The writing and recording of "Limping to the moon"

It occurs to me that there are probably relatively few instances of songwriting where there is a “trail” left behind, revealing exactly how the song came to be. My latest song “Limping to the moon” is one such rare instance.

I must preface my remarks by saying that I am, at best, a “reluctant songwriter”. In other words, I don’t really want to write songs; I have no special interest nor skill in music and poetry. Yet somehow I continue to write songs despite this (perhaps to the chagrin of my friends and family, I've written over 50 songs and recorded 22 of these). Why? Every now and again I get a song idea that seems too good to “let go”. And sometimes I think it might just be.

My song “Limping to the moon” is one of these. It’s safe to say that I don’t really care if I never write another song again. Nenad said to me the other night (while listening to it in the car) “this could well be the best thing you’ve ever done”. I think he was right.

Leaving aside the merits of the song, it is fortuitous that, in this information age, my songwriting process has left behind an electronic trail, however ephemeral. I thought I would preserve that trail before it vanished.

I’ll begin by saying that I initially came up with the line “limping to the moon” in around 2004, when I was writing and recording “He never left”. That song is based on a poem I wrote in around 1998 which I converted into a song based on some practice instrumentation of a piece written by Jed and Jeremy (the name of which escapes me). Jed’s and Jeremy’s atmospheric playing seemed to lend itself to those words.

I’ve always been drawn to the moon in my writing; just one example would be my references in “Miss you again” to “you came to my house by the light of the moon” and “when the moon has gone to ground” (not to mention the “wolf howls” at the end).

But, as things developed I never used the words “limping to the moon” in “He never left”. Instead I found (fortuitously) that the poem I’d written for my father dovetailed neatly into Jed’s and Jeremy’s playing, with some minor adjustments (enabling me to use their playing in the verses of the song and partly in the chorus - I thank them for that).

Apart from “He never left”, I’ve written songs for both my younger sisters (“Way back home” for Natalie in 1987/2004, “All aboard” for Belinda in 1991/2004) and for my own daughters (“Waiting for you” for Lara in 2002/2010 and “Blue heart of mine” for Maya in 2006/2010). And all these have been very well-received; they are regarded as some of my best work. But the glaring omission in all this is a song for wife Maureen. I suppose I’ve put it off because it nothing I ever thought of seemed “good enough”…

Coming back to “limping to the moon”…

I had always wanted to use that line in something. It seemed to me to convey so aptly one’s struggles to achieve the impossible. After all, just managing one’s daily affairs can seem insurmountable at times. The idea of aiming for an impossible goal (the moon) while under a handicap (limping) seemed to capture the essence of this sentiment.

But I have always particularly wanted to apply it to my wife Maureen who has always been a “rock”, even in our darkest hours. Rather than write gushing lyrics, I wanted to celebrate this fact above all else. But the instrumentation that inspired this line was already “used up” by “He never left”…

In September 2009 I decided to bite bullet and write something for Maureen’s birthday. The result was a poem, titled “Limping to the moon”. It was written on the back of Jed’s and Jeremy’s original instrumentation but I had no idea of a melody. I thought that, as with “He never left”, something melodic might come to me one day.

But, 2 years later, it still hadn’t.

How are melodies composed anyway? Many mornings I wake up with a tune in my head. I usually hum it to myself over breakfast and if it survives that and still seems good (and original) enough, I record it on my phone (or, in days gone by, my dictaphone). [What can I say - I’m an “ideas man”, much like Michael Keaton’s character in the movie “Night Shift”!]

But dream inspiration is just one way this happens. Sometimes I get an idea walking through a shopping arcade, or on a bus or while watching television. It could be anywhere.

So where does an “original” tune come from?

First, let’s be clear on this: in terms of modern Western music there are only 7 major notes in a scale (ie. C, D, E, F, G, A, B) and 5 minor ones (C#/D♭, D#/E♭, F#/G♭, G#/A♭, A#/B♭). There are finite combinations of these. Accordingly I really don’t know whether it is true to say that any song is truly “original”. I always suspected that at some future point every single euphonic/useful combination of these notes will have been exhausted and perhaps even categorized.

Until then, what is actually happening when we hear something we regard as “original”? Mostly we are hearing a sufficiently “unique” recombination of the same sounds. It is my belief that this recombination principally results when the songwriter’s subconscious “scrambles” the constituent elements of some other song known to the songwriter. Like a dream, your subconscious will take a sound and “play with it”. Ultimately it can morph into something so radically different that it bears no resemblance at all to the original.

Paul McCartney famously said that he woke up with the tune to “Yesterday” in his head, albeit with the lyrics “Ham and eggs, oh how I want some ham and eggs.” It is my belief that his subconscious had “scrambled” (pardon the pun) none other than Joaquin Rodrigo’s “Concerto de Aranjuez”. Composed in 1939, this piece was covered in 1960 by jazz musician Miles Davis using a Gil Evans arrangement.

Five years later McCartney would have been well aware of this cover; he would have heard it regularly on the radio. The opening bars of the second movement (Adagio) are phrased identically to “Yesterday” and can be sung as “Ham and eggs, oh how I want some ham and eggs”. What differs is the melodic structure. Once you start to hum a harmony to “Concerto de Aranjuez”, then swap a few notes around, it morphs into “Yesterday”. That’s my best guess anyway - having woken up to find myself humming a hybrid to both pieces on more than one occasion. This is not to say that I think McCartney plagiarized “Concerto de Aranjuez”. Far from it. “Yesterday” is entirely “original”. It’s just that I think I can see the “trail” leading back to its origin in McCartney’s subconscious.

So what was I listening to when I composed the melody to my song “Limping to the moon”? I can tell you because the event is preserved on Facebook. It was 27 August 2011 and Ashley had posted this wonderful animation of a dance called "Thought of you" by Ryan Woodward.

The backing song to that animation, “World spins madly on”, was written by a band called The Weepies . As enthralled as I was with the animation, I was also taken by the song itself. It’s right up my alley - a poignant, wistful folk melody with a wonderful “hook” in the lyrics.

I watched it on that Saturday, 27 August (when I “shared” the video on my page), then again just before breakfast on Sunday 28 August 2011. I recall that as I was starting breakfast a melody had already come into my head. It is only through deduction and “back-tracking” that I can now see the link between this melody and “World spins madly on” - a vague trail akin to that between “Yesterday” and “Concerto de Aranjuez”.

By the end of my breakfast the song had already “morphed” into the form of the present “chorus” beginning “I limp to the moon” and ending with “We’re limping to the moon”. The constituent elements had been “scrambled” into something new.

Have I plagiarized “World spins madly on”? The answer is, emphatically, “No”. Anyway, you can be the judge. I think the differences are even more stark than those between “Concerto de Aranjuez” and “Yesterday”. They are so great that you might even wonder what link there is. Well, I can tell you it is this:

Ignoring the vocals, time signature and transposing the songs to the same key, The Weepies’ line:
    “Woke up, wish that I was dead, with an aching in my head, I lay motionless in bed”
can (more or less) still be sung to my line:
    “I limp to the moon, while you are busy planning things to do”
and vice versa. In other words, the underlying chord progression is largely the same in this line (and this line only).

But while the chord progression might be the same here, the melody and its phrasing are completely different; those elements have been “scrambled”.

My subconscious went on to take the melody into a completely different direction with the next 2 lines: “when we get there, there’s never any ‘if’ with you”. By the next 2 lines (“Take all my cares, and stow my baggage out of view, we’re limping to the moon”) any remnant link to “World spins madly on” is long-gone.

And, as I’ve alluded above, not only had my brain scrambled the melody, it had also morphed the time signature. It had gone from a standard rock/pop 4/4 to a 3/4 waltz.

Of course at that point I had no lyrics. The initial “sound” in my head was that of a neo-classical piece, played on a piano. But by lunchtime I had realized that this “piano sound” matched some of the words from Maureen’s poem, in particular “limping to the moon”. It seemed to me that I had, at last, found the key to a song for my dear wife. As my electronic “trail” tells me, I recorded this bit of melody to my phone some time on that day.

But, as I was to discover, this was only the beginning. One melody line that matches a few stray words does not a song make.

I know a chap who writes poetry. Unfortunately he often prevails upon me to read it. I can only hope that my music doesn’t impose as great a burden on others. What is notable about this fellow is that his standard refrain is “I don’t write poems - they just happen”. I often wonder if he is implying “Divine inspiration”. And truly, “inspiration” is evident in his writing; he has had some, and regurgitated it onto a page. But as well all know from Thomas Edison, creativity is only 1% inspiration - the remaining 99% is perspiration. What he has is the start of something (and, sadly, not something particularly good).

What I had here was the start of a song. But was it any good - and would it develop into a full song?

As the day wore on (and I occupied myself with chores like mowing the lawn) I started to play with the idea of a verse. As I’ve mentioned previously, verses are darned hard to write. You can’t just repeat the chorus. And as adept as your subconscious might be in “morphing” tunes, it just won’t do so in any kind of orderly fashion. Every initial attempt I made resulted in a mere rephrasing of the chorus.

But, but the end of the day, I had recorded 7 more sound bites to my phone, two of which seemed reasonable candidates for a verse to “Limping to the moon” (in particular the second).

I know from my phone that I gave the idea a rest until Tuesday 30 August 2011. On that day I re-listened to my sound bites and recorded another short sound bite (something that sounds now like a thought for backing instrumentation). On Sunday 4 September 2011 I can see that I recorded yet another sound bite - this time a more fully-formed version of my “second option verse”, indicating that it had firmed in my mind as the favourite.

Finally at lunchtime on Wednesday 7 September 2011 I had the melody of the song more or less in its final form. At lunchtime on that day I recall looking at Maureen’s poem from 2009 and trying to marry the lyrics to my new sound. I recall quitting in disgust. However much I had liked the poem, it wouldn’t “fit” my new song.

On the afternoon of Saturday 10 September 2011 I decided to sit down and thrash it out once and for all.

I ended up abandoning the 2009 poem almost entirely. The chorus still used the words “limping to the moon” but the only other concept surviving from the poem was the line that goes “stow my baggage out of view” (which contrasts with the poem lines: “check my baggage in, so I can have it out of sight, and mind).

For the verse I started from scratch. I’ve always found that the sound of words are more important to a song than their meaning. I’ve also found that the sounds often lead to a story in themselves. So by simply listening to the “sounds” of my humming and scatting I slowly began to compose the lyrical structure. In this case I realized that all my humming and scatting was leading me to: “I’m climbing… I’m sailing… I’m drowning… I’m burning…” The rest fell into place quite quickly and by the end of the day I had the first 2 verses as well as a chorus and bridge finished (the bridge being “But when, all my water has dried, hope seems to have died, I see you by my side”).

I had already determined that the song should have a traditional structure comprising 2 verses and 2 choruses with a bridge between each. But a quick run-through told me the song was too short at just over 2 minutes. This was “solved” by adding the humming (the bit that goes “da, da dum”) - something I had initially conceived as an instrumental along the lines of that in Sting's "Fields of Gold" (which just happens to follow the first 3 notes of "World spins madly on"). I also repeated the last line of the chorus (ie. “Take all my cares, and stow my baggage out of view, we’re limping to the moon”) for a third time at the end.

However on the following day (11 September 2011) I wrote a third verse as I still felt the song would be too short and just under 3 minutes. (The third verse is the one that begins “And I’m grieving…” - which seemed apt as I was watching the repeats of 9/11 footage).

It was on this day that I determined that the song should be in a 3/4 time signature at 130 bmp.

I also worked out the key (A) and the chord structure (which was surprisingly easy). What wasn’t so easy was practising my playing to a metronome which I did for the rest of the day and the following evening.

On the night of 13 September 2011 I went to Jed’s and Bel’s house to record the song. After some 4 hours we managed to put down a decent take of my guitar playing, however the vocal takes were a complete write-off. I have discovered that singing a newly minted song is, in itself, a voyage in discovery; working out the appropriate phrasing is as much a part of the act of songwriting as composing a melody and writing lyrics. Jed also opined that the song was overly long; it also seemed to repeat too much.

The following day I had an epiphany: the first 2 verses should run straight into one another (culling the first chorus but keeping the first bridge). This would avoid most of the repetition and also bring to the fore the song’s strongest element, which I now believe to be the verse (both in melodic and lyrical composition). That evening I also recorded 6 different sound bites of backing vocal concepts (ie. harmonies).

The verse harmony (lower than the lead vocals) was settled from the very beginning, as I could distinctly hear it in the “mix” in my mind. The chorus harmony was a little harder to discern. I could tell that I wanted a higher harmony sung as a kind of counter-melody, but it took some time to get a “fix” on it.

I met with Jed for another recording session on Monday 19 September 2011. We spent most of that evening surgically excising the first chorus using Cubase, however we did manage to lay down my lead vocals.

The following night we recorded the backing vocals. This proved a far more difficult task than I had imagined. Here’s another lesson for “young players”: the newer the song, the harder it is to sing the harmony while listening to the lead vocal. I finally cottoned-on to singing with the lead vocal muted, timing my singing to the wave form on the computer screen. Of course, now that I am familiar with the song I can sing the harmonies without resorting to such tactics, but at the time this was the only thing we could do.

Rather than track a guitar solo on the “da da dums”, Jed had me re-sing them and kept them as is (which I quite like now).

At close to midnight I finally found myself driving home and listening to the “finished product”. Once again, I was struck by the realization that a sound that once existed only in my head had made its way into a recording. I owe an enormous debt of gratitude to Jed for this.

Of course, that wasn’t the end of the story. After listening to the song critically over and I over on different stereo systems (a habit I developed in sound engineering school) I became sick and tired of a few errors in pitch that were more manifest than others. So on 24 September 2011 I opened the file in Soundforge and did a “cut and paste” to fix them. These include a sharp opening bridge, a flat first “da da dum” and a sharp last “Take all my cares”. I was pleased to see that my skills in editing sound waves earned in sound engineering school all those years ago hadn’t been lost. Jed and I subsequently met to make some more adjustments and apply some mastering compression.

The result is this song song. I hope you like it.

Copyright © 2011 Dejan Djurdjevic