The Great Escape
This song began as an exercise in altering an already altered tuning. In the past, I have often begun songs with the notion of building upon tunings and capos I've used in existing repertoire. This was in part a logistical concern; minimize the amount of tuning necessary between songs during performances. The negative side to this approach meant that sometimes I felt that I was re-writing the same songs in the same tunings/capos. A solution to this dilemma lay in making a very small adjustment to one or two strings, thus changing up the tonal options while not dramatically increasing tuning time. Older songs such as “Numbered Days” and “Light” came out of this strategy. “The Great Escape” made a similar change to a different set of tunings, and uses a set of three open strings in the upper register that ring throughout the song, never changing from first chord to the last. Noticing this sound, I applied the same notion to the strum, which is likewise constant throughout. However, instead of changing chords, I opted to frequently change meters so that though the strum is steady, the feel of the song changes constantly.
Weird technical/musical considerations are often the seed for new song ideas, and this one came very quickly once the tuning/strum approach was worked out. The chorus melody prompted both a chord and metrical shift, and the words came quickly from the open phonetic sounds that emerged. Once the “soon be free” phrase came, I suddenly had a Romeo and Juliet scenario to work with – star crossed lovers making a break from unnamed constrictions upon their relationship. Though it ended up as a full-voice belt with drums and guitars to match, the first run-throughs were barely whispers. Along with a handful of other songs, this one came forth in a burst necessitated by a looming recording session deadline. Sometimes constrictions are a good thing...
I love Thomas Juliano’s guitar solo, which electrified my ears when he launched into it at our little rehearsal/space studio. I was then able to write a string arrangement that worked in and out of what Thomas had laid down, and stealing a cue from Greg’s turnaround phrase from solo to chorus. The ability to pull these things together can make fragments appear to be a fully worked out tapestry, but really they allow musicians to be spontaneous, and for me to highlight and underscore the amazing contributions folks have made to our recordings.
NEVER TO PART
Never To Part
This song came to me while driving. I was doing a little vocalizing in the car, and found that so much of our earlier material had come from exploring my upper range falsetto. I thought perhaps I should see if I had anything at the bass/baritone end of the spectrum. Having discovered that I did, I found that I got a little bored being down there for too long, so found a melody that worked in multiple octaves. Once I got home, I jumped from the car and ran to my guitar to find the key I was singing in. Coincidently, I had left it in the recently altered/altered tuning from “Numbered Days.” Making a quick capo adjustment, I found the harmonies that the melody implied, and quickly the song fell into place.
It instantly felt like a pop song that might be heard on the radio. Most people would be ecstatic about something like that, but I was quickly overcome with anxiety as I knew Greg had a built-in resistance to things that were too overtly “pop-y.” To give the song a more off-kilter sensibility, I came up with the choked/muted strum/stroke that opens the song. Something that wouldn’t turn Greg off instantly, but would still allow the pop song to be the pop song it wanted to be. Hopefully, I struck the right balance. At least Greg claims to love the song now...
For a long time, there was a big hole where the solo should go. I was desperate to avoid a clichéd guitar solo, so thought about all sorts of alternatives. In the end, I gave up and went with the inevitable. The big challenge then became, “can we fund someone who will come up with something that totally works as a pop song guitar solo without resorting to any clichés?” The answer lay across the pond. Greg mentioned an old friend, Robert Holmes from the band ‘til Tuesday. I went back through my record collection and realized – my God, this guy came up with tons of awesome melodic guitar breaks without any cheesy blues or new wave twidly bits thrown in. Sent him an email, and not only is he an incredibly talented guitarist, but a real sweetheart to boot. Sent him tracks to play to, and he sent back several options. A few emails back and forth, and I had a great guitar solo. The wonders of the Internet...
The lyric is concerned with folks defining love in any damn way they please, and noting that we can honor that love for an eternity – if we choose to. And I do.
One of my favorites – probably because it came in one sitting (with interruption). Once again, I was sitting in our rehearsal space, noodling on guitar, when I put my fingers on the wrong strings, and heard a sound I hadn’t intended, but which cast a spell I couldn’t come out from. I played the chords of the verse back and forth for what felt like hours, just caught up in their meditative quality. As a composer, I knew I would need to break it up with some sort of shift, and went to the chorus chord instinctively, plying a dulcimer-like figure (just as I had done with an older song, “Softly, Like An Amen”). Immediately, a phrase sprung to my lips – “I like my murderous friend.” Don’t know where that came from, and didn’t know what to do with it either. Fortunately, it was time for my yoga class (conveniently located one floor up in the same building). Did the class, then walking to the showers, the phrase came back in my head – “I like my murderous friend.” Something really cool there, but at the same time, not quite right. Then it occurred to me to play around with words using the same vowel sounds, and “Fire, like a murderous friend” popped right out.
Went back to the rehearsal space, picked up the guitar, and the whole lyric just spilled out. We had been to see the P.T. Anderson film, The Master a few days previous, and the nature of the tortured relationship between the two pro/antagonists was fresh in my mind. What I wrote has no direct relation to the plot of the film, but is very much grounded in the characters. Sometimes the magnetic pull between two people is so powerful, that strong measures must be taken to separate. Played it for Darleen later that afternoon, still in shock that such a song had just... emerged. Wish they were all that easy...
THE DEVIL'S STOMPING GROUND
Devil’s Stomping Ground
This one goes back decades, and was brought to me as the verse melody and guitar figure by my old friend and compatriot in Knots and Crosses, Rick Harris. He was concerned about switching modes in the middle of a verse, but my enthusiasm convinced him that it worked. But what to do with it? As we sometimes had done, I picked up a guitar and spontaneously came up with the chorus chords and melody to append, and for some reason, the title line came forth. When I was a kid, there was a book in the elementary school library about haunted places in North Carolina, including something called the Devil’s Tramping Ground. I was mesmerized by the description (though clearly a little shaky on the name). For some reason, that phrase stuck with me and decided to leap out at that songwriting moment. Always up for a good flirtation with evil imagery, Rick gave the thumbs up to the title. I later wrote the lyrics for the verses and chorus, and we recorded a version of the song during sessions for Rick’s solo album, Degrees of Obsession. However, the song possessed my characteristically wide-ranging vocal melody, and was more suited to my voice than to Rick’s, so it didn’t really fit in with the rest of the material on his album (though the version we recorded did have a MONSTER guitar solo).
After the first Birdsong records made strings such an important aspect of our sound, I was emboldened to try something more audacious, and remembered this song from the past. Unfortunately, I couldn’t remember all the original lyrics and had to re-write pieces of some of the verses (though my sense is that the new version is a little stronger than the old one). In place of guitar pyrotechnics, I opted for a full-blown string orchestra solo, starting from “Kashmir” and “Within You, Without You,” and continuing through some of the Indian and Middle Eastern popular music I had come to know and love during my ethnomusicologist days. Seriously, those string sections are arranged and performed as if twenty people were improvising the same ideas in unison. There’s actually not all that much for the rest of the band to do, and I had to keep reminding Ben and Greg that it was ok to play the same chord over and over again for minutes at a time – “really, you guys, I’ve got this idea for strings that will be really cool. Trust me.” All the time, praying that something “really cool” would come, when in fact I had no idea what I was going to do.
Flash forward a year, and with a string recording session looming, I’m on a train from London to Liverpool (inevitable Beatle pilgrimage), scoring strings on a laptop as the English countryside rolls by. And I thought – ‘this is exactly what I always dreamed I would do with my life’ – what fun! I just decided that if I had the ability to play a monster guitar solo, what would I do? Then I wrote it for the strings to play instead. A few days later, I was in a studio in Boston, with my jaw on the floor as these amazing players pulled off the final flourish. I still get a rush every time I hear it. And a big shout out to Helen Sherrah-Davies whose experience with Turkish music led her to help coach the ensemble on stylistic articulations. Listening to her demonstrate the various subtleties of bowing and bending gave me an idea, and I asked her to put down a solo – “something completely wild and scary.” And yes, she did.
At some point, someone pointed out that Greg and Darleen had done more vocal harmony work on the earlier records than the later ones, so I thought perhaps I should come up with something that would be more of a vocal showcase. Concurrently, I had written a set of guitar figures that were really beautiful, but with a melody that was a little hard for me to pull off consistently. Aha! – let Greg and Darleen rescue me! Which they did, but only at the eleventh hour as we had never really performed it, or sung it through. Instead, we got together and tracked vocals section by section as we worked out parts verses, choruses, with little variations. By that time we were finished, we were so tired that we went home without hearing it all put together. A few days later, I called Greg to thank him and to let him know that something special was happening on the track – come put some bass on it! Which he did – masterfully. I love that you can hear his creative approach and sure, nuanced touch come through on every note. No one plays quite like him.
There are production touches lifted from Simon and Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair” and Yes' "Roundabout," and lyrically, I went for a Prince-like conflation of the sacred and the profane. Incense at mass, incense in the bedroom. Forever the twain shall meet...
A tortured path to this final version. The very first time I attempted what became my standard guitar tuning (from low to high: E/B/E/F#/B/E for those guitar dweebs out there), I came up with this song – a good ten years before Birdsong began. It has since gone through two completely different melodies and several sets of lyrics. No one seemed to like it much (including me), but I couldn’t let it go – the chorus seemed too catchy. So with a few minutes to spend before Greg arrived at the second day of recording with Ben, I asked if we could try a few run-throughs at various tempos, with the idea that maybe I would come up with stronger words and melodies at some point in the future. Or, if it didn’t feel good, I would finally just let it go. Of course, Ben made it feel like a great track, so I had to try and meet the challenge. Not sure I did, but after several attempts, and much convincing, even Greg and Darleen have indicated that they don’t hate it as much as they used to. I’ll take that as a yes.
This is another song that came quickly – the music in one brief sitting, and the lyric in another. The words are based on a true story involving my grandmother. Growing up, I was often at her house where her stern manner and skillful use with a flyswatter kept my sister and I in check. A former schoolteacher, I could only imagine that she ruled her classroom with an iron fist and a solid oak paddle. But during my first summer home from college (a music conservatory), after spending all day clearing poison ivy and scrub brush from a patch of woodland (God only knows why), she presented me with a surprise gift – a beautiful violin, or more appropriately, fiddle. Smooth and rounded, it featured a gorgeously detailed inlay design on the back, and a rattlesnake rattle inside – “for good luck,” she said. I had no idea that she had a musical inclination whatsoever (other than a terrifying habit of abandoning the steering wheel to clap along with music on the car radio). My mother provided the backstory. Turns out, my grandmother played fiddle as a girl growing up in the mountains of western North Carolina. Being a bookish child, she was also the first person from her area to go to college, and a local woodworker made her a violin so that she could play in the orchestra at the University of Tennessee. For reasons never made clear, the instrument went silent, packed away in a closet for decades, until presented to me one hot July day.
Though I attempted to play it, I found that whatever musical skill I did possess did not extended to instruments played with a bow. So, back in the case it went. A few years later, I got the call from my mother that my grandmother had died after a long illness. Booked a last minute flight from Maine to North Carolina, and landed in Asheville as the last glimpses of sunlight vanished on the horizon. Looking down from the plane, I saw the odd sight of 4th of July fireworks going off below me. Thought a lot about place, about family, about the journeys we all had taken. When I got home, I pulled the violin from its case, and hung it on the wall. Flash forward another twenty years, and the story came out in song. I still have the violin. Perhaps I’ll show it to you one day.
An unabashed love song, and why not? This one came from the habit Darleen and I have adopted of going to Hawaii, living off the grid in the rainforest, with a couple of guitars in hand to pass the time. The sound of rain on the canvas roof led my fingers to this picking pattern. Some time later, I realized the song and the rain were forever entwined in my mind, and thus the lyric emerged.
We’ve explored several pockets of paradise on those islands, and on our most recent trek to the wondrous Big Island community of Kalani, we would jump up with a little mini-recorder to capture the sound of an early morning rainfall. That’s the sound that opens and closes the recording – a never ending cycle of rain and sun, going on forever, just like true love.
Other than the rain, this is the most straight-forward recording on the album – just the three of us playing one instrument/vocal part apiece. I’m particularly fond of Darleen’s guitar lines throughout this one. She has such a melodic style, and has used it effectively on many of our songs (“Light In The Window,” “Heartland,” and “Murderous Friend” come quickly to mind), but perhaps never more beautifully than right here.
NOT FOR SALE
Not For Sale
We used to rehearse in a large space in a converted mill building. Loved the high ceilings, the brick, the light from the huge windows. But the bathrooms were on the other end of the building, a five-minute walk each way. One night, Darleen and I were practicing, and she excused herself to take the hike. That gave me just enough time to stumble upon the guitar figure at the heart of this song. By the time she returned, I pretty much had the whole thing worked out.
The lyric comes from a period where it seemed everyone we knew was getting married (Massachusetts was the first state to legalize same-sex marriage, and that spring, many of our friends decided to take the plunge – a windfall for the catering business). I was also inspired by a scene in Six Feet Under where Brenda is shopping for throw pillows at some Ikea-esque monstrosity – “walking down the aisle.” And thus a song about love and commerce was born.
Another song that bloomed in Hawaii, while waiting for the rain shower to pass. It’s named for a spectacular area of Maui where the sun rises out of the ocean each morning – on a clear day, you can see the twin volcanic peaks of the Big Island. Charles Lindbergh is buried in a tiny cemetery there, and a number of modern day outlaws (aging rock musicians and movie stars) camp out among the bamboo and monkey pod trees.
The recording was meant to be guitar and string quartet, but when we recorded the string players, it became clear that the arrangement wasn’t really working. After letting go of the quartet, I was suddenly struck with inspiration. Working in the kind of lo-fi, what-the-hell mode that I employed as a teenager experimenting with tape recorders, I improvised some percussion parts – shuffling paper, tapping on a stool, banging a couch pillow. Originally meant as guides for later re-recording with proper instruments, they had a certain charm, and after adding some more traditional pitched percussion, a little handmade tapestry emerged.
But there was still one melodic element from the original string arrangement that I couldn’t quite let go of. In the way that art often emerges, I happened to be teaching a class with a woman whose husband David Moore was celebrating a show of his recent paintings by treating those gathered to a concert on the musical saw, his other talent. I knew the sound from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, and from the first Flatlanders record, and suddenly I found the homegrown solution to my missing melody. In an odd coincidence, it turns out that Darleen had recorded him many years previously for an album she was producing. Small world. Small, beautiful world.
DOWN IN THE HOLE
Down In The Hole
A song about depression. Fortunately, I have never suffered from clinical depression (unlike many people I am close to), but have skirted that abyss on more than one occasion. So much sadness in the world. Sometimes, it’s the sadness that binds us together. My friend.
And the recording contains my favorite moment on the record – Thomas Juliano’s guitar solo. I have burned into my mind the moment in our little workspace session when he tracked his part – the whole song in one long take. Quietly reaching for the slide during the vocal pause, coaxing the saddest, most gorgeous moan for the first part, then quickly casting off the slide and digging in for the second half. So many shifts in mood and tone, but all done as one united expression. The impact on me is permanent; the miracle is that it was recorded for all to share in that moment. It can be difficult to communicate the joys of making music collectively, but I believe every listener can connect with that feeling during moments like this one.
LEAD ME ON
Lead Me On
A garden emerges from hundreds of seeds. One of the seeds for Birdsong At Morning came from the original recording of this song by Bobby “Blue” Bland. I loved the contrast between the rawness of his voice, and the lush ethereal quality of the orchestra. Bought this album when I was 18, and remember being struck by the harmonies of the string arrangement – tonalities that pushed the envelope of what “blues” had always meant for me. An unexpected juxtaposition, and something that has unconsciously governed my approach to string writing for our music.
I don’t have the capacity for raw expression found in Bland’s incredible singing, so I approach it more introspectively. I also wanted a way of indicating that “departure” isn’t always a solitary experience. And I just realized that the last words on this album are the same as the last words on Annals...