For the third album in a row, I’ve decided to showcase each track in a “behind the song” blog series. I hope some listeners find it interesting or helpful. “Boulder” is the second track from my latest release, The Fine Print. For convenience, the lyrics and YouTube & Spotify streams are at the bottom of this post.
This song actually started its life as an assignment! Over the past year, as I’ve had more free time to work on the creative side of my music, I’ve tried out a bunch of online songwriting courses. One of my favorites of those is The Songwriting Academy’s (UK) weekly masterclasses. Every week an experienced (generally pop) songwriter does a presentation about the creative or business side of songwriting and there’s an assignment.
One week the theme was empowering pop songs. “Firework” by Katy Perry was actually presented as the prime example. I knew I wasn’t going to (and didn’t even want to) write another “Firework,” but I figured it would be a nice exercise to write my own version of an empowering song.
I started by brainstorming some images and metaphors that felt empowering to me, because that was part of the idea of the exercise. I came up with a bunch, but for some reason the idea of pushing a boulder stuck with me. Maybe because it’s a common enough image in general, but I can’t really think of an example of someone using it in a song. (Correct me if I’m wrong as it sounds like my kind of a song!) Most of the other images I could think of were pretty overdone in songwriting.
I started with a couple of other constraints: first, the key of A, because in my mind each key — played with open chords on acoustic guitar — has a different feeling: G and C are basically your old standbys that can do anything; D and A are the most empowering, positive ones (A being the quirkier of the two), and E can either be quirky or kind of punky. I think this is more of a factor of the specific songs I’ve happened to cover and write in each key rather than some kind of musical genius (or a universal fact), but anyway, that’s how I chose the key.
The other constraint was deciding the structure ahead of time. Obviously, the chorus was going to be the high point that summarized the empowered feeling. The reason I didn’t put my main image (the boulder) as the chorus is that I had written those final lines already, I liked them, and they didn’t really seem to work as a chorus. I knew that was going to be the ending. I decided that I would organize the verses simply by time: verse 1 would loosely focus on the past and verse 2 would loosely focus on the present.
I find that these kinds of constraints and pre-planning usually lets the exact lyrics and melody write themselves, and this case was no different. Although I can’t see it holding up to “Firework” for the average music fan, I was pleasantly surprised by my results. It’s a nice little tune, and I’m particularly fond of some of the lyrics in the first verse — “days when a little push led to a dream come true, and months and months when I tried and tried and I barely made it through.” For me, that was one of those lines that expressed a feeling/experience perfectly from within.
A careful, musically inclined listener might notice that the strumming pattern I use for this song is one I seem to have gotten hooked on in the past year. My first instinct used to be the “Old Faithful” pattern (DDUUDU) or what I like to call “acoustic punk strum” (DDUDU), but now it’s this one. I have to consciously force myself to come up with something different. Most of the songs on this release actually used this same strumming pattern until I went in and changed some of them. Hopefully I did a good job of that so they don’t all sound the same.
Production wise, this was the track that eased the listener into more instrumentation after the first track being acoustic only. I added some minimal electric guitar chords, vocal harmonies towards the end, bass, and minimal (digital) drums. Actually, I added the instruments to all of the songs first, taking each song where I felt like it wanted to go, and then I listened to them to decide the ordering. I liked the idea of starting and ending acoustic, with the bigger songs in the middle.
Anyway, overall, I’m happy with this song, and I hope other people enjoy it too.
P.S. If you haven’t already, I highly recommend checking out this song in the Spotify mobile app, which as far as I know is the only place where you can see Canvas art (3-8 second videos that loop while you’re listening to a song). My favorite graphic designer, Matthew J. Corrales (I highly recommend him for all your design and animation needs), has been creating Canvases for some of my songs, and this one (featuring a cool animated boulder rolling down a hill) is one of my favorites.
I’ve had ups and I’ve had downs in my time
Moments on top of a mountain, and moments down in the grime
And I’ve had days when a little push led to a dream come true
And months and months when I tried and tried and I barely made it through
But I’m powerful, so I won’t just take anything
For I was born to sound off… to sing
So I’ll take all of my pain, put it in a song
And nobody’s gonna tell me that it’s wrong
Because now that I’ve made my mind up, I’m dangerously strong
And I think I knew that all along
And as I grow the gains get higher and the failure’s less
And I never, feel regretful, as long as I do my best
And I get people telling me how much my music means
And after years and years of trying, I’m finally who I want to be
I pushed a boulder and it rolled
I flicked on a light switch and the world lit up
I pushed a boulder and it rolled, it rolled