Archive for the ‘Stories Behind the Songs’ Category

“Westwood” was written on January 28, 2013, in the midst of recording Skeleton Crew, and was the last song written for that album. I had a dream that I was writing a song with Tom Petty. I was showing him the working lyric sheet, where I had written the original lyrics and my friend Will Henson had made some notes underneath. Petty was questioning me about the story told in the song, to clarify its meaning. I could hear him singing the song in the dream. In the middle of all this, my wife unintentionally woke me up. Fortunately, the melody of the song was still in my head, as well as the words we were working on, which ended up being the third verse and a little of the chorus. I also remembered the title of the song. I lay in bed but couldn’t get to sleep, and bit by bit I began to write down the lyrics in the dark so I wouldn’t forget them. After I while I got out of bed, grabbed a guitar, and finished writing the words and the music; within an hour I had the song finished and a demo recorded. I always felt like the song resembled some other song, but I could never identify what it was. For me, Westwood is where “progress” is always leading us. It sounds great in theory but the results are usually not all they’re cracked up to be.

The video was mostly recorded on the highways around my house, and at a friend’s home. There is also some footage of Trammel, VA, an old coal-mining “company town” not far from where I grew up; it was hit hard economically as coal mines and preparation plants were shut down in latter part of the last century.

John: During our Mother Zephyr days, I was wanting for the band to play a few more upbeat, danceable pop type songs. I was playing a guitar at home one day, and the beginnings of the song just came out, along with the first line of the chorus (“I’m getting of tired of waiting for you to make up your mind.”) By the way, the “you” in that line is actually me. It is a recollection of the days when I was trying to decide how to proceed in the relationship with my then-girlfriend (and now wife and mother of our 3 year-old daughter Anna) Inge.   So I guess you can see how that worked out.  🙂  The lyrics in the chorus are all mine, but I could never come up with anything satisfactory for the verses, so bandmate Joe Arrington of Mother Zephyr actually wrote those.

Skeleton CrewWe’re just about ready to start a new series of Stories Behind the Songs for the Skeleton Crew album.  We’re going to do it a bit differently than with Transposition, however; instead of in order of appearance on the album, we will go in a more arcane order.  Just to mix it up, you know.

As the band Mother Zephyr was in its last days, John and I began wondering what to do next.  We both had completed songs we wanted to properly record, some of which had been played live by Mother Zephyr and some new songs were brewing, too.  We decided to resurrect Chameleon Red, dormant since 2009, and record the songs as that band.

We did some recording in the summer of 2012, though it was pretty late that year, after Mother Zephyr’s last show, that we really began recording full steam ahead, still writing songs all the while.  Recording extended until mid-June 2013; by that time, we had more than enough songs to fill an album.  We shot quite a bit of video while recording.

By happy coincidence, I was taking mixing and mastering classes back-to-back in the spring and summer of 2013, which came in handy when finishing up the album.  We selected the tracks and title for the album and commissioned Caitlin Rose Davis to provide cover art, toward the end of the recording sessions.  Because of changes in my schedule, completing the master took longer than expected; that was finally finished in October.  We delayed production of the CDs a bit longer in order to have the finished Chameleon Red logo, created by Mark Ray, on the CD itself.  The album was officially released in mid-January of 2014.

Transposition’s finale, “Stand Up”, was not the last song written; in fact, it was finished late in November 2005.  It’s a pretty straightforward rock ‘n’ roll song, intended to be inspiring and anthemic.  In the bridge it echoes the “Life isn’t easy” line from “Two-Spirit”, and like that song, it ends with the voices of all four vocalists for a rousing final chorus.  I wanted to close the opera with a positive message, as so many rock operas seem to be total downers.

“Stand Up” was another of the Transposition songs on the set list when put together a short-lived performing version of Chameleon Red in 2008.

This concludes the Stories Behind the Songs series for the Transposition album.  We will resume the series once Skeleton Crew is officially released.

Pointing at the MoonThe Zen-like “Turn Away” was written during the prolific month of January, 2005, when songs were coming so quickly it was almost scary.  This particular one made me late for work, in fact; the melody and some lyrics flashed into my head and I had to record them before they were forgotten.  I think this is the first song I wrote using a diminished seventh chord; you can usually tell when I learn new chords when they start cropping up in my songs!

I regard this as one of the most spiritual songs I have ever written; I have performed it in church several times, in fact. The first line of the third verse is derived from the Tao Te Ching, chapter 32: “Once the whole is divided, the parts need names.”  The next line refers to the punch line of the old Zen parable: “Truth is like the bright moon in the sky. A finger can point to the moon’s location, but the finger is not the moon. To find the moon you must gaze beyond the finger.”  I probably first heard it from Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon, though.

The weird-sounding guitar solo is actually playing backwards, a favorite device of mine; as far as I know, the Beatles did this before anyone else in “I’m Only Sleeping” and “Tomorrow Never Knows” on Revolver.  The way it’s done is to record a guitar solo while the whole song is playing backwards, then flip it all around so that the backing tracks play normally and the guitar solo is backwards.  For some reason I always play a good solo when I do this!

“Turn Away” was another of the Transposition songs on the set list when put together a short-lived performing version of Chameleon Red in 2008.  It was performed live a number of times by our other band, Mother Zephyr.


Read part 1 here
Read part 2 here

“Rock and Roll Messiah” was completed in mid-January 2006 but actually began life as a separate song fragment called “Cellophane Messiah” in January 2000.  In its original form it was a chorus without a verse, or many words, in fact.

The final piece, “Give It Back”, is a reprise of the verse chords and melody from “Simone”, but this time Jackie is the mentor instead of the protégé.  I kind of conceived of this as a Byrds-like arrangement of “Simone”, so when I recorded the demo I affected an imitation Roger McGuinn voice.  I debated on whether to replicate this on the final recording, but ultimately decided that a more feminine vocal was called for.

The writing of “Choices” was finished on January 20, 2006, but as might be expected, it took longer to record than it did to write.  In fact, we were still recording additions to it right up until the last recording date.

Read part 1 here

“Blame You”, the third movement, came just before Christmas.  Katie did an excellent job on the vocals; she normally sings folk, country, and bluegrass, but I always heard some rock and roll in her voice.  John added the interesting clavichord part fairly late in the recording process.  The next piece, “Eye for Eye” was completed in early January.  It was straightforward to record, though I did add extra distortion to the guitars after the fact.   This is followed by the final reprise of the “Won’t Do It Again” theme, faster and rawer this time around.

Jackie is tempted three times during the course of the piece; first by hatred, then by fear, and finally by greed.   She comes to grips with each in the recurring “Maybe I Should” pieces.  The chord progression and melody date from January 2000.  The first iteration features only acoustic guitar and vocals, the subsequent occurrences add more instruments as the temptation becomes greater.

“My Son”, the next section, was written in early January 2006.  As with the other songs which feature the character Mrs. Coleman, the vocals are slowed down.  At the end of this section I reprised the bridge from “Cold Sun” to represent the overprotective impulse of the mother.  The steel guitar-like sounds in this section were recorded by John in several successive tries; we ultimately decided that the different takes actually sounded better when all played at the same time.

(I decided to break this into three parts due to the length.)

As might be expected, the suite called “Choices” was written in many pieces that were then joined together.  I had written two other suites like this earlier in my career, “Music Boxed Man” and “Machine Dream”, but despite that prior experience, the writing process was difficult.  I wrote in my journal on November 30, 2005:

 Wracking my brains over the climactic song of the Opera, tentatively titled “Choices”.  It’s a multi-part, complex song, and I’m having trouble figuring out how to approach it.  I had a thought a day or two ago that I could write the words, then the music, but I think that’s not going to work.  I need more structure than that.  So it’s back to the original idea of music first, trying to string different musical bits together into some cohesive whole.

I wrote the repeating piano figure for the first section, “Wake Up”, in September 2005, while waiting for my future wife to get ready to go out.  The second movement, “Darkness and Confusion”, followed in November, and words for both were completed in early December.  I recorded the piano as a guide track which was then replaced twice by John—the second time to introduce a superior piano sound.  He tuned the E string on his bass down to D for this section, as at that time he didn’t have a five-string bass.

BibleOn the same day that “Messenger” was finished, I wrote, “Some debate in my mind over whether the act of violence [that follows “Messenger”] should be a beating by a group (original idea), or a gunshot from a lone gunman.”  I ultimately chose the latter, and made him a religious zealot to continue the “positive vs. negative religion” theme that is interwoven throughout the narrative.  The gunman quotes Deuteronomy 22:5 from the King James Version of the Bible as a justification for his hatred; this kind of cherry-picking is unfortunately very common among those who seek to rationalize their prejudices.

The bass riff that underpins the piece was written in December 1998, making it one of the oldest pieces of music in the opera.  I actually recorded this riff backwards on both bass and guitar in order to make the music slightly creepy.  I also recorded the vocal track faster and at a higher pitch, slowed it down, and added some delay effects both to make the character’s voice distinct and to make it sound demonic.  I think it worked, because I actually find the final product a little unsettling.  It’s the only track on the opera I dislike listening to, but of course it’s crucial to the story.  It’s also the third and final song on which no other musicians appear.

Sun of LoveThe main riff of “Messenger” began life as “Funkify” in December 2001.  In a journal entry dated  November 25, 2005 I wrote: “Finished (or pretty close) another opera song yesterday morning, at work.  Called “Messenger”, it is the big concert song before the act of violence that threatens X’s life.  I can feel the end drawing closer…”.  At some point I decided to add a counter-melody recalling the one in Lipstick, “Secret sisters come and play, others like you feel this way”.  In effect the two songs are parallels; each represent live performances where Jackie “preaches” social change to the audience, but the messages in the two songs are quite different.  In “Lipstick” the message is rebellion and deliberate flouting of cultural mores; in “Messenger” she is…well, a messenger of love–building bridges, as it were, instead of destroying them.