Notes from behind the scenes: THE INNOCENTS ABROAD
(Or jump to notes about individual songs)
"I think this might be your saddest album," worried a couple of friends. And this caught me off guard, because the first songs I wrote for it were silly, bouncy things about tollbooth attendants, goofy poetry and the four Japanese phrases I knew, so in my mind, if anything it was all in danger of getting a little too silly.
That's probably not the first impression the finished product makes, I see now, since I put the most emotionally charged stuff into the first half of the album. Oops. But it makes sense thematically, and it cheers up as it goes...
That first half (titled "Then") I actually wrote second, mostly during a very enjoyable stay in Moscow in 2006-2007. It's largely the story of my struggling, once upon a time, with two crucial questions: "what is love, exactly" and "how should I decide who to be with."
I did end up in a much happier place for having had that struggle, and there are lots of pretty melodies and chimey guitars to brighten things up. But, to be fair, I have long joked that I write bouncy songs about depressing things...
It's funny how a theme can sneak up on you. Only after I'd written most of the album's second half ("There") did I say "wait a minute, these are all related to travel, how did that happen?" and come up with the title The Innocents Abroad, after the Mark Twain book that I had enjoyed as a kid. Similarly, I didn't sit down intending to write a series of songs about love and past struggles. Each song was an individual dot, and only once I had most of the dots in place did the connections and overall picture emerge for me.
It's fascinating to me how people can look for such different things in music, and ask such different things from it. I'm convinced that while a few of us might pick a song apart from the first minute, asking what makes it tick, why it was written the way it was, what that melody is trying to express, what the underlying chord structure is doing and why, most people are responding to a whole different set of things the poetry or emotional content of the lyrics, perhaps, or the textures created by the arrangement and production, or words, sounds and rhythm that gives them a sense of freedom and release.
So by way of explanation, these are the things that I want most out of a song, my targets when I write.
A great melody grabs me more than anything else, and I've always had a soft spot for harmonies and countermelodies as well. But there's a reason I write songs rather than instrumental music or poetry, for that matter.
I love that moment when I find music and lyrics that seem to want to be together, with the two combined expressing something about life in a more compelling way than one or the other could alone. For me, usually a song starts with an idea or experience that I'm exploring, writing down thoughts or walking around talking to myself, when a phrase and a melody will present themselves to me together, as a pair, at which point a song starts to build around them.
But since the concern of "depressing album" usually relates to the lyrics, let me say a bit more about those in particular.
My favorite things, when hearing song lyrics, are:
-- Getting a sense of a human being on the other end of the song, who that writer (or character) is and how they experience the world
-- Saying to myself "Yes! I know what you mean, and I didn't know how to describe that exact experience, and/or it's one that I haven't heard other people talk about it, but you just nailed it."
So, if that's my goal, how would I then go about doing that?
I've never really formulated this clearly before, but I'm realizing that I've got a few guiding principles when I write song lyrics.
-- "Write about things that matter to you." After all, if I don't feel strongly about something, how can I expect others to care about it?
-- "Show your listener why you care about this." This keeps two important things in focus: my goal is for the listener to be able to understand and relate, and to do that, my lyrics need to let them vicariously experience the heart of the matter for themselves.
-- "Use humor to tell the truth." It's easy to go overboard with this, but carefully chosen moments of revealing, self-deprecating humor can win people over, catch them off their guard.
-- "Use a wide emotional range and capture those conflicted and contradictory emotions." The ones you didn't expect can be especially revealing and interesting.
-- "Don't just rehash the same old subjects ask: what have I experienced, or seen friends experience, that I feel/felt strongly about, and that I haven't heard anyone else really capture well in a song?"
The catch is: the experiences I feel strongly about, and ones that I haven't heard other songwriters quite capturing, often were important struggles and moments of crisis. And I suppose that can make for heavy subject material sometimes. But it's interesting...
And personally, I especially find it comforting when I hear or read about someone else whose struggles I can identify with. And looking back at my own life, I feel good about what I've been able to learn, and about the place I've ended up precisely because of those struggles so far.
If I'm honest with myself, it's also my rather awkward way of trying to be of some use to others. My dream always has been that I would write songs that would matter to people, that would be comforting to them in some way, that would make them feel understood, empathized with, less alone. I know music can have that power because I've experienced it myself. That's something that I think our world could use more of, and so this is my attempt at a contribution.
I've certainly tried some less successful approaches in the past. One was to rail against all of the problems I saw, or "handing out indictments" as a friend astutely described it, but that's rarely comforting. Another was to say "here are some answers I've found," which of course fell flat, because it's presumptuous, arrogant and wrong-headed since I do not in fact have The Answers.
I now find it far more interesting and effective instead to delve into what the questions have been.
That said, perhaps it's time to give the heavy stuff a rest. Maybe my next project should be about the kind of small, happy moments that are overlooked so easily. I'll get back to you on that.
As usual, each song is based around actual experiences, my own or friends', but then was partially fictionalized to (I hope) better convey what that experience was like, and what strikes me as interesting or important about it. In songwriting, because I have so few words per song available, I want each one to pull its weight and say something vital, and often the best and most succinct way to get to the truth of the matter seems to be through a detail or situation that didn't actually occur quite that way in real life.
If I've done my job, the lyrics will speak for themselves, but here's a peek "behind the curtain" at how each of these songs came about, if you're curious.
Somebody's Bound To
I'm extremely attached to this song, and it has some of my favorite melodies that I've written, but some people might wonder, "You're married, so why are you writing about failing to find someone,' and becoming disillusioned?" I'd had a hard time in Chapel Hill, which Jenifer and I had specifically chosen because in addition to a great Russian history program it had a famous music scene, from which had come a couple of great bands I liked in the 90s. Unfortunately, by the time I got there, the local style of music had changed to what I called "post-rock art noise" and I literally couldn't find a single like-minded band or songwriter in the area. After searching for a couple of years (I really did take out an ad in the paper, twice) I gave up in despair. By the time we were in Moscow, though, I was ready to sift through that experience. However, I wrote the song knowing and intending that most people will hear it instead as a love song, in sympathy and solidarity with friends who are single and don't want to be.
Then I Was Back
My friend Kaptain Karl has a project called "Garbage" where his songwriter friends record their own variations on a simple song that he wrote. I've gone a bit off the deep end with this, writing something like a dozen versions. Often it's a fun way for me to play around with musical ideas I wouldn't normally explore. One morning in Moscow, I woke up realizing that I was writing a new version of Garbage in my head, centered around three questions: Can a one-note melody be expressive and feel right? Can I take the kind of four-chord loop song construction I usually find boring, and yet give the song enough variety and sense of build that you don't care that it's a four-chord loop? Finally, how do I do all of this in Moscow, where I have no musical instruments? The answer to that last one: record an entirely a cappella arrangement. That, of course, meant that the song immediately needed lyrics. Karl's Garbage lyrics start "Got so ____ last night that I _____," and I started filling in the first thing that came into my head. I was surprised to find myself writing about the disorienting experience of coming back to my childhood bedroom, making up a story to put that sensation in a context that would make sense to the listener. I thought the song would just be a little throwaway piece, but the friends I played it for were unexpectedly enthusiastic, so here it is, now with the added drums and trombone choir I'd been picturing from the beginning.
Playing my own songs in public terrifies me. I have trouble keeping an emotional distance and equilibrium, and sometimes my throat seizes up and my voice comes out all strained and squawky. So it occurred to me: what if I could start off a performance with a song where all of that fits the subject matter? Then I could fool people into thinking that I was just "in character," rather than actually freaking out on stage. Better yet, since those physical symptoms wouldn't be a problem, with luck they'd lose their power over me. The question then was: what would that character be? When else had I felt that combination of excitement, terror and my body starting to wig out on me? Yes, of course when I was 13 years old and had a huge crush on this girl at my school...
The Good Kids
During a writing session in Moscow, I remembered a happy time in high school when I was at a park late at night with friends, swinging on the swings, climbing on the jungle gyms. That was about as rebellious as I got back then. And it struck me: there are lots of songs about teenage rebellion, but not what it was like to be one of "the good kids." Of course, as I kept writing, I had to admit to myself that there was still plenty of angst and willfulness then, it just took different forms, and that led to a different spin on the same crisis a lot of teenagers face: you want to be free to do what you want, but you also want someone else to make sure that it's all going to work out OK, and of course those are contradictory things. As a "good kid," your own particular up side is often that people do leave you alone to do what you want, and the down side is that you start feeling like it's up to you to make everything OK you're alone on your tightrope. If you haven't fallen yet, then you haven't found a safety net yet, and you start wondering if there really is one down there.
This Boy Is Not Sane
OK, I admit it, this is a classic Scot "bouncy, humorous song about depressing things," but I especially love it for a few different reasons. As I've said, the first half of the album largely deals with the questions "what is love, exactly" and "how do I decide who to be with," and this particular song describes the pivotal experience I had as a college freshman that brought me nose-to-nose with those questions. As such it's the first major turning point on the album. Not to spoil the plot of the song, but the crisis was this: I wanted to be a good boyfriend, was instead a terrible, panic-stricken boyfriend, and in my extreme disappointment with myself, decided to figure out once and for all A) what my problem was, and B) what exactly love was and was not, anyway. As for the music, just before I wrote this song, a friend had pointed out to me that I had somehow missed two great John Lennon songs from the 1964 album Beatles For Sale: "I'm A Loser" and "I Don't Want to Spoil the Party." It struck me that this song I was writing sounded a lot like a missing companion piece to those two, both thematically and musically, so I set out to make it as Beatles in its songwriting as possible. And that seemed especially apt, given that the girl I was writing about had had a John Lennon poster on her door. All in all, this is the explanation and apology that I had been searching for at the time, but didn't know enough then to say or write.
The Emily Dickinson Game
To keep the album from completely bogging down in self-recrimination at this point, The Emily Dickinson Game is flown in here from the 2005-2006 sessions. Back in Georgia, Jenifer and I actually did invent a game where we wrote alternating lines to an Emily Dickinson-style poem. Later, in Chapel Hill, I found a catchy little tune for them, with crunchy guitar chords and the kind of vocal layers I love.
Oh, Her? We're Just Friends
Thematically, this is the other pivotal song for the album's first half, where a character first realizes clearly what she in fact does want in a relationship, and from whom. It's the most heavily fictionalized of my lyrics here, cobbled together from a couple of different experiences, and usually imagining the other person's perspective in those situations. It's also a rare exception for me in that I started out with a melody (written while driving in the rain in Chapel Hill) and then asked myself, "what emotions does this music convey, and when have I felt like that?" The music started out far more slowly than it goes now, but eventually accelerated to a sort of 80s alternative bounce.
Thanks For Your Note
The note referenced in the title doesn't actually exist. But while writing all of these songs exploring past struggles and relationships, I asked, what would these people and I say to each other now about all of this? If I wrote some sort of apology note to someone that I had cared about very much, or if they wrote such a note to me, what would it say? Then I realized, the more interesting question is: if I got such a note, how would I reply? There would be a difficult balance to strike: recognizing how much you had cared without overstepping your bounds, acknowledging the old wounds without reopening them, trying to express good wishes without it coming across as glib or insincere, guessing about what you could say that might help achieve a sense of peace and closure. I hope the song provides a similar closure to the first half of the album as well.
And now, to the more light-hearted, travel-oriented second half...
Russian grammar is hard. I mean, it's convoluted to the point that I've stopped trying to master it. For example, Russian nouns change their endings depending not just on their role within the sentence but even on what particular verb is taking that noun as its object. To practice this last part, I wrote a little song called Skazala Babka, where the verbs keep switching and the noun endings switch accordingly. The concept was a bit goofy (not to mention being in Russian) but I liked the tune, so when I started writing about my experiences with a study abroad program in college, I stole the music from Skazala Babka. The railway sound effect, by the way, was recorded this past summer from the top bunk of a very old-school overnight train in Ukraine as it left Kiev for Sevastopol.
While You Were Out
I wrote this to cheer myself up while Jenifer was spending a month in Moscow and I was in Chapel Hill with the cat. Some of the phrases in the song are really more things she would do. But then, perhaps that's why I instinctively wanted her to sing it.
It occurred to me a few years ago that I only knew about four Japanese phrases at the time, but if you put them together, it made for a good joke about Americans traveling abroad. Desu Ka? no doubt has some mistakes in its Japanese (I've found one already) but I hoped that that would be charming if performed with enough enthusiasm, sort of like the mangled English phrases on the covers of the little Russian notebooks that I collect. (My favorite: "I am angry, hungry wolf!")
This song is filled with a cast of characters Jenifer and I met during a trip to New York. Driving back down the New Jersey Turnpike to Chapel Hill, I thought about how awkward it would be to have a crush on the toll collector, and while Jenifer napped in the passenger seat, I proceeded to write about half of this song. The "I don't mind" bridge caught me completely by surprise. I just sang it as filler, the first words to pop into my head, and at first they seemed to contradict the rest of the song. But then I realized: yes, on the surface, it might seem annoying to have a crush on someone you can't reasonably even chat with, since there would be no chance of it going anywhere... but then, that's actually the point of a crush, isn't it?
Watching the Trees
Many of my friends scattered to distant corners of the globe after college graduation: joining the Peace Corps, teaching English abroad, starting grad school or pursuing careers elsewhere. I wrote the lyrics for Watching the Trees that October, during the sessions for The Plaid Album, but I had no idea how to arrange the song, so I mothballed it. Years later, in Chapel Hill, I suddenly heard it as a sort of moody, minimalist, indie rock slow song. Rather than guitars behind a wall of reverb, though, I went with a piano-led arrangement, but I kept the general idea of "just as much accompaniment as is called for, and no more." This is another song that, to my surprise, a couple of people have said they particularly like, especially the music in the "space between the notes."
This is the only instrumental I've ever released, written to break through a case of writer's block. I could write anything, I told myself, no matter how ridiculous. I could write... I don't know... a scale exercise, and even that could communicate something. Suddenly that sounded like an interesting challenge: find a basically scale-wise melody, and an arrangement for it, that expresses something I could care about, one that's not just an exercise but is music. Maybe it's just me, but I find the melody and some of the harmony lines somehow very comforting.
I hope you enjoy the album, and have a happy new year!