Month: February 2016

i swim through the streets of valatie.

dog 2

you get to a place where you’re tired of writing songs about people, for people, to people. you’ve seen that movie. you’ve directed it. you’ve acted in it. you’ve been your own stunt double. you’ve been your own script doctor. you’ve fired a caterer who wasn’t on the level. you’ve been through the crowd-pleasing happy endings, the soul-perforating unhappy endings, the non-endings that leave half the audience unsatisfied and the other half nodding and laughing because even if they don’t get it they still admire your guts.

you’ve written enough songs about people who are real, broken relationships, feelings, urges, all the was and the never-will-be, all the could-have-been-but-probably-shouldn’t-have-been.

so you stop. you write songs that are other things. stories. thoughts. impressions. the things you write that sound like they’re about someone aren’t about anyone. it’s more interesting writing about imagined people. you can give them whatever attributes you like. there’s no less inspiration. you’re just drawing blood from a different vein.

there are so many more things to say than, “i want you, i need you, i love you, i hate you, you took a piss on my heart and i still can’t get rid of the smell.” there are words beyond those words.

but sometimes you can’t get away from the way the world is. people will be people. some of them will be real. and the songs are going to say what they want to say.

in 2003 the internet is not what it will be in 2016. it’s not the ghost town it was a few years before. it’s some in-between thing. you can still type a random phrase into a search engine and not know where you’re going to end up. you can still find quiet ways to be surprised.

this is how you come to the online diary of a girl who throws up her depression and addiction on the internet for the world to see. an exorcism in black and purple and white. you’re drawn to her intelligence and her struggle. you’ve burned away a lot of your own self-destructive energy, but you’d be lying if you said there wasn’t still anger and depression there. you want to know her, talk with her, drink coffee with her, feel the caffeine tickle your brain.

she’s in new york. and you’re very far away from new york. so that isn’t going to happen.

you read, and you eat microwaved stir-fry, the kind that comes in a box with green beans the size of peas and chicken the size of stamps, and you drink a can of coke, and you listen to tim buckley sing his soul out through his throat in a demo for “because of you” that strips the skin from the song — the one on the dream belongs to me, where you know it’s tim playing electric 12-string and maury baker shuffling behind the drums, and you know whoever put the liner notes together was asleep at the wheel, because if that’s buddy helm and joe falsia playing, you’re a dead rat in a three-piece suit. you do that, and you read some more.

you don’t know why you remember these things. but you do.

she stops updating her diary. the silence lasts a long time. years. you send an email. you don’t think she’d want to talk to you. you’re only a stranger reading her public-private thoughts. but you try to reach out. try to connect. as with so many of your other attempts at connecting, nothing comes back.

you can take it one of two ways. either she isn’t interested in starting a dialogue with you, or she’s dead.

you choose to believe she isn’t dead. it’s better that way.

in 2012 you get an email from her. you don’t know what it is at first. you don’t know who she is. then it comes back to you. she says she was a mess back then. she was touched by your concern. she’s better now. she’d like to talk to you, if you’d like to talk to her.

soon you’re sending long emails back and forth every day. you already did the long-distance internet relationship thing a few times as a teenager. it didn’t go well. you’re not doing that again. not now. not ever. this isn’t that. this is a friendship. this is someone you can talk to about depression and anxiety and things you’re not comfortable pulling out with most people. this is a two-way support system.

you send her mail. she sends you mail. letters. music. things. you don’t know what she looks like. you have a dream of her climbing out of a door in the ground and walking through an abandoned city, silent, wide-eyed, moving like a frightened animal. you don’t know what it means.

hurricane sandy hits. her streets are flooded. her power goes down. you don’t hear from her for a while. you worry.

she lives in valatie. you find out it doesn’t sound the way it looks. it sounds like a mumbled sigh. va-lay-shuh. you play something simple on a guitar. words fall out. you write a song.

you think of the way a flood could almost be beautiful, if you had the right eyes to see it with. drain it of everything destructive or dangerous. see it that way. see a city underwater, nothing lost, no one harmed. see a waking dream.

you see yourself swimming through the streets to get to her. just to see her looking down at you from her apartment window and waving. that would be enough. you see yourself pushing a small raft beside you, loaded with tea and good wishes, knowing the tea will be cold by the time you get it to her. you have candles to light the way, to be your floating lantern. you throw in a bit about penguins only she’ll understand.

valatie is a village. town sounds better in the title. town it is.

singing it is easy. dressing it up is easy. it’s the drums that give you trouble. you don’t know what they want to be. nothing works until you start hitting them with bundle sticks. birch dowels. you play a shuffling thing and get the take you want, imperfect but right. you stick the song in an email and send it to her.

dread sets in and eats at your stomach. fear cooks your brain. you don’t know how she’s going to take it. it isn’t a love song, though there’s love in it. it’s a friendship song. you’re used to the songs you write about living people coming when all your good feelings for them are dead, knowing the words will never reach their ears. this is different.

there’s a scared part of you that thinks the doomsday theorists are right and the world is going to end in a few weeks. if time really is running away on you, might as well embrace the impulsive gestures and let the people you care about know how you feel.

her power comes back on. she takes it the way you were hoping she would. the world doesn’t end.

then she starts to go away. you don’t hear from her as much. she sends you emails that are suicide notes, the drink and drugs chipping away at her spelling and grammar, slurring in a way you can see. she says she loves you, she’s sorry, she doesn’t want to be here anymore. she says goodbye. then she comes back. then it happens again. and again. and again.

you can’t knock on her door. you can’t call her. she won’t give you her phone number. you can’t get her to reach out to you if she doesn’t want to. what good are you? you’re no good at all.

you try to do what you can. try to let her know you’re there. you care. you’ll never judge her. you just want her to stay, to talk to you, to be there. she hints at things she could tell you but doesn’t. the support system crumbles.

and then one day she’s gone. the diary goes dark. the emails stop.

you type her name and her village into google once a week. you expect to find an obituary. you feel like you failed her. you keep sending emails, knowing nothing’s coming back. your friend is gone. your friend is dead.

in 2014 you get an email from her. but it isn’t her. it’s her fiance. he tells you he was there all along. she’s carrying his child. now he’s reading these emails he knows he shouldn’t read, and there are dozens of them, maybe a hundred, and some of them they say “love”, and in some of them she brushes him off, marginalizes him, denigrates him, lies about him to you, says he’s no one, nothing.

he doesn’t know what to feel. that makes two of you.

he colours in the picture. she’s not dead. she’s fine. she was always going to be fine. you were a distraction. a game. she was never leaving. she was never there. she’s done this before.

you fill in the rest. she could go on lying to him, or she could go on lying to you, but she couldn’t go on lying to both of you at the same time, keeping each of you hidden from the other. too many spinning plates.

her solution was to erase you and keep lying to him, hoping he wouldn’t someday find himself compelled to do some digging.

but he did dig. and now he knows everything, and you know almost everything, and the only reason you know what you know is because he decided you were at least entitled to that much.

you feel for him. all you did was step on a land mine you were never meant to find. you’ll write one bitter song you won’t record, the limb you lost in the explosion will grow back, and you’ll be alright.

he got hit with the whole nuclear blast. emotional atom bomb. you can see the mushroom cloud it made all the way over here. you can pity her. you can hate her. you can feel whatever you want about her. he has to find a way to keep loving her, to trust her again, to hold it together for the kid. and that’s going to be a project.

the strangest thing in all of this is reaching out to him after he reaches out to you and getting not hostility, but wit and basic humanity slicing through the pain. you would be friends if you met a different way. you can feel it. she robbed you of that.

you have a few more dreams about her. one time she’s just words on a screen. another time she’s a webcam model who never makes any money. some people want to type at you and tell you what they want to see and not pay for any of it, but that isn’t it. she doesn’t get paid because no one’s watching her.

you watch. you’re the only one. you feel the way you guess you’d feel if you were watching something awful on television, too bored to change the channel.

after that she’s nothing but a story you tell to other people in dreams, until you’ve told it so many times you start telling it in a language you never learned to speak but now know well enough to swear in, until you tire of telling the story and she’s not there at all anymore.

you always thought it was interesting the way someone’s manifestation in the dream world was influenced by your experiences with them and your feelings about them in the waking world. heroes become villains become heroes again, become spanish curse words, become out of work actors, and then you guess they make a stack of cheap straight-to-DVD movies with names like i fell in love with an evil marmoset on thursday and fifteen things i love about hating the idea that i could be in love with you if you just changed your hairstyle.

you know what you know. you can guess at what you don’t know. one thing you know is that she goes on lying about you to him. as if the right lie could set her free. says you’re just some guy whose music she liked. you had some weird crush on her. she never liked you at all.

she turns you into that.

you hope she’s a better mother than she was a friend.

the one true thing you’re left with is the song. the person you wrote it for never existed. but the love that’s in it did, if you can call it love, if that’s what it was. so you’ve got that. and you have other people you’d swim for, if that was your way to get to them, cold and wet be damned. so you’ve got that too.

at least if you’re me, it’s a little like that, maybe.

swimming through the streets of your town

i swim through the streets of valatie
in my mind’s eye
in my mind’s eye
i bring you cold tea and candles
a fool am i
a fool am i
for i should have found a way to harness heat from the flame
and to keep it from the water
i swim through the streets of valatie
in my mind’s eye
in my mind’s eye

i’m writing a book bound in charcoal
stuffed full of dreams
strange as it seems
i’ll send it to you on the tide
i’ll build it a raft

when you see it, you’ll laugh
the captain is a penguin in a top hat
he’ll tip his hat to you
like all good penguins do
the village will celebrate the moment
they’ll throw us a parade full of colourful shadows

we can share our best-kept secrets
you tell me yours
i’ll tell you mine
i swim through the streets of valatie
in my mind’s eye
in my mind’s eye

hey blog. it’s your birthday.

8 year cupcake

eight years. on the blog. that’s a long time. on the blog.

it’s interesting to revisit the very first post and take stock of what’s happened with all the different things laid out there. a few albums i never thought would end up getting made got made. a few things i thought would be finished by now still have a long way to go. a few things ain’t ever gonna happen.

but blog is still blogging. blog is blogging more than it’s blogged in a long time.

you know what else is up and running again? cold citrus! hooray! shaun always plays interesting things. it’s good to hear him at it again.

sing into my face.

oceania_by_vhm_alex

there’s something about songs hatched in dreams — something inside of them that grabs me, as simple as the songs sometimes are. there’s always a feeling there that’s just off-kilter enough to make them engaging.

i tend to remember only snippets of music from my dreams — a chord progression, a vocal melody, a few lines of lyrics if i’m lucky, and the general sound and feeling of the thing. often that’s all there is to remember. sometimes i can remember vivid sonic details, right down to the drum sound and the way the different instruments are mixed, but the music itself doesn’t stick around. and every once in a while something emerges fully-formed, or what’s there when i wake up decides it wants to be a fleshed-out song.

“moonwalking” on LOVE SONGS FOR NIHILISTS is one of these. i played with the arrangement a little — in the dream it was a blue nile song, with a string arrangement and paul buchanan singing — but otherwise it’s just the same as it sounded when it wrote itself in my sleep. same chords, same melody, same words.

sometimes part of what makes the song interesting is what happens around it in the dream — how it’s born, and the feelings that stick around after sleep is gone. this is one that falls under that umbrella, from a dream i had a while back.

the gist of the dream: i was a famous country singer/songwriter. on a superficial level my career was an unqualified success, but i felt stagnant. the fame had gone to my head. commercial considerations were holding me back from being the artist i wanted to be.

i just didn’t care about any of it anymore, and i was letting myself go to seed. the money kept pouring in, and to an outsider it looked like everything was fine. it wasn’t fine. i was a disillusioned mess. a little like kris kristofferson in the remake of a star is born (or, if you feel like slumming it, george strait in pure country).

none of this was shown or explained in any overt way. there were no onscreen live shows or arguments with the record label. there wasn’t a scene where i did drugs or trashed a hotel room. it was implied, known without being seen, the way dreams have a habit of telling you things you shouldn’t have any way to know. you feel it. it just is.

i was going through the motions of auditioning new potential band members in the basement of a modest house. i didn’t expect anything meaningful to come of it. it was little more than an excuse to pump up the live show and make it even more of a spectacle. more stuff i didn’t care about that had nothing to do with the music.

then a woman with blonde hair showed up. she looked like she was maybe in her mid twenties. she went ahead and told me she was in the band, before i even heard her do anything, and she was bringing her bassist boyfriend with her. i scoffed at her. typical singer with an overfed ego.

“once you hear me sing your songs,” she said, “you’ll know i’m right.”

we sat down on a couch in the basement. i strummed a guitar and improvised a song out of thin air. she sang almost every line with me, like she’d been born knowing the words i was making up as i went along, harmonizing with me like her voice had been made as the perfect counterpart to mine by some higher power kinder than i deserved. i don’t have words to tell you how amazing our voices sounded together. when i shot up an octave without warning and changed the vocal melody on the fly, she shot up there with me, as if she knew where i was going before i did.

by the time the song was ending, we’d shifted our bodies to face each other. our faces were pressed so close together her forehead felt like a skin-covered rock i was leaning against. we stared into each other’s eyes and sang, as close as you can get to someone without absorbing them.

dream or not, it was one of the most incredible musical moments of my life. the intensity of it was startling. i fell in love with her a little bit while we were singing together. and she was right. i needed her in the band. she was going to change everything. in that one song i felt all the passion i’d lost, misplaced, or pissed away come flooding back into me.

of course, then i had to wake up and start my day knowing she wasn’t real. that was a bit of a kick in the teeth. but the framework of the song and some of its lyrics stuck around. the chords and the vocal melodies were still there. so i had that.

i feel a little funny claiming i write these songs. even if it’s coming from your brain, are you really writing something when you aren’t awake? it feels more like osmosis to me. but i’ll take it.

with some songs, you’re clawing at the dirt, trying to find something you think is buried. sometimes you don’t find it until there’s blood swimming beneath and between your fingernails. sometimes it jumps out of the earth, a spring-loaded thing, and falls right into your hand. sometimes you don’t find it at all, and all the digging is for nothing.

this time i already had the buried thing. it was about keeping it away from the vines that wanted to grow around it.

i started trying to stretch it out, writing extra verses. it didn’t feel right. and there was a spoken word section in the dream that didn’t feel like it fit anymore — not that i could remember many of the words from that part anyway.

so i left it alone and let it stay small. only a few chords and a few lines. not much more than what i remembered when i woke up.

after my brain and my voice had a chance to wake up a little, i recorded a rough demo. i’ve been recording garageband demos since i started working on YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK. there are 150 of them now. this is the second one i ever recorded, and still one of the demos i like best.

several repetitions of a name you’ve heard before (demo)

something’s happening somewhere
i don’t know what it is
but i can taste it in the colour
of your faded morning kiss
last night i heard you talking
heard you talking in your sleep
you said your fire was a promise
i could never hope to keep

the name “jolene” became a mantra in the dream in the same way it does here. i don’t know where it came from. it’s not much like the dolly parton song it shares its title with.

i was never going to find the real-life version of that singer. someone like that can’t exist. but after leanna did what she did on a song called “second dialogue”, i thought her voice was about as close as i was ever going to get. so i recorded a non-demo version of the song and asked her to sing the harmony, and she did.

i’m not a hundred percent sold on it being something that should make it onto the album. i still need to play with the arrangement a little. i’m not sure how naked it wants to be. but there’s something in this song that keeps drawing me back. maybe it’s the memory of the dream it came from.

rubbing sticks and stones together, make the song ignite.

brent 9

i had the privilege of recording brent lee the other day.

brent is one of those people i knew of but didn’t know. we have some mutual friends, and people have told me good things about him, but i’d never met him or heard him play.

i asked if he’d be interested in playing on something. my attitude these days is, i’ve got nothing to lose. i’m not going to chase people anymore, but i will at least try to start a dialogue with someone if i think there are some interesting musical possibilities there.

he was up for it.

i didn’t get around to putting together a rough mix, or a demo, or anything to send him beforehand. he came in cold with his soprano sax. i played him a couple things i thought might be fun to tackle. one of them was a brief ambient piece made up of some processed fender rhodes. the other was a new papa ghostface song.

he ended up playing great stuff on both of them. but what he did on that papa ghostface song sent it into the stratosphere. it was a little like wayne shorter came over to visit. so good.

the song is ten minutes long. it begins and ends with mangled samples, and between those bookends is not a structured song so much as a mood and a groove that are explored and allowed to develop in subtle ways. if it’s any indication of where the album is going, we might be looking at something a little less accessible than STEW. i like the idea of that album getting you in the door, and this one pushing you into an attic stuffed with strange decorations and spiders that whisper troubling things.

then again, it’s early yet. we could always make a summer pop album instead.

i think most proper engineers do this thing where they audition different microphones for whatever voice or instrument they’re recording, to find the best sonic fit. it makes sense. me, well…i’m not a proper engineer, and i don’t bother pretending to be anymore. my pearlman TM1 has proven to be the right choice on wind instruments so many times now, it’s become my go-to.

this was my first time recording soprano sax. i wasn’t sure how well i’d do. there’s a unique brightness to the sound, and you want to capture it without things getting harsh. i did what i do with any horn or woodwind these days: stuck the TM1 in omni, placed it a couple feet in front of the instrument, dialed in a bit of compression, and that was it. the sax sat just right, with no EQ needed.

funny thing about this microphone — i bought it in the spring of 2007. dave was using a different capsule then. i can’t remember if it’s the american or the german tube in mine. the TM1 went through some tweaks before arriving at its current capsule/tube configuration and paint job, and the mic he’s selling now is quite a bit different from the one i’ve got

a few years back i was tempted to send mine off to be updated/upgraded so it would match the new specifications. i couldn’t do it. my TM1 has been so good to me, i wouldn’t want to do a thing to alter it. in the past two years i’ve used it to record almost twenty different voices (in solo and group settings), trombone, flugelhorn, trumpet, upright bass, handclaps, harmonica, alto, tenor, and soprano saxes, recorder, shaker, tambourine, spoons, triangle, and who knows what else, and it hasn’t once let me down or been the wrong choice.

it’s true what they say after all: if it ain’t rope, don’t climb it.

wait, that’s not what they say…

ballast from the past.

IMGP0026

most of the time, when i’m figuring out which CDs i want to send someone who either doesn’t have any of my albums or only has one or two, i stick with things from CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN forward. it’s simpler that way. i think some of my best solo work has come on that most recent stretch of albums. my priority tends to be giving people an idea of what my “modern” music sounds like, because if i start digging into the vault it can be difficult to know how far to go. there’s a lot of stuff in there.

i decided to break with tradition when i was putting together a package for someone who asked for a copy of STEW. i figured that album could use a bit of context for a listener who’d never heard any papa ghostface music, so i thought i’d toss in a few early PG albums. then i thought it might be useful to contrast an older solo album already in their collection with some of the things i did right after it was finished — things that expand on what i was trying to do on that album and, at least to my ears, pull it all off with a lot more confidence and effectiveness.

one thing led to another, and i’ll just say you wouldn’t believe me if i told you how much music is getting stuffed in that one package now. it’s a good thing i’ve got some hefty mailer-things kicking around and a surplus of bubble wrap.

i needed to make copies of some CDs i didn’t have any leftover stock for, and it led to a little bit of listening and revisiting. i’ve tried to limit it to a song or two here and there. you fall down the rabbit hole of your own musical past when it’s full of meth-addicted rabbits and taciturn lampshade creatures like mine is, and there’s no telling when you’ll make your way out.

but there was one album i hadn’t listened to in so long, i remembered the broad outlines but not all of the subtleties. i thought it was about time for another visit with BRAND NEW SHINY LIE.

i’ve always had mixed feelings about this one. always liked it, but i felt like it never quite got to where it was supposed to be. we’re talking about a projected double-CD that came out the musical birth canal as something that fits on one side of a 90-minute cassette. there’s a pretty good chance i’ll go the rest of my life without ever making a full-length album that short again.

i sat down to listen to it front to back the other night, for the first time in probably six or seven years. and i’m here now to tell you how badly i misjudged this thing.

when the album was pretty new, a friend told me it was the best thing i’d ever done. “sorry to be the one to tell you this,” he wrote a decade ago in a fascinating series of mini-reviews for a stack of CDs i gave him, “but you’ll never surpass this. better you hear it from me than read it in spin or rolling stone.”

i thought it was bizarre at the time. we’re still friends, and i think he would tell you his opinion has shifted a bit over the years as i’ve continued to make music. but for the first time, i think i heard a bit of what he must have been hearing when he got so excited about it back then.

this album is so stripped-down compared to what i’m doing now, it’s a bit of a shock to the system. the closest it gets to “layered” is a few electric guitar parts, bass, drums, and a few vocal tracks happening at the same time. and that only happens in a few songs. there are very few creative sonic touches, aside from a few guitar effects and some reverb and delay here and there. i was very much in “get down the bare essentials of what the song needs and then move on” mode in those days.

but damned if it doesn’t work all the way through. this might be the single best example of the violently anti-chorus, anti-rhyming, anti-repetitive way of writing i was forcing myself to explore for all i was worth at the time. the thing i’m proudest of after reacquainting myself with these songs is the way it never feels like a trick. it always feels natural. a few songs even go places i forgot they went, but the changes always make a strange kind of sense.

and the lyrics might still be some of the more interesting i’ve written. how i got in such a short period of time from countless variations on “why can’t i find a girl to give a shit about me?” to a line like “without tires, there is no mendacity for a vehicle to crave” is a mystery to me. but i got there.

now i think this might be one of my best albums — not just from that specific period, but from any period, full stop, without any caveats.

GROWING SIDEWAYS was recorded at the same time. the non-repetitive way of writing is alive and well there too, but that album has always had a very different personality to my ears. it’s really interesting to listen to the two of them back-to-back, and to consider how they’re similar, and how they’re not.

all of this listening has been a catalyst for further re-evaluating. a few of the write-ups on the album pages have changed a little to reflect that. it took me until today to figure out, eleven years after the fact, why WHO YOU ARE NOW IS NOT WHAT YOU WERE BEFORE has always felt like it wasn’t quite on the same level as GROWING SIDEWAYS, even though they’re as close to being siblings as any two albums i’ve ever made. and i think i’m only realizing now that SIDEWAYS is a much more personal album than i thought it was at the time, in ways i wasn’t cognizant of when i was making it.

i wasn’t expecting this to happen, but now i’m giving some serious thought to “reissuing” some of these things. they were important albums for me on a creative level, they were the first things i did that got any significant airplay on CJAM, and it would be fun to repackage at least a few of them with lyrics, now that i don’t feel awkward about the whole “printing the lyrics with an album” thing anymore. i think having the words there would be a little more interesting than the brief “here’s what the deal is with this album” blurbs i printed on most of the bare-bones, period-correct inserts.

i have no interest in trying to remix or remaster anything. i’ve never had any issues with the way these albums sound. and i don’t think i would be spreading them around in any meaningful way — i already did that when they were new. i just think it might be a fun little mini-project to give some of them a few little liner note tweaks, for myself.

i wanted to throw a song up here that would be tied into all of this. most of the existing BRAND NEW SHINY LIE out-takes landed on the MISFITS compilation, but i thought i might get lucky if i threw “nobody loves you when you don’t exist” back on the mixer and took a listen to the drum part i ended up junking. a fun little revisionist mix of “symbolism therapist” happened some years back when i reinstated that song’s lost drum part and added bass and electric guitar. maybe a similar thing would happen here, and i’d find myself saying, “hey! this drum track is pretty cool after all!”

nope. not gonna happen. turns out there was a reason i felt like the drums were never really working on “nobody loves you”. they stunk then, and they still stink now.

so here instead is one of the first songs i recorded for BRAND NEW SHINY LIE. it didn’t make the cut. you can hear i still had one foot planted in OH YOU THIS territory, and while there isn’t anything like a proper chorus, the structure of the thing is pretty normal. for that reason, along with a bit of a rough vocal performance i never got around to touching up, it was never serious album material. i kind of like it now, though, roughness and all. that high note at the beginning must be one of my longer held notes on CD, and it would be a long time before i would let myself cut loose with an extended guitar solo like this again.

random tidbit: i wrote the lyrics while feeling a bit of a tylenol 3 buzz in the first days after having my wisdom teeth removed. the jury’s still out on whether or not i lost any wisdom when those teeth went away.

husk

things.

two things

STEW is back on CJAM’s charts, hanging around the top 20, scaring all the pretty girls. it took me a while to get around to it, but i scanned all the relevant handwritten lyrics and put them on the album page. just like old times!

yesterday steven and i were trying to figure out what a good song would be to put out there as another sneak peak at the O-L west album. there wasn’t enough room on the mixer to dump the one we wanted to check out back on there, but i noticed one of our “afterthoughts” was still on the drive, so i cued it up and we gave it a listen.

it almost knocked us over. neither one of us remembered it sounding that good — or that close to being finished. so that one should be along pretty soon, once i add a few more things and mix it. i’m going to try and find some good public domain footage for a DIY music video. i’m sure something will turn up. after all, archive.org is a treasure trove of random video goodness.

i think i’ve discovered the perfect number of people for any kind of collaborative project where i don’t just write the songs by myself. the number is two. as soon as more people get involved as anything other than “guests”, things seem to get complicated. but with only one other person, you bypass a lot of the frustrations that can come with having a larger band. you only have yourself and a partner to count on.

there are three of these two-person collaborative projects on the go right now, and i don’t think any of them sound much alike, even though i’m singing and playing a bunch of different things in all three. we get to make the music we want to make, for the sake of making it, and there hasn’t been much pressure on me to play live from anyone (much appreciated).

it’s only coming clear to me now that i’ve somehow found a way to work with other people without doing any of the things i don’t want to do. putting aside the projects where i’m involved as a writer, i’ve been a pretty big part of tire swing co. and teenage geese in the studio. in a live setting they’re both very different creatures, and i have nothing to do with that side of things. the invitation has been there. it’s just that these are people — friends — who understand that playing live isn’t really my thing, and i’d rather stay away from it as much as i can, aside from playing kazoo at the odd album release show.

it’s the best of both worlds for me. i get to go nuts with playing and recording and producing (to the extent that i’m any kind of producer), i get to do it with people i like, and i get to stay kind of invisible while i’m doing it. someone could see a live show and buy a CD without having any idea i had anything to do with the music at any stage (because how many people take the time to read album liner notes anymore?).

not that i want to hide the work i’ve done with other singers and writers. i’m proud of that stuff. but i enjoy being able to do all these different things while staying far, far away from the spotlight. having that weird thing scream in my eyes once was enough. i don’t need to go back there again.

thought i’d start mixing and remixing some of these otherwise finished ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE songs in the background at the same time all these other things are going on, just because. if for no other reason, whenever i’m able to give that pile of stuff my undivided attention again, it’ll lighten the workload a little. yesterday i was tweaking the mix for a ukulele-driven tune called “write your name on my skeleton” and thinking, “i really like this song. it’ll be nice when this album is done and a few people actually get to hear it in 2053.”

here’s something scary: i’ve been picking away at that album for nine years now. NINE YEARS. i’m not sure i’ll know what to do with myself when it’s finished. that’s almost a third of my life there.

you’re impossible.

zebra stripes crop more

i got a polaroid spectra 2 camera for cheap off of kijiji seven or eight years ago. i loved that thing, but finding film for it was difficult. they weren’t making it anymore, and they hadn’t made it for a long time. at first i was able to track down expired packs of film through marketplace sellers on amazon. then even the expired stuff grew scarce.

a little while back i found out about the impossible project. they make and sell new film for every polaroid camera you can think of. it’s expensive beyond all reason — when you factor in shipping charges, the shrinking scrotum of the canadian dollar, and the sad truth that you’re only getting eight exposures in a package, it’s enough to make you cry — but i thought it would be worth it just to be able to shoot with that camera again. i ordered some black and white film with a black border, because i liked the way it looked.

ended up wasting half a pack before i figured out the spectra 2 was toast and it was never going to spit out a picture that developed again. bought a different spectra 2 for cheap, again through kijiji. the guy who sold it said it belonged to his mother. she sold used cars and took a polaroid of every customer after making a sale. sometimes in the space of a few seconds you hear a small story that has so many larger stories tucked inside of it you know you’ll never get to hear. this was one of those times. can you imagine the photo album that woman had, and all the memories it held?

i wasted another few pictures in the process of discovering impossible film is aptly named. it’s very sensitive to light. if you don’t cover up a picture in the first few seconds after it leaves the polaroid womb and then keep it covered for at least a good ten minutes before peaking at it, it’s not going to turn out at all. all you’ll get is a milky haze, maybe with the ghost of what you saw through the viewfinder lens hidden in it, maybe not.

after all of that was sussed out, i started taking some pictures that were more than haze. i think it was steven who first came up with the idea of taking a picture to represent each proper song (not counting the “afterthoughts” that act as segues, siblings, and rhythm-breakers) on the O-L west album, with an aim toward making a collage out of them. i wasn’t expecting the temperamental black and white polaroid film to become a part of this, but there’s something there — a quality to the image when everything lines up right with a well-enough-composed shot that develops the way it’s supposed to. you get something that looks like a picture taken a very long time ago and forgotten for decades.

it’s been an interesting challenge trying to come up with images that play off of the songs. you don’t want to hit it too hard on the nose, but some things are just too good to pass up. i wanted to take a picture of the walker power building (“the old peabody building” to most people, though that isn’t its true name), because it was the inspiration for a lot of the imagery in the first verse of a song called “trespassing”.

i shot it from a bit of a distance. the picture didn’t turn out. then i got closer and saw a “no trespassing” sign, framed by vines. maybe a little obvious, but man, it made for a good picture.

with other songs it’s been a little more difficult. what kind of picture do you take to represent a song that’s a pitch-black story of two brothers murdering their abusive father and hitchhiking out of town? i came up with an image i liked that commented on the theme without getting too obvious, but it took some time to get there.

of the twelve songs that need pictures, there are only two stragglers left. one of those is easy. i already know what the picture’s going to be. i just need to take it. the other one’s been a bit of a pain in the ass.

some of these pictures are more striking than others. a few didn’t turn out as well as i hoped and only really work in the context of the collage because they’re small enough not to call too much attention to themselves. but there are a few i’m really happy with as standalone images. that’s one of them up there.

where did you go to (my lovely)?

this is about two very talented women who pulled very different disappearing acts. both remain somewhat unknowable. both left behind unique, compelling bodies of work.

connie 2

connie converse grew up in concord, new hampshire as the middle child in a baptist family. back then she was called elizabeth. she stunned her parents by dropping out of college, flipping a full scholarship the bird, and moving to new york to pursue a career in music. she got a job at a printing house, adopted the nickname she’d been given by her new york friends, and started writing songs, having taught herself to play guitar.

she played for friends in casual settings. one of those friends was artist and film director gene deitch. he recorded a few dozen of her songs at her apartment and in his own kitchen with a reel-to-reel tape recorder. he was able to get her a spot performing on “the morning show” on CBS in 1954, but all that survives of the television broadcast now is a few photographs of her and walter cronkite. reusing tape was common practice back then, and the station recorded over her performance, not thinking it was anything important.

her parents refused to support or acknowledge her musical aspirations. her father died without hearing a note she wrote.

with gene’s help connie pounded the pavement, trying to drum up some industry attention. but new york in the 1940s and ’50s wasn’t interested in what she had to offer. after years of getting nowhere, connie gave up on music and moved to michigan. her younger brother got her a job as a secretary at the academic journal of the college he was teaching at. she worked her way up to the managing editor position in 1963. she still played for friends once in a while, but she never wrote another song.

for ten years she did that job and grew more and more demoralized by her failure to succeed in new york, until she was outwardly depressed to the point that friends at work paid for her to take a leave of absence and spend the better part of a year living in london. she came back no less depressed. a trip to alaska with her mother, during which she couldn’t drink or smoke, only made things worse.

her mother thought distraction was the answer to whatever connie’s problems were. she started planning another trip. meanwhile, connie was wrestling with the discovery that she would need to have a hysterectomy.

no one can remember seeing her on a date or in the company of anyone who wasn’t family or a friend from work. she doesn’t seem to have ever had a romantic relationship. there’s some speculation that she preferred the company of women at a time when she wouldn’t have been encouraged to act on her feelings. even if that were the case, i don’t think it would make it any less unsettling to be told a part of her body needed to be removed, and any hope she might have had of having biological children was going to vanish along with it.

in 1974, around the time of her 50th birthday, she wrote goodbye letters to family and friends, packed what she owned into her VW beetle, and drove away. she was never seen or heard from again.

in an unsent draft letter she titled “to anyone who ever asks”, connie wrote:

this is the thin hard sublayer under all the parting messages i’m likely to have sent: let me go, let me be if i can, let me not be if i can’t. for a number of years now i’ve been the object of affectionate concern to my relatives and many friends in ann arbor; have received not just financial but spiritual support from them; have made a number of efforts, in this benign situation, to get a new toe-hold on the lively world. have failed.

as an overeducated peasant i’ve read a good bit about middle-age depression and know several cases other than my own. i know there are temporary chemical therapies and sometimes “temporary” is long enough. experts agree it’s not a single isolable mental disease. probably it’s a few simple humanities mixed up in a pot of random concomitant circumstances.

in the months after i got back from my desperate flight to england i began to realize that my new personal incapabilities were still stubbornly hanging in. i did fight, but they hung in. maybe my time in england, financed largely by my friends, was too benign a treatment. at any rate, it’s the only sustained period in my life that i now look back on in the silliest detail as “fun”, unproductive fun. not getting anything done. i did sit in my bedsitter very often in bemused despair, but also i had fun.

since then i’ve watched the elegant, energetic people of ann arbor, those i know and those i don’t know, going about their daily business on the streets and in the buildings, and i’ve felt a detached admiration for their energy and elegance. if i ever was a member of this species, perhaps it was a social accident that has now been cancelled.

to survive at all, i expect i must drift back down through the other half to the twentieth twentieth, which i already know pretty well, to the hundredth hundredth, which i have only read and heard about. i might survive there quite a few years — who knows? but you understand i have to do it by myself, with no benign umbrella. human society fascinates me and awes me and fills me with grief and joy; i just can’t find my place to plug into it.

so let me go, please; and please accept my thanks for those happy times that each of you has given me over the years; and please know that i would have preferred to give you more than i ever did or could — i am in everyone’s debt.

there’s a terrible weight of loneliness and isolation in those words. her brother thinks she drove her car off a bridge. you read a thing like that and think he’s probably right.

she left behind a meticulous filing cabinet full of letters, drawings, personal writings, and those reel-to-reel tapes of her songs, along with several more recordings she made herself. that’s either the sort of cleaning-house someone will engage in when they’ve given up on life, or an affirmation of what they’ve created, and something they mean to return to. you can’t know. there’s no way to know.

what bothers me is how little recognition and respect connie was given for her talents. she wasn’t just a great songwriter. she was an activist (she marched for women’s rights). she wrote poetry. her letters and private writings hum with a fierce intelligence. and she was a brilliant visual artist. i wish i could buy a book of her “educating henry” cartoons.

educating henry

it’s clear she was wounded by the lack of anything like support from her contemporaries (if she even had any — she was doing the “folk singer-songwriter” thing before it even existed as a concept) and the indifference of the people who could have helped to give her musical career some legs. i know what it’s like to try and connect with people only to be ignored, slapped away, marginalized — to put everything you have into the art you make and to have the message keep coming back at you that it doesn’t matter, and by extension you don’t matter. i know what that feeling is.

not everyone is lucky enough to find a way to re-purpose that rejection as fuel.

i think the problem was, she was so far ahead of her time, no one knew what to make of her. you look at her comics and it’s striking how “modern” their humour is. her songs feel divorced from time altogether. there’s nothing dated in anything she did, nothing tying it to the time in which it was made. and to be a woman on top of everything, at a time when sexism was much less interested in trying to camouflage itself and women were not often encouraged to be creative or to operate outside of the roles they’d been slotted into by men, well…you can feel it in her “explanation of what all these goodbye letters are really saying” above. she felt like she didn’t fit.

depression isn’t always caused by something off-balance in the brain. sometimes it’s just a side effect of what life does to you.

there’s a wonderful moment early in andrea kannes’ criminally underexposed documentary we lived alone. connie’s brother and sister-in-law tell a story about their son. when he was a kid, he hated his piano lessons so much he ran away from home so he wouldn’t have to suffer through them anymore. connie found him, brought him home, and told him she would be his new piano teacher. instead of trying to strong-arm theory into his brain, she taught him how to improvise and write his own songs.

that’s beyond forward-thinking. most music teachers today (and aunts, for that matter) wouldn’t dare throw the template away. the more things like that you find out about her, the more remarkable you realize she was, and the more you wish you could have had the chance to know her.

connie’s music was unheard and unknown outside of her family and closest friends until the 2009 release of how sad, how lovely. what’s most interesting to me about her songs is not their timelessness, but the trick they play on you. they sound simple. then you listen a little deeper, you start paying attention to the way they’re constructed and the way they move, and you hear all kinds of complex, unusual harmonic things happening. there’s a lot going on inside of them. i’ve never heard anyone do anything quite like what she did with just her voice and an acoustic guitar.

there are also things like this:

she did that in the 1950s with an archaic home stereo, finding a way to overdub and layer a home recording at a time when such a thing shouldn’t have been possible. wrap your mind-noodle around that for a second.

connie would be 91 years old today. we can only hope she drove her car to a new, happier life, and not into the huron river. but maybe that was the ending she wanted. i’m both compelled and frustrated by mysteries like this. each answer you manage to unearth only leads to five more questions that rise up like hairs on the back of the neck.

bobbiegentry

bobbie gentry vanished under less troubling circumstances. she was an only child, born in chickasaw county, mississippi. back then she was called roberta lee streeter. her grandmother noticed roberta’s love for music early on and traded one of her cows for a neighbour’s piano so she’d have something to learn on.

roberta took her stage name from the film “ruby gentry”, studied philosophy at UCLA, did clerical work during the day and performed at nightclubs after hours, and later studied music to hone her songwriting skills. her first single in 1967 was a blues song.

but it was the b-side that got everyone’s attention. “ode to billie joe” is one of the all-time great story songs, and at its heart is a disquieting two-part mystery: what did billie joe mccallister and his girlfriend toss off the bridge, and why did billie joe kill himself?

bobbie knew the answers to those questions, but she wasn’t telling. when the record company forced her to chop out half the verses to shorten the song and the explanations evaporated, she noticed it had the strange effect of strengthening the story. sometimes you can say much more by saying less.

“the song is sort of a study in unconscious cruelty,” she explained. “but everybody seems more concerned with what was thrown off the bridge than they are with the thoughtlessness of the people expressed in the song. what was thrown off the bridge really isn’t that important. everybody has a different guess about [that] — flowers, a ring, even a baby. anyone who hears the song can think what they want, but the real message of the song, if there must be a message, revolves around the nonchalant way the family talks about the suicide. they sit there eating their peas and apple pie and talking, without even realizing that billie joe’s girlfriend is sitting at the table, a member of the family.”

the record company didn’t expect much to come of the song. the a&r man at capitol records told arranger jimmie haskell, “put some strings on it so she won’t be embarrassed. no one will ever hear it anyway.” but radio DJs spun the b-side until it became the a-side, and in a week it sold three quarters of a million copies, kicking “all you need is love” off the top of the charts. it stuck there for a month and won three grammy awards.

bobbie was an outspoken feminist, and an unapologetic glamorous woman in an era of singer-songwriters who were eschewing big hair and makeup. she had strong ideas about the direction her music and career should take. she produced her own nightclub act in vegas and said at the time, “i write and arrange all the music, design the costumes, do the choreography, the whole thing. i’m completely responsible for it. it’s totally my own from inception to performance. i originally produced [most of my records], but a woman doesn’t stand much chance in a recording studio. a staff producer’s name was nearly always put on the records.”

after an ambitious self-produced album was a commercial failure and a few singles failed to make an impression on the charts, bobbie decided it was time for something else. she made one last public appearance in 1982. then she receded into a private life.

not much has been heard from or about her in the years since. maybe she married a wealthy man involved in real estate. maybe she had children. one sure thing: she’s been turning down every interview request for thirty years running.

a recent radio documentary revealed she phoned haskell sometime in the last few years, telling him she’d written a new song. she asked if he was interested in producing it. he blew her off and suggested someone else. when he decided maybe he was interested after all, she wouldn’t return his calls.

served him right.

she was one of the first female country artists to both write and produce the bulk of her own material, though i think to stuff what she did into the country genre does it a disservice. as far as anyone can tell, she’s happy with the life she’s built for herself away from the spotlight.

connie might as well have driven her car into thin air. bobbie’s still there. she just chooses not to be seen.

count to five.

granular synthesis fascinates me. i’m not sure i could tell you what it is or how it works in any simple way. i don’t know if i understand it completely myself. i just know it allows some very unique and interesting sounds to happen.

some months back i was digging around on the internet to see if i could find any way of getting at some of what granular synthesis can do without needing a computer program to take me there. i found a few interesting pedals.

there was this:

very cool, but impossible to get. very few have been made. to this day i can’t even find any information online about how much it would cost if i could finagle a way to get one.

there was this:

also very cool, but not really musical enough to my ears on most settings to be something i thought i would get much use out of.

(random/not-random note: you should watch all the knobs demos, because they are mind-melting in their awesomeness and make most other gear-related demos weep with inarticulate shame. the guy who makes them is kind beyond all reason, too. i sent him an email asking some pedal-related questions just for the halibut, not expecting to get a response, and he wrote back with some very thoughtful advice.)

and then there was this:

and my brain went, “OH MY GOD YES! GET OUT OF MY DREAMS AND INTO MY VOLVO!”

montreal assembly is scott monk. as far as i can tell, he liked making DIY pedals and messing with circuits and sounds, and sold very small runs to the people who wanted the things he made. then the knobs video for the count to five happened, and the interest in that one pedal grew to the point that it’s been the main focus of his operation for the past year-and-a-bit. every time he does another run he has to make more.

there are two ways to get it.

way #1: you wait for a pre-order to open up. the best way to know when this happens is to subscribe to the montreal assembly mailing list. you pay a small deposit to reserve a pedal. then you wait until the run is built, you pay the balance, and you get your pedal.

way #2: the demand for this thing is such that people who’ve opted for way #1 will turn around and sell their pedal for two or three times what scott charges. if patience is something you struggle with and money means nothing to you, you can grab one of those off of ebay or reverb or some such place.

i went with the first way. i suggest you do the same if you have any interest in this pedal, because (a) it feels good to support the independent guys and ladies out there, (b) you’ll save a lot of money, (c) it’s kind of neat to have something to look forward to, and they say waiting builds character, and (d) you might make a greedy douche who’s trying to rip you off cry.

i got in on the last run in september, paid my little deposit, and waited. near the end of january i got an email saying, “the thing is done, now pay for the thing.” so i did that. it got here yesterday, early in the afternoon.

i didn’t get the chance to play with it right away. my pal kermit grabbed it as soon as it was unboxed and ran upstairs. i found him in this compromising position:

kermit counts to five

when i asked what he was doing, all he would tell me was, “i’m counting to five.”

took me a while before i could pry that blue box of magic out of his green hands.

the knobs video probably does a better job of explaining what the pedal does than i can. the gist is, there are three modes. mode 1 is the most insane delay you’ve ever met. it can make your guitar (or whatever you run into it) sound like a beached baritone whale is singing a duet with it, or like it’s being devoured by giddy birds. it can also be a normal delay, a modulated delay, a reverse delay, a pitch-shifted delay, chorus, vibrato, and many other things.

if the CT5 was mode 1 and nothing more, it would still be an amazing tool worth more than the very reasonable price scott charges for it. it covers so much ground in that mode alone, it’s eliminated the need for a few other pedals i was thinking about picking up somewhere down the road.

mode 2 is sort of a slicing looper/sampler. you can record a few seconds of thing and play it back the way it sounded on the way in, or you can chop it up, rearrange it, slow it down, speed it up, play it backwards, and control how fractured it gets.

mode 3 is similar, but now when you sample a few seconds of thing it’s split in three, and while you can’t chop anything up anymore, you can control the speed and direction of all three iterations of thing. you can also layer additional samples on top of the first one.

that someone had the smarts and the skill to make a “guitar pedal” that can do all this is unbelievable. and as deep as it goes, it’s very intuitive. i was a little worried that when i got it i wouldn’t know what to do without the online manual. there was no need to worry. within five seconds of plugging it in i was already getting sounds that inspired me, that weren’t like anything i ever thought i would be able to make a guitar do.

whatever scott did to upgrade the circuit for this revision, the mild hiss/white noise you hear in a lot of the demos for earlier runs doesn’t seem to exist anymore. some people who like noise might be a little miffed about that. but when you plan on doing a lot of recording with the thing (and i do), i think it’s the right move. i feel like he found the right balance between sound quality and not making it so hi-fi that it loses its funky personality and becomes sterile.

what i’m really excited about, and something i’m surprised i haven’t seen more people experimenting with, is running things other than guitar into it. you should hear the things it can do to a ukulele or some sampled vocals on the VSS-30. you should hear what it can do to a harmonica. i can’t wait to get another singer in here who isn’t a dude and see how many different ways i can warp someone else’s voice. i can’t wait to try it on saxophone. holy cannoli. the sound possibilities it’s opened up are going to be a lot of fun to explore.

i’ll never part with this new blue friend no matter how much it might net secondhand. not even vampire kate beckinsale herself could convince me to let it go.