After being a day or two late with the video progress reports for the past month or two, here’s one that’s right on time. It isn’t as action-packed as some of the others have been, but in a way that’s probably appropriate, since I’m at a bit of a transitional stage right now, working out where to go next. Have I really been making these things for a year now? Yes. Yes I have.
I thought I’d try filming the spoken segments in part of the studio this time. I don’t think I’ll be doing that again. There’s more ambient room sound in there than I’d like, at some points you can hear the whirring of the central air, and I prefer the clearer, crisper sound I get in the sitting room upstairs. It was worth trying again, anyway (the last time I filmed any of my rambling in there was way back in July of last year for the second-ever progress report).
It looks like the opening “music video” segment has become a mainstay of these progress reports. This time the intro song is “Midland Michigan” off of IF I HAD A QUARTER. For some reason it’s always been one of my favourite songs on the album, low-key and venom-free as it is compared to the cathartic and unhinged energy that surrounds it. The production quality has improved since then (just compare that song to the brief clip of “Sexual Vertigo” later in the video), and if I were to record it today it would probably be a much denser, more layered affair, but I like it just the way it is. It has a dreamy quality to it. And in an odd way, I think it compliments the part of Carnival of Souls I threw it up against.
I forgot to list that 1962 film in the end credits, but I don’t think i have the motivation to go back and fix it right now. And I didn’t use much of it anyway. There were no quotable bits for me to break up the talking with, because it’s such a low budget affair the sound is horrible — to the point that you often can’t even understand what the characters are saying. And yet there’s something compelling about the film. Even with all of its limitations (or maybe in part because of them), it weaves a spell and manages some effectively creepy moments without much in the way of special effects or typical shock tactics. It doesn’t hurt that Candace Hilligoss has one of those faces the camera likes to regard.
The main action in the realm of chopped-up public domain films this month isJail Bait, a surprisingly not-as-horrible-as-you-would-expect Ed Wood film. It’s no masterpiece, to be sure, but it’s a pretty decent little noirish B-movie. I almost can’t believe it. There’s even a neat little plot twist at the end, and some witty dialogue. And I couldn’t resist tossing in a few more bits from that scary anti-pornography propaganda film I’ve used pieces of in two previous progress report videos. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.
Some months back I suggested to myself the idea of sitting down and watching every video progress report at the one-year mark, just to get a feel for how much I accomplished in that time and how things have evolved in terms of the way the videos are put together. I think I might do that. It’ll be me-tastic. I’ll watch with wonderment as my facial hair grows more and more unruly until it’s finally tamed for all the wrong reasons. I’ll swoon to Elliott’s tender moments. And Fuzzy Duck will drive my soul.
Wait…did I just sort-of quote a Lights song? That ain’t right. I apologize.
Here is a rough mix of one of the many songs that got pushed aside when the torrent of bile that became GIFT FOR A SPIDER came pouring out. It was sitting around more or less finished for a while. There was more than enough there for it to be complete — vocals, ukulele, acoustic guitar, bass, drums, Wurlitzer, tambourine, melodica. Still, it felt like something was missing, and I could never quite figure out what it was.
I’m in that odd space right now between albums where I’m not sure what to work on next. So yesterday I thought I would mess with a few mostly-finished-but-missing-something-undefinable songs to keep myself busy, and this one ended up getting the most attention.
I’m really liking the deeper, fatter sound my brass snare drum has developed since Liam loosened the bottom wires during band rehearsals. Part of me wishes I’d been able to incorporate more of that sound into the new album. The unexpected snare-loosening happened pretty late in the game, so you only hear it on a few tracks like “Bring Rain in Case of Fire” and “Stutter Steps”. At least I can make sure it’s a sound that’s all over the next thing I do, whatever that turns into.
I thought a good point of entry would be to record a new drum track. The first time through, I played with mallets and the snare strainer thrown off, making for a more muted sound. That seemed to fit the song well enough, but I thought I would try a different approach this time, with a stick in one hand and a mallet in the other. Just for fun. That changed the feel of the whole song in a subtle way.
Then I plugged in the sexy Telecaster Travis has been generous enough to let me borrow, left it in standard tuning, turned up the distortion, and had some fun with volume swells. While I have a vintage volume pedal that’s been sitting around here for a good year and-a-half now waiting to see some use, I’ve grown so used to using my fingers on the volume pot of a guitar, I feel a little awkward using my foot. Hey, if the fingers work, might as well let them play, right?
Floating on top of a song playing pseudo-lead ambient stuff has become one of my favourite things to do with an electric guitar. In this case it was just the glue the song needed to tie everything together. The funky old Teisco is still probably my favourite axe for this sort of thing. Being able to bend feedback-ish notes with the tremolo arm adds a fun extra dimension to the sound. But the Tele is no slouch.
I need to get me one of those things someday. Not that I need any more guitars.
I thought I would mess around a little more, even though the song now felt like it was pretty much ready to mix. I ended up ditching the melodica part in favour of letting the electric guitar come to the forefront during the instrumental bridge and added some wordless vocal harmonies during both the bridge and the first verse. Then it was done.
I think this is the first time the ukulele has shown up since LOVE SONGS FOR NIHILISTS. It’s also the first song I’ve written with anything resembling a proper chorus in years. Every once in a great while it just feels right. And I think a refrain of, “Sexual vertigo is on my mind,” is warped enough to undercut any pop appeal there may have been. The lyrics rhyme more than I usually let them, but again, sometimes that’s what the song wants.
This is a good showcase for the Pearlman TM-LE microphone, which is on all the ukulele, acoustic guitar, and Wurlitzer parts. That mic has slowly but surely become one of my favourite things to stick in front of stringed instruments, and it seems like it was made for the Wurly. The drums are a little more upfront and muscular than usual (maybe mixed a little too high in this case), and this is as good an argument as any for staying away from close mic’ing the kit. What would be the point in even throwing a snare mic in there when the stereo ribbon mic captures that much sound? It makes recording drums a whole lot easier than it would be with a more conventional setup and leaves me with more tracks to play with on the mixer.
I still think that ribbon microphone is one of the best investments I ever made. It’s almost as if the mic clip that would have given me more control over positioning it on the stand was fated to be defective, preventing me from using it as much more than a front-of-kit mic. It’s been living in front of the drums since CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN, and I think it’ll be staying there for a long time to come.
Dig how the Betty Boop cartoon compliments the song in a weird way. All I really did was cut out a few little bits so the length would line up with the song. A few moments of bizarre synchronicity occurred all on their own, like the flower trying to encourage Betty to eat when I sing about having no appetite, Bimbo the Dog shouting into the well at the exact moment the vocals are drenched in reverb for one line at the beginning of the last verse — a mistake in the mix, but one I liked enough to keep — and the way the witch’s entrance and her evil tongue-dance compliment what the electric guitar is doing near the end. It’s fun throwing songs and public domain film content together just to see what happens.
Besides, Minnie the Moocher is pretty cool as public domain films go. There’s some surprisingly surreal content for a 1932 cartoon. There’s even a ghost walrus! And he dances! You can’t beat that.
I had a friend. We’d been friends since high school. I considered her a good friend. The kind of friend you feel you can trust. She happened to be a talented musician, and for years we flirted with the idea of someday recording some of her music together, but it never really went beyond the talking stage. It didn’t help that for a number of years she was living in Toronto or some other place that wasn’t Windsor.
Around the time I was working on IF I HAD A QUARTER we finally got around to recording some of her songs. She knew I wasn’t going to charge her any money, because that’s not what I’m about. She didn’t seem entirely sure what she wanted to do with the songs in terms of production, but we recorded somewhere around eight tracks over the space of a few days. I guess you could call them “demos”, though they were really the building blocks for what was meant to be a proper album. I contributed a few ideas and instrumental parts but mostly left the songs alone, figuring I would wait for her to decide what direction she wanted to take them in.
She made it clear she enjoyed recording this stuff and told me she was glad she was making her album with me, even if it took us a while to get around to it. I let her know I was having a lot of fun doing it. For one song, she asked me if I could try writing something of an arrangement on the melodica. When I was alone in the house I came up with a languid, semi-dissonant part and recorded it. She seemed to like it when I sent her rough mixes of most of what we’d done in an email.
And then I never heard from her again. No more followup emails. Nothing. Whenever she was in Windsor for a while, I would only find out from someone else after the fact that she’d been in town. She would never get in touch with me to let me know she was around so we could get together. I assumed she was busy with other things and had put the album on the back burner. No big deal. But I did start to feel a bit like she’d decided I was some kind of leper after a while, with how suddenly and completely I seemed to no longer exist to her.
I’ve since come to understand this is a common thing people do in life. They’re around for a while, and then they’re gone, and if you don’t put all the work in and chase them you may never communicate with them in any form again. It’s nothing personal. People just get busy living their lives. Of course, if they decide you might be able to do something to help them out in some way they tend to pop back up, only to disappear again once they get what they want.
The thing is, I do take it personally. I think people who do that are pathetic and have no business calling themselves your friend. Someone is either important enough for you to make some effort to stay connected to them, regardless of what’s going on in your life, or they’re not. Some will say, “It’s not that simple,” but you know what? That’s bullshit. It absolutely is that simple.
But then, how often does anyone say what they really mean and do what they say? A lot of people throw around words like they’re a foreign currency they have an abundance of but feel has no intrinsic value. I’ve often made the mistake of taking what someone says at face value and holding them to it. Age and experience teach you that’s a good recipe for being disappointed.
If I were stupid maybe I could buy into the idea of ignorance as bliss. Doesn’t work for me. So I try to weed out the users and unreliable flakes, though it’s difficult to kill the desire to connect with others and help them where you can. Sometimes you get stabbed in the back. Sometimes someone is audacious enough to stab you in the gut while staring right at you. Along the way, if you’re lucky you find a few people you can really trust and who are capable of thinking about more than just their own personal needs and desires once in a while.
I would rather have a small group of genuine friends, instead of creating the illusion of having countless friends while the majority of them leech off of me for everything they can get (something I touched on in the spoken improv at end of the recent Mackenzie Hall show). So I try to act accordingly. If someone I think of as a friend wrongs me to the point that I feel there’s no going back, I let them know what I think of them and I make it clear our friendship is over. There’s something freeing in that.
Back to the story I started out telling.
A year or so after the initial recordings, someone randomly posted a video on Facebook of this friend of mine performing live with a string quartet. I thought I’d check it out. It was the song I wrote the melodica part for at her request. “I wonder what she’ll do with the song in this situation,” I thought.
I wasn’t prepared to hear the string quartet playing my melodica part note for note. But they were. Then I read on her new website about how she was working with someone in Toronto recording an album. I listened to a few sample tracks. Some of them were songs we recorded together. The arrangements were pretty much the same, and the quality didn’t seem to be any better than the work I’d done.
In the space of about five minutes I learned she’d not only taken an arrangement I wrote myself and appropriated it as her own (no credit was given to me, and any audience would assume she wrote the part herself), but she’d thrown the work I did in the garbage with no fanfare and was now starting fresh with someone else, without ever bothering to tell me anything.
That’s a good friend right there.
The audacity of it was what got me. In order to get a string quartet to replicate my melodica part, she would have had to sit down and put some work into figuring out what I played. Then she would have to write it out on staff paper as notation for the other musicians to work off of. Or maybe she just played them the recording and said, “Play exactly what he’s playing.”
I was there for her when most of her friends disappeared during a time of crisis, listened to her talk for hours on end, gave her thoughtful advice when she asked for it, was a friend and a surrogate psychologist rolled into one, recorded her music for no compensation at all, never asked for anything from her, and this was the thanks I got for almost a decade of selfless friendship.
It wasn’t even what she did that bothered me as much as it was the way I found out about it. I had to learn about this stuff through someone else’s Facebook page, and I just lucked into seeing it one day. She never told me the work I was doing for her was just a demo. She sure as shit never told me the only reason she asked me to come up with a melodica part for one of her songs was so she could turn it into a string part and take credit for writing it herself, when she was the classically trained musician and I had almost no music theory knowledge at all.
I sent an email telling her I didn’t appreciate what she’d done. At the very least she owed it to our supposed friendship to tell me my work was for nothing and she was passing off my musical idea as her own. I told her I expected to get some kind of credit for the melodica part she appropriated, especially if she was planning on putting that song on her album and using my arrangement.
In hindsight, I wish I’d been a lot harsher than that. But I did that stupid thing I do sometimes and took the high road.
She at least gave me belated credit on her website for the arrangement I wrote. She responded to my email, but I never read her response. I had no interest in anything she had to say. Whatever her explanation might have been, it wouldn’t have been good enough. There’s no conceivable excuse for doing something like that to a friend.
We didn’t communicate again after that. I have no desire to ever have anything to do with her again. She already made it clear even before she ripped me off just how little my friendship meant to her when she didn’t even take the time to say hello while she was in town.
Every once in a while I would see something pop up online about what she was working on. I didn’t seek this stuff out. I’m friends on Facebook with some people who are friends or family of hers, and they would sometimes post a tidbit about her adventures. The person she was recording with in Toronto was apparently forgotten as well, leaving me to wonder if he got fucked over like I did.
There was a benefit concert held to raise money so she would be able to record her album good and proper at a big shiny studio without having to pay for all of it herself like the rest of us do. The irony wasn’t lost on me. I would have given her all the recording time she wanted and played however many instruments she wanted me to, I would have mixed and remixed things until it sounded right to her, and I wouldn’t have charged her a penny for any of it. But she decided I was just some piece of shit who wasn’t of any use to her once she siphoned what she wanted off of me, and ultimately spent what I’m sure was a pretty substantial amount of money to record in a proper studio instead, even if at least some of it was offset by the “donations” of well-wishers and friends.
Fast-forward to the present day. After all this time, her album has been released. I won’t buy a copy. I have no desire to support her in any way. But wondering about whether or not she appropriated my melodica arrangement and ripped me off yet again would have driven me batty if I didn’t get a conclusive answer one way or another. Lucky for me, the whole album is available to stream online. I didn’t listen to more than five seconds of any given song, because I don’t even want to hear the sound of her voice. But I heard and saw enough to know she didn’t even put the song on her album. So that’s something.
Someone asked me something recently that made me think about this in a different way. The gist of the question was: why remain friends with people who have done far worse things to me while cutting this specific person out of my life?
It’s interesting how the mind works. There are people who have done some pretty awful things to me, and yet I’ve continued to associate with some of them in one way or another. I haven’t forgotten what they did. In some cases I’ll never really trust those people again. But there are at least some who actually own up to what they’ve done and put some effort into making it right. It doesn’t make everything okay, but it’s more than most people are willing to do.
Admitting you were wrong or you took advantage of someone. Trying to explain why you did what you did without trying to justify the unjustifiable. Apologizing. Learning from what happened and behaving differently going forward. That all counts for something.
I don’t like to hold a grudge, and a few of the people who treated me like dirt at one time or another have somehow turned into pretty good friends, so I’m glad I didn’t shut them out completely.
When it comes to music, though, all bets are off. You wrong me there, and I will swiftly become your enemy. And once I am your enemy, you don’t ever get to have me for a friend again.
Maybe it’s because music is such an integral part of who I am. It’s strange. Someone can say horrible things to me, lash out at me, neglect me, lie to me, talk shit about me, and in most cases I’ll just end up feeling sorry for those people who feel a need to use and prey on others in a sad attempt at filling whatever is missing inside of them. When someone rips me off or uses me for their own means within the realm of music, it’s a different story. That’s the end of whatever relationship we might have had.
I know it isn’t healthy to hang onto the kind of anger these people stir up in me. I try to work past it one way or another. That’s part of the idea behind working out my thoughts and feelings about them through music. The song “Ain’t No Friend”, which I posted here not long ago, was a direct way of doing just that.
There’s rarely an absence of this sort of inspiration for long, because people like this make the world go ’round. There will always be assholes who disguise themselves as allies, take as much as they can, and then disappear once they feel you have nothing more to offer them. They never seem to go away. They just get better at disguising their true selves. The trick, again, is to spot these people and avoid them. Remove their opportunity to use or abuse you and they lose their power. Even hating them probably gives them some amount of power, because they end up taking up space in your head without having to pay for it. So why bother thinking about them at all? Let them have their lives, and maybe find a little satisfaction in knowing they lost a good friend and there’s a chance someday they’ll remove their heads from their own asses long enough to realize it, knowing they’ll never get you back.
With all the other people who have wronged me musically, I’ve managed to let go of those angry feelings. This is the one case where the hatred persists. Maybe it’s because those other people were either not friends for very long or I never really knew them much to begin with, while in this case there was a storied friendship and I assumed it meant something.
It doesn’t really matter either way. I should just be thankful she’s no longer a part of my life. After all, I need a friend like that about as much as I need kidney removal surgery performed on me by a child with a steak knife and no anesthetic.
Kevin Kavanaugh was kind enough to take some pictures on Saturday. And by “some” I mean “many”.
It was almost like a collaborative dance, in a way…throughout the night he moved around taking pictures, just outside of the performance space. I rarely noticed he was there, because I was absorbed in singing and playing, but he was capturing all of the action as it unfolded from beginning to end. As he said, I ended up collaborating with another artist without even realizing it was happening.
Turns out he’s not just a really nice guy, but he also takes some seriously great pictures. Here are some of my favourites. Between these and the videos you should get a good idea of what the atmosphere was like. Click on any of ’em for a lot more detail. And notice how my hair gets progressively messier throughout the performance until I finally end up looking like the hairy beast I am.
Is it just me, or does Liam have the best beard ever? It can’t just be me.
For video highlights from the show and other relevant ramblings, head over HERE.
Also, GIFT FOR A SPIDER is at #1 on the CJAM charts right now. My albums tend to make it into the top ten at some point, but I don’t remember topping the charts in quite some time. Thanks to all the CJAM faithful for all the support.
What Josh Kolm rather brilliantly coined “Mackenzie Hall 2: Hall Harder” happened. It was an odd little two-headed beast of a show, but I think it went pretty well. Where to begin?
It was a different kind of show from the last one in a lot of ways. This time I had a band playing with me on some songs. This time there were cupcakes. This time the material was completely different. This time it was personal. But that’s always the goal, isn’t it?
The turnout wasn’t quite as insane as last time, and I think there were a few reasons for that. For one thing, if even half the people who said they were coming had bothered to show up, it would have been packed to the gills again. But there was a good crowd, and I don’t think I could have asked for a more attentive or receptive audience.
In a way, seeing some empty seats this time might have made it a more unique show. I’m not sure I would have been quite as loose or taken as many chances if the place was bulging at the seams. Maybe you feel a little more connected to an audience that’s a little smaller.
I went into it with a setlist I planned on sticking to. I ended up deviating from it at least as much as I did at last year’s show.
On paper it was supposed to play out like this.
What it turned into instead was this.
ONE BIG SET
I’m a Witness, Not Your Waitress
Like a Lover Does
Umbrella (Rihanna cover)
He Was Saved by Poultry from the Shadow of Beef
A Fine Line Between Friendship and Baked Goods
Will Work for Food
Excuse Me, Miss…Where Might I Find a Bandana like Yours?
Do the mountain hop
The Mind Is Blown When the Fight Is Thrown
Water to Town
Sweet Leaf (Black Sabbath cover; snippet)
An American Trilogy (Elvis Presley cover)
Tonight’s the Night (Neil Young cover; snippet)
To Be Frail Is to Begin to Be Free
Improv in E-flat
My sense of time got insanely skewed while I was playing. I knew what time it was when we got there to set up, and the start time was about 7:00, though I waited a good twenty minutes or so past that because I understand some people are going to be a little bit late. But somehow, somewhere in there, time melted away into an amorphous goo, and by the time we were playing the last song of the night I had it in my head it was the middle of the afternoon, as if we’d somehow gone backward in time. I even talked about the day as if there was a lot left of it in that final song. I was confident when everyone stepped outside after the music was over the sun would be shining, and a lot of us would probably want to grab dinner somewhere.
In the real world, it was past 9:00 at night. And though I felt like maybe I’d provided thirty minutes of music, it had really been more like ninety.
I still don’t know what happened there. I wasn’t overtired or anything. No one drugged my cupcake. Maybe it was the atmosphere in the room. Maybe it was just me.
This was the jazziest show I’ve ever played by some distance. Some of the solo pieces didn’t feel as strong as that side of things was the last time around, but the band stuff got pretty spicy, and we went some places I’ve never been able to even think about taking my music in a live setting before. At some point I think it stopped being my music and became our music, with the way we were improvising and playing off of one another.
I couldn’t want for a better rhythm section. If you told me even a year ago I would find a drummer and a bassist who would not only be able to go anywhere musically, but happy to twist things inside-out and never play a given song quite the same way twice, I would have rolled my eyes and told you those people didn’t exist, or if they did, they wouldn’t be interested in playing with me. And yet here we are.
Both of these guys can play the hell out of their instruments. But they’re always tasteful, and they always serve the song. Some of the things they’re doing are so subtle, you might not realize at first how complicated they are.
To give you just one example: “To Be Frail Is to Begin to Be Free” needs a kind of deep, rattling snare sound in order for it to work the way it should. This was easy enough to achieve at my place because of the size and depth of my snare drum. The kit Liam brought to the show had a smaller, higher-pitched snare. Instead of swapping out the snare, he altered his playing and rolled into every snare hit to get that rattling sound.
That, my friends, is a musician.
When Jackie came up for one song, I had to remind myself it was a prophetic breakup song I was singing and restrain myself from smiling through the whole thing. It’s surreal hearing a voice that beautiful harmonizing with you.
After almost a decade of going it alone, I finally found that feeling again of playing my own music with a band and having it pushed into places I would never be able to take it by myself (at least not live, because there’s only one of me). And I wasn’t even looking for it. It just happened because of who I ended up selling a cheap microphone to on Kijiji.
Funny how that works.
Big thanks go out to Liam, Dan, and Jackie for playing with me and letting their magic goodness pour out all over the place; Travis and Jay for taking care of the sound (and in Travis’s case lending some gear to the cause); Johnny Smith for being hostess/cameraman/CEO and the glue that glues the glue together; Tara for making so many amazing cupcakes (seriously, if you didn’t try one of those delicious things, you missed out); Sarah for recording some stuff with her magical little recording device and doing a post-show interview with me, which we’ll get to later; Josh, for putting in a herculean effort trying to find someone with professional equipment to film the show (in the end, the fates and Mel Gibson conspired against him); Crissi, who donated additional cupcakes to the cause even though she couldn’t make it to the show; and too many more friends to mention, like Pete, Angela, Dr. Sinclair, Beverley, Grace, Kaite, Samantha, Danny, Terry, Matt, Erik, Murad, Dalson (who took these pictures and got some great footage of a few songs he was kind enough to share with me), the extended CJAM family…I could go on. Everybody who was there played some part in making the show what it was.
I just need to remind myself when I play live and it isn’t a perfect, polished-to-death affair, that isn’t a bad thing. It’s what I do. And I guess I should expect that when I try to make it more of a well-oiled machine, I’m going to find myself instinctively tearing it down and making it more difficult for myself, because I think that makes it more interesting.
Angela told me it felt more like spending time in my living room listening to me play music than any kind of conventional show. For me that’s a lot more compelling than “performing” in the traditional sense. As with the last show, I got that feeling of hanging out with people as opposed to playing “for” them. The idea is to make it a more communal, intimate thing.
And it went there in a whole new way with the last song.
Instead of there being an intermission like last time, we just kept going. After a while, between the band stuff and the solo pieces I’d been playing for about an hour and-a-half. One of the guitars I meant to bring with me got lost in the shuffle (turns out I forgot it at home, though at the time I was convinced I brought it with me and someone must have stolen or misplaced it), making it impossible for me to play a few covers by the likes of Nick Drake and the Blue Nile that might have been show highlights if I’d been able to throw them in there. I was thinking about tossing in “Heaven” by the Talking Heads at some point too, but again, without that guitar it wasn’t happening.
By now I’d exhausted everything I wanted to play from my setlist, played a few unrehearsed requests and a kind of ludicrous take on one of my favourite Elvis Presley songs, and had no idea what more to do. There needed to be a definitive ending or comedown. “To Be Frail Is to Begin to Be Free” didn’t feel like it was climactic enough to do the job, as much as I like the song.
I asked Liam and Dan if they felt like jamming something out and seeing what happened. They were game. I suggested the key of E-flat, because it’s fun to play jazzy stuff using that as a key center, and off we went. They got a nice groove going. I noodled on top.
About a minute in, I knew I didn’t have enough gas left in the tank to pull off an instrumental piece. I kind of played myself out with all the extended soloing that got jammed into a lot of the other songs. So I opened my mouth and started spinning a silly story, using my missing guitar as a jumping-off point.
Almost right away, the gravity of the situation hit me. What the fuck am I doing? I haven’t improvised an extended spoken word piece off the top of my head in probably a decade now. I used to do this all the time back in the Papa Ghostface days, but I’m way out of practice. And I never did it in front of an audience. Ever. What was I thinking? I have no ideas. This is going to be embarrassing. I just set myself a trap I won’t be able to get out of. Why did I have to open my mouth? Why?”
There was no turning back. I figured all I could do was follow it as far as it would go,and hope it didn’t turn into too much of a train-wreck.
Then an interesting thing happened. I don’t know if it was a case of some long-dormant machinery dusting itself off and sputtering to life again, but what started out as a tongue-in-cheek tale of potential imaginary romance turned into something a lot more personal. I started talking about myself, how I’d just made a breakup album overflowing with bitterness, and the struggle between wanting to connect with people but not enjoying being let down by so many of them so many times.
After a while the whole thing got even more reflexive, with me critiquing my own performance in the middle of the piece itself, hammering myself for getting lazy and using the word “like” as empty syntax. It turned into something like a stream-of-consciousness-pseudo-jazz confession. The deeper I got, the more words came pouring out, and Liam and Dan just kept playing with the groove in wicked-cool ways.
At some point it struck me that I’d probably lost the audience. It was almost a given. This wasn’t even a song anymore. It was more like me getting naked in front of a roomful of people while playing a piano and amplifying a few of my hang-ups and insecurities for them to examine. How entertaining could that be?
I don’t look at the audience much when I’m performing. I’m too busy concentrating on what I’m doing. So it’s hard to gauge how they’re responding to something while it’s happening. I could just feel in my gut that I’d gone too far off the map, and I was sure I’d look up from the piano to find maybe only ten or fifteen people left.
I looked up. Everyone was still there. That revelation became a part of my rant too.
It ended without any clear resolution, with me asking Dan where I was supposed to go next from where we’d ended up.
Somehow this ended up being the highlight of the show for some people. At the time I couldn’t understand why. It was some pretty scary shit for me. Like I said, I set myself a trap without thinking, and I had to find a way to wriggle out of it. I didn’t for a second anticipate delving into some amount of silly/serious self-examination in the process. That just happened. But the audience stayed with me, and they got into it.
It was only when I sat down and listened to it later on that I was able to understand how that could happen. I guess it’s a pretty unique thing for a live show. It belonged to that moment and those people in that room. We conjured it out of nothing. That collision of music and psyche had never happened before, and it’ll never happen again.
Now that I think of it, if I went to see someone play live and they did something like that, I might find it pretty cool too. But for me it was more like the ultimate test of my ability to create something out of nothing. And I was able to pull it off, with some help from my friends. It just worked out that everyone who was there got to watch it happen in real-time.
Another fun moment was when Grace and Kaite got up and literally did the Mountain Hop during “Do the Mountain Hop”, dancing the whole song through — even during the long improvised jazzy outro. And when a guy and a girl started singing the little scratchy percussion part that comes in for one brief part of “Water to Town”, in just the right place…I don’t know who they were, but I wanted to get up and hug them. Talk about really listening to the albums.
Who ever gets to hear two strangers in the audience singing their own percussion part to them in the middle of a song? That’s special stuff.
I’m not sure I want to put up video of the entire show this time. It would eat up server space like mad. But here are some of the highlights — in the order they were performed, except for the first video here, which I took out of sequence to put at the beginning.
I’ve always had a special fondness for this song as it appears on CREATIVE NIGHTMARES, but I never thought it would be something I could pull off live, let alone something that would turn out to be a highlight of the show. If I had to pick one song to stand for the whole performance, it might be this one.
After the four-minute mark it’s all improvised. By this point I knew I wasn’t going to play my planned solo take on “I Put a Spell on You” (it was meant to be a delay-drenched electric guitar workout on Travis’s sexy Telecaster), so I dropped it in the middle of the jam instead. It fit in better than it had any right to. Dig Dan smiling when that happens. And check out how I go off on the piano and Liam and Dan respond immediately to every dynamic shift I throw out there.
As much as I loved having a band when I was full of rage and dreams of facial hair, this is at such a different level it’s kind of insane. One of the most exciting things about playing in a band, at least for me, is when the other musicians are so good they allow you to play to your full potential, and then beyond it, making you better than you thought you could be. That happened more than once back in the Guys with Dicks days. I feel like it happened here too.
I missed a line in the first verse, but you probably won’t notice unless you really know the song.
This was maybe a bit of an odd song to start with, but it seemed like a good way to warm up. Something stopped me from really digging in and improvising at the end like I planned to. I made up for that later on.
This was probably the biggest surprise for me. When we started rehearsing, I gave Liam and Dan a CD with about ten different songs I thought might be worth tackling. One was “Anthropomorphism Dance”, the closing track on CREATIVE NIGHTMARES. I only threw it in on a lark. It didn’t seem like a good candidate for a live three-piece, what with all the clattering percussion and layered sonic touches in the recording (electric guitar, ukulele, warped synth/organ) and two frenetic electric bass parts driving the whole thing.
At one rehearsal Dan surprised me when he said he’d been listening to it and he thought it was worth taking a crack at. I have no idea what I was playing on electric guitar on this song anymore, and it was more atmospheric guitar than anything. I didn’t think it would fill enough space. So I thought I’d try figuring it out on the piano. Within ten or fifteen minutes we were running through it for the first time. It sounded like the tenth time we’d played it. It was that tight already.
Of course, the one time I finally trip up — and not in a small way, but losing the beat altogether at the beginning of the song — is when we’re playing it in front of an audience. Figures. Lucky for me it happened right in the opening seconds, and I recovered pretty fast.
Liam’s drumming is really the star of the show here. He’s playing some really tasty polyrhythmic stuff. We took what was sort of a skittering borderline rock song (it’s always made me think of early 1990s experimental-period U2 for some reason) and turned it into some sort of Latin-tinged jazz-pop.
When I apologize for dropping the beat at the end of the song, Dan consoles me in the voice of John Travolta. You can’t ask for more than that.
The thing that’s wild to me is a song I thought would be impossible to translate live turns out to be one of the most fun to play. Even when I miss a line in the lyrics at the very beginning (again).
The album version of “Like a Lover Does” on GIFT FOR A SPIDER is much more languid and dreamy than this, with no percussion. Dan had the idea to twist it in a different direction and make it swing. I was supposed to play some slide guitar during my solo but forgot I stashed the slide in my left pants pocket — And I put it there so I wouldn’t forget where it was. D’oh.
I’ve yet to get comfortable enough with the weird new-ish tuning that twelve-string is in right now to solo with confidence. Every time we rehearsed I would hit some bum notes. The one time I played a really solid solo with no awkward moments was at the show when I just said to hell with it, improvised, and hoped my thumb landed on the right frets. And it did. Thanks, thumb.
It might have been an idea to go for a less “electric” guitar sound here, but the distortion felt appropriate to me at the time. Jackie’s magic is all over this one, and that last harmonized repetition of the title was a fun moment for me. Normally I would sing those last two words in a soft falsetto. Here I just belted them full-voice, Jackie wailed along with me without even knowing what I was going to do, and it was dead-on.
This felt like one of the stronger solo performances. I cooked up a version of the song that was very different and more mournful-sounding, owing quite a bit to the cover of the clash song “Bankrobber” I worked up for CJAM’s Joe Strummer day. At the last minute I decided to stick with the original arrangement, but I played it on the Martin 00-17 instead of the Regal I wrote the song on and recorded it with, half a step down.
I could hear a few people singing along to this one. People singing Johnny West songs in the audience is nuts. It’s almost like I’ve got “hits” or something.
I think some of my singing could be a little better here, but check out how it swings. And check out the dancing. How often do you see anyone dancing at a show to a song that’s in swinging 6/8 time?
My playing isn’t as busy in the jam here. Part of that’s because I was enjoying what Liam and Dan were playing so much I just wanted to listen to them swing it low. Part of it is because I know when I’m improvising in a key with this many accidentals scattered around the keyboard I’m going to hit some bad notes sooner or later, so I try to be a little cagier about where my fingers go. And part of it was just not being sure what to play there, because I was winging it.
This one might seem like an odd choice for a live track, but I thought it would be a good excuse to get some audience participation going on via call-and-response singing. The video doesn’t do justice to how great it sounded with that big mass of voices coming at me while I was singing back at them. I thought about making this a band song. It could have worked. I think it works just as well solo.
I felt like my performance of this one was a little dodgy at the time. Now I’m not sure what I was hearing, because aside from one or two duff notes on the piano it sounds fine to me. While the improv at the end is more restrained and subdued than what happened in some other places, I think it suits the song. And dig how Liam plays with the rhythm, underlining how the song isn’t as simple as it seems to be at first blush.
Here’s the potential train-wreck that turned into a weird highlight of the show against all the odds. In some ways it feels like a glimpse into what Guys with Dicks could have done if that adventure hadn’t ended when it did. It also stands apart from all of that, and it’s driven by a different kind of energy. In case you can’t make out all the words in the absence of more robust sound, I’ve transcribed them.
He was a hairy guy…with a missing guitar, which prevented him from being able to perform a Nick Drake song requested by his friend Travis Reitsma. He wondered if someone perhaps had taken his guitar hostage and was holding it for ransom at some undisclosed location. He waited patiently for the ransom note to arrive, at beautiful Mackenzie Hall, on a Saturday afternoon. Eventually the crowd had left and he was alone at the piano, crying in his long, sweaty hair, wondering whatever became of that guitar. Of course, conventional wisdom would dictate that he would just return to his home and find it sitting in his bedroom, mocking him and saying, “Ha-ha…if you had thought to take me with you, you could have played that song that you rehearsed with such half-assed passion.” But no. He just sat there, weeping in a disgusting, miserable way.
Then the light changed. There was a slight chill in the air, and a woman wearing a low-cut purple dress sat down beside him on the piano bench and said, “You seem troubled. Can I help to ease your weary mind?”
He said, “Well, I…I don’t hook up with strangers, you see. I’m not one of those…one of those alpha male types. I’m one of those nice guys who finishes last — you know, who always gets the sharp end of the popsicle stick rammed into his left cornea. And I just made a breakup album, for God’s sake…giving it away for free at this show. It’s got dirty words and vindictive bile on it. You’d think I would have learned by now. You’d think I would have got the message. But no. I keep on putting myself out there, I keep falling for the wrong people every single time, and I end up crying in my smelly, sweaty hair on a piano bench, pouring out my heart to some woman in a purple dress trying to proposition me for some meaningless fun, when I should have been taking up the girls who were propositioning me for meaningless fun back in high school. I mean, maybe…maybe I’d be living in a trailer park with leprosy. Maybe I’d have a couple kids who look a lot like me. Maybe I’d have nothing much to do but grieve.”
She said, “Man…you’re just a baby. What are you so bitter and cynical about? You got your whole life ahead of you. Your hair may be sweaty and stinky, but it’s pretty when you wash it — I can tell. And you can play that piano in a kinda okay way. And you can kinda sing, and people understand what you say. And…why you gotta be so down all the time? I don’t even know you and I’m getting turned off. I think I’m gonna leave before you start to shake and maybe make me feel bad about myself.”
Man, I blew that.
But you know, she was right. I mean, I got a lot of good friends, some of ’em playing up here with me onstage, some of ’em in the audience listening to me improvise this ridiculous spoken word piece where I’m suddenly kind of being honest about myself. What the hell is that shit about? But maybe there’s something therapeutic in that. I mean, maybe…maybe there’s some value in that. Maybe there’s something someone else will get from that — some kind of catharsis, or they’ll feel like they’re relating to a friend.
It’s good to have friends on whom you can rely. I think it’s better to have a couple friends you know you can really trust, as opposed to a large group of people who call themselves your friends but wouldn’t help you out if you really needed it. But you only learn through experience — by getting burned and putting yourself out there. If you’re too afraid to try, maybe you miss out on something really great, and of course it’s probably gonna go bad somewhere down the line…what did I say in that song? “Marriage is something that sick people do when they want to destroy something beautiful.” What about that “something beautiful” before that marriage comes? Maybe it doesn’t even have to be a woman and a man. It can be pouring out your guts to your favourite garbage can. Why did that rhyme? I don’t know. I don’t like to rhyme. Sometimes it feels right. Just this one time.
Look at me pretending I’m a jazz musician. I don’t…I can’t play that shit. I mean, I can’t do some Thelonious Monk, Oscar Peterson stuff. I ain’t got those kinda chops. But I got my own kinda thing going on, you know — like, “Plink-plonk, plink-plonk, plink-plonk”. And some people find some value in that. Man, I gotta get me another cat. They listen to what you have to say. And they’re so cute and furry and fun and friendly…except for when they don’t like you, because unlike dogs, sometimes they just don’t want to have anything to do with you. “Get away from me. Had a hard day being a cat. I don’t wanna hear your bullshit.” You just got them their favourite catnip, too. I mean, why they gotta be so cold?
But I mean, Pete’s here…I’ve been friends with Peter since the second grade. That’s a friend. We’ve been friends almost our whole lives. We’ve got history, man. It’s great to have that history with somebody. Just to…to have that connection never die. If you have one friend like that, I think — I would wish that for anybody. Anybody that I actually like, anyway. And the original Johnny West. The big JW. Always, always there when I need a helping hand. Always there when I need a brother man.
I don’t even know where I’m going with this anymore. It turned into some, like, purging of my insides. Why am I doing this crazy “eyuh” going up with my voice? Sounds kinda stupid. I should just talk. Like, be conversational, and not say, “Like”, because I don’t like to say, “Like”. “Like” is a lazy word. It’s space, it’s noise, it’s pollution, it’s FILLER! I don’t like that stuff. I mean, learn to use the English language, Johnny West! That’s your currency! That’s what you use to get your point across. You don’t want to spit out some meaningless filler, dross…
Listen to Liam and Dan laying down that groove, man…that’s sweet.
I guess the point, if there is one, is that all the bad stuff that happens gives you some perspective — teaches you something about who you are or who you wanna be. Even if it hurts like hell. I mean…if you just lie down and let it slay you, then what the hell…what’s the use in that? To paraphrase a great man from a television show, “There’s a lot of pain and punishment in life. Stand it like a man — or a woman — and give some back.” So I’ll give some back.
How weird was that? I thought I would have cleared out half the place with that rap there. People are still here. That’s messed up! That’s what happens when you don’t look at the audience. You don’t…you don’t…you don’t see. But maybe you connect, by stripping away that stupid wall that usually stands between the performer and the audience. Talking to people. Taking off your shoes. Damnit, I forgot to take off my shoes! That’s the source of all my trouble. You gotta be in your bare feet or in your socks. You gotta get comfortable. What are shoes anyway? iI’s like a car for your feet, but the car don’t run. It needs an oil change. Wow, that was profound…
Where do I go with that?
Oh yeah — Sarah interviewed me after the show in a dressing room I didn’t even know was there. It was for the Windsor Scene program on CJAM, which is hosted by someone who isn’t Sara, who never plays my music and seems to have some strange unexplained contempt for me and what I do (but that’s another story for another time). Because you’re special, you can listen to it right here.
While my brain was a little frazzled after all of that music, I sort of managed to make some sense. It cracks me up that she chose to end with my ridiculous Elvis bit. And just to be clear, all my little hip-hop artist parody is meant to insinuate is that I find it amusing how many people working within that genre seem to enjoy asking if we know what they are saying, with an almost alarming frequency.
It’s true what I said about feeling less confident at this show than the last one in some ways. And still, I took more chances, I sang harder and with more energy than I have in a long time, and I went off on a number of potentially precarious improvised runs on whatever instrument I happened to be playing at the time, before we even got to that epic evening-ending improvisation.
I wonder why that is. I think playing live is just a nerve-wracking thing for me even at the best of times. I had a lot of fun, and I’m told I didn’t seem nervous, but the nerves were there from time to time. Whenever I play guitar live, for instance, I feel like half my skills go out the window and the piano says, “Come home to me. Let that wooden harlot fall from your hands.”
Instruments can be evil, messing with you like that.
Anyway, I hope everyone who came had a good time. I know I did. Maybe we’ll do it again in 2014 if the world doesn’t end next year when Justin Bieber marries Barbra Streisand.
As for the availability of the new album — I wasn’t kidding when I said you should come to the show if you wanted a copy. I need to fix the typo in the booklets before I start circulating it at the usual places. But I’d say by the end of this week or the beginning of the next one it should be out there for whoever wants it. I’ll keep you posted.
(For more pictures from the show, take a peak over HERE.)
Suddenly this Mackenzie Hall show isn’t so far away anymore. Two more days, man. Or woman. Or inanimate object reading my blog. Hey, you’d be surprised how many plastic hippos read this stuff. For some odd reason, they really like the idea of a hairy-rambly-music-spewing internet presence. Who knew?
I’ve had an unexpected little moment of understanding while rehearsing for this show. I always thought it would be interesting to hear what would happen if someone else covered one of my songs, whether it was in a live setting or in recorded form. I did get a taste of that sort of thing once when Travis sang “Peculiar Love” at Green Bean (it underlined just how demented the lyrics were when I heard someone else singing them), but a few people have told me I shouldn’t expect to see it happen much, if ever, because my material is not that easy to cover given how tricky it can be.
That idea always struck me as a little strange, because some of my music — particularly from CHICKEN ANGEL WOMANforward, when I made a grudging return to working within more conventional song structures — seems pretty simple to me. A song like “A Well-Thought-Out Escape”, for example, is the same same few chords repeated over and over again through the whole song, and there’s a slight hitch to the rhythm that could be a little tricky, but aside from that it’s not a very complex piece of music.
The thing that made me re-evaluate this idea that I’d almost regressed on some level to writing in a simpler way was when I charted out a few songs for Dan, the dude who will be tearing it up on bass at the show. What I mean by that is, I typed up all the lyrics and wrote out chords and other relevant things in the margins — making tablature or proper sheet music/notation is beyond the scope of my abilities. This is more of a guide, in case something is needed to fall back on.
In the course of doing this and then playing through some of the songs, it became clear to me that even some of the things I assumed were dead simple are not so simple after all. There’s a song on MEDIUM-FI MUSIC called “To Be Frail Is to Begin to Be Free”. It’s one of my favourite tracks on the album, but I thought it was one of the simplest things I’d ever written. The arrangement is honed to the bone, there’s almost nothing going on outside of a few chords being played on the piano, with everything else shadowing that, and there’s a simple drum beat. Turns out there’s some pretty tricky stuff going on there rhythmically, and what I thought was a pretty straight 4/4 with lots of space is something else altogether. Liam charted it out and told me what the rhythm is actually doing, jumping from one time signature to another, and it just about made my head spin. The structure of the thing is pretty straightforward — while there’s no proper chorus, it keeps alternating between A and B parts with no real bridge to speak of and a few pregnant pauses where all that’s holding it together is the drums — but it’s not half as simple as it sounds.
Another good example is “A Fine Line Between Friendship and Baked Goods” from CREATIVE NIGHTMARES, which I think is one of the most enjoyable things to play in the set we’ve been putting together. There’s a very long first verse. It’s probably more like two verses, but it’s delivered as one unbroken piece. Then there’s a tricky little instrumental section where the tempo kind of doubles and things get more frenetic, followed by what you could call the bridge, where the opposite happens and the original tempo is halved. Then the verse chords reappear for a little while, but now they’re a backdrop for what would be the chorus if someone else wrote the song. Only in this case the “chorus” shows up just this one time and then never comes back. Then there’s another instrumental section that goes several different places before the song ends — we basically jam it out as far out as it’ll go, and I get a great opportunity to go nuts on the piano and pretend I’m a poor man’s jazz pianist. It isn’t one of the more radical examples of messing with form in my body of work, and yet there’s nothing very linear at all going on with the structure of thing.
Even the “simple” songs tend to have something off-kilter about them, and I seem to end up skewing song structure on some level even when I’m not trying to. The thing is, most of the time I don’t “write” these things in the sense that most people sit down and map out what a song is going to be a piece at a time and then chip away at it until they feel they have it right. I’m writing a lot of the songs instead of hitting the record button and winging it the way I used to, but this is still just the stuff that comes out of my brain, and all I’m really doing most of the time is trying to get it out as quickly and competently as I can.
I was under the impression that after my period of severe structure-warping on albums like GROWING SIDEWAYS and BRAND NEW SHINY LIE I relaxed into a simpler way of constructing songs while the production side of things started to get more ambitious, but apparently the songs aren’t always as straightforward as I think they are. Even when something lives inside of a structure that sounds conventional, with sections that repeat more or less where you would expect them to, there’s almost never an actual chorus. While sections of music might recur, the lyrics almost never do, so what feels like a chorus usually isn’t. As a writer, I grew tired of choruses a long time ago, and I only feel justified in writing a song that has one if it absolutely forces itself upon the music (something that doesn’t seem to happen very often).
So that was a neat little discovery. I guess even if I’m not always messing with form in ways that are as violent and obvious as before, it doesn’t mean it’s not still happening. It’s just happening in subtler ways.
While we’re on the subject, here’s the real poster for the show. I have to say I’m pretty happy with the way it turned out. It’s a huge improvement over my first attempt at making a poster. Much cleaner and less cluttered. Thanks to Bree for once again letting me use one of her great pictures.
Saturday is when the craziness happens. Like the poster says, doors open at 6:00 (though we’ll probably still be doing a soundcheck then), and the music starts at 7:00 (though I’ll probably wait for about fifteen minutes or so to accommodate people who are a little late). As I said when last year’s show was approaching, feel free to show up whenever you can — if you can only make it for part of the night or can’t get there until the second set, that’s absolutely fine — but understand that showing up at 8:00 will mean you’ll have probably missed the entire first set of music. Nobody is getting paid anything no matter how many people show up, so I don’t think there’s any point in waiting an hour or two for the place to fill up as much as possible. Having said that, I think by now most people know I don’t operate according to the usual “don’t start a show until an hour or two after the advertised start time” rules of conduct.
The show is free, as is everything that comes along with it. There will be a bunch of copies of the new CD, which will only be available at the show for the time being. It’ll be at least a week or two before I’ve built up enough stock to drop some off at Dr. Disc and Phog. I planned on having copies of a bunch of other CDs at the show, but I don’t think I’m going to have enough materials to make that happen in time. I had to sell a guitar to pay for the show and the album’s physical packaging. Things are a little tight right now. It is what it be.
The plan is to play two sets of music like last time, with a little break in-between so people can stretch their legs, use the bathroom, shoot the poo, or slow dance with me while no music is playing. This time it’ll be a little different, because I’ll be alternating between playing alone and with the band.
I’ve got a setlist of seventeen songs put together. I think there’s a pretty good cross-section of different things going on between brand new material, songs people who’ve been following my music will recognize, some drastically reworked material, and a few obscure or not-so-obscure covers. Only about a third of those songs are being played with the band, but some of them are pretty extended pieces, so it should balance itself out. Liam and Dan can play the hell out of their instruments, and it’s great fun playing with them and twisting these songs in different directions. Hopefully whoever shows up will have as much fun as we do. Jackie Robitaille will be sitting in on one song, contributing harmonious vocal/piano bliss, and my good friend T-Rizzle will be in the hizzle operating the sound-related stuff.
That’s right. I said hizzle.
Maybe I’ll see you there on Saturday. Maybe you’ll choose to haunt my dreams instead. And if you happen to be the person who ripped my poster off the wall at Green Bean so you could have it for yourself, thank you for negating the money spent on it and the promotional work it was intended to do. You could have waited until after the show, or taken two seconds out of your busy life and asked me for a free poster (I would have given you one), but you didn’t. Thanks a bunch for being such a thoughtful human being.
Also, a sincere, non-sarcastic thanks to whoever was responsible for putting a little blurb about the show in the Windsor Star.
Earlier this year I was vinyl-hunting at Dr. Disc when whatever Liam was playing on the store’s stereo system caught my ear. There was something in the voice that grabbed me.
“What’s this?” I asked.
He held up a copy of an album called Epic.
“Sharon Van Etten,” he said. “It’s hot right now.”
When it didn’t burn my fingers, I bought the album and brought it home. And as I tend to do with all the piles of CDs and records and DVDs and books vying for my attention at any given time, I forgot about it for a little while.
There was snow on the ground, though winter was supposed to be on its way out by then. Meteorologists are dirty liars. I’d just reconnected with someone I lost touch with seven years earlier. Over those seven years I thought about her a lot, wondered how and where she was, but had no way to get in touch with her and didn’t expect we would ever see each other again.
Fate or Facebook conspired to bring us back together. I found myself at her house one night. She said she’d always wanted to be with me, and now that there was nothing standing in our way and we were both a little older and wiser, what did I think?
I wasn’t sure what I thought. After a lifetime of feeling not good enough because things never seemed to break right for me in the romance department, I was enjoying being single for maybe the first time. I was in a pretty good place. And here was an opportunity I never thought I would have, when I wasn’t expecting or looking for it, when I wasn’t even sure I wanted it.
I didn’t feel I had much to give anyone in a relationship at the time. My head was very much in the music I was making. I didn’t have a lot of money. My idea of a great date was staying in and just talking and enjoying existing in the same space with another person. I didn’t think that would appeal to too many people.
And I was reluctant to put myself out there. I’d had some bad experiences. I didn’t want to mess with the comfortable place I was in. But I knew if I didn’t give it a shot, somewhere in the back of my mind I would always wonder what might have been.
It was such a clear-cut case of having another chance with “the one that got away”, the whole thing was almost a cliché come to life. All that was missing was an Air Supply song on the soundtrack and a hidden wind machine.
With all of that swimming around in my head and the double-edged knife of indecision jabbing at my sides, I crawled into bed one night, turned out the light, slid on a battered old pair of Sennheiser headphones they don’t make anymore, and listened to Epic for the first time. I liked it. The more I heard, the more I liked. Then I got to a song called “Love More” and something else happened. It smacked me in the face with its open-ended beauty. I hadn’t heard a song like that in a long time.
You know how sometimes you hear a piece of music and you get this strange feeling like you’re changing in some barely tangible way while listening to it? Like you’re not quite the same person anymore once it’s over. They could do a hundred different tests on you and find you’re no different on any molecular or biological level, but you know something has shifted. It’s not even that the words to the song feel like they were ripped out of your own life. It’s not that at all. It’s that there’s something in there that resonates with you on a deeper level than most things can get to, in a place beyond words, and it’s beautiful and painful at the same time.
That’s what that song did for me. It was what I needed to hear right then. And around the time the vocal harmonies were doing their last long build and I was hoping the song would never end, I decided I needed to take the chance and see where this potential romantic adventure would lead me. Fear and insecurity be damned. I would let my guard down. I would take the chance.
So I did.
The whole thing was a grotesque mess. She lied, cheated, made me feel guilty about devoting any small amount of time or attention to music instead of her, denigrated everything good I tried to give her, and then she turned it around and found a way to make me the villain somehow. But in spite of how spectacularly wrong we turned out to be for each other and how ugly the fallout was when it all broke apart, I’m kind of glad I had the experience — and not just because I got a bitter breakup album out of it. I learned a lot about what not to do and what not to accept if there’s ever a next time.
One of the things that fascinates me about art of all kinds is the ability it gives you to attach your own meaning to it, and how you’re then allowed to discover the meaning has mutated when you return to it after a long absence, as if the art has changed — when really it’s you who’s done the changing. When I heard that song again after the mess was over, it meant something different to me and took on a more defeated, bittersweet feeling.
I haven’t listened to the album or that song in a while now. I think I came to feel a little too close to it. And I was a bit of a mess when the relationship ended, because I ended up investing and caring a lot more than I thought I would. A lot of feeling got packed into a short period of time. But when I return to the song again somewhere down the road, I expect it’ll mean something different to me again.
I found out “Love More” was recently used in one of those montages at the end of Grey’s Anatomy. And I’ve never been more glad to have mostly phased television out of my life. I got to hear the song for the first time alone in the dark. I got to decide for myself what it meant to me, without having some television show stuff it down my throat in a glorified music video designed to wring pathos out of saccharine nothingness.
This got me thinking larger thoughts about how people are introduced to music and the role a medium like television plays. Wasn’t it the grotesquely under-appreciated, eons-ahead-of-his-time Ernie Kovacs who said it’s called a medium because it’s so rarely well-done?
I think it’s a good thing when people are introduced to music they might never otherwise come in contact with, whether it’s through a Volkswagen commercial or a glorified soap opera. And when the artists in question are still alive and it’s not a case of their corpses being defiled for someone else’s profit, I’m glad they get to make some money. If having her song placed in Grey’s Anatomy increases Sharon’s visibility and does anything to help her go on making the music she wants to make, I’m all for it.
But as an artist and an art-lover, that whole thing will never sit quite right with me. It’s impossible for me to overstate how glad I am that I’ve never unearthed any of my favourite music that way. I had to work to find a lot of the things I wanted to hear, and in some cases it took years of digging. Before it was finally remastered and reissued last year, Dennis Wilson’s solo work was almost impossible to find outside of MP3s with crummy sound quality hiding out in various crevices of the internet. Starsailor, the album Tim Buckley considered the finest he ever made, is still going for insane prices on eBay. You don’t want to know how much I paid for my hard copy back in 2002. But it was worth every penny. And there’s something wonderful about having no idea what you’re going to get when you pop an album in the CD player or on the turntable — something the internet has done a good deal to erode, for better or worse.
When I sat down to listen to big star’s Third and John Cale’s Music for a New Society for the first time way back when, I had no idea what I was about to hear beyond what little I was able to guess at from what I read about the music. I had no way to audition even thirty-second snippets of the songs beforehand. There’s something magical about that unpredictability. Hearing a great, soul-crushing song like “I Keep a Close Watch” for the first time in an episode of Desperate Housewives would have just been…weird.
I like to keep some of the mystery intact. I like having to work a little harder to find the things I really connect with. There’s a huge difference between hearing something in passing at an independent record store, and hearing that same song in a commercial or a TV show with the music given a whole new context because of the images it’s attached to. And my own personal bias comes into play here, because I think it’s another thing altogether when we’re talking about good TV shows and films that aspire to be art — something more than just escapist fluff. In those cases, original music and/or the judicious use of already-existing material can combine to create something really interesting.
In the words of the once-great Eric Clapton, it’s in the way that you use it. Compare the masterful use of Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up” in Magnolia to its current cringe-inducing appearance in a commercial for the “reality” series Intervention, and you start to see what I mean.
The point, I guess, is that I’m not about to start watching Grey’s Anatomy anytime soon, even if Patrick Dempsey is one dreamy dude. But I’m really glad I heard Sharon Van Etten’s music that one day at Dr. Disc.
I got a proof. The proof looks good. I just need to fix a mistake I made in the booklet, and if all goes according to plan I should have some advance copies of the new CD to share with CJAM and a few special people by Friday.
In the meantime, here are two more out-takes. I ended up having to throw out a few more songs at the last minute before the thing felt like it finally had a good flow to it. There’s a song I posted here a little while back called “Held Is Not Holding” that almost made it but just didn’t feel like it belonged anymore when the dust settled. It’s funny that it wouldn’t make the cut, because it sounds more like a breakup song than some of the actual breakup songs on the album do, even though it was written and recorded pre-breakup.
This one’s pretty self-explanatory. It was going to be the first thing on the album — an instrumental segue leading into “I’m Optimistic”, with the two fused together — until I realized the opening track had a lot more punch to it without a wafting instrumental intro.
One track where the melodica really got a spotlit moment, and now it finds itself sitting on the out-takes heap as well. Felt like one downcast song too many. But I do like that big melodica-driven climax.
Someday there will be another misfits/out-takes album, and all these things will have a place to call home.
Though it’s a tiny bit late, here’s May’s progress report.
Something I didn’t mention in the video (or I did, but I snipped it out because it was getting a little long) was what a sequencing headache this album turned into. Literally. It led me to a deeper understanding of the way I put an album together.
With most other people, it works something like this: you write a bunch of songs. You decide the songs will combine to form an album. You probably have a rough idea of what order the songs should be sequenced in before you even record the first note. Then you record the songs and you make your album.
For me, it’s never worked that way. I record a bunch of songs, I stop when i feel like I’ve said what I have to say, and then I start carving out what the album will be. Sometimes the best songs are written at the very last minute and added when I already thought I had the whole thing finished. A lot of thought goes into sequencing, but it’s the last thing I ever figure out.
If I were a maker of films, it would be like starting with a rough idea of the script but writing a lot of new scenes during the filming process, getting rid of entire chunks of narrative I thought were pivotal to the film, eventually throwing out the old script altogether, and changing the entire flow and meaning of the film again during the editing process while deciding what kind of film I’ve made. John Cassavetes worked like this, shooting far more film than he could ever use and trying many different things so he could go about discovering just what his films wanted to be during the editing process. I guess I go about it in a similar way, but with music instead of film.
I could probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve started working on an album with a concrete, far-reaching idea of what I want to do, and even then I didn’t always end up with something that had much to do with that initial idea, and I never went into it with all of the songs written before I started recording. My music is always evolving and changing, not only from one album to the next, but often within the time it takes to record a single album. There isn’t a better demonstration of that than this one, where I threw away an entirely different album so the album that now exists could be born.
When it comes to sequencing the songs, for years I just threw everything on CD in the order it was recorded. That seemed to work fine until more thought and craft began to seep into what I was doing and I decided it was time to start putting more thought into the flow of an album. After a while I arrived at a process that seemed to work well for me. I would brainstorm rough ideas of what order I thought the songs should go in, making tiny changes every step of the way throughout the process of recording an album. As the music shifted and some songs were pushed aside to make room for new ones, my sequencing ideas would keep shifting as well.
Finally, when I felt all the songs I needed for the album were in place, I would sit down and hash it out with more commitment until I arrived at a sequence that felt like it worked in my head. Then I would try it out on CD. And almost without fail, that running order always felt good to me, and I never felt a need to do any tweaking beyond adjusting how many seconds of silence there would be between the songs. The one exception was THE BITTER SIDE OF SWEET, where I had a little bit of trouble with the sequencing. But then, I had mixed feelings about that album even at the time, and it’s due for a re-evaluation.
This time things got a little slippery. I arrived at my final sequence on paper, tried it out on CD, and and it didn’t feel right at all. I had to throw out all my sequencing ideas and start from scratch, getting rid of a few more songs in the process when I realized they didn’t really add anything to the album.
Now I think I’ve arrived at a sequence that works. I’ll know for sure in the next day or two, and the album will be packaged and in CJAM-ready form next week, one way or another.
I didn’t want to give too much away in advance, so I kept snippets of new music in the progress report video to a minimum. More music and info (along with the lyrics) can be found on the proper album page, for anyone who’s interested.
As for the context-warped public domain film content in the video, the most interesting piece by far is The Terror of Tiny Town — an all-little-person Western. I think it’s kind of brilliant in its own bizarre way. The barbershop sequence I grabbed and used for the intro is like something out of a David Lynch movie, filmed before Lynch was even born. You’ve got the typical Western archetypes (the grizzled old men who can’t see past old prejudices, the hotshot young cowboy who falls for the niece of one of those grizzled old men and stirs up more trouble without meaning to, the villain who plays each side against the other and sits back to enjoy the chaos he creates, the prostitute he mistreats who has her revenge in the end, the corrupt but conflicted sheriff he has under his thumb), all viewed through a slightly different prism and skewed, because they’re all played by little people. I especially like the German chef who serves as the comic relief.
A Tale of Two Kitties is a cartoon I remember seeing as a kid, featuring a very early appearance from a bird who would soon become Tweety. Experiments in the Revival of Organisms is a Soviet-made short film narrated by a British dude, and something animal lovers should stay far away from. Whether it’s real or not (and it looks real), there’s something disturbing about watching the decapitated head of a dog responding to external stimuli as if the animal were still alive.
I’m always surprised by the stuff I find on the internet that’s fallen into the public domain, and how much fun it is to twist bits of it out of context. Sometimes the music and the images combine in such a strange way, it’s almost as if they were meant to find each other. I mean, who knew a little person standoff and dreamy non-pop would go together?