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Category Archives: songwriting

Under My Skin – Arcati Crisis, Live @ Rehearsal

I don’t want to steal the thunder of the impending essay you’re due for this song in 10 days when I celebrate its tenth birthday. (Hello, this song has it’s own freaking CATEGORY on my blog.)

Suffice it to say that after you’ve been playing something for long enough you stop feeling the feeling that you originally felt and start just feeling the song, because the song embodies the original feeling, and that is beautiful state of affairs to be in as a performing songwriter.

I have been playing “Under My Skin” with Gina since shortly after its writing in January of 2000. Even with a backbone of a mere three chords it keeps getting better, even after we retire it for months or years at a time.

This is as fine a version as any, save for one flat chord and a pair of swapped words. Otherwise, divine.

(The pitter-pattering part of the outro refrain that crests around “just a kiss, and I don’t think that I miss you anymore” has always meant to invoke the Jackson 5 – even pre-dating my more recent obsession with the Jackson 5. I sometimes segue from that part straight into “Never Can Say Goodbye,” but could just as easily get to “I Want You Back” or “ABC.”)

Gina and I haven’t done a proper duo recording of “Under My Skin,” but she did overdub her newer bits of the arrangement onto a recording I love from NaBloPoMo 2006. You can download that here.

The best way to keep up with Arcati Crisis happenings is to become our fan on FaceBook, because I don’t always blog every little thing.

I know, it’s hard to believe.

Tomorrow we will play you our new cover, which will lead either to head-explosions or mocking, but probably not both.

Held My Tongue (2009 Demos) – 5/30

This is post 5 of 30 featuring live, single-take demos of each of the 30 songs I’m considering for my upcoming studio album. Each potential album tune is accompanied by a B-Side, to make each post a virtual 45 single (remember those?).

These are certainly not two songs I expected to wind up with this early in the month. Hopefully the weekend will bring more surprises (along with some time to rehearse).

Song #236: Saving Grace (live demo)
Never previously recorded

There are a lot of interesting things in the subways in Paris – mariachi bands, marionettes, and women genuflecting with silent poise. I wrote the chorus on Champs Elysees, sang it on every Metro line we took, and then wrote the first verse and the bridge on the back of my Eurostar ticket en route to London. When we got back home I walked directly to piano and played it without so much as a chord chart. Afterward I simply had to make all of the internal rhymes match, learn it on guitar, forget it on guitar, and reconstitute it in CADGCC just to make things difficult for myself.

Song #58: Novel (live demo)
Last recorded for Trio in October of 2000

Directly between writing the two 1999 songs that have stayed with me for the past decade – Bridge and Other Plans – I wrote this one. I discovered that once you leave yourself open to writing songs sometimes your feelings come out through them, and suddenly you have a song about something you weren’t planning on ever telling anyone about. Aside from its single Trio appearance I think the only person I’ve ever played it for is Lindsay.

If you dig one (or both) of these songs, please leave a comment – your feedback will have a big effect on the songs I ultimately choose for the album.

Not mean enough?

I’ve been the rotating host of the LP Wednesday night open mic since October, and it’s just recently reached self-sustaining status where we don’t have to plead and beg to get people to attend.

A regular weekly crowd means a slew of musicians who I’m getting know a little better, week by week. One is Trent AKA Stupa Thought. You wouldn’t peg him as someone I’d dig. He plays flat out modern rock with a tinge of hip hop rhythms – stuff that would be easily radio-ready with a fierce band behind him.

I like Trent because he takes music seriously. He’s quick to make light of a blown chord or when I forget to give him an extra round of applause, but when it comes to playing he’s as professional as anyone at the open mic. His arrangements are tight. His vocals are solid. His songs have distinct structure, and he wields a pedal board with looping to add texture.

I try to find a moment to get to know everyone in the room (be on the lookout for my open mic how-to post, coming soon), and I always wind up deep in conversation with Trent. Last week he said an interesting thing to me: “I don’t think any of your songs ever get angry enough. You go right up to the brink, but you always pull back.”

It’s a perceptive comment. I used to be the master of the kiss-off song, but I’ve long since abandoned it as my primary genre. You could argue that I’m mellower now that I’m married. I think it’s more that I comment on myself more now – even in songs about other people – a trend that started with “So Hard.” I think it’s important to root your song’s accusation in something common, and when you are writing something scathing that’s partially about yourself it’s hard not to add a slightly redemptive angle … even if it’s just a vocal that resolves major.

Trent challenged me to come back this week with as nasty a set as I could summon. After some consulting with Elise, I came up with: Splinter (legendarily nasty break-up tune), Bridge (unapologetically fierce alt-tuning rocker from high school), Real You (utter dissection of a false friend), and my “single” Shake It Off – a takedown of passive aggressiveness that was already deemed not mean enough due to the hopeful bent of the chorus.

The set felt awesome. I’m sure my hour of vocal warmups helped, but it was more that I’m not used to seething for four songs anymore. Now that I’m not in that awful place 24/7 I can appreciate a little focused rage. It makes me happy that I wrote the songs – now they’re like pressure valves I can use to blast out a little antipathy at a moment’s notice.

Trent’s assessment? That I certainly picked my nastiest guitar work, but he still feels like I let my vocals redeem the subjects of my wrath.

Can you think of a popular song that’s mean not necessarily because of it’s music, or even its lyrics, but because of a fierce vocal performance that doesn’t scream, growl, or otherwise contort itself? “You’re So Vain” comes to mind.

Comment if you can think of one.

2008 Album of Songs Recap

Editor’s Note: This post was drafted on this day but not published at the time. Upon reflection, I probably intended to write more about “Better” and add a conclusion, but it’s still a fascinating look book at the songs I wrote in 2008 – many of which stuck around for a long time.

Last year I wrote an entire album of songs for the first time since 2002.

I love writing new songs for the same reason I love buying records. Every one might not be good, but when you find one of those amazing, five-star, play-on-repeat songs you feel like you would trade anything in the world to keep playing it. And you want more that will make you feel the same way.

I love having that feeling about something that’s my own, so I keep writing songs. Also, I tend to give Arcati Crisis all of my favorites, which means I have to generate new favorites.

It’s an interesting album, and I’ve been slow to document the songs.

“Not Tonight” is the oldest, actually started in 2007, but not completed until a year ago today. It started out as just a single line that I would sing in my head whenever I crossed Market Street, “I’m going drive to your house and take you home.” The melody plagued me, but I couldn’t get anywhere with it on my guitar – I had to sit at the piano and pound it note by note. Slowly but surely, a whole song bloomed out of that little line. It’s a rock ballad, which I tend to eschew because I don’t play them well at open mics. It’s a touch of Kelly Clarkson’s “Beautiful Disaster,” with all the slides up from the sevenths to the majors, plus some Maroon 5 hyper-melody in the choruses.

“Sweetest Thing” was one of those blink-and-you-miss it writing experiences, a whole complex song delivered in one swift blow on my 12-string. It’s a definitely a ballad, so much as I write them. In my head I think it’s sonically nearest to Tori’s Scarlet Walk. Again, long, complex, and mid-tempo means it never gets played anywhere.

“Gone Baby Gone” came out after a back-to-back viewings of the movie of the same name plus The Darjeeling Limited. It’s this thing I sometimes do, writing songs for movies that have already been released. The verse is this very straight-up major affair, very American acoustic rock – Black Crows, or something. The chorus is a little more delicate, and has a tremendous falsetto leap, like the Oscar-winning song from Once. I think you can feel the split between the two movies in verse and chorus, and later in the year I tried to tie them together in the bridge, which reminds me a lot of a Beatles song, or maybe “In the Meantime.”

“Glam” was written all in one go sitting in Elise’s office on the futon. Total Bowie glam-stomp rip off, 12/8, Aladdin Sane esque. From the second I was done it was obvious that it was just one verse and chorus, and equally obvious it was an Arcati Crisis tune.

“Small and Lonely” is secretly my favorite. Written in transit, on 4th around Catherine, on the Broad Street Line with Elise, and riding up 7th to the Rilo Kiley concert. I nearly wrote it from scratch in each round, and as a result it has more discarded lyrics than actual ones. It started out married to Ingrid Michaelson’s “Die Alone,” but stretched away from it. The choruses almost have a dance-rockness to them, and when I play it at the piano they’re alternating octave eight notes. The verses are a little low for me to project loudly, which makes me uncomfortable singing it live (even though I love the chorus).

“Shake It Off” turned into the big hit, which still shocks the hell out of me, because it barely got written in the first place. It was just this weird little piece of scathe, climbing up some kind of modal scale – very modern rock radio. But then it picked up this Ani DiFranco thumpy guitar part, and a Michael Jackson rhythmic chorus line, and I started pretending I was Kings of Leon a little bit when I sang it, and suddenly everyone I knew loved it. Probably my most asked-for song since “Love Me Not.”

“All This Time” was a lark, just a little chorus I started at the piano to while away a day at home. I just kept walking back to the piano over and over to play it until finally the guitar came with me and I was writing verses too. It happened so fast that I can hardly name any influences – just Heartless Bastards, for the simplicity and stomp of it, and “I Don’t Wanna Be” for some of the straight major chord changes. It’s rare for me to write without any minor chords – I snuck two into the bridge, but otherwise this is all major.

“Something Real” was pure inspiration, walking south on 2nd street after seeing Alexandra Day and some other local musicians. I connected the dots from Alex to Sam Cooke and suddenly had two verses and a chorus. It only took about three months to finish off – an unusually short gestation for me.

“Tattooed” is the other half of “Something Real” – started at another concert, also about impending wedding rings, and finished on the same day as “SR.” THis one started seeing a local band play a split bill with Old Man Cactus. They covered “Soul Meets Body,” and I somewhat nicked the chorus melody to do my own thing. Even if it bears a passing resemblance there, it’s more Juliana Hatfield’s “Bed” than anything else. Melodically it’s a little similar in construction to “Shake It Off,” and it’s just as hard to play well, so its been slow in visiting my sets.

“Better” started on the piano, but quickly became a little too aerobic for me to upkeep there.

If the album had b-sides, it would be “Safe & Secure,” “Somewhere Down the Line,” and “Burdens of Being Upright.” “Safe & Secure” predates this stuff by a few months, but it came into its own in the same period – a rare, total radio-rocker. “Somewhere Down the Line” keeps resisting being finished, mostly because it’s not quite the power-pop song I envisioned when I got started. “The Burdens of Being Upright” is a weird one, half title track to the Tracy Bonham disc of the same name, half allegorical tale mean to supplant Rilo Kiley’s “It’s a Hit.”

Trio Season 6 – Suite #6: Instants

This Trio almost wound up being titled “Primer” because of the following three quotes:

On being primed:
If you’ve ever read an interview with a songwriter … you’ll hear a repeated theme: that you have to constantly be writing, and constantly be revising and playing. It seems sortof counter-intuitive, because at some point you’ve written a certain amount of material, and you feel like you should be playing or rehearsing that material. But … when you have a new idea it’s much more easy to capture that idea.

It’s funny that you can apply any kind of science to songwriting. You spend a lot of years as a songwriter thinking it’s just lightning that strikes you, but there are things you can do to make yourself more of a lightning rod.

All This Time
When the chorus came in my head I literally walked to the piano and played the entire song in one go and wrote the lyrics. It all happened in 30 minutes. … Effectively the whole song came at once. It was because I was primed. That’s the challenge, you know? You have to be working on songs to have other songs that work.

Will It Ever Come?
Much like “All This Time,” it came at this point that I was very primed, in the summer of 2000. I wrote a lot of what are still my favorite songs at that time … songs that I really still play very frequently. And this one was kindof in the middle, and it just got ignored. It was at the very beginning of Crushing Krisis and I blogged the lyrics. [Ed note: Literally; I wrote them out in nine minutes in the Blogger window. They were my 81st post.]

The next year when I went into the recording studio … I can honestly say I don’t know that ever played it before. And we did it in one take.


Lyrics and chords for “Time Is Running Out” are behind the cut. Read more…

Trio – the original singer-songwriter web session – returns for its sixth season featuring my original music, recorded live and DIY in my bedroom. You can download this Trio, grab the single of “All This Time,” or listen to a previous Trio:

Finding My Footing (or, a belated welcome to NaBloPoMo)

Lately I’ve been feeling like an actual singer-songwriter, instead of just a pretend internet one.

Of course, I’ve had a lot chances to feel like a legitimate musical artist in the past year through my performances with Gina as Arcati Crisis. But, there’s a certain strength in numbers – a power of two – that makes us a minimum amount of compelling and keeps us lurching forward even from our unlikeliest (and unlikeable) moments.

I don’t have those abilities on my own, which can sometimes make playing by myself a lonely prospect. For a while at any solo appearance I spent more time noticing Gina’s absence than being present on my own. At an open mic this summer I joked to an inattentive bar crowd, “if any of you could come up here and stand just to my left I’d feel much more comfortable.”

They didn’t get it.

My few solo outings earlier this year were the first times I was playing alone to unfriendly crowds in a long time, and I was daunted on each occasion. I played the same songs over and over, heavily relying on the crutches of “Icy Cold” and my cover of “Like a Virgin.” Any other song would leave me wide open for rookie mistakes like forgotten lyrics.

I started to wonder … can I hold space and attention on my own? Are my singing and playing interesting without someone else to dress them up? And, if there isn’t any point to me playing solo, than how can I write compelling material for my band by myself?

I don’t know that I’ve answered any of those imperative questions, but as summer ripened into fall and I kept stubbornly playing on my own I started getting into a certain rhythm where I was less fearful and more adventurous. If no one is going to pay attention anyway, why play “Like a Virgin” for the fifteenth time? New originals and covers and forgotten oldies started sneaking into my sets, and I surprisingly loved some of them. And, when I played the newer songs I was reminded that I devote an uncommon amount of detail to each song that I write. That fact alone doesn’t make me better than the competition, but it definitely makes a difference.

By the time I debut a “new” song (typically a dreaded introduction to hear at any open mic) it has been through months of development. In the case of a newer song like “Not Tonight (from Monday’s Trio), I start with a core of words or melody that have been stuck in my head. I sketch the basics of them out on piano or guitar, and then I typically switch instruments for a while to flesh out the chord structure and melody before returning to the original instrument to complete my lyrics. Next I transcribe a definitive version of the lyrics into my MYSQL database, and begin chipping away at them daily – revising order and polishing lines whenever I think of it.

Afterward I tend to go through an incubation stage that mostly consists of singing the song wherever I go – sometimes deliberately missing a bus so I can sing while I walk. At that point I’m mostly making decisions about dynamics, so that by the next time I sit down with the text I’m ready to mark my vowels and breaths.

Then I actually start rehearsing.

I don’t explain all of that to brag, because it’s not anything I’m especially proud or ashamed of. It just happens to be my process at the moment, and when I enthuse about my database or (attempt to) commiserate over the difficulty of choosing the right vowels I realize that I’m different than a lot of the people I meet at open mics. A song that’s “new” to me is well-experienced to them, and my repertoire of 80 originals (out of a total of 228) is boggling.

The fact that I have a specific process – my own database and binder, an untold history for each song – makes me feel like a valid artist again. I haven’t felt that for a long time, and the last time I did it mostly came from playing fictional concerts to no one in my bedroom rather than making regular appearances at open mics. My current insanity of organization has kept me limber and nimble, to the point that I’ve completed over a dozen new songs so far this year – the most I’ve completed in one calendar year since I started dating Elise in 2002.

That’s why you’re seeing a late-stage resurgence in the stalled Trio season I began last November – I have a lot more songs to share than I did at this time last year.

That, and it’s once again National Blog Posting Month, which I have resolved to make more of a go at this year. This is one of the most interesting times in my life, both personally and publicly, and I’m sure that many years from now I’ll appreciate a running commentary about it.

(Last year, as you might recall, it intersected with being newly engaged, and I quickly found out that it was a time I wanted to spend outside of the house instead of at the computer.)

(Seventy-odd days out from the wedding and I much prefer the confines of my house, especially when I don’t have any credit cards in arm’s reach.)

(Good night.)

Writing songs that are too difficult for me to play is ever-so-slightly counterproductive, don’t you think?