Graydon James, songwriter for the Toronto-based folk-rock band the Young Novelists, shares the story behind the song "Hear Your Voice," from the album Made Us Strangers.
I rarely look too closely at my songwriting and I know why—I'm largely displeased with it.Sometimes there's this wonderful idea of a song in your head, and if you explain it to someone they might say, "Wow, that's a great idea for a song!" And then you go about putting it down on paper and, line after line, it just doesn't seem to be the same as that idea you originally had. So you hammer away at it, or you flip it over and pull it apart, or you put it away for a few years, or whatever you might do that you think needs doing and it slowly inches toward that interesting idea you had. But it never really gets there. Sometimes it is about halfway, other times it might get to 70 or 80 percent; most times it feels like it shamefully squeaks out about one-fifth of the original gee-willikers, whiz-bang whopper you thought you had that one time. That's songwriting, for me. This song started with me sitting at the piano and piecing together the chords for the verse, putting them in different rhythms and timings until I found something acceptable. It usually takes me a long time to write an opening lyric, but this one came pretty quickly: "I was outclassed, I was staring / into the flame." For a long time that was all I had. My son was about a year old at that point, and I wanted to write something about those times being away from him and just wanting to hear his voice. That was my original idea, which I thought had merit, but the song also became partly about other relationships in my life at the time, especially with my wife, who was (and is) also in the band and experiencing the same feelings I was when we were away from our son on tour. Running in parallel to the lyrical idea for a given song, I usually have a desire to do something musically experimental with each song. Well, experimental for me, which is still well within the confines of pretty standard singer-songwriter stuff. For one thing I wanted to try putting the same melody over different chord patterns, which I did in the verses. And, in this particular song, I don't know why, but I wanted to have a solo section that really built and changed the mood of the song in slow shifts until the bridge, which would be quite radically different from the rest of the song. The plan was that this would be subtle as hell, and people wouldn't even realize the bridge was that crazy until we ended off with a stereotypical double chorus. I have no idea if the plan worked, to be honest. The musical idea, much like the lyrical one, is usually lucky to get halfway to what I want it to be. After I worked out the idea for the story, the lyrics came pretty quickly. There was only one surprise and that was the honesty of one particular lyric. In the first verse, I finished it with: "I hate the face in the mirror / and that hasn't changed / that hasn't changed." I tend to couch any observations about my personal life in pretty esoteric terms or metaphors; this one was pretty baldly stated. It came from overhearing someone close to me, over the holidays, talking about depression and saying, "Sometimes I just hate the face I see in the mirror." I had a small epiphany, thinking: "I'm not the only one who feels like that?" I put it in the song. To counter the honesty of that lyric, I ended the second verse with: "The choice you make every day / and nobody knows / nobody knows." Which is not dishonest, but almost an inside joke. To keep it brief, I said something in my wedding speech about the fact that marriage is not a foregone conclusion, it's a choice that you make every day when you wake up next to someone and you say, "Yes, this again. I want this." Which, I think, is part of the amazing thing about long-term relationships, because if you just said "Yes" one time and then never thought about it again, that wouldn't be a particularly good thing. It's the fact that you could say "No," but you decide that you really do want this person to share your life that makes the whole thing magical. And, of course, you don't need to be married to do that, but I happen to be. When it came to arranging the song, it didn't feel quite right ending with the choruses, and so we put a tag on—I think to let it end more gently and because the chorus doesn't end on the tonic. But the recording has a three-time repeat of the intro chords, which is one more slight change to the usual ending because normally you would go two times or four times. In fact, live we often do it four times because our drummer never remembers that we should do it just three times. —Graydon James