My brother Chris and I wrote these eleven songs over the course of 2009. He did the words, I did the music.
There are actually more than these eleven. A lot more. Versions that didn’t make the cut; ideas still simmering on the stovetop; songs that refused to play nice together, now relegated to ‘time out’…
All of them have taken me to new places within, bringing me closer to my brother. Deepest gratitude.
Trip to Pine
This was the first song we collaborated on, and it opened the door to a world I didn’t even know existed.
Chris sent the words as a poem. “See what you can do with this.”
The door opened and someone walked up from behind, placing her hands over my eyes. Red, manicured nails. Dangerously classy high heels. Warm breath on my neck. The scent of something long forgotten. Half asleep, I raised my head and looked at the clock. It read 2:11 a.m. On a school night. Please leave me alone.
Lightly dragging her nails the length of my body, she refused to let me sleep. Whispering rhymes into my ear. Chord progressions. Images. Storylines.
She laughed out loud at my promise to remember it all in the morning if only she’d let me go back to sleep. Apparently we’d been down that road before.
I’ve come to feel guilty of purposely “complexifying” things in order to make them interesting. It’s taken a long time to begin to find beauty in simplicity. Because my brother and I had not collaborated musically before this song, I had no expectations, and a very simple chord progression came out. It almost felt as if I weren’t trying; I read the words and this music came out. Decided to roll with it and see where it led. And when it was done, had to step away and let it be done.
Never even noticed her peering over my shoulder.
Not many tracks involved, and not a particularly complicated solo. (The first half of the solo is, quite blatantly, a tip of the hat to our hero SRV.)
One of Chris’ gifts is his ability to beautifully capture something in words where I struggle. Whereas I might be more of an idealist, maybe he’s more of a realist. And maybe this comes out in our writing styles. Or maybe his eyes are uncovered.
In this case his lyrics sent me in the direction of Kevin Moore, another strong influence. Can’t compare to Moore’s abilities, but love his work. Inspired by his power to evoke emotion through such apparent simplicity. Also love juxtaposing the overdriven lead guitar against the keys and cello. I dig it.
Really close to my heart. Chris invented the word “Pelacone” for this piece and it sounded like the name of a magical place; like some mythical, hidden getaway somewhere in Mexico, Spain or Italy.
Took that word and made it the centerpiece of the song, adding the chorus to tie it all together. Wanted to capture the glow of white Christmas lights at a summer’s evening dinner party patio. The smell of the ocean not far off. The trumpets seemed to offer a way into that world.
Always been fascinated by movie scores, and love the challenge of creating a piece of music to help set a mood. It was a joy to work on the orchestral build in this song. To find out what could be done with minimal gear and some imagination.
Just received an electric guitar as a surprise gift from a friend. (Thanks, Barry!) He knew I was/am still dreaming of a PRS Custom 24 (emerald green, preferably with coil tap but definitely not a deal-breaker) but didn’t want me to have to wait to plug in an electric. The Lotus strat copy he gave me inspired the music for this song.
(Almost all other guitar parts were tracked using my CA Guitars “Legacy” acoustic, a guitar that has seen the inside of countless classrooms and even some clubs from Texas to Takamatsu City, Japan. Composite Acoustic Guitars, of Lafayette, LA, USA. Check ‘em out.)
It had been a couple months since we’d worked on anything; I’d asked Chris to hold off on sending any more lyrics, thinking we had enough for this first project. But soon I could hear her drumming her nails on the desktop in the other room. I realized that I was ready for more, asking him to send something else when the mood hit him. His next poem coincided with the electric guitar, leaving me thrilled and delighted.
The rhythm parts kind of jumped out of the hands on this one. Often with a new instrument, there’s a short window of excitement when the hands do whatever they want to and music seems to come from my gut and straight out, bypassing the brain completely. Capturing this blue moon is a lucky thing.
Sun Glass is one such example.
The original music for this song came not long after the song Trip to Pine, and bore some striking similarities in tone, mood and instrumentation.
In the end, a little too striking.
Chris mentioned it more than once, but I can be hardheaded and inflexible. Pompous, too. Loved the original version. Still do.
But the more the album grew and the more we played with track sequencing, the more it became apparent that Chris was right; the original version of My Telescope was “like an anchor” that sent the energy of the album plunging to the depths, killing the flow. I had to face the facts: either write a new version or throw the song overboard.
Over the course of the year, the project continued to blossom and unfold, revealing musical surprises and “happy accidents” around every corner. However, this particular “happy accident”, a broken E string, didn’t seem so happy at first. Didn’t feel like driving into town, so I put the electric down and turned to the acoustic. Later that evening, remembering that Keith Richards ditched his high E string long ago, I looked up his open G tuning and picked up the electric.
It was a whole new world.
I’d come up with a basic progression when she snatched the keys away and stole off into the night. Down back alleys, over fences, and across rooftops, leaving me doubled over and gasping for breath as I struggled to keep up. The more ideas laid down, the more new ideas she threw my way. Mercilessly. Soon there were 30 separate tracks.
Somewhere along the way she circled around back and came up from behind. The clicking of her heels was all I heard. She tapped me on the shoulder, shoving the lyrics to My Telescope in my face with a scowl of impatience. No sooner had I connected the jumper cables than the lyrics and music started their alchemical dance and this monster jumped to life, growing before my very eyes.
But it wasn’t time to order the umbrella drinks just yet.
In the middle of trying to record an idea before it dissipates into thin air, I often have to interrupt the creative flow in order to fix some technical issue with my computer. Jumping over the net from right brain to left brain and back again, it gets to feeling like a one-man tennis match. And I don’t play tennis.
Still haven’t added the maximum amount of RAM to my computer yet. Now with 30 tracks, things were getting slow. In addition, didn’t know what to “do” about the solo section.
Initially the solo was going to be a guitar solo, but just kept coming up empty handed. I’d been recording for hours on end and the ears were fatigued. Needed a break. Jumped in the car and headed into town to buy those new strings and get away from my studio for at least 30 minutes.
Driving along, absent-mindedly started singing different solo ideas. Then it hit—why not just record these very vocalizations (with harmonies, of course) and use that as the solo? Got back home, laid down that idea and felt pretty happy with it. Sort of.
After sleeping on it and running it by a few trusted friends, realized I wasn’t 100% happy. Went back to the drawing board. Tried a variety of instrumentation ideas, including violins and bells… all of which just led to deeper frustration.
Digging my way out of a hole. With a tennis racket.
After days of this madness, she looked at me in the mirror while I was brushing my teeth. How about starting over with the guitar—but with the acoustic? New strings, so she was sounding better than ever and feeling easy to play. But the solo wasn’t coming easy. Had the first four bars right from the start, but coaxing out the rest was like pulling teeth. No faking my way out of this one.
Finally the second half of the solo hit me—do the vocal melody from the chorus of one of the older versions of this same song, then finish it off with the melody of ‘I’ll watch you from my telescope’. Felt so happy I laughed out loud. By the time the whole solo was tracked, a couple fingers were chewed up and nearly bleeding. Totally worth it.
All fine and good, but the laptop was still overloaded with tracks. In the middle of recording a pass it would simply stop recording and give the same old message: “Are you nuts? You have way too many tracks here, man. Give up now.”
Ended up taking a risk. Mixed down the song without a solo. Then created a brand new GarageBand file, pulled that “mixed down, solo-less song” from iTunes and imported it back into the new GarageBand file. From there, simply laid down the solo tracks against that ‘single’ track.
The upside? Now instead of working with thirty tracks, I was only working with two or three. The downside? Had to be absolutely certain about the mixed-down version that I was importing, because now as a ‘closed unit’ I could no longer go back in and edit anything. Those 30 tracks had become one.
As it turned out, did find something that needed to be fixed… a formerly unnoticed vocal ‘plosive’ or ‘pop’ that was now taking center stage. She crossed her stocking-clad legs, threw her head back and laughed a deep-belly laugh. Bosom heaving. Hair cascading down her shoulders. After a few minutes of this, her laughter died down and she dabbed at her eyes with a tissue, smiling sympathetically all the while.
Walked out of the room three times, shaking my head and muttering profanities under my breath, trying to convince myself that she wasn’t really there. Finally surrendered to the fact that there was more to do. Made another pot of coffee and proceeded to track some new vocals in the original “30-track” version, then re-mixed that down, re-imported it back into GarageBand… you get the picture.
And after the celebratory e-mailing of the ‘new and improved’ track to friends (in anticipation of those coveted congratulatory high-fives), realized that I still wasn’t done. Guitar solo was too loud. Like WAY too loud. By now she sat on my desk with a bored look on her face, arms crossed, ashtray brimming with crumpled butts. It was only the next day that I finally got the levels where I wanted them.
Is it “perfect” now? Is it “finished”? Don’t let her hear you asking.
The more miles put on these grubby old sneakers to chase down a song, the more sweat drips down the forehead, stinging the eyes and making the world ever blurrier.
This started out as a piano part that jumped out of the right hand. Had been thinking of trying to create some sort of soundtrack-like piece, and was just playing around with ideas as they landed. About the same time, Chris sent another one of his famous e-mails. This one was in prose form, and I still can’t really say exactly how it fit so well with this seemingly unrelated piece of music. All I know is that I printed out what he wrote, sat down at the keyboard, and in minutes the vocals and the music all fit together in a way that brought a smile.
Imagined it more as part of some theatre piece… like some character in a play who steps away from the action, looks off into the distance, and recites this little monologue, then rejoins the action. And actually, as Chris has said that these words basically capture for him how this whole album came about, it actually does serve as a sort of theatrical “aside”… as if somehow in italics compared to the rest of the songs.
This Is Not A Song
I like the chord progression and laid back feel of this one a lot. The tracking for this one stands apart from the others in that I mic’d the rhythm and lead guitar parts, as opposed to going direct.
With only have one mic (an SM-58 running into an M-Audio FireWire Solo and into my MacBook) I sometimes feel limited in my ability to get good mic sounds. But on a DIY budget the punk rock ethic still applies: do what you can and move on. Bring an extra roll of duct tape.
The House Down
The minute I read this one, it grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and refused to let go. The album “Rubber Factory” by the Black Keys was rolling around in my head. I retuned to an open C, hit the ‘record’ button and held on for dear life.
Letters from J
Really enjoyed the process of incorporating a variety of instruments on this one: simple chord progression with lots of goodies. Crystal singing bowls; a seven-metal singling bowl; ukulele; handmade shakuhachi flute (crafted by Brendan Bombaci of Colorado); handmade Native American flute (crafted by Ron Hager, of California) and the acoustic.
Love that this song basically started as an e-mail to me from Chris, ripping on me a little for bugging him all the time to send new lyrics.
Confessed once that one of the reasons I love our artistic arrangement (he writes the words then I write the music) is because I get to have fun while he does all the heavy lifting. While I certainly have spent more than a few hours of frustration in the studio trying to get something right, I can easily say I still feel that way.
There are now four wildly distinct versions of The Zero. Version One: keys and vocals. Very cold and distant. Version Two: extended dance mix of the first version. Seemed like a good idea at the time. Version Three: a stripped-down I-IV-V blues version. One acoustic, one voice.
Then there’s Version Four.
This latest iteration of The Zero was sparked by a computer ‘housecleaning’ session. In an effort to save disk space and optimize the recording performance of the laptop (have I mentioned the need for more RAM?), decided to perform the long-overdue task of reviewing old song ideas and saving them somewhere other than the computer. While doing this, ran across an altered-tuning idea that was actually ready to use.
Listened to it. Heard the now-familiar click-click of her heels approaching from behind. Felt her arms slowly wrap around my body. Hair-raising, spine-tingling breath on my neck again. Had to work with it right away.
Supplemented the heavy acoustic parts with heavy electric distorted parts, and the vocals fell into place quite naturally. Thought it was finished, but while driving around town, she stepped out wearing nothing but a bathrobe… tennis racket in hand. Whispered something about adding special effects (family playing at the swimming pool) during the intro. Another one of those “theatre-like” moments.
The orchestral buildup at the end of the song is also close to my heart. Purposely chose to add brass and stay away from violins. Strings would make it feel sappy, killing the crispness and edge.
Starless Sky (Under One)
This one can still bring tears. Though tempted many times to add all of the accompaniment I hear in my head (violins, cello, vocal harmonies, etc.), I think it packs more of a punch in this completely stripped-down form. This is one of the only songs on the album tracked in one pass: vocals and piano at the same time, with no overdubs. Love this song. Love this entire album and look forward to discovering what the next one will sound like.
Now it’s winter. Fire in the woodstove and twenty degrees outside as the winter sun reflects brightly off the snow. We spoke on the phone last night and agree that the seasons have changed. It’s been a year-long harvest. A good harvest.
She’s in the back room now, sleeping. Sexy as ever, and just as unattainable. Please don’t raise your voice… best to let her get some rest. Best for me, as well. No telling when she’ll show up next.
Meanwhile, deepest thanks, Chris, for the map to Pelacone.
Where to next?