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Blog: Why don’t I write pop music?

In my 25 years of recording my own music, I’ve been asked this question a number of times.  I remember my father being the first person to ask “Why don’t you just write a pop record?”  You would be surprised at who has asked it since, but I’m not going to list names—instead, I’m going to respond with why a “pop” record isn’t in my musical vocabulary.

Let me start with a disclaimer:  I don’t have anything specific against pop music.  Although my favourite styles of music aren’t close to the mainstream, there are pop songs that I do like and connect with.  In the modern music climate it isn’t very often, but there are always some good songs kicking around the radio.  I also don’t make fun of people who do like mainstream music, because as long as music connects to you in some form, it’s valid and it’s good.  So, if I like some pop songs and don’t see a problem with its existence, why don’t I indulge in it as an artist?

The short answer is that I wouldn’t be very good at it.

There are two ways that pop songs happen these days—by someone with the talent to both write good lyrics and sing them, or by a team of songwriters who “manufacture” a song to be a hit, and write with a specific singing talent in mind.  The latter, to me, is like fabricating and target-marketing a product and less art for art’s sake.  My hat is off to the singer-songwriters who can do what they do well and still appeal to people.

Direct lyrics are easy for people to relate to, and that’s the common thread in pop music—words that don’t need a lot of interpretation to find meaning in.  I like pop songs that resonate with memories the most—these days you have to search through the mass of “go to the club, drink, smoke, get laid” dancefloor hits to find them, but they are there.

Lyrics, for me, are poetry—words and phrases resonate differently with me, and so I tend to write from a more metaphorical perspective.  If my songs resonate with someone, I take that to heart.  What I enjoy the most is that, when things are left up to interpretation, you get feedback about how a song affected someone that may be far off from the way the song feels for me, which is completely valid and fascinating to me.

So, strike one is the fact that I can’t sing about popping a bottle of champagne at the club, but I can write about details of a particular moment of my life that affected me, and write it in such a way that it leaves other people open to interpret, and fill in the blanks to connect.

The second failure of mine to write radio-friendly hits is in the song structure and the sound.  Most pop songs have a fairly straightforward verse-chorus-verse-middle 8-chorus thing going on.  In fact, the moment you fall out of established structures, people start referring to you as “arty”.  I don’t compose music in a linear fashion—I build sounds, arrange things, bounce around throughout the track making this change here, adding something there.  It’s the way I’ve always done it, and if a chorus winds up out of place somewhere in the process, as long as it sounds good to me.

In terms of sound, most pop music is very heavy on the production side of things.  I don’t know how the producers of today can stand to slather auto-tune on every vocal out there, as it’s been an overused effect—but it’s still there.  I listen to a very wide range of music, but my attention is always caught by something different, even within pop or hip-hop or other mainstream styles of music.  There are people doing it their way, and that pulls me in far more—when I have a song on repeat because I have to literally take in every note, every word, every sound in the song.

My final crucial mistake in not producing pop music is simple:  I don’t want to do it.  I can listen to pop music, but with so much of it out there, why do I want to try to emulate it?  As much as I search for new sounds in other’s music, I have a desire to start with a blank page—from lyrics to sounds to song structures.  I improvise.  I work with the tools I have, in my own home studio.  In that, I have complete freedom to do whatever the hell comes to mind, without asking myself if it’s going to fit in with college-aged listeners while I’m writing.  I’ve always been fond of saying that I make music to fill in the gaps in my own record collection.  That may sound a bit pretentious, but it still holds true—I make music that I would want to hear, and as most of my influences are experimental or “alternative” bands, that’s where I feel the most comfortable artistically.

As Cyphier, we feel that the entire point is to make you think, or feel something, or both.   If you walk away feeling and/or thinking, we’ve done what we originally set out to do.  We were able to make that connection in a different way, and for myself, that’s the most important reason why I do what I do—I’m communicating the only way I know how, the way I feel most comfortable doing it.

I guess I’ll have to leave pop music up to those who have mastered the process.  It might limit my appeal, but even connecting to one person through a song is the reason why I’ve been doing this for 25 years, and will probably continue as long as I’m alive.

-J.