Hangin’ By A Thread (Or how we tried to write a song for the environment)

In this post, I’d like to share a little about how my band, “The Glad Stones” came up with an original song about the environment. But before that, you can take a listen to it in the video above 🙂

Writing a song about “green” issues is challenging. I say that because it’s so difficult to be fresh and original when your message is usually the same as everyone else’s.

I mean, how many times can people listen to a song about the Earth dying without tuning out, right? You really need to stand out from the crowd.

So, when Singapore’s National Environment Agency launched the second season of its Eco Music Challenge, a songwriting competition for aspiring composers to express their love for Mother Earth – and spread the Green message far and wide –  Jaye and I took some time to decide on whether to take part or not.

After all, both of us sent in separate entries for the first season last year, and neither of us won, so we wondered if we should do it all over again.

I must add, however, that the contest is quite a novel way to get people engaged with such issues, through the powerful medium of music. As a songwriter myself, I appreciate the fact that my government is including original music as part of its environmental campaign.

Finally, we decided to take part again, as a band this time.

I’ll go into that in a bit, but as I was saying earlier, it is pretty darn hard to write a brand new song about saving the planet…

That’s why I really like the song “I Need To Wake Up” by Melissa Etheridge, which she wrote for Al Gore’s famous environmental documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth”. It was nominated for the “Best Song Written for a Motion Picture” Grammy in 2007. Take a listen to it below:

When I first heard it, I was moved because it spoke to me as a person. It was insistent without being preachy; it did not go into the details about what I already knew was going on in this world; it did not have the word “green” in it at all.

Instead, it appealed to a deeper sense of responsibility, a personal responsibility to change. That’s something I thought was fresh and unique.

Taking a leaf out of Melissa Etheridge’s masterpiece, we deliberately chose not to write an overtly environmental song.

Instead we wrote a love song, yes a love song – from the perspective of Mother Earth herself.

“Hangin’ By A Thread” is all about love’s ingratitude. A woman has given everything to the one she loves, but all she has gotten is hurt. She is empty.

Sound familiar? Yes, it’s a painful experience many of us can relate to.

And that became the premise of our song: Mother Earth pleading to us.

We are the ones she loves and she has nothing left for us to take from her. We’ve taken it all, and more. She’s hanging by a thread, and yet she’s holding out, hoping, knowing that there’s still time if we change our ways – now.

If you put yourself in Mother Earth’s shoes as you listen to the song, you’d come a lot closer to feeling her pain…

We chose the lovely Singapore Botanic Gardens to shoot our video. (One of the many “green” enclaves on our little island.)

In case you’re wondering how we did the outdoor shoot, both of us wore wireless clip-on microphones, which fed both our vocals and guitars directly to a receiver connected to Jaye’s MacBook. Everything was recorded in Logic Pro.

And as for the video, we propped a digital camera on a tripod and just let it roll.

After we were done, we went to a nearby cafe called “Hatched“, opened by a friend of mine, and sat there for a couple of hours mixing the tracks and editing the video.

There, that’s about it. It took us an entire afternoon and we were really pleased with the result!

Oh, and by the way, we performed the song in a single take with a small impromptu audience of kids and their parents who happened to be walking by.

If you look closely, a little girl comes into the frame somewhere after the halfway mark. Isn’t that adorable?

As I said earlier, I sent in an entry to the same competition last year, called “This Little Earth Is All I’ve Got”. You can check it out here:

I tried to write from the perspective of a child telling us that Earth is the only place he has, so please take care of it. I admit, however, that I was guilty of going into the above-mentioned descriptions of the planet dying, etc.

Plus, I did a slightly-cheesy picture slide show to go with the lyrics, and put it on YouTube.

Well, it didn’t get into the finals, but the video has over 10,000 views now!

Let’s see if the new song does any better…

So please, please, please visit the Eco Music Challenge 2011 submissions page and click “like” on our song, “Hangin’ By A Thread”!

(You’ll need to scroll through the entries to find our song, because there isn’t a way to link directly to it, but do listen to the other songs too!)

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52 Weeks, 52 Songs: Looking back on “A Song A Week”

I thought I’d spend some time to reflect on my songwriting journey over the past year in this post. (Warning: It’s going to be a long one so please bear with me :))

Honestly, I am still in shock over how fast the 52 weeks went by. Scrolling through my previous entries, I ask myself sometimes – did I really write all this?

Now, I’m not the kind of guy who talks about his feelings that much (I’d rather much sing about them ;)), but this blog has become more than a place for my music. It is my personal diary, and that’s saying a lot because I have never kept one. Every week, I’ve written about the inspiration behind each song, and shared a little of my life in the process. Putting your own music on the world wide web, baring your soul with each song… it exposes you to both the compliments and the barbs. It takes getting used to.

“Songwriting is a stream of creation that flows faster and stronger the more you give”

… That was what I wrote on 3 May 2010, the day I started this project – and I’ve found it to be true.

I’ve always felt a burning desire to express myself through songwriting, but because of work and other commitments, I knew I could never do enough unless I threw myself entirely into it.

It’s funny how life gives you what you wish for.

Last year, I lost my job, thanks to the financial crisis. Lo and behold, right in front of me was a real opportunity to launch myself into what I was truly passionate about – with the blessings of my wife of course, without whom I never could have done this.

And so for the past year, songwriting became my life. I lived and breathed it. One song every week, for one whole year. Frankly, I didn’t know how I was going to do it; I only knew I had to compose something by midnight every Sunday.

The only thing I could do was to keep going at it, week after week. I kept my eyes, ears and heart open. I tuned in to the smallest details; everything around me became a potential song idea: a newspaper article, an overheard conversation, the book I was reading, even my dreams at night…

After several weeks had passed, I realised that I had unconsciously developed a system of sorts. It went something like this: brainstorm an idea, write the lyrics, put them into music. I’d divide my week into writing days and recording days. Generally, I’d spend the early part of the week crafting the lyrics and music, and the weekend recording the video. Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it?

Far from it.

Coming up with ideas was a big challenge, of course. Some people say you can’t force an idea out, no matter how hard you try. You have to wait for inspiration to hit. While that’s true to some extent, I firmly believe that being disciplined and consistent about creativity stimulates us to do more good work at a faster rate. That is, the more you create, the faster the flow of new ideas, and the better and quicker you become at creating something. That’s one thing I’ve learnt from this project.

Ideas aside, the biggest stumbling block I faced in this entire journey was – me.

… You see, I had one entire week to devote to a song, but I’d find myself getting distracted easily, going online, eyeballing my Facebook page, obsessing over how many (or few) views I was getting on YouTube. I had to constantly push myself, no, discipline myself to write.

Always, I heaved a sigh of relief by the time Sunday came and I had a new song uploaded. Then, I’d worry about the next song, and the one after that. Often, I’d find myself crippled by self-doubt… was I doing the right thing? Was I wasting my time chasing a silly dream instead of settling down and looking for a job? These were the demons that I battled, day-in, day-out.

Isn’t that the way with any dream, any creative endeavour? Perhaps, but I know I needed a lot of encouragement. My wife was a major inspiration to me of course. I also drew strength from the positive comments I received from complete strangers about my songs. Lastly, I believed wholeheartedly in my music – and I still do.

All this kept me going.

As the weeks went by, I began to pay more attention to the videos themselves. Before this, a passable recording was all I needed. I didn’t really care much about how I looked, whether the audio levels were too soft, or if the lighting was bright enough. I began to realise that on a platform like YouTube, I was competing with songwriters who were churning out professional-sounding recordings and classy-looking videos all the time. I certainly could do a lot more.

Thankfully, I had a pretty decent audio/video recorder – the Zoom Q3, which was able to give me good sound levels, and pretty okay video quality.

I experimented with different camera positions and settings. I remember once placing the device at a corner of my room to allow sound to bounce off the walls. I hoped that it would create a natural reverb, but I felt the difference was not noticeable in the end. So much for that.

At another point, a friend told me he was tired of watching the same old room in the background. So If you check out some of my later videos, you’ll see a completely black background, which I created by stringing a black cloth behind me to hide the mess. To add some variety, I also experimented with photo and lyric slide shows in my videos.

Yes, slowly but surely, I was writing one song every week. But if you ask me now whether I have a formula for writing a song – I’d say no.

… Sometimes, I’d finish a song in an hour. Other times, I’d spend days crafting the lyrics. It always varied. And do the lyrics or melody come first? It really depends. I often started with the title, which gave me the general theme of the song, and then went on to write the lyrics, coupled with a rough melody which I would fine-tune once I had the lyrical structure in place. That was one approach.

However, my recent collaborations with Jaye Foo were done using an entirely different method. Jaye would come up with a basic chord progression – we would “feel” the rhythm and the music, and think of the kind of song we wanted it to become. Then, I would focus on developing the lyrics and let him expand on his chords. After that, we’d finalise the lyrics and chords; and finally, sing countless melodies out loud until we heard something we liked.

Like my dad always says, there’s more than one way to skin a cat.

If you look at the past 14 or so weeks of my project, you’ll find that they’ve been collaborations.

… I’m thankful that towards the end of my journey, I found a fellow songwriter to come along with me. The Glad Stones was born early this year, and I’ve been nothing short of stunned by the feedback we’ve received.

Interestingly enough, we both initially felt that our styles were worlds apart. When we tried writing songs, however, it just worked out. It’s been a blessing to have such a hardworking and talented songwriting buddy, especially on the last leg of my journey, when I felt that it was getting harder and harder to produce fresh material. Plus, with Jaye’s home studio, we were able to produce videos that not only sounded good, but were entertaining as well!

I’m tremendously grateful for the many high points of my journey, one of them being my first solo showcase at the Esplanade Library in August last year. I was really encouraged by how it went and the audience turnout was larger than I expected. The show was such a confidence-booster for me; after that I continued to perform whenever I could.

My performance at TAB early this year, as well as the gigs at the Maestro Acoustic Lounge, were some of the ones I enjoyed tremendously. (In fact, it was at my second Maestro gig that I met Jaye, who performed immediately after me.)

So, what’s next?

Well, Jaye and I will be working on a Glad Stones’ album! It will include some of the songs we’ve written together, plus others that both of us have written individually. I’ll keep everyone posted on our progress in the weeks to come.

We’ll continue to write new songs and upload videos on YouTube, that’s for sure. We’re even planning some outdoor shoots, so look out for that on our channel!

“A Song A Week” has well and truly come to an end.

Looking back, I have no regrets whatsoever. I’m glad I did it. I’ve met so many people on this journey, and learnt so much from it. It’s a cliche to say that this is only the beginning, but it is.

Thank you for being a part of it, and please continue to walk with me.

Week 52 – Way Too Good For Me by The Glad Stones

I wrote the lyrics to this song with my wife, Carol, in mind. She’s been my pillar of support throughout this year-long project. I couldn’t have done it without her. So let me say this to her now, Thank You darling!

This song is about how two different things become great when they come together. Each enhances the quality of the other. I guess the right word is complement – and this applies to people too. Two different souls who are strong on their own become unstoppable when they unite. That’s how I feel with Carol and I.

I can’t remember why I made so many references to food in the lyrics… Perhaps it was because I was enjoying a steaming hot latte the afternoon when I started writing – which got me thinking of amazing food pairings like cheese and red wine. Well, I think it worked out in the end. Carol loves the song 🙂

With that – I shall officially bring my song-a-week endeavor to a close – 52 weeks, 52 songs!

I’ll share my thoughts about this entire journey and my next steps in another post. Till then, stay tuned.

For now, I’ll leave you with this week’s song…

Way Too Good For Me

We go together like cheese and red wine
Strong on our own, unstoppable combined
Souls so different, yet so aligned
Worlds apart but lives intertwined

Without you I’d see the colours fade
We are the swirls in a candy cane
Like coffee and cigarettes that taste so great
You and me, we can’t be separate

Sure life ain’t all sugar and spice now
It can be a pain in the side now
It’s a blend of bitter and sweet
But it’s what makes my soul complete

The secret sauce
That makes us tick, tick, tick
Chili hot n spicy kick
You’re way too good for me to eat

So thank you for sticking it through
Though I threw you off like a raging bull
A fool who had no excuse
You’re a habit I don’t want to lose

Let’s go outside, take a ride, for a while
Our favorite cafe by the roadside
Love and hugs and sugar and spice
And sweet dessert later tonight

Upcoming gig – The Glad Stones @ Scape 30 April 2011

We’ve entertained you on YouTube. Now, you can watch us live.

The Glad Stones and rapper BBS will be performing this Saturday @ Scape Mall in Orchard Road, as part of the Maestro Guitars Be Heard Project. We’ll be playing some of our best original songs and our favourite covers. One set only. If you’ve been following us on YouTube and like our style, please come! We’d love to meet you 🙂

The show starts at 4pm with a couple of other great acts, so do come early for an entire afternoon of good music!

When: Saturday, 30 April 2011, 4pm onwards
Where: Maestro Acoustic Lounge @ Scape Mall, Orchard Road

Week 51 – Newton’s Circus by The Glad Stones

This song was a result of a random brainstorm session on Friday night. The flow of ideas went as such: Love song –> Cupid –> Arrow –> Apple –> Newton –> Newton’s Circus… or something along those lines.

We decided to call the song “Newton’s Circus”. People in Singapore will recognise the name because of a famous hawker centre here called “Newton Circus”, located beside a large roundabout (hence the name Circus). Mind you, this song isn’t about an eating joint – we just thought it would be an interesting title!

“Newton’s Circus” is what happens when the laws of the great Isaac Newton go completely berserk. (You know, laws such as gravity, motion, every-action-has-an-equal-and-opposite-reaction, etc. Stuff of geek romance.)

It’s about what you get when you fall in love. Everything goes haywire, you feel like you’re walking on air, the laws of physics don’t apply to you because your heart is soaring high up in the sky. It’s a fantastic feeling, really.

We recorded the video at The Heeren mall in Orchard Road. There’s an outdoor balcony on the third floor overlooking the street. We’ve been there a few times to jam and it’s a lovely spot.

Because of the lack of time – we only finished the song on Saturday and I wrote the verses on the train just before meeting Jaye –  we recorded everything outdoors after rehearsing a few times. Bruce (BBS) kindly helped to hold the camera. Everything was recorded with the “8mm” app on an iPhone 4, no edits whatsoever.

Newton’s Circus

I used to be a big piece of wood
The geeky guy who just did what he should
Got a fear of heights and highway crashes
I’d fall right over like a house of ashes

Never pushed hard enough for a big reaction
Tuned out to boy-girl interaction
Guess I wasn’t no man-in-motion
No emotion, devotion till I drank the love potion

Cupid’s arrow fell from a tree
When I woke up, I was singing aloud
Tomorrow who knows where I’ll be
Walking on water or sitting on a cloud

CHORUS
Gravity, you’ve lost your grip on me
Can’t you see my heart is flying free
Love is a criminal you can’t arrest
When left is right and the stars fall down
Newton’s circus is in town
The circus is in town…

Now I’m a smooth talking son-of-a-gun
I’m rhymin’ all the timin’ like a speeding pun
Send in the clowns, swing away that frown
‘Cos the circus is in town

Cupid’s arrow fell from a tree
When I woke up, I was singing aloud
Tomorrow who knows where I’ll be
Walking on water or sitting on a cloud

Week 50 – Gypsy In The City by The Glad Stones

Gypsies are people who live by their own rules. They go against the flow, they stand out, they travel from place to place. They evoke a sense of adventure, a life that is out-of-the-ordinary.

When we were writing this song, we wanted to say something about that kind of life – about walking a path that is different from the norm, different from the usual routes that people choose.

Sometimes, we get the feeling that we are “gypsies in the city”, because of the goals we’ve chosen. Not many people, especially here, go out and pursue the life that they want to live, or the dreams that they want to achieve.

And we feel that the gypsy defines that experience for us. We hope it inspires you to choose your own direction in life 🙂

Gypsy In The City

I’m jivin’ down Orchard Road
Guitar’s my only load
Don’t have a care at all
I’m feeling ten feet tall

I trust my own beliefs
Like a fish swimming upstream
I know which way to go
I stand up and start a show

Trust me my dreams ain’t small
My voice can fill the hall
I’m always on the move
Feel free to disapprove

Chorus
I’m just a gypsy in the big bad city
Got blues in my shoes and nothing to lose
Wake up at noon but I don’t dilly-dally
So baby don’t tease me with your you should be’s

I’m just a gypsy in the big bad city
Got the blues in my shoes and nothing to lose
I write the tune to my own symphonies
Choose to walk the path beyond the trees

We only got so much time
But don’t rush to make up your mind
Find what you really want
But don’t be blinded by the sun

Love with all your heart
If you don’t we’ll fall apart
Grab hold of your soul and begin
The life you’re meant to be in

Trust me my dreams ain’t small
My voice can fill the hall
I’m always on the move
Feel free to disapprove

Week 49 – Deja Vu Day by The Glad Stones ft. BBS

I’m sure we all have experienced a deja vu moment at some point in our lives. It’s that weird and sometimes eerie feeling when you encounter a particular situation and suddenly say to yourself: “Hey, I think I’ve been here before”, though you can’t really be sure if you have, or if you are imagining things. It’s an unmistakable feeling and once it hits you, you immediately say “deja vu”…

The idea for this song came to us as a pseudo-deja vu moment. We were sitting somewhere trying to think of what to write when a woman dressed in a bright pink blouse and long black skirt walked by. Then, a few moments later, the same woman walked past us again in the exact same manner, and I couldn’t help but say “deja vu” – even though I knew it wasn’t really one. That incident sparked off the whole idea behind this song…

DĂ©jĂ  vu Day

I’m having the weirdest day of my life…

Doo wop doo wop déjà vu day (X4)

There was nothing that special about my double shot latte
Was an OK day till you knocked over my glass
The next thing I knew I was looking right at you
And you said I’m so sorry and my mind went flash

Oh no, I think I’ve been here before
Same green dress that no one can ignore
Oh no, I think I’ve been here before
Why have you come knocking on my door

CHORUS
Mr deja vu
You hit me like a shoe
And now I can’t remember who that was
I have seen her face but my mind is in a daze
I’m just stuck in this familiar place

Through the crowd I see you waiting there for me
A long forgotten dream from the depths of the sea
Like a summer breeze impossible to seize
I’ll never figure out who you are to me

Oh no, I think I’ve been here before
Same awkward situation could there be more
Oh no I think I’ve been here before
So I’m gonna follow you out that door