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November 19, 2021

Mike Errico's Playlist for His Book "Music, Lyrics, and Life"

Music, Lyrics, and Life by Mike Errico

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Roxane Gay, and many others.

Though subtitled, "A Field Guide for the Advancing Songwriter," Mike Errico's Music, Lyrics, and Life is a book that will inspire creatives of all the arts to hone their craft and chase their dreams.

Emily Flake wrote of the book:

"What a glorious life raft of a book. No matter what creative seas you may be adrift upon, the advice and guidance here will both keep you afloat and offer you a way to find your own North Star. Songwriters, artists, anyone working in any creative arena will be inspired and lovingly stripped of their own art-killing excuses."

In his own words, here is Mike Errico's Book Notes music playlist for his book Music, Lyrics, and Life: A Field Guide for the Advancing Songwriter:

Music, Lyrics, and Life is a book about songwriting, so putting a playlist together is a little tricky. It might come off as “eclectic” but I’m not doing that to try to be cool. I see songs as archetypes of a relationship between the writer and the listener, and in the book, I try to present ways to introduce a vision in song form. It’s a little like coaching someone on how to set up their dating profile: What are you about? What do you believe in? Are you a creep? I don’t know, maybe you are; some people like that. (Radiohead fans, for one.) Whatever my students come up with, I try to suggest an approach. These songs touch on what I go into in detail in class, and in the book.

Since U Been Gone, Kelly Clarkson

Still a banger, and a shining example of what’s called “melodic math.” Co-writers Max Martin and Dr. Luke didn’t make this concept up: the use of mathematical concepts in art predates them—by a lot. For instance, in 1712, German mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz wrote, “Music is a secret exercise of arithmetic where the mind is unaware that it is counting. . . . [E]ven if the soul does not realize it is counting, it nevertheless feels . . . the pleasure in consonances or the vexation in dissonances.” In other words, the listener can feel melodic math without knowing what it is. In “Since U Been Gone,” the melody is repeated strictly and patterns of musical ideas unfold in an orderly fashion, until the chorus jumps the gun and mugs us with its title setting — “Since U been g-o-o-one.” It’s exciting every time.

4’33”, John Cage

You’ve probably heard the phrase “music is the universal language.” Well, it’s not. Music has never done the job of being universal, and in fact, it does the opposite. It groups subsections of people together; it accessorizes a particular aesthetic; it excludes. Writers antagonize each other via diss tracks. High schools have battles of the bands. TV networks pit musicians against each other in bizarre gladiatorial competition shows where contestants try to . . . what? Out-music one another? How can one speak in the universal language and still get kicked off the show?

So, what is universal? Silence. It’s where we came from and where we’re going. It paves the way for any form of divinity to speak. It’s countercultural. It awakens empathy. It reconfigures us. And if that’s true, then any note you play is a move away from universality. The questions become hard to avoid: Has music helped us understand ourselves better than silence? Has it helped me? I’m not so sure. What I see in classes is that students’ work is almost always improved by editing, which almost always means the elimination of parts of the song. Adding more silence. What I’ve concluded is that notes are nice and all, but if you don’t have something to say that improves on silence, then don’t say it.

I Will Always Love You, Dolly Parton

Besides being a beautiful song on its own, the song gives creators a quick lesson on the power of saying “no.” In 1974, after several years as a mainstay on The Porter Wagoner Show, Dolly Parton, prolific writer and all-around shining light, decided it was time to pursue her solo career. Reflecting on her split from the show, she wrote “I Will Always Love You” and brought Porter to tears. The song was released on her 1974 album Jolene and hit #1 on the country charts.

Elvis Presley fell in love with it and wanted to record his own version. Dolly, of course, was thrilled—until Elvis’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker, called. In an interview with CMT, she remembers, “[Parker] said, ‘Now, you know we have a rule that Elvis don’t record anything that we don’t take half the publishing.’” The song had already been published and had already been a hit, but that didn’t seem to factor into the “negotiation”/demand. It was Elvis, after all. But Dolly didn’t blink. “I said ‘I’m sorry’ and I cried all night . . . and I just didn’t do it, and they just didn’t do it. But I always wondered what it would sound like. I know he’d kill it. Don’t you?” Elvis never recorded “I Will Always Love You,” but in 1992, Whitney Houston did, and it went on to be one of the best-selling singles of all time. Dolly: “When Whitney’s [version] came out, I made enough money to buy Graceland.”

Rare, Selena Gomez

In my classes, I stress the importance of journaling. Former student and pop songwriter Madison Love (Lady Gaga, Camila Cabello, Katy Perry, to name a few) is such a fanatic about her journals, she actually stores them in a fireproof safe. Madison explained how this hit for Selena Gomez began by journaling:

I listen, read, and watch everything I can, old and new. I don’t judge when an idea pops into my head, good or bad. If it’s the stupidest idea ever, I laugh about it and write it down, no matter what.

Once, I was looking up a synonym for the word “unique,” and I found the word “rare” in the list. I scribbled it down in the corner of the page in my notebook and went to a recording session for Selena Gomez. Three years later, “Rare” was a single and the title of her album. She even created a makeup company with Sephora called “Rare Beauty.” So it’s things like that—little concepts that turn into bigger things. You don’t always know how powerful they can become. A song concept turns into an entire album concept and a message for young people everywhere.

So It Shall Be, k.d. lang/So Black and Blue, Louis Armstrong

One’s personal history can be told through musical choices—when those choices are authentic. My question to students is always, “What is your story? And how can it be told most individually?”

When I was writing for an album, my label arranged a meeting with Ben Mink, a producer I’d fallen in love with through his collaboration with country-torch singer k.d. lang. In k.d.’s recordings, I heard the influence of Patsy Cline, but also a kind of mourning I couldn’t place. Turns out, Ben’s parents were Eastern European Jews who fled to North America with an ingrained knowledge of liturgical, folk, and Yiddish theater music. That mix is all over their Grammy-winning outing, Ingenue, and if you’re listening for it, you’ll hear it embedded in the history of American pop music. Ben told me that Louis Armstrong lived with a religious Jewish family as a kid, and he introduced me to recordings like “So Black and Blue,” a song that mixes some pretty obvious klezmer licks into Armstrong’s New Orleans blues. Ben did something similar with k.d. lang, and the result feels original to the two of them, and unique in the world of music. It turned my head around as an artist, and now, as a teacher, I try to steer my students away from appropriating what surrounds them, and toward incorporating what’s inside them. It takes more digging, but it’s more rewarding. I have Ben to thank for that.

Glitter, Charly Bliss

Behind this power pop gem is a lesson in how to split songwriting credit in a way that will keep a band together. Lead singer Eva Grace Hendricks explains:

Here’s the thing: I’m in a band with my older brother and my best friends. We all do whatever work we need to do to make sure that everyone feels like the splits are an accurate representation of the work that we’re doing. What we’ve come to is that, among the four of us, what we make on the publishing side is always equal, and then the songwriting side is where we represent the primary songwriters who really did the bulk of the songwriting work. It sounds complicated, but the thing that really works about it is exactly that. There is a space wherein the work that we’re all doing together—and the effect of the group working together—is being accurately represented, but there’s also a place where we can just be completely honest about the bulk of the work being done.

I Want to Take You Higher, Sly & the Family Stone/Rock and Roll All Nite, Kiss

Early in their career, Kiss had to overcome an identity problem: their spectacle drove fans to the live shows, but it also confused listeners who weren’t connecting what they saw with what they were hearing. The band needed a musical decoder ring—a song that would tell listeners what they were about.

In 1974, Kiss’s label, Casablanca Records, pulled them off the road, and label head Neil Bogart urged writers Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons to find a song with a centering through-line. The model Bogart used was “I Want to Take You Higher,” a funky, roaring Mission Song by Sly & the Family Stone. Sly had an anthem, and Kiss needed one, too.

“I was kind of taken aback,” lead singer Paul Stanley told me over the phone. “‘What do you mean by an anthem?’ And Neil said, ‘A song that your fans can rally behind. A song that says what you stand for and what the manifesto is.’”

Paul and Gene co-wrote “Rock and Roll All Nite,” and released a live version on their fourth album, Alive! “What people got was this sense of empowerment and rebellious individuation . . . ‘I want to rock and roll all night and party every day’ encapsulated, in one sentence, what we were all feeling . . . once that was embraced, the band took off.”

I asked Paul how many subsequent Kiss songs grew into anthems that the band couldn’t leave the arena without playing. He laughed. “All of them. How about that?”

Seasons in the Sun, Terry Jacks

For Music, Lyrics, and Life, I asked artists in varied disciplines how they knew when a piece work was “finished.” One of the funnier answers came from world-renowned painter John Currin.

Oh God. Uh . . . it’s just hard to answer. Part of the struggle of being an artist is that question right there because you know, everybody overdoes things. Like, you know that feeling when there’s a song where they can’t help but put in strings and it’s just, Goddammit. Why did you put the strings in? I was driving in Maine and a song came on—Terry Jacks’s “Seasons in the Sun.” “We had joy, we had fun, we had seasons in the sun . . .” And it has a really affecting and strange down-tuned guitar or whatever they use in the beginning—really kind of a menacing, cool sound. And then the song starts, and it’s pretty sparse, right? It’s that guy with his little boy’s voice and everything, and then when they go to the second verse they bring in strings, you know, and it’s just, Fuck you. Why did you do that? We already know it’s a super sad song. And that’s a thing with paintings. Sometimes I think, You know what, don’t bring the strings in.

New York-based recording artist, writer, and lecturing professor Mike Errico has built his name on the strength of critically acclaimed releases and extensive composition for film and TV. Live, Errico has toured internationally, playing major music festivals and sharing stages with top artists and songwriters. In addition to his recording career, Errico's opinions and insights have appeared in publications including the New York Times, CNN, the Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, the UK Independent, and the Observer. He teaches songwriting at universities including Yale, Wesleyan, and NYU's Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music.

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