The Songwriting Origins of “What Did I Do”

Mrs. D is releasing our debut EP What Did I Do tonight at Cafe 939 on Boylston. You can stream the song on our myspace or just buy a copy of the CD tonight for 5 bones. Since people have responded to the song so positively, and since I’ve never really talked about it in detail, I feel I might as give ya’ll some background on how the songwriting worked for it.

I first came up with the chords and the main lyrics around the same time as “Make Up Your Fucking Mind” on my roommate’s piano at the beginning of summer 2008. I went home to Ohio for two weeks in June and recorded a demo in my basement on drums, acoustic guitar, electric bass, and piano. I thought it sounded cool, but I couldn’t come up with any lyrics for the chorus other than “What did I do? What did I say?” so I figured the song was a lost cause. I finally finished the lyrics to the verses but I basically sat on the song for a year, until late April-ish when I sent the original basement demo to the other Danvers ladies on a crap-shoot. They dug it a lot, and we started playing it.

Lyrically, I think the catalyst other than, you know, rejection and all that real-life bullshit, was a sentence from a film review I read. In a review for The Fountain, the critic Nick Schager of Slant Magazine (my favorite film criticism site EVAH) talked about a shot from the film that “captures the unparalleled beauty of a slumbering lover’s back.” That got me thinking.

I named the song “You Always Looked Good in the Morning” from the beginning, but a songwriting prof recommended that I rename it “What Did I Do” when I presented it in class. After a bunch of conversations about the title, it’s officially titled “What Did I Do” (You Always Looked Good in the Morning).

Musically, I always write from the heart. I never consciously try to ape a particular style or artist (except when I have to for arranging projects at Berklee). But in retrospect, I think an unconscious inspiration for the melodic phrasing in the chorus is Jeff Buckley. The combination of two voices in different octaves is something I’ve learned from The Kinks…Recently, I’ve noticed that Weezer does it a shitton to a very successful degree.

Now to turn into music dork mode– the chord progression is odd and in the same vein as “I Wanna Be Your Zombie” in that there are lots of natural VII chords, and really the tonal center could also be perceived as the bVI chord (key of G#m) or the IV chord (key of B). The song doesn’t sound major nor minor but because of the natural VII, it has a sense of foreboding and menace. Two major chords played in succession a half step apart is an ominous sound that Radiohead, Fiona Apple, Metric use a lot. I had never tried to analyze this aspect of the song until this blog, but I think it’s a pretty accurate assessment. Maybe my fellow Berkliens will correct me.

Regardless, I never like to intellectualize my music until after the fact or unless it’s really uber necessary- as is the case with the Ringmaster recording project– by virtue of the fact that it’s an arranged piece with about 10 different instruments and that stylistic considerations are absolutely crucial to the success of the song. In most situations there’s something mythical about music. Most of my best material rises from a deep, unconscious place- almost a dream-like state and then my conscious brain massages and molds it. But the core creativity is like an inexplicable spasm. Intellectualizing it can be like talking about sex in terms of mere anatomy.

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