Songwriting Series: #7 & #9

“Yellow Rain Boots” was probably the most fun assignment to write and record. Written as an “opposite” song for a previous MUSI3370 assignment, I recycled “Yellow Rain Boots,” rerecording, remixing, and rebouncing a new version for my final portfolio (hence, why I merged #7 and #9 together). This song quickly became my favorite of the bunch, due to its lighthearted nature and involvement of numerous friends from school.

Professor Coffey’s proposition for our “opposite assignment,” challenged us to write a piece different from what we had previously been doing in other assignments. This let me sit back and reflect on what my normal style/tendencies were, and I soon realized that I liked mournful, but beautiful, melodies, with thick instrumentation that welled up and waves of sound (at least, that’s what I most naturally crank out at a piano). Upon further reflection, I discovered that when I attempt to create these types of songs, my frustration and stress levels rise too high after several hours of work. The process for writing “Yellow Rain Boots,” however, ended up being nearly pain free and infinitely more amusing than my previous assignments.

The recording process is probably what I’ll focus on the most, since the instrumentation is pretty simple: piano melody with electric clavier blocking chords at regular intervals. Truly, this song actually would not be what it is if it weren’t for the help of my good friends Andrew, Deborah, Elaine, Isaac, Christine, Richard, Gloria, and Yoo Na (for those of you who wish to have your names unmentioned, just contact me). Each guest artist contributed time and artistry to each part, and it overwhelms me with joy every time I listen to your voices, botching the melody/rhythm while still having a great time. I actually intended for the song to be sung A Capella, but when I discovered that none of the men I was going to ask to sing (including me) couldn’t hit the bass line’s low D2, I quickly abandoned the idea (ah, the lack of testosterone…).

The first version of the song, in it’s early stages, were merely MIDI notes with syncopated rhythms. No words had been written yet, though I constantly felt that there was a youthful bounce to the entire song and could imagine a group of friends singing along to it. I decided to couple it with a childish past time of mine: puddle jumping. I don’t really puddle jump now (even though I say so in the final version), but I sometimes like to stand in a heavy torrent, soaking myself to the skin. To be honest, however, I’m not a huge fan of rain, usually, as it proves inconvenient during travel, hinders sight, and sounds really depressing. That being said, I can endure a couple moments in torrential downpours to experience the fascinating feeling of being pounded by rain from up high. It’s really strange.

Many of the inherent difficulties with the song, that you may notice from the laughter during the piece, is that “Yellow Rain Boots” is relatively tongue-twisting when it’s unfamiliar. The lyrics do not always grant easy pronunciation and certain words, while logical, seem unexpected and slightly odd. Coupled by the fact that there is rarely any time to breathe before stanzas, the song becomes a marathon of huffing and puffing for nearly three minutes. At the urging of those who were going to record, I provided a sample draft of work-in-progress lyrics an alternative version of instrumentation to them:

Mainly everyone sang the entire song. At the point of recording, I had not decided if I wanted everyone to sing the entire song together, or if we would take turns. Seeing that nearly everyone was recording separately at different times, it seemed most sensible to have everyone sing from beginning to end, allowing me to splice together whichever verses would be needed. The first to record were Richard and Gloria, who were the first to reveal how difficult the song was to sing without proper exposure. They both fumbled with words and frequently fell behind the beat. Granted, there was no sheet music available so the entire recording was done by ear (a MIDI version of the song was playing through headphones), so it’s already impressive that Richard and Gloria managed to conclude the session with successful takes.

What I quickly found out, though, when I recorded with Andrew just after, was that I did not normalize and make sure that the recording input levels were consistent. Each person sings differently, and both Richard and Gloria had softer, airy voices, while Andrew and I had loud and nasal. This discrepancy in singing volume and timbre made the differences in takes even more obvious. When I opened up the waveforms in Audacity, Richard and Gloria (and a certain Elaine), had waveforms of nearly indiscernible magnitude, while Andrew’s solo recording was a violent mountain range that hurt to look at. Even after normalizing the .wav files and reducing background noise, the results of editing were fairly audible and considerably distracting.

I planned to have different layers of takes seem like they had been recorded simultaeneously (which, logistically, near exam weeks, was impossible). Though I tried my best to make it seem like everyone had recorded the song together in the same room, nothing beats actually doing it that way. You can sense, perhaps in the air, the interaction between musicians who are present together in a room. This isn’t necessarily an auditory signal, but rather, a musical inclination. The inflexion in voices, phrasing, and synchronized pacing are all essential to conveying such a feeling of unity and ensemble. The end result managed to pull it off to a certain degree with the transplanted eruptions of laughter and giggles (probably my favorite parts), but the singing itself usually lacks the actual musicianship between musicians in an ensemble.

The only two takes that were actually recorded at the same time include Andrew and me, as well as Richard and Gloria (which is evidently displayed by how I can’t seem to keep myself from falling apart). For everyone else, I asked those recording to ‘react as if they were there’ to whatever was going on as they listened to the headphones/previous recordings. This marginally helped solve the problem, but the singers were more preoccupied with reading lyrics and singing the right rhythm than reacting to the voices themselves. A first version, submitted for the “opposite assignment” is presented below:

I stressed to everyone that the recording sessions were to be informal and lax. The more comfortable everyone was, I felt, the better the performance would be, and the more genuine their talking would be. I attempted to chitter chatter and be excitable before, during, and after the takes, hoping to salvage any recordings of small talk that would help add charm to the final mix. I inherently gathered some good dialogue between my friends, and put the best in parts I thought appropriate.

The first version features nearly everyone present in the final product. I had casted the exact correct number of friends to voice a sensible rotation of lines throughout the piece, adding sensible plot and character introductions. It humors me to no end when Gloria butchers the little girl’s closing exclamation with awkward pauses and a faltering “me,” completely deviating from the continual beat and progression of the song. The range of personality present in the first version is so awesome that I had a hard time deciding to change it in any way. However, when I finally chose to use this piece as part of my final portfolio, I made the executive decision to trade sentimental value with professionalism, at least for my class assignment.

Treating the inconsistency in recording levels problem, I asked Richard to re-record his little boy voice and asked Christine if she would help voice the little girl. They both agreed, and the outcome was far better than I could have hoped. Richard managed to thicken his voice while keeping it childish, and Christine gave several good takes with truly childish demeanor and spirit. I automated these into the mix and took out Elaine and Gloria (sorry!), but still left their voices in the Choruses. The typical structure of voicing follows, normally, one stanza per voice (or specific dialogue per character), then all the voices preceding the current chorus would sing in unison. This worked out wonderfully for the first version, until I asked Christine (the one too many person), and had to somehow make ends meet in terms of appropriating parts (I didn’t want to leave anyone out!).

In the end, the final submission was more balanced, had more consistent voicing, and was easier to understand. Another difficulty that arose when layering takes on top of one another was that not everyone sang exactly at the same time (another instance where musicians being in the same rooms solves this problem) and when I planted more than 3-4 voices on the same segment, if the voices were not reasonably synchronized, it was near to impossible to understand what was going on. I remedied this problem a bit by automating and dipping the volume for those who did not sing with the majority of everyone else. This constant retracting and reintroducing of voices may sound odd if you listen carefully for one voice, but the overall effect lends the song to be more tight and presentable. The final iteration is as follows:

Yellow Rain Boots (2012) Lyrics

Yellow Rain Boots (2012)
Music by Christopher Hsing
Lyrics by Gloria Chen, Christopher Hsing, Isaac Kim, Andrew Lam, and Richard Li

The sound of never stopping dripping dropping from the rain
Could be heard all day and night for many many days
A little boy sat restless in his home enduring the pain
As he waited for the clouds to finally give way

The little boy could hear the raindrops slowing down to a stop
So he ran up to the window sill to see outside
He clapped his hands and danced around the room with childish joy
And he yelled, “Yippee! I’m free!” but then his mom replied:

“Whoa-whoa-whoa-whoa! Wait just a moment, little one.
Don’t forget to put your rain clothes on!
You’ve got your boots, but you need to be ready for—”
But the boy already ran out the door.

And there he sang, “The clouds are gone, the sky is clear, the sun is out, the birds are here!
I have my yellow rain boots so there’s nothing to fear.”
So the boy jumped left, the boy jumped right, he jumped and played to his delight
With every splash from every puddle bursting with light

He made some splashes here and splashes there, he even got some in his hair
The boy was hopping happily without any care
But the boy fell down onto the ground, and water splattered all around
When he noticed another pair of little yellow rain boots

The little girl could see the boy was watching from afar
Her tiny yellow rain boots sparkled like a new star
And as the little girl came hopping over to the boy
Her tiny yellow rain boots filled his heart with joy

“Hello, why is your face all red?”
“I don’t know. Just loving the sun and breeze?”
The little girl looked at his feet and happily said
“You are wearing tiny yellow boots like me!”

Suddenly the clouds came back, the rain returned, the sky turned black, without concern
for the two little children who were playing outside
But they did not care, for as a pair, they felt they could be anywhere
as long as they were wearing little yellow rain boots

And so they ran together, sang together, hopped together, laughed together
even though there was a bit of rainy weather
The rain went pitter pat n’ spitter spat, it rained so much and it was such
that all you could see were those tiny yellow rain boots

I finally also want to give a shout out to all those who helped with this project. I’m eternally grateful for the time and love you shared with me during this project, and will treasure those moments and this song for as long as I will remember it. So here we go:

ANDREW — close companion and comrade, you’ve been there in times of need and are there to provide both spiritual and intellectual guidance. though i don’t particularly heed your words too often, you’re still someone i can depend on. always.

CHRISTINE — never failing to have energy even though i usually emulate an undead zombie during songwriting class , thanks for helping out for this song’s final iteration and having warm, open arms as i got acclimated to the ccf community. congratulations on graduating, by the way, and the amazing scholarship.

DEBORAH — romantic at heart and pure in voice, your bright personality, kindness, and generosity never fails to amaze me. thanks for lending your beautiful voice for two of my assignments, and i hope next year brings you even greater joy.

ELAINE — humble pianist and shy lady. though your voice is as soft as a whisper (jkjk), thanks for trying so hard to sing this song despite all the embarrassment. keep on fighting that chem-80’s series! chamber music buddies for life / @yoona

GLORIA — the person i’m probably least familiar with out of this entire list, thanks for offering your singing chops even though i distracted you while you were supposed to be practicing. here’s to a wonderful two semesters in instrumental conducting together.

ISAAC — charismatic blockhead who’s become super lazy in the architecture school; you tarnish the legacy i left you (just kidding~). thanks for being a best friend. i shall always cherish the times you sacrifice your time, sleep, and sanity to hang with me. P.S. just so you know, everyone loves the way you sing your solo stanza

OLIVIA — sometimes overdramatic, but always caring from the heart. i won’t reprimand you for being stubborn and refusing to sing this song despite being in the room during recordings, but i appreciate your honest heart and ability to make me and andrew laugh for no particular reason (why…oh why…)

RICHARD — calm, lanky, and an SC2 pal. thanks, firstly, for the midnight chili you gave me that one evening; it was truly life saving. thanks, also, for driving me to countless places (though Olivia should get some credit here). i’ve come to realize over the past couple months that i share more common interests with you than i initially realized. here’s to becoming even better buddies.

YOO NA — piano trio violinist and only person who couldn’t read the english lyrics i wrote because they were too fast, thanks for the wonderful semester of mendelssohn and attempting to record for this song. i’m glad that we finally got to know each other better, given our aged and silent acquaintanceship with one another from before UVA. let’s definitely do something again before final exercises

Wow…the shoutouts turned out to be a bit more serious than I intended. Haha, ah well.

An extra special thanks to those who helped  out with the lyrics (Andrew and Gloria in particular). Lyrics are my worst nightmare, and your aide saved me many many hours of pain and suffering.

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