It’s been said over and over again that the best songs come out of heartache, heartbreak, or some kind of crisis. Most of the time I think that’s less a truism than it is a lazy cliché. Just as much great art has been inspired by positive feelings and good experiences.
Sometimes, though, it’s the simple truth.
AN ABSENCE OF SWAY was not an unhappy or difficult album for me to make, but it passes the “art coming out of a period of crisis” test with flying colours. I was in a strange emotional place at the time. Coming after CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN, which I still feel is a “happy” album by my standards, this felt like a pretty melancholy affair. I still get that feeling of pensive sadness from it now.
For whatever reason, few other people seem to have taken that away from the music after listening to it, and it’s pretty much tied with CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN as the most popular and widely-heard album I’ve ever made. I’m still not sure why that is. Maybe it’s because, for a lot of people, those two albums were the first music of mine they ever heard.
The winter of 2008 was a turbulent time for me, for a lot of different reasons. I was dealing with the beginning of the PTSD that grew out of the break-in during which I expected to die, and on some level I thought this might be the last album I ever made before I dropped dead of a spontaneous stroke or heart attack. Anxiety will do fun things to your brain.
There was a feeling of urgency — of needing to get this music out while I still had time.
Elsewhere, there was the strangeness of suddenly having a real, visible audience for my music, after years of no one having much of any interest in what I was doing. There was a volcanic outpouring of inspiration to deal with, now that I had my musical momentum back in a big way after the veritable “lost year” of 2007, and I was writing songs faster than I could keep up with myself.
And then there was the small fact that I was in love with a friend who was also in love with me, but treated me in such a way that I had no idea she came even close to reciprocating my feelings for her. She erected a wall around her heart that I was trying to wear down, with mixed results.
We were both a mess, each of us having just gone through our own individual traumatic experiences that shook us out of any comfortable rhythm we’d grown accustomed to. I had this idea that we could help each another through our respective messes and come out the other side stronger than we were before, and maybe while we were at it we could give each another the support and affection we’d always been denied by most of the people we cared about.
I was very wrong about that.
My friend would ultimately reveal herself to be an emotional vampire and a full-blown narcissist who took what she wanted from people and then threw them away once they were all used up. She was incapable of any kind of consistent honesty or consideration for anyone other than herself, and unwilling to build any kind of relationship not based on mutual debasement. I was a good friend to her through difficult times for both of us. All I got in return was a mouthful of shit.
Some good music came out of the anger and depression I went through when the whole thing blew up in my face. So at least there was that. But if I could go back and do it all over again, I’d be tempted to trade the music in exchange for never having known her. I could have done without that pain.
I didn’t know any of this at the time. I only knew I wanted to spend as much time with her as she would allow. I felt like I had nothing inside of me to give to anyone, but I wanted to give all of the nothing I had to her.
For a time, it seemed like we were building a special kind of friendship, and I hoped it might lead to something more. After spending an afternoon talking to her, I sat down with a ukulele and a song sketch I’d been kicking around for a day or two seemed to shape itself into a finished song without much of any urging from me.
It turned into one of the more uninhibited things I’d written in a long time. The lyrics were still pretty cryptic, and I was vehemently against the idea of coming out and singing anything as clear-cut as, “I’m in love with you and I don’t know what I’m supposed to do about it, since from where I sit you’ve made it pretty clear you don’t feel the same way about me,” but all of the anxiety and confusion I was feeling —- both because of her and for reasons that had nothing to do with her — came out in the vocal performance. It was the closest I’d come to screaming in seven years. When I shouted, “I feel for you,” and then turned it into the question of, “What do I feel for you?” I felt the fear and excitement wrapped up in that uncertainty tear through my stomach.
I called the song “Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fondue” — a play on another old cliché. It’s all buildup, with no real hook outside of a wordless vocal part that recurs a few times, no bridge or chorus, and no resolution. It builds in intensity until it dissolves into nothing.
The piano part was improvised while recording. It wasn’t meant to be such a prominent part of the song, but it seemed to focus the whole thing in a way I wasn’t expecting, playing off of the frenetic energy in the vocal performance. Just about every recorded element was frenetic, really, from the double-time ukulele strumming to the drum part I improvised in one take.
If I were to record the song today I’m sure it would have a much denser mix, with some ambient sounds swimming around. Maybe some distant electric guitar or organ. Maybe some acoustic guitar. The vocals probably wouldn’t be triple-tracked all the way through. The ukulele would probably be a lot more prominent and recorded in a completely different way for a thicker sound.
Even so, while I enjoy putting more thought into the sonics of my songs these days and I like how there’s a lot more going on in much of the music I’m making now than there was a few years ago, at least in a textural sense, I think in some ways the albums I was making during this time are more effective than they might have otherwise been because of their relative austerity. I got down what the songs needed and nothing more. That was where my head was at. And that was enough.
I played this song for the girl who was somewhat responsible for inspiring it a few days after I recorded it. I didn’t tell her what it was about. I just said I was really happy with the way it turned out and told her she’d been a bit of a muse.
She listened without saying anything. She was quiet for a while after the song ended. Finally, she told me she had to remind herself to start breathing again halfway through. She’d been holding her breath.
I took that as a compliment, and maybe an acknowledgment that I’d managed to knock out a chunk of that wall of hers, if only for three and-a-half minutes.
Over the years I’ve written a few songs that manage to make the hair on the back of my neck stand up when I listen to them. That’s probably an odd thing to admit as a writer. It tends to be someone else’s work that gives you the prickly, elevated feeling that something special is happening. Certain pieces of music and moments in films have done that to me. It’s a little strange to realize I’ve written a few things myself that generate those same feelings.
The songs of my own that do it for me the most are “The Sun Is a Red Ball of Lies Tonight”, “The Cost of Allowing Yourself to Remain Living”, and “Everyone You Love Is Dead”. They all feel like they come full circle in strangely perfect ways, and they all share that how the hell did I ever write a song like this? sense of bewilderment. There’s “Dopamine” off of BEAUTIFULLY STUPID — a raw, improvised howl of pain that has always felt like one of the most honest things I recorded during one of the most miserable times in my life. “Fidget” has always hit that elusive spot, especially during its climax, because that was a really important and surprising song for me.
“Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fondue” also belongs on the list, but it falls into the hair-on-end category for a different reason. It takes me back to that moment in time and what I was feeling right then, and at the same time there’s something else going on there. It may not be autobiographical in a literal, straightforward way like the late-period Guys with Dicks albums and my early post-band solo albums are, but it’s emotionally autobiographical on a deeper level.
I’ve almost never listened to someone else’s song and felt they were singing directly to me, or about my life. I usually only ever get that feeling from my own music. And sometimes it’s something very different from just leafing through an old aural diary. There’s a gravity there that’s powerful in a way I can’t really describe, as if I’ve somehow managed to transcend myself.
I’m not sure that makes much sense.
Navel-gazing aside, I’ve always felt this song was the centerpiece of the whole album, even if it shows up very near the end. It’s one of the songs on SWAY I still feel closest to, to the point that I don’t think I would ever be comfortable performing it live, assuming I ever did play another live show. It’s not even that it’s too close to the bone. I just wouldn’t want to mess with the purity of the recording. It was a moment I captured. I don’t believe I could ever come close to matching the emotional intensity of the original performance, because I’m not in that edgy, frightened-animal headspace anymore.
You know what’s funny? To most people who’ve heard the album, I bet it just sounds like a pretty catchy song.
And now it’s a music video.
How did that happen? One word: Facebook. That internet place I swear about and vacillate between hating, tolerating as a way to waste time when I don’t feel like doing anything useful, and taking long breaks from (right now I’m a week or two into hiatus number two). It happened because of Facebook.
You gotta laugh at that.
Earlier this year I saw something someone posted on Facebook about two women who have their own production/film company called Ladymeta. They were starting a project called LeTwelve. The goal was to make twelve music videos in 2012 for twelve different artists/bands, for free — both as a way to collaborate with a lot of different people and to have a good excuse to challenge themselves creatively.
I thought that was a pretty cool idea. For a few years now, I’ve been stewing on the idea of paying someone to make a real music video for one of my songs. Something interesting and artistic, more for the sake of having it made than anything else. Maybe this was a way to make that happen without money even coming into play.
I sent an email expressing an interest in what they were doing, not expecting much to come of it. I’ve spent a good chunk of my life reaching out to other artists and getting nothing back, with a few notable exceptions (Maya and Travis come to mind as two people who bucked the trend).
I figured this would be one of my last moments of reaching before I gave up on all of that. And it very well could be. But if that turns out to be the case, it was quite a way to go out. For once something came out of it. They reached back, we started a dialogue, and it developed into something really exciting.
My idea was to send Daniella and Catrina a bunch of CDs and then leave it in their hands. I thought it would be more interesting if it was a real collaboration that way: “You choose a song that speaks to you in some way, and you decide what kind of video to build around it, without any input from me. I don’t even need to appear anywhere in it. In fact, it’s probably better if I’m nowhere to be seen.”
In general, I like the idea of a music video functioning as more of a short film instead of an advertisement for the artist. The images can act as a counterpoint to the music or twist it in an unexpected direction. Anything is game, really. That’s what makes it so interesting.
Their first choice didn’t quite work out. It was one of the few songs I’ve recorded that I didn’t write myself, and I thought that might be a bit of a problem. Then inspiration struck, and they did the last thing I ever would have expected, with the last song I ever thought anyone would single out as a music video candidate. Or I should say Daniella had an idea, and she ran with it.
The thing that’s fascinating to me is how there’s this strange synchronicity in the way it worked out. She took a song I had a personal connection to without knowing any of the backstory or what the song meant to me. It became something personal for her, without me having any idea that was happening. And while the video might seem on the surface to not have much to do with the song since it’s not a literal translation of the lyrics by any means (no one gets skinned alive and made into a blanket, for one thing), what does happen is actually very much what the song is about.
For me, the video plays like a dream. Those two people are doing the same thing I wanted to do at the time I wrote the song with the person who went some way toward inspiring it. I wanted that feeling of closeness with her, where the rest of the world seems far away and you spend an entire day in bed — just you, the person you love, and their cat.
I never had that. Not with her. And in a lot of ways, I think it was for the best. The whole mess would have been even more painful if that kind of intimacy had been a part of our relationship.
When I say the video plays like a dream, what I mean is, for me it’s a dream of what could have been if we’d both been different people (literally). In a way, it gives that unfulfilled part of the story a proper ending, and it gives me an odd feeling of closure.
For Daniella, who directed/shot/edited the video, it’s something different altogether, personal in a way that’s unique to her. Again, I had no input into what the video was going to be, and she didn’t know anything about what was really behind the song. These things all intersected somehow on their own.
I think so many music videos being made these days are sad exercises in what happens when you give someone a disgusting sum of money and they spend it on a glossy-looking piece of nothing. You either get glorified soft porn, atrocious acting in the service of horribly clichéd and half-baked storylines that rarely make any sense inside or outside the context of the song, hackneyed mimed musical “performances” where half the time electric instruments aren’t even plugged in to at least create the illusion of authenticity, choreographed dancing that’s all about the objectification of women and ignores the possibility of doing anything interesting or artistic with movement, or — if you’re really lucky — you get all of those things in one steaming pile of celluloid crap.
This is none of those things. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I like how I’m able to feel connected to it without being a physical presence in it. I like how it feels raw and real in a way that flies in the face of what a typical music video is supposed to be. There’s a kind of voyeuristic quality to it, but in an innocent way. I like how the time-lapse photography creates the impression of stop-motion animation with people in place of figurines, and it almost makes it seem like the couple are being manipulated in rhythm to the music at some points. The amount of work Daniella put into editing it must have been insane.
I like how, when I almost scream, “What the fuck have I done?” instead of an overcooked dramatic moment you get a cat named Wilson looking up at the camera as if to say, “You did something? Was I supposed to be paying attention?” I like how the action occasionally cuts to non-time-lapse moments that look like grainy old silent home movies. I like how it looks like no artificial lighting was used beyond what was available in the room.
And I like the look of that homemade pizza. Doesn’t that thing look delicious?
The whole thing is surreal to me. The way it worked out. That it exists. That one of my songs has a music video I didn’t make myself by chopping up public domain footage. That it didn’t cost me a thing. And that I got to swim in the same river as two people who have integrity, who are creating things that are unique and beautiful purely for the sake of creating, who understand me and what I’m trying to do with my music.
Many thanks and bear hugs to Daniella and Catrina for being open to this whole thing, and for making it happen. Thanks also to Brennan Rikard, Flora Bird, and Wilson the Cat. And to Josh Babcock, because I think he may have been the one who posted the link on Facebook that set this all in motion.