Small Clever Rooms
A Whale's Lantern Collaboration Process
I recently participated in a collaboration set up on Mastodon by a mysterious entity known only as “A Whale’s Lantern” or “The Whale” for short, who paired me with a total stranger so that I could work with them to write and record a song fitting a Whale-selected theme. This was the fourth such collaboration, but my first. My partner was a drummer and songwriter named Esteban.
The theme of the collaboration was “Portraits,” which made both Esteban and me think about The Cure’s classic “Pictures of You.” But I was afraid that trying to use that song as inspiration would end up with our basically rewriting a worse version of it. I’d recently experienced some songwriting success by starting with a pretty personal kernel of an idea and seeing what it grew into, and so I wanted to take a similar tack here if possible. My biggest contribution to the song, ultimately, was the lyric I wrote, so this post is going to focus mostly on that and how it informed and was informed by our musical choices.
The “Portraits” theme made me think of some self-portraits my partner had done for coursework in an art school which was enough of a pressure cooker to border on abusive. They did not accurately depict the strain she was under at the time, and it made me start thinking about the other ways in which portraits can be lies. Around the same time, I rediscovered a Tweet by Nathan Fielder that fit these thoughts pretty well. It became the direct and obvious inspiration for the opening lyric, “I’m thrilled to be here / And all my friends just out of frame are thrilled too.”
In the meantime, Esteban and I were discussing the musical side of things. We agreed pretty early on that we wanted to try to use some unconventional time signatures. Esteban came up with the idea of a drum beat that’s ambiguously either 5/4 or 4/4 to symbolize the dissonance (no pun intended) between the singer’s façade and their actual emotional state. We decided the verses would be nominally in 4 but with that drumbeat and the bassline sounding like they were in 5 to lend it some instability. Then the chorus would be straightforwardly in 5 and reveal the singer’s true emotions.
The 5-vs-4 ambiguity in the verses meant that the verse would have to be grouped into 5 bars of 4 (so it could also be construed as 4 bars of 5) in order for things to line up, which helped to constrain and direct the actual phrasing of the lyrics. And Esteban had provided some chord progressions that he cooked up, so I found myself writing melodies within pretty strict parameters. I usually start songs with the melody, because I find it difficult to make one fit within the constraints of a predetermined harmonic setting, so this was difficult, and I don’t feel any of the melodies are among my best.
I wrote lyrics and guitar lines for a verse and a chorus and the transition between them seemed awkward and abrupt. To smooth it out a little, I thought of a pre-chorus with alternating measures of 4/4 and 5/4 with a simple repeating lyric to bring the tension in the verse to the forefront before kind of letting it all out in the chorus.
With one verse, pre-chorus and chorus more or less in the bag, I took a fairly long break to finally finish and release an album that had been in the making for many years. It was close enough to finished that it was getting in the way of my collaborating on the Whale’s Lantern project. That ate up a fair amount of time but I think it was worth it. When I finished it I was able to devote my full attention to the collaboration, which also now served as a good “rebound” project for me to keep my hand in the music making game and avoid resting on my laurels after releasing something big.
When I came back to the collab, though, I didn’t know where to go from the one verse that we had. I toyed with the idea of expanding on the situation in which our Nathan Fielder analogue from the first verse found himself, but I wasn’t really feeling it. So I went horizontally rather than vertically: instead of diving deeper into the material I already had, I went back to some almost completely different ideas that came up in my original brainstorming.
The first was the notion of a king sitting for a portrait. It had to take hours, and doesn’t a king have anything better to do? The whole thing just seems very contrived in a way that fits well with the overall concept of artifice in portraiture. In telling the story of our imagined king, I tried to add a couple layers of intrigue to justify the melodramatic sound in the chorus. I’m not sure I succeeded, but I think it hangs together alright.
The third and final verse I devoted to something more abstract. Sung from the perspective of a vase (who uncharacteristically does not try to hide that it’s a vase) being painted as part of a still life in a nonrepresentational style, it’s the most off-kilter and unstable-sounding of the three verses due to being in 3/4 over the ambiguous 4/4 vs. 5/4 drums mentioned earlier. I think this was conceptually fun, but again I’m not sure I pulled it off; I went the direction I did more because I thought it would be fun and cheeky than because I had a clear idea of what I was trying to say. The melody is the least coherent of the three verses because of how weirdly the overlapping time signatures caused it to interact with the harmonic material we already had, and the lyrics deviate somewhat from the original concept of a narrator desperately trying to hide something. If anything, the vase is more clear-eyed about its situation than either of the two humans in the preceding verses.
That said, I think “fun and cheeky” worked out OK. Since I didn’t have any ideas for a last chorus and we were running short on time, I ended the song very abruptly after a final on-the-nose pre-chorus which spells out what, if anything, the point of the song actually is. It’s not a terribly satisfying point, and the music echoes that by denying you the satisfaction of a cathartic chorus.
Calling the veracity of art into question is not a new idea. Since I took some of the inspiration for doing so in this song from the inimitable René Magritte, I decided I might as well nick the title from one of his artworks too. So the song (which since it only “exists” in digital form is not really a “song” as much as a series of electrical impulses on a hard drive, or whatever) is titled “Ceci n’est pas un chanson” in homage to Magritte’s “The Treachery of Images.
” Alternate title, I suppose: “The Treachery of Sounds.”