song stories--Doomed to Crawl

I rode a train alone from St. Paul to Boston this year to visit some family and attend a bachelor party and I spent much of that time jotting down observations, images, feelings, etc., to be turned into music or poetry later. It was a twenty-one-hour train ride altogether (with a six-hour layover in Chicago).

This song started out as a few lines from there: 

here the fog clings to the ditches. for now, 
we ride along the line. But the tracks dip low, 
and who knows what is waiting down there in the shadows?

It might be that I had recently watched Stranger Things again, it might be my slight obsession with Sci-Fi & suspense, but when I woke up to a foggy morning in New York state my mind immediately jumped to some kind of monster hiding in the fog. The train tracks had been laid on a small hill, so we weren’t in the fog for the first twenty minutes or so after I woke up. But then there was a moment when the train groaned like some great beast pulling a plow and then the train darkened as we plunged into the thick fog. 

Then later these lyrics were combined with some lines about a choir teacher I had in high school who (unknowingly) helped me through one of the darkest times of my life, her willingness to listen to and critique my earliest efforts at music kept me interested in it when a lot of other things might have had me abandoning it. 

And o the fear that cradles my soul
O the agony that drove me to the wall
I might have jumped off but you’d break my fall
I might have been lost but you heard my song

From there I decided it would function really well as a song about an old country music trope, a man who is in love but knows somehow that he’s dangerous. Maybe he's a bank robber, maybe he frequently steps on the heel of people's shoe by accident. Who knows. 

Feeling the tension between wanting intimacy and affection but worrying about whether or not things will work out can feel a little like madness, and so the song feels a little that way. The verses have this Johnny-B-Goode vibe, and the choruses drop down from that intensity to a quiet, almost Django Reinhardt-meets-mariachi-music sound before leaping back up into the breakneck blues again. 

As I've written elsewhere, it doesn't particularly matter how a song begins. Most of the art is found in the editing. 

David, our violinist, talks a lot about how good Americana music flirts with cheesiness or stereotypical expressions of a genre of music, but never quite gets there. This song gets as close as I’m comfortable with. 

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song stories--sixteen

I grew up in the midwest. I remember walking between grain silos and looking up at the stars, the ice-cold water of a creek that ran through my hometown, driving home Sunday afternoons after church to eat lunch with my family and watch whatever game was on (well, they did. I’d play video games or read at first, and then eventually play the piano in the living room). 

I didn’t know that the world I grew up in could be called conservative or religious or white, it was just home. And I certainly didn’t know that there are countless people in America who grew up in an entirely different world. 

Years later, Donald Trump wins the Presidency. I lived in Minneapolis (at the time, St. Paul now), an urban center that exemplifies many of the things rural folk might imagine a city to be: diverse, busy, liberal. 

One of my best friends, a Mexican-American man near my age, sent me a text message just as I was getting to bed for the first time in the era of a Trump Presidency. The evangelical world had elected Trump, who said some horrible things about his people. He wondered about his place in Christianity--if this, what felt like such a strong rejection of his culture and heritage, was the calling card of too much of American Christianity for him to be a part of it.

A student told one of my other best friends, a white man like me, that some of his family went to bed that night expecting vans to come the next day to take their families away and deport them. That’s how regime change happens in much of the world, and they were afraid it was going to begin happening in America too. 

I also know that for some rural white Americans who have been left without access to clean water or adequate support from their elected officials, the Trump moment felt like a triumph. For others who I grew up with who felt belittled, talked down to, ignored, by the increasingly elite politicians and increasingly elite media, the Trump moment felt like a victory, like recognition. 

I also know that for white supremacists all across America, famous ones like David Duke who openly tout their hate, and closeted ones who walk the same streets I do and behave because they know they must, Trump felt like a moment where they could step out of the shadows. 

I know that for countless black people, the shock, grief, and surprise felt by most of the white liberals they knew was just another reminder that even they can’t truly understand what it means to be a person of color in America. 

I know that I am confused and angry and sad and somehow a little bit hopeful. Things cannot remain how they are, they must change. This song is about that. 

I don’t know, I don’t know what to do
I wish the man in the white house could say that too
I don’t know, I don’t know where I’m from
my mother’s home was built on land bought with blood

maybe we need more than eye contact and talk
maybe we’re missing the point of it all

 

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song stories--like Henry Hudson

One of my dearest friends Joseph got married last year and his bachelor party consisted of a trip to Portland, Maine to stay in a house his future in-laws owned. Myself, many of my best friends, and a few people who Joseph grew up with that I didn’t know particularly well filled this beautiful house just a few blocks from the Atlantic and we wandered the city with half a plan and a vague idea of what one is meant to do during a bachelor party.

I took this occasion to spend a bit more of my vacation time at my old job, so I went up a week early and hung out with my family in Boston. I took a train up and lugged my guitar along with in case I had some time to write.

I mostly didn’t--we spent our time taking Lyfts to what might be the mildest (read: the worst) Thai restaurant I have ever eaten at, or to lobster-eating places where I paid too much for grilled cheese so I could watch everyone there pretend that lobster was worth it.

After one such excursion, we wandered the rainy hills of downtown Portland and I found myself in a bookstore. I’d just finished the book I bought in Chicago during the layover between trains, and I had some budget left over after that day’s grilled cheese. I found a book about the history of American whaling called Leviathan, which I spent the next few days reading if we had any downtime.

what a cover, right? I've added a bonus story about the hatchet men of early sperm whaling crews and how they must have been the most incredible, level-headed/insane people. That's at the end of this post.

what a cover, right? I've added a bonus story about the hatchet men of early sperm whaling crews and how they must have been the most incredible, level-headed/insane people. That's at the end of this post.

Then, on the last day, almost everyone else left in the morning. It was $30 less to buy a ticket that flew out at 6pm, so myself and one friend found ourselves in this big, suddenly-empty house for an extra seven hours. I sat up in the sunroom, and out came two songs about whales.One, far slower and more existential, has yet to be played live more than once or twice. But the second song sprung out of an idea about a man who works on a whaling ship to buy a ring to marry his beloved with, but dies and becomes a ghost. Initially, the idea would be that the whole song would follow that thread, and our ghostly hero would be dismayed that his lover cannot see him when he finally returns to her. The end result was much different.

Rather than the main character of the song dying, he survives and returns to Paris to find his love after years of writing her letters on his voyage only to find that she perished almost immediately after he left because he forgot his keys and she fell down his front steps trying to catch up to him to return them. The song plays off as a comedic tragedy, though the description devoid of the music mostly just feels macabre. All the same, that’s my sense of humor In general, it is wise not to cling too tightly to the reasons one has in the beginning of anything, a song, a relationship, a job.

We tend to think that our reason for starting something needs to carry over through completion or we lose our integrity, but really we just need a reason to start. And then that reason can (and often should) very well change. The end result is usually better than what we set out for initially anyway. Unless you set out to buy a ring for your beloved by joining a whaling crew, then things may not turn out very well. 

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on hatchet men: 

Most early American off-shore whaling consisted of small boats (not dissimilar in size to the lifeboat seen in Life of Pi or one of the boats in Titanic that there were not enough of) with a crowd of men working in tandem and shifting positions mid-fight if they score a whale. Here's how a successful hunt would go: 

1. Spear a whale, attach sed spear to a drogue (a large piece of wood or other debris which slowed the whale down, made it difficult to dive, and helped to tire the creature out). 

2. Throw a second spear, attaching that spear to the boat itself causing it to serve as a drogue

3. Once the creature is sufficiently exhausted, bring the boat close enough that one of the sailors can plunge a great harpoon deep enough into its body to pierce the lungs, thus ending the fight. 

This brutal, dangerous trade shaped early interest in European settlement in America, and for years before that First Nation tribes living on the Eastern coasts lived off of whales and the many uses that could be made of their bodies. The sort of people who undertook these tasks had to have strong stomachs, cool heads, and something between bravery and foolishness. 

After step two, one of the whaling crew would stand by with a hatchet raised so that if the whale dove the line could be cut so that the ship wouldn't be yanked into the water. 

Holy crap. Here's the book if you're as fascinated as I am by this stuff. 

song stories-weight

I wrote the guitar line to Weight in the living room of a house I was renting with some friends last year. Sometimes I’m in a mood to sit down and write songs, sometimes I’m crabby as hell, and sometimes I’m a bit of both. Sed angst turned into the opening lines of the song:

time shakes the coins from you; upside down and the blood pools

you know what it takes, love is torture it’s a dark game.

I remember I had some friends in the house, but they were playing a complicated board game that I wasn’t interested in (Dungeons & Dragons has ruined me for board games, why play anything else?) and so I sat in the living room while they played and wrote those first few lines and then the melody to the chorus, though I had no words for it yet.

I tend to write the first chunk of a song, voice memo it, and then leave it alone for a week or two. It is easier to come to a song later on fresh and excited to add to it since you didn’t exhaust every idea trying to finish it all in one sitting (this is adapted from a piece of advice found in A Moveable Feast by Heminway: always leave your story with a sentence half finished).

--

Essentially the song is about how difficult and overbearing a relationship can be, and the feeling of determination (sometimes just foolhardiness) that can keep one pushing through. Initially, there wasn’t any hope planned for the lyrics, and yet the final product ended up being far more optimistic.

This was one of those songs where as soon as the band tried it out in rehearsal, we started playing it live. That meant it was shaped a lot by how it was received in live settings, rather than carefully arranged ahead of time as most of the tunes are. The song in its current form is far slower than when I started it, but this lazy, Pinegrove-eqsque rock vibe feels right. There's a recording of an earlier take on this song that is nearly twice as fast and uffda it is hard to listen to. 

Here’s a brief clip from the acoustic demo I sent to our producer: