The 10 Best Pop Song Hooks, according to Jessy Lanza
Devon Welsh, Majical Cloudz: I wrote this song in the basement of my dad’s house, alone in the very early hours of the morning at some point in January. As the lyrics in the song suggest, this song was very much written as an attempt to not give up belief in my own creativity, and also in order to express the feeling of looking for who I was and not really finding it. My intuition at the time was to make music that was barely there, just a wisp of something floating along, not invading or proclaiming itself. I made a loop of a little vocal harmony and played two chords on a synthesizer, and then sang over it. When it was originally written and recorded the vocal was incredibly small and weak, almost whispered. By the time we recorded it for the album, the way I would sing it had evolved and was much more forceful.
As an illustration of what this song has meant to me: either the night I first wrote/recorded it or the night after, I posted the song on YouTube with an accompanying video loop of a wind-up monkey doll moving in a store window as reflections of passing people move across the glass. To me this meant: be completely unnoticed. Within a few days I took it off YouTube, at the time feeling like it was a mistake even to have gone so far as to post it.
Matthew Otto: I consider this first song to have a unique quality that tends to set it apart from the rest of the music. To me, there’s something about the musical and lyrical content of Impersonator that makes it feel a little bit like a prelude, with This is Magic serving as the proper first song. With this in mind, I wanted to craft a musical environment for this song that is relatively distinct from the music that follows it. We spent a lot of time trying to make this particular instrumental sound “alive” in an organic sort of way, and we went about doing that by ensuring that subtle changes to just about every sound can be heard as the song progresses. Waves of white noise, distant trumpet sounds, all kinds of strange little noises and automated effects were added to create this dreamy, ever-changing landscape in which the vocals seem to helplessly float around. This is very much unlike the rest of the album, which is produced to sound more direct and confrontational. In general, we purposefully avoided using too much ornamentation, but here the cluster of activity seemed to suit the song which I consider to be, in some ways, a little more elusive than the others.
This is Magic
Devon: This was also written in the same basement and around the same time of night. The song was impulsively written – I played some chords on a keyboard and ended up writing lyrics that echoed back to my perspective on my life at that moment. At the risk of making this song seem morbid, in retrospect it’s clear that I was writing as if I had died or was in the process of dying and giving a final explanation of myself. Sometimes the perspective of a song isn’t completely clear until it has existed for some time. “Who am I speaking to? What am I talking about?” With time I’ve begun to see this song as coming from an imagined afterlife.
When Matt and I recorded this song we changed and added very little. We re-recorded the organ chords and Matt added some static swells and a keyboard line. The vocal take that is on the record was recorded at Matt’s apartment after I drank a ton of coffee and in an agitated state suddenly needed to try singing this song.
“In retrospect it’s clear that I was writing as if I had died or was in the process of dying and giving a final explanation of myself.” – Devon Welsh
Matthew: When mixing this particular song, I thought about Leonard Cohen recordings and wanted to achieve a similar feeling, except with the use of synths and white noise instead of acoustic instrumentation. The voice here was purposefully mixed very loud and clear until it was nearly uncomfortable to listen to, or at least until it seemed to sort of jump out from the speakers. At the same time, the instrumental was kept distant and airy. The idea here was to make it clear that the lyrics are extremely important and making them impossible to ignore is a great way to communicate that. As with the rest of the album, I spent a lot of time working on the sound of the vocals and my efforts here became the framework for how they were treated everywhere else on the record. I ended up using a lot of subtle effects, but to be clear, it was not in an attempt to mask imperfections or make them blend into the mix. Instead I wanted to highlight the natural quality of Devon’s singing voice, which is very deep and commanding. I mostly made sure to accentuate the lower frequencies inherent in his voice and used analog echo and reverb to make them sound even bigger and heavier in a surreal sort of way. As a little side note, all the vocal tracks were recorded to analog tape in order to give them a warm, smooth, and ultimately seductive quality.
Devon: This was written in my apartment in Montreal during the day. The song started with a loop of notes that I made without a purpose. A week or so later I wrote the song around it. Like almost all the songs on this record, I didn’t go into the song trying to write about any specific thing – the subject of the song just kind of suggested itself. I then tried to be as clear as I could about that idea. I definitely felt a certain fear about following the train of thought, especially when it felt like it came completely unconsciously.
When I first made the song and when Matt and myself began playing it live, I didn’t really like it. There was something completely jarring to me about singing these very personal lyrics over this big kick drum; the vocals were strange to sing; it all felt kind of unwieldy and bizarre. The more we played it, the more I enjoyed it, and when we made a decent recording of it my perspective on it shifted a lot. When we shared the first versions of the recordings with friends they were particularly interested in this song, and that led me to see strengths in it that I wasn’t previously able to see.
Majical Cloudz – Childhood’s End
Matthew: Our goal with this album was to make it sound like the best possible bedroom recording, which was a relatively natural process because it was almost entirely produced in my bedroom. At our disposal we had a rudimentary setup consisting of an old 20-channel mixing board, analog tape machines, analog and digital synthesizers, and bunch of guitar effects pedals. Nearly everything in Childhood’s End (and just about every other track) was processed or recorded through some type of analog machine, and as a result, most sounds have a dark, grey-ish quality. Also, through headphones, it’s easy to hear that there’s background noise all over the place. This isn’t a flaw in the production I’m admitting to, if we wanted to avoid those types of artifacts we could have rented higher quality equipment or made use of another studio, but we chose to stick with what we had because what is objectively referred to as ‘good sound quality’ was never something we were at all concerned with. What was important to us was getting the music across with the right mood and if certain sounds came out sounding dark, gloomy and full of tape hiss we would use them as long as they evoked the right feeling. Had we made an effort to clean up the recordings or worked out of a big budget studio I feel as though there would be something dishonest about it, or at least a certain essential rawness would be lacking. I can’t help but think of Arthur Russell recordings and how much less I would like them if they sounded totally polished.
“Had we made an effort to clean up the recordings or worked out of a big budget studio I feel as though there would be something dishonest about it, or at least a certain essential rawness would be lacking.” – Matthew Otto
I Do Sing For You
Devon: This song was written in Montreal in my room in the evening. The reverse guitar loop that opens the song is a piece of audio that I had been trying to write songs with for nearly a year before it clicked with this song. I sat down on the small floor space between my bed and desk and listened to the chords of the song on a loop for hours and thought about my friends. The song is a love letter about how separation and death are not obstacles. As in the other songs, writing a sentiment in lyrics is a step toward trying to make it real. In this case it’s feeling something very strongly and naively saying “no” to anything that could get in the way of that.
Matthew: I consider this song to posses the most of a certain ambient quality inherent in most of the other songs. Like nearly every song on ‘Impersonator’, the music is based on a skeleton of repetitive loops and so there’s little sense of the instrumental actually “going” anywhere, instead it tends to sit in place while layers of sound are added in and taken out in order to give the track a sense of expansion and contraction. We made use of a lot of mellotron samples to create this sort of synthetic choir which accentuates the climax of the song, but perhaps the most notable technique we used here was sending certain tracks through reverb effects with impossibly long decay times and fading in and out the resulting sounds when appropriate. This technique creates very rich consonant textures which perfectly serve the purpose of raising intensity by filling out the instrumental. Producing this song basically involved fading things in and out with wave-like gestures in an attempt keep the music dynamic and constantly evolving.
“I sat down on the small floor space between my bed and desk and listened to the chords of the song on a loop for hours and thought about my friends.” – Devon Welsh
Devon: I made this song around the same time as This Is Magic. This song is about overcoming cynicism and self-absorbed sadness. I recognize the cheesiness of that as the subject of a song, but it’s just what I wrote it about! Originally the recording was very rough and the vocals were quiet and uncertain. Of all the songs on the record, this one probably underwent the greatest transformation through Matt’s work. All the sounds in the song found their proper place, and he added the lead keyboard line, which completes the song. It went from being an admittedly very sad, defeated song to a song that feels much more about overcoming. When I play the song now I am largely singing the feelings of a past version of myself, but in a sense that conflict is always there.
Matthew: This song is easily the closest thing to a pop song on the album, and as such, we decided that it needed to be produced in its own unique way. Generally, the idea behind ‘Impersonator’ was to make use of negative space, keeping things as bare as possible, but here we exceptionally shot for a much fuller, glittery sound featuring vocal harmonies, bright keyboard melodies, drums, synth bass, and all kinds of white noise. It was a lot of fun to break the mostly gloomy production style which characterizes the rest of the album and one of the instruments we used to achieve that was this completely mangled Casio-like keyboard I borrowed from a friend. The original owner must have dropped it a bunch of times because a lot of the keys had fallen out and the remaining ones seemed randomly rearranged to the point where there was absolutely no respect to the traditional sequence of black and white keys. Aside from the inconvenience of not knowing which notes I was hitting, it had an irresistibly silly cartoonish sound that somehow fit the mood of the song (you can hear it playing the lead melody towards the start of the song and even on a few other songs). Generally, what was most interesting about putting Mister together was producing something with a similar approach to how one would mix a traditional pop/rock band, but with a collection of very strange, quirky sounds instead of actual instruments.
Turns Turns Turns
Devon: This song was written in my dad’s basement. I looped a small section of a song I had recorded on the guitar and it turned into this song. I don’t clearly remember the exact state of mind I was in when I wrote the lyrics to this song, but I was describing the process of finding the positives in total disorientation. In retrospect this song describes the state of mind I had during this whole period in my life.
This song also evolved significantly when Matt and I began to play it live. The introductory and concluding sections of “I know” did not exist until it was performed; it felt right to sing when we were rehearsing it for the first show. Matt’s harmonies and the single held note during the chorus both provided the song some structure and made it into something with dynamics that wasn’t just a musical backdrop for a lyric.
Matthew: Turns Turns Turns is entirely built over a single guitar loop that repeats throughout the entire song, and as there are essentially no chord changes anywhere, most of the work in producing the song went into making that basic guitar pattern feel less monotonous while creating two distinct levels of overall intensity to clearly differentiate the verses from the choruses. I started by adding a lot of white noise bursts to the chorus and even had myself making these crash-like sibilances with my mouth into the microphone. These added layers served to fulfill the function that acoustic drum cymbals occupy in brightening up certain parts of songs, giving the chorus its explosive quality. Beyond that, we further distinguished the chorus by taking this low droning synth note which was floating around in the verses and simply pitching it up an octave for the choruses, somehow opening that part up with much more intensity. What I am most proud of with this song is the fact that there is so little evolution in it’s basic harmonic structure and yet we still managed to create a significant contrast in moods between sections using very simple techniques.
Devon: The original version of this song was written in 2009, also in my father’s basement, probably in the middle of the night. The original recording is very morose and subdued. Originally “silver rings” was a stand-in reference for a person who I was singing about. As time has gone on the personal meaning of the song has changed. Now it feels just as much about “silver rings” as a stand-in for everything and everyone, and the song is about mortality just as much as longing.
Matt and I started playing this song live because it was based on a short loop and it was very simple. The intensity of the song grew out of performing it; it felt natural to sing it in a higher register.
When we recorded it we added very little – the major addition was running the guitar loop through a tape machine and slowing the tape to half-speed, thus lowering the loop by an octave. That loop plays alongside the original one and adds a depth that wasn’t there before.
Matthew: This song is the one on the album that I was first involved with in any way. Back when we played our very first show together, Silver Rings was simply a guitar pattern that Devon would record into a loop pedal and sing over, and because I brought along this really heavy keyboard that was only good for making string sounds, I naturally used that sound to improvise a melody overtop in order to give the instrumental a sense of evolution. At first, and for a little while after that, I basically had no clear idea what I was doing. I just played thicker and thicker chords as the song progressed, giving the song a sense of relentless growth until Devon was forced to literally scream over the track to be heard. At our first few shows, people would sometimes start talking at the start of this song, but inevitably they would come around to giving us their full undivided attention once the song got louder and Devon was busy blowing his voice out. It was only until we decided to make the recording of the song (which was done live) that I finally settled on a single way of playing the keyboard part.
Devon: I wrote this song at my father’s house on his electric piano. I wanted to write as simple a song as possible. The basic elements are: a three-note repeating melody and a single note droning throughout.
The lyrics to this song are the darkest on the album, but also the most opaque. I’ve just written a number of sentences trying to explain it but I just deleted them because it all sounds so cheesy. It’s basically about: what is behind things? What is the basis of things? It is the only song on the record that isn’t lyrically grounded in a specific personal experience or sentiment. Instead it describes a bizarrely detached mode of perception.
Matthew: While working on this song together, we hit a bit of a “eureka” moment that helped define the sound of the album. As with every track on ‘Impersonator’, most tracks in Illusion were recorded through a reel to reel tape machine in an attempt to colour them with a dark and gritty effect. After routinely recording the strings heard at the very start of the track to the tape machine, I mistakenly played it back at half-speed, pitching them an octave lower and giving them this dark, ominous vibe. We both immediately got really excited by the sombre quality of that specific sound and decided to transition between it and the original higher-pitched version at certain key moments, ultimately bringing the dark one in to back the part where Devon repeats the word “illusion”. This technique completely changed that section of the song making it much more impactful. After that we tried that technique on nearly every song, slowing stuff down one, two or even three times and mixing it in somewhere, you can hear it all over the place if you pay attention for it.
Bugs Don’t Buzz
Devon: I wrote this song in 2008 on a piano very quickly and without much thought. This was at a time when I was learning how to write music – writing a lot of it, letting it disappear into the depths of my hard drive – and I all but forgot about this one (I think it may have ended up as track 13 of 18 or 19 on a CD-R that I gave out to a few friends). I’ve written about this song elsewhere so I won’t go into too much depth here, but when I decided to start playing it live with Matt the preparation consisted of making a short piano loop of the three chords. The noise swells and bass were added later by Matt and myself as we began working on the recording. We tinkered with this recording for most of the making of the record.
Matthew: The basics of this song came together remarkably quickly during a single practice session. It was a little over a year ago, just before our first decently sized show and also happened to be the day I made my first contributions to a number of other songs. Devon had already made a recording of the basic piano part and so the core of the track was already in place. What we needed to figure out was what to do with it in a live setting, which eventually led to the way it now sounds on the record. My contributions that day were limited to the heavy bass sound that comes in after every verse, and this incredibly jarring squealing sound that I can only describe as similar to the cries of a dying cat, which is actually just an echo effect pedal feeding back on itself (you can hear the dying-cat-sound solo in the last section of the song). We really didn’t have much time to figure it out before the show, and I have to mention that we were rehearsing in this repulsively dirty, freezing cold garage in Toronto, Devon was sick and his nose was running all over the place, so we just wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible. It was only once we actually played that song at the show through giant stacks of subwoofers that we realized how gripping those bass notes can be, especially when they’re unreasonably loud, so we stuck with it. I feel as though a big part of why that version of the song actually works so well is because of how little time we had to work on it, basically using the first ideas that came to mind and not leaving any room to over think any of it.
“My contributions that day were limited to the heavy bass sound that comes in after every verse, and this incredibly jarring squealing sound that I can only describe as similar to the cries of a dying cat” – Matthew Otto
Devon: This was written a short time after This Is Magic and Impersonator. I remember it coming together very quickly. I was sleeping on the floor at my friend’s house at the time, and I showed it to him one night soon after I recorded the demo and he asked me to turn it off halfway through because it was too difficult to hear. I considered it too sad to do anything with for about half a year until I listened to it again and decided that I liked it.
The basic structure of the original recording consisted of the organ chords, the side-chained bass notes, and vocals. Not much was explicity changed for the final version other than re-recorded vocals (which is the case in all the songs) and some subtle layering that Matt describes below.
Matthew: Notebook is another example of a song that I hoped would sound a little like an electronic Leonard Cohen recording and so I kept the instrumental quiet and distant sounding relative to the vocal track. My main creative endeavour with this one was to craft an elegant sense of consistent growth out of something that is musically just 4 simple verses, and so I started by adding this glassy, flute-like synth part which gets thicker and thicker as the song progresses by adding multiple layers of it. Because there is no verse/chorus structure to speak of, we decided to keep things constantly moving forward simply by adding something new at every verse. One of those additions is a harmony I first sing on the words “what you said” where my voice seems to transform into a trumpet-like synth sound playing the same note, which is a neat little accident I can’t help but point out.