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Category Archives: songwriting

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.

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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?

Arcati Crisis invades Saxbys Abington

We just returned and unloaded from an Arcati Crisis show at Saxbys Abington, and my head is a jumble of thoughts.

I originally attributed the the jumble to the caffeine. We’ve discovered through reckless experimentation that every drink they make at Saxbys is at least twice as caffeinated as what you’d find at any other coffee shop.

That said, I’ve also been beset by fall allergies, and earlier took an allergy medication with pseudoephedrine for the first time in years. I had forgotten until just now that for the first few days it makes me feel hollow, anorexic, and on speed. (Indeed, it is a precursor in the illicit synthesis of methamphetamine.)

So, yes, clearly a jumble.

Foremost in the jumble is that we had the privilege to share a bill with Becca Marlee, a hyper-talented 13-year-old who writes amazing pop hooks and dishes them out effortlessly on her gorgeous Larrivee guitar. Even though we played the longer sets Becca was really headlining – she absolutely packed the shop with her friends and kept everyone (including us and our guests) riveted. We told her we’d be happy to open for her any time, and we really meant it!

Second is that, despite some fumbles on my part due to my jumble of speediness, we felt really good about our performance. It used to be that we’d leave a show armed with a withering critique of every song, but tonight we were confident and in fine voice. We only repeated three originals across 100+ minutes of playing, and debuted three songs – our totally new covers of “Video Killed the Radio Star” (awesome) and “Hunger Strike” (needs some fine-tuning), as well as the first-ever Arcati Crisis performance of my “Love Me Love Me Not.”

The latter was the best feeling in the world. Gina is not only my best friend and best lady, but the person who taught me to love playing guitar. Whenever I write a song that I’m really obsessed with my number one ambition is to hear what Gina would bring to it, and now that Arcati Crisis is a real band I’ve experienced that four times over. Even after hearing a single rough-around-the-edges version of “Love Me Not” I’d say it’s the best result yet, especially since the song is so meaningful to me personally. I’m trembling with excitement to play it again.

Or, actually, that’s probably the speed talking. Still, a feeling I’ll never forget.

In addition to Becca’s attentive crowd we brought a trio of ever-dedicated local fans and two friends from high school we’ve recently reconnected with. Plus our core Saxbys crowd of three young girls who keep coming back, mostly because at our first outing we promised to learn a Jonas Brothers song for them and delivered mightily upon our return.

I had since forgotten the song – “Australia” – which they were upset about. One of them asked me point-blank – “do you like the Jonas Brothers?,” and I responded with a lengthy monologue about the subtle subversiveness of repackaging the Beatles and Elvis Costello as a teen pop phenomenon. To which she replied, “but, you like them, right?”

Later I managed to medley “Australia” into “Under My Skin,” which Gina and I thought was hilarious. The girls were not as impressed, and were generally displeased that I hadn’t brought fiancee with me (they adore her).

“Where is she?”

“At work, I think.”

“This late? What does she do?”

“Build websites”

Collectively: “Oooooo. Cool.”

(Apparently I made a misstep by telling one of them that she looks like Lindsay Lohan. “Eww. She’s weird,” was the response. Apparently I am so three years ago, and should have said Hanna Montana instead? I think she’s weird.)

There was also table of older teenagers who had solid taste in music. As the night progressed they shouted over a dozen great requests, including classic folk from Joni Mitchell to Bob Dylan to Donovan, the latter of which Gina merrily provided. They also danced around to “Galileo,” let me play an Ani song, and totally dug our verbatim cover of “Space Oddity,” which too often goes unappreciated.

We were so impressed with them that we took down their emails so we could quiz them at length for new covers.

That’s about all I have to say about the show at the moment. As I’ve been unjumbling I opened our MySpace to find an intriguing invite to play a show later this month that I need to follow up on ASAP.

More news as it breaks…

Guitarness

I’m often at a loss for what to do with myself when we visit Elise’s families in New Jersey. At home, or at any friend’s house, my default position is guitar playing – it gives me something to do with my hands in idle moments so that I don’t feel like I have to carry on a non-stop conversation at all times.

I don’t usually bring my guitar with me to NJ, which means the families haven’t witnessed this particular phenomenon too often, but Elise was planning to leave me marooned while she went on a wedding dress tour, and I needed a way to pass the time. I added a wonderful new “print-version” feature to my lyrics database, so for the trip I printed out sheaf of my fifty most incomplete songs to workshop while Elise was out on her wedding whirlwind.

Isn’t that a little crazy – fifty songs that are unfinished and still relatively new?

I really vacillate about this sort of thing. At this point Gina and I have a solid sixteen song set, and I have ten or twenty of my strongest songs that go in and out of solo rotation. It’s a comfortable point to be at, but then I look at my freaking database and I see all of these unfinished songs – some of which I really adore and like to play, such as they are in their unfinished state. And, since my current setlist is heavily influenced by my 2003-04 stuff, there are incomplete songs hanging around that are about to be four years old.

Four years old! Which is a problem when I have a whole new fleet of unfinished songs to be working through – I only have so much headspace to to to push these things forward. So, I sat down with my sheaf today and had a touch of a workshop. I re-notated a few things in a more complete fashion, and I think finished one from 2001 – “4th of July” – once and for all.

All that rehearsal meant I was plenty limber for my post-dinner conversational gambit. Except, these are people who aren’t used to my schtick – that I like sit and underscore a conversation without needing anyone to pay attention to me, and that if there’s a lull I might sing for a bit before tucking my voice back under the din.

It made for a few awkward moments … I don’t know that Elise’s father has ever heard me play my own songs before? Certainly not songs about his daughter, anyhow. But, they won’t be getting rid of me anytime soon so they might as well get used to the incessant underscoring of my life. Along the way I turned in possibly my best vocal of all time on the bridge of “Love Me Not,” and also a very respectable version of the recently on-hiatus “Little Love.”

All of which is why I need to go home tomorrow and record a Trio. And then I need to record another another one. And then another. And so on.

Right. But, first I need to drink this glass of wine. And maybe another one.

G’nite.

Endlessly Avoiding Perfection

Heading East recently shared a theory that each artist has only a single great “story” inside of them waiting to be released. A particular quote really resonated:

Some artists escape by fashioning alternate versions of their story, never actually telling it perfectly, always leaving a bit of mystery in the center, always working their way around and around the one truth they know, but maybe these artists are doomed too as they will always fall short…

Though I don’t agree completely with the one-story-only theory, I do believe that each artist has a limited amount of ways to portray any single given archetype within their sphere of art, with each attempt a facet of a perfected portrayal. As alluded to in the quote, the artist has a choice (though not always a conscious one) of spending a lifetime drafting an incomplete version of their truth, or of crafting one version that is crystalline in its perfection.

I certainly feel that way about songwriting. I used to specialize in a particularly jilted sort of breakup song that I spent most of my time writing and re-writing. Suddenly, early in 2005 i wrote “Regrets,” and I was suddenly no longer bound to tap and retap that archetype for my material. Since then my songs have expressed a much wider array of emotions – I freed myself by closing a door on a particular story.

Penning that perfect story is a frightening concept; what if you finish it too soon? What if you don’t have any other important stories to tell? Yet, as daunting as those questions are, if you let them handicap your creativity you’ll never attain that perfect story. And that means you’ll never get to try your hand at its sequel.

My Favorite Trio Tracks: #2 – Granted (from Trio Season 4, #2)

While surveying my Trios for this list of favorites tracks I decided against including the fully-mixed songs from the middle of Season 4. Though they appeared in Trio they didn’t adhere to the spirit of Trio – I built them piece by piece from a click track rather than recording them live.

Except for “Granted.”

“Granted” came to me in the middle of the night. I awoke, bolt upright, crying, and reached for a piece of paper. The next thing I remember was crossing out a line in the final verse, and the next thing after that was getting through a guitar/vocal version of the song in a single take.

What could be more quintessentially Trio than that?

After hearing the guitar/vocal I realized that a lot more had come to me than just the basic structure of the song. Without even thinking about it I added a lattice of background vocals and guitars around the original demo, replacing some of them in the coming days with more polished versions. The end result was one of my most professional-sounding tracks of all time, which wound up as the opening track of Trio Season 4, #2.

As a song “Granted” exists across opposing worlds – awake and asleep, alive and slipping away. Now you can hear it two different ways for the first time – fully polished and completely naked. At the core of each is my voice, hoarse at 3am from waking up crying, singing words straight from a legal pad pockmarked with arrows and crossouts.

I love this song so much that I’m afraid to hear it any other way.

My Favorite Trio Tracks: #11 – World In My Hand (from Trio Season 3, #7)

Today’s song is “World In My Hand,” originally recorded in January of 2003 for Trio Season 3, #7.

When I wrote it in 1998, “World In My Hand” was my first “hit,” in a manner of speaking.

At the time I had only been writing songs for a few months, and only playing for about a year, but when I wrote the lyrics out on the first page of my new poetry notebook I knew I had tapped into something both more personal and more universal than anything I had previously written.

As my songwriting has become more and more refined my older songs have a tendency to drop off of my setlists – especially songs I wrote before college. Yet, no matter how much my songs evolve, this one will always be a favorite.

And it’s mucked up that I can’t decide… ?

Gina and I just came from a rehearsal with the Melange Theatre house band for our appearance at the September 20th show. The band rocks, and thus we will rock mightily. I hope you’ve bought your ticket.

During the course of said rehearsal I received my first ever request to censor a lyric. The lyric in question is in “Wait,” and goes as follows:

You call me on the phone
and I wish I pretended I wasn’t home,
’cause every time I hear your voice
I let you get too close.
You twist my guts up baby,
and it’s fucked up how we can’t deny
these feelings for long enough
to avoid climbing on for another ride

They asked very nicely, yet I still went into fight or flight mode. Why take out the “fuck” when the song has other gems in it like “next thing I know you’ll come over and stain the sheets”? Is the use of fuck, not even referring to fucking, any more explicit than that line?

The real issue is not that I want to say fuck so bad, but that “fucked up” maintains the assonance on the line, and the device is not satisfied by “effed up,” “messed up,” or “screwed up,” which were so helpfully suggested by others at the rehearsal.

Also, it provides an emphatic point for me to rejoin Gina on harmony, which was one of the reasons we split up the vocals the way we did in the first place.

(At the time I snapped defensively at the change I didn’t realize that I had all of those reasons running through my head, but now that I’m sitting down to write they’re all plain as day, which is exactly the problem with censorship – sometimes content is only part of the intent, and changing one piece of it to a soothing alternate often has a bigger impact than intended.)

If it was a song other than “Wait” I think I’d probably cut it from the set rather than change the line, because I don’t like the precedent it sets for further artistic direction. However, we really like to play “Wait,” and the band liked to play “Wait,” and we don’t really have another tune that fills the same sort of sonic space. So, I’m probably going to change it.

What to, I’m not sure. Suggestions welcomed.