In this post, I will talk about how I went about writing the song from the instrumental. Before I even tried writing any lyrics, I listened to the instrumental for several weeks so that the music could work its way into my head. The track is very dark and when I finally sat down to compose, all sorts of memories bubbled up from a dark time in my past.
11 years ago my father was diagnosed with ALS. He wasn’t very old (late 50s) so it was a shock to everyone. As we all sat in the living room, he told us that he probably had less than a year to live comfortably. The disease would eventually turn his body into a prison for an otherwise unaffected mind. He also told us that ALS in a small number of cases is transmitted from parent to child but the probabilities are quite small.
Over the following 8 months we watched him degenerate slowly, from walking, to shuffling, to not even able to walk. Even the most basic chores such as going to the bathroom could not be done without help. His situation became so psychologically desperate that he wanted to die. Euthanasia was illegal in Canada at the time, where he lived, so he had no other options but to suffer. He passed away not long after.
Fast forward to 10 years later….I’m listening to a dark, folky instrumental and all those memories came flooding back. These are the moments that are perfect for songwriting.
I started off with the first verse, knowing that the progression of the story had to start with my father and the disease. I had to describe his physical and emotional state succinctly. It took a few iterations but what came out became:
Here sits a man whose lost his will. Too sick to stand on his own, slowly he will drown.
Next, I wanted to touch on the suicide element. How desperate his situation was, which flowed naturally after describing the effects of the disease on his body.
I can see the taste of death shining bright in this eyes. Oh free me from these bonds he pleads ‘fore this prison claims my mind.
And his need to find something to help him escape his suffering:
It’s a short trip to Mexico, oh please will you help me?
With the first verse completed, I decided to skip the Chorus. For me to dig into the chorus, I need a catchy phrase or concept to work with and that requires distilling from the song a word or phrase that gives the song its essence. Since I didn’t have that yet, I skipped over the chorus and started on the second verse.
Having already gone over how the disease affects its victim in the first verse, I wanted to then touch on how the disease affects the children. There is a generational element to disease, how it’s passed from one person to the next, and I think most children can’t help but wonder how they will ultimately be affected by a terminally ill parent.
Oh father, do we walk the same path? Will this torch pass from one generation to the next? It’s a short trip to Mexico, oh who will help me?
With the verses laid out, I was ready to boil it all down to a concept for the song. I find that imagery is a great way of figuring out what that is. I needed to picture in my head a scene that would tie up the situation in a way that is more universal than my personal experience.
In the next (and final) installment, I’ll go over how I boiled the song down into ‘Sparks’.