Three years ago, Amanda Palmer was one of the first people to engage with me on Twitter – and, I’m not just talking famous people. People in general.
I don’t always love Amanda’s solo ukele-based efforts as much as the songs from her revelatory punk-cabaret two-piece Dresden Dolls, but I continue to follow her becasue she is one of the most honest and open full-time rock stars on the internet. She contends 24/7 with the trials and concerns I encounter only in rehearsal (four days of our seven, last week).
On Friday, Amanda was tweeting about recording a new record with a new band, and in the stream of messages this one stuck out…
some songs are just harder to play live, energy-wise and vocally. the jeep song, necessary evil, shores of california all live unfavorites.
— Amanda Palmer (@amandapalmer) February 24, 2012
… and not just because it involved one of my top five tunes by Amanda…
It stuck out because, as with many things Amanda shares, it expressed something I have felt about music but haven’t ever really articulated.
Historically, Arcati Crisis learns songs at a rate of about four a year. Since Gina and I each write on our own, that means we’re learning just two of my tunes – yet, I write anywhere from six to twenty songs in a year.
As a result, my perspective on song-picking for AC is that every one of my choices must be lead-single quality. I don’t like subtle picks. Every new song of mine that we choose has to be awesome enough to obliterate the memory of all prior songs.
A few years ago, Gina picked “Unengaged” from my available songs. It’s a song I love. It’s complex, but catchy. It’s challenging to play and sing, but not impossible. It seemed like a good pick.
It lasted about two rehearsals. The problem wasn’t the complexity … it was the emotion. “Unengaged” is about the period where I had decided I was going to propose to E but hadn’t yet gone through with it. It’s a hard type of energy to connect with – happy, but uncertain if that’s the right thing to be – and because of the delicacy of the vocal, I need to nail the emotion behind it to get it right.
I realized quickly that it was destined to be a “live unfavorite.” I already loved what Gina was doing with it, but I knew it would fall to the bottom of my list as we chose setlists because I wouldn’t always want to summon the emotions to sing it. And, with only two songs to choose each year, what would be the point of picking something if I didn’t want to play it?
(I did the same thing a year later with “Tattooed,” at which point Gina and I agreed that songs specifically about E are generally not the best choice as Arcati Crisis songs, exactly for the reason that they can become live unfavorites for me as some new emotion between E and I supersedes the older one in the song.)
That’s not to say that I don’t sometimes select emotionally hard-to-deliver songs for AC. “Love Me Not,” “Dumbest Thing I Could Do,” and “End With Me” can all be hard to get emotionally right and incredibly draining when I do. I was ready to fall on the ground after delivering a searing “End With Me” at our holiday revue, and had to spend the next thirty minutes avoiding conversation with other guest. Yet, those songs simply aren’t personal the way songs about E are. I get to play a character.
When they were together, the Dresden Dolls learned songs at a much faster rate than 4 per year, so Amanda could afford to bring a song to the band that might not become a live staple. It was still worth hearing the band version, and worth recording. Fans still love it. It spawned a hilarious music video. It’s just hard for her to play.
This week Gina and I are picking our next pair of songs to learn, having already learned a pair in January. That means we’ll have hit our 4-song quota by April. Will this be the year we learn an entire album’s worth of new music in twelve months? If it is, I wonder if I will eventually tap a live unfavorite as one of my choices.