As an ardent Bob Dylan fan, it’s only natural that a few of my songs fell into the “protest song” ball park. I don’t consider myself a very politically driven person, leading to more general commentaries in my songs.
Looking back at it, Fear No End was my attempt to say something when I didn’t really have anything to say. We as a people (within this country, or even this planet) have done many amazing things, both for ourselves and each other. We’ve committed unfathomable evils as well, whatever our reasons were for doing so. We’ve come very far, but still have much further to go. I think the point I was trying to get across with this song was that we should be both confident and learned as we face the future. Confident by remembering that which we have overcome and accomplished, and learned by remembering the wrong we have done upon this world in order to avoid repeating them.
The world is often scary, as is the unknown with our future. Courage must be found in order face these two things which cannot be avoided.
A newer song, Let Me In went through some transformation in it’s process. The song started out as reference to my frustration dealing with the business end of being a musician. In the world of the web, booking contacts for many venues have perfected the art of ignoring incoming musicians (emails are easier to ignore than phone calls). So those of us who aren’t particularly pushy (like myself) struggle to find new venues in unfamiliar places. I dread the idea of trying to find a trustworthy agent.
Though the song started in the vein, it departed a bit as a handful of close friends all seemed to be battling with some personal turmoil. I found myself feeling helpless, not being able or not knowing how to help them. It was like seeing them tied up behind a locked door. So two frustrating situations blended together into the theme: Getting tired of being blocked out.
One of the earliest songs of my songwriting career, “I Don’t Care…” was a song written as an emotional outlet. And if you guessed the emotion I was letting out was anger, you are correct.
I was a struggling music student at the time, attempting to be a singer songwriter in a classical music program with little success. I had been consulting with some of my professors for advice on what I should do, when I received an email from one of my less technologically savvy professors that I was not meant to see (cc-ing can be such a messy business). The email went into some detail outlining my short comings as a music student, which were apparently many, and upon realizing these words of judgment were not intended for me to see in any sort “tough love/hard truth” act of sincerity, my feelings towards the situation escalated from frustrated to livid. And the rest is history.
“I Don’t Care…” doesn’t go into all the details regarding this story, but in regards to my feelings on the situation at the time, it pulls no punches. I dropped out of the music program that semester and switched majors the next. Possibly one of the best choices of my life.
The title came from the name of an art showing a friend of mine from college was putting on. This take of it varies a bit from the original version, giving it a better feel for a solo acoustic play through. Despite it being years before I would be part of a band, I wrote Natural Appearances thinking it was meant to live as a rock song.
The lyrics tell a story of a struggling couple looking for a rock n’ roll lifestyle, though it was not a story about any relationship of mine. I was of age to start hitting music bars and finishing up with college, so it was a time of discovery for me. I was meeting other musicians in the area, going to open mics and just learning how to be a new singer songwriter in the area. And it was exciting! Staying out late, smoking more second hand smoke than first, going to bars I hope I never I have reason to return to, and covering all sorts of new ground for a soft spoken 21 year old.
The “original version”, with a more straight rock tempo and bass intend hook, was not played often, as it never had the gusto I wanted as a solo song. Years later when Strangers and Liars formed, it was reborn in the light I had always pictured it, and was one of the first original songs the band picked up.
You can hear the Strangers and Liars version here!
One of the hardest things about this project is (and will continue to be) attempting to bring up songs from the earliest stages of my songwriting “career”. Though I cringe looking through some of the early attempts, it’s an important exercise to go back not only to see from where I’ve come as an artist, but to understand that reviving these songs is not as impossible or implausible as it might seem. A song is never really set in stone as far as what it means to the listener and the writer, and therefore it should not have to seem like it’s set in stone even on paper. Lyrics can be removed or added, chord progressions can be altered, etc.
I wrote “What it Means to Me” after the first time I felt I was publicly upstaged by another musician (playing a ukulele of all things). Predictably, with a opening description like that, the song is a bit dark. In my defense, I was in college, and in the mind of most college boys, dark means deep. Being new to performing for others is tricky business if you don’t get some thick skin quick. It’s all fun and admiration playing for your close friends who would never tell you that you sound anything but great. Then you play somewhere a little more out of your comfort zone and watch a veteran steal the scene. Immediately, the battle of negative emotions occurs: do I hate the competing musician more for taking the audience, or do I hate the audience more for betraying me like this!?
It’s a dangerous business comparing yourself to others, wondering if this person with more talent and more of a following has the same kind of passion that you do. Are they just doing it for the chicks? To be cool? Do they really want to create something original in order to tell their story like you do? And if it turns out they do, does that make it better or worse?
At the time, I remember having one particular goal in mind: I wanted to write something happy. Writing sad songs can feel like such a crutch after awhile. It’s always easier to complain rather than look on the bright side, and I wanted to make the effort.
The theme of moving at my own pace has been reoccurring in my songwriting. Whether it’s that I was born in a generation that doesn’t quite appeal to me or that I just get overwhelmed by my surroundings too easily, the world always feels like it’s moving too fast for it’s own good. For the most part, my response to this is not that the world needs to slow down, but rather that the world shouldn’t expect me to desperately be trying to catch up (and this is supposed to be a happy song, right?). While other songs in this vein have been more combative in stating that my pace is my own, Take a Little Time is about not having to feel bad about avoiding the race. The world can be very intimidating, and it shouldn’t feel wrong, lazy or irresponsible to not be inclined to keep up.
A song from several years ago, Quiet on the Shoreline was a major stepping stone in my advancement as a songwriter. For one thing, it was one of my earliest story songs; more significantly a story song from a third person perspective. A lost love story between the captain and the lady, giving the listener in broad strokes an idea of what they had together and how they’re dealing with losing each other, while the details are left to one’s imagination. I’ve always preferred a certain vagueness in my songwriting, for the fear of the lyrics sounding too forced or uninspired. I have yet to master the ability of writing a story song that goes through the details and leaves little to interpretation.
It was also probably the first time I really wanted to try and create a setting in a song. Between the never ending chord progression like the constant roll of the waves and the lyrical asides regarding the surrounding, I remembering starting on this song thinking I wanted it to feel like being near the water. I sat outside, down the street from one of my favorite little lakes in Pennsylvania, saw the wind moving the trees and wrote “The wind is dying, trees are holding steady for awhile”. And the rest is history.
I’m honored to say that this song has been performed by a handful of my favorite songwriters, such as Tom Hitt and Glenn and Lucy Rankin. There’s also a version that appeared on Strangers and Liars debut album “Five Seat Concert Hall”.
I do my best not to worry about the future. Life has handed me plenty of unexpected turns, with moments of disappointment and excitement alike. I’ve made my peace with the lack of control over it, but realize I’m expected to travel through life with some general direction. It’s the combination of accepting the impermanence of ones plans while attempting to set life goals that leads to doubt.
Hazy is about that doubt. So much about the future is never clear. That doesn’t need to be an intimidating thing, but at times when you’re lacking direction and you take a step back to try and gain perspective, it certainly can be.
Turntable Turn was an idea that started from the play on words in the title. As a songwriter, I’ve always found it remarkable how life can alter the way we look at things so drastically. Any song a person is familiar with tends to have an association that comes with it–a person, place, youth, first dance, first kiss, first break up, and so on and so on. The first time something happened that one of my own songs ended up meaning something to me other than what I had originally intended was mind blowing, and even felt a little invasive. That some outside force could redirect my perspective on something I created was a notion that took some getting used to. The first time would not be the last time.
Turntable Turn is about just that. Anyone with a love for music knows the weight a song can carry, and how great of a turn the meaning can take along the way.
This is the first of two posts I am making today. Starting today, I’m changing to the direction of this blog to something more befitting of it’s abilities. I’ve used this to talk about shows, musicians, songs and things like that, but all in all I’ve used it as a promoting device. Truth is, there are better forms of social media doing that for me, so I thought I should change it up a little.
While I still intend to have the upcoming performances listed here, the primary focus will be songs. In close connection with my youtube channel, I plan to post one of my songs (via video recording) and talk a little bit about what it has to say. After years of writing and only so little recording, it feels like I’m sitting on top of a mound of songs gathering dust. And a good deal of it I wouldn’t mind sharing.
So instead of trying to make whatever upcoming show I have sound appealing to you (who may well be a reader several hundred miles away from said venue), it’s time to start putting myself on the chopping block of the world wide web.
Stay tuned for the first entry.