Songcraft and Storytelling
RUNA's Guide for Song Arranging
By Shannon Lambert-Ryan, Guest Blogger
I always feel like I really lucked out in life!
Most people are lucky if they get to incorporate one aspect of their dreams and interests into their careers. Me, I kind of got to incorporate them all!
If you had told me when I was younger that I would be the lead singer and manager of a nationally touring Irish band when I grew up, I probably would have laughed at you. Don’t get me wrong, I have been surrounded by all of the necessary elements (Irish and folk music, singing, dancing, instruments, theatre, history, etc.) for my entire life. But, if asked to fit them all together like a puzzle to discover what I was going to be, I can almost guarantee that this is not what I would have come up with.
Truth be told though, it really couldn’t be more perfect.
Throughout my career as a student, I had three main focuses: music, history, and theatre. Despite the fact that I dedicated an equal amount of time and focus to each area, I was constantly being told by people around me that I would, ultimately, have to choose one of them and give up the other two, if I wanted to be successful.
As someone who has never liked to restrict my creative possibilities, I would simply smile and ask, “But why do I have to choose between them? Why can’t I use all three?” Decisiveness has never been my forte, but I truly knew that whatever I ended up doing in life, I absolutely wanted it to incorporate all three of those aspects.
The good news is, I stuck to my guns and, in the end, I didn’t have to choose. I found the perfect career!
As RUNA’s lead singer and manager, I incorporate music, history, and theatre into my work every single day.
Every song that we perform is a story waiting to be told. And to, properly, tell a story, you must delve into the history of the characters to understand them, add a bit of dramatic presentation to illustrate their actions to an audience, and, in our case, use music as the vehicle to convey their emotions to the listener. And this is only one aspect of the job! While I respect the need for decisions (and I have to make a lot of them in my work), when it comes to music and creativity, I have always found that the more you keep your options open and follow your instincts, your possibilities and opportunities become limitless.
So, with RUNA, when it comes to the personnel and repertoire of the band, we continuously strive to think a little bit outside of the box and push the boundaries. Not many of our decisions have been “traditional” or even conventional within the Irish music genre. But, to be honest, we’re kind of proud of that fact. It’s kind of what makes us “us”!
So, when selecting songs to arrange and perform in the band, we take a similar approach and like to give ourselves lots of options. We, literally, consider anything from traditional to contemporary to our own original material. We all come from eclectic musical and geographical backgrounds. So, trying to take advantage of that, we will all come to the table with suggestions and then jam out different ideas for the songs before deciding which songs to pursue.
When going into a creative period for the band, we will often spend several weeks to a couple of months researching material to include on new albums and to work into our set lists. While this can seem like (and sometimes is) quite a grueling exercise, don’t be discouraged! There are so many treasures to be discovered along the way! In addition to the songs, I find that I learn such a great deal about song structure and composition, the storytelling process, and the history of traditional music during these periods. And, most importantly, I discover more about myself as an artist every time I go through it.
4-1-1 of Song Arranging
When you break it down to basics, the steps of song arranging are pretty simple:
- Pick a song
- Decide what instruments/vocals you want to include
- Decide how many verses to sing
- Put it all together and play!
But wait, there’s so much more!!! (I always feel like Rowan Atkinson in Love Actually when he asks if you want it gift-wrapped and tells you that it’s so much more than a bag.)
But it’s true! There’s so much more to the experience and so many details to consider than just the steps listed above, but it helps if you break it down.
1. Pick A Song, Any Song
When we are looking for songs, the two key elements that we keep in mind are interesting lyrics/storyline and a great melody (They often say that 90% of a director’s job is already finished if he picks the right script and the right cast. I believe the same rule applies to song arranging. The hardest part of the job is already complete if you pick a song with outrageous lyrics that you can sink your teeth into and a smashing melody that you can’t stop singing!).
Since we prefer to travel the unbeaten path, we will often search for songs that are a bit more obscure and tell a story that hasn’t been told as frequently, or we will sometimes choose a very familiar song, but arrange it in an entirely different way than has been done previously.
To Trad or Not to Trad? – That is the Question
So, this is an age-old conversation starter among musicians in the Irish music field. “Should you build a repertoire with older songs that have stood the test of time, or should you continue the tradition by writing new songs that might one day be added to the traditional catalogue of future generations?”
The traditional arts in many cultures are oral based and it’s only been in the last couple of centuries in that a concerted effort has been made in the Celtic regions and the UK to catalogue some of the music and to credit authorship to them. We are indebted to people like Francis James Child, Steve Roud, Edward Bunting, and other song collectors like them for laying the groundwork for this foundation and why we have, quite literally, hundreds of thousands of songs out there to choose from. In typical RUNA fashion, we ask, “Can’t we do both?!” We love performing traditional music and we love exploring newer music styles, too!
Most of us grew up on trad, and we love passing those folk songs and tunes on to future generations. It’s, also, fascinating to find the similarities between what people were writing about 400 years ago and what we still decide to write songs about today. We’re not so terribly different. We, also, really love newer and original music!
Composition vs. Arrangement
People ask us all the time if we plan to write more original material for the band. We love writing new music, but, thus far, it has only accounted for a small amount of for the band’s repertoire. Traditional music has set the standard bar for folk music pretty high and, whenever we try to write our own stuff, we feel like it has to meet that standard. However, we hope to do more of it and we are delighted when we see bands in this generation writing new music! It’s the best way to continue the tradition of traditional music!
2. Instrumentation / Vocals
As a Celtic Roots band, our “roots” are in the music of Ireland, Scotland, and the UK, and our “branches” stretch far and wide to Appalachian, bluegrass, blues, Cajun, Cape Breton, flamenco, Americana, and beyond. We love to explore all of the options/ideas/instruments that those genres offer. However, it is important to us that, while we may tend to branch off in many directions, we always come back and give a nod to our roots. So, as a compromise, we often find ourselves taking a traditional song and giving it a more modern feel by mixing it up with aspects of newer musical genres, or vice versa. This middle ground is where we thrive and what we’ve come to refer as “RUNA-fying” a song.
One of the best ways to achieve this and to find new sounds is to explore the instrumentation and vocals on a song. If you are super lucky and have a wide access to lots of different types of instruments and musicians who can play them, then you can try creating textures and soundscape for a song with the sounds of different instruments. For example, if you want to play a song and give it a Cajun feel, you might include an accordion and a fiddle in the instrumentation. For the vocals, you might consider singing the song in French and singing in very tight harmonies.
If your range of instrumentation is more limited, as it is for most touring bands (it gets hard and expensive to bring too many instruments on the road!), then it’s fun to get really creative with the instruments that you have and try playing them slightly differently than they would normally be played or trying differently rhythmic patterns. For example, in RUNA, we decided to give a bit of an island feel to the Scottish traditional song, “The False Knight Upon the Road”, giving a bit of an insight to the mixing of cultures in the Appalachian Mountains in the 18th and 19th centuries. Since we don’t play many instruments that you would find in the islands, we tried to replicate some sounds from the mandolins and the guitar in the way that they were plucked. Combined with the percussion from the djembe and bongos, it created a vibe and specific textures that helped us to convey the atmosphere and the story within the song.
Bottom line, we try to choose the instrumentation that best supports and illustrates the storyline.
Know Your Audience
Side note: Keep the audience in mind when thinking about the instrumentation for a song! They are a great asset during a show and almost always want to get involved! They can add a wonderful dimension to a song that you’re not able to achieve on your own. Sometimes takes a little coordination, but totally worth it in the end!
3. How Many Verses Do I Have to Sing?!?!
If you have any experience with traditional music, you will know that being concise is not its strong suit. Why sing a song in 4 verses when you can sing it in 40?! During a recent research period for RUNA, I, actually, came across a song that had (I kid you not) 461 verses! So, trust me on this one when I say, less is definitely more. You may want to sing all 461 of those verses at a song session, but your audience probably won’t hang around to hear you finish them at a concert.
Adding, subtracting, and changing the verses of a song has always been part of traditional music and this generation is no exception to that rule. At the end of the day, whether writing a song from scratch or arranging one that has been sung for hundreds of year, remember that the main goal is to tell a story. I look for the verses that either best convey the action within the story or that have the most poetic lyrics, and those will get top priority to be included in the final arrangement.
Hint: The more active the lyrics are, the more you have to work with when performing the song on stage!
4. Ready, Set, Play! / All the World’s A Stage
Once you have decided on what elements you want to include in your arrangement, it’s time to try them all together! This part of the process can often stretch over several months for us. We will come up with a basic arrangement and structure for a song, jam it together, and then go away to come up with new ideas to try the next time. Sometimes it will take playing the song in front of an audience for a while until the arrangement, finally, settles and we’re happy with the song.
For me, this is one of my absolute favourite parts of the process. As an actor and a singer, it is when I discover all of the nuances of how I am going to sing the piece. Similarly, it is when the instrumentalists find the textures of the story. I am a firm believer that if you just play a song, the characters stay on the page. But if you perform a song, that’s when they come to life!
To Thine Own Self, Be True
All in all, lads, whatever decisions you make in the end, make the song yours!
Find your unique sound and add your voice into the tradition!
RUNA has been enchanting audiences by pushing the boundaries of Irish folk music, since their formation in 2008. Interweaving the haunting melodies and exuberant tunes of Ireland and Scotland with the lush harmonies and intoxicating rhythms of bluegrass, flamenco, blues, and jazz, they offer a thrilling and redefining take on traditional music.
The group has been honoured internationally, winning Top Group and Top Traditional Group in the Irish Music Awards and an Independent Music Award for Best World/Traditional Song.
RUNA made their debut appearance at Milwaukee Irish Fest in 2016 and have performed at various Celtic festivals around the nation.
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