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Posts Tagged ‘music’

Week 23’s #songaweek2018 suggested theme was “laziness.” I went with it. Here’s a song I wrote in about an hour, with the aid of a cup of coffee and a rhyming dictionary. If you look up “self” in my rhyming dictionary, you find a few compound words ending in “self” along with only these other unique words – “elf,” “pelf,” “shelf,” and “Guelf.” So that pretty much directed my lazy songwriting.

When I went to film and record the song, I discovered that the camera tripod was in use with a laser level for our kitchen renovation, and decided it was perfectly appropriate to be too lazy to take it apart; and instead just set the camera on a chair and film whatever fell within that range. Which meant my face was excluded, so then I filmed another track with just my face and added it later.

So here you are, lazy songwriting, recording, and filming all in one convenient package:

This song’s not gonna write itself
I gotta bring it a cup of coffee
And take that rhyming dictionary off the shelf
And see where it might lead me

Woo hoo hoo, woo hoo hoo
Woo hoo hoo, hoo hoo
Woo hoo hoo, woo hoo hoo
Woo hoo hoo

This song’s not gonna write itself
I better make it a sandwich
And look up the definition of “pelf”
and see if I can work it in

Woo hoo hoo . . .

I highly doubt there was an incognito elf
who politically identified as Guelf
All I know is this song won’t write itself

This song’s not gonna right itself
It’s probably best if we just let it sink
Also I’m out of words that rhyme with “self”
It really kinda makes you think

Woo hoo hoo . . .

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This is the song I was trying to write two weeks ago, which I referred to as a songwriting failure and declared that if a song doesn’t come together in one session it’s typically not worth going back to. I did go back to it for week 22 of #songaweek2018, and got myself this song.

It’s compiled of a variety of ideas I’d collected but was having trouble sculpting into a cohesive whole. Even though none of the ideas were directly inspired by the S-Town Podcast, I finished listening to it just before finishing this song, and that somehow gave me what I needed to pull it all together. Something about the tone of that story, the range of emotion, the brilliance and dull despair that can coexist in one person’s life, the bald facts of life’s brevity and its bewildering mix of beauty and brokenness.

The suggested theme was “celebrity.” I didn’t deliberately work with that theme but again, I think there’s something related here. For one thing, S-Town made John B. McLemore a celebrity, and it’s surreal and feels a little bit wrong when I Google his name and find it being sold on T-shirts now. Also I think most of the verses but especially the ones starting “what does it mean. . .” and “if you repeat. . .” do speak pretty directly to the culture of celebrity worship.

Some days I’m sick of everything
Can’t keep my head up, can’t want to try
Tired of hearing my own voice
Can’t find a reason to even cry

They come to me in fits and starts
These glimpses of my wild heart’s
Most sacred pledge
I’m trying to remember
What I am not supposed to forget

All I could say has been said before
What good is winning if it’s just a game?
I never could stomach spinning rides
But any other world is just the same

They come to me in fits and starts
These glimpses of my wild heart’s
Most sacred pledge
I’m trying to remember
What I am not supposed to forget

What does it mean to gain the world
And lose your own soul in the deal?
Why try to build the greater good
On lesser evils you’re too numb to feel?

I’m drinking elderberry wine
Out in the summer moonshine
with the ones I love
Some happy you can bottle
But most of life is best in the flesh

If you repeat and repeat a word
It’ll start to sound like gibberish
If you stare in the mirror long enough
You’ll start to look ridiculous

They come to me in fits and starts
These glimpses of my wild heart’s
Most sacred pledge
I’m trying to remember
I’m trying to remember
I’m trying to remember
What I am not supposed to forget

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The idea for this song came somewhat randomly to me a couple weeks ago, so I made a quick recording of the tune which became the chorus. I also had this name, “Bill Bailey,” connected to it in my mind, as in “won’t you come home Bill Bailey?” and it seemed vaguely familiar. Sure enough, my subconscious was aware of this old jazz standard written in 1902, even though when I pulled it up to listen I didn’t recognize it at all – and the tune idea I had was different.

The suggested theme for week 21 of #songaweek2018 was “apology,” so “won’t you come home” seemed like a good place to start. I initially sang the song “won’t you come home sweet darlin'” – but then thought a specific name would make it feel more real and folksy. Of course I wasn’t going to use “Bill Bailey,” so I went searching for three-syllable male* names. An “o” in the second syllable to round out the assonance in “won’t you come home” would be a major bonus. “Antonio” held on as my favorite even though I have to roll the last two syllables together to make it fit; and a very helpful group of my Facebook friends weighed in with a hefty list of actual three-syllable names when I requested it.

It was fun writing the song in a way that you can’t really tell who needs to apologize here, or what happened. A bit of open-ended fiction the listener can fill out as they please.

Oh, also recently I really enjoyed hearing this rebroadcast of a This American Life episode (#339, Act One) I remember hearing the first time. Usually I skip the rebroadcasts but I really like this one, about writing breakup songs. So I was thinking about that too when I wrote this.

Won’t you come home
Won’t you come home
Won’t you come home Antonio
Won’t you come home
Won’t you come home
Won’t you come on home now

I got beers in the fridge
I got tears in my eyes
And a heaping helping of humble pie
If you come back tonight I got some presence for you
I’m gonna stay by your stay by your
stay by your stay by your side

Won’t you come home . . .

You might think you got me figured just because you’re my man
but I think you better try to understand
I might be crying on the outside
But I’m crying on the inside,
crying on the inside too

Won’t you come home . . .

I don’t want to leave you I don’t want to lose you
I just want to stay here and love you
I could probably fall in love with the whole wide world
But I want to get specific,
I want to get specific with you

 

*There are plenty of three-syllable female or gender-neutral names I might have used instead, but since the song later refers to “my man” and “man” needs to rhyme with “understand,” this time I wanted a male name.

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This song for week 20 of #songaweek2018 probably feels a little cheated. “I really have a lot of potential,” I can hear it whining, “but you barely gave me anything to work with! You didn’t even try me on piano, which would probably sound a whole lot better than that jangly guitar you insist on strumming monotonously. And really, with all the technology you had to work with, you chose to record me late one night sitting in front of your old laptop?”

Well, yes. It was a busy week and my first day of songwriting was pretty much a failure. Some scattered good ideas but nothing was coming together.

Then the next day, I was walking to pick up my son from school in the intoxicating May sunshine, and it occurred to me that even though our sun is just average in brightness and size compared to other stars, it matters immeasurably more to me than any other sun possibly could. Not because it’s the brightest or best, but because it’s home to me.

Which, of course, is a very tidy metaphor for marriage, which made for a much-better-flowing songwriting session the next day, where after a couple hours I had a mostly-complete song. As another songwriter in our #songaweek group noted recently – and I have also found to be true – if a song doesn’t mostly come together in one session, it’s usually not worth going back to for a second attempt.

So by the time I got through my failed attempt and then spent another day writing this one – all the while attending to the everyday stuff which really heats up this time of year as school winds down and there are numerous concerts and activities on the calendar – the arranging and recording process had to be streamlined, meaning pretty much eliminated entirely.

But that’s okay. Unlike the writing process, if a song’s arrangement doesn’t come together right away, that can be worth going back to, and I probably will with this one.

Once again (as in “Angel”), this song takes inspiration from the reading I’ve done in astrophysics, specifically and most recently Carlo Rovelli’s Reality is Not What it Seems. The suggested theme for the week was “future,” which did get some space here.

I wake in your light
I sleep in your glow
And all the day through your love keeps me warm
Let these moments spread out
Through the hours and days
Of our lives

There’s billions and billions of brillianter stars
But the one that shines brightest for me by far
Is the one that I’ve built my whole world around
And that’s you, yes, you.

Everything’s moving
Life is a dance
We are particles weaving a field
With the speed of the light
from the fire that we stoke
With our love

There’s billions and billions of brillianter stars
But the one that shines brightest for me by far
Is the one that I’ve built my whole world around
And that’s you, yes, you.

There are days when the clouds
Hide your face in the gray
And I’m cold and I can’t feel you at all
And there’s nothing to say
And there’s nothing to do
But hold on

There’s billions and billions of brillianter stars
But the one that shines brightest for me by far
Is the one that I’ve built my whole world around
And that’s you, yes, you.

I know lovers must part
And even planets and stars
All eventually expire
But the shimmering waves
from the love that we’ve made
Journey on

There’s billions and billions of brillianter stars
But the one that shines brightest for me by far
Is the one that I’ve built my whole world around
And that’s you, yes, you.

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With over seven billion people in the world now and the Internet giving many of us instant access to publish whatever we create, it’s easy to completely ignore all the good work that’s come before us. That’s partly why I enjoy setting old poems to music. It’s a little like sneaking vegetables into casseroles for picky kids.

Another reason is because it helps me engage on a deeper level with a poem, because I’m reading and speaking and singing it over and over as I work out a rhythm and a melody. The words get to work on me more than when I just read them straight through.

And usually by the time I’m finished making a poem into a song, I also have it memorized – a mental exercise I don’t perform enough in my post-academic life.

Here’s Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem, “My Own Heart,” with more or less the chords from that old favorite “Heart and Soul.” My song for week 18 of #songaweek2018.

My own heart let me more have pity on; let
Me live to my sad self hereafter kind,
Charitable; not live this tormented mind
With this tormented mind tormenting yet.
I cast for comfort I can no more get
By groping round my comfortless, than blind
Eyes in their dark can day or thirst can find
Thirst’s all-in-all in all a world of wet.

Soul, self; come, poor Jackself, I do advise
You, jaded, let be; call off thoughts awhile
Elsewhere; leave comfort root-room; let joy size
At God knows when to God knows what; whose smile
‘s not wrung, see you; unforeseen times rather—as skies
Betweenpie mountains—lights a lovely mile.

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The first time I heard “women – you can’t live with them and you can’t live without them” was from a boy in junior high. That’s kind of how faith has been in my life. It’s never been something I’ve felt comfortable living with, or without. So I continue to believe, and doubt. Hope springs eternal even as despair dries everything up. My faith goes up in flames, and is reborn.

This song could have been written for Ash Wednesday, which begins the season of Lent in the church calendar – 40 days of fasting before the biggest day of the Christian calendar, Easter. On Ash Wednesday, the pastor or priest says, “remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” while making the sign of the cross with ashes on our foreheads. (These ashes are usually made from burning the palms we waved last year on Palm Sunday, the week before Easter, when we celebrate Jesus’s big “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem where he was hailed as king and crowds waved palm branches to celebrate before turning on him a week later and crucifying him.)

I’ve been keeping journals since I was ten years old. And lugging them around the country with me, every time I moved. A couple years ago as I was in the midst of trying to simplify my life and my possessions, I began to resent that heavy box of journals in my basement. And then I came across an idea from Courtney Carver, to burn journals after filling them. Of course it seemed almost blasphemous to me at first – utterly destroy my painstaking record of my precious inner life?

But I couldn’t stop coming back to the idea. I imagined how freeing that could feel. Over the years I’ve gone back and read old journals quite a bit, and to tell the truth, it started to feel like hearing old voices I just didn’t need to keep around. I had lived those years. I didn’t regret them. I don’t regret writing through those years. I’m so glad I did. But I didn’t really need to continue to enshrine my written impressions of my past.

The more I considered it, the readier I became to let those journals go. I boxed them up over the winter and stowed the box in the garage, waiting for an opportunity to start a backyard fire.

This song became the perfect opportunity. I didn’t plan which pages to burn, just tore out a few pages, threw them in the fire, watched the flames overtake the baggage of my past, felt my present moment come into focus, felt my heart lighten.

These songs, too, and my body, and my life itself – are here for a season. Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return. I can’t make any of this last forever. I have no idea if anyone – even God – can. I remain skeptical about such things. And I dare to hope. But that’s not what moves me moment by moment.

What propels me is this: I do believe – and experience – that right here, right now, every day, everywhere, beauty can follow ashes. Loss, death, endings are real and horrible. And then, beauty. That too. Over and over, and that is life as I know it.

This song (for week 16 of #songaweek2018) was a good exercise in stretching my musician muscles. I wrote most of the lyrics in one sitting and then thought I had a good tune and chord progression but the more I played it, the more same-y same-y it sounded to me. So I tried to mix it up with a more interesting chord progression. Being a music major I should be able to explain what exactly I did here, but those theory classes were years ago! The main thing is that I shifted from an A major chord to a C major chord, so I would sometimes sing a C natural and sometimes a C sharp. It became an engaging challenge working all this out in so many layers of harmonies.

Now I lay me down
With the dogs of despair
Hunting for hope in my dreams
I’ll sleep just like a baby
Wake up in the dark
wailing for a mother I can’t see

Good God it’s not easy
Dear Lord it’s so hard
This living and loving and losing
Sweet Jesus believe me I’ve made it this far
On the fumes of a faith that keeps going up in flames

I’d like to do like you
To fast in the wilderness
Feast on the bread of heaven
Take it as it comes
Breathe my last and be born again
Moment by inevitable moment

Remember you are dust
And to dust you shall return
And I will give you
Beauty for ashes

 

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We buried one of my best friends from college yesterday. Tomorrow my sister-in-law and her family bury her younger brother. My friend Troy lived with Parkinson’s disease for a decade. Jen’s brother Zach died suddenly in a plane crash.

“Angels” was the suggested theme for week 15 of #songaweek2018. I didn’t have much interest in using it. I’ve never been a big angels fan (baseball or otherwise). Too sentimental, too kitschy, too many ceramic travesties foisted on the world. I did briefly start a song tentatively called “Don’t Blink,” but couldn’t sustain an interest in it.

So I pulled up some old song ideas from my files and found a recording of a tune and some chords, no words. And then it all started coming together, a song woven from the threads of my life that week.

Zach’s sudden death. Troy weakly hanging on to the last moments of his life. Two men’s lives tragically and senselessly cut short.

Winter refusing to leave my neighborhood, breathing cold and snow over everything, week after wearying week. An insistent reflection of my own middle-aged angst.

The physics book I’ve been reading, Reality is Not What it Seems, and its discussion of a 3-sphere, a current understanding of the shape of the cosmos; and how Dante envisioned it long before Einstein did, possibly from looking up at mosaics of angels in the Florence Baptistery.

The visions of painter and poet William Blake, which thankfully are something else my mind calls up when I hear the word “angel.”

In writing this song, I more deeply felt why angels have been consistently present in stories and art. There are moments, especially the moments around death, in which we reach out for something like us but not. A being of great beauty, power, intelligence – but also one who brings deep comfort. Not a god, not a human, but someone who knows more than we do, who has seen further into the mysteries of existence and can still say to us, “fear not,” can guide us from what we know into what we don’t.

Hold me while I freefall
While the winds of death squall
Keep me in your vision
Carry me to paradise
Angel
Let me sing forever
Where the clouds can never
Take me from your vision
Carry me to paradise
Angel
Lead me from this dark cave
Sail me cross the light waves
Fill me with your vision
Carry me to paradise
Angel
Fly me through the shadows
Lift me from the cosmos
Add me to your vision
Carry me to paradise
Angel

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