Song Sources: The [very, very late] FAWM 2021 Wrap-Up (Part 2)

This Song Sources series is a retrospective and comprehensive set of liner notes (including recording and mixing techniques) for every track on Pirate A.M. Waves. It’s my hope it will be useful to other songwriters and home recordists. (Part 1 here.)

I’m Not a Builder

Side 2 of the album opens with one of my favorite collaborations I’ve ever done. Joe Scala and I swapped lyrics. Although he ended up barely using anything of what I sent him, he sent me three pages of lyrics from which this pastiche of mid-career Springsteen emerged.

Lyrics

A D A
I found work turning blood and sweat to gold
E A
blessed with good fortune never earned
But I paid dearly for when I lost my way
Left me poorer except in lessons learned

Chorus
E D A
I’m not a builder, but once I thought I was
F#m E A
Fought against the gravity and rust
E D A
Thought I built a house of solid brick and stone
F#m E A
Just to watch it crumble into dust

I carried stones and set them strong and well
But time wears on what you try to keep
Now I hope you find someone build you up a home
I can only say I wish that it was me

Bridge
F#m D E
Thought we’d be stronger than every wind or fire
Thought we’d weather every storm and flood
But time crept and weakened every fracture
F#m E A
I’m not a builder
F#m D E
I’m not a builder
F#m E A
I’m not a builder and I guess I never was

Instrumental
[ A Bm C#m D x3 ]
[ F#m E A ] x4

One thing I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older
A fool can spoil everything he’s planned
Goes and carries what he cannot hold
Sets out building something that won’t stand

Chorus x2

So let’s talk about the three pages of lyrics Joe sent me: Joe seems to be better than I am about keeping his brainstorming ideas, rarely discarding anything. It’s a different way of writing, but I tend to write the story straightforwardly, rarely noting lines that I don’t think will make it in some form in the final version. Most of manipulation is meter and rhyme at that point, or word choice to punch things up.

Whereas the times I’ve seen him work (not suggesting this is the only thing he does), Joe tends to start from a concept, then write lots of lines and work out the story from the ones he likes. Maybe he has a story in mind ahead of time and writes down everything that comes from it, I don’t really know, but the bottom line is when we swap lyrics, he sends me a lot of lines, and I send him a pretty tight group of verses and a chorus. In 2020, he expanded what I sent him. This year, he discarded everything but the idea of the song. I did the same thing both years: I took the lines I liked, formed verses out of them, and then manipulated them until they resembled a song.

I’m not going to show all of the sausage making process, but I will show this part from the end where he’s typing out the story:

Play with:
AM & NOT
M & F
LITERAL & SYMBOLIC
YOU & I
UPON 
RELATIONSHIP & INDIVIDUAL
STORY & SNAPSHOT

the original vague idea here was… 
a man (not a builder) built things that didn’t last
specifically with a woman
apologizing for this, or at least describing with insight, lesson learned
trying get woman back? trying to make himself feel better about what happened? avoiding responsibility (I’m NOT a builder) – redirecting blame to THE builder, a god of sorts. Job-like character (accepting fate) or Jesus-like (renouncing – ‘why have you forsaken me’) – questioning the existence or wisdom of such a force. I as a mere mortal have learned my lesson, why haven’t you – are you stupid or cruel… or is there a ‘higher meaning’… there is ALWAYS higher meaning in a conspiracy theory (ie religion)… lol. The facts fit the narrative, not the other way around… 

Back to the simpler version, just a man, woman, some things that were built, fell, some reasons why, and what the consequences are.

Maybe woman is dead – and the things they built can’t stand without her.

reasons marriages fall apart – slowly building depression of one or both… slipping away and no tools to get back. substance use. tragic events or trauma – loss of a child, can’t conceive. financial troubles/mismanagement. Infidelity, loss of trust.

I kept the feeling of let’s call it confusion on the part of the narrator about why things fell apart, and the feeling of despair from this moment where they realize that there is no way to salvage it. Sometimes you write a song like this and the couple figures out how to make things better. Sometimes it’s a retrospective on a broken relationship. This is the moment they realize it’s broken beyond repair.

Arrangement and Recording

I knew going in that the music was going to have some new Jersey flavor. The real goal was to avoid making it an actual rip off or parody. I started with the acoustic and vocal, but ended up replacing both separately as the feel of the song changed. I had the build-up after the bridge in mind pretty early on, as I was certain that an electric guitar solo didn’t belong in the song. In the live version of The Boss’s Atlantic City, Weinberg plays an incessantly simple part for the entire song (with only a single drum fill near the end), which I lifted for the verses and choruses, but the feel changes on the bridge so I wasn’t quite that brave.

The build was primarily in the drums before I went back and redid the acoustic and overdubbed the guitars. This kind of instrumental is challenging recorded as an overdub: When you’re playing live with other people, you can feel subtle changes in the timing, and you have the freedom to speed up a little to add intensity to something like this. As long as you’re all together, it doesn’t turn into a mess. It’s really easy to rush one instrument and the whole thing falls apart, or feel like it’s dragging.

The fake-out ending after the build is the closest I get to just being Springsteen parody, but it’s really fun to record overdubs as if you’re playing live with a full band.

I mentioned needing to redo the acoustic, but I actually had to re-do it twice. At some point when I was mixing I realized that the timing was just terrible on it, and I spent some time trying manually cut the track up to match the strums. This was possibly one of the stupidest mixing decisions I’ve ever made — all I had to do was put a microphone in front of the guitar and re-record it.

The ending was also something worked out essentially in post. I played it out on the other instruments, but ended up just muting everything but the acoustic and bass drum to leave the vocals (almost) acapella. Listening back now, it’s slightly weird to go to three part prominent harmony there, especially given how pushed back the harmony is in the choruses, but people commented on its effectiveness at the time I posted the song, so I guess it worked.

Weaver (Who Took Her Fate Out of Her Hands?)

Trigger warning: This song references suicide.

Lyrics

| C | Am | Dm | F
Sunday morning’s leaded sunlight
| C | Am | Dm | F
Waking like a shuttle passing hand to thread
| C | Am | Dm | F
Not sure if she’s living or crying in bed
| Am | G | F |
Who took her fate out of her hands?

Elaine drifts by her on the river
Sleeping in sweat or in a rain soaked robe?
Spent her life dying for unrequited love
Who took her fate out of her hands?

Hair is sinking in her coffee
Watching her mother shuffle off and drown
Pulling on a thread to unravel her own
Who took her fate out of her hands?

Wafting down along the park side
Spooling up the web that captured you
Maybe find a reason in a month or two
Who took her fate out of her hands?

Falling on the couch like midnight
Everyone’s struggling to put up with this
No one wants a guilty metamorphosis
Who took her fate out of her hands?

This is a song about someone waking up in the middle of a personal crisis, and the only person she thinks she could actually turn to for understanding and support is gone.

I’m hesitant to give details about the background for the lyrics. It tangentially came from a friend’s loss of their mother to suicide, and it’s told from the perspective of someone going through the same thing. I’ve buried any real-life details under a mile of classical references because it’s honestly the only way I know how to handle the emotions involved.

Week three’s challenge was word painting, so I used a website that gives you a random word to write around. I didn’t get “weaving” or “weaver” but I did get the name of a part of a loom, which was interesting enough, so I started digging up stories about weavers in mythology and legends, though the first to come to mind was Penelope. (I’ve written a far, far less serious song about the Odyssey before.) Penelope’s mother walked into the sea and drowns, which is the reference in the third verse (which was the first one I wrote). The Elaine mentioned in the second verse is from Arthurian legends. There’s also an oblique reference to Arachea (and Ovid’s book with the story in it) and general verbiage about weaving. Weaving is also written into the tune: it starts at one point, falls a little, rises a little, falls a little more, until it gets to the end of the row in its lowest note. But the tune doesn’t resolve, because when people take their own life it really just leaves everything unresolved.

Arrangement and Recording

One of the fun parts of FAWM is that occasionally you get stuck working on the lyrics of a song until fairly late into the night. Your partner is sleeping in the other room, how can you write the tune without disturbing them?

Luckily I’ve stayed in practice at writing actual sheet music (I know, shocking coming from a guitarist!) so I could write a lead sheet, but even better I found a tool last year called MuseScore, which will play back the melody and chords you write. This let me work out the bones of the song before going to sleep, and made recording the next day go a little smoother.

My template for any sparse, melancholy song is Gillian Welch, and my first attempt at this song went a little too far in that direction. A tiny bit of soul-y swing to the lead guitar helped a little, but this was one case where even a simple drum part could really elevate the atmosphere of a song unexpectedly, and the ride cymbal adds some strange magic that I couldn’t get with just the acoustic guitars and a reverb. The drum sound is almost entirely the overheads, which made things easier in mixing and really makes the ride stand out. (Part of the reason is that the cross stick is quite loud, so the snare mic is pretty much muted during the verses.)

The arrangement was still a little off, though, because the acoustic guitar just didn’t have the gravitas I wanted, and a bass guitar really wasn’t helping, so I added the piano and went back to redo the “rhythm” guitar with the intent that it was the only one. I stuck with the Larrivee because the little Japanese guitar was a little cramped when capo’ed at the 5th fret — it felt like capoing on fret 7 or 8 on a full sized guitar!

Captain Wynter’s Return to England (Follow Me)

I try to write a historical ballad or two every year. This is the third such song taking place during the Age of Discovery. 

Lyrics

| C#m B | E
In November in Plymouth they wheeled cannons aboard
| B | C#m
As I stood with The Elizabeth’s men
| C#m B | E
Eight score and five, Captain Wynter among ’em
| B | C#m
And Captain Drake at The Pelican’s helm
| A | E
Two weeks out from Falmouth we were already grounded
| B | C#m
The wind might know something we don’t
| C#m B | E
It broke the Pelican’s mast then we drifted to Magador
| B | C#m
We sure weren’t sailing to the Levant

| A | E
“Follow me, boys! To raid caravels and fishers
| A | E
Our lives will be honored for all time!
| G#m
Follow me, boys!”
| A
“Aye, I’ll follow you captain,
| B | B/E C#m
If you’ll fill up my belly with Portuguese wine”

We took a hard tack south past the Cape Verde islands
Now we all knew the danger in store
But if the captain could sail under fire at Praia
We had faith when he promised us more
Then a storm whipped up as we neared Patagonia
And the crow’s nest lost sight of The Swan
We sailed to San Julian harbor to winter
And saw hanged mutineer’s whitened bones

“Follow me, boys! And we’ll cross the Atlantic
For riches you’d be amazed to behold!
Follow me, boys!”
“Aye I’ll follow you, Captain
If you’ll fill up our cargo with all of Spain’s gold.”

When the Swan limped behind us, though no worse for wear,
Drake beheaded Captain Doughty and John
And mid the whispers of mutiny, Drake gave a sermon,
Then the talk of such treachery stopped
They dismantled the Mary, and we sailed for the Strait
And a dozen more mornings of hell
Through the worst storms I’ve seen, worse than any I’ve heard of
And the sea claimed the Marigold as well

“Follow me, boys! Around Tierra del Fuego
We’ll sail the whole world around!
Follow me, boys!”
“Aye I’ll follow you, Captain
I’ll follow you through the Straits of Magellan to drown”

Our sails hung in shreds and the Elizabeth in splinters,
Captain Wynter turned back toward home
We took stock of the meager remaining provisions
And I’m getting drunk for the shame

“Follow me, boys! We’ll sail to the Indies.
the world will remember our names.
Follow me, boys!”
“We won’t follow you, Captain,
Not anymore, not for gold nor for glory nor fame.”

In 1577, Captain (future Sir) Francis Drake set off on what he claimed to his crew was a trading voyage to the Levant, but was actually England’s first attempt to break up Spain’s global domination, and would become the first circumnavigation of the globe by an English fleet. Drake’s numerous, and ofttimes dubious, accomplishments during the voyage include executing a captain who he wasn’t getting along with because the captain’s ship got separated in a storm (he accused the dude of using witchcraft to call up the storm!), being the first European to kill the indigenous peoples of Patagonia, royally pissing off the Spanish at every opportunity, and almost single-handedly starting a war between the Spanish and Portuguese. I’m sure he had some good qualities, too, because the English sure went nuts for the guy when he got back.

The Wikipedia page about the voyage is fascinating, well written, and comprehensive for this and I recommend taking the time to read it.

This is a song about an officer on one of the other ships in his fleet, The Elizabeth, which turned around and went home just after rounding the tip of South America through the Strait of Magellan, one of the most dangerous areas of ocean in the world: This turned out to be perhaps the most difficult part of the circumnavigation, and ironically the crew was probably in more danger returning the way they had come. Captain Wynter was forced to turn around because the crew threatened a total mutiny.

In any case, the officer narrating has mixed feelings about giving up glory for safety, and is getting drunk on what remains of some wine plundered from the Portuguese.

Arrangement and Recording

There’s not much to say here about the actual recording: It’s the same acoustic guitar and vocal setup used throughout the album, with the mics 19″ equidistant from the soundhole. I’m playing the Larrivee here.

There was one snag: I got a single take except for a single word in the very last line of the song, which I flubbed and didn’t even notice until doing my final mixes. In fact, I may even have gotten all the way to the point of uploading the songs to Bandcamp before I caught it!

Now, despite sticking to the same recording setup, it’s not the simplest thing to slot in a single word to a song that was played without a click with no extra instruments to mask the cut and the fade between the two takes. But it was just one word, shouldn’t be too bad. After all, I had a worse issue to deal with on the 2020 outtake “Someone Who Loves You” (included on the Lost EP), where I had to slot in a full verse that to me at least sounds quite different from the main take due to my inconsistent vocal mic discipline.

But then I discovered something else inconvenient while I was trying to get the whole line for a clean take: I had actually forgotten how to play the darn song. After “teaching” it to myself again, I settled in and ended up getting it good enough to take just the messed up word. Whew.

Stay, Little Bird

Just like I try to sneak in a ballad every year come hell or high water, I try to keep at least a few of my old-timey or bluegrassy muscles from atrophying.

Lyrics

D
Stay, little bird
A7
Winter’s not as long as they say
G D G D
Your mother and your father will be flying home again
G A7 D
Stay little bird, stay

Stay, little bird
Soon enough the snow will turn to rain
The ice will be melting as the days are getting long
Stay, little bird, at home

Stay, little bird
This attic is the safest place to be
Your brothers and your sisters can go off on their own
Stay, little bird, with me

Stay, little bird
Summer will be coming any day
The leaves will be greening as the other birds return
Stay little bird, stay

Birds nest in our attic’s vent (they’re outside the chicken wire, don’t worry). They showed up a little early this time. It’s always a little bittersweet when they stop tweeting each year.

My dad thought it was a little sad to ask the bird to stick around instead of following its friends and family, which is a fair point. Sometimes I’m a selfish person.

Recording and Arrangement

I can’t actually play real clawhammer banjo, even though my guitar playing incorporates some aspects of the technique, but I also can’t really play the bluegrass “Scruggs” style most people are familiar with, but I think it gets the point across. Like the lyrics, there’s not too much to say about the recording here, because it’s not meant to be a complicated song!

Piltdown Man

This was the final song I wrote for the month; it’s the song I spent the most time on as I was intentionally writing it as a capstone for the album.

Lyrics

Verse Intro (x1 before the first verse, x1 before the second verse)
| Dsus9 (4/4) | F#m (6/4)

Verse 1
| Dsus9 (4/4) | F#m (6/4) | Dsus9 (4/4) | F#m (6/4)
They say we came from the dirt, so long, long ago
I’m sure we came from nowhere and believe we have nowhere to go
Who wants to be what’s expected? Who wants to be so plain?
Who wants to believe that everyone everywhere is the same?

prechorus :
| D /C# | Bm

Chorus (4/4)
| D |
Falling for the ancient fiction
| E |
There’s a reason that anyone’s here
| Bm | G
Half out of mind for the fear
| Emadd9/B B | Emadd9/B B
All spirit and bone, half animal and man
| C#5sus4 (6/4)
Digging up the Piltdown man again
(F#m)

Verse 2
They said we came from the lord, scepter, ring, and land
Your father’s fathers trusted like a hoax that got out of hand
Who believes in blood’s divinity, shining from every vein?
Who wants to deny that everyone everywhere is the same?

Bridge
| C#5sus4 |
He shook off the mud, greeted with applause
| | Dmaj7 C#5sus4
Born as a joke, or fable, or dream
| C#5sus4 | Dmaj7
The breathing proof of whatever they sought
| E6sus2 | F#5
Whatever they feared they needed to believe
| C#5sus4 |
Paraded around to national acclaim,
| | Dmaj7 C#5sus4
Gasping at buildings, gasping at the streets
| C#5sus4 | Dmaj7
Words spilling suddenly from languageless jaws
| E5 | F#sus2
Through filed-down orangutan teeth

Instrumental:
| F#m | | | E
| F#m | | | E
| F#m | | | E
| F#m | E | D /C# | Bm

Prechorus
Chorus + Final Chorus
Myth as a stand-in for distinction
Empty clay with a shield and a spear
Half out of mind for the fear
All spirit and bone
Half animal and man
Digging up the Piltdown man again
Digging up the Piltdown man again

Outro:
(6/4) C#5sus4 |
(4/4) C#5sus4 | F#m (2/4)

The Piltdown Man was a famous hoax in the early 20th century. A guy named Charles Dawson presented a skull that he “found” that was touted as a missing link between apes and humans. It took decades for it to be conclusively proved a forgery.

But the real story is not really that someone managed to pull the wool over the eyes of a bunch of people, but rather the cultural conditions that made it such a successful hoax. This was 1912, which was one of the absolute heights of European nationalism, and Dawson was offering a reason not just to laud British science, but Britain itself, because if the missing link was found in Britain, then it would be a reason to claim that modern humans came from Britain. Dawson’s biggest supporter was Sir Arthur Keith, who was a proponent of the reprehensible belief system of “scientific” racism.

This kind of stuff comes and goes in waves. If there had been a missing link (evolution doesn’t really work that way), I wonder how differently we really would act from it?

I had parts of the lyrics in notes collected throughout the month (I do sometimes keep my brainstorming!), but to tie them all together, I completely shamelessly took some inspiration from the band mewithoutYou, specifically the album Ten Stories, which someone at FAWM introduced me to. They have a song called Cardiff Giant, and I actually had the Wikipedia page open to Piltdown Man at the time, and I just thought it was funny that the song I was listening to was linked in the article I was reading and it was actually relevant to the theme of the song I was working on.

Arrangement and Recording

To tie the music to the lyrics, I started thinking about how to make the song sound deceiving, and started making a list. Here are some of the ideas that panned out:

Ambiguous key center: The verse chords probably most strongly imply F#m just because the chord takes up the most time, but the melody doesn’t really help clarify things as I skipped any intervals that would settle it.

Key and mode modulation: The prechorus continues the question of the key center from the verse by implying that we’re in Bm (the relative minor of D), but the chorus then goes straight back to a full D chord. Since this is a chorus, it’s pretty common to go to the 4th chord of the key, which means we’re actually in A (the relative major of F#m), so it’s back to being ambiguous, but the melody was actually written to be in D lydian.

The Emadd9/B B change in the middle of the chorus is a modulation to the E harmonic minor, but the way it’s played has a myxolydian flavor, which is a very dark sounding key that most people would be familiar with from heavy metal, and finally we go to C#m (the relative minor of E major) before finally settling on F#m.

This stuff isn’t just being weird for the sake of weird: The mode changes play with the emotion by contrasting bright and dark sounds, and add a feeling of dread after the initial feeling of release that comes with the chorus lift.

The bridge continues the idea by moving to C# myxolydian to bring in the feeling of dread, and then the instrumental is in F# dorian, which is a minor-y sounding key that I tend to think of as “powerful” (but more importantly: It’s easy to play a guitar solo in this mode since it lends itself well to the pentatonic scale).

Rhythmic ambiguity: The verse indicates that’s it’s switching between 4/4 and 6/4, but when I was working on the bones of the song, I was actually scoring this out as 10/4. The snare drum might sound random at first, but it’s generally every third beat, giving a kind of half-time feel at first, except when it would end up sitting on top of a bass drum hit. Since I was sort of working this out on the fly, I didn’t do it perfectly even after several takes, so I went by what “sounded right” at the time. The guitars and bass drum are holding down the structure anyway — I don’t think the snare necessarily has to contextualize the bar divisions cleanly in every composition.

Who’s the lead vocal in the chorus?: This was actually my favorite piece of the puzzle: I wrote two lead vocal melodies for the chorus, and sang them separately. They’re not exactly a harmony, even though they do harmonize, and even though I did end up (in the final mix) presenting the lower vocal as “more the lead” than the higher part.

The lead guitar tone for the solo was the only time I deviated from my regular pedalboard the entire month. I built a couple copies of a Runoff Groove project called the Whisker Biscuit, which is a sort of simplified Big Muff Pi, but with a sort of nasty edge to it. It has a massive amount of fuzz on tap, and I’ve often used it for low-volume feedback. In this case I really wanted it for the really messed up sound that comes from the long sustained notes at the start and end of the solo. I believe I played this solo with a pick, but it’s hard to tell because the fuzz so thoroughly smears the attack.

teatime

Arrangement and Recording

I try to write a pure instrumental every year. This was just a bit of fun with teapots, mugs, spoons, and chopsticks. I did the percussion bits first and the guitar part was sort of improvised over it.

Some tea mug trivia: Did you know that a typical mug can produce two notes, about a half step different from each other? Mentally draw a line where the handle attaches straight across the mug, and another line perpendicular to it, and that will be one note; the spots halfway between those lines will produce a second note.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: