Song Portrait #14: Middleman

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Many years ago I was bumming around the Pioneer Square neighborhood of Seattle, and I decided to visit the Gold Rush Museum.  The museum celebrates the history of Seattle during the years of the Klondike Gold Rush. In 1896 gold was discovered in the Yukon Territory of Canada.  When word of this reached Seattle, merchants rushed to make Seattle the official “Gateway to the Gold Fields”.  A rumor existed that prospectors would not be allowed to enter Canada without a year’s worth of supplies.  Shop owners quickly exploited this rumor.  Why mine for gold when they could mine the miners? 

Most artists are gold miners.  We give up comfort and stability to chase after a dream that will probably not come true.  The gold we are mining for is recognition.  Most of us will compose/paint/choreograph/sing/write/act/dance/perform whether or not we receive any recognition, but having one’s work recognized is the ultimate golden nugget.  It is the chance to quit that soul sucking day job.  It is the chance to have more time and money to put into creating more art. It is a validation that the trek was worth it.  Of course, where there are miners, there are always folks waiting to mine the miners. 

I started writing songs in the late 90’s and became very serious about pursuing this whole singer-songwriter thing around 2000, so when I started this endeavor I was living in a pretty low tech world.  Independent musicians were starting to have websites, but social media sites did not exist.  It was normal not to have a cell phone and smart phones were still years in the future. That said, calls and emails were not expected to be responded to instantaneously.  Sending a venue a CD was a normal part of the booking process. 

Over the next decade technology advanced tremendously!  Making decent quality recordings and videos became cheap and easy. Social media sites sprang up.  It became increasingly easier for independent musicians to manage their careers and book their own shows and tours.  Club owners and bookers found themselves overwhelmed by independent artists trying to book shows via email and social media.  It is not surprising that a market opened up for a bunch of middlemen. 

Over the years I’ve watched so many artists who are truly talented and original pour money into companies like Sonic Bids or X-Ray and never get anything in return.  Even music teachers get screwed by companies like Take Lessons.  All of these middlemen have created a business model that aids consumers and creates endless frustration and financial hardship for musicians.  So why do we go through the middlemen?  Because more and more venues or festivals will not listen to your material unless it is submitted through Sonic Bids.  Because the first thing that comes up when I google “guitar lessons Seattle” is TakeLessons.com. 

After I went to the Gold Rush Museum I had the idea of writing a song about mining the miners that used the Gold Rush analogy.  The idea sat in the back of my head for years.  Then this song just came out.  It came out without out any references to Victorian era Seattle, panning for gold, or trekking through the Canadian wild.  I was just pissed one day and wrote this song in about an hour.  It also came out with power chords. 

Power chords are two note chords consisting of just the root and fifth of the chord.  They are usually found in punk rock and are easy to play.  I have to admit, I’ve prided myself on being a good finger picker and playing fancy jazz chords for a long time, but the last three songs I have written on guitar (I See Gold, Las Vegas Bride and this song) have been all power chords.  I have been really into Amy Ray for the past few years….she rocks.  I think I am having a power chord revolution.

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Song Portrait #13: Las Vegas Bride

It has been almost an entire year since my last post.  I wrote my last blog entry on January 1st, 2015 and gave birth to my second child the next day. Somewhere in that post I stated that I hoped to work more on this blog in 2015, knowing full well that this was probably not going to happen. But that is just me wanting to have it all: my music, my family, a roof over my head (unfortunately not provided by music…) and a fabulous blog about songwriting.

Really, though, I do have it all. My two sons and husband rock my world. I do manage to find time to be a mom, work for money, and work for personal fulfillment. Some of my creative projects have just had to simmer on the back burner. They are simmering and my creative kitchen has some interesting aromas coming out of it. One thing that has happened quite a bit this year is going back and finishing unfinished songs that I started writing years ago. I never try to force writing, so if a song creeps out the back door or just tells me to “fuck off,” I listen. Sometimes they come back and tell me they are ready to be finished. Such is the case with Las Vegas Bride.

I started writing this song in 2006. Originally the song was about someone who marries the wrong guy.   Most of the lyrics and the chord structure were very different from what they are now. The song told me to fuck off. Between that time and now I’ve been through many phases of my life. I watched other people my age cohabitant, get married and have babies while I lived in a studio apartment with my cat. Sometimes I looked at them with jealousy – as if it must be nice to be so normal and do what you are supposed to do. I wondered if I was chosen to be a slave to the muse or if I was truly in a state of arrested development and destined to become a crazy cat lady. Then I actually did cohabitant, get married, have babies and move to a not very cool neighborhood.

A few years after I stopped working on this song, it came back to me. I was in my house (which is in a cul-de-sac) with my first baby.  I spent so much  time walking him in the stroller that I had little time to actually play an instrument. While I was taking these long walks I worked out this song in my head. While some of the imagery and ideas come from the older version, it really became an entirely different song.  When I finally got the chance to sit down with it at the piano I found I had written it in a key I hate (A flat!).  I played with it on piano, and then it went to guitar. Then it went back to piano in a different key (A…with a modulation to B flat, much better). Finally it made it’s way to guitar in the new key and said “I am complete now”.

So what is this song about? The choices we make in various emotional states, the struggle between what we want to do and what we are supposed to do, what happens when multiple dreams can not co-exist in one’s life, and my personal lifelong conflict between wanting to have a family and wanting to live in a van.

 

Song Portrait #10: Natasha

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I first started writing songs while living in my college town. To this day, imagery, people and experiences from those four year continue to inspire songs, or subtly creep in to my writing. This is one of those songs:

Natasha was a woman I knew in my college town, Charleston, IL. She didn’t go to school there – she was a local. I met her through another local I had befriended, Stella. I met Stella while she was sitting on the lawn of the town courthouse playing guitar late one night. I had just come out of a bar and saw her being hassled by the cops. After the officers had left I went and introduced myself to her. I was always looking for other female musicians to play with. I was very much drawn to her.

She was not a student either. She had grown up in the next town over and had been living in Charleston for years. We swapped numbers. Her phone was a pager – if you paged her she’d run to the gas station and use the pay phone. We ended up getting together soon after. We both played guitar, sang, wrote, and wore thrift store clothes, but our lives had been very different. After the death of her biological father her, mother had brought an abusive step father in to the family. She became and alcoholic and drug addict as a teenager and eventually moved to Charleston with her boyfriend when she was still a teenager. Years later, the boyfriend was gone and she was in the program. She still smoked cigarettes, but she did not drink or do any drugs despite living in a college town surrounded by debauchery.

She was ethereal. She had butt length blond hair and was generally big – very tall and curvaceous. She was beautiful. We started jamming with her friend Natasha, who lived in the next town over with her boyfriend’s family. She did not have the tortured past that Stella did, but she was a mess. She smoked way to much and seemed nervous all the time. She drank quite a bit and smoked a lot of weed. She had moved out of Central Illinois twice – once to Chicago and once to Myrtle Beach, but she always ended up back where she came from. She too, was ethereal. She had butt length dark wavy hair and was pale and very thin. Aside from the 70’s thrift store attire, she wore a lot of underwear as outerwear (ah, the ninties….). She worked as a cocktail waitress at a bar in the town where she lived. She played guitar quite well and was learning the violin. The three of us would play music together. We played the songs we’d written as well as a few covers – Plump by Hole, I Could Have Lied by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Untouchable Face by Ani DiFranco. Sometimes I felt like it was them against me, as I was the college girl from the suburbs. Sometimes it was the debauchery seeking Natasha and I against sober Stella. Sometimes it was Stella and I, the two singles, against Natasha who was in this this relationship and living in the basement of her boyfriend’s parent’s house. We spent a lot of time together during the summer of 1998. We had a few practices with a drummer who Natasha knew, but the band ended when, once again, Natasha decided to skip town. I don’t even remember where she went. Stella said she’d be back, but I never saw her again.

I continued to be friends with Stella the next year and then I left Charleston to student teach in the Chicago area. I visited Charleston frequently the next year to visit my boyfriend from my senior year, who was still in college. My last encounter with Stella involved me yelling and storming out of her apartment. She had become friends with my boyfriend and was upset with how I was stringing him along when I had left town and did not really love him anymore. She was right. I was being cruel. I ultimately took her advice and broke up with him. A few months later I wrote her a letter saying that I did not want our friendship to end the way it did. I had a feeling she had skipped town as well, and I was right! But the letter did find her. It got forwarded to her new home in Olympia, Washington. She had always talked about moving to Olympia and going to Evergreen State University. It looked like she was on her way to doing just that. We have not been in communication since the letter, but I am sure she is successful and living a glorious life, whatever she is doing. Natasha haunts me though. I never heard from her again.

Song Portrait #9: Fading Away (Echo’s Song)

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This song was a gift from a wood nymph.

It is hard to find time to write in between being a mom (yeah!), teaching music lessons (yeah!), and waiting tables (boo!). When the muse enters my home she usually finds me occupied, too tired to pay attention to her, or trips over a bunch of toys and leaves out of frustration. For this reason, my husband, who is also a songwriter, and I vacation separately so we can have some alone time to work on music. This year I spent two lovely September days in a cabin in the Olympics. I brought several partially finished songs with me, including this one.

This is the fourth song I have finished in my song cycle based on Greek mythology. It was inspired by another song from this series, Nemesis. Echo was a nymph who had a beautiful voice and the gift of gab. The jealous Athena punished her by placing a curse on her so that the only words she could say were the last words said to her. Echo took an interest the beautiful, yet terribly vain, Narcissus. Narcissus mocked poor Echo upon finding that she could only repeat back what he said to her. In her grief, she retreated to the mountains and withered away until all that was left of her was her voice.

When I arrived at my cabin I had an idea for using the whole tone scale somewhere in the song, the chord progression for the chorus (which ended up being the chord progression for most of the song), and the idea of “fading away” as the song’s main theme. The rest of the song took shape over the course of a day. I would take a hike and think and then come back and work on songs. I did this over and over during my trip.

So far, all of these mythology songs have surprised me with the direction they went. While I did research all the myths, I did not take a heavy hand to writing any of the lyrics. I just let my viscera guide me and every time I have been surprised by which characters I am most sympathetic toward. Narcissus is not a bad guy in this song. At least Echo does not think so. She thinks he is young and foolish. She recognizes that she is young and foolish too. She believes that if they had met later in life, after working out some of their youthful angst, they might have had a wonderful love affair. She looks back with regret and a certain melancholy sweetness as she fades away and he drowns.

Oh – back to the story and how it relates to the Nemesis song…….

Nemesis, the Goddess of Justice, witnesses Echo’s rejection and punishes Narcissus by luring him to the river. She knows that he will either drown trying to chase his own reflection, or parish by the river bank waiting for the only person beautiful enough to suite his fancy to come out of the river. In a sense this is a song about the timeless theme of young love gone bad. I hope I was successful at telling this story from a new angle.

After the video there is a beautiful slide show of photos I took while hiking.

Song Portrait #7: It’s Cruel to Scare a Rabbit

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It’s Cruel to Scare a Rabbit is a song that I wrote last month at a Songwriters in Seattle event called Songwriting Games. I immediately RSVPed when I heard about the event because I really like games. Forget about getting all dressed up and going out on the town – one of my favorite things to do is have some friends over for cocktails and board games. I own three different versions of Trivial Pursuit, two Scrabble games (Super Scrabble and the deluxe version with the spinning board), and a bunch of other games. Poker and charades are fun too.

I also like songwriting challenges and assignments, so I knew that I would enjoy this event. The event was led by Jean Mann, a very talented and prolific songwriter who has participated in February Album Writing Month (FAWM) several times. This is a challenge to write 14 songs in 28 days and the corresponding website offers a variety of inspirations, challenges and games to help welcome the muse. Seven songwriters attended the event. We played a game that involved everyone writing one sentence on a blank piece of paper. We passed the papers around the circle and added another sentence or phrase to our neighbor’s sheet. We then folded the papers so that the first sentence was no longer visible. The game continued with passing the papers and adding on to only the most recent idea until the papers had been swapped fourteen times. What resulted was fourteen sentences that really did not form any type of cohesive story. In the end, everyone got back the paper that he or she had started with. We also wrote a bunch of chord symbols on folded up pieces of paper and each picked four out of a bag. After this, we all went to different areas of the house to work on our songs for a half hour.

My paper started with the sentence I had written, “It’s cruel to scare a rabbit”.  This line seemed to have come out of nowhere.  It sounded like something interesting to build more lyrics on to. The next line also involved a rabbit. Strangely, the sixth line also involved a rabbit. The chords I pulled were C G7 E7 and D.

The sixth line on the paper was, “Pull out a rabbit, pull out a fish, whatever you wish”. The seventh line was “and a wish may move or walk with a will of its own”. These ideas became the main theme of the song and the opening line. Aside from enjoying the Dr. Seuss quality of the language, I find that dealing with the disappointment of wishes not materializing is a constant theme in my life – and pretty much everyone else’s. I wrote the song pretty quickly and intuitively, using C, G7, E7 and changed the D to A (the rules were loose).

When time was up we all went back to the living room and shared our songs. A few people used every line on their paper. One person used one line and used the rest for inspiration, and a few of us were somewhere in the middle (I used 8). Likewise, some of us did not use our selected chords, some of us made a modification, and some people used exactly what they had picked. One of the best melodies came from the person who picked a group of chords that seemed impossible to include in the same song and stuck to them. Everyone’s song was interesting and true celebration of the spirit of songwriting.

I did not go to the event expecting to have a song that I would want to keep, but I liked my song and worked on it a bit more at home. Aside from changing the fingerpicking pattern in the guitar part, I changed it very little. One change I did make was adding the line “It’s cruel to scare a rabbit” to the end of the song and giving the song that title. This line had not appeared at all in the original version I had presented at the songwriting event. The more that I thought about the song I realized why that line came out of my subconscious. I have been really in to Chinese astrology this year (which is pretty obvious based on the title of this blog) and my son is a rabbit. I find myself slowly having to introduce him to the idea that there is cruelty in the world. I want him to have amazing dreams and aspire to achieve them, but not crumble if circumstances make doing so difficult or impossible. My own career dreams may have not worked out as planned, but I could not have dreamed of a better son, so this song is for my little rabbit.

Overall, I found this to be an exercise in writing based on instinct. I usually start writing a song based on instinct, but then spend quite a bit of time editing and scrutinizing lyrics. This game was better than Scrabble – I’ll definitely try it again.

Song Portrait #6: Tale of a Missouri Girl

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Tale of a Missouri Girl came out of the main piano motif you hear over and over during the verses. It was something I came up with that I played with for a while. I liked this little riff because it was playful, yet sinister. I knew the right lyrics would present themselves eventually.

On a surface level, the story in the song was inspired by two movies I saw during this time. One was Barton Fink, a film set in 1940’s Hollywood. This film portrays the quest for glamour and success that so often ends in personal ruin for many aspiring actors and writers. The second movie I saw was 1408, a film based on a Stephen King story. In 1408, a writer researching a book on haunted destinations checks in to a room where he must live his personal nightmare and ultimately face his past and who he is.

The song is set in Hollywood, largely in a hotel, and the main character is an aspiring actress. The first line signifies that she is not being herself, either because she has something to hide, or because she has yet to figure out who “herself” really is. The rest of the song is her journey.

While it was fun to make up a fictitious story about a young lady in another time and place, the story was pretty easy to write because the story parallels my own life. As a young singer/songwriter in the 1990’s, I regarded Seattle as being my Hollywood.

I am from the Midwest. I transplanted myself to the West Coast. I pursued a dream and became a waitress. I was certainly never as naive about my ambitions as our lovely protagonist, and unlike her, I can honestly say that my intention is to have a life in the arts, not be a star. Still there are parallels. I am just retelling this story, which is the oldest story in the book.

This is one of my songs that the band I am in, Bakelite 78, performs. It is on our most recent album, What the Moon Has Done with the full band arrangement.

Song Portrait #5: Avant Garde Heart

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“Reality just is. It is the light that permeates the thin bedroom curtains on the morning of a fierce hangover, after all the nocturnal beer tears and boozy sentiments, and the self-annihilation disguised as fine art”.
-Koren Zailckas, Smashed

I read Smashed, by Koren Zailckas, four years ago and was absolutely entranced by the book. Aside from being able to relate to the author’s experiences on a personal level, I found the imagery in the book to be intoxicatingly beautiful. I found myself writing down passages, and they became the inspiration for this song. Some of the lyrics in the second and third verses were taken from the quote above.

The book is about the author’s struggle with alcohol abuse as a teenager and young adult. This book brought me to a time in my life when my social life revolved around one place – a bar in Chicago called the Inner Town Pub. I hosted the open mic night, ran the soundboard, and performed there every Thursday night for two years. The owl imagery in the song was inspired partly by the physical appearance of the bar. The bar was always very dark and everything was wood – the floor, the tables and chairs, the bar itself. There were also owls everywhere. They were gaudy owl relics from the 1960’s. The entire time I was at the bar I was surrounded by owl clocks, owl lamps, and owl figurines perched on branches and watching me with grotesquely large eyes. There was another type of owl who inhabited this bar: the patrons. They were mysterious and beautiful creatures who lived primarily nocturnal life styles. They would sit on their bar stools drinking, observing, perhaps looking for prey.

Of course, not all of the patrons were owls. As much as I was guilty of overindulgence while at the Inner Town, I was also living the life of an artist. I was writing new songs and showcasing them at the bar. I can say the same about all the people who came to the open mic every week. During this time I met many talented people who were extremely committed to the craft of songwriting. These people continue to be an inspiration to me today. Then there were the owls…….

The owls were not artists. They often posed as artists or hung out with artists as an excuse to live lives of hedonism and debauchery. This is where the inspiration for the main character in the song comes from. The narrator is a sleazy sort of guy who enjoys hanging out at this bar. He does not do anything creative, but to his credit, he does not pretend to either. He meets a young woman at the bar. He briefly enters her world and sees the things she creates. She could be a painter, a musician, a film maker, or a performance artist – it really does not matter. Either way, the man regards her work as being nonsensical. His reaction to her work is that he could have made that. In fact, anyone could have made that. Is this woman a genius creating avant-garde art, or is she a person with little talent making things just because she can in order to fit in with some sort of subculture? The owl man never finds out because he decides they should never meet in day light. He is too emotionally detached to get to know her, or anyone else well. He will go back to sitting on his perch and observing until another interesting looking mouse comes along.

When I starting writing this song, four years ago, I played it on guitar and it had a slightly different chord progression. During the chorus the progression meandered in to a different key and I could not figure out a way to bring it back to tonic. I stopped working on the song and then completely forgot about it. A few months ago I was working on a different song that had a lizard analogy in it. I realized that the character I was writing about was more like and owl. Then I remembered this song – that had been simmering on the back burner for a long time. I dug up the journal where I had written the lyrics and sat down at the piano. After all these years I was able to finish it really quickly.

Overall, this song is about a lot of things I wrestle with: the nature of art, the nature of the artist, substance abuse and substance abusers, and the fact that being a musician seems to be inseparable from living a semi-nocturnal life, where there are always owls perched on a bar stool.