Archive for the ‘Stories Behind the Songs’ Category

Johnny BravoJohn: Continuing my Steely Dan-esque attempts.  Like the others, it started out as a chord progression (though I did have a melody in mind), and turned it over to Wendy for lyrics.  Also like the others, this one just came to me one day, though not in its final form.  I’d had the verse for quite a while, but couldn’t figure out where to go with it.  My older daughter Emily actually contributed both the chord progression in the chorus, and little chord progression at the end of the bridge.  She was a music major at Mt. Holyoke College, and we frequently talk and email about chords and chord progressions (we have our own names for some chord types… ask her about the “Bella Notte” chord and the “omega” chord).  I had shared my early version of what was to become Paragon with her, and she was messing around with those chords, but with different rhythms and alternate keys, and I realized that those might fit into “Small Name, Big Ego”.

Wendy: John provided me with a demo, complete with a vocal melody, in June of 2012.  He also had a couple of lines of lyric: “She tried to tempt me with her tangerines/Outside a tent in Bonnaroo”.  Try as I might, though, I couldn’t seem to come up with any additional ideas that would that fit that couplet’s meaning and rhyme scheme and that were not completely stupid.  In reading a web page on slang terms, I happened upon the term “Ms. Taken”, meaning a ring some single women wear to give the impression that they’re married.  I thought it was an interesting idea and fit the chorus melody, so I attempted to write a song around that.  It didn’t work.

Weeks later, I hit upon a new title: “Small Name, Big Ego”.  This one was from the TV Tropes web page as a term for someone who has a “comically inflated” self-image.  This concept was much more fruitful, conjuring up images of American Idol divas and bad karaoke.  I wasn’t able to work John’s lyric in as is, but at least got “Bonnaroo” in there.  Flemingtown (originally the lyric was “tiny town”) is a small community near where I grew up.  The “through a mirror, darkly” line paraphrases a well-known Biblical passage, 1 Corinthians 13:12.

When we recorded this song, it originally ended at the end of the last chorus.  However, that seemed a strange way to end the song; after some discussion, John and I agreed that coda would be appropriate.  He came up with the chord progression for the coda and we tacked it on the ending of the original recording.  However, now it seemed like the coda was making the song go on too long, so I ended up making some strategic cuts to shorten it significantly.

Stories Behind the Songs: “Moment”

Posted by on September 4th, 2015

“Moment” is a very personal song for me. The initial germ (verse and bridge chords and melody) of the song arrived in August 2005; two years later, just after Transposition was finished, I had the beginning of the chorus melody. A month after that, on the night before our wedding, my fiancée received some test results that indicated she had cancer.

She began chemotherapy and radiation treatments at the end of October. Meanwhile, I had committed to providing music for the church service prior to Thanksgiving, with the theme of gratitude. Despite all that was going on, it was a beautiful, warm autumn, and my wife and I were newlyweds. Life seemed so valuable and precious, and I really felt I had a lot to be grateful for. I finished the song about a week before the service.

I knew that the odds were not in favor of my wife’s survival. When I performed the song at church, I nearly broke down while singing “Don’t want to say goodbye”, but somehow I held myself together. Unexpectedly to me (I don’t know why), there were lots of tears in the audience afterward. My wife did beat the odds and survive the cancer, but succumbed to other health issues in the spring of 2015.

“Burning Down Both Sides” is one of those songs that forced itself into my brain when I wanted to be asleep. One August night in 2012 I tossed and turned in bed with the 7/8 guitar riff going round and round in my head; finally, at 2 AM, I decided to get up and record it so it would leave me alone. By the time I did that, the beginning of the melody and the first two lines of the lyrics came to me. After that I was finally able to get some sleep; I finished the music later in the morning, and the lyrics in the afternoon.

“Your Doll” began in 1999 as a Nirvana-esque grunge song during a moment of pique with my then-girlfriend. I wrote down the words and chords, feeling sure I would remember the melody. I hadn’t yet learned that I never remember the melody for very long if I don’t record it; needless to say, I forgot it. Discouraged, I put the song aside.

Every once in a while, I would flip through my songwriting notebook and see the abandoned song there. Ten years passed. I was on my way back home from Asheville, North Carolina when, willy-nilly, a new melody popped into my head, along with new chords and the idea to remake the song in a reggae style. Even more astonishingly, I managed to remember the melody long enough to get home and record it.

The new melody did present a problem, though; whereas before the song was complete with two verses, now the two verses would have to be combined into one, necessitating that I write another. I took another six months to come up with the additional lyrics. Now, I thought, the song is complete.

I was never quite satisfied with the end result though. Finally, in April 2012, I took another look at the song. I ended up changing the key to make it easier to sing, modified the chorus to include new chords and backing vocals, and a bridge/solo section. I brought the song in to add to the Mother Zephyr repertoire, but that band ended before we could spend much time on it.

“Ace of Blues” first appeared in the spring of 2005 when I was trying to come up with an optimistic song for the slot in Transposition which was ultimately taken by “Could Be Me”. At that time there were no lyrics, and the feel was much more 60’s folk-pop, similar to “I’m Into Something Good” by Herman’s Hermits. Also there was no chorus, or “B” section.

Six years later, while taking a Desktop Music Production class, I choose the song for my class project. I still had no lyrics, so the melody was played by a synth sax. At that time I introduced the harder-rocking feel that ended up in the final product. A few months after that, I came up with the second section and a working title, “You Know You Should”.

In July of 2012 I changed the title to “(Happiness is) Out of Style”, finished the music and the lyrics, and recorded a demo. I previewed it for my wife, who didn’t think the lyrics worked. I ultimately agreed that they seemed contrived and resolved to come up with a new title and a new concept. The phrase “Ace of Blues” popped into my head one evening, and the lyrics followed soon after. Incidentally, I resisted making the trump card the Jack of Hearts; I thought it was a little too easy. But after wracking my brains in vain for a while, I succumbed.

“Turn It Around” was written fairly quickly at the end of January, 2011. I was fooling around on the piano when the chorus chords came to me. With some additional work, the rest of the chords and the melody soon followed, along with the phrase “Get Up”. In a week’s time, the lyrics were mostly written.

I seem to have been writing a lot of “message”-type songs around this period. In fact, I often worried that my lyrics were getting too preachy. Usually, though, when I seem to be preaching to my audience, I’m actually trying to give myself a pep talk.

I wrote the verse chords and melody and some initial lyrics for what would become “Clothesline” in June 2000. I didn’t revisit the song until January 2009, when I came up with a chorus and the riff for the solo section. At that time I also majorly overhauled the lyrics.

I really did knock out a tooth on a clothesline; I believe it was Halloween 1981 or 1982. My uncle and aunt had a clothesline made of a thick metal wire and I ran smack dab into it. Fortunately it was only a baby tooth and the gap in my smile enhanced my Phantom of the Opera costume. In the song, of course, it’s symbolic, but I still don’t know why it came to mind after all those years.

I performed the song solo once or twice before recording the Chameleon Red version in 2012.

Hammered Dulcimer“The Inner Life” is obviously inspired by the Beatles’ B-side “The Inner Light”. George Harrison took the words for that song verbatim from a passage in Lamps of Fire, a collection of religious writings by Juan Mascaró. That passage was a translation of Chapter 47 of the Tao Te Ching.

I got the idea for “The Inner Life” while in Florence, Italy in 2009. I was thinking about how contemplation must come more easily to the introvert than to the extrovert. I’m an introvert, and often have a hard time comprehending extroverts, so I wrote a verse from each perspective. I had a melody in mind also, but since I was traveling abroad I had no musical instrument, and I’m not musically literate enough to write down notes on a staff from my head. So the words were captured, but the melody was lost.

I had always envisioned the song as quiet, meditative, and with an Indian flavor; the drone of the tamboura and the bright, buzzing sitar were definitely part of my vision from the start. So I’m not sure what inspired me, in September 2012, to recast it in a funk mold. But it came to me that way, along with chords and a melody. I quickly wrote a final verse recognizing that we need both introverts and extroverts, and the song, which had languished for three years, was suddenly complete, as what I can only describe as raga-funk.

The recording of the song is notable for the strange instrumentation; I played not only an electric sitar, but a hammer dulcimer, a bowed psaltery, and an ashiko, while John contributed synthesized strings in addition to the bass. Years ago I had actually envisioned doing a sort of Indian-themed song using traditional western acoustic instruments, so this was a chance to give it a try.

Stories Behind the Songs: “Paragon”

Posted by on August 22nd, 2014

Sorry for the long interval since the last blog entry–it’s been a trying month.

Paragon BeardsJohn: The fact that Brian’s help turned “Revolving Door” from a cool chord progression into an actual song inspired me to try again with the Michael McDonald – style stuff. The chords in the verse, as in Revolving Door, just fell out of my brain into my fingers one day while sitting at my Yamaha C35***. After finishing it, I imagined it as interstitial music on NPR (i.e. the 20 second snippets they play between features on All Things Considered). I had sent it to the band as an MP3, and, one day Brian emailed me one day to say that he’d come up with lyrics and a melody, along with a chorus.

Brian: In August 2011, John sent me a demo containing the chords and a simple bass/drum accompaniment for what became the verse of “Paragon”. I liked what I heard, but wasn’t sure what to do it with it. Months later, in May 2012, I listened to it again and decided it was a verse in need of a chorus. I was taking a guitar chords course at the time, and wrote chords and a melody for the chorus, throwing in chords I had just learned. I alternated between keyboard and guitar when writing the chords. Soon after, I decided that there needed to be a different chord progression for a guitar solo; I based the progression on the chorus, using some chord substitutions to arrive at a descending progression. Finally, with some difficulty (due to the strange chord sequence), I arrived at a melody for the verse.

Sometime during the writing of the chorus, I came up with the title “Paragon”. I actually wrote a couple of descriptive paragraphs, trying to solidify the vision of what sort of paragon I wanted to write about. After a few days of effort, I arrived at the storyline of the high-society woman dating a waiter.

John is known for coming up with some funny mondegreens (misheard lyrics), and I couldn’t resist throwing a couple into the lyrics. One was “Awesome Zudokhan Love”, which was how he heard Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar on Me”. The other was “dunder cheese”, which is how he heard “done dirt cheap” in AC/DC’s “Dirty Deeds”. I changed this to “thunder cheese” after I Googled dunder cheese, though. I sent a demo of the added parts and vocals back to John at the end of May. He suggested a few changes to the chords in the chorus, and then the song was complete.

We ended up recording two versions of the song; the first was at the original tempo and syncopated. John was dissatisfied with that version, so we recorded a new version at a faster tempo and with a simplified bass, drums, and rhythm guitar. I didn’t really like that version as well as the first, so we let it lie for a while before ultimately deciding to go with the first version.

The initial idea for the video originated with John; we sat around alternately brainstorming and horse-laughing until we had most of the details sketched out. Sadly—er, fortunately, the video came out almost exactly as we had envisioned, mostly thanks to our star actor and some fortuitous props. I threw in another Franjione mondegreen for good measure: “Bingo Jed and Lionel” = “Big ol’ jet airliner”.

Skeleton SuitsIn the fall of 2012 I took a class online called “Recording with Reason” (referring to the software package made by Propellerhead); as part of that class I had to choose a reference track from a commercial CD as a starting point in recording and mixing a song.  My reference track was “Girlfriend is Better” by Talking Heads, and the song I ended up writing was “Skeleton Crew”.  It lacked the second verse, guitar solo, and the “second chorus” at the end, but in other respects, it was pretty similar to the end product you hear.  In fact, some parts of the Chameleon Red recording recycle bits from the original class project.

When I finished writing the song, December 1, 2012, I had just been laid off from my day job, which may explain the bent of the resulting lyrics and the fantasy of revenge on greedy corporate dudes.  The “second chorus” is an adaptation of the well-known (and creepy) “dry bones” passage in the Bible, Ezekiel 37:1-3. An engraving by 19th-century French artist Gustave Doré, illustrating this passage, was incorporated into the Skeleton Crew cover art.

The video was mostly recorded in one evening. I had a hard time keeping a straight face during the filming of the “presentation”, especially when I copped a move from David Byrne’s frenetic performance in the “Once in a Lifetime” video.  The “Night at the Roxbury” skull heads were filmed later and were also laughter-inducing. John designed the actual presentation that is seen in the video quite a long time after those scenes were filmed.