Self-Retrospect #10: ‘Hair Clip Surprise’

Welcome once again to Self-Retrospect, a collection of reflective/narcissistic posts about my own musical meanderings.

In this edition, we go back to February 2006 and arrive at what would become the tenth, final and – in this non-objective listener’s opinion – best track on the Projects compilation: A quiet and simple little song about a lady’s hair accessory…

Hair Clip Surprise - Recording

Continuing the trend of the previous two years, the beginning of 2006 would see a further decline in my musical productivity. Unlike the approach of the Leaving Cert, which seemed to put my rate of writing and recording into overdrive, the months leading up to my final university exams were almost completely devoid of music-making.

My first recordings of the year didn’t appear until the end of February. And they were very bare-bones. Indeed, I appended the word ‘demo’ in parentheses to their titles, in a (kind of) lie to myself that I would flesh them out later. Perhaps I would incorporate some of the more intricate guitar work or electronic elements I’d edged towards in the recent (or, in the case of the latter, not so recent) past.

I was probably quite dismissive of them then, because at that time, I probably put more stock in arrangements and instrumentation. And these recordings just had some basic guitar and vocals – hence, were “incomplete”.

But it didn’t take me too long to realize that one of those tracks actually didn’t need any further development. It didn’t need any bells or whistles. Because, it really was – even in its spartan configuration – a fully-formed, proper song.

What I did not appreciate at first, is that it – all modesty aside – had a really good lyric. I’ve mentioned many times that, when it comes to my attention and appreciation of songs, words almost never supersede the music. Well, it seems this also clouded my ability to assess my own work. I can now look back and see that this was, up to that point, by far the best lyric I’d written. It might still be. Hilariously enough, it was one of the easiest ones to write, too.

On 12 February, 2006, at the end of the day, I wrote an entry in the page-per-day diary I kept at the time, recounting the day’s events – and one oddly amusing/amusingly odd event in particular. I knew immediately that there was a song in it. Having run out of space on that day’s “official” page, I flipped to the back and, without much thought, wrote the song. There was no hasty scribbling-out of lines or violent corrections. It just all came out like so:

Hair Clip Surprise - Lyrics

Despite the lack of labour that went into it, the lyric came out quite well-constructed. It actually had quite a sophisticated narrative structure (certainly moreso than previous “story-song” attempts): It had a scene-setting opening, followed by an explanatory flashback; it jumped back to present day, only to be met with a sudden twist (and then a little sting in the tail).

I left it alone for a couple of weeks. I wasn’t quite sure how I was going to make music out of it. There was no melody in my head when I wrote those words. And I didn’t have any instrumental works in progress with which I could match it (as I had done many times before).

In the end, I just picked up a guitar and started slowly strumming an A chord. I began to speak/sing/speak-sing the words over it. I switched to a D. And then back to A – just alternating between the two major chords. Then I used an E to punctuate the end of the verse. Three simple, basic chords: pure beginners’ stuff. It worked, though.

The only other decisive element was the injection of some simple dynamics to match the tone of the lyrics. The first verse was soft. The second verse was harder. And the final verse was soft – then hard (and then soft and then hard again at the very end). Nothing too complicated.

In hindsight, it seems very carefully planned and thought-out. But it just happened naturally. And out popped ‘Hair Clip Surprise’:

As I said, I wasn’t beaming with pride at first. I thought it was just a rough demo. One that probably didn’t deserve any further treatment.

It never got further treatment. But not because I didn’t think it deserved any. Just  none seemed to be required. It just worked.

The song came more into its own more in a live setting. Since most of the shows I was playing were just me with an acoustic guitar, it was ideal. It seemed to get a good response each time, too. (Although perhaps that’s some kind of wishful thinking/selective memory on my part.)

Here’s me doing it as part of a short set at Sin É in Dublin in April 2010. It’s a soundboard recording, so it didn’t really pick up the audience too well. Also, there were only about 6-8 people in said audience. Nevertheless, they seemed to like it. (Or were polite enough to clap anyway…)

[audio:http://www.davidding.com/audio/other/liveatsine/01_hair_clip_surprise.mp3|titles=hair clip surprise (live at sin é)|artists=david ding][download ‘Hair Clip Surprise (Live at Sin É)’ mp3]

This post has definitely been a lot more self-congratulatory than the self-depreciating ones that preceded it. But, fuck it – I’m really proud of this song! I still think it’s one of the best things I’ve come up with.

And it marked a very important shift for me, with regards to subject matter.  The bulk of my earlier songs had been about unrequited desire, rejection and missed opportunities. Heck, that was, in many ways, a veritable treasure-trove of inspiration. I got a lot of mileage out of that kind of shit!

But after struggling to put feelings to words while still romantically entangled, I now a complete serious relationship  to draw upon – bitter end, aftermath and inevitable excruciating hindsight included.

This song paved the way for the David-somewhat-scathingly-looks-back-at-relationship-but-partially-disguises-it-as-a-pleasant-ditty sub-genre that would follow, yielding ‘Casual Trap’ and ‘Hard to Please’ – as well as this year’s ‘Requisitely Sensitive’ (which, in retrospect, now seems like a complete rip-off of this track!).  And really, where would we be without that?

Um, probably in the exact same place. But with slightly less bitterness in the world.

But anyway…