When the director of Flytken till Framtiden, a Swedish time travel movie, requested a song that “sounds like Electric Light Orchestra,” composer Jimmy Lagnefors didn’t have to look far for a collaborator. Singer-songwriter David Myhr, formerly of the pop group the Merrymakers, jumped at the chance.
Myhr has the formula for creating Beatlesque (and in this case, ELO-esque) music down perfectly, having created a marvelous solo album that was melodic and downright catchy. The duo’s completed product, “Spellbound,” is the song that ELO lead singer Jeff Lynne wishes he would have made.
With an orchestral opening, chromatic chord phrasing, and a chorus that sounds like “Livin’ Thing,” Myhr and Lagnefors have done the impossible: recreated ELO while not ripping them off. Myhr’s crystal-clear tenor voice is different from Lynne’s signature baritone voice (although we hear a bit of an imitation at the end of the song); it lends a fresh, new element to a familiar sound.
“Spellbound” is reminiscent of the ELO sound, but in essence, it sounds more like a classic 70s pop song – something ELO might have done. And anything close to ELO has to have a beautiful melody (check), memorable chord progressions (check), multi-track harmonies (check) and a sing-song chorus (check). They’ve achieved what they set out to do, and the result is nothing short of miraculous.
I asked Myhr how he was able to do it, and I got more than I bargained for. The resulting interview is a fascinating look inside the mind of a power-pop genius. Read on, and learn.
How do you make a song sound like ELO? What’s the secret?
Well, let’s see… I would say that the “easy” part, although without doubt the most time-consuming one, is to try to nick as many production tricks as possible. There’s nothing illegal about borrowing production ideas since they can’t be copyrighted. This includes everything from instrumentation and arrangement to how things are performed (the “style” of singing and playing each part).
This is actually a trick I know is used all the time by many professional songwriters that I try to encourage my songwriting students to use more often. Of course, if the purpose is to end up with something at least somewhat original, it might be wise to combine “borrowed” production ideas from a couple of different songs instead of just one so it doesn’t get too obvious what song you’ve used as a model.
However, when you’re writing to a brief, which I do a lot when making jingles for commercial spots on the radio, you’re often trying to write so-called sound-alikes, and that’s when you instead want to emphasize the similarities. That was what my co-writer/co-producer Jimmy Lagnefors and I tried to do with this one since the brief from movie director Ulf Malmros was to write a song that “sounds like ELO.”
I actually made a lecture on the theme “writing to briefs” on a musicological conference recently (It’s in Swedish). The reason I did that is because I’m conducting an artistic research project right now where I study the melody-making process with my own artistic practice as the object. And as a researcher you’re supposed to do presentations at conferences. And so I did.
In the case of “Spellbound” I’ve actually documented on video the very moment when I wrote the verse and bridge melody. So in that sense I’m kind of excited about someone actually asking questions about it! What I can say is that they weren’t exactly “first thing that came to mind” ideas. Rather, it was quite a struggle, although in the big picture it went really quickly: A couple of hours of hard but fun work. After that the production process followed, which we worked on every now and then over a period of weeks that became months.
Did you study ELO’s music before writing it, trying to identify chord progressions, arrangements, production techniques?
Yes and no. The thing is that the “tricky” part is to try come up with a melody, chords, and possibly even lyrical phrases, that someone, in this case, Jeff Lynne, could have written. What I tried to do here was to put on the Jeff Lynne-hat, asking myself, “what would Jeff do?” while at the same time allowing my subconscious to dive down in my inner Jeff Lynne/ELO database of musical “feel” that I have internalized after years and years of absorbing his music.
And then, without any scientific method or deeper musicological analysis, I let my subconscious start to serve me with small ideas or fragments that sounded Lynnesque or ELO-esque. This process is quite hard to describe with words, but it definitely helps a lot if you have immersed yourself in the song catalog of whoever you want to emulate.
Jimmy had sent me the 20-second long MMS on the phone with the embryo for the song. They were just three simple melodic phrases, but still absolutely crucial since they form the whole chorus idea. And I really liked the way the melody was ascending and was catchy and singable. So my task was somehow to count backwards and think, what would a verse sound like that makes these three phrases sound like a huge payoff and a great chorus?
So I looked for contrast. For example, less busy phrases leaving space between each line. Change chords more seldom. I was also looking for a lower register pitch-wise to make the chorus be the melodic “climax” and so on.
I wanted to find some chords that sounded “Jeffish”, and I had been carrying around the idea of working with a sequence of chords that had an ascending, chromatic top note. In the beginning of the verse for “Spellbound” the chords are E, E+5, E6. That type of progression was something John Lennon was a master of. He used it in songs like “Isolation”, “(Just Like) Starting Over”, and “Nobody Loves You (When You’re Down and Out).”
It had dawned upon me while I was standing in the audience at Jeff Lynne’s ELO legendary Hyde Park comeback concert that he used similar chord progressions in songs like “Steppin’ Out” and “Strange Magic.” And of course, it’s no secret that Jeff was heavily inspired by the Beatles, and both Paul’s and John’s writing styles. So I allowed myself to use my Beatles influences as well. The Bbm7-5 chord heard under the word “tears,” for instance, is as much McCartneyesque for me as it is Lynnesque. Anyway, these are only examples of thoughts that went through my head when I was looking for chords to base the melody on. And as for the melody, I just sang out whatever came to me wearing my “Jeff-hat.” I tried to “listen from within” for whatever melodic phrases could be suitable. And after a series of attempts, I ended up with something I think served the chorus well.
The fun part was to try to come up with a bridge. My first attempt was too out-there and had failed. And on the second try, I moved from the guitar to the piano. I think I might have let my Beatles influences take over even more there. When Jimmy heard it he said it had a “classic Lynne/Harrison” vibe so I couldn’t have been more pleased with that reaction. After all, it was his gig and he had been kind enough to invite me to the task, so it was a big relief when both he and the director were excited about the song.
Was there any one particular ELO song that you tried to model “Spellbound” after?
Apart from the above-mentioned songs that might have been subconscious influences, the one we modeled a lot upon was my favorite ELO song: “Livin’ Thing.” It’s a song I’ve always loved – funnily enough, the verse more than the chorus. The moment when C-Am is followed by Ab-Fm is the moment where I always say “best verse ever!” And then we haven’t even mentioned the Em that follows which Jeff Lynne himself once called “the one chord that makes the whole song.”
Anyway, maybe it’s giving too much away, but since I’m an artistic researcher, it’s part of my job description to be transparent, shed light on the process, and account for my sources, so here we go… From the production of “Livin’ Thing” we took the tempo (124.5 bpm), the overall sound picture, which meant that we kept the instruments very natural sounding, used very little reverb, especially on the lead vocals, and I multi-tracked both six-string and twelve-string acoustic guitars in order to create a “shimmering” layer of guitars.
Andreas Dahlbäck, who plays the drums, insisted on playing quarter notes on the hi-hat and generally just played the same beat as on “Livin’ Thing.” I did the same on the bass. Keeping it dead simple – except for a little bass line I borrowed from the pre-chorus into our own pre-chorus. We also discovered a little piano hidden in the mix that I tried to emulate the style and sound of and so on. Jimmy made a dramatic intro with surprising chords, including a trumpet melody, an obvious wink to the intro of our model song, although a little less Andalusian sounding.
When time came for the strings I bounced ideas with arranger Hans Hjortek, and he came up with the fast run between the lines in the chorus that are supposed to echo the famous string melody in “Livin’ Thing.” As you can see, we rather shamelessly took basically all our production ideas from “Livin’ Thing.” But having said that… for me the two songs still are very different. I’m surprised how proud I am over “Spellbound” as its own little piece of art. After all, it’s a completely new song. New melody. New lyrics. It’s just that for this purpose we put ELO “clothes” on it.
You mentioned being a fan of both Jeff Lynne and Paul McCartney. What do their songs have in common?
It’s so difficult to say. They have written so many songs through the years in so many styles so it would take a couple of Ph.Ds to go through similarities and differences in various aspects of their respective song catalogs. And it still wouldn’t really give a clear answer. But of course, they have a lot in common in their musical language. As we all know, and I already mentioned, Jeff took a lot of inspiration from the Beatles. But he also shared influences with the Beatles.
Depending on what aspects you look at, most pop songs are “similar” on the surface. They might have similar structure, chords, tempos or lyrical themes. The list goes on and on… But it’s what you do within these constraints that is interesting. And for me it doesn’t get more interesting than when Jeff Lynne or Paul McCartney were on top of their game.
Do you have any other songs featured on the soundtrack?
No, I think Jimmy got worried about how obsessed I got with this one, so I think he said to himself, “I’d better wait a while until I ask David again.”
“Spellbound” hit stores October 14 and is available via Amazon.