Inspiration can come like a bolt from the blue, or emerge slowly in the process of grappling with mundane practicalities. Because of all the altered guitar tunings and capo positions I use, putting together a set list that doesn’t involve an hour of re-tuning can be a challenge. So I decided to be sure to write at least two songs per tuning/capo set-up. To meet this dictate, I realized I needed a second song in standard tuning, with the capo at the fifth fret. Oh, and something a little upbeat wouldn’t be a bad idea either. So with parameters set, I let my fingers do the walking and they came up with this quiet arpeggiated pattern. Oh no! – Another delicate ethereal ballad. But wait, with a little arranging, the finger-picking could be part of a more straight-up rock number. Yes, please. A new rhythm pattern emerged, and soon melodies for verses and choruses presented themselves. OK, now we’re on to something.
Now comes the blue bolt part of the story. The opening line popped out of nowhere, and hinted at a theme that I could develop for the verse narrative. Great! But when I got to the chorus, the only actual word to emerge from all my nonsense syllable vocalizing was “waterfall.” Couldn’t figure how the verses could relate to that word, so I discarded it and went looking for better solutions. But nothing else came. Uh oh, another song that would languish half-finished for decades. Put down the guitar and go to that mediation workshop on your calendar. Sitting there with legs crossed and eyes closed, the instructor talked about the challenges of meditation, letting go of conscious thought, tuning out the active brain, “where our thoughts often come tumbling like water over a waterfall.” No way. The resonance of that word echoed loudly in my mind, and with that cosmically random validation, the song was complete. The meditation session was shot all to hell, but a new song is another way of achieving peace of mind. At least for me. What does go on in these heads of ours…?
Signs and Wonders
SIGNS AND WONDERS
Sometimes I start to think – ok, maybe this is it, time to stop. Wrap this album up and put the guitar away. In fact, don’t pick up the guitar. Otherwise, a new song might come and then you’re obligated to continue the band and, God forbid, make another album. Well, this is that song. It emerged as we were wrapping up the mixes for A Slight Departure, and try as I could to avoid it, I now had a new song to record. The title was inspired by a throwaway line for Tommy Lee Jones in No Country For Old Men. Turns out to be a Biblical reference (most literary references are either Biblical or Shakespearean, though Star Wars and Harry Potter are coming on strong). But thinking about the glorious majesty of even the smallest elements in nature, and finding some other references between nature and superstition, I arrived at a lyric celebrating beauty and meaning as we take in the world, rather than just moving through it.
Filmed in several locations in Rhode Island, the video is a collaboration with artist Savannah Barkley, whose work incorporates both handmade objects and environmental sculpture. I owe a massive debt to her, and to cinematographer Thomas Danielczik for spending hours in the snow and catching below freezing ocean breezes at 5am…
ALL THE SADNESS/H3>
ALL THE SADNESS
Another song that emerged when finishing Departure. And like a few lucky moments, it emerged fully in one sitting. It was a lovely sunny day, so of course, my mind went to the final moments of a long drawn out demise of a romance. Came home and proudly played it to Darleen. “It’s soooo sad.” “Yeah, I guess so.” Long, silent stare. “Wait, wait, wait – it’s just a made up story.” “But it’s soooo sad…” “Yes, but…”
We initially recorded this as a graduate student project at UMass Lowell, though eventually I re-did my vocals and the string arrangement. But the guitars and bass remain, as well as an extremely last minute idea to add some piano. I have a long and tortured relationship with the instrument, but am glad we recorded my single take ramblings. It’s Darleen’s favorite moment – “it’s sooo sad.” The extended instrumental passage owes to the patience and power of some of my favorite Sigur Ros pieces. And the video brings you Lowell in its four-seasoned glory.
THE LOGICAL SONG
THE LOGICAL SONG
In our tradition of including a cover version of a song, here’s one that Greg and I share an affinity with. When I tried it out as a slower, ruminative ballad, the lyric took on a new gravitas, especially as ICE agents began knocking on doors around town.
The instrumental passage was really fun to put together, beginning with Ben and I adding random percussive sounds, then scoring the strings around them. It really came together when Greg added his multi-octave bass part. Talk about patient, he doesn’t even appear until five minutes into the track…
The last song written for the record, we had already done the basics, so this one is just me and the orchestra. I’m not entirely clear on what it’s about, but it’s something to do with doppelgangers, ghosts, and the passage of time. After we recorded it, I learned of a concept in Cambodian culture of bongsokol – the presence of dead ancestors. So, we’ll go with that.
WON'T LET IT GO
WON’T LET IT GO
One warm spring day, I took some time off to go to Plum Island, a nature preserve on the coast, to try and complete the lyrics for a number of songs on the album. And I made some progress just sitting in the car, looking over the dunes. But on the way home, this tune and structure popped in my head, and I wrote down some lyrics in the parking garage before coming home and finding it on the guitar. One of the more straight-ahead songs I’ve written, even with the dropped beats...
The lyric is inspired by the air of anxiety that permeated my world at the dawn of the Trump era. Lowell has a very large immigrant population, and the fear was palpable, and still is. This is my pledge to not stand idly by. So far, I’ve not been tested. But it could come at any minute. The video takes place in two locations – a greenhouse, and the Tremont tunnels, located under the Jeanne d’Arc corporate office building that was constructed on top of the foundation for what had been a water distribution system in Lowell’s early days as the center of industry in North America. I’m very grateful we were allowed to film there, and even more so that somebody decided that such things were worth preserving. Gives one hope…
ARMS AROUND ME
ARMS AROUND ME
Musically, this comes from an experiment in trying to utilize Robert Fripp’s guitar tuning, which emulates how a cello is tuned in the low stings, then continues the pattern in the upper two. But his tuning requires smaller gauges in the high strings that I had on hand, so I just left the top two in standard tuning. At any rate, from such things new patterns and chords emerge, and this is one of them. Lyrically, it references a childhood memory of standing with my father on an observation platform on a mountain, somewhere in the Great Smokies National Park. It’s my earliest recollection of vertigo and a fear of heights that is with me to this day. And yet, with my father’s arm around me, my fear was abated. The rest of the song celebrates the recurring phenomenon of people bringing peace and stability to troubled regions of my psyche.
The video recreates the childhood memory of the first verse, finds itself in Hawaii, then just as quickly on the shore of Good Harbor Beach in Gloucester, MA, surrounded by friends and family (those are Greg’s two sons, Cameron and Jude), back to Hawaii, then finally a series of free images from the New York Metropolitan Museum of Arts – a last minute save when I realized I forgot to film the last chorus…
Like Signs and Wonders, this song celebrates beauty in things often overlooked. There’s a similar simplicity to the music and lyric – no need to get fussy when you’re singing of the joy found in small things, even, or especially, a tear drop. Or the too-often unspoken – love.
The video concept came to me fully formed, though it took a while to figure out how to shoot it. But I knew the camera would travel over objects and faces, and that flowers would play a role. When we put together the set, I fairly quickly spread a bunch of stemmed flowers across the backdrop, and when I saw what they looked like through the camera lens, I knew what the album cover would be, the rich colors reflecting the vibrant sound of the music. Also, unconsciously at the time, the back cover art from Purple Rain (though the video doesn’t have me crawling out of a tub, all flirtatious and seductive – ah, the 80s…).
SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT
SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT
The title stolen from an early Ingmar Bergman film, the music thankfully upbeat and light on its feet. I also borrowed a couple of lyrics from a spoken word assemblage in an Adrian Belew song (please don’t sue me). Even as I was writing it, the image of a spontaneous street parade came to mind, so the musical arrangement was crafted with the video in mind – thus the brass band. The Party Band is a fixture around Lowell, comprised of former and current music students from my department at the university, as well as anyone from the community that cares to join in. It’s a loosely organized collective (which presents challenges when scheduling a video shoot or recording session…) that emerged several years ago, and has spontaneously appeared at so many events in Lowell, that they are now expected to be at any festival or ribbon cutting. Much beloved, they are characters of the city.
The opening of the song begins on the street in Lowell where we shot the cover for Departure, though sadly, the bench we were on had been removed by the city, so my original conception for the three of us to be jamming on the same bench had to be adjusted when we discovered the remaining bench a few feet away was also a few feet shorter. And though we had the cooperation of a street festival organization, the chaos of trying to get it all filmed in a couple of hours probably took a few years off my life. But it was worth it to see Darleen’s face light up as a giant bubble drifts over her head. If you ever get the chance to stage your own parade – do it!
A little instrumental number inspired by Hawaiian slack key guitar tuning, and a black sand beach (so far spared by the recent lava activity) on the Big Island. This is my dad’s favorite song on the record. And Darleen’s guitar lines are his favorite part. Mine too. Oh, and Greg gets to play his bass ukulele, something he has used on occasion on other songs – it gets a remarkably full sound when you plug it in. Extended traditions…
STUDY IN BLUE
STUDY IN BLUE
This song came from the same Fripp-inspired tuning that gave birth to “Arms Around Me,” both songs written in the same day. The words had me flummoxed, as the phrase “study in blue” appeared early, and wouldn’t go away. Eventually, I transposed my frustrations with lyric writing to someone working in a visual medium, and voila! The verses came while sitting in a car in a rain storm – ah the sound of rain on roof and windshield. The guitar is so hypnotic, unchanging for verses and choruses. Sometimes, I could sit and play them for hours. When we recorded the basics, it actually went on for two more minutes until Ben gave the drums one more pounding and threw down his sticks in disgust. I edited that moment in just before the band fades out completely. The things I put my friends through…
For the arrangement, I decided to take the most blatant opportunity to extend my practice of musical quotations and references found throughout the album (there’s a fun game – can you find them all?). More than a little Beatlesque, with another lyric quote (please, please, please don’t sue me) hidden in the long fade. The video aspires to the kind of handmade surrealism of Michel Gondry’s work with Bjork among others. I hope you find its VERY handmade quality appealing. I’m learning to accept it. Slowly, very slowly. Like a camera moving away from a window.