December 3, 2012

Let It Speak: Writing Songs with Gordon Ramsay

Some friends and I have been hooked on Gordon Ramsay’s show Kitchen Nightmares. It’s seriously addicting. If you don’t know, Gordon Ramsay is a world-renown chef and a professionally cussing Brit too who, on this show, travels around Europe to distressed restaurants, pointing out, to the usually delusional staff, weaknesses and implementing much-needed leadership and simple business strategies. I admire him in a lot of ways.

In one episode, while rattling off an award-winning slew of cuss-words, he tried to get the head chef, an experienced and accomplished man, off his high horse to realize he was over complicating his food. As the plate was sent down the line every other kitchen staff added his own flourish, seasoning or ingredient. By the end, the food on the plate had been covered with unnecessary additions. According to Ramsay, its simplicity was compromised.

Commenting on this, Ramsay told the head chef: “let the ingredients speak.” The unnecessary additions, like siren calls, crowded out the main voice, the main ingredients. When there is too much going on, in food, the mind is overwhelmed and can't "land down" on the richness of taste and thus is drown out. Tragic. Gordon suggests 4-6 ingredients--tops--for any superb plate. That's it.

Now, on to what I’m getting at--no, this post isn’t actually about cooking. Sorry.

My friend Bijou and I have been writing music. If there was a musical one--like musical musical--it’d be Bijou. He livens up my boring chord progressions. I often scratch my head at his idiosyncrasies. Both of us wanted to, specifically, write songs to be used during the musical worship sets at the local youth group we’ve been getting involved at. So far we have one full song, which we’ve sung twice now, with a collection of unfinished tags, choruses and lyrics.

On a number of occasions though, as we sat, leaning over our guitars, we made songs that were overly complicated, bombarding ears with busy bass lines and frivolous instrumentation, earnestly filling every nook and cranny with "just the right part".

We had given into that callow songwriting trap: we thought more was more.

Nope. It’s not.

It’s striking how Ramsey’s advice carries over perfectly to the art of songwriting. What sets really talented bands apart--besides tremendous skill, etc.--is the maturity to restrain, the wisdom to remove. Sometimes songs sound best stripped bare. And often true moments of inspiration come back at square one, back for simplicity’s sake.

Just one instrument can be super powerful when used right. This is just one example of a band that lets their instruments speak: