About fifteen years ago, a new song popped into my head. It had a title, a melody, and a handful of lyrics. It had a faintly Brazilian feel to the rhythm and the harmonies. The title was Simone. It seemed to be about a woman who left her partner and escaped to some exotic location.
But the chorus was lacking a punchline. If I was going to sing her name several times, I needed to tell Simone something. There was no message to give her. The atmosphere was certainly there; yet to keep it from lapsing into it ‘lounge’ territory, it needed an ironic twist. And every time I tried to sit at the piano and play it, I got lost in the chord sequence. It seemed that every few bars there were several different ways for the chords to modulate. I would pick a given key to start in, but when I got back to the next verse I’d be in a completely different key. It was a musical Rubik’s Cube, and it was frustrating me. So over the years, I never made progress with the song.
This happens from time to time. There are remnants of unfinished songs in my closet. Not many, maybe a dozen over the 35 years I’ve been a songwriter. Usually if they never get finished, it’s because there wasn’t enough substance to begin with. But in the case of Simone, it bothered me. A lot. There was something fantastic about the song, and it kept nagging me. It would come back to haunt me every couple of years; I’d sit at the piano and try to play it, but I’d end up just as confused.
This is not like me! I usually have a very good sense of orientation with melodies and chord sequences. I can bend music and lyrics until they make sense. But with this piece of fiction, it took a slice of real life to bring me to a place where I could complete the song. Someone I’m close to told me they have gender dysphoria. (S)he felt a transition was taking place. This news was astonishing, and more than a little frightening. I found it hard to process. Looking back, I realised I could have seen this coming.
But it brought me back to my song. What if Simone was previously Simon? She was running away from her former, male self? Suddenly I had unlocked the riddle, I’d found the ironic twist I was looking for. I went for a long walk across the marshes, which is where I usually come up with my best lyrics, and I found the punchline I was lacking for the chorus.
‘You’re like a timebomb in his blood.’
With its new ambiguity, the plot line opened up many possibilities for a backstory with lots of tasty lyrical details. The next missing piece was the chord sequence. I thought hard about why I was unable to get my head around it. I decided it was the malleable and jazzy nature of Brazillian chords that was throwing me. So finally I tried something I’ve never done before: I sang the melody unaccompanied, and added the chords afterwards, as if I was voicing someone’s instrumental solo. What I ended up with was very curious: each of the three verses, and each double part of the song’s three choruses, is in a different key. I wrote down a chart for the chords, but I still can’t play them straight through without referring to it. How am I ever going to do this song live?
Happily the musicians I worked with are able to read pretty fluently, so armed with the chord chart (and with editing help from my friend Chucho Merchan) I put down a version with acoustic guitar, drums, percussion and upright bass. They did a grand job of negotiating their way around the tricky chords. It took me a few weeks to sift through the performances, but last night I finished a version (still absent a lead vocal) that I can finally call a complete song. As I often do, I emailed myself an MP3 from the lifeboat studio, so I could listen to it on my laptop speakers this morning.
I woke up today, did some chores, returned a few emails, played a little online Scrabble with my friend Rachel, and gave the song a listen. It’s damn good! How satisfying to have finally brought it to life after all these years.
And as a final ironic twist, I turned on the TV as I ate my breakfast, and what did I find? a 2002 movie starring Al Pacino as a Hollywood mogul who invents a computer-generated female movie star called…. ? S1m()ne.