Finally… part 4. Way back in December or so I promised you a four part series on song structures and production techniques used in some of your favorite chilled out works and I have delivered. I actually spent a lot of time thinking about what the final song for the series would be. There are some really interesting tracks by Four Tet I was thinking about, but well, I’m not entirely ready to pull those apart yet. Instead I went with an old favorite of mine, Breath Me by Sia. Enjoy…
Dissecting Chill Part 4: Sia – Breathe Me
As always, before you read, check out the song, and listen again to find the details: Sia – Breathe Me
It turns out Breathe Me is fairly simple song structurally. Its basically two very similar chord progressions and some well applied layering. Plus it never hurts to have a string section backing up your ballad. This song is a great example of getting a lot out of a single riff.
Instruments: Vocals (lead and harmony), piano, guitar, xylophone, drums, bass, string section, effects.
Basically the song starts with piano and slowly adds layers. Each Verse/Chorus combination is ultimately ended with a silence and trailing vocals. It actually threw me through a loop trying to figure out how this worked. It was almost as the tempo faded into nothing and popped back in (and hey, maybe it did and I just don’t know how that works). To me I counted roughly 3 or so bars where things sort of tailed off at the end of both choruses. Finally the song ends with a gigantic orchestral breakdown/outro with a subtle violin solo to take things “there”.
Intro/First Verse/First Chorus
The song starts out nothing more than a piano with some delay on it. After a few bars in comes Sia, our singer. This is a very intimate part of the song, note how they left in the sound of her lips moving and smacking. Yea, she’s pressed right against us and singing in our ear. Well played Sia, well played indeed. The piano does some mojo that leads us into the chorus.
A note on the chorus and the verse: They are very similar in progression except that the chorus has an extra chord. The verse is basically chord 1-2-3-3 and the chorus is 1-2-3-4, get what I’m saying? The first 3 chords are the same in both sections, although due to some clever layering everything stays nice an interesting.
Ok so we’ve got our extra chord, in addition we now have xylophones and bass playing. They are subtle, not very strong. The bass is playing slowly, whole notes. The chorus comes to the main line and her voice trails into nothing.
Second Verse/Second Chorus
When the second verse comes in we now have drums. The bass is playing along with the drums, its a touch faster paced than before but this is no Victor Wooten solo. The xylophone appears to back out of the first verse but there is the addition of a plucking guitar. When the second chorus comes in so does our string section.
An important thing to note here vocally. She’s intensifying her singing. Her performance here is anything but flat. In addition it sounds like she’s layered herself here and there in efforts to accentuate certain things and add more texture.
The chorus contains our extra chord as before and a couple of crash hits that are well timed lyrically. Like the first chorus we fade out with voices and we end up in our bridge/outro section. The chorus also has some weird layer of effects going on in the background. There might also be some sort of change in reverb that’s being used, there’s definitely a spot a couple seconds into the chorus where things sound like they really change from normal to huge.
When the bridge starts we have only xylophone. The xylophone repeats for a couple of bars and then the whole band comes in. Everything here is big, there are extra notes and subtle little things in the piano line. The chord progress is that of the chorus. After the strings play through their chords ones a first chair does some ‘cool shit’ for the second round. After everyone rocks out the song tapers off into some of those effects and we’re done.
Some notes: Feels as though the hats pick up here. The orchestra is announced by a tom fill. Towards the end feels as though the drums cut out a touch early.
The whole track is just over 3 minutes, wham, bam, thank you mam. Breathe Me really doesn’t waste any time and doesn’t do much to take any sort of left turn harmonically. Through use of clever layering and some subtle notes here and there, this song really abuses the core idea as much as it can.
I think its particularly interesting how there are two sections of the song where we have only one instrument, but in each of those situations that instrument was unique. The breaks here are used well for dramatic effect but also help keep those same chords from sounding repetitive. This song also featured a lot of ‘dramatic effect’ from the sound of the lips in the beginning to the very big, epic, orchestral finish.
Great song, as always I’ve learned a lot. Something to think about when writing a short song. You can make a lot of parts out of three chords and a handful of choice instruments. Well folks, that’s my last chilled analysis for a while. What’s next? Something different. Thanks for reading.