11 days left in 2017, 11 tracks on my 2017 CD, "A Message in the Mess." Follow this free, song-a-day mini-podcast countdown. CD available on itunes, spotify and this site.
I’m going to tell you the truth. The worst IS going to happen. Eventually … I’m going to run out of ideas. What I will not run out of, however, are the 500 tiny slips of paper bearing random words and phrases in a dozen handwritings, collected over the two-and-half years I asked audiences to tell me what to write about. 13 of those songs became my first solo CD, “Samples,” inspired by suggestions as short as the word “kazoo” and as bizarre as “the owls see everything.”
I love working from prompts. It’s the songwriting equivalent of finding animals in the shapes of clouds … on a deadline. I knew I had arrived when I was asked to participate in an annual, by-invitation-only songwriting challenge. A lot of songwriters I respect were already regular contributors: David Glaser, ellen cherry, Brad Yoder, Victoria Vox. Here’s how it works: During the month of August, you are assigned a topic, five words you have to get into the song … and every year, no matter what the prompt is … it’s extra points if you can somehow get the word monkey into it. The topic this time around: your favorite childhood snack food.
Funny songs are like great parties: The fun requires much harder planning and preparation than you’d ever think. I did more research for this monkey song about snack food than I did for any other song I’ve ever written. I wrote out pages of snack-food-related words (a bank I often employ at the beginning of the songwriting process). And, proving that your real life does not always make the best art … my favorite childhood snack was cheerios … how was I ever getting a monkey into a song about cheerios? The deadline ticked it’s reminder. Better to pick animal crackers instead.
Picking animal crackers narrowed my research questions: What are all the animals that have ever been animal crackers? Do they change? How do they get chosen? Are animals that would be difficult to simplify into a cookie cutter knocked out of the running? Has a monkey ever been one?
It’s a pretty select group, and in the last contest held to add a hundredth-anniversary cracker to the pantheon, voters chose a koala (which beat out walrus, cobra and penguin). So … maybe Nabisco could be petitioned?
And the idea came: what if animal crackers were the equivalent of the Hollywood walk of fame? Animals would be vying for the recognition, but what if you were kind of a lesser-known animal? Cool, but really weird looking? What if your likeness wouldn’t transfer well to a cookie? Does that mean you shouldn’t get to be represented?
And, it seems both a gorilla AND a monkey have been so immortalized. Their cookies don’t even look that different! That wouldn’t sit well with me if I was an animal, appealing for broader diversity. Yes, you have to think this way when you write songs: what’s my motivation as a pissed-off, underappreciated wanna-be animal cracker with a dream? But Isn’t this guy kind of a champion for us all?
Because I was writing a sort of children’s song, I decided to elevate a lot of the vocabulary to keep it from being too cute, including complex alliteration to sort of show off a bit. I mean, my cracker candidate with his letter campaign wasn’t the only one competing here. I had a song contest to win, against people like Brad Yoder, who once wrote a song about a lite brite that would make you weep.
Getting to the end of the song here … so … Who is writing this letter? That’s gotta be the punchline. The weirder the better (I’d hate to render my song someday obsolete by not predicting what sorts of animals might become crackers in the future). My google search filled up with questions like: “Are there any aquatic animal crackers?” I settle on the rules of my universe: Goldfish crackers and knock-off brands don’t count … this guy wants the big time. And if my lyrics are smart … well, he should be, too.
**end of song**
I spent at least two weeks researching, one-and-half weeks false starting, three days giving up … and exactly one hour writing the song. The 11th hour, literally. Never underestimate the power of a deadline. What I wound up with was third place in the contest, along with a smart, ridiculous and utterly original song that inspired a similarly ridiculous utterly original arrangement. A kazoo orchestra (I imagine the singing slugs from the animated movie, “Flushed Away” by the way), and a tuba elephant. We couldn’t help but laugh, even as we made it.
Sometimes you just need a crazy idea … to get you out of your shell.