I’m at an interesting cross-roads in my creative journey. I’ve now written and released two full length albums. Those songs are a collection that spanned many years for me. It’s very much like closing a chapter of my journey and I’m glad to start completely from scratch with a clean palette of ideas. Paul J Clark – Virginia: @PaulClarkMusic
GETTING TO KNOW PAUL J CLARK
The song is about the cycle of peaks and valleys of life. It’s like a Carousel, spinning around in unending circles. There are valleys that just seem to go on forever and in those, hope for a brighter day keeps us motivated. Then there are those moments of carefree bliss. We look forward to those, learning to survive through darkness and winter knowing spring will eventually come again. In the end, the most important thing through it all is the love we share with those around us, grounded in faith, and unending.
Listen to Carousel (here)
The Story Behind the Song…
It was one of those rare perfect days that happen right as the seasons change. Not too hot, not too cold. The faint smell of summer was in the air for the first time. In that instant, I was transported to summers from days gone by, fun times, happier times. It was early summer, 2012 and I was going through a difficult time. I found myself constantly counting down the days until vacation.
With those thoughts at the forefront of my mind, I sat down at my keyboard and played a chord. Sometimes, the most interesting sounds happen by accident. This was one of those times. My right hand was playing one chord and my left hand had landed on a different chord unintentionally. But the sound somehow felt like I was feeling. I began to play around with those notes and that became the introduction to the song as well and the musical foundation for the verses.
Then, I began to sing, “Summer day… holiday… cast away… my cares today.” At the time, I had been listening to some music that was very minimalistic and I wanted to experiment with keeping the verse lyrically as simple as I could and create a lot of “space” in the overall sound. I wanted it to feel relaxed.
I paused and thought about how challenging the past few years had been for my family and me. My wife and I had moved 7 times in 8 years across two states, became parents of two wonderful children, I had changed jobs twice, and my Father-In-Law passed away. Yet here we were, in love, trusting in God for His perfect plan. Don’t get me wrong, we are extremely blessed but had been going through some extreme change. I began to sing the chorus, “I’ve learned to survive. I’ve learned to survive.”
I was reflecting on how I’ve learned to survive in the difficult times with hope that better times were always just around the corner. Like the joy of summer vacation. Like an amusement park, next to a beach, in the dark of night, all lit up like the stars. I could almost hear the sound of waves crashing softly in the distance. But mostly, I had an image of falling in love, really in love, for the first time. I wanted to spend every moment with her. I thought about the butterflies that I got in my stomach from being around her. The motif I was playing also subtly reminded me of what you might hear from a carousel. And I began to sing verse two, “Carousel… spins ‘round and ‘round… your hand in mine… my heart’s in my mouth.”
In an instant, the moment in my imagination was gone. Back to real life, back to the mundane. I was back in my studio, at my keyboard. I started singing the chorus again. I thought about how precious life is and how fleeting our moments of joy seem to come and go so fast. I thought about how we aren’t guaranteed tomorrow. I thought about my Father-In-Law and my hope for eternal life through Jesus Christ.
With that context in mind, I started to sing the bridge, “Yeah, it’s a holiday… they say (and it goes on forever), yeah it’s a holiday… they say…” I was thinking about death… and Heaven. Then the next phrase brought me back to Earth and the image of being with the one I love, like a snapshot frozen in time back at the beach, back on the Carousel, “…I won’t let go, of this moment now…”
In the final recording, I intentionally pulled out all of the band except the piano after I sang, “I won’t let go…” This sudden dynamic musical shift gave the phrase which followed, “of this moment now,” a stillness similar to what it feels like when you’re with the one you love. Life stops for those brief moments, when the noise around fades away and you look into each other’s eyes… and the world just stops… and time stands still.
And that was the end of my first cut at the song. It sat dormant on my computer for many months.
Then one day, my sister and brother-in-law were over and I was messing around in the studio on a track. Everyone wanted to take a turn singing and we were having a blast. Then it was my wife’s turn. She stepped up to the mic, rather reluctantly, and began to sing. Suddenly, a stillness crept over the room and it got real quite. Everyone looked at her in wonder. Her voice was bright and clear, filled with emotion. After the take, I slowly slid my monitoring headphones off my ears and looked up at her with a look of disbelief, “Honey, that sounded really good.”
My wife can sing?? She didn’t know it and I didn’t know it but nonetheless, there it was, this beautiful soprano voice.
One night a few days later, having made this new discovery about my wife’s hidden talent, I queued up my work in progress, “Carousel.” She was on her way to bed and I asked her to sing some background vocals and the chorus, just to see what it sounded like. She was tired and wanted to go to bed, as any mother of two is. I practically had to drag her to the mic. I got her all set up and started recording, never thinking we would get a final take. She sang out with passion, great clarity and emotion, “I learned to survive, I learned to survive…” It was so beautiful and brought such contrast to the song. Those takes are what I kept in the final track. Nice job Honey.
The title of the song says it features “Ashlyn.” Ashly is my wife. Ashlyn means, “Dream.” We talked about using her real name but in the end agreed that a pseudonym would better suit the song. It adds an element of mystery. I wanted my listeners to have their own interpretation of the song rather than associating it only with a husband and wife. So, now you’re in on the secret.
At that point in the song’s development, it was generally laid back all the way through, similar to the verse. I felt it needed a punch, some life, some contrast, some good old fashioned rock and roll. I was trying to find the right drums for the song. Now, I’m not a drummer, I use royalty free clips and stich them all together. I found this killer rock beat that suited the chorus extremely well. Then I added this killer rock guitar, power chords to the max, which absolutely changed the entire feel of the chorus. That was the foundation for what became the hard rock sound of the chorus. I love the contrast between my wife’s pure and clear vocal, the meaning behind the words, and the rock sound. The chorus represents working through challenges whereas the verses represent joy and bliss, two very distinct sounds and styles.
So I had the verses, the chorus, the bridge, the killer guest female vocal but it still needed an emotional climax. I started to think. In my mind, I was back on my date with my love at the beach. The crowds had all dispersed and we were sitting alone with each other on the beach as the sun went down. I imagined it was the dreaded last day of vacation and we never wanted it to end. I started to sing, “We watch the setting of the sun and we wait for dawn to come. Yeah, I’m ‘gonna hold on… This moment, this woman, this romance… this moment, this moment, this moment…” My wife later sang a beautiful harmony with me through that last section of the song. It’s my favorite section of any song I’ve written.
They say you should title a song after the hook, something people will remember and be able to find if they are searching for it. Somehow, “I’ve Learned to Survive” felt wrong, too cliché. So I called it, “Carousel” which is referenced in the second verse. To me, it sums up the entire theme of the song, “Carousel, spins ‘round and ‘round, your hand in mine… my heart’s in my mouth.” It represents life, how we are on this constant rotation of ups and downs.
To me, this song is about learning to make it through tough times by holding onto hope and each moment we have with each other. It’s also about holding on to that which matters most, love. The Bible says in 1 Corinthians 13:13, “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”
The writing of the song spanned an entire year. I released the first version of it to ReverbNation in 2013 then as a B side to my iTunes single, “The Light at the End.” I also released a slightly modified version of it on my full length album. It’s one of my most downloaded songs to date.
Your three top song writing tips for aspiring indie writers…
1) Don’t wait for perfection, just write. I think that too many times I’ve waited for the right gear or concept to actually sit down and write. But what I’ve learned is that the more I write, the better I become.
2) Let inspiration guide you. I know for me, I’ve often sat down intentionally to write a certain kind of song only to have it turn out completely differently than what I intended. As I begin the writing process, whatever is on my mind tends to come out in a way that is much more natural and believable than if I try to force a concept.
For example, I had been doing some studying on what radio hit singles had in common like upbeat tempo, certain keys, memorable hooks, relatable lyrics, etc.. Being bound and determined to write something like that, I titled my Pro Tools recording session, “Hit Single” as a way to motivate myself until I had a real title. That particular night, I kept trying to force something that just wasn’t happening. I had a story in my mind that I just couldn’t shake.
Earlier that evening, as someone who loves to understand the musical journey of others, I watched Katy Perry’s documentary, “Part of Me.” It goes without saying that Katy has had her share of controversies and we share a different world-view. We have a similar upbringing and background but have chosen very different paths along the way.
Spoiler alert! There was a sequence in the film that was so heartbreaking I couldn’t get it out of my mind. Throughout the film, in between the musical bits, we see Katy and her husband working through their relationship. She was deeply in love with him and wanted the marriage to thrive. As the movie progressed, their relationship became more and more distant. About half-way through the film, Katy got a text from her husband saying that he was leaving her. It was a text, not a call, not in person, a lousy stinking text. Who does that to another human being?! She was at a venue and only hours away from a live show. She was completely and understandably unable to control her emotions from this heartbreaking news.
Soon it was show-time. Beneath center stage, hidden by dark shadows and surrounded by dusty old support beams and electric wires, we see the silhouette of a girl hunched over crying uncontrollably. This isn’t a superstar. This is a girl named Katy who’s just had her heart absolutely broken. This is you, it’s me, it’s anyone of us at one of the worst moments of our lives. We come in a little closer. Some of her friends are there with her. It feels like a funeral not a rock concert. There was a moment of uncertainty. Would she be able to perform? Could she do her job? After a long pause, she held up her head, stifled her emotions using all the emotional fortitude she could muster, and forced on a smile. In an instant, the everyday girl transforms into an icon. Now, we see her dressed up, in full makeup and costume, a professional… a star. With cheeks still wet with tears, she is lifted up to center stage in front of the thousands waiting to hear her sing. This is you, it’s me, it’s anyone of us having to press on despite the worst kinds of challenges we face.
Later that evening as I sat in my studio trying to write an upbeat radio friendly single, that image was foremost in my mind. Instead of ignoring my emotions, I wrote about what was on my heart. I wrote about a girl who seemingly had everything anyone could ever want out of life. She had commercial success, money, fame, fortune, and friends. But the one thing she so desperately had and didn’t want to lose, love, slipped away. Yet despite all of that, she didn’t quit, she never gave up.
My song, “Tears from the Stars (Hold Your Head Up High)” was written almost entirely over a two day period. It was slow and melancholy not fast or upbeat. But you know what is ironic? It is my most played song to date and… it is the first song I’ve ever had played over the air on the Radio.
3. Sales are not primarily driven by the quality of the artist, they a driven by the emotional response of the buyer. I could also call this point, “Write awesome songs!” But what does that really mean? Emotional connection trumps everything else, including technical proficiency. Sometimes, those two factors are married in a way that is absolutely stunning, but… how many times have you heard a song delivered with pristine execution but didn’t feel any sense of connection with the singer? Both forms are equally valid artistic expressions but I believe that most people connect more with honest delivery than one which is technically perfect. Don’t let a lack of technical execution stop you from publishing something that you believe in, especially if you believe you’ve already done everything you’ll ever be able to achieve your vision for it.
We listen to music because it makes us feel a certain way. It may be the story, it may be the melody, but if we are not impacted emotionally, we move on no matter how technically proficient, or not, the artist is. Our prospective fans make buying and listening decisions based simply on how they feel.
How do your feel about trends.. With the live music world shifting to D.J, is there any pressure on you to create a remix version of your song and market it in another direction?
Personally, I think ignoring trends is a way to limit the audience I could potentially connect with. I’ve promised myself to try and stay relevant as I get older. I don’t want to be stuck in the past or a musical rut. For the most part, I have not experienced pressure to write in a different style than I want to. I am open to changing up my songs as long as I don’t sound like I’m trying to copy someone else. Even if I sound similar, that’s okay. But sounding like a copy is not okay. Who wants to listen to a copy? So no matter what I do, I try to keep a signature sound in my mixes.
I’m at an interesting cross-roads in my creative journey. I’ve now written and released two full length albums. Those songs are a collection that spanned many years for me. It’s very much like closing a chapter of my journey and I’m glad to start completely from scratch with a clean palette of ideas.
I’m excited about what’s next and have been exploring different sounds. I’ve been working on some new material that goes back more to my roots of rock and guitar work. I am after all primarily a guitar player, that’s home to me. I have several more rock based songs that I’m working on, different than what I’ve done in the past. I know that those songs will appeal to a completely different audience that what I have so far. How do I make that transition successful without alienating those fans that like piano pop? I’m also still in the unending pursuit of pushing the envelop between genres and trying to find that illusive hit single that is utterly and completely unique but familiar in its sound.
I am looking for opportunities to license my songs. I would love to hear what someone else could do with them.
Along those lines, I’m also looking for collaborators, specifically vocally. Some of my favorite music come from female singers. I would absolutely love to write a song and have someone else be the featured vocalist.
My ultimate goal is more radio play, on a national level. I’m looking for the right single to take to a studio and have professionally recorded, mixed and engineered.
Website & Social Media Links:
Twitter handle is “@PaulClarkMusic”