I don’t share many music-related things — or meaningful-to-me things in general — on Facebook anymore.
The last time I linked to a blog post that had some personal content I thought might be interesting to some of my Facebook friends, I think three people “liked” it. Nobody commented. A picture of a salad I made at four in the morning, meanwhile, got something like eighty likes and twenty comments.
This is the nature of the social media beast. Most of your internet friends don’t care about what makes you tick. Recycled memes and pictures of what you just ate or are about to eat are fine. Share something that takes a few minutes to read and you can forget about getting any kind of response or stimulating a little discussion.
This used to bother me. I accept it now. It’s easy enough to avoid the disappointment of being ignored when you feel you have something to say that’s worth hearing. You keep your mouth shut, you talk to yourself when no one else is around, or you talk to yourself in a crowd and laugh about it later.
Facebook is useful as an easy way to keep in touch with a handful of people through private messages. Otherwise I treat it as a panoramic internet scrapbook. You get some stuff that’s compelling, some that’s entertaining, some that’s infuriating, and a whole lot of meaningless crap. You make an emotional investment at your own risk.
I made an exception to the “not sharing meaningful things on Facebook anymore” rule the day Gord Downie died. I recorded a little cover song that felt like a prayer and decided to share it over there. I knew I had some Facebook friends who were Tragically Hip fans. I thought they might find some comfort or something of value in the music. I expected another three likes and no comments.
That didn’t happen. It got dozens of likes, a lot of comments, and a lot of shares. All these people I didn’t know acknowledged the song and connected with it. These days I think I average something like a dozen blog views a day. That day I got a few hundred.
So that was unexpected.
One comment from a stranger stood out. It was the only negative thing anyone had to say. “Well said, to be sure,” a woman wrote, “but the all-lowercase thing is annoying and detracts from your point.”
I responded in all lowercase letters.
The “all-lowercase thing” didn’t start for me until about ten years ago. I’d seen other people stylize their text that way in emails and on personal blogs. I liked the look of it. I gave it a try. It felt natural, so I started typing that way. Then I kept doing it. Figured if it was good enough for E.E. Cummings it was good enough for me.
It wasn’t about laziness. It was a creative choice. Even in a lyric booklet, the words looked more interesting to me when there weren’t any big letters knocking knees with the little guys.
In all the years I was doing this, I got one snarky comment from some random person who landed here. “I find myself missing capital letters,” they wrote. I told them that was a valid emotional response, and there were countless other blogs and websites where those capital letters were leading fulfilling lives.
No one else ever seemed to mind.
And still, that one Facebook comment wouldn’t leave me alone. Yeah, it was a nitpicky, unnecessary thing to say, and as far as I could tell she didn’t even bother listening to the song when the song was the whole point. But it got me to think about this aesthetic choice for the first time in years. Did the absence of proper punctuation give some people an excuse to discount what I was saying? Did it make me look lazy or unprofessional? Was Uncle Kanye having unsettling dreams about me again?
The more I turned it over in my head, the less it mattered to me what anyone else might make of my blog’s lack of case distinction. There was one clear, simple thought I couldn’t shake.
I’ve outgrown this.
Maybe it was time to reintegrate some of those uppercase letters I neglected for so long. Maybe a long post would be a little easier to read if your eyes had some familiar landmarks they could use to better orient themselves within the dense maze of words.
I did what any sensible person would do at the end of that chain of thoughts. I edited every single post and page to capitalize what needed capitalizing. More than nine years of stuff. Well over five hundred posts and almost a hundred pages. More than half a million words — 636,568 of them, if you really want to know — plus most of my responses to comments, though I know I missed a few of those.
It took a while.
I still like the look of all-lowercase writing. It might see some use in future lyric booklets if it feels like the right way to go. Not here, though. Not anymore.
The music video as an art form is far from dead. There are plenty of people out there creating compelling things full of imagery that encourages thought and stirs the emotions. But these are sad days for television as a medium for the transmission of music videos.
MTV was where it all began, and they stopped showing videos eons ago. MTV2 followed suit not long after. That was a real shame, because they made a habit of dusting off some cool things you wouldn’t get to see anywhere else. BET doesn’t show music videos anymore unless you pay to subscribe to some of their sister channels. Otherwise their programming now consists of 80% Tyler Perry shows, 5% late night televangelist mind control, and 15% censored movies.
MuchMoreMusic phased out a lot of their more interesting programming — spotlight programs that played half-hour blocks of music videos broken up with interview snippets, semi-obscure videos popping up in the wee hours, a weekly show that took a look at artists from other countries who weren’t always well represented in north america — before dissolving into nothing a year ago and being replaced by a cooking channel. Even Bravo used to show some interesting music videos sometimes. Now their programming seems to be made up of Hallmark movies and crime procedurals that are little more than CSI retreads, and nothing else.
There are a handful of specialty channels you can pay for if you want access to music videos on your TV. So that’s a thing. But if you’ve got any kind of sane or semi-affordable cable package, chances are all you have left now is Much (or, as we used to call it, MuchMusic). And if you’re not a fan of mainstream top forty music and the creatively bankrupt music videos made to accompany most of the sounds living in that world, about all Much has to recommend itself to you now is an afternoon block of videos from the ’80s and ’90s called Much Retro Lunch.
Even here, music programming is falling by the wayside. A few weeks ago Much Retro Lunch was running for three hours every weekday. Now it’s only a one-hour segment. In place of all the music videos they used to air in the early evenings we’ve got Anger Management and TMZ. A one-hour-a-week “alternative” block that resembled the decaying corpse of what The Wedge used to be has gone the way of the dinosaur and Elton John’s falsetto. I imagine somewhere in the not-too-distant future Much will stop showing music videos altogether, just like the rest of the pack.
CMT is dead too. Oh, it’s still calling itself by the same name. It still lives in the same place on your digital cable box. But the only thing left on the schedule that has anything at all to do with what was once “Country Music Television” is Reba McEentire’s mid-2000s sitcom Reba.
When the CRTC licensed a series of new Canadian specialty television channels in 1994, one of those channels was The Country Network. This was the beginning of CMT as we knew it in Canada. In the US it had been around in one form or another for ten years by then. The Canadian version got its official launch in 1995 as NCN (New Country Network) and was relaunched in 1996 as CMT.
Almost all of CMT’s programming — 90% of it — was made up of country music videos. That was part of the deal with the CRTC. It dropped to 70% in 2001, and then to 50% in 2006, with Nashville, live music programs, and the occasional sitcom making up the balance.
Last year the CRTC decided CMT were no longer obligated to play any music videos at all, as long as they invested 11% of their annual profits into the funding of Canadian music videos (they didn’t have to be country music videos). Even then, there were still blocks of music videos aired in the early mornings and afternoons, along with the long-running weekly Chevy Top 20 Countdown.
A week ago, all music video broadcasting on the channel ceased, and a major platform for country music artists went up in smoke. Their official website and Facebook page both neglect to tell you anything about this total overhaul, but CMT’s programming now consists of nothing but moronic reality shows and sitcoms that run the gamut from “good” to “ugh”. Fridays and Saturdays are twenty-four-hour Everybody Loves Raymond marathons.
For some of us, this is what hell looks like.
Maybe it’s a little strange that I would mourn the loss of this channel when I’ve never been all that into country music.
Well, that’s not quite right. The truer thing to say would be that I didn’t think i was into country music until I heard some of the artists who helped define what country music is, and some others who made a habit of colouring outside the lines — folks like Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Emmylou Harris, Gram Parsons, Glen Campbell, Patsy Cline, Waylon Jennings, Hank Williams, the Louvin Brothers, Rodney Crowell, and too many more to mention.
In some ways CMT was the road that got me there, beyond the homogeneity of most modern mainstream country music, which at this point is just pop music with pedal steel guitar as far as I’m concerned.
I can’t claim I started watching with pure intentions. The long and short of it is this: I was going through puberty, and I thought a fair few country singers were nice to look at. Leann Rimes, Faith Hill, Patty Loveless, and Beverley Mahood were especially pretty to my thirteen-year-old eyes.
But here’s the thing. In the mid and late 1990s, whoever was responsible for programming the videos would sometimes slip in some interesting songs that didn’t always fit under the country umbrella.
Bruce Cockburn’s “Night Train” showed up more than a few mornings when I was waking up my brain before heading off to school. Once in a while I’d catch Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire” and Lennie Gallant’s “Meet Me at the Oasis” (a sweet, atmospheric ballad that deserved more love than it got).Aand every so often I’d run into someone who was a country artist on the surface but much more complex and compelling than they seemed at first blush.
Matraca Berg was one of those. Her songs were huge hits for Trisha Yearwood and Deana Carter. Her solo work only saw moderate commercial success, with no single she released ever cracking the top thirty. She had the looks, and the voice, and real depth as a writer. How she never became a huge star in her own right is a bit of a mystery.
My best guess is it’s another example of the catch-22 Harry Nilsson and Laura Nyro got stuck in before her, where in someone else’s hands your songs become palatable enough to appeal to the masses, but your own superior and more emotionally three-dimensional readings of the same material are a little too idiosyncratic and real for the people who want wallpaper instead of art.
I will argue until my voice gives out that Matraca’s “Back When We Were Beautiful” is one of the most beautiful songs anyone’s ever written. I almost can’t get through it, and there are only a few songs that have ever had that kind of emotional impact on me. It was released as the second single from her 1997 album Sunday Morning to Saturday Night. It didn’t even chart.
One of the biggest country singles that year was “How Do I Live”, sung by both Trisha Yearwood and Leann Rimes. Trisha’s version sold three million copies and netted a Grammy nomination. Next to “Back When We Were Beautiful” it sounds like a bunch of half-baked manipulative treacle.
But don’t take my word for it. Have a listen.
We live in a world where Taylor Swift is a celebrated crossover artist who’s considered a great songwriter and a feminist icon when (a) she doesn’t even write her own songs anymore, or at least not without a whole lot of help (these days it isn’t uncommon to see half a dozen different writers credited for any given song on one of her albums), (b) her whole career is now seemingly built around a two-pronged attack of getting involved in short-lived romantic relationships that are little more than PR stunts so she can turn around and shame the other party in her music once the relationship ends without ever taking any responsibility for her own failings, and getting involved in short-lived platonic friendships with women that are little more than PR stunts so she can turn around and shame most of those women through her music when they dare to criticize her in any way or expose some of her blatant hypocrisies, bending one narrative after another to suit her own purposes, manufacturing feuds to sell more albums, almost always making sure to paint herself as the victim rising from the ashes, (c) her lyrics have grown so juvenile and devoid of anything resembling insight or real human feeling, it’s kind of hilarious, (d) she thinks nothing of stealing other people’s work and profiting off of it without giving any credit to the originator of the material, and (e) she once made a music video in which she played a silver guitar with so much glitter applied to it, the universe itself was made to squint and cry out in pain.
So maybe, when you get right down to it, it’s no big surprise that someone like Matraca Berg never became a household name. I just think it’s sad, the way we go on rewarding artifice and empty double-dealing while ignoring a lot of the people who actually have something to say.
The same applies to song interpreters. Nothing against Reba and Trisha and Faith, but Dawn Sears blew them all away. There was a mixture of power and emotional purity in her voice that was startling. She could take a mediocre song and make it sound like a classic.
Chances are you’ve never heard of Dawn Sears even if you’re a country music fan. I rest my case.
But I digress. Sort of. Maybe.
In recent years, CMT’s programming skewed more toward the mainstream than ever before. But you’d still get the occasional moment of stop-you-in-your-tracks beauty like this, even if most of those moments were limited to the more freeform Wide Open Country program.
There at least, for an hour a day, you could hear the likes of Corb Lund, Lindi Ortega, Brandi Carlile, Jerry Leger, and Serena Pryne — people who are making music that nods to country but refuses to be governed by genre. Bruce still made the odd appearance too, whether it was with “I’m on Fire” or something more recent like “Devils and Dust”.
There’s also this: without CMT, at least one of the songs I’ve written wouldn’t exist. It just happens to be the closest thing to a “hit” I’ve ever had, though quantifying that sort of thing is a little difficult when you don’t release singles.
When I played “A Well-Thought-Out Escape” live for the first time and told the audience it was inspired by Ashley Kranz (an on-air host at CMT for about a year), everyone thought I was joking. I wasn’t.
For years now I’ve been writing a lot of songs on stringed instruments in bed. Sometimes the TV’s on when ideas are born. Here’s some video of the genesis of what became “A Well-Thought-Out Escape”, right at its inception, with a little bit of what would later become “Everything He Asked You” mixed in.
I came up with this little cyclical chord progression I liked and kept playing it over and over again, trying to work out a vocal melody and some words. The words weren’t in any hurry to show up, so I sang random gibberish for the most part. I had CMT on in the background while I was playing the six-string banjo. Ashley Kranz showed up to introduce a video while I was trying to form this new idea into something tangible, so I sang her name to fill up some space.
Later on the words would arrive, beginning with the idea of someone selling their love at a yard sale for so little money they might as well be giving it away (don’t ask me where these ideas come from…I have no idea). And still, Ashley stuck around. It would have felt wrong to get rid of her. She was there from the start, after all. Instead of an incidental detail, her name became the climax of the whole song, a half-shouted mantra that broke the whole thing open.
(Side note: I always thought it was a shame they didn’t keep Ashley around longer. She had a fun personality. “Endearing” is the word that comes to mind.)
I don’t know if the bits of country music I heard in my channel-surfing travels had anything to do with the rootsy sound of CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN. It’s possible some of those sensibilities snuck into my brain when I wasn’t paying attention. It’s also possible the album only came out sounding the way it did because of the instruments I lucked into finding at the right time and the qualities they possessed — the twang of the dirt cheap Teisco that was the only electric guitar I used for the whole album, the earthiness of the Regal parlour guitar, and the…uh…banjo-ness of the six-string banjo.
I do know without Ashley Kranz on my television screen “A Well-Thought-Out Escape” probably never would have progressed beyond a half-formed sketch. I’ve always been tempted to send the song her way as a strange little thank-you, but I think it’s the sort of thing that has the potential to weird a person out. Maybe it’s best to leave it be.
Fare thee well, CMT. I’ll never watch you again, knowing what you’ve become, but I’ll always have the memories of what you once were.
All through high school, I wrote songs for assignments every chance I got. It made life more fun and kept me on my toes. I had the most success doing this when Mrs. Gilham — one of the few great high school teachers I had — was teaching English or French, finding endless ways to contort what were meant to be essays or oral presentations into musical shapes.
One time I stood in front of the class and strummed a mandolin while singing in French about celebrity endorsements. The song was called “Les Atheletes qui Chante”. “Je suis Michael Jordan,” went one bit. “J’aime les Ball Park Franks.” Another time, for a group assignment, I played the part of Bill Clinton. I was very attached to my pet pig, Oinky, played by Matt Strukelj. When Oinky died, I hit the play button on a CD player and moaned along to some insane instrumental music I recorded at home the night before.
I liked to think it kept things interesting, not just for me, but for the other students too.
In grade eleven one of the books my English class dug into was The Catcher in the Rye. We were supposed to write something while inhabiting the psyche of one of the characters in the story. I asked if I could write a song from the perspective of Holden Caulfield. Mrs. Gilham gave me the go-ahead.
I wrote a song called “Holden On”, because bad puns are the best thing ever. It was a good excuse to mess around in a strange guitar tuning and to write in a voice that was a little different from whatever my typical songwriting voice was in those days.
I brought my crummy Vantage acoustic guitar to school with me the next day, sat on top of an unattended desk in my first period English class, and sang my song. It went over well enough that some of my classmates asked if I could play it again at the end of the period. That blew my mind a little. I went through it a second time, put a little more energy into the vocal performance now that I was warmed up, and threw in a bit of “Henry the Horny Hamster” from my X-rated Christmas album before Mrs. Gilham shot me a look that said, “That’s as far as you go, pilgrim.”
The guitar came with me to my second period society class. Sean Lauria was one of the guys I shared that class with. He asked me what the deal was with the axe. I told him about my English assignment and “Holden On”. He asked if he could hear it. I told him I’d already played it twice and wasn’t really up for playing it again.
He stuffed thirty or forty bucks into the front pocket of my shirt to try and convince me. I almost fell over. I handed the money back to him, laughing in disbelief. He wasn’t giving up, though. He talked Ms. Davis into letting me play the song for the class. So I sat on another desk that wasn’t taken and played it a third time, without quite the same intensity as before.
I only knew of one other person who ever talked their way into substituting a song for a writing assignment, and that was Gord. It seemed almost poetic, since that was how we hooked up and became friends in the first place. The same year my English class was analyzing The Catcher in the Rye,his was reading Animal Farm. He wrote a song in the voice of Boxer the horse — the most tragic character in the book.
For a while I only heard bits and pieces of the song. Brodie Johnston, who was in Gord’s class when he debuted his ode to Boxer, sang a few lines for me, substituting lyrics about his favourite running back for the parts he couldn’t remember. Gord played part of it for me outside of school. But I didn’t hear anything close to the full thing for at least a few years.
Most of the songs I wrote for school-related purposes were recorded in one form or another, but outside of a truncated instrumental reprise on WATER ONLY HATES ITSELF SILLY, “Holden On” was never documented in any meaningful way. Gord’s Boxer song was another story.
In late 1999, Amanda filmed a performance with her then-new 8mm camcorder. It has to be the first existing recording of the song, made just days before or after gord played the PG-rated version at school.
Three years later, I asked Gord if he wanted to revisit it and give it a proper recording. He wrote out what he remembered of the words, changing some of them in the process. We got down a rough demo just to run through it, both of us playing electric guitar, Gord singing through a cold that made him a temporary baritone.
And then we didn’t do anything more with it for fourteen years.
When we were bouncing ideas around for the followup to STEW, the Boxer song came up. I learned Gord never quite settled on a version he was satisfied with.
I finally got around to mixing the 2002 demo so we could both hear it again, muting my guitar part, since I didn’t think it added much.
We both felt this was the version to build on. It lost the anger and desperation that was there in the beginning and took on a more defeated, mournful quality, with Gord improvising some words at the end about a sugarcane mountain that sounded to me like the doomed horse’s dying dream.
We sat down and tried to work out where we could tighten things up without doing too much to alter the soul of the song, and I recorded a late night demo on my own that reflected the changes we made.
Gord first had Benjamin the donkey predicting Boxer’s fate. A quick look at the source text revealed it was really wise pig Old Major who warned him he would be expendable once he’d given the last of his great strength. I tweaked that and a few other lines, but left most of the lyrics untouched.
We picked at it some more, experimenting with the length and placement of different sections until it felt right. An instrumental bit that had been forgotten for well over a decade was reinstated. Brand new music was written for the “sugarcane mountain” coda.
Recording it was pretty straightforward. We got down the acoustic guitars and then the rest fell into place pretty quick. There’s a bit of a different dynamic driving what we do now, though. In the past we never talked much about what we were doing. We just did it. Now there’s much more of a dialogue happening, and we’re not afraid to make suggestions to each other.
When Gord plays bass, he tends to throw in these great little jabs of unexpected melody. “Situations” on STEW is a good example. The bass doesn’t just hold down the low end. It dances.
With this song, I thought the bass might be more effective during the 3/4 “sugarcane mountain” section if it wasn’t so busy. I asked Gord to try a simple walking bass line without throwing in any fiddly bits. As for me, after I recorded a rough drum track Gord said he felt playing with sticks didn’t really suit the song. I tried playing with brushes and everything started to feel a lot more open and dynamic.
We were both right.
It’s nice to be able to voice an idea or ask someone to try something a different way without having to worry about any egos getting bruised, because you know everything is being done in service of the music.
A great example of this philosophy in action: I assumed Gord would want to handle the vocals here, since the song is really his baby and has been for a long time. He asked me to sing it instead. I did twist his arm into singing a bit of backup for the final “never gonna let you down” bit, but aside from that all the singing is me.
I really liked the acoustic guitar countermelodies I came up with for my demo. When it came right down to it, including them in the final recording would have made everything feel a little too cluttered. So that fell by the wayside. But there was still room for banjo and piano. As for the lap steel, that’s the 1950s “mother of toilet seat” Magnatone first heard on AFTERTHOUGHTS. This might be that old beast’s best moment on record so far.
I thought it was about time I performed a bit of surgery on the rough mix that’s been sitting around for a while, because I’ve been wanting to make a little music video to go with the song. The moving pictures come to you from John Halas and Joy Batchelor’s animated film version of Animal Farmfrom 1954 — secretly funded by the CIA! The last time I saw it was when my own English class read the book in 2000 or 2001, so I couldn’t remember how much of Boxer was in there. As it turned out, there was more than enough material for what I wanted to do, including some moments that were more evocative than I was expecting them to be.
And there you have the near-twenty-year-long journey of a song that began life as a high school english assignment, from raw teenage howl to refined alt-folk, or whatever it wants to call itself now.
After an easy birth, a pretty happy childhood, and an interminable adolescence, the debut O-L West album has grown up and gone out into the world to fend for itself.
It’s called AFTERTHOUGHTS. It exists only as a physical album. You can’t buy it anywhere, because it isn’t for sale — though if you’re reading this, you probably knew that part already.
It’s the first thing I’ve ever been a part of where there are two distinct dominant voices throughout. Things are split pretty much down the middle between songs I sing lead on and songs Steven sings lead on. On some level, an album where we both share the writing and lead singing duties feels like a natural outgrowth of the work we were doing with Steven’s Tire Swing Co. songs. It was probably only a matter of time before we started writing together.
The thing is, you can never predict how — or even if — that’s going to work. You really don’t know until you sit down with someone and start bouncing ideas and creative energy around. Sometimes the energy is right. Sometimes it isn’t. I’ve had both experiences. With some people collaborating has been effortless, and with others it’s been about as easy as plucking out a polar bear’s ass hair with chopsticks.
With Steven, it’s as natural as breathing. We just click, in a way I’ve only ever clicked with a few people. It’s a joy making music with someone when that happens.
If you’re a friend and/or someone who contributed to the album, you probably already have a CD, or else one is on its way to you from one of us right now. If you’re not on my “mailing list”, or if we don’t know you but you’d like a copy, feel free to get in touch with me or Steven and we’ll do our best to get one to you.
Each Polaroid that makes up the collage on the album cover is related to one of the songs. Here’s what that’s all about, along with some of the stories behind the music — including most of the existing relevant demos, in case you want to compare some of those to the definitive versions and ruminate on what changed, what didn’t change, and which spontaneous late night arrangement ideas had staying power.
I suggest not listening to too many of these demos until after you’ve heard the full album, to avoid spoiling too many surprises, but hey…I’m not here to tell you how to live your life.
Paint as You Like and Die Happy
Along with Trespassing, this was the true beginning of the O-L West. We jammed out the music one night in the fall of 2014 — Steven playing acoustic guitar, me on lap steel — and made a quick recording to preserve the idea.
Steven came back with some great lyrics the next time we met up. We got down his acoustic guitar and lead vocal, and then I added the bass and lap steel.
That felt like almost enough. But it needed a little more.
On a musical level, the song is all about drift, with long instrumental passages leading into and out of the verses and choruses — which aren’t really choruses, because the words are different each time. Any kind of extended solo or conventional drum part was going to chip away at the almost dream-like quality of the thing. What I needed to do was find the right accents.
One of my favourite things about working with Steven is the uniqueness of his voice, and getting to play off of it with my own voice. Here I threw in some high whispered background vocals on the chorus sections. Also added some piano to the second half of the song.
On a different kind of tune I’d float around and improvise a lot more. In this case, the simpler and sparser I kept my playing, the better it seemed to work. Sometimes just a few notes played on a piano can contribute an incredible amount of depth to a song. It’s a little nuts.
(Digital pianos need not apply.)
The little synth-sounding melody that runs through the second verse, never to recur, is the Casio SK-1 set on the flute sound with some subtle effects added. Even if it didn’t allow you to sample anything, the SK-1 would be worth the cost of doing business just for that flute patch. Though it sounds very little like a real flute, it’s got a great soul to it. It’s a sound that works in places you’d never expect it to.
Here’s the SK-1 on top of a small pile of things, staring at you all stiff-upper-lip-like, as photographed by Joey Acott.
The other synthy wash of sound that’s more of a background colour and doesn’t go away once it’s introduced isn’t a synth at all. It’s another lap steel track. I plugged the steel into the old Digitech guitar effects processor that’s been making a bit of a comeback lately, found an ambient-sounding patch I’ve always liked, and played around with harmonics and volume swells.
The problem with this patch is it can sometimes introduce some hiss when you’re feeding it a low-output instrument. It did that here. You probably wouldn’t notice unless you listened on good headphones or a nice hi-fi. Even so, as much as I like my rough edges, something like unintentional-but-audible hiss drives me batty. If I didn’t do something to cover it up, it was going to bug me for the rest of my life.
I recorded a soft brushed snare part to act as another little sonic accent, since nothing else seemed like a viable hiss-hiding solution, and hoped for the best.
These days I almost always record drums in one very specific way, with a stereo ribbon microphone set up in the middle of the room. It gets a slight boost from a tube EQ to counteract the high frequency roll-off inherent in most ribbon mics, a bit of compression, and that’s it. No close mics. No other ambient mics. I did throw in a distant room mic a few times on MY HELLHOUND CROOKED HEART so I could slap a gated reverb or some delay on it for a bit of additional texture, but that’s not the norm for me.
There are three reasons behind this:
(1) I’ve grown to like the natural, unhyped, “drums in a room being played by a person” sound this approach imparts a lot more than the “close-mic’d up the wazoo, sound-replaced, and smashed to hell with compression until it doesn’t sound anything like a real drum kit anymore” sound I hear coming out of most modern recording studios. If I want drums that don’t sound a whole lot like acoustic drums, I’ll use a synth or a drum machine. If I’m playing a drum set, I want it to sound like a drum set. That’s just my own personal taste.
(2) With only sixteen tracks on my mixer and more ambitious arrangement ideas than I used to have, every track counts now.
(3) I spent years messing around with different drum-mic’ing configurations. I don’t have the patience for that anymore, unless someone’s paying me to record them and they want something other than my typical homegrown drum sound.
By the time I started thinking about drums in the context of this song, I didn’t have two leftover tracks to work with. I only had one. I sort of close-mic’d the snare with a pearlman TM-LE, since it was the only part of the kit I planned on playing anyway, and left it at that.
The sound lived in just the right frequency to mask the hiss. It even added a little bit of extra glue to the drift.
Don’t you find your drift needs some extra glue sometimes? No? Just me?
There’s one last thing to tell you about this song, and that’s the weird trembling sound that comes in for the last chorus. You’ll never guess what it is.
It’s a ukulele pitch pipe.
Late one night, I got the idea to try sampling that little thing with the SK-1. For some weird reason it worked really well. The way the sampled sound took the natural vibrato created by the way I blew into the pitch pipe and altered the speed of it based on what notes were being played, generating a sound much more complex than its humble origins would ever suggest, was a total happy accident.
I like how this song sounds like it’s going to stay a stripped-down thing for the first few minutes, and then out of nowhere it fans out into a much wider, deeper soundscape. I think we both knew it needed to be the opening track pretty early on. Sometimes you gotta kick things off with a more immersive track the listener can get lost in for a while, instead of something quick and punchy.
As for the picture, that’s Steven sitting on my front steps, holding the actual photograph he’s singing about in the first verse. Pretty nifty, eh?
This song is about a mysterious Russian shortwave radio station no one has been able to explain for three decades, with the second verse made up of snippets of cryptic dialogue listeners have picked up over the years. It’s probably the closest the album gets to “moody rock”, Afterthought No. 3 notwithstanding.
It didn’t start out sounding like that. The rough jam that planted the seed of the song was acoustic guitar-driven.
And I thought the non-demo version would keep it that way. Many of these songs were born while the two of us were playing acoustic guitar. It made sense to use that as a starting point and build from there. But after a while, I got to thinking it might be a nice bit of contrast to have one or two songs not lean on acoustic stringed things at all, and I started to wonder what this one would sound like electrified.
I grabbed the Kay Thin Twin and gave it a try. Natalie reminded me what a great friend that axe was when she played it for a few songs on CAT & CORMORANTafter I’d been neglecting it for a while. The two interlocking main guitar parts were played on the Kay. The other guitar accents and the distorted not-quite-lead guitar that comes in for the instrumental end section were all played on a Telecaster. The little harmonica bits from the demo carried over, along with the hazy wordless vocal stuff near the end.
It took me a while to get the lead vocal right once I wasn’t singing it cross-legged on my bed into a tiny laptop microphone I couldn’t see. Too much force and the pensive mood would be broken. Not enough and it would sound like I was sleepwalking through the song.
I think I found the right balance in the end.
I wanted to wedge a small shortwave radio inside of a tree with a hole large enough to accommodate it and small enough to hold it in place, and then take a picture of that. It wasn’t to be. I couldn’t find the little shortwave feller I’ve got kicking around somewhere in the basement (or the garage, or Switzerland…who knows where that thing is), and I was going to have a tough time finding a tree sympathetic to my plight.
Took a picture of this big old tube-driven character with shortwave capabilities instead. It was the first picture I shot with TheImpossible Project’s temperamental black and white polaroid film that didn’t come out overexposed to the point of being unusable. The framing is a little askew, and now I kind of wish I took another run at it, but it works well enough in the context of the collage. And in these troubled times, collage context is really all that matters, isn’t it?
This one is discussed in detail, complete with all the demos, over HERE. It’s a musical dialogue, with Natalie’s singing on the choruses-that-aren’t-really-choruses adding something special. The way the story unfolds, I think it almost feels more like a short film than a song.
By the time we were thinking about images to accompany the songs, the house that inspired Steven’s initial concept for this one wasn’t looking so abandoned and evocative anymore. I always had the Walker Power Building (aka “the Old Peabody Building”) in my head. Some of the imagery in the first verse came from thinking about that place.
A picture of the whole building felt too distant, in every sense of the word. Then I got closer and lucked into seeing the NO TRESPASSING sign.
Maybe that’s a little on-the-nose. But when it’s right, it’s right.
I kind of hijacked this one, similar to what happened with Trespassing.
It started as a jam. Steven had the verse chords and a vocal melody, but there weren’t words yet. I heard him singing what sounded like “and I know” a couple times. It got stuck in my head and wouldn’t leave. The same night of the initial jam I added some more music, wrote a bunch of lyrics, and sent along a demo of the finished thing at about one in the morning.
There was no concept in my head when I was writing these words. They were just the words that came out. But it was fun to find a way to work some boxing-related imagery in there, and now I’m pretty sure the bridge section has to do with faculty-dulling substances and the recklessness of darker days.
There isn’t a single proper guitar solo in any of the other songs on the album. So it stands to reason that the one song to buck the trend would have not one, but two solos.
Getting down the solo at the end was pretty straightforward. The first one was a different story. I recorded a bunch of takes of a totally different, flashier solo without ever quite nailing it to my satisfaction. Then I threw it out and tried something simpler and more melodic. That worked a whole lot better.
The arrangement for this one vexed me a little. It was the last song left that needed some work before I could focus on final mixes. It got almost all the way there, but it was missing one last bit of sonic wallpaper. It needed something to give that long bridge section a bit of a different feeling.
I tried lots of things — backwards piano, additional electric guitar, lap steel, synth. Not one proverbial coat of paint I threw on felt like it was the right colour.
I sat down with Steven and we knocked our heads together to try and figure it out. I played him a rough wordless ambient vocal thing I tossed in as an idea when I was trying out anything I could think of. He liked it. He suggested building on it and then taking out the drums for almost the whole bridge section.
That did the trick.
The intro…now that was a bit of a surprise.
I thought a dreamy little ambient piece might act as a nice segue into the song proper, to shake things up a little. A few different ideas toppled out in one night, but the one thing that felt like it could work in the context of this song wasn’t so dreamy after all. It was this evolving loop I made using the Strymon El Capistan’s sound-on-sound function. I can’t remember if I ran the El Capistan into the Yamaha FX500 or if it was the other way around, but I know the FX500 was in the signal path, adding a little extra ambience.
You can do some interesting things with the El Capistan’s tape emulation settings, forcing a loop to keep degrading until the source sound is unrecognizable. Every sound in this loop was made with a guitar, and it’s just one track, but there’s something weirdly menacing about it, in a muted sort of way. I like how it smash cuts to the start of a song that’s a lot catchier than the intro sets the listener up to expect.
The clean electric guitar lines that run through the body of the song also got some help from that pedal. There it’s more of a background effect, adding a bit of shimmer that doesn’t call much attention to itself but would be missed if it was gone.
For a long time I wasn’t much of a guitar pedal guy. I’ve turned around on that over the last little while, building up a small group of pedals that might someday live on a board (if I ever get a power supply to run them all at once). The El Cap is a versatile beast that does pretty much everything I think I’d ever want a delay pedal to do, and I haven’t found a way to make it sound bad yet.
So, all else aside, this song is a bit of a showcase for a few of the tricks the El Capistan has up its sleeve.
The “gospel” vocal wailing in the background near the end, before the final section really kicks into high gear, was just me being silly, singing from behind the drums to kill time until I had to start hitting them again. I never dreamed it would end up in the final mix. But I grew to like it as a little bit of unexpected oddball character, and Steven was into it too, so it got to stay.
I had no idea what to do for a picture for this one. All I knew was, I wanted an image of something eaten by time. Wasn’t sure what the eaten thing should be. It wasn’t a bust of Jennifer Connelly’s face with a wounded nose, though I gave it an honest try.
One afternoon, hunting for things to photograph around the city, I snapped a picture of a heap of scrap metal. It came out a little overexposed and ancient-looking.
You could build a pretty convincing argument for this song being inspired by William Kotzwinkle’s Swimmer in the Secret Sea. It wouldn’t be true, but it would be an easy untruth to sell.
I haven’t read that book. I didn’t know it existed until after the song was written. I’m going to guess Steven hasn’t read it either.
What happened here was, we’d written all the songs we wanted to put on the album. We were kind of holding back from letting ourselves write any more, because there’s this thing that happens when the two of us sit down with a few guitars: we can’t seem to avoid coming up with song ideas. Even if we’re going out of our way not towrite, we’re probably going to end up writing something anyway. It can’t be helped.
This one wanted to come out. It didn’t care what we wanted. I set up a microphone or two in the room as really rough audio floodlights, not even trying to place them sensibly or get good sounds — just trying to capture enough of what was happening to make a useful documentation of what we were doing — and we played for a while.
I listened to it later that night and was struck by how well the improvised lyrics worked. I tweaked a few lines and added a few new ones to introduce a little more shape, but left the bulk of it alone, as you can hear. The end result is about a 70/30 split, with what Steven improvised making up the larger portion of what’s there.
Only when the song was finished did it hit me that it seemed to be telling the story of a couple struggling to hold themselves together in the aftermath of the unexplained death of their young child. None of that was in Steven’s head when he was winging it, or in mine when I was transcribing and tidying up what he winged. The song decided for itself what it was going to be about.
These are almost always the most interesting songs for me — the ones that tug you somewhere you’re not expecting to go and construct their own hearts out of materials you didn’t know they had access to.
There was a sleepy quality to Steven’s singing in the demo we both came to really like, and he was able to tap back into that without any trouble. For my part, instead of singing straight harmony I messed around with wordless backup vocals over the “chorus” sections, stacking one line on top of another until there was a blanket of four-part harmony.
This is the only song where I thought to grab video footage of the whole recording process so I could edit it into something like a music video later on. I meant to put an effort into documenting more of what we were doing, but it kept slipping my mind. What can you do?
The picture fell into my lap the same day I snapped the pic for Trespassing. Getting a shot of a little raincoat wasn’t happening, but there on the grass, feet away from the Walker Power Building, was a broken child’s umbrella. Less literal. More atmospheric. Even better.
We played this live once at Taloola as a three-piece O-L West/Teenage Geese hybrid. My wave of overdubbed four-part vocal harmonies over the long coda was impossible to reproduce, for the obvious reasons. Our workaround was layering live three-part harmonies one voice at a time. Steven started it, then I came in above him, and then Natalie came in on top of both of us.
Hearing a thing like that happen live and being a part of it made the hair on the back of my brain stand up.
Afterthought No. 3
(Shining a Light, Making a Scar)
As a rule, I don’t go into a solo album with all or even most of the songs that are going to end up on the album already written. Usually I’ve got a couple I think I might want to group together, or maybe just one idea I want to develop, and I start recording. Then I write more, record more, maybe pull a few things from the giant pile of songs that have been hanging around waiting to find a home, get rid of some things that don’t feel like they fit anymore once more pieces are in place, and figure out what the album wants to shape itself into along the way, making adjustments as needed, improvising, experimenting, seeing what happens.
Over the years a few people have labelled me a “reluctant editor” of my own work. I think the assumption goes something like this: I make long albums. Some of those albums have a lot of songs on them, and some of those songs are weird and/or very short. Therefore, I must never throw anything out, and I must have a pretty murky concept of the dividing line between what constitutes album material and what belongs in the out-takes bin. Otherwise, I would make compact ten-song albums like a normal person.
That couldn’t be more wrong.
The amount of written and recorded material that doesn’t make the cut on any given album sometimes outweighs what’s allowed to see the light of day. You don’t want to know how many things I’ve got slated for inclusion on the followup to the first volume of OUT-TAKES, MISFITS, AND OTHER THINGS. And you would either think I was lying or you’d want to punch me if I told you how many songs I’ve written just in the past two years or so for the still-in-progress “solo album with many guests” that’s calling itself YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK.
I write a lot. I record a lot. I don’t release everything I write and record. Not even close.
A lot of time and thought goes into discovering what each album wants to be and what makes emotional and sonic sense taking up space on it. Album sequencing alone involves a great deal of consideration. I never put anything out there just for the sake of putting it out there, and I don’t believe in “filler” tracks. Even the most random-seeming segue has a purpose, and some of my favourite things end up on the proverbial cutting room floor. That’s just the way it goes.
The point is, I make long, unwieldy albums by design. And while I value imperfection and make a point of retaining and sometimes emphasizing it, it doesn’t mean I don’t put a lot of work into what I do. The absence of excessive gloss isn’t a manifestation of laziness, and it isn’t an accident. It’s a deliberate choice.
Perfection, especially when it’s achieved through artificial means, bores the shit out of me. I’m more interested in getting at something that’s got some character, that has something emotionally interesting crawling around in its guts. Give me that over technical precision without feeling any day.
Even when I have a pretty clear picture of where I think I’m going, I almost never end up with an album that’s much like the one I thought I was going to make when I started. That’s not because I need an outside producer to reign me in or focus me, though a stranger showed up here once to make that suggestion. It’s because I let the albums tell me what they want to be.
Going about it this way keeps the process fresh and engaging. I don’t think creative energy is something to be bent or bullied where you or someone else thinks it’s supposed to go. I think it’s best served by letting it find its own way, and letting yourself be surprised.
The day the music ceases to surprise me, there won’t be any point in making it anymore.
I say all of that because this one — even though it isn’t a solo album — is pretty long. It’s also one of the more crafted things I’ve been involved in. Steven and I went on such a songwriting tear together, very early in the recording process we already had a group of about a dozen songs we knew we wanted to make up the framework of the album. And almost all of those songs are here. But new ideas kept falling out anyway. And in spite of our best efforts to hold them back, we liked a few of them far too much to keep a lid on them. So we let the most convincing of them squeak through, while doing our best to keep the quality control pretty unforgiving.
We decided to call the songs that came a little later and didn’t want to be denied “afterthoughts”. Another Turn was an exception, and the one late addition to get a proper title.
We wanted the album cover to be a collage of pictures that commented on each of the songs in one way or another (that was Steven’s idea, and man, was it a good one). The more songs there were, the more difficult it was going to be to come up with an appropriate image for each of them and then create a collage that made some amount of visual sense. Elbowing a few songs into a different category did a neat job of getting rid of that potential stumbling block.
It was also a nice way to play off of the album title. We called it AFTERTHOUGHTS, in part because it began as a very casual thing, sort of an unassuming detour, before exploding into something that obliterated whatever our expectations were. TIME AWAY probably would have been a full-length album if this one didn’t strong-arm its way in there and demand our attention.
At the same time, a lot of the reasoning behind the name has nothing to do with the “tossed-off” connotation the word sometimes carries. This album is a lot of things, but tossed-off it ain’t — it took two years of intermittent work to finish. It has more to do with things that are thought of, said, or felt after a bit of distance has grown between you and whatever you’re commenting on or turning over in your head. There’s a lot of that going on in these songs.
The first afterthought we wrote and recorded didn’t make the cut. As with several other songs, we liked it, but it didn’t belong here. It was that emotional thing. The other three were sequenced according to feel rather than strict chronology.
This is why you don’t see an “Afterthought No. 1” anywhere, and why the first one to appear is the third to be written.
This afterthought is one of the shorter, sharper, catchier things on the album. When it was just starting to hatch, it sounded like this:
It cracks me up to hear us talking about me hijacking it over the next few days, and Steven predicting it won’t even take that long for it to turn into a fleshed-out song. He was right. Later that night I recorded this:
On the demo all the singing is me, and I carried over that little seesawing guitar riff of Steven’s (which didn’t make it into the final recording). On the album it’s him singing lead for the first two verses with me backing him up. Then I take the wheel for the big chorus that not only never comes back but ends the song just as it’s picking up steam, letting the bottom drop right out.
I love doing that sort of thing.
I snapped into “let’s make a rock song” mode here and tried building everything around some pretty distorted electric guitar. It sounded a little too obvious. Letting acoustic guitar drive it instead, and using the electric guitar to play off of that, seemed to get everything breathing a little better. The drums were getting lost a little in the last section when more electric guitar came in, so I overdubbed an additional drum part with a single room mic to give it a little extra excitement.
This is one of the few places on the album where the “textural ambient guitar” thing I mess around with sometimes comes to the forefront. I try not to overuse it, but it’s something I really enjoy doing when a song is agreeable. I blame the great John Berry.
West Coast Blues
Another one that came out of a jam early on, though it was really Steven’s song from the get-go. The words he improvised when we recorded the rough demo were so good, he was able to keep most of them when he was putting the final lyric sheet together.
the above is another pretty lo-fi sketch, recorded with a few distant mics and the preamps saturated like crazy, just to see what would happen.
Post-demo, we recorded some group backup vocals with Jim Meloche, all of us standing around a single microphone, and I added more harmonies on my own a little later. Jim’s voice brings something to the song that’s difficult to put into words. You don’t always hear him that well, because there’s no separation between our voices, but you feel him there. If you’ve only ever heard the great fire he forces from his lungs when he’s singing with Orphan Choir or Worry, you might be a little surprised by what he does here.
There’s an even bigger Jim-shaped surprise at the end of the album. But more about that when we get there.
When we all come in together, I always picture us huddled around a piano in a saloon, half-drunk, sad about something but smiling through the pain. I can’t explain it. There’s just something evocative there, and it wouldn’t exist without Jim.
Thought about adding drums and electric guitar and some other things. In the end, the feeling of the stripped-down demo felt too good to deviate from much. So this one stayed percussion-free, and I held back a little when it came time to play piano over the instrumental passages. It didn’t feel appropriate to go too crazy there. I did add a little bit of bluesy harmonica, though.
This is the one place where the acoustic guitar Steven’s playing isn’t my old Gibson LG-2. He brought in his Martin (the one mentioned over here — I’m going to guess it’s a D35), and it added all kinds of tasty glue, playing really well off of the sound of my own double-tracked 000-15.
For the picture, we wanted to capture someone sitting on stairs, looking forlorn. Finding a model wasn’t going so well. Steven asked his fair lady Danielle if she’d be willing to help us out, and she saved the day. It seems fitting somehow that hers — and not either one of ours — is the only face to appear on the cover.
You know what I always say: “If you’re only going to have one person’s face on your album cover, and it isn’t going to be your own, make it the face of a beautiful woman.”
The Yuan Dynasty
I was feeling a little guilty about some of my hijacking tendencies and thought it was Steven’s turn to get in on some of that action. I sent him some sketches I had that kind of stalled before they could become finished songs and asked if he had any ideas for lyrics. This was one of those.
He came up with the story of a fleeting connection on a train, retaining my refrain from the demo (some of the only coherent words I threw in there), making for one of the more playful moments on an album that’s pretty dark stuff for the most part.
Not that I’d have it any other way. You know me. I like those shadows and dark corners.
True story: that’s Steven hitting the gongs at the beginning of the song.
In one of those “you can’t make this stuff up” moments, we found out he had a period-correct vase that played right into the whole Chinese history theme. Trouble was, it was impossible to get a picture that captured its personality and did it justice.
I took a picture of some train tracks instead. As with the image for Time Erodes, it came out looking like something very old that got dug out of an attic-dwelling shoebox.
Sometimes you get lucky with these things.
I wrote this thinking it would be fun to have a song where we both kept trading off on singing lead — something where our voices would give the “A” and “B” sections very different personalities. Did my best “poor man’s Matt Berninger” for the verses when I demoed it.
Then Steven did his best “rich man’s Steven” when we were recording it for real.
Before it had drums, he played some djembe. It was a nice touch, but once the drums were in there it wasn’t working anymore. Someday after we’re both gone someone will restore that lost djembe part for an “alternate mix” and they’ll make it a bonus track on an unauthorized reissue released in an effort to give their fledgling record label some added credibility, selling something that wasn’t made for money and was never meant to be sold, and Pitchfork will hail it as “the best obscure reissue we’ve heard since last week’s re-release of Wilford Brimley’s long-lost prog-metal/rap album from 1982”.
Just you wait and see.
I played a lot of harmonica on this album. I think it’s the most harmonica I’ve played on any album in my life. It was one of those things that happened without any real thought going into it. On this song it gets a little more impressionistic.
That I’ve reached a point where “impressionistic harmonica” is even a feasible thing I can do is kind of mind-boggling to me. I have no idea how that happened.
The thing that comes in during the last chorus-that-isn’t-a-chorus and sounds a little like a wheezing carousel organ is sampled recorder, courtesy of the Yamaha VSS-30. That thing and the SK-1 play very well together.
The stop-start drumming was really the only approach that made sense here. I tried a more conventional drum pattern first, just to see what would happen. All it did was lay there like a dead thing. Filling up the spaces between guitar strums with a more unpredictable rhythm gave the whole thing a much more interesting pulse.
Getting a picture for this one was tricky. The lyrics are more imagery than story. You would think that would help, but it was maddening trying to find an image to pluck from the song. Tried barred-up windows. Didn’t turn out. Tried to find a diagram of a hand’s inner workings in an old medical journal. Couldn’t find an old medical journal to save my life. Tried to get someone to eat an apple so I could snap a picture of them mid-chew (you know, to tie in with the whole “original sin”, apple-in-the-Garden-of-Eden thing). That didn’t work out either.
Then I thought, “What if I stop trying to come up with an image that’s related to the lyrics? The song has a pretty prominent harmonica part. I’ve got this cool-looking big-ass old harmonica. Maybe I should throw it on top of my battered snare drum, take a picture, and see how it turns out.”
It came out looking better than I thought it would. And that was the end of that.
Afterthought No. 4
(Waiting for Armageddon)
The most non-afterthought-like afterthought of them all.
There are more than a few places on this album where I’m singing words Steven wrote, or he’s singing words I wrote, or one of us is singing words we both wrote together. There are some things that are more or less solo pieces one of us wrote on our own, but for the most part who wrote what is all over the place.
This is the only song where we’re both singing lead and whoever’s taking the lead at any given time is singing their own words. It starts with Steven backing me up and ends with me backing him up, though our voices blend together to the point that it can be difficult to differentiate.
We each wrote lyrics without having any idea what the other was writing. There wasn’t even a basic concept discussed beforehand. When we got together to compare notes, it was surreal how well my two verses and Steven’s one long verse worked together. Each part completed the other.
You know you’re pretty in sync with someone when you can write pieces of a song separately and have them fuse in such an organic way, no one would ever guess you didn’t write the whole thing together in the same room, in one sitting.
This is a demo I made for the first chunk of the song before there were really any words at all from either one of us. I can’t help hearing, “It’s salami,” instead of, “It’s alarming.” Happens every time.
I tried a lot of different things when the words were there and it was serious recording time. I got the arrangement just about right, but again something was missing. What ended up pulling the whole thing together was some delay-drenched Omnichord.
The Omnichord is another one of those funky little tools that rewards you for sneaking it into places no sane person would think to put it. I love the uniqueness of its voice. Once you turn off the auto-chording function, it starts to sound like some sort of ghostly synthesized harp.
This one crept up on us and became one of our favourite tracks on the album. It feels like a perfect fusion of our sensibilities, with elements of INAMORATA, TIME AWAY, and my post-GIFT FOR A SPIDER solo work all coagulating in the same pot. If a musical scientist stitched together a Tire Swing Co./Johnny West frankenstein creature, this is what it would come out looking and grumbling like.
Dying to Be Born
The first dedicated O-L West writing session produced three song ideas and three demo recordings to go with them. The first was what became Paint as You Like and Die Happy. The second was a song we didn’t revisit. The third was this one.
I love the little accents and fiddly bits Steven improvised while I was playing the main fingerpicked part. I did my best to emulate them when I was recording all the guitar parts later on.
When I finally sat down and wrote some lyrics to go with the music, there was a clear idea behind them: aging in reverse, literally, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button-style. But you know what? In his own way, John Cassavetes brought the seed of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story to the screen long before David Fincher did.
There’s a movie called She’s so Lovely that came out about twenty years ago.It’s based on an unproduced script John wrote, given posthumous direction by his son Nick. You know Nick as the director of The Notebook and My Sister’s Keeper — sentimental Hollywood movies that are pretty much the embodiment of everything his father spent his life fighting against and offering a jarring antidote to in the fiercely uncompromising films he wrote, directed, and usually paid for out of his own pocket.
John tried to make She’s so Lovely when he knew he was dying. Back then it was called She’s Delovely. Sean Penn was supposed to star in it. But Sean wanted to draw up contracts and have all the details hammered out in advance with lawyers, and that wasn’t the way John worked.
There was another problem. Sean was married to Madonna. He wanted her to play the other lead role opposite him. That wasn’t happening on John’s watch. “I’ve worked with lots of non-professionals,” he said, “but I have to draw the line somewhere!”
The two had a falling out when Sean went off to act in Casualties of War without explanation after balking at John’s insistence that his friend Peter Bogdanovich serve as “backup director” in case his health broke down in the middle of filming. John put a solid year into trying to get the production going, but passed away before he could get the script off the ground.
As it exists now, it isn’t really a John Cassavetes movie. It’s not even really a John Cassavetes script. Nick admitted to getting rid of whole chunks of the text that didn’t make sense to him and rewriting a lot of what he didn’t throw away because he felt it needed to be “simplified” for the actors. He pumped up the drama and filed down the heart, missing the whole point of his father’s work.
So the “written by John Cassavetes” credit is somewhat disingenuous.
John said he liked to make movies that didn’t “go”. The problem with She’s so Lovely is it goes too much. Jonathan Rosenbaum did a neat job of summing this up when he wrote in his contemporary review that the film offered “a fascinating glimpse at what Cassavetes was from the vantage point of what he wasn’t”.
If you know the man’s films, watching this one is a bit of a disorienting experience, even after you accept that of course it’s going to feel a little different, because he’s not behind the camera this time. To offer just one quick illustration of how wrong it goes, there’s a scene where Eddie (Sean Penn’s character) talks on the phone with Maureen (Robin Wright’s character). She was his wife. They were in love. By the time they’re having this conversation, they haven’t spoken or seen each other in ten years.
As Nick directs it, the scene is loaded with feeling. But he doesn’t respect the audience enough to let them figure that out for themselves. He beats you over the head with it. There’s melancholy music on the soundtrack while the characters are talking, high in the mix, all but screaming at you, “THIS IS EXACTLY WHAT YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO FEEL. NOW FEEL IT, YOU MINDLESS IDIOT.”
I can’t stand that stuff. It’s the kind of simplistic cinematic shortcut John never settled for. Bo Harwood’s music is an important part of several of his movies, but it’s music that’s rough and human in all the right ways — not at all typical “movie music”. It’s an extension of the art, sometimes co-written by John himself. It’s never used to cheapen or simplify a scene, or to tell the audience what to feel. It doesn’t cheat.
Nick cheats. He embraces that shortcut, dry-humps it, and whispers something dirty in its ear for good measure.
Which is fine. That’s his thing. It works for him. It’s made him rich and successful. I enjoy Alpha Dog in an “unplug your brain and let yourself be entertained” kind of way. I can admit that without any shame. I think it’s good for what it is. Not everything has to be great, meaningful art all the time. And there’s a moment near the end that redeems the whole movie. Sharon Stone’s character is talking about the death of her son when her eyes, from behind an unnecessary and not-entirely-convincing fat suit, go to some dead place for a few seconds as she taps into a kind of horrifying primal grief — a pain beyond pain, where laughing and weeping are the same thing. It’s so real, it makes me flinch every time I see it.
But — Sharon’s unexpected grace notes aside — if that’s who you are as an auteur, save it for your own scripts, or the ones you commission from other living writers. Don’t turn good writing into swiss cheese and dumb it down so it can walk around in Hollywood without getting thrown in jail. And for God’s sake, don’t do it to a guy who risked everything every time he made a movie, who was always digging at some deeper truth, resisting easy answers. You don’t strong-arm his work into somehow being cute. You don’t do that to him after he’s dead and he can’t do a thing about it.
As much as the original vision has been gutted and diluted in She’s so Lovely, there’s still some of the father in there that the son can’t kill — enough to make it interesting and throw things off-balance sometimes. There are moments and bits of dialogue you can tell weren’t tampered with. A little bit of John’s soul is buried in that movie. You just have to squint pretty hard to see it.
There’s a small scene about halfway through that’s pure Daddy Cassavetes. Eddie’s been committed to a psychiatric hospital. This is the last time he’ll see Maureen for a decade, though he doesn’t know it. He’s in a straitjacket. And this is what he says to her.
There might be more going on emotionally in this minute-and-change than most films manage in their entire runtimes. And hey, Sean still got his leading lady of the time to be his leading lady in the movie. He was just in a relationship with a more capable actress by the late 1990s.
No disrespect to Madonna Louise Ciccone.
What could have been with John directing his original script (impossible dream cast: transplant it to the 1970s, before it was actually written, and have Cassavetes himself play Eddie, slide Peter Falk into the role John Travolta ended up playing, and substitute Gena Rowlands for Robin Wright)…well, that’s one of the great cinematic what-ifs.
But anyway. What was I saying? The lyrics. Right.
When I looked at them later on, it felt like they could also be read as a meditation on how aging in a linear fashion mirrors childhood. As my Bubi used to say, you’re a baby twice in your life — when you’re born, and then again when you die.
It works both ways. However you choose to interpret it, it’s not exactly the stuff of summer pop songs. But this is one of the side effects of a protracted, hopefully perpetual self-imposed exile from anything resembling a romantic relationship. It forces me to draw inspiration from other places and write about different things. I have to use my heart and my brain.
I don’t know what it is about this one, but it makes me think of a lullaby. Maybe it’s that delicate little guitar figure that drives the verses. It stayed a stripped-down acoustic thing for a long time, and then it got a little more layered and interesting all at once, with several interlocking guitar parts, lap steel, and some of my more effective harmonica-playing added to the mix.
I have no idea what pickup is in the Magnatone. It’s embedded in the guitar, hidden beneath the mother of toilet seat (MOTS) finish. It’s a magnet-based pickup — that much I know — and it’s a lot brighter than the Gibson P13 in the Silvertone. It’s not bright in a bad way, but I find myself rolling off a fair bit of tone to get it where I want it. That’s pretty unusual for me. I almost always play electric stringed things with the volume and tone wide open, altering my playing if I want a brighter or darker sound.
Those lap steels both have their own personalities. They’re both good friends to have.
We had a tough time getting a picture here. It felt all kinds of wrong asking someone if we could take a picture of their child, or a grandparent near the end of their life, or both, as powerful as the image might have been if it was done right.
I got the idea to have a makeup artist make the two of us up to look like old men and have someone take a Polaroid of us sitting on a park bench, creating the feeling of decades of shared history between us. I thought it might be a pretty unique experience to be able to see ourselves age half a lifetime or more in a day and then wash the makeup off and become ourselves again.
When that didn’t work out thanks to the flakiness of a few makeup artists, Steven suggested doing something with ashes. I took a few pictures of him blowing a handful of them on my front lawn with Danielle egging us on, not realizing until it was too late that I had the camera’s exposure set too bright for the amount of natural light we had to work with. None of those shots came out looking so hot.
I grabbed the best one and found it had a certain washed-out quality to it that worked. The sweater comes through with more clarity than the ashes. Maybe it’s supposed to be that way.
This is another one Steven hijacked. One afternoon he went on a tear, writing great lyrics for three or four half-formed musical ideas I sent him in one shot. Dude was a machine.
The lyrics he wrote for it caught me off guard. The last thing I was expecting was a meditation on Anne Frank and the difficulty of believing in a God who allows unspeakable things to happen to innocent people. It was a pretty far cry from my initial nonsensical improv. Sing it with me, friends: “Back then there was an opening for birds to shit and men to sing.”
I demoed the finished thing on acoustic guitar, because it’s hard to haul an upright piano up the stairs to your bedroom, and there’s something to be said for not always having to think about mic placement. It still surprises me how well that microscopic microphone built into my laptop acquits itself when I’m playing and singing into it at the same time on one live track (I never record vocals and guitar separately when I’m demoing things in GarageBand).
(For the record, the Steve referred to in the first verse is Stephen Hawking, and not our Steven with a v.)
Then it was back to the piano for the recording that would end up on the album.
I had an idea for a little string part. It was pretty disappointing when I tried it out with synth strings to get a feel for what it would sound like and it felt clunky. Matter of fact, each time I tried to dress the song up beyond the piano/bass/acoustic guitar bed tracks, everything felt clunky. It didn’t help that I couldn’t seem to get my singing right.
This album is home to some of the most restrained singing I’ve ever committed to digital tape. While I’m not that much of a belter these days as a rule, some of the hardest songs to sing are the ones where your range isn’t being tested, but you’re not pushing out a lot of air, and you’re trying to find a good middle ground between delicacy and strength. Especially when you’re singing about serious stuff like this. Wordless vocal weirdness wouldn’t cut it here.
What set me free was returning to the triple-tracked lead vocal approach that became a bit of a signature sound with CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN but hasn’t seen a whole lot of action in recent years. After that, the arrangement fell into place. Keeping it simple turned out to be the best approach. Just some clean electric guitar, lap steel, and simple brushed drums — mostly floor tom and snare — on top of the bed that was there already.
Here I wanted a picture of a broken-down old bookshelf that looked like it had been through hell. Finding something scarred enough to fit the bill proved impossible. I got lucky with this old church (suggested by Johnny Smith), figuring it would play off of the whole “loss of faith” theme.
The picture came out overexposed in a way that makes it look a hundred years old. Just what the song wanted.
Afterthought No. 2 (Black Hole)
Within a day or two of getting my hands on that Yamaha VSS-30, I was showing Steven how you can sample your voice and manipulate it with the effects built into the keyboard to create a really cool, eerie sound. He surprised me and said, “We should do something with that.”
I sang into the VSS-30, did a little mangling, and improvised around the ghostly sampled vocal sounds. Steven grabbed my Telecaster (it was in a nonstandard tuning, plugged into the FX500) and did some improvising of his own. Then I added some distorted harmonica and we both gave a little mutual yell.
There’s no demo for this one. It was a spur-of-the-moment thing, done and dusted before a demo could be made.
I experimented a little with adding other sounds later on. It felt like the more fleshed-out the music got, the more power it lost. There was something a little unsettling about it as a weightless thing. When the yell came in, it sounded like a desolate cry echoing through the ruins of a dying world. After the song had some bottom end and more bells and whistles, it just sounded like a yell.
We left it half-naked out of respect for that yell. It was the only sensible thing to do.
We started writing this one by throwing lines and ideas back and forth. Steven had most of the music already worked out. He hit on the image of an old Italian rug as a lead-in to a Bonnie and Clyde-type story, and we went from there. Later on I added some more lyrics to fill in a few blanks.
Getting into the crimes themselves felt like the easy way out. We attacked it from a different angle, giving more attention to the little details hiding in the margins of the story.
On a random note, “green side-gabled bungalow” is a phrase that rolls off the tongue a lot easier than you might think.
I handled the singing on the demo. You can hear there’s a verse missing that hadn’t been written yet (it showed up about ten minutes after the demo was recorded), along with a line or two that changed later on.
On the CD it’s Steven singing lead, with me backing him up. I think it’s got a good bit more gravitas in that form. Some of those low notes are tough for me to hit. Steven just sings ’em good and true every time. Plus, it’s cool to hear him inhabiting a darker character like this. He sang the words in a much more rhythmically unpredictable way than I did, which made adding harmonies a little tricky. But I enjoyed the challenge, and I think it makes the song that much more interesting. It feels less like you’re being sung to, and more like you’re being told a tale.
My idea of a working title was “And of Course in the End Hope Is Just Another Wrong Turn”. Steven came up with the much better, more concise Zebra Stripes. The song’s narrator/central character takes an honest shot at living the straight life, but he can’t escape who he is or who his partner wants him to be. That stuff won’t wash off.
The ghost of the main guitar figure that runs through The Yuan Dynasty returns here in the form of a very similar banjo part. Once I realized that was happening, I liked the little bit of unexpected continuity. In a way, you could look at this song as a follow-up to that one — one idea of what might have happened if the flirtation snowballed into a full-blown relationship once those two people stepped off the train, and then everything went a little sideways.
The instrumental coda came about when it felt like there needed to be some sort of palate cleanser before the final track. It couldn’t just jump straight from those last banjo notes hanging in the air to the beginning of Pave over It All. Besides, it’s fun to keep things a little unpredictable. Every sound there is coming from the VSS-30. It’s all samples — electric guitar, harmonica, and piano.
The first time Natalie heard this song she said she thought the lyrics were Leonard Cohen-esque. Given the towering giant of song Leonard is, it was impossible to take that as anything other than a mighty compliment.
And then there’s the picture. There’s a line in here that goes, “Couldn’t say if they were tears of joy, or the runoff of ambivalence cooked by crooked power lines.” Sometimes you see exactly what you need to see when you’ve got your Polaroid pal in the back seat. That’s what happened when I noticed these power lines on one of those “driving around looking for inspiration” jaunts.
If I’ve taken one good Polaroid picture with my Spectra 2 and this sometimes-maddening black and white film, it’s this one.
Pave over It All
This must be one of the best songs I’ve ever had a hand in writing. It’s also one of the bleakest. As if the last few songs leading up to it weren’t dark enough!
Again it started as a jam. Steven had the first two chords and a vocal melody. I added the D major-to-A minor turnaround and the vocal melody that happens there. He wanted to incorporate the image of something being buried, and in the course of the jam I heard him sing something about someone taking a beating, and something about someone’s crooked mouth.
I put all that in my head, let it stew a while, and later that night a song about separated-at-birth conjoined twins who hitchhike out of town after killing their abusive father came pouring out.
A little later we came up with the little musical tag that bookends the body of the song, and I came up with a vocal harmony idea.
Then Steven got the great idea to have a rotating cast of singers — a different voice delivering each verse.
There are nine verses to the song. So we were looking at nine different singers. After accepting that the logistics of getting that many people to show up to sing on one song were a little insane, we downsized a bit. Decided two or three verses for everyone might work better. And I thought maybe we could all come in together for the last verse, to bring things full circle as a group.
What we ended up with was a cast of four: me, Steven, Dave Dubois, and Jim Meloche, all of us taking turns telling the same tale.
Dave’s voice was made to sing a song like this. But the real revelation here is Jim. It’s a different Jim voice than you’re probably used to hearing, and he nails it. When he sings the bit about nothing coming out of Billy’s “dry, crooked mouth” and the strings paint a little counter-melody around him, that’s one of my favourite moments on the whole album.
Mixing this one was an interesting challenge, because all four of our voices live in slightly different ranges. It was tricky trying to get it sounding consistent, so no voice felt like it commanded more or less of the spotlight than any of the others. When Greg Maxwell told me it felt to him like the four of us were all the voice of the same character at different ages, I was pretty sure I had the balance right.
Almost makes me wish I’d invested a lot of money in a really good camera at some point. Almost. But I feel like the whole grainy, DIY, not-really-a-filmmaker thing works for me. Besides, the file sizes would kill me with a camera like Joey’s. I think a two or three-minute clip would come out to something close to a gigabyte.
There are more people playing and singing on this one song than on all the others combined. In addition to the singers-in-the-round thing, Kelly Hoppe contributes some of the best harmonica-playing you’ll ever hear, in any genre. I know that sounds like hyperbole, but I’ve had the great fortune to have Kelly contribute sax and harp work to a number of different things over the last little while (most of which haven’t been released yet).
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say he’s one of the best living harmonica players. What he does here is some of the best work I’ve ever heard him do. The amount of soulfulness and melodic invention he’s able to pack into a short amount of time is staggering. There’s a part where he “plays” the rain. Seriously. You have to hear it to believe it. And Stu Kennedy becomes a whole one-man string quartet — and then, briefly, a sextet — playing both violin and viola, acting as a wordless Greek chorus, adding another emotional and dynamic layer to everything. I think he might have outdone himself too.
Those guys are two of the most talented people I’m lucky enough to call friends, and also two of the most genuine.
When all the elements were in place and I was able to dial up a rough mix of the finished thing for the first time, it hit me so hard I started to tear up a little. No music I’ve been a part of in my life has ever done that to me. And I’ve been making music for more than twenty years now, since before I even knew what armpit hair was.
For the picture, I was trying to get a good shot of a ditch out in the county. It was a losing game. Too much detail was getting lost. Right when I was about to give up I saw the NO EXIT sign.
Accidental existentialism for the win.
We were going to end the album with one more afterthought — the very first one we recorded — closing the book on a somewhat hopeful-sounding note. By the time this song was CD-ready, that wasn’t going to cut it anymore. You can’t follow something like this with a little sixty second burst of sunshine. You just can’t. It would cheapen the journey. The intensity of it needs to linger and be reckoned with.
So that’s the album, and those are the details, about as well as I can give them to you.
One quick technical note before you go (assuming you’ve made it this far and haven’t jumped ship or fallen asleep yet): this is the quietest mastering job I’ve done in at least ten years. More and more, the whole “everything must be louder than everything else” mentality seems a little pointless to me, and more than a little destructive. I’d rather get the stuff sounding as good as I can and leave it at that, instead of pushing the volume a little more only to look back in a few years and find myself wishing I’d used a lighter touch — which is exactly what’s happened with a few of the albums made during my short-lived “hey, I can make things competitively loud, so why not?” phase.
I need to kick off a little Quieter Is Better (2008 – 2011) remastering campaign someday soon, for my own peace of mind. Been meaning to do that for a while now.
You can always turn up the volume on your computer/CD player/iPod if you’re listening to something that wasn’t mastered all that hot and you want it louder. With music that’s been hammered at the mastering stage to infuse it with built-in perceived loudness, no amount of turning it down is ever going to make it sound good again, and the more you turn it up, the harsher and more fatiguing it’s going to get, and the less your ears are going to like you.
Long story short, you’ll need to turn this one up a little. I think it’s worth the tradeoff. Dynamic range is our friend!
All in all, it always takes some time before I can pull back and look at an album objectively, but I think we did good. There’s a lot going on here, both lyrically (not a whole lot of rhyming, quite a bit of variation in subject matter) and texturally (I’m not sure I’ve ever put this much thought into the production of a thing). I think/hope it’s the kind of album that will reward careful listening.
On a visual level, the collage turned out better than I ever expected it to. The same is true of the layout of the lyric booklet, even if some of that comes down to luck, as it always does with me.
On a personal level, Steven is a great friend, and recording these songs with him — and getting to involve other great friends like Natalie, Jim, Dave, Stu, and Kelly — was a deeply rewarding experience.
I have no idea where the music will take us next (EDM, maybe?), but I’m looking forward to the ride.
In the fall of 2014, before we knew we were working on something that wasn’t going to be a Tire Swing Co. album, Steven came over here with some chords, a few vocal melodies, and an idea for a song. Something about a guy who’d hidden himself away inside an abandoned-looking house, and a woman who wondered about him.
I’m not sure if what I was starting to do with musical dialogues for male and female voices on YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK rubbed off a little, or if it was just divine inspiration, but he had the idea to see if we could get Natalie to sing the part of the good-natured voyeur. And he had a title: “Trespassing”.
So there was a concept and a skeleton. But there weren’t any words. I set up a few microphones to record our acoustic guitars and we played through the half-formed haze of a song that wasn’t written yet, Steven improvising words and not-words, me doing my best to harmonize without knowing what he was singing, introducing a bit of harmonic friction with my guitar-playing and ripping out a solo just past the four-minute mark that was more confident than it had any right to be.
(Whatever I improvised for that little solo there when I had no idea what i was doing, I was never able to replicate it once the song was nailed down.)
Later that night I sat down and listened to the improv. A few lines stuck out and felt like solid building blocks. I went a little nuts, and wrote a lot of lyrics of my own to go with them.
The whole thing took on a darker hue as I was fleshing it out. Started to sound like maybe there was some history between these two characters. Maybe the woman wasn’t just curious about someone she didn’t know. Maybe the man was a ghost haunting the house, and maybe that explained the place being so rundown. Maybe it was a sad kind of love song, the two of them singing to each other from opposite sides of life and death, his memories of whatever they shared eroding in a sort of death beyond death, hers as clear as they ever were, both wanting to connect but not knowing how.
I recorded a rough GarageBand demo at about 4:00 in the morning and sent it off to Steven. I had no idea how he was going to respond to it.
Lucky for me, he didn’t mind that I pretty much hijacked the song, and he liked the words I came up with. So I sent it to Natalie too, and she said she was up for singing on it.
I changed “thorn tree” back to “thorn bush” about five seconds after recording that demo. Liked the ring of it better. And I think that closing verse is one of my favourite verses of anything I’ve ever written. I don’t know. It just feels like it brings things full circle without resolving anything. There’s this weight of sadness there, with a bit of hope tugging at its shirtsleeves.
(Side note: I ended up hijacking other songs after this. I’ve learned if you give me a skeleton of a story, or even just a few chords and a vocal melody, it’s going to light my brain on fire. Once I snap into fill-in-the-blanks mode, songs happen pretty fast.)
We got down the guitars first. With the odd exception, I’ve been recording acoustic guitars with Steven the same way since INAMORATA. First I record him in stereo with a pair of Neumann KM184s. Usually he’s playing my old Gibson LG-2. After that, I’ll play something to accent or shadow what he’s doing. Instead of recording myself the same way, I stick the Pearlman TM-LE in front of my guitar and double-track it. A lot of the time I’m playing the newer Martin 000-15.
Some people have complained about the KM184s being bright and hard-sounding compared to the KM84s they succeeded. I don’t doubt that the originals are great microphones, but my 184s have never let me down no matter what I’ve stuck them in front of (acoustic piano, guitar, mandolin, banjo, ukulele, Wurlitzer, hammered dulcimer, toy piano, and who knows what else).
The LG-2 has a bit of a darker, rounder sound to it. The Martin is a brighter, punchier guitar. Those guitars and those mics just seem to play well together. It all makes for a nice bed of sound to build on.
I added bass next, and Steven recorded a lead vocal (we would replace it with a new take later on). Then Natalie came in to record her part.
With all the writing I’ve been doing for voices that are not my own, I’ve had the great fortune to record more than a dozen different singers over the last year or two. No one shows up with the song they’re going to sing committed to memory. Ever.
That’s not a problem. It’s never been a barrier to getting a good performance out of anyone. It just isn’t a thing that happens.
It happened with Natalie. We’d recorded a fair bit of CAT & CORMORANT by this time, so there was already a comfortable recording rapport there, and I knew she was going to do something good. What I didn’t know was that she was going to show up with all the words memorized. She’d absorbed the song to such an extent that having the lyrics in front of her threw her off a little. She didn’t need them.
Her voice gave the whole thing a great kick in the heart. She brought this quality of vulnerability to it that didn’t exist before she sang on it. And she altered the vocal melody just a little, leaning up on the end of the words “trespassing” and “sleepwalking” for the choruses-that-aren’t-actual-choruses instead of dipping down the way Steven and I did when we were singing those parts. Kind of like one of those freed flowers the song mentions, stretching to see the sun.
Right about then, I asked Steven, “Is this a Tire Swing Co. song? Or does it feel like maybe it’s supposed to be something else?”
I get to contribute a lot of musical and arrangement ideas to the Tire Swing Co. material (at least with the recordings — the live band is a different beast), and it’s really rewarding work, but the songs themselves aren’t mine. Those are Steve’s babies. I’m just the tailor, giving them nice things to dance around in.
This was different. This was something we built together, before even thinking about what clothes it was going to wear when it grew up.
“I think it needs to be an O-L West song,” he said.
And that was it. Just like that, the O-L West became a serious collaborative project.
“Trespassing” wasn’t the first O-L West song we recorded. It was the second. But it was the one that made it clear we had the makings of something interesting here, and we’d be wise to see how it played out.
(How it played out: we made an album with fifteen songs on it, both of us sharing the writing and lead singing duties. It could have turned into a double CD if we didn’t hold ourselves back a little once we had all the material we wanted in place. But the album isn’t quite ready for public consumption yet, so more about that another time.)
I added my high harmony for the verses. It’s a lot easier doing that once you know what the words are. Toyed with some third-part harmony and decided I liked it enough to keep it. We added the leg slaps when we weren’t sure yet if the song wanted drums. The lap steel and Fender Rhodes were things I added in the course of throwing a bunch of stuff at the wall, after the song said, “Go ahead and give me some drums. I can handle it.”
For whatever reason, I’ve found myself playing harmonica on quite a few of these songs. That instrument’s rebirth as a meaningful tool for me began with STEW, and it’s carried over to just about everything else.
I’ve only been able to teach myself how to bend one note, and that’s only happened in the last year or so. A lot of the sounds someone like the magnificent Kelly Hoppe can coax out of the harmonica are way beyond me. But I feel like I can do a lot more with the instrument now than I ever could before, minimal bending and all. I know my way around better these days, even if a lot of it’s still guesswork for me.
I’m not sure what changed. It’s not like I’ve been practicing much.
The point is, it’s fun to be able to drop the harp into a song where it feels like it fits, and to be able to have some options beyond the old “blowing sloppy chords like young Bobby Dylan with numb lips” trick.
Here I thought there should be some lead-like thing happening over the mid-song instrumental break. A guitar solo like the one I played for the initial improv was going to be a little too busy with everything else going on in there. Improvising at the piano didn’t feel like the way to go either. So I pulled out my D harmonica — the first harp I ever bought — found a few notes that felt right, and there it was.
Watching that, I’m realizing I sometimes move the harmonica around like I’m trying to generate vibrato after a note has already trailed off and I’ve stopped blowing. It’s not a conscious thing. Come to think of it, I do the same thing with an electric guitar sometimes, minus the blowing. I guess I just like to shake things.
Here’s what the song sounds like now in finished form. Not sure if it’s a final mix, but it’s probably about as good as it’s going to get. If we were signed to some satanic record label and releasing singles, this would be the track we’d send out into the world as a lead-in to the full-length album.
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 twelve-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 fiancé. 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 fine.
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.
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.
A little over two weeks ago, at about four in the morning, I thought it would be fun to write sort of an old-timey country waltz about a couple who’ve sold their souls to the devil to stay forever young and are coming to understand maybe it wasn’t such a wise decision. Because these are the kinds of ideas I get when the world makes it tomorrow but in my vampire mind it’s still today.
So I did that, and recorded a rough GarageBand demo using the laptop’s invisible built-in microphone. It came out sounding like this:
I tweaked a couple of the words a few minutes after recording that, but the gist of it was there. The lyrics go like so:
When we are old and well-preserved from all the deals we made
with slick old scratch to keep our youth, the Polaroids we take
will seem a little funny to our least convenient friends.
Dance, soft tissue. Realign. Some crooked kindness kissed us blind.
Help yourself to nothing. It’s everything we’ve got. Don’t you fret about the distance between the guarded and alone.
And every orchard keeper’s rendezvous will get the demon gunning for his due.
All we’ve lost to memory’s erosion will crystallize and flush anew
when fire ants discover you.
It was one of those songs that happened fast, and I was pretty happy with the way it came out. Even the random yodeling in the middle felt like it worked. It isn’t always this easy, but sometimes you say to your brain, “Hey, I’d like to try doing something like this, even though it’s a bit of a change of pace,” and your brain says, “Cool beans. Let’s do it.”
I had a few ideas about who I was going to ask to play a bit of country fiddle on it. In the meantime, I asked Darryl Litster if he’d be up for laying down some upright bass. He was game.
(As with some of the other people who’ve become a part of the “solo album with many guests” adventure, I didn’t know Darryl before this, but having met and played with him now, I can tell you he’s a great fella and a great musician.)
I put down some bed tracks, using microphones that aren’t so small the eyes can’t find them. Couldn’t quite get the singing where I wanted it, but there was a good enough foundation to work with. I was adding some harmony bits last Tuesday afternoon just before Darryl came over when something happened that’s never happened before in all the fifteen and-a-half years I’ve been recording music with this obsolete digital mixer.
The mixer ate part of the song.
I was working on yodeling harmonies when I thought, “Hey, this specific chord sequence is only supposed to happen twice. Now it’s happening three times. And the first line of the next verse disappeared. What’s that about? Am i losing my mind here?”
I wasn’t losing my mind. The mixer’s hard drive decided to extend part of the bridge section and chop out four bars of the last verse to compensate. A chunk of the song was just gone, out of nowhere. Nothing I did could bring it back. All the work I’d put into it had been for nothing. The whole thing was ruined.
When you’ve got someone coming over in less than an hour to play some upright bass and the song you were supposed to work on has turned itself into toast at the worst possible time, you need to figure something else out. Quick.
I thought of a song that was hanging out on the growing pile of “things I like but I’m not sure if they’re album material right now”, called “Hollow Mast”. I couldn’t really tell you what was in my head at the time I wrote it. It uses a sailing vessel as a metaphor for…well, I’m not altogether sure what. A broken relationship, I guess. Whatever it’s about, mizzen-mast goes on the list of “words I never thought I’d find a place for in a song”.
Truth be told, the main reason I wrote it was because I thought I might get lucky and convince Great Aunt Ida to sing harmony on a song. I wanted it to be something in her wheelhouse, and this was the thing that came out when I was thinking of her. As much as I’ve enjoyed keeping it local with everyone who’s been a part of this stuff, I figured it was worth taking a shot at a non-Windsor-dwelling guest. Why not?
She read my Facebook message but never acknowledged or responded to it.
That’s why not.
After that, I tried to get someone local to sing on it. Figured my chances were better there. They seemed enthusiastic about it. Then they blew me off six million times. I tried a second Windsor singer. The same thing happened again.
I got fed up, said, “To hell with this song,” and pretty much forgot about it for a good half a year.
What I’m saying is, I traded one doomed thing for a different doomed thing. Smooth, man. Smooth as silk pajamas.
As far as the structure of “Hollow Mast” goes, it’s a very simple A-B-A-B form, but the second time around the A and B parts both double in length, and then there’s a little C part that acts as a turnaround (it’s a little too brief to be a real bridge) before our friend A comes back again for a few seconds to say goodbye. There’s nothing in it that resembles a chorus. Hey — if you’re going to write a song with a repetitive structure, it doesn’t mean you can’t mess with it a little.
I chose this song as a last-minute backup because of its simplicity. It’s only made up of a few chords. There’s a lot of space in there for floating around and improvising, where some of the other songs I’ve written for this album jump through a much more complex series of flaming hoops and leave less room to wander.
I wrote out the lyrics with the root notes so Darryl would have a bit of a road map. Then he showed up and I gave him the news. We ran through the “new” song maybe three times with me singing. After that, I stopped singing and we started recording.
We recorded piano and bass at the same time, the same way I did it with Max way back when — two Neumann KM184s on the piano and the Pearlman TM-1 in omni on the bass. The best upright bass sounds I’ve ever been able to get have been captured this way. Something about the bleed that happens when the bass is inches away from the piano is really pleasing.
Another nice thing about doing it this way: we’re both playing acoustic instruments that put out a lot of volume, so there’s no need to monitor on headphones. We can play to the open air and kind of mix ourselves. Then we can put on the headphones and hear what we’ve done a different way.
The first proper take was just a run-through. The second, third, and fourth takes were incomplete. The fifth take came out sounding pretty nice. The sixth and seventh takes broke down when I kept hitting a chord I didn’t want to hit.
The eighth take was the one. It was perfectly imperfect. It ambled in all the right ways. We could both feel it.
We could have kept attacking it, but it would have started to lose some of its soul. Maybe we’d have a better grasp on what we wanted to do and it would sound a little bit tighter a few more takes in, but the searching quality, where you can hear the music kind of finding itself in real-time, would be gone. And I like being able to hear the search.
So we have the guts of the thing, and I think I’ve got a take I’m pretty happy with for the lead vocal. I’m not sure if I want to leave it naked or layer it a lot. Feels like it could work either way. One thing’s for sure: I’m not ever asking anyone else to sing the harmony part again. I’ll do it myself.
And there you go. One thing ruins itself, and something else rises up in its place. If the old-timey waltz cooperated with me, I probably never would have recorded “Hollow Mast” at all. Now I’m pretty glad it worked out the way it did and fate conspired to bring it back from the abyss.
In other news, STEW is at #1 on the CJAM charts for the second week in a row. I think just about everything I’ve done over the past dozen years has charted somewhere inside of the top ten at some point (except for the MISFITS compilation, which I never expected to get much airplay), and a few things have hit #1, but I’m not sure I’ve ever had anything stay at the top spot for two weeks running. That’s just nuts.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: subliminal messages work!
When I first started working on this thing — this solo album with many guests, for lack of a better description — I wanted to take a stab at finally writing for voices that weren’t mine. The idea of doing that on its own was and continues to be so inspiring, it’s insane. I don’t think I’ve written so many songs intended for one specific album in my life, ill-fated ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE thing aside.
I wasn’t sure how many singers I would be able to get involved. I figured I’d be lucky if I got a couple. As it stands right now there are eleven. Eleven different singers who have become a part of this album. And there should be a few more before things wrap up.
Writing for other players and singers is fascinating. That was true when I first started doing it, and it’s no less true now, after I’ve been doing it here and there for about a year. You can set up space for someone to improvise within the framework of something that’s written, map something out in detail for someone to replicate, or use a written part as a jumping-off point for improvisation and fuse the two approaches together. Those are the three different ways I’ve gone about it, at least.
In a way, all-out improvisation is the least surprising approach most of the time. You tend to have a feel for what a musician’s personality is and the way they’ll think through things, so you have some idea of what you’re going to get, even if the performance itself is impossible to anticipate. You know to expect the unexpected.
More surprising is giving someone something you want them to reproduce as precisely as they can — which doesn’t seem to make much sense, but stay with me here. When you’ve never done that before, because you’re used to playing and singing every part yourself, it’s surprising first of all to learn that it is a thing you can do. You can write arrangements and fit the pieces together in a way that isn’t just intuitive. You can operate as an arranger. And with singers, it’s really something to hear someone sing the words and vocal melodies you’ve written, in some cases note for note, while still finding ways of working their own sense of phrasing and their own emotional truth into it. Because those things are always going to worm their way in there somehow.
One example: I wrote a song that was a musical dialogue for two voices, male and female. I recorded a rough demo and sent it to Leanna Roy (who you might know as Lele Danger). A friend put me in touch with her when I was looking for singers who weren’t dudes and not having much success.
Leanna has a gorgeous voice. I thought I had a pretty good idea what it would sound like when she sang her part. I’ve rarely been a huge fan of my own voice, but one thing it’s given me is a surprising amount of range to play with. So I could hit the notes she was going to hit and imagine what it would sound like when I wasn’t the person singing those lines and hitting those notes anymore.
Then she came in, and what she did almost broke my brain. Here she was singing the part pretty much the way I wrote it, but there was all this feeling I wasn’t expecting to be there. She was singing about capsized seasons and disinfected answers to hesitant questions like she felt it in her guts, even if she had no idea what my lyrics were supposed to mean. It was like she invested this character I barely sketched out with all this depth I didn’t even know was there.
That’s because she has her own vocal personality, and it brings something to the song I could never give it myself, because I’m not a woman with a beautiful voice. And it’s because the song brought something out of her that wasn’t ordinary, and she acknowledged that. I love her voice, but I’ve never heard her sing quite that same way anywhere else.
So she brought something special to the song, and the song fed her something special she was able to channel back into it, and out of that came something that could never have existed without this accidental perfect storm of bringing and feeding and channeling.
(There’s more to the song than that, but I ain’t givin’ it all away.)
In some ways it’s a total crapshoot. If I don’t know someone’s voice that well, I’m guessing at what a comfortable range is going to be for them to sing in based on what I’ve heard of their singing and the way that fights against what I want to write and what key it wants to live in. And I have my own way of phrasing things and forming melodies that might not be aligned with the way someone else’s musical mind works.
Zara is a great example of this. She usually won’t sing something exactly the way you ask her to sing it. It always comes back a little different. In her case I think it’s because singing is a wholly emotional process for her. She doesn’t attack it in a cerebral way. She feels it.
With the first song I asked her to sing on — the one about buying time at the end of the world — I probably spent half an hour trying to get her to sing a few lines with a certain inflection. We’d get about halfway there, and then she’d start singing it a different way. We both ended up laughing about it.
In time, I got her to sing it the way I thought I wanted her to. But later, when I listened to what we recorded after she left, I realized her way was better. She has this way of jazzing things up and singing around and behind the beat that’s really interesting. She also has this Chan Marshall, Sharon Van Etten kind of darkness to her voice, which is amazing as a writer — to hear a voice like that singing your words back at you.
The second time I asked her to sing on something, I just played her my guide vocal and then let her do her thing and bend it where her voice wanted to go.
Last night I had another one of those brain-exploding experiences.
I found out about Jen Knight by chance, while eyeing music-related classified ads on Kijiji out of curiosity. I found a cover she did of the Radiohead song “Creep” on YouTube, and immediately I wanted to write something and ask her to sing on it.
She has this voice that screams soul. A voice that could lead a gospel choir to higher ground. If you were writing something you might hope to have someone with a voice like that sing, you would think “uptempo soul stomp thing” before you knew you were thinking anything. And yeah, that’s what I thought when I first heard her sing. The voice wants to take the mind there. Go mind, go. Go down where slow secrets go to reinvent themselves as nimbler creatures.
But see, my brain wants to kick thoughts like those in the shins hard enough to snap bone and use the pain-induced delirium to turn the thoughts, warp them, make them something other than what they were born to be. My brain says: What if you took that voice and made it the messenger for a dark folk song with no chorus? What then?
Voices transform words and melodies just by being themselves. When I sang the thing I wrote, I liked it just fine. When Jen sang the thing back to me, I thought, “This is the voice that was meant to sing these words. It never could have been any other way.”
She becomes the character the song wants her to be. If I close my eyes I can see her there inside its heart. She’s come down the other side of a mountain she took a long time to climb, and made her way back around to where you are, and you aren’t even you yet, aren’t even real, but she wants to tell you what she’s seen and how it’s going to be. She’s giving you the map of your life, if only you had hands to grasp it with.
That’s the power of a voice that isn’t yours singing words you wrote, when the right voice meets the right words.
Here’s a sobering thought: I haven’t released a new album since the summer of 2011. By the standards I set for myself in the handful of years leading up to that point, I should have released about six additional full-length albums in the interim. Instead, there’s been nothing since the profane-but-surprisingly-catchy breakup album that was GIFT FOR A SPIDER.
For some — maybe most — people who make music, that would be normal. For me, it’s an unprecedented period of time without new spinning plastic things to share. It’s beyond a break or a hiatus. It’s almost unforgivable.
There were a slew of reasons for the gap, some of which have been mentioned here. The good news (or bad news, depending on how you feel about me and the noises I make) is there’s an onslaught of new music on its way in the New Year to make the gap ashamed it ever existed.
It’s probably been a decade or more since I was as busy as I am right now. It’s a little crazy. How crazy? I’ll break down what’s been going on and let you decide. Prepare for several large titles in bold, beginning with…
NEW TIRE SWING CO. MUSIC
On my end, Tire Swing Co. started as an unexpected but welcome job, with me pretending to be a producer and recording someone else’s music for the first time in a good few years. That lasted for about five minutes before it became something I was much more a part of than I thought I was going to be. “Hark!” the bearded one cried. “An emotional investment!” Now I think I can safely say I’m a dedicated, full-time member of the band, or ensemble, or whatever it wants to be called.
Tire Swing Co. really exists as two separate, distinct things, and that’s something I find kind of fascinating. In the studio it’s not really a band at all. It’s just Steve and me, with the occasional guest stopping by. Steve writes the songs, he sings them and plays guitar, and then most of the time I’m left to my own devices to figure out how to dress them up. He trusts my instincts, and though there have been times when I’ve sent him a rough mix of something and thought, “I went too far this time,” I’ve yet to hear back, “You did wrong! To Hades you go!” So I listen to my gut, and if it’s not saying, “Feed me, you scoundrel,” I run with whatever arrangement ideas it gives me.
Live, Tire Swing Co. is usually Steve backed by members of James O-L and the Villains. I sit out most of the shows because of sleep demons, and because playing live isn’t where I’m at my most comfortable, though the few times I’ve participated it’s been a lot of fun.
So you could pick up an album, see the band live (where it really is a proper band), and experience two very different takes on the same material. It’s not that one is better than the other. Maybe the recordings are a little more atmospheric, and some of the songs would be difficult to pull off in a live setting, while the shows have their own specific energy, rocking out a bit more. I like that.
The first Tire Swing Co. album is still available on Bandcamp in its entirety as a pay-what-you-want, have-it-for-free-if-you-like download.
The follow-up is in the works right now. I’m not sure if it’s going to be a full-length album or an EP. If it’s a short-form album, it just might sneak out before the year’s end.
(Edit: it did turn into an EP, and it did sneak out a little early, on Christmas Day. It’s available for free download over HERE)
Where the first album was an alt-folk record at root, the new songs have been going some different places. One thing that hasn’t gone away, though, is the intentional lack of polish. Steve shares my fondness for rough edges and early takes. We’ve never once used a click track. I’d rather let the songs breathe. If they want to speed up or slow down a little halfway through, that’s their right. Besides, it’s my job as the drummer (in the studio, anyway) to worry about rhythmic matters of the heart later on.
THE SECOND COMING OF PAPA GHOSTFACE
I didn’t see this one coming.
I always hoped the old Papa Ghostface fire would start spitting out sparks again someday, but I wasn’t sure how realistic that hope was. It’s one thing when you’re teenagers and you have all the time and energy in the world. It’s a little different when you’re adults, one of you has a family, and the other finally gets the facial hair he always wanted.
Gord and I have been friends since we met under cover of musical serendipity in grade ten English class, and I expect we always will be. I can’t remember us having one semi-serious argument about anything over the years. Our lives and music just took us different places after we’d finished recording a few careers worth of songs almost no one has ever heard while we were still teenagers. He went off to form the long-running (and long-evolving) band Surdaster, while I did my “making lots of restless music under my own name” thing.
Earlier this year, when I was working out who to talk to about potentially playing/singing on my ambitious idea for a new solo album, I thought I’d shoot Gord a message to see if he might be interested in doing a little messing around for old time’s sake. The timing turned out to be perfect. Surdaster had just dissolved after more than a decade of shifting lineups, and I caught him feeling — as he put it — “like a pimple filled with musical pus, ready to pop”.
Maybe these things happen when they’re supposed to sometimes.
We got together and found the near-telepathic musical connection we stumbled onto when we were high school sophomores was still there, undiminished. Jamming gave way to an explosion of creative energy, and we found ourselves making an album together — our first since the CASTRATED EP, if you don’t count 2002’s semi-posthumous KISSING THE BALD SPOT.
The recording process has been a bit of a stop-start affair, due in large part to recurring sleep issues on my end, but at this point I think we’re only a month and a hair away from the finish line. Almost all the songs we want to squeeze in there have been recorded. Some just need to marinate a little longer, we need to figure out a good sequence, and I need to do some serious mixing.
If PAPER CHEST HAIR has long stood as the closest thing to a “mature” Papa Ghostface album, as made by our then-sixteen-year-old selves, this is the real deal — PG older and wiser, without quotation marks. After all these years of writing about certain solo songs, “This is what I imagine a modern day, grown-up Papa Ghostface track would sound like,” there’s no longer any need to imagine. Now there’s a whole album full of actual grown-up Papa Ghostface songs.
It probably goes without saying that the production and sound quality are a little better than on our earlier albums. I have better gear now, and I know a bit more about using it than i did half a lifetime ago. We’re both better, more confident musicians. That helps too. Stylistically I’m not sure where we’re at now, but then I never knew what to call the music we made when people would ask me about it. One thing I can tell you is that the marathon psychodramas of Papa Ghostface and Guys with Dicks past aren’t making a comeback just yet. There are no twenty-minute chunks of molten psyche packed into music here. There’s no twisted role-playing, no larynx-obliterating screams, no trying on a different vocal persona for every song.
But it wouldn’t be a Papa Ghostface album without at least one ominous spoken-word piece. So we made sure not to overlook that.
I’ve always wished I’d been able to get Gord to sing on more of our songs, because when he did step up to the microphone (most notably on YOU’RE A NATION and SHOEBOX PARADISE), some interesting things happened. While most of the singing on this album is still coming from me, this is probably the most collaborative thing we’ve ever done. In the past it fell to me to supply the lyrics most of the time, whether I was writing them or improvising them as we were recording, and around the time of PAPER CHEST HAIR I started showing Gord more or less finished songs for us to mess around with, to supplement our well-worn “improvise around an idea or hit the record button with no idea what we’re about to do” methods.
This time around there’s more craft than improv, and there’s really no dividing line anywhere, aside from the odd song that was already fully-formed by one of us before it was brought into the “studio”. Most of the time a song that starts as his or my idea is overflowing with additions from both of us by the time we’re finished with it, and some of the lyrics have been written as a two-man effort while sitting on the porch with acoustic guitars, both of us tossing out lines.
It’s a good thing we’ve found a replacement space for the porch, now that the weather ain’t looking too kindly on porch-sitting anymore.
One new wrinkle is that we seem to have developed, without meaning to, a way of playing guitar together that’s so locked-in it becomes difficult to pick out who played what after the fact, even for us. On some songs there are four or six or more individual guitar tracks, and yet it sounds like one very large guitar playing countermelodies and harmonies with itself.
I love the insanity of a lot of our old music, as raw as some of it is. I wouldn’t have written as much as I have about it on the album pages if that wasn’t the case. But something like this is so far removed from anything we were doing or could have even tried to do back then, I almost can’t believe the same two guys responsible for a song like PAPER CHEST HAIR’s “Piece of Crap in Your Shoe” did this.
Who knew we would grow up to be real boys one day?
For all that’s different, one thing hasn’t changed — Gord still brings out something in me no one else ever has, and I find myself experimenting when we’re working together and doing things with my voice I wouldn’t normally think to do, whether it’s Middle-Eastern-inspired wordless wailing or multi-tracked theatrical growling (both of which show up in the same song, for the record).
Another thing I’m realizing: this is a pretty somber album we’re making here. I don’t think that’s a bad thing by any means. I’ve always liked swimming around in darker, murkier subject matter, and there was never a dearth of that on earlier Papa Ghostface albums. But this time around there’s a distinct lack of goofiness throughout. We’ve gone from weird sex and spandex-wearing muppets to ruminations on fate, faith, solitude, betrayal, and love that’s as ephemeral as the seasons turning over.
I guess we’ve come a long way. And I can’t help cracking up at the idea that some people will probably assume this is the first Papa Ghostface album, since it’ll be the first one they’ve heard, when it’s going to be our ninth.
When things didn’t work out with the first guest I was hoping to have sing on some of my new solo material, some friends put me in touch with a few great people who are now a part of the album in that person’s place. First to come into my orbit was Natalie, after Steve suggested I talk to her. She sang a lead part on a song I’d written as a male/female dialogue, and she was fantastic. Then I got her, Steve, and James to do this with me:
There’s much more to it than that, but that’s a little sneak peak until I get around to editing more of the raw footage into something digestible.
As it happens, she’s a songwriter too. She liked the work I’d done on the first Tire Swing Co. album, and she was feeling the pull to record something after the band she was in broke up. We ended up recording some of her songs together, with her singing and playing guitar (plus electrified ukulele on one song) and me adding the kinds of things I add when someone says, “Addition!” and throws me proverbial pen and paper. The group vocal madness worked out so well on my own song, we went back to the well for one of her songs, with Caleb offering baritone goodness in Steve’s absence.
Natalie is a really beautiful, down-to-earth person who makes you feel good just to be around her, and her songs are very much extensions of her and the people, creatures, and things she cares about. She also has a wonderfully unique voice and doesn’t sound like anyone else I can think of — except for that one time it sounded a bit like she was channeling Neko Case for one song.
A few songs still need a bit of work on my end, but there isn’t a whole lot left to do, and I’m excited for the finished album to see the light of day, whether it comes out under the Teenage Geese name, Natalie’s actual name, or something else, and whether she spreads it around a lot or just shares it with friends and family. They’re great songs, and I’m really happy I got to be a part of capturing them and their beating hearts.
Zara was someone I reached out to on my own when I was starting to really get excited about the idea of having not just one but several unique female voices taking spotlit turns on my album. We’d never met or communicated in any form, but I remembered hearing a few of her songs years ago and liking her voice a lot. I had no idea if she would be interested in singing on something of mine. I figured I had nothing to lose, so I sent her a message just to see what would happen.
What happened was this.
Then something else happened.
Some months back, I mentioned this idea I had to “pay” people for contributing to my album by offering to record a song of theirs for free. I have no issues with paying anyone actual money if that’s what they’re most comfortable with, as long as it’s understood that it’s a straight session fee and no money is going to be generated by the music itself. But I liked the idea of a musical trade of sorts, and I thought some fun might come out of recording people I hadn’t worked with before, assuming anyone took me up on the offer.
Zara was one of the people who did take me up on it, and recording one song led to recording a whole album — another development I wasn’t anticipating. I don’t think I’m someone people tend to think of when they’re looking to record an album in this city. They think of Mark Plancke at the Shark Tank, Brett Humber at Sound Foundry, Josh Kaiser, Martin at SLR…you know, actual established studios and people who make a habit of recording other people for a living.
I don’t put my name out there as someone who does that kind of work, because it’s not a regular thing for me. These days I’m pretty selective in who I work with when I do choose to record music that isn’t my own. If I don’t feel a connection to the music and I don’t feel like the people are involved are trustworthy, I don’t see the point. I don’t charge enough to make musical work I can’t get enthusiastic about worthwhile, and I’m a little wary about working with people I don’t know after the amount of times “helping out a new friend” has turned into “getting screwed”. Beyond all that, if you want something that sounds like it’s been polished to death, I’m the absolute last person you want to call.
I can record somewhat shinier-sounding things if that’s what a band or songwriter is going for. I somehow found a way to do it in the past, when I didn’t even have the kind of equipment that should have allowed it to happen. But I really don’t like to work that way, and unless someone wants to pay me a stupid amount of money to craft something that wouldn’t sound too out of place on commercial radio (which won’t ever happen, for many different reasons), I won’t willingly go there.
On the other hand, if you want something imperfect that reflects the way you actually sound, without pitch-correction or sound replacement or laser hair removal or guided trigonometry, maybe I’m not the worst choice.
Zara was after something raw and stripped-down. I can do raw and stripped-down. Aside from adding a really simple piano part to one song, all I did was try to grab the sound of her playing and singing in the room. I don’t think her songs need any embellishing — though if at some point she wanted to have me record her again and there was a bit more time to sit with the material, I’d be happy to experiment with adding some more sounds, if she wanted to hear that happen.
She has a very dynamic way of singing and playing guitar. Songs will ramp up from whisper-quiet to intense strumming and belting without warning. And it’s not belting in the “I am singing loud because loud loud oh my God hear how loud i am” way. It’s more like her emotions are exploding out of her throat and this is the only way she can redirect them so they won’t explode you too.
I like that unpredictability. I wanted to stay out of the way as much as possible and just let it (and her) be, without imparting much of whatever “sound” I have. I feel like I could have done a better mixing job, but I feel that way about everything I’ve ever done and will probably go on feeling that way about everything else I ever do, so at a certain point I have to walk away and accept that a perfect mix isn’t something I’m ever going to arrive at. I just don’t have the skill set to make that happen. And I could have used more compression and got everything sounding a bit louder and narrower, but I felt more comfortable leaving the dynamic range intact.
I spent more time than I should have in the past trying to get things as loud as possible at the expense of sound quality. I’m not ever going to do that again. No offence intended to anyone who likes their music loud and compressed to the point of strangulation (for certain kinds of music that sound works very well), but the Loudness War can suck my spit.
Anyway. About that imperfection thing. There are brief drop-outs in two songs you can hear if you’re listening on headphones, where a finger or a shirt sleeve touched the capsule of one of the super-sensitive Neumann KM184s pointed at the sixty-three-year-old Gibson LG-2 that’s become my default “you play guitar the right way? here’s something in standard tuning!” axe. You can catch a car horn honking outside at the tail end of the penultimate song’s fade. I thought the performances were good enough, and the sonic flaws small and unobtrusive enough, that it didn’t make sense to re-record those things. Those are the kind of flaws I think can add character to a recording when they’re not so jarring that they take you out of the music.
This is the first official full-length album Zara has recorded as far as I know, and the one thing out of all this madness I’ve been involved in that’s sure to slip out before the end of the year, because it already has — she had her CD release show at Phog last night. Though I’m still a little surprised she chose to record the album with me, I’m glad she did. That voice all on its own is about three hundred different kinds of special, and it’s surreal to hear it coming through your headphones not as a record of a past performance but as a thing happening in the room that you’re a part of capturing.
NEW SHIMMER DEMOLITION
My good friend Adam makes some really cool music that blurs the lines between shoegaze, grunge, dream-pop, doom-thrum (I just made that one up), and a whole lot of other good stuff. I’ve been lucky enough to master a few of his albums in recent years, and the best job I’ve done in that department is probably still this right here.
His next (and not-yet-released) album might be his best one yet. His music just keeps getting catchier and dreamier, in the best possible ways, and the vocal harmonies he’s thrown into the mix here and there add a whole new layer of goodness.
Speaking of harmonies…I got to sing some of those on one song. The moment I heard the track, a harmony line popped into my head, and I twisted Adam’s arm a little into letting me come in and give it a try, just to see what would happen. I know what it’s like when you’re a one-person operation and you’re reluctant to let other fingers feel their way into the pie, but I felt like I had something here.
Fortunately I was able to sing what was in my head after a few shaky early takes, and the results conjured a whole music video in my head. You know you’re on the right track when that happens. I’m really proud I got to wail a little on a song, and relieved Adam liked what I did. Hopefully the album will get an official release sometime next year. I get to be a guest again! A guest on someone else’s thing! Hooray for guesting, I say.
THE CONTINUING SOLO ADVENTURES
There are now thirteen different singers and musicians who have contributed to what is in some ways the most ambitious album I’ve ever sunk my teeth into — this thing I’m calling YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK — and there should be a few more contributors by the time I’m done. As an album it doesn’t have the physical enormity of the eons-in-the-making and still-far-from-finished multiple-disc mess that is THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE, but the sonic scope of the thing is beyond anything I’ve attempted before, with several voices aside from my own, strings, horns, and upright bass, along with all the sounds I usually make myself and a few I’ve never made before.
This one has taken a little longer to pull together than I first thought it would. I haven’t been obsessing over it or working on it nonstop. It’s been more a matter of coordinating schedules and having to wait a little while for some some people to come in and record their parts. But man, has it ever been worth the longer-than-usual gestation period.
You’ll just have to trust me when I tell you it’ll be worth the wait. These are some of my favourite songs I’ve written in years, I think it’s some of the more interesting work I’ve done in a textural sense (mixing some of these songs has been a challenge, to put it mildly), and the performances I’ve got down on digital tape from the ladies and gentlemen who’ve contributed their fingers and breath and vocal cords add whole new emotional and sonic dimensions.
It’s tempting to stretch it out to a double CD. I’ve written a lot of songs for this album. When i say “a lot”, I mean you would punch me if i told you how many. It’s ridiculous. But I think i’m probably better off squeezing as much as I can into the eighty minutes offered by a single disc and saving the rest of the songs for something else. Otherwise it could all get out of hand pretty fast. One huge ill-fated album that keeps hovering in the background and takes forever to finish is enough for me, thankyaverymuch. I wouldn’t want this stuff to suffer the same fate.
So there’s enough material there for at least a few sprawling albums after this one. And then there’s THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE itself, which I still do intend to finish someday. And there will be another out-takes/misfits collection somewhere down the line as well. And there’s another unexpected collaborative project in the works, but I think I need to stay tight-lipped about that one for a little while.
So there’s the news. That was a pretty long-winded way to say, “Expect to hear a whole lot of new noise in the months ahead,” but I’ve rarely been concise here. Why start reeling it in at this late stage in the game? WHY, I ASK YOU?!