I’ve only very recently discovered the music of Johanna Warren, a singer-songwriter from Portland Oregon. The stunning beauty of her music is addictive; it seems impossible to stop listening once you get started.
First, check out her Bandcamp site where you can stream her albums. You won’t be disappointed.
The aspect of her songwriting that strikes me right away is the long, wandering melodic phrases. Repetition plays an important role in the construction of the music, but I found myself being more impressed by how the long melodies — tunes that move so effortlessly up and down through her range — never leave me feeling lost.
When I discover someone I didn’t know, I like listening a lot to their first album. I feel I’m getting a good sense of what truly inspires and informs their musical sensibilities. Warren’s first album, “Fates” (2013), is gorgeous, and her song “Everyone I Know” is a great example of how to make a simple 2-part verse structure work.
The basic formal design of the song is AABAB — two melodies that beautifully complement each other, not so much in the verse-chorus relationship, but rather in a “first this melody, then that melody” association.
I love songs where labeling the various sections feels unimportant. Rather than the second melody behaving as a chorus for the first one, it comes across more as an “outgrowth,” a lovely extension of the musical journey set up by that first tune.
Then there is the beauty that comes from purposely veiling various aspects of the tonality of the song, and allowing ambiguity to shine as a musical feature. The constantly moving guitar lines in the accompaniment make chords incidental rather than overly obvious.
Because of those guitar lines, the third chord of the song is an implied harmony that could be a vi-chord (Bm7), or could be an inverted IV-chord (Gmaj9), depending on how you hear it at the moment. You also get the sense of major moving to minor in the short 3-chord progression: D Em Bm7, and then a second melody that feels like minor moving to major: Bm Gmaj9 D.
In your own songwriting, you can do something of a similar structure by trying the following:
- Create a first melody that uses a simple, 3- or 4-chord progression. Allow it to start major, and then move to the relative minor. Example: I-IV-vi (C F Am)
- Create a second melody that uses a new 3-or 4-chord progression from the same key, but start minor and move to relative major: vi-ii-V-I (Am Dm G C). Try moving that second melody higher in pitch. Allow the higher range to move lower as you end the melody.
For the second melody, think about how it connects back to the start of your first melody. That will be an important consideration.
If you really still want the verse-chorus format to come forward, create a repeating lyric that happens each time you sing your second melody. But the beauty of this kind of structure is that you don’t need to feel beholden to those standard designs.
And once you’ve enjoyed “Everyone I Know”, give her other albums a listen. I’ve yet to hear anything that isn’t deliciously lovely.