Archive for February, 2013

Stories Behind the Songs: “What Am I?”

Posted by on February 25th, 2013

Freddie Mercury

This was my second try at a ballad to fill this slot in the opera; the first one didn’t quite capture the feeling I wanted.  Queen was certainly an influence in what ultimately came out; I love ballads like “Love of My Life” and “Lily of the Valley”, and in my head I heard Freddie Mercury singing this one.  I can’t remember exactly when I decided to add the theme to “The Curse” as the coda, but to me it evokes the shadow of shame that still falls across Jack’s soul.  I had an idea that John could possibly play the melody on the violin, but I ended up playing it on slide guitar instead.

The song was written in March 2005.  I performed the first verse and chorus at the Swannanoa Gathering in Black Mountain, NC in a singing class led by Siobhan Quinn.  This was in July 2006, more than a year before the album was released.  John actually re-recorded the entire piano part in one of the last sessions for the album, as the original piano sound was not very authentic-sounding.


Posted by on February 22nd, 2013

The first subject covered in my initial undergraduate chemical engineering class was unit conversions.  You know, like how many seconds in a year, how many ounces in a ton, or answering questions like “If a chicken-and-a-half chicken can lay an egg-and-a-half in a day-and-a-half, how long will it take 2 chickens to lay 4 eggs?”

I was reminded about unit conversions the other day at the studio (a.k.a. Brian’s Basement) when I saw a book Brian had purchased called An Inside Look at the Guitar Styles of Steely Dan.  The book itself is great.  But the cover photo is just, well… surreal.  In particular, check out Donald Fagen (the guy on the left).

Walter looks content, but Donald is pissed.


Sure, the man is a genius, but have you ever seen a photo of someone who looked so cheerless?

Think about it.  Someone took a picture of him, he looked at the picture, and said “USE THAT ONE.”


And so, in honor of Donald, I have decided to rank my own fits of dissatisfaction using the FMU (Fagen Misery Units) scale.

Have to re-record a bass line? That’s one FMU:  FMU

Sucky project at work? That’s a three-bagger:  FMU  FMU  FMU

You get the idea.

FMU’s.  It’s gonna be a thing.

Stories Behind the Songs: “To the Top”

Posted by on February 18th, 2013

Transposition Album Cover“To the Top” was another song “written to order” in March 2005; the working title was “Band of Brothers”.  I wanted to go for something that was big, unsubtle and not very original.  Jack is still following other people’s scripts on how to live and what he’s supposed to want.  I entertained the idea of eliminating the introductory section (“For years it’s been my dream…”), but John talked me into keeping it.

A Belated Happy Valentine’s Day

Posted by on February 15th, 2013

Sun of LoveDespite being a day late, an apropos musical message from the “Messenger of Love”.  We celebrate not just romantic love, but any old kind of love.

Hey, all you people with you heads bent low
Break out of your cells, your cells
I was a prisoner, too, not long ago
Until I broke the spell, broke the spell

I’ve gone beneath the surface of things
I’ve got the real stuff, the real stuff
I’ve seen what the future can bring
If we work hard enough, hard enough

I’m a messenger
Messenger of love
A messenger
Messenger of love

See all these people, how they cling to the past
And living in fear, in fear
The past is over and the present won’t last
The future is here, it starts here

They may put you down and call you a freak
But don’t you hesitate, hesitate
If only they would think before they speak
We’ve got to set them straight, set them straight

I’m a messenger
Messenger of love
A messenger
Messenger of love

Secret sisters, come and play
Others like you feel this way

Composed largely in January 2005, “Stranger in a Strange Land” was written specifically for Transposition to advance the story at the beginning of Act II.  It’s only the second song in the strict blues form that I’ve written and recorded, the first being “If I Can Close My Eyes” way back in 1992.  I share something of Jack’s aversion to big cities; having been born and raised in a rural area, I often feel ill at ease in urban environments.  Too much sensory input, maybe.  You probably already grokked that the song is not related to the Robert Heinlein book of the same name.

The New Album, Phase Two

Posted by on February 8th, 2013

Chameleon Red Recording Westwood

Recording “Westwood”

We reached a milestone in our recording session Wednesday: with the recording of the songs “Westwood” and “Damn Fool Woman” we have recorded basic tracks for all the new songs.  What are “basic tracks”, you ask?  To answer that, let me tell you a bit about how we record these days.

Our recording studio, which I call “Van Hearlen IV Studio” (IV because it’s the fourth room I’ve used as a home studio; the first being my old bedroom at my parent’s home), is part of my basement.  We record on my computer using software called a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW).  As in the ancient days of audio tape, we can combine different performances together on top of each other in “tracks”; basically one instrument per track.

So when we record a song, we record the basic tracks first.  These are typically a rhythm guitar, bass, and drums, plus guide vocals.  I program the drums ahead of time, and then we get together and perform the song while recording.  Each instrument is recorded onto its own track.  The vocals are recorded, too, even though they won’t be used in the final recording; they help us keep track of where we are in the song, hence “guide vocals”.  Why aren’t they kept?  Well, for one thing, I like to use a high-quality condenser microphone to record vocals, but they are so sensitive they pick up other sounds in the room, including instruments playing, and that’s not ideal for recording.  The other thing is, it’s nice to be able to concentrate on singing without being distracted by playing at the same time.  Well, anyway, once we have the basic tracks recorded, we can then go back and overdub, or layer other performances on top of them.  A keyboard part, or other guitar parts, multiple vocal parts, other instruments, etc.  As might be imagined, this process takes a while to complete, not least because we are both perfectionists (though we try not to be Steely Dan-obsessive about it).

It’s taken us a while to get the basic tracks to all the songs recorded.  We are actually recording twenty songs,  more than will fit on a CD; only somewhere between twelve and fourteen will end up on the new album.  The rest will probably surface on the next one.  Many were written before we started recording, some were finished after recording had begun, and at least three brand new songs were born during that time.  So now we still have to do the remaining overdubs, and after that, mixing and mastering.  Some songs have almost all their tracks recorded, others still have significant work to be done.  I’ve given up trying to predict when the new album will be finished, but we are working diligently at it, and we believe that the finished product will be the best we’ve done to date!


Stories Behind the Songs: “Cold Sun”

Posted by on February 4th, 2013

The original version of “Cold Sun”, dating from April 2002, was called “Misanthrope”; at that point the song lacked a bridge.  I could never quite get the lyrics to gel.  So when I needed a song for the opera with a kind of controlled anger, I dusted this one off and rechristened it “Cold Sun”.  The bridge was added at the same time.

Whenever vocals for Mr. and Mrs. Coleman and Rev. Fleming were recorded, as in this song and the earlier “Family Values” and “Won’t Do It Again”, I recorded them with the music sped up.  Then I slowed the vocals down so that they would match the tempo and pitch of the musical backing at normal speed.  This was done in an attempt to make them sound a little older and slower, with a slightly darker timbre.  I think it also helps to differentiate between the voices of Jack and Mr. Coleman, both of whom were portrayed by me in this song and “Won’t Do It Again”.

Song From a Dream

Posted by on February 1st, 2013

Tom Petty

Very early Monday morning I had a dream in which Tom Petty (and also Will Henson) were helping me write a song called “Westwood”.  I was working on a verse when my wife inadvertently woke me up.  As it turns out, that was probably fortunate, because I was able to remember the verse I was working on, the title, and some other ideas.  Within a couple of hours I had completed the song and recorded it demo.  It will likely be the last song we will record in sessions for the upcoming album.  It’s one of those songs that seems familiar but so far I’ve not been able to identify any particular song that it’s based on; rather there are bits and pieces of a lot of different songs that bear some similarity.  John described the style as “Neil Young (without the high whining voice) or Bruce Springsteen (without the lower gravelly voice)”.  Thanks, Tom and Will, for your help in my dream, but I’m afraid that dream-people aren’t entitled to songwriting credit.