Wednesday, June 10, 2009

'Perfect Days': The endless quest to improve

Despite music being a large part of my life, I realised I have yet to blog about it.

Of course, which middle-class, fairly educated, English-speaking ethnic Chinese Singaporean will want to talk about music interest and music-making?

At a time when I'm having second thoughts about a possible career in academia, I realise that the thrill of being creative has more often than not outweighed the lure of intellectual stimuli during my 5 years in NUS.

Yes, education has always been important especially when one has materialistic aspirations. But I have always found fun and joy in the opportunities to be free and creative, even in school.

I have a two-statement theory for this world: 1) People don't listen. 2) This world has bad HR.

It is because people do not shut up, open up and listen, that we have terrorism and wars. It is also because of bad 'human resource' management and allocation that many people end up doing the things they should not be doing or do not want to do.

Music is so dear to me that I find it baffling that it is relegated to a past-time, a hobby, and a filler. Maybe it is stigmatised as a lesser-educated profession, a market-less business considering you are Singapore, and moreover, a Singaporean who wants to make English-speaking music.

It is also the changing business models of the music industry that require Singaporeans to relocate their craft and 'business' to larger regional markets. We have to think global.

Essentially, when a musician wants to make music, he/she does not think about making money. Creative work is self-satisfying, self-fulfilling and self-actualising, until the stomach starts to growl with hunger.

It takes years to hone your craft. Years of lessons, contacts and lots of practice.

As I think about it, I'm reminded of how many years of work went into a song I (officially) wrote in February 1998, at age 14 1/2.

It is called 'Perfect Days'. That is what you get from an unimaginative teenager who did not really care about his lyrics and song title.

I believe it all started in 1994 (aged 10.5) when I was doodling with some sequence of chords in C Major on the old electric organ. Having started my Electone organ lessons with Yamaha in late 1990, I was already experimenting with the keyboards, and finding out what chords were 'cool' and which sequence of chords sounded coherent.

Because it was the Yamaha organ lessons, we kids were exposed to a lot of Japanese music. Talk about musical imperialism. Yes indeed, there was a time when Singaporeans loved all things Japanese, way before we thought their East Asian friends, the Koreans, were worthy of cultural fandom and mimicry.

I first experiment with chords with a 7, and suspended 4. For example, a C chord with a 7 is one that has a B flat in it, while a C chord with a suspended 4 will have an F in it (just like my Chinese grades in Junior College).

The ongoing exposure to The Beatles and Michael Jackson, should be going strongly for about 4 years then, got me to realise that minor chords could be used and they sounded really cool.

A few instrumental compositions, inspired by pop music, video game music and the music lessons I was having, became materialised. I never bothered about lyrics at all.

By the end of 1995, I was doodling on Perfect Days in C Major, which was the easiest key to play in for pre-teen electric organist with less than 5 years of music lessons. I discovered the flow of the chords from C to E minor to F to F minor, which later became the chord sequence for the verse.

It would only be a year later when I realise the theory behind what made this chord sequence sound so coherent. It was the counter-line. The counter-line is the spine that links chords together and sound relevant and connected, layman speaking. C, E minor, F and F minor are linked by the dropping counter-line that is C, B, A, A flat. These notes are found in and constitute their respective chords. The fact they are close to one another by either a note or a key, all the more proves the chord sequence to be a 'steady' or 'solid' one. This explains why Chinese pop music have very compact counter-lines, and so many fans. This is, in my opinion, the secret to hookiness of a song.

In early 1996, I thought of the chords to the chorus, which were C, G, D minor and F. I knew this chord sequence sounded 'cool', because MoTown music in the 60s had songs that used such a sequence. And American band Semisonic's 'Closing Time' in 1998 later put any worry to rest, as they also had that chord sequence flowing throughout the song.

The movie 'That Thing You Do' sparked some songwriting inspiration and I began writing songs with lyrics in 1997 (about 4 songs before I actually finished writing 'Perfect Days'). The song I had been doodling on for a few years, was named 'Perfect Days', perhaps inspired by the song title by Nine Inch Nails' 'Perfect Drug' in mid-1997. Still, it had no lyrics.

A pivotal moment in time came when I got to listen to now-defunct British band Suede in late 1997. That was when I started writing songs with riffs, although it was on the organ. In December 2007, I added the bridge (consisting a transposed A, E minor, A, G, A, E minor, F and G) and finalised the lyrics. The bridge was my first attempt at transposition. For a song that is predominantly in C major key signature, I somehow experiment with the chords and arrived at A major. This is because the fifth chord of the C major key signature is G major, and all the notes of G major are below that of A major, making for the perfect counter-line. All these were by trial and error, so it was a long painful process of figuring out what was the next best chord in the song. Yes, I had a lot of time because I did not have much of a social life as a teenager (and I still don't).

Being in the school choir, both as singer and occasional accompanist, I roped in my choir mates to sing the song for me. Wrote out the lyrics and scored the melody, photocopied (10 cents per copy, which was way too expensive then) and distributed it to most of the choir - largely Secondary 2s and 1s. I had only recently completed my Secondary 2 course then, so anything goes during the December vacation.

As I now ponder why on earth we had so much time and freedom, especially for me to force my choir ECA (it was called extra-curricular activities back then) to sing my own compositions, I recall that the teacher-in-charge had regular medical problems. So for most of the time, I was leading warm-ups and practices. It was fun, being one of 4 guys in a room of 50 plus girls, and considering the fact that the other 3 guys seldom turn up for choir practice. Strangely though, I was quite the asexual teenager; maybe I was the late bloomer.

Hearing others sing your song is a very humbling experience. It is instant feedback. You realise how attractive and catchy your lyrics and melody are when they instantly remember those parts, and how awful some parts are written and sound when they struggle to sing a common note. That lead to some tweaking.

With others singing, I could practise harmonisation. But it probably took about 3 and half years (from 1998 to 2001) before I knew what were the right backing vocals.

In the mean time, by the middle of 1998, after playing the song privately for almost every other day, I had completed the 'riffs' of the song, both the rhythm section and the bass. The drum track, which I still use today, a cool 11 years later, was also finalised. It was tedious programming on the Electone EL-87 organ, which my mum bought for over $17,000 in 1997. That new organ changed my life (pun intended, so please indulge in it).

I also managed to play the song during my music class when my music teacher requested for it. It got good reviews and feedback. I was told by my teacher in late 1998 to change parts of the drumming, but till today I have not. Although I have on occasion in the past few years realised that it should be changed.

Throughout 1998 and 1999, I played the song at home without any earphones, which means my family members also got to listen to the song. My brother did not say much, which meant that he did not see anything wrong with the song. My dad, a natural musician, says it was good. My friends too felt that it was a good song.

I thought to myself that this is the best song I could have ever written, considering it took about 4 years before I finalised it.

In late 1997, I started picking up the guitar and that also had an effect on how I wrote and perceived music. It would be about 5 years after that in 2002 that I would be able to adapt and play the guitar riffs of 'Perfect Days'.

My good friend sang the song and since his range was higher than mine, I had to transpose the C major key to E major in 2002. It was many hours and days in my room that we practised my compsitions. It was a great feeling to hear someone else, who sings better, sing your song. It also provided me with the opportunity to practise harmonising, or singing back-up.

I had been recording my songs live on cassette tape (yes, remember the walkman era?) from 1996 up to 2002. One bad take or one mistake meant I had to stop the recording, rewind, and it all over again. It was really frustrating, considering if you make a small mistake at the 2:50 mark of a 3-minute song.

In late 2002 or early 2003, if I am not wrong, my dad took me to City Music at Peace Centre. We met the salesperson Mike Miyagi, who was keyboardist of Tokyo Square. But my blanks stares greeted my dad's frantic explanations, "Tokyo Square?? You know? Mike! Tokyo Square!"

That day, we got me a multi-track studio recorder. One of the first few songs I recorded was 'Perfect Days'. Owing to lack of proficient guitar-playing skills, I recorded the song playing the organ. I still have the mp3s that were recorded in 2003, and they still sound okay today.

I had been sending out demos from 2001-2003 to various labels, but they have yet to respond. Perhaps the songs were not good enough, and neither was the recording quality. I always believed that recording quality, even at the level of demos, mattered a lot.

In 2003, my friend and I, as a duo, played about 5-6 times publicly, and with many hours of practice in between. So the harmonisation and guitar-playing improved. By 2004, about 6 years after writing songs and after almost 10 years since it was conceived, I had finally recorded the guitar-driven version of 'Perfect Days'. A lot had improved over the years, except the singing, and I was quite excited at tinkering with the song to improve it.

Tweaks were made to various riffs and as I gained more experience with my new multi-track recorder toy, the song and its recording quality improved. Recording different tracks also allowed more time and energy to be focused on improve the respective instruments require for that section. Previously, everything was played live when recording on cassette, give that I had to play 2 keyboards and 1 set of pedals of the Electone organ all at once (and I'm still not ambidextrous).

In May 2005, after 11 years of doodling (with school, army, chasing girls and going steady with one who later became my wife), the 'final' version of 'Perfect Days' was recorded. You can find it here, click on song 5.

I never realised how much time and effort was put into one song until I recently talked about it with Joycelyn. I guess that reflects the things we do in life too. You need the focus, the time and the sweat. I believe I have unknowingly benefited from the experience of writing, tinkering, performing and recording 'Perfect Days', because my time with other compositions and recordings are significantly shorter.

It is a personal struggle of significant proportions, but I have more often than not been rather dismissive of the song. And at times, I get so sick of listening to it even though I have the desire to improve it.

Today, to be realistic, it is not about performance and gigging and all that. Furthermore, they are not what I really want(ed). I can still do songwriting, but probably in areas of commercials, television programmes and to be wishful, movies. for the moment, I have to start writing 25-second, 30-second, 1-minute songs and ditties and create a decent portfolio.

In all honesty, making music is more fulfilling to me than say, academia. And I still harbour the dream of cutting an album, but that is not a wise business move (I must be ethnic Chinese to think like that, right?) in the 21st Century, and it is all the more ambitious that music written in the 1990s and early 2000s be put out in a world dominated by pop and R&B. And of course, it sucks to be mediocre.

Maybe I should start knocking on doors again and start meeting people. Music today is not about talent or potential, it is about the execs and bigwigs. And this is the reason why there are many talents who are working in non-music related industries today.

To listen to my songs, you can access here.


peggy said...

awww. the perfect days! :p

Sam Ho said...

i hope you enjoyed listening haha