promised… here’s White Lion’s “Little Fighter” video:

 

Study their chord progressions…. study their vocal melodies and just marvel at the great lyrics, by and large (especially in Hello Saferide’s “Long Lost Penpal”, or “The Quiz.”)

The Scandinavians just do it better than most…. seriously. The music is clear evidence.

 

It all started with ABBA– over 40 friggin’ years ago:

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Hell… I made a Spotify playlist after posting the entry……. rock this shit.

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SONGWRITING: the “six four one five” revisited

So I just did a lesson with a younger student who was absolutely dying to learn how to play “Let It Go”, from the Disney movie Frozen. Sung (and I guess played) by Idina Menzel (“Maureen” from RENT, and also the main girl in Wicked)…. immediately, I noticed the 6-4-1-5 progression in the key of Ab (F minor)….. but, with a slight twist in the very beginning…

The progression is 6-4-5…. with a II chord that feels/sounds like a Bsus4 to Bbm in bar 4.

Without getting too technical… my god, is this song catchy. It’s because of that insane 6-4-1-5 progression (in the chorus… as I – V – vi – IV), that has driven hit songs for over 50 years. Use it if you haven’t. I’ve found that this progression helps one come up with vocal melodies/lyrics almost instantly… it’s the magic of this progression, or ANY order you play it in:

 

vi – IV – I – V (Apologize by OneRepublic, this song’s chorus, and at least 947 other top 100 songs from the last ten years)

I – V – vi – IV (Let It Be by the Beatles, and every song The Axis of Awesome plays in the “Four Chord Song” YouTube video)

 

It’s overplayed, but it still rules the world.