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.
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. She said she was bringing her bassist boyfriend with her. I scoffed. 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 good 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 a hundred and fifty of them now. This is the second one I ever recorded, and still one of the demos I like best.
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.
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.