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.”