There’s a perception that pop music is formulaic. And it’s with good reason, honestly. All you need to do is watch “How to Write a Chainsmokers Song” or something like this video and you’ll get the gist. Verse, chorus, bridge – the pieces of pop are all cut-and-paste, right? Anyone with a keyboard and an editing program and a basement can do this, right?
Eh. I’ve never been quite convinced that good pop is that easy. And it’s because of people like Rob Merz, the brains behind Static in Verona.
Rob writes in the pop framework, but he uses the framework to build meaning instead of mainstream conformity. There’s a formula, but it’s in the knowing, winking breaks from that formula that good pop music grooves to life, and Static in Verona capitalizes on that. It’s in those twists that Rob’s songs get etched into your memory.
Take “Madeline,” one of the singles from his new album, Secrets Like Shadows. The guitars punch in, the prechorus feels catchily familiar, you settle in for an enjoyable ride – and then chorus chord progressions and harmonies hit your ears like something from a 1960s doo-wop band.
It’s smart, and it’ll hook you quick. It’s indie pop music “with a twist.”
Oh, it’s catchy, too.
Rob compares his songwriting process to putting a puzzle together, but it comes across more like painting to me – an intentional act of art, where the rules of composition are set up and then bent to the whims of the creative process, like something by Andy Warhol.
Either way, it’s obvious that Static in Verona knows how to put together a sonic scene. And, the outcome ends up looking pretty good.
Give Madeline a listen, but don’t stop there. Go through all of Secrets Like Shadows to appreciate the full gallery. And then dive into Rob’s creative process below, to find out how he puts together catchy pop songs that are anything but formulaic.
When did you start writing songs? How’d you get into it?
Rob: I actually was a pretty late bloomer to music. I had no older siblings to introduce me to cool bands so my knowledge was basically what my parents listened to (The Beatles, Motown, Air Supply) or what I heard on the radio (Huey Lewis and the News). Near the end of 8th grade someone played Joe Satrani’s album Surfing with the Alien on the school bus (which is instrumental rock guitar music), and I was blown away. One of my favorite movies at that time was Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure and it sounded like all the music in that. So when I graduated from junior high my parents got me my first CD player and I went out and bought that album and played the heck out of it. After about 6 months, I decided I wanted to learn the guitar and I’ve been obsessed ever since.
What was your first song? What was it like?
The first few years of playing guitar, most of the songs I wrote were just instrumentals like Joe Satrani. I had a karaoke machine that would basically let you play a tape in one deck and record along with it on another (so basically a 2-track), and I would mess with that for hours. That’s how I got so into the process of recording. The earliest song I remember was one called “Grandfather Clock” which sounded like the classical guitar beginning of Tesla’s Love Song, played to the rhythm and sound of a clock tic-tocking.
Why do you write songs? What’s your goal when you write a song?
Even before I got into music, I’ve always loved to create things. I was into models and art when I was young. I actually majored in art in college. So, when I first started writing songs, they were just for me. I really never played them for anyone. Eventually in high school I was in a couple of cover bands and started playing the music for my band mates, and I got good feedback so I built up my confidence in my abilities. My goal is to create something I’m proud of. To constantly try new things and push myself to do different things.
Do you think songwriting is more selfish or unselfish?
I guess that depends on your individual music goal. For me, I’d say its selfish. Mostly because I would never release or write something I don’t like, even if I think other people will like it. I listen to my music a thousand times more than my biggest fan, so I’m not creating something I don’t want to listen to.
How did you find your current style?
I listen to a very wide array of music. Indie, Pop, Metal, Jazz, Alt, Country, Classical. From catchy radio songs and more experimental stuff. My plan was to take elements from the more experimental side that I appreciate (from artists like Radiohead, Bon Iver and Wilco) and incorporate those into catchy 2-3 minute pop songs.
Who are your influences?
Beck is a big influence for me. I love how he can not only write songs in multiple genres, but he always succeeds at it. Even his Song Reader project, where he just wrote sheet music for 20 songs. These are amazing songs, and he’s never even recorded them. I also love artists like Wilco and Radiohead that just do what they want and try new things and always set a mood around their music.
What is your favorite song of all time, and why?
It’s kind of random, but my favorite song is “A Whiter Shade of Pale” by Procol Harum. I can’t really put my finger on why. It’s just something about the way it’s recorded and the mood that the organ creates that always gets me. I have a playlist set up that I go to if I’m stressed out that is my favorite 25 songs, and it’s a good cross-section. Here’s the top 10 from it:
- “A Whiter Shade of Pale” by Procol Harum
- “Born to Run” by Springsteen
- “Only Living Boy in New York” by Simon and Garfunkel
- “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” by Wilco
- “Bring it on Home to Me” Sam Cooke
- “The District Sleeps Tonight” Postal Service
- “Everything in its Right Place” Radiohead
- “White Winter Hymnal” Fleet Foxes
- “Girlfriend” Matthew Sweet
- “Into the Mystic” Van Morrison
How do you write? Do you start with lyrics / melody? Chorus or verse?
I actually have a different way of writing. The music actually comes pretty easy to me. I record the song and listen to the music when I’m driving or relaxing in the backyard, etc. Coming up with different melodies and lyric ideas, then singing them into my phone. After a while I listen to everything and see what stands out the most. It’s pretty time consuming but I think ultimately it helps me from wasting a good song with a mediocre melody or lyrics.
How do you write lyrics?
When I’m listening to the instrumentals, I usually sing gibberish or random words. When I listen back to my ideas I try and figure out if it sounds like anything lyrically or if it sparks any ideas. I also have a notebook where I write random ideas and phrases. I see if any of those work. Once I have a couple lines, the rest of it usually falls into place.
What role does production play in your writing?
I used to completely write a song and really think about how I wanted it to sound. And then I would record it and try to match what I envisioned. But in the past couple years, I started to feel that process sometimes limited the final product since I was moving towards something rather than discovering it along the way. So starting with my last album “Odd Anthem,” I would write the song while recording. Like if I had a short guitar part I really liked, or just a simple synth sound or effect, I would build a full super short song (like 20 seconds max) around it. Recording drums, bass, guitars, experimenting with adding and taking away different elements until I was happy and I would see where the song went from there. Then I can loop the part and envision what should happen next. Sometimes I take out everything but the drums and bass or change the key, but it’s a good way to build a foundation and then build the rest after the fact. Other times it lets me know that the song isn’t worth continuing or it gives me another idea to start a new song.
What advice would you give other songwriters?
Obviously, every songwriter is different and everyone’s process is different. But what I tell people that have asked me this before is:
- Don’t ever settle for your first draft. Writing lyrics is like a puzzle that there’s more than one answer to. It’s good to always step away for a bit and look them over again objectively. You’ll usually find something you’ll want to change or that just doesn’t work.
- Don’t let the “rules” of music limit your imagination. Thinking outside the box can get you amazing results.
- Try to avoid too much “cut and paste” in your songs. My feeling is you always want a song to feel like its going somewhere. And while there’s nothing wrong with verse-chorus-verse-chorus, it shouldn’t sound like you recorded the verse-chorus and then just cut and pasted it again. I almost always do something different in the second verse, even if it’s as subtle as a shaker in the background – just something to give it its own identity.
Let’s talk about “Madeline.” What was the first part of the song to be written? Lyrics, melody, track?
The main guitar part came first, but I picked each individual string and it was slower originally. Then I experimented with multiple strumming patterns until I came up with the staccato final version.
Is it about a personal experience? Would you be willing to share?
The song is about my 6 year old daughter all grown up, and me meeting the person she’s going to marry. Her name is actually Emilia, but Madeline is much easier to rhyme with. The idea is no matter what this guy does, as far as I’m concerned he’ll never be good enough for her. Then the chorus is actually talking to my daughter and is basically saying after you leave with this guy don’t forget about me, your dad.What’s your favorite line from the song?
The first line was actually the first line I wrote and I like it because it’s sort of ludicrous that someone would tear a building down just so my daughter could get a better view of the night sky… And the fact that I would still think that this person wasn’t good enough for her.
The chord progression in the chorus caught my ear instantly. How did that happen, and how does it impact the meaning of the song?
This song is a perfect example of the songwriting process I explained earlier. I just had the first 30 seconds of the song, so looped it for a while and then eventually came up with the pre-chorus which, at the time, I was planning on becoming the chorus. But it just didn’t have the punch or impact I wanted. So, I sang multiple variations until finally I thought of something, but I couldn’t quite find it on the guitar. I could hear it in my head, though. Then it hit me that it was the first two chords in the Beach Boys “I Get Around” chorus. It was a different key, but the change of those two chorus is what I heard in my head as the start of the chorus.
I love how the guitars are panned – it gives the track a big-room feel. Did you know that’s the feel you wanted as soon as it was written, or did it come during production?
One of the things I love about recording digitally is that you have unlimited tracks. I almost always have at least two guitars panned left and right for all my songs. I feel like it gives it that live band in a room feeling that you can lack when you are in a situation like me, playing all the instruments myself via overdubs. The little inconsistencies of the guitars give it a little life and a more human quality.
When did you know the song was finished?
It’s funny – I am pretty confident in my songwriting and producing abilities, but mixing is a skill I am still learning. Playing with the frequencies to get everything to sit right is something that is just so tedious to me. This particular song was harder to mix that any other song for some reason. I did over 50 mixes of it. In the end there ended up being too much bass dialed in on a plug-in that was throwing everything off, but to get the 12 tracks of guitars to fit together in the chorus was very challenging. I described it to my wife as trying to put together a puzzle where you don’t even know the shape of the puzzle pieces.
What’s next for you in terms of shows, or more music?
I am taking an indefinite hiatus from playing live, and unless something absolutely amazing happens, it will most likely be permanent. After 15 years playing in bars and festivals in multiple bands, I’ve just lost all interest in it. I have always been more of a studio guy anyway. Playing shows was fun, but, to me, it was just a way to make money to afford more studio time.
I recorded music for over 25 songs for the album I just released in September – “Secrets Like Shadows” – so I have a whole lot of really good stuff to work with. I’d be very surprised if I didn’t put out another full album in 2018.
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