#6 The Fine Print (album track by track)

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. “The Fine Print” is the sixth (and title) track from my latest release, The Fine Print. For convenience, the lyrics and YouTube & Spotify streams are at the bottom of this post.

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I settled on this as the title track of the new album before I even knew what else would be on the album… actually, before I even finished the song. As usual, that put extra pressure on me to write something good, and I must admit that it does tend to lead me to choose safe melodies, which doesn’t really bother me in songs, but apparently it bothers other people, ha. But I’m mostly just happy that the pressure didn’t prevent me from ever finishing the song at all.

This song basically started with me just thinking the phrase “the fine print” was kind of poetic, and I wanted to come up with a concept for it. Eventually I came up with “up until now, all my life has been in the fine print.” And then I used a technique that is common for some songwriters but that I rarely use: I took a bunch of random lyrical ideas accumulated through the years and smashed them all together into one song. Obviously, I only chose the ones that were relevant, but I was very happy to be able to make use of so many lines that had always felt great, but I could never think of what song to put them in before.

That’s where I found the bridge, the first pre-chorus, and bits of both verses. The rest came from either lyrical free writes, or just crafting the song into a coherent whole once it was mostly finished. I’ve always found it very easy to come up with a line here and there when the bones of the song are already in place. It’s the bones that are easier said than done.

Now, even though it was the title track and I really wanted it to turn out well, I did not feel the same paralyzing pressure on the production as I did on the songwriting. I just had fun with it.

This album is probably the first time I’ve actually played around with dynamics, especially with adding and removing extra instruments, so I really enjoyed putting the dramatically quiet pre-choruses between relatively loud verses and choruses. I got mixed feedback about it, but I liked it, and I’m excited anyway to be using a new tool in my kit. Anyway, as on some of the other songs, I added in some electric guitar hooks and drum loops and called it a day.

Lyrically, this is one of my favorites (perhaps my top favorite) on the album and means a lot to me, and I think listeners enjoy the lyrics too. (You could always watch the lyric video on mute and pretend it’s a poem!) Musically, most people think it is one of the weaker songs on the album. I like it, but of course I can’t be objective. But the good thing is that (in my opinion) my weaker songs now are still better than most of my stronger songs in the past, and that’s basically all we creators can ever hope for in our journeys. So I’m pretty satisfied, but looking forward to making the next album even better!

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LYRICS

Been feeling like life’s already passing me by
With a heart weighted down from missing everyone who’s left my life
My heroes are all middle aged and I’m running out of drive
I feel like I’ve waited too long, and I never wanted to wait too long

And you could say time, time’s still on my side
But it’s quickly growing tired
Tired of all of my waiting around and all my insecurities

Because up until now, all my life has been in the fine print
But if I could choose, then it would be on a billboard while a spotlight surrounds it

Outgroups and borders, they’re so boring
I want to learn every language and go out and speak them
I want to fight in every single righteous revolution
I know I want too much, and I don’t want to want too much

And you might say pain, pain means you need a break
But if your feet hurt at the end of the day
Your day was probably better spent than a day where everything felt fine

It’s time to draw a line in this quicksand I’ve been drowning in
The greater the risk, the greater the potential win
The greatest risk of all is dying unfulfilled

Up until now, all my life has been in the fine print
But it’s time to move it on to a billboard where a spotlight surrounds it

#5 The Artless Artist (“The Fine Print” track by track)

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. “The Artless Artist” is the fifth track from my latest release, The Fine Print. For convenience, the lyrics and YouTube & Spotify streams are at the bottom of this post.

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This song deserves more love than it gets! The reason I don’t play it often is that — when played acoustic — it’s not really a fan favorite. There’s also the stupid reason that it has a lot of full F chords and, like most mediocre guitar players, I hate that chord. I have tried (as Frank Turner, the artist I most often try to imitate, often does) just playing Fmaj7s, which are much easier, but a lot of times it just doesn’t sound right. So, instead, I work my ass off to play the correct chord in the recording, and then I avoid playing it later.

But there’s a lot to like about this song, for me at least.

It started, predictably, with the phrase “artless artist” popping into my head because it sounded good and I knew that it would make an interesting concept for a song. I kept chewing on it, and I thought it would be a good song to discuss my all my social problems and anxieties. I was really excited about it. But, as is common for me, I kind of got too excited, which put too much pressure on me to write a great song, and made me not want to write it at all.

This was one of many songs I forced myself to finish during 50/90 because, when you need to finish 50 songs in three months, you just don’t really have the luxury of worrying about song quality. You flesh out every idea you can come up with, and finish every song that you start. (Okay, neither of those is really true because I have hundreds of ideas and I start hundreds of songs a year. And if I truly feel like I’m not ready to finish them without ruining them, then I don’t. But it’s kind of true.)

I finished the chorus much earlier than the rest of the song; the four lines just came pretty easy to me. That is often the case for me, as I’ve said before, because for some reason my brain is good at coming up with catchy, hooky, simple, concise bits, but I struggle with flowing verses. I either can’t think of enough to write, or I have trouble stopping myself from rambling on and on. Then when I have those verses that are either too rambly or that consist largely of filler, I struggle to come up with interesting and catchy melodies because, well, the lyrics don’t lend themselves that well to them. You’d think I could just piece together a whole bunch of quick, catchy lines to make a verse, but somehow it just doesn’t work that way. Writing choruses and writing verses are two different skills. However, I think I’m getting better at it through deliberate practice.

For the verses of this song, I can’t remember the exact process, but I remember having a giant wall of text on the topic to work from. It was either bits and pieces I had written over the course of many months, or maybe a free write or brain drain that I had done one day. Regardless, this made it much easier to write.

Interesting side note: When I first started writing intensively, I thought it was easier to write a song from scratch than piece together a bunch of existing lines and mold them into a song. But as I get more experienced, I’ve learned that in some ways, the latter is much easier. Piecing together a song from existing material takes more hard work and can take longer than writing if you’re already feeling creative, but writing from scratch requires the mental focus and clarity to be creative. So if you’re feeling mentally tired or uncreative, having existing material or co-writing with someone who already has ideas can be a great way to be productive.

Anyway, in this case, I took my few dozen lyrical lines written about social awkwardness and difficulty, and in a fairly short time I had sorted them into two verses and a bridge, moved around or added rhymes where they made sense to me, and matched the meter and rhyme scheme as best I could between the two verses. This is a process that’s become very enjoyable to me, actually.

Outside of the chorus, which I think I did a great job with, I don’t think I could point to any lines here that I think are particularly pithy and catchy. But I love the overall picture it paints. It reads like an encyclopedia entry about all the social difficulties I’ve encountered in my recent past. And it just feels so idiosyncratic — the same exact aspect of the song that other people criticize because songs will never be popular if they’re not “relatable,” is what makes me love it because it’s so me and it’s something I can hold onto for comfort whenever I experience these situations. When no one else has sung a particular experience of yours or the way you feel in a particular situation, it just feels amazing to be able to sing something that you wrote yourself and have it describe you completely perfectly.

Honestly, whenever I read these lyrics or sing the song, I love every line for that reason. It just hits so hard for me, and none of my favorite lines would hit as hard without every single line leading up to them. But the bridge is probably my favorite because it’s a good summary of how I feel on the subject:

And I am constitutionally incapable of telling lies
So I let my cards fall all over the table
Because I’ve learned over time
That if you never speak, people will assume you’ve got nothing to say
And without meaning to be cruel
They take the microphone away
So make sure you sing before it’s too late

Yes, it’s true that I’m pretty much incapable of lying. And I’ve learned to love that about myself and lean into it. Just be 100% open, honest, and vulnerable. I think it’s a strength. A lot of people following the same career path that I am might be hesitant to ask for opportunities or tell someone they admire them, but I’m not, because I know that I couldn’t hide those feelings and wishes even if I wanted to, so I might as well just say it. Many good-hearted, creative people appreciate vulnerability in others and it makes them want to help you. Some people are put off by it though, and that’s the risk you take. You win some, you lose some. But like I say, the very worst outcome is that you don’t say it, and you don’t get offered the opportunity that you could have been offered, simply because no one even knew you wanted it.

There are definitely other people out there who can relate to these experiences. It doesn’t matter if they’re artists either; that’s not the important part of the song. And I like to hope that someday, a lot of these people can discover this song and feel understood through it.

Production-wise, this is the most rocky sound I came up with; I kind of went all out with a super cool drum loop, electric guitar chords and melodies, poppy harmonies, and a bass line I wrote. I was going for heavy folk punk, but in my opinion it came off more like quirky indie rock. But that’s cool too! I think the full-on rock band sound made it a lot of people’s favorite production-wise — partly because that’s a popular sound, and partly because it was just such a drastic change from what I normally release. If only the lyrics were more widely relatable, then more of those people might have listened on repeat, ha. But again, I have no regrets because I wrote exactly the song that I wanted to write.

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LYRICS

The artless artist fell short again
Ruining a perfectly good shot
They shook her hand and quickly forgot
Can an artless artist ever find success?

I think about friends just like I did when I was five
Everybody has a story and something to teach me
And could end up being my best friend for life
But I’ve been fooled by so-called “friends” time and time again
With compliments and invitations to pretend they like me
But they were just using me till they find somebody better
Whenever I’m with a friend and we meet a stranger
Somehow by the night’s end, they become fast friends
They start keeping in touch every day
While the stranger soon forgets my name

I’ve been invited to cool parties once or twice
Introduced to people who I want to like me
But I cramp up lest I show too much excitement
And everybody says they hate all that’s insincere
Yet the way that they choose to get ahead is to pretend that they’re everyone’s best friend
Always asking for details they never want to hear
But me, I can’t pretend when I’m not interested
I don’t have a fake smile or a cool new way to say goodbye
I just awkwardly walk away, and every time I just say

The artless artist fell short again
Ruining a perfectly good shot
They shook her hand and quickly forgot
Can an artless artist ever find success?

And I am constitutionally incapable of telling lies
So I let my cards fall all over the table
Because I’ve learned over time
That if you never speak, people will assume you’ve got nothing to say
And without meaning to be cruel
They take the microphone away
So make sure you sing before it’s too late

#4 Forever Young (“The Fine Print” track by track)

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. “Forever Young” is the fourth track from my latest release, The Fine Print. For convenience, the lyrics and YouTube & Spotify streams are at the bottom of this post.

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Along with “The Bench at the Top of the World,” “Forever Young” was one of the first songs of this batch that I instantly enjoyed playing, so I’ve been playing it all year long.

But unlike “Bench,” this was the type of song that needed time to marinate before I could finish it. I remember when I first had the idea to write a song called “Forever Young” about the trade-off between financial independence and the freedom to do what I love. What an original idea, right? But if songwriters are still allowed to write love songs, then lord knows I should be allowed to do this.

At the beginning, I (ironically) struggled with a lack of emotion and passion for this song. I finished the lyrics pretty easily because I had a lot of experiences and emotions to draw from as well as specific verbal ideas I wrote down in preparation. But the lyric just made me feel nothing, and that wasn’t right. Interestingly, the final lyrics aren’t that different from the first draft. But when I’d first finished it, I just couldn’t come up with a melody that wasn’t boring because frankly, the lyric bored me. Maybe it was a self-consciousness that the topic was unoriginal, or maybe I had just spent too much time working on it. But I actually set it aside for a while, as in a few months.

Then later during 50/90, when I was desperate for finished songs to keep inching my count towards 50, I forced myself to look at it again. I was like, okay, I basically have a finished lyric, it cannot be this hard to come up with a melody, just come up with anything so you can call it finished, and then do what you want with it later — refine it or throw it away. But luckily, I’m a perfectionist, and that part of my brain refused to let me come up with just anything. In fact, because I was having trouble coming up with a good melody, I spent more time than usual refining it as I wrote. For example, I wrote a handful of different melodies for the main hook (“rather be forever young than prematurely dead inside”) before I settled on one, and I think it’s a lot better for that.

When I recorded it, I think this was probably the arrangement I did the best job on. I wrote some really nice electric guitar and bass hooks (again, contrary to popular belief, there are no keyboards in this song, it’s just guitar!) and then I pieced some drum loops into a pretty neat track. I don’t hear any glaring flaws in levels or timing like I do in other tracks. Judging by conversations I’ve had, the arrangement was the main asset of the song. It doesn’t seem to be a fan favorite or really hook people in by itself.

But I personally have a soft spot for this song, for some reason. It’s still my second favorite song to play on the album, largely because it’s easy and fun to sing and play. There’s a sweetness to the lyrics and the melody that resonates with me, even though I feel somewhat detached from it. Like, I wrote it about myself, but I feel like I’ve been growing out of it all along; it’s just something I felt like I needed to express regardless. It’s almost like an ideal philosophy for me, my version of Frank Turner’s “Photosynthesis” (a formative song for me). I’m particularly proud of the bridge section (“I used to hate songs like this too when I was afraid”), partly because it was a cool way to change up the song’s dynamics, but for me that’s also the most personally expressive part of the song. By the way, that was a little reference to my surprising dislike of “Photosynthesis” when I first heard it… which is a long story that’s somewhere in my past blogs if you are interested enough to find it.

Overall, I like this song because it was one of those times when I set out to express something and did so perfectly. I don’t mean that the song is musically or lyrically perfect, only perfectly mine. Every songwriter has different goals they try to achieve with their songs. For me, that one is paramount, so I will remain proud of this song regardless of what anyone else thinks of it.

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LYRICS

When I was five I used to think
I would be settled in some pastel yellow house by now
On a pretty little row of pastel colored houses
With a hardworking husband, who looks like a prince
And a couple of funny, precocious little kids
I might be a pantsuit professional
Or a working writer, or a teacher
At any rate, a stable job, not still just a dreamer

But I think I’d rather be forever young
Than prematurely dead inside
To wake up every day and work on a dream
Is a blessing I’d never take lightly
It’s not a failing

These days, I wake up every morning, just after eleven
Spend most of my days reading and writing in bed
Still living with my mom, like when I was seven
But there’s meaning and method, I’ve got a direction
And the biggest surprise
Is I never dreamed this life could make me so happy

And stoically settling for plan B
When you never even took plan A all the way
Just because time marched on and you got afraid
That isn’t success

I used to hate songs like this too when I was afraid
So if you hate this song, it’s not too late
I used to hate songs like this too when I was afraid
So if you hate what I’m saying, it’s not too late