Sometimes it’s difficult to feel like you belong, and just as hard to explain to others why you feel that way.
I lost track of the story, what’s the last thing you said?
Did I fall asleep while you were talking, or just get lost in my head?
But cheap rooms and blacktop and the stars look the same
So I’ll call you next week from some other place
To everyone I knew sometimes leaving’s what you do
You were in my blind spot I’m part of your blindness, too
If you want to know your home from far away you can see
But if you really want to know the truth here’s what’s bothering me
Wherever I ever went, no matter how far I’d go
Where ever I’d stay I’d never called it home
There’s a faint smell to hope that fades as quick as the rain
It’s like ozone, or blood it’s like the memory of pain
When they’re closing the curtain I sense it slipping away
So I hope that I’ll find it on some other day
Someday when I’m sated, if I can hold out that long
I’ll lay down ambition and confess in a song
A performer, exhausted from another day of their a life on the road, talks to a family member (probably their mother or father) on the phone, barely staying awake, and the person on the other end of the line asks why they spend all their time away from home. The explanation is simply that it doesn’t feel like home — in fact, nowhere does, not even the road itself.Continue reading →
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.
A D A
I found work turning blood and sweat to gold
blessed with good fortune never earned
But I paid dearly for when I lost my way
Left me poorer except in lessons learned
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
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
[ 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
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:Continue reading →
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.
Better late than never this time around: I forgot even to update my home page with the new album, I was so focused on announcing the release on YouTube and Bandcamp.
Covert art by my dad:
Pirate A.M. Waves
F Bb C
Sleep on the gravel like you planned
F Bb C
And in the backseat when you can’t
F Bb F C
Watching as the stars like birds in a vee
Set and finely disappear
F Bb C
If you wander then you’ll see
F Bb C
Those who disappear are free
F Bb F C
But I’ll be damned if they couldn’t be saved
Hearing pirate AM waves
In a little church on 35
They sit and they pray for afterlife
And what you called the endless day by day
Called a different word for pain
Somewhere near nowhere and free will
Fighting through static and the still
Hidden in the sea of amber waves of grain
Sings pirate AM waves
This was the 10th song I wrote for the month, but I moved it first as I thought it was a good signal for the album’s themes.
This is a someone (in my head, a trucker, but it doesn’t actually matter) out on the road somewhere along I35 in the endless expanse of tremendously little known as the great plains trying absolutely desperately to find hope in anything. They try to find it in nature, by sleeping out under the stars one night, and in a little roadside church, but finally for some perhaps completely inexplicable reason find it in a broadcast from a pirate radio station, the only thing that they can get on the dial of their radio.
There were a bunch of things that led to this one, but I started reading about Pirate Radio a little after it was mentioned in a Tom Scott video. My site leader at work also mentioned that he was getting his ham radio operator’s license, which is kinda interesting (and apparently it’s much easier now because they don’t need to know Morse code anymore).
The song’s not about radio, exactly, and I’m not totally sure I even really explain why this makes me feel what it does (I guess this is why we write stories … to express things we can’t express otherwise, right?). I’ve never listened to a pirate radio station, but I was thinking: Terrestrial radio was declared dead not too long ago, and yet it’s almost certainly going to outlive television. And even if it does disappear, there’s this little group of people who would commandeer the now-empty space for their own purposes, and sometimes just to talk with other people who have a two-way radio.Continue reading →
This Song Sources series is a retrospective and comprehensive set of liner notes (including recording and mixing techniques) for every track on The Howling Tongue of Each Other. It’s my hope it will be useful to other songwriters and home recordists.
This covers tracks 5-9.
Since this year’s FAWM was a bit more varied song-to-song, I thought it was worth talking about all the songs.
Most of the notes here are directly from my “liner notes” posted with the songs on FAWM.org, but I’ve updated the entries with my current thoughts. I hope this proves useful to other songwriters and home recordists.
Before you click “more” I want to stress that, while I’m happy with the recordings — and some people have even paid money to download them — these are still home recordings, recorded on a lot of DIY gear, good quality budget stuff, and using comparatively simple production techniques with mostly real instruments. I think they’re good quality demos, but I can still tell the difference when I listen to something recorded in a real studio and can definitely tell the difference next to something that’s been professionally mastered. Continue reading →
This Song Sources series is a retrospective and comprehensive set of liner notes (including recording and mixing techniques) for every track on The Howling Tongue of Each Other. It’s my hope it will be useful to other songwriters and home recordists.
This covers tracks 10-13.
Here in the U.S. St. Patrick gets parades, green beer, and buttons telling people to kiss you, and everyone becomes Irish for a day. Everyone goes to the “pub” and sings along to “Finnegan’s Wake” even though the song isn’t nearly as hilarious as the book.
But mention St. Andrew and you get looks of “huh?” which, coincidentally, is also the reaction most Americans have to songs in the Scots dialect. Some people know what a caber is. Everyone knows Robert Burns’s “Auld Lang Syne,” or rather, they know a single verse and chorus sung to a different tune than the one Burns wrote, because they sing it around his birthday. (News Years is close enough, right?)
There’s no swilling copious amounts of Scotch that’s been dyed blue or wild haggis hunts. We don’t run around calling each other “Jo” and dancing the fling, except by accident.
We don’t even get to see the St. Andrew’s Day Google Doodle in the U.S.! This year’s is Nessy winkin’ at ye. Look at it. Loooook!
I love that Scotland allegedly invented a lot of its history and culture during the 17th century because everyone was doing it.
I love that possibly their most famous citizen ever, Robert Burns (or at least he was until that Braveheart movie came out — you know, that movie staring the crazy racist Australian living in a America) was not just a writer, but a songwriter, and one who wasn’t afraid to toss off a bawdy verse or two. I love Scottish music and songs, especially the really dark stuff that comes from the ballads throughout Britain — stuff that doesn’t survive as well in other Celtic folk music traditions.
So in honor of St. Andrew’s Day, this year, on a whim, I decided to spend the last week recording an EP of five Scottish songs plus one that’s American but has a connection to one of Robert Burns’s most famous songs, mostly in the original Scots. Silly? Maybe. A peculiar thing to just up and decide to do on a week’s notice? Maybe that, too. But it was fun.
Here are dropbox links to the MP3s if you don’t want to use Bandcamp:
For the third year in a row, I took part in the madness that is February Album Writing Month (FAWM), writing (and/or co-writing) and recording an entire album of 14 songs in 28 days.
As with previous years, the recordings where I collaborated with others were particularly memorable, so big thanks are in order for Dave Benham, Rick Veader, Kate Fleming, Lexa, Joe Scala, and Mosno.
The Writing Process
Typically, I don’t try to dictate what type of music I end up with when writing over such a short span of time, and this year I almost ended up with 14 different genres!
Like last year, I picked two words around which to build the themes for the album, chosen at random in a dictionary (my Arabic dictionary this time … I like to make sure I’m surprised!). They were “drown” and “evidence.” You can’t make this stuff up! Consequently, I ended up with songs about water (“The Brigandine” and “Dry Town”; “Gold Rush” and “Oh Brother” also have connections to water in the lyrics), trust (broken or kept), crime (“Dakota” for a serious song and “Bad Luck, Jack” for a nonserious) , and other related themes. The “evidence” theme also led to a lot of thinking about history and how we record, reconstruct, and examine it. “The Brigandine,” “Gold Rush,” “1851,” “The Field of Agincourt,” and even “The Last of My Kind” came directly out of that take on the theme.
Unlike previous years, I ignored the weekly challenges for the most part and just focused on taking whatever opportunities to create that came along — but I did write a couple things that fit a select few challenges, the biggest being the “epic outro” challenge for “Last of My Kind.”
Here’s the entire playlist, along with some notes about each song.
1. Oh Brother (Ain’t It Hard) — A Welch/Rawlings-style recording of a song made to sound like classic American Apalachian folk.
2. Southeastern Breeze — An instrumental with guitar, mandolin, and banjo. The recording sounds like bluegrass, but the tune itself is closer to Maritime. My favorite part of this was learning the same tune on multiple instruments in the course of a day. Went to Teavolve’s Open Mic in the middle, came back and nailed the mandolin in a couple takes.
3. Dry Town — A completely fuzzed-out rocker (probably the most aggressive song I’ve ever written), but with lyrics inspired by Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl Ballads. It is about the current droughts in California and more broadly about our use of natural resources. It was inspired by this famous photo.
4. Dakota — With David Benham on Native American flute. This is story about a woman assaulted on the Yankton Reservation in South Dakoka. Her assailant is a non-native — reservation police had (and still have to some extent) a problem investigating, much less prosecuting, non-natives who commit crimes on reservations and then leave. Many poorer reservations also have problems with higher instances of violence against women (not just sexual violence as here but domestic violence as well). Banjo and native flute are a magical combination, and there is more material from mine and David’s session.
5. The Brigandine — With Rick Veader on pennywhistle. Peter Easton was the most successful pirate that ever lived — yet most people haven’t heard of him. This is a story about someone who joins a crew in Britsol as a fisherman, but the captain of his ship hates Easton for having cut off his hand as punishment for escaping press-ganged service. The captain pays gold as protection money to Easton (a standard bit of racketeering), and when it comes time to pay again, he fires his (no doubt inferior) cannons at Easton’s ships. The pirates make short work of the narrator’s vessel, murder the captain by hanging him from the rigging until he freezes to death and then dump his body in shallow water wrapped in the mainmast, and take the rest of the crew prisoner. Notable: It’s a folk song in 7/4, with one bar of 6/4 in the chorus.
6. (Someone Please) Have Mercy On Me — This one got a lot of comparisons to Gram Parsons’s Flying Burrito Brothers, so I guess that’s what it sounds like. I try not to talk too much about my personal beliefs, but this one’s about where we go when we die, which I believe is “nowhere,” and making the most of your time while here.
7. Bad Luck, Jack — It was Friday 13th, so I started thinking of horrible ways to go. Then I just created a couple guys going around knocking people off, and the body count kept climbing. The really fun thing with this one was the recording process, where I figured out how to make my guitar sound almost exactly like a horn section!
8. Gold Rush — A slow, majestic waltz narrated by the ghost of a California gold miner who lost everything in pursuit of riches. I think this is the first time I’ve played keys (piano and organ) on a public recording.
9. I Thought You Were the Wind — This is a story of an immigrant who loses his friend/role model to a bad situation. I left the lyrics intentionally vague, so it could be about a lover, friend, older sibling, etc., and there are many different kinds of trouble that they could have gotten into. However, I will let you know that while writing it, I actually had the brothers in mind from last year’s “Hold Tight,” but told from another perspective and with a different outcome … characters are as mutable as situations, sometimes. Southwest flavor with guitars and what I think is some of my best mandolin playing.
10. 1851 (Allons Enfants) — France’s 1848 revolution had an incredibly ironic outcome: Not only did it fail to reestablish the republic after deposing the last king of France (who was comparatively reasonable as Monarchs go) but the elections that followed saw a Napoleon elected President and — wouldn’t you know it, just like the last two guys named “Napoleon,” he declared himself emperor after a little bit of time in office pretending he totally wasn’t going to do that. I realized that someone could have been a child at the time of the first revolution (old enough to remember and understand what was happening) and still be young enough to be approached to “do his part” by revolutionaries in 1851. In the song he tells them why he won’t bother supporting them, because he thinks that it will end just as badly as it did before. The arrangement has some intentional resemblance to Knopfler’s “Done With Bonaparte.”
11. This was a collaboration with Kate Fleming, called “One Little Paper.” Kate unfortunately had a cold at the time, so, out of respect for her, so I will keep it private until she gets a chance to do the vocal to her satisfaction.
12. The Field of Agencourt (King Henry) — With Lexa Hartman on bodhran. I was surprised to find that there are a dearth of battle ballads about this very famous king and battle, at least in English. So I decided to write one. I played pennywhistle on this, which was another first for me.
13. The Last of My Kind — Caveman rock! This was written for the “extinct species” challenge given by a member of the FAWM forums. I picked … Homo neanderthalensis. There is a narrated poem backed by a massive amount of percussion and chanting (Lexa helped again), but stick around for a huge musical shift for the epic outro. The song/poem/thing as a whole was inspired by — and constructed somewhat similarly to — Italo Calvino’s “The Dinosaurs” from Cosmicomics (one of my favorite books … it also gave me the title of the second Midway Fair album).
14. We Are Travelling/Compagnie Generale Aeropostale — With Mosno and Joe Scala. This is a cinematic suite of recordings we made based on an idea Joe had: a pilot crashes in the desert and is rescued by Bedouins, who he has to convince to take him back to the city. I wrote the lyrics for the pilot and then wrote the verse in Arabic, which Mosno edited and sang lead on, and then we did a live recording of both songs. Joe created the plane crash (believe it or not, that’s a bass guitar), and we made sound effects, then edited everything together. This was so much fun we’ve made tentative plans to expand it into something larger. One of the best days I’ve ever had recording music!
The Recording Process
In 2013, my first year completing the challenge, everything was done as a one-take video. Last year, I had just gotten my digital home recording setup, which allowed me to do some overdubs to enhance the recordings, which was especially important for songs that needed harmony vocals and two guitars. The recordings sounded more substantial but certainly still had a hand-crafted feeling even when I wanted a fully produced sound. Both years I thought I ended up with a few decent songs that have since appeared in my set lists both solo and with my band, Midway Fair.
This year, I went one step further and decided to create more fully produced tracks and playing a wider array of instruments. In fact, I’m downright proud of the list of instruments I played:
Guitars (of course)
Piano, organ, and synthesized accordion
Pennywhistle (first time!)
Bodhran and some other types of percussion
Lionel’s Cigar Box Guitar (see here)
Drum machine programming
And lots and lots of vocals
For nearly all the tracks, each individual instrument was an overdub. Last year I typically did the vocals and acoustic guitar simultaneously, which led to a lot of doubled vocals because I still wanted to get the lead vocals just right. This year I didn’t really use stacked vocals at all but instead went with a lot of two-part harmony throughout the song (and plenty of three-or-more-part harmony on the choruses), which gives the songs a different feel, more polished maybe. The recordings were definitely cleaner, but they were also easier to mix despite having more tracks, and not just because I’ve gotten much better at the recording aspects in the past year.
I also think the biggest strides I’ve made in recording and writing since last year are improving what parts I play on each instrument. Too often in the past I would overdub a part and either scrap it entirely because it was messy or try to bury it in the mix … leaving a messy part buried in the mix. Recently, I’ve started simply avoiding the EQ for a lot of parts and focusing more on playing the right thing. Granted I don’t always succeed and there are times when I could have stopped playing or one instrument is stepping on another, but I think I’m getting there, and the result is recordings that sound a lot fuller but not as messy.
My mixing skills overall still need a ton of work, but that’s a lifelong pursuit.
I’ll try to keep this brief, but for the gearheads, this is what I used:
1. Interface and DAW: Scarlett 18i8 with Logic Pro X.
2. Plugins: I used no third-party plugins.
Nearly all of the compression is the “Vintage FET” and “Vintage Opto” plugins. These were my primary tone shaping tools in post as well. — I used almost no EQ throughout, except as an effect (such as the vocals on “Bad Luck, Jack”) or to correct shortcomings in an instrument (such as the piano on “Gold Rush”).
I used the rotary cabinet simulator in a couple places, which I find to be a very useful effect, but it was also the “amp” used for the acoustic on “Bad Luck Jack.”
For reverbs, I stuck mainly to the presets for the vocal plate, short ambiance, and large hall with very few exceptions. Most often I would turn on a preset and then delete the EQ and redo the compression settings just to keep the reverb settings, which usually required very little adjustment for my purposes. I do think the reverbs are still the least convincing aspects of Logic, but this is likely user error on my part, as they allow you to shape them in every conceivable way. I was at least much better about it this year than last.
I used the Tape Delay plugin in a few places (especially the vocal on “Last of My Kind”) and also used it as a “tape head” filter in a couple places. It adds a nice compression and distortion when set 100% wet with 0ms of delay and will also do through-zero flanging when needed.
The Spectral Gate plugin got a couple seconds of use in “The Last of My Kind” for the utter insanity at the end. Man, I want to turn that into a pedal, but it would be hyooooooooj.
I used a stereo tremolo plugin on “We Are Travelling” and on some sound effects.
One of the vocal tracks on “Bad Luck, Jack” used the pedal plugin for a treble booster.
3. Amps: Every electric guitar and bass track was recorded using Sakura, the 5W amp me and my dad built. I never felt like I wanted anything else, and despite the low wattage, I thought it worked just find on bass!
4. Acoustic guitars: I used my Crafters of Tennessee mahogany dreadnaught (similar to a D-18) for all of the acoustic parts that used a pick. I did use it on one or two fingerpicked parts when I thought the sound was more appropriate. Most of the fingerpicked acoustic parts were done with my Koa Larrivee D-05.
5. Electric guitars: On “Dry Town” I used my 50th Anniversary Sheraton for the rhythm and lead, and the red tele for the secondary lead. The Sheraton reappears as the “horns” on “Bad Luck, Jack.” The red tele also makes appearances as the lead guitar on “Someone Please” (middle pickup) and “Allons Enfants” (neck and middle). All other electric guitar parts were the DonQuixotecaster, usually on the neck and middle pickups.
6. Bass: Epiphone Viola bass.
7. Keyboard: My Roland FP5 provided the piano, organ, and accordion sounds used on the album. I did have to do a lot of post production for the piano and organ (EQ for the piano and a rotary cabinet sim for the organ), but overall it was more than adequate for my needs.
8. Microphones: I really abused the Sennheiser MK4. It appears on every track, and there were several tracks where it was the only microphone used. I did use a Sennheiser e609 for a couple guitar tracks, an AT2021 when I wanted a darker sound for something, and an AT2020 for the acoustic on “We Are Travelling.”
9. Pedals: For the most part, I didn’t need to deviate from my main pedalboard.
Compressors: Nearly every electric guitar and bass part used my Bearhug Compressor first in line. I also use compressors a lot in post, so there are typically multiple layers of compression.
Delay: I used the El Capistan for the delay on most of the tracks that have it, though I did use some post-processing delay on a few things. The “chorus” pedal on “We Are Travelling” is the other delay pedal on my main board, a Malekko 616.
Distortion: “Winnie the Pooh and Some Bees” fuzz, the one that Luke from Luck Duck pedals built me a long time ago before I started building (and the fuzz that lives on my main pedalboard) is the main dirt pedal (besides the amp itself driven by a MOSFET booster) on the outro to “Last of My Kind.” The Snow Day OD makes an appearance during the solos on “Dry Town.” A couple fuzzes I built appear on other tracks: the Rust Bunny is the primary fuzz sound on “Dry Town,” and the Tea and Crumpets fuzz is part of the “horn” sound on “Bad Luck, Jack.” Lots more clean electric on here!
Volume pedal: Ernie Ball VP for volume swells.
Filters: I don’t use filter effects very often, but when you need ’em, you need ’em! A major part of the “horn” sound on “Bad Luck, Jack” was the Something’s Fishy pedal, an FSH-1 clone, set to a short decay and short attack.
Tremolo: The Tap Tempo Cardinal makes an appearance on “Dry Town” on the Sheraton lead track.
10. Drums: Unfortunately, for the most part, if you hear a drum, it’s programmed. However, there is some improvised hand percussion on “The Last of My Kind” and “Bad Luck, Jack,” and Lexa’s bodhran on “The field of Agincourt” is of course real.
11. Other stuff: No idea what the pennywhistles were. The harmonica on “1851” is a Hohner. The cigar box guitar on “The Last of My Kind” was made by Lionel on the BYOC forum.
I think that’s everything!
Out of the three FAWMs I’ve done, I ended this one feeling much better about the output than previous years. I had a few clear favorites in previous years, and a couple songs each year that I thought were pretty lousy, but I can say pretty confidently that this year I have no regrets. Sure there are a couple places where I wish I’d had more time to really nail a certain part (particularly vocals, which are tough on songs I haven’t internalized), a couple vocals that could have used more practice, and some mixes that could have been improved with more time, or a couple lines that I might revise in the future, but what album isn’t like that?
Now I have to decide what to do with the recordings, if anything. I have considered having the backing vocals replaced with the other people in Midway Fair and overdubbing real drums for some songs to use on future recordings. Of course, then they would need to be remixed, and I’d probably want to redo a few things in a real studio … and, and, and. I’ll just live with it for a while and see what happens!
I also want to link to two people’s albums I was very impressed by.
The first is Gardening Angel from Spokane, WA — this was her first FAWM. To me she sounds like Beth Orton and Tom Waits got together to make an album together. Fantastic heartfelt writing and voice. “Big Blue Jar” is my favorite on here.
Another is Lightning Streak Dave, who wrote a concept about the robot dystopian future, with the opposition led by Donald Duck, told from the perspective of a dozen characters including what must be the last living DJ. “Steamboat Cleanup Crew” in particular is utterly spectacular, some sort of marriage of industrial, blues, and chain gang music. Exceptionally creative and expansive recordings.
Joe Scala of course also completed his 14 songs, taking a different tack from previous years and working on several songs at once. He actually wrote 3 songs on Saturday the 28th and recorded 6 in the same day, so he totally Please Please Me-ed it! It’s a shame the recordings with Chris Durm and Tony Colato had some technical difficulties, because they were cool songs that I am excited to play at Marksmen shows. Also, check it out: Katie Scala has a co-writing credit on “Let Me Your Light”!
I did February Album Writing Month (FAWM) again this year. FAWM, for those who don’t know, is a self-challenge to write 14 songs in the month of February. Despite getting a late start and having a few weeks of feeling bad due to illness, I even finished a few days early thanks to some collaboration with my friend Mosno. Some of the highlight tracks are at the bottom of this post.
Since I went about the process a little differently this year, I thought it would be worth writing a writing a single wrap-up and comparing this year’s experience to last year’s.
Last year, I condensed into a month my usual process of “wait for inspiration and then get a song out.” Halfway through the month I started becoming a lot more deliberate, because it turns out that lightning doesn’t strike 14 times in a month, but I also started to become a little more desperate and some of the writing became overly forced.
This year, from the start I decided to be more deliberate about the process. I chose two words to be “touchstone” words for the entire month, which resulted in something kind of like a concept album. The words I picked, somewhat at random, were “siege” and “fantasy.” I also tried writing more bridges, which is something I’m still pretty much rubbish at. (I’m better at writing tangents, or something like a bridge that goes near the end of the song but doesn’t lead back around into the chorus.) But overall I was much more relaxed about the whole process, and I think that shows in the writing, arrangements, and performances.
Last year, I came away with a few songs that I thought were “really” good, as good as almost anything I’ve written, that got me very excited. That was a great feeling. This year … well, I had a few good songs, one “really” good song, and a lot of stuff that’s acceptable and might be worth playing with a bit of work, if it grows on me, but I don’t feel passionate about most of them. Last year, I had a couple songs that I thought were bad enough that I hid the YouTube video so they won’t ever impose themselves on others in the future. This year, I didn’t think any song I wrote was a total failure, though one of the recordings (#9) isn’t good, in part because my vocals simply weren’t up to the task of singing it.
In other words:
There were some other things that were different. Last year, everything I wrote was going into a camera recording and being posted on YouTube. On the one hand, this forced me to think a little harder about writing a song that could stand on its own as (typically) only an acoustic guitar and vocal and think a bit more deeply about the song before hitting “record.” But it limited what I was able to do musically. I could use a loop pedal a bit for a second guitar when I absolutely needed it. But it still had to be done in a single take. The stress of getting a good (or even adequate) performance in a single take certainly added to the general frustration of knowing that you have to finish all this in a single month.
This year, I had a new recording setup and was able to do all sorts of stuff that I couldn’t manage the year before: overdubs, backing vocals, percussion, and generally just fixing stuff to get better and cleaner performances. And I can even use most of the recordings as scratch tracks if I want to get a better recording (except, ironically, what I thought was the best song of the batch, which wasn’t played to a click track). Just knowing that you can add layers and other instruments can completely change the songwriting process, and often in a good way. For instance, sometimes you want the backing vocals to say something, not the lead vocals — that can happen now!
I still don’t think I’m happy with the process of writing large numbers of songs at once. I know that I feel better when I write a small number of songs I love than when I write a large number of songs that are just okay. But I suppose it helps to know that I can at least go about this in a more workmanlike manner. Ideally, I’d have enough time to write so often that, when true inspiration does strike, I have the tools to create a finished song more … efficiently.
But I like doing too many things. I like building and designing guitar effects, but I just barely had enough time to finish a Bearhug build for a friend, which is not a time-consuming project at all. I have to practice playing guitar, singing, and playing other instruments beyond just writing, and while recording is good practice, it’s not the only practice. I like playing games with friends—I’m running a Pathfinder RPG session every other Monday, but it would be very difficult to keep up with the planning for that if I was writing and recording at this pace all the time. I like to play out, even if it’s just open mics, once in a while, so that eats up evenings, but during February I didn’t have many evenings free because I needed to get the demos done. Heck, I even have a day job! I’m sure there’s a balance somewhere, and I should strive to find it throughout the rest of this year.
And what happens when I spend too much energy on one thing? It loses its luster. Recording was nice and shiny in January. Then Midway Fair went in the studio several times over a few weeks, I recorded mandolin tracks for my friend Matt Pless’s new EP, and I recorded 15 songs on my home computer. I spent more time with headphones on than off. For my last two recordings, I turned off the click track, set up a single microphone, and just recorded me playing the song. No overdubs, no punch ins, leave the mistakes where they lie. It was liberating, and the opposite of what I was excited about a few weeks ago.
There are a few tracks I think stood out for one reason or another.
Here’s the full playlist:
Won’t Grow Here (song #2)
This is the definite highlight of the whole set for me, mainly because it has everything I think of as being a good Midway Fair song: there’s a bit of a fantastic quality to it, it’s got strong roots in folk music but enough rock to make it interesting. It also has a pretty strong soul vibe going. It was fun to sing and the melodies took backing vocals naturally. Strong candidate for a new band song.
What I wrote about it at the time:
Paired with #1 for a larger story. (My touchstone words for this FAWM are “siege” and “fantasy.”) This was a slightly less direct reading of the two words, where it could be taken literally as being about someone who is drawn into fighting a war or just a metaphor for a failing relationship. Interesting thing is that I first wrote it using the mother character from #1, but I wanted a more up tempo song and decided that she was a little too “static” for that.
If I get nothing else out of this FAWM, the guitar part in the chorus of this one does it for me …
David and Jane (Song #15)
This was the capstone song. I worked on it a little longer than the others, and consequently was able to think much more about its story than the other songs. I didn’t mark it as a favorite at first, but I think of the ones that would never be a Midway Fair song, this is in the end my favorite, simply because of the depth.
What I wrote about it at the time:
This is a modernized rewrite of Child Ballad no. 17, “Hind Horn” (www.sacred-texts.com/neu/eng/child/ch017.htm), ported to suburban America in the 1990s. The original ballad is a condensed version of the much longer story of King Horn. In the original, the king’s daughter gives Hind Horn a diamond ring that glows, and tells him that when it fades she’ll have lost her love for him. He goes off and does a bunch of stuff, and one day notices that it’s faded. He rushes back home and shows up to her wedding disguised as a beggar, and asks for a glass of wine. He puts the ring in the wine and gives it to her, and she sees it and asks where he got it. He reveals who she is, and she says that she’ll give up her marriage and go begging with him, but then he tells her that he’s not actually a beggar, and everyone (except the groom, presumably) lives happy ever after.
I decided to simply change centuries but keep as much of the story as possible and work out what sort of characters they would have to be to get there.
I have enough to say about the story in this one that it should probably be a blog post, but the long and short of it is that simply changing the century of this song *greatly* changes the nature of the characters and makes the story less heroic and a little more tragic. In fact, I almost worried at the end of it that the story is simply cruel to her throughout — even though it sounds like it has a happy ending because she marries her childhood sweetheart, there’s still that line at the end of the third verse that adds a bit of bitterness.
Ringing His Bell (song #6)
Despite a few rough vocal spots, and despite the OMGOBVIOUS Van Morrison-ness of the song, this one makes me happy. This is another that I didn’t mark as a favorite, but it grew on me and bits of it still pop into my head every once in a while. It was done for the week 2 challenge, which was nonsense lyrics, but also could have fit with week 3’s “childhood” (and is probably a better fit for that than the one I actually wrote for week 3, which is #9). I think the bridge could use a little work (it sounds forced or technical lyrically at the moment), and I need to practice the “da da da” part, but I think there’s some good potential here.
Also, the entire time I was writing it, I was able to visualize every scene extremely vividly. It takes place in a fantasized version of my home neighborhood and it’s fiction, but it really felt real while I was writing it. I can also say that while writing it I had a lot of the same feeling as when I wrote “At the Dawn of the Day,” a song which happened shortly after hearing Astral Weeks for the first time, an act which also happened shortly before I wrote this. That album is pure, distilled inspiration … heck, it was even a [the?] major influence on my favorite Bruce Springsteen album, The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle, which also gives me that same “feeling.” I have no idea what exactly that feeling is; it’s something like a desire to be able to go back and do it all over again properly but with more joy.
Entreaty (Song #14)
As usual, collaboration was a high point for me. This time it was with my friend Mosno, a wonderful singer and songwriter originally from Sudan. Our styles are extremely different, with everything from different rhythmic focuses to different ways of understanding lyrics and words themselves.
Consequently, he’s an absolute blast to work with. It helps that he’s extremely passionate about music in general and one of the most open and positive people I’ve ever met.
He had a song with a couple verses and a chorus, but didn’t feel like his song was complete. We came up with a slightly new arrangement, and I rewrote a couple lines and added a bridge, but this was still mostly Mosno. He recorded his guitar and vocals, and then we went through a few options for the guitar. At first it was a “trumpet” part (courtesy of some bias shenanigans on a fuzz), but Mosno wanted a straight ambient part, so we used that one.
Overall this came out sounding very good, and I’m pretty pleased about the mix.
The other collaborations also came out well. Mosno really liked the silly song we wrote about a parrot (narrated by someone who just doesn’t understand the concept of parrots). We also wrote a weird ambient instrumental.
Hold Tight (Somewhere out in the Desert) (Song #8)
This could have been a Midway Fair song in 2009, but now it would probably be out of place. There are a couple lines that need a tweak or two, but overall I think it’s strong, especially for how few words I used. It’s about a drug deal gone wrong, and the older brother is rushing his younger brother to the hospital, but they’re out in the middle of nowhere.
Time Machine (It’s Happening All Over Again) (Song #7)
One of the best parts of my 2013 FAWM was that I had a few good, detailed, sprawling stories, but they just weren’t coming out this year. I spent a few days brainstorming story ideas with the idea of being “trapped” in some way (again, one of the words was “siege”), and eventually hit on a pretty cool idea: A couple builds a time machine together, and they end up causing microfractures in the time continuum and bringing about the end of the world.
This track would have been a highlight — and I do think it’s quite good — but even at the time I felt like it was a lot like last year’s “Black Breast of the Beast,” which is the better song (and in fact one of my favorite things I’ve written). Since they sound similar overall, it seems to me that if I were putting together a set list and had to pick one, this would lose out almost every time. Consequently, I have to decide if there’s a different way to arrange it, or give it some time and see if i think they complement each other (or simply aren’t too similar to fret about).
There are some Easter eggs in the lyrics.
You’re Still Here (Song #3)
I picked this as an honorable mention more because I thought it was my best overall job capturing a particular “sound” in the set. The song itself is decent, but the electric guitar had this particularly massive clean sound that really pulled the track together and managed to be creepy, sexy, and classic all at once.
If you’ve made it this far, thank you so much for reading. And because all songs can be a work in progress, if anyone has any thoughts about improving a particular song, please let me know in the comments.
This is part of a series I’m doing on the tracks on the new EP, Baltimericana. To read the other parts of this series, simply click on the tag “Song Sources” above.
My first apartment in Baltimore was a third-story walkup on 25th Street between St. Paul and Charles St. I lived there for a couple years, most of the first year by myself and then for about a year with Lexa after her lease ran out while we saved up for the house. Continue reading →