When “Broken” Rules Work

I did an article once called Songs That Break The Rules, giving some examples of songs that went outside the lines in terms of doing things that you are often told NOT to do when writing a song. Songwriters get a little riled up when it comes to the word “rules”, but I think there’s a lesson to be learned from understanding those “rules” and then going beyond them and finding your own songwriting voice in spite of them.

Certain things just don’t work, and there’s a good reason that they don’t work. Not very many people want to listen to crazy, unorganized noise. I suppose some do, but that’s beside the point :-). Once you figure out what works, you’re ahead of the game. The songwriters I often admire are those who take those rules and turn them upside down, and STILL come up with a great song.

Recently I was asked to work out a song for a guitar class called “Late Bloomer” by Canadian songwriter Sarah Harmer. I’ve heard her songs before and like her style, and she’s definitely got a distinctive voice. When I was teaching it to the class, one of my students commented on how it was tricky to sing because of the way Sarah emphasises certain words in it. You might think that’s a bad thing…because how many times have you been told (by myself and others!) that you can’t put the emPHAsis on the wrong syLLAble? In other words, you need to make the music work with the natural stresses of the lyric.

Well, Sarah breaks this rule all the time, but it works!  There’s a line in the first verse  “oh, late bloomer, the rumours were true”.  The first time she sings it, her melody matches the stresses just as if you were reading the line;  OH, late BLOOMer, the RUmours were TRUE.  But the second time she emphasizes it differently;  OH, late BLOOMer, THE ruMOURS were TRUE.  And in the second verse, she does it again in the second line;  to read it you would see “it was NOTHing to be ALways LEFT beHIND”.  But her emphasis is “it was noTHING to be ALways LEFT beHIND”, putting the emphasis on the last syllable of the word ‘nothing’ instead of where it naturally occurs.

Now, many times when I’ve heard something by a newer songwriter where there is an incorrect stress in a word, I’ve heard it as a mistake.  With Sarah’s song, I don’t.  Why is that?  My guess is that she does it on purpose and likes to play around with the stresses of words like that, and this has become her distinctive style.  So she doesn’t sound like a “newbie”, instead she has created a sound for herself that makes her songs and her singing stand out.

And that is what we’re all trying to do, isn’t it?  Find a voice that can be easily identified as ours and ours alone.  Sarah Harmer may not be a massive, money making music star, but she has a following and continues to write great songs.

So what is the lesson here?  Same as always;  learn the rules, and then break ’em :-).  Have a listen to “Late Bloomer” and consider buying one of Sarah’s albums if you like it.  The lyrics are below:

Oh late bloomer the rumours were true
You know I checked your ID when you left the room
I didn’t want to see it coming, I showed off my heart
Now there’s a scar in the shape of a question mark
Oh late bloomer the rumours were true
Scattered leaves are all that’s left of you

I never thought I’d be the marrying kind
It was nothing to be always left behind
From the ship that would sail with everyone on it
I said ‘give me the land, I know what I want and where I’m wanted’
But you came in whistling ‘I’ll go if you’ll go’
And I was waiting around to play like an old piano

And honey I couldn’t see the trouble sleeping down deep
Where these lights won’t go
I couldn’t see the trouble underneath
I set my sights on what was alright
My will didn’t know, where these lights won’t go
I couldn’t see the trouble underneath

Who knew it would be you through the wall
Listening in to a voice on a call
And hearing the strings and a shoot ‘em up show
Little did I know then what little did I know
Long before listening forever
Was shot down before it was ever delivered

And honey I couldn’t see the trouble sleeping down deep
Where these lights won’t go
I couldn’t see the trouble underneath
I set my sights on what was alright
My will didn’t know, where these lights won’t go
I couldn’t see the trouble underneath

Oh late bloomer the rumours were true
You know I checked your ID what was it I knew?
I didn’t want to see it coming, I showed off my heart
Now there’s a scar in the shape of a question mark
Oh late bloomer the rumours were true
Scattered leaves are all that’s left of you

Released: 08-28-2010

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