When I was ‘sample-listening’ through the top 20 2016 APRA Silver Scrolls awards finalists, Seth Haapu’s 10 Years caught my ear.
Having heard the man perform live a few times I was no stranger to his unique compositions, with clever arrangements held together by his warm and delicate vocal style. Seth is a strong musician and a skilled accompanist on guitar and piano, the latter of which is the principle underpinning instrument in 10 Years, released on Soundcloud late 2015.
A piano and voice ballad set in a pseudo-half time 4/4 feel (between 104-108 bpm – yes it’s played live!), this tune has enough interesting twists and turns, enough of Seth’s great writing, singing and playing and just the right amount of ‘pop’ to keep composers, musicians and the average listener alike, all coming back for more.
The opening phrase (expressed as right-hand octaves on acoustic piano) reveals the main melodic character in the story – we’ll hear more of him (or her) in the chorus. This triplet quarter note motif dances upwards against a steady downbeat counter-pulse, just four notes – C#, D, E (over the A major tonic triad) with the returning C# landing softly on a Dma7 (IV), right in the heart of the chord. Then on measure three an A7 darkens the mood slightly, the sudden inclusion of this non-diatonic secondary dominant (V7 of IV) foreboding.
The driving 4/4 rhythm of the intro dissipates into half time, with softly-played semibreves at the verse giving space for the opening lines; ‘I found a lifeline at sixteen, all stars and black jeans’. The note B utilised for the ‘sixteen’ lyric is cute (a major-sixth of the valid chord Dma7); a call that finds its response at the close of the first two phrases as the lyric ‘jeans’ glides back to the tonic note. These lyrics float out over the I-major to the IV-major using a small pitch range (As, Bs and C#s) before ‘I could breathe easy, cool off and go’ introduces the first tension with that old culprit the perfect fourth (D).
Propelling us through a ii(m7b5)-V(7)-i(m7) in the relative F# minor, the next line ‘Temper so hot it could blow’ completes a four-chord progression on a warm B7. Whilst typically a minor chord type in this key (i.e. the ii chord of A major), this unexpected dominant adds yet more colour.
The second half of verse one yields another surprise A7 chord preceding the IV Dmaj7, as hinted at in the intro. Minims are used in the comping now; strong on beats 1 and 3, adding motion and drama.
The previous iim7-V7-Im7-IV7 in F# minor progression repeats before Seth’s register leaps up, hitting us with a sweet falsetto on ‘sometimes my love is a bluff’ over rising chords that settle on the relative F# minor. Now more interest for the listener; an uneven five-measures are used at the pre-chorus, with a delicious, suspenseful D6/9 chord to end.
The lyric throughout verse one paints a picture, albeit disguised, of what might be an early relationship, or an introspective musing, or possibly something else (a lifeline found, a deal with the devil, secrets…). Either way it is surely a reckoning, a reminiscing edged with regret, reinforced later by the lyric in verse two; ‘closer to fury and further from you’ or at the bridge; ‘now I know how lucky I am’, although perhaps this last is genuine gratitude.
Adding to the mystery is the use of first person perspective and an absence of pronouns such as ‘her’ or ‘she’; only an undefined ‘you’ at the close of the pre-chorus and chorus.
The chorus moves with a strong quarter-note pulse in the left hand, a heavier dynamic and, almost a minute in, a third and final additional instrument in the form of a simple, grounding bass line. Now we hear that intro melody in full flight as it is extended and embellished over a variation on familiar chords that reaches the pinnacle moment so far; ‘10 years of nothing or 10 years of something true’. A great hook, and WOW, that high C# on ‘something’ – delicious!
In the shorter verse two, repeated non-diatonic dominants imply a bluesy darkness, heightened by low pitched ‘aaaahs’, hard panned and multi-tracked. These vocal backings trace through ‘inside’ chord tones (commonly called ‘guide tones’ which are the 3rd and 7th of the chord), contrasting the lilt of our triplet-quarter note melody. The second pre-chorus also moves more, with prominent BVs that stack under the lead into a bigger second chorus.
The middle 8 contrasts the verse and chorus harmony by seesawing between the ii-minor (Bm7) and the V7 (E7) and the backing vocals simplify here – an octave double instead of the three or four part close we’ve just heard, that splits at the end of the bridge into a clever counterpoint over the final chorus – sometimes beating the lead to the lyric, other times fractionally trailing behind. Seth explores the melody in his lead vocal here; back phrasing, re-phrasing and ad-libbing with superbly controlled maturity.
And then, one final surprise and our first bit of production as an 808-like kick drum sample drops downward at the song’s highest point (under the lyric ‘something’) and is quickly followed by a reverse piano sample sucking us into the concluding F#m7-B9-E7 sequence. (Yes – that’s three bars – go back and count!)
I sometimes feel assaulted (insulted?) by some of the hyper-compressed, over-produced, dynamic free, auto-tuned, super shiny and shamelessly vapid songs that make it to mainstream radio. All-too-familiar chords cycle around all-too-familiar melodies, using the latest fashionable production techniques to get across often feeble lyrics and themes. How refreshing to listen to a song that has breath, space, colour, harmonic depth and mystery; that tips its hat to the classic piano-based singer/songwriter style of composing and playing yet retains modernity and its own sense of identity. Seth Haapu – you got my vote!
Dixon Nacey is a guitarist, composer, producer and MD, who teaches music at Auckland & Massey University, CPIT in Christchurch, and online at www.jazzguitarlegend.com.