Before today, ten-year-old Aiden had never written a song, but he did have plenty of experience writing. For some time now, he’s been working on a rewrite of the original Star Wars trilogy and a manuscript for a movie based on the Warcraft video-game series, so the crossover into music writing was pretty much a no-brainer. Besides, he had a little help from Snake Rattle Rattle Snake.
The Denver psych-rock band decided to celebrate Valentine’s Day, its sixth “bandiversary,” writing songs with Aiden and sixteen other kids. SRRS partnered with local nonprofit Denver Writes, an organization that provides workshops, tutoring and a cozy blue studio in the basement of Metropolis Coffee to help kids write. Denver Writes wanted a real band to collaborate with the kids in this year’s songwriting workshop, and when the staff asked SRRS to help the kids write lyrics, put them to music and record the songs, the musicians happily agreed.
“It sounded kind of scary and kind of fun, so we said yes,” says singer Hayley Helmericks. “None of us had an experience like this as kids, so it’s fun to be a part of it now.”
Like Aiden, most of the kids — who range in age from eight to fifteen — have never written songs before, but they know what kind of music they want to write. When Helmericks begins the workshop by talking about the things that inspire her to write lyrics — love, heartache, current events — the kids quickly offer their own suggestions.
“Um, I think there are too many songs about heartache,” says a nine-year-old with sparkly boots. “We should switch it up and write about happy things.”
“Yeah,” her dinosaur-T-shirted collaborator agrees. “Like songs from the ’80s.”
As the morning progresses, the kids break into groups and become increasingly serious about their lyrics. They sit at tables, their heads pushed together, scribbling thoughts while the members of SRRS walk around the room to offer a rhyming word or descriptor as needed. A complex range of emotions emerges on the notepads around the room in lyrics describing running through clouds, stomping on fingers, being tormented by memories and alarm clocks. Jenny Hekkers, Denver Writes program coordinator, says that’s exactly what this workshop is for — to give kids a chance to do creative writing and find their voice.
“I would have been terrified of this situation when I was a kid at this age,” Helmericks says. “I would never have had the guts to participate in something like this, so I love that these kids are here and making songs their own.”
When the groups have had time to perfect their pre-choruses and end rhymes, they take turns recording their songs with the band. In a back room, the members of Snake Rattle Rattle Snake sit exactly as they would at any normal practice: Doug Spencer on guitar, Andrew Warner on drums, Wilson Helmericks on the keys, and Hayley Helmericks by the microphone. Only today, the kids are calling the shots. When they come in the room, they tell the band what kind of mood they have in mind (sad, happy, tense, angry) and start singing the lyrics, then wait for the band to join in and support the melody in their mind. It’s an unorganized, fluid mash-up of experienced and inexperienced creativity, and the result is impressive. Especially when Aiden enters the room.
“All right,” Aiden says, heading straight for the mike, “we’re doing a metal anthem. Check, check, check. Okay, I’m ready.”
Aiden starts singing/yelling the lyrics to his metal anthem, titled “We’re at War” (lyrics inspired by his favorite movie, Reign of Fire), and the band begins playing with him. First the drums, then the keys, and finally the guitar back Aiden up as his little ten-year-old voice commands his listeners — in words that he has spent the last hour writing — not to be afraid, but to fight for victory.
Denver Writes’ Hekkers and a group of waiting kids listen on the other side of the door. Hekkers says they always try to send kids home with something published from their workshops, some tangible proof of their creative progress that will encourage them to write again. After this workshop, the writers will go home with a mixtape of songs that they and their peers created and then performed with SRRS playing backup.
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Still recording, Aiden crunches his eyebrows together, stomps his feet in time with the drums, and nods when Spencer asks if he should make the guitar dirtier. There is so much energy bursting from the little boy at the microphone that Warner has a hard time keeping the drums down. Everyone in the band is smiling. The song ends with Aiden yelling victory over the guitar’s final wail, his left index finger pointed straight in the air, his right hand gripping his lyrics.
“That was bad to the bone,” Spencer says, holding up his hand for a high-five as Aiden walks out the door.
“Yeah,” Aiden says casually.
“Hey,” Spencer says when Aiden has left the room, “let’s steal that for our album.”