Song Portrait 15: Full Bloom

 

Full Bloom is a love song to Memphis, youth, one of dearest friends, and maybe even Elvis himself.   The song was inspired by a road trip I took to New Orleans for New Year’s Eve of 2002.  I took this trip with my dear friend Ana.  We left from Chicago on an icy late December morning before the sun rose and hit I-57.  We did not stop until we came to a truck stop well into Missouri, the kind of place that sold trucker hats, hideously fabulous belt buckles, and those shirts with wolves howling at the moon.  We noticed that it was already considerably warmer that had been in Chicago.  After we got gas, we headed to our destination for the night – Memphis, Tennessee.  We made it there before sunset and were shocked to find that it felt like springtime.  We got some dinner without our coats on and found a hotel to check in to.  Then we set out for a night on the legendary Beale Street.  In my naivety I thought we were going to hear some authentic Delta Blues.  What we found was cover bands and Elvis impersonators.  That certainly didn’t stop us from having fun, although my definition of the word “fun” was complicated back then.  We stumbled back to the hotel room after a night of debauchery and I woke up with a fierce hangover that got worse as the day proceeded, but really, I was in a phase of my life where I just accepted that was being normal.  It was a sunny day and everything was in full bloom.

Ana and I had been on a road trip together before and had found that we were the ideal travel companions.  We were both vegetarians, we both liked to do strange quirky things, and we both tended to be introverted types.  We understood when we needed to split up and have alone time, something only two introverts would be able to understand.  Ana wanted to learn guitar and had decided a pawn shop in Memphis was THE place to buy a guitar.  We had both noticed that Memphis seemed to have an excessive amount of pawn shops.  I wanted to go to Graceland, something Ana had no interest in, so she dropped me off at Graceland and we spent the day apart.  I spent a lot of time waiting, and wishing I did not have a throbbing headache.  I saw the jungle room, the billiard room (the ceiling is amazing), the headstone, and lots of artifacts The King left behind.  I was glad I went.  Ana picked me up at our agreed upon time and place, and she took me to one of the pawn shops to inspect the guitar she had picked out.  It was a black Yamaha acoustic guitar.  It was a good guitar.  She bought it.

We rode off in to the night and headed to New Orleans.

Most of my songs have some sort of companion song, and the companion piece to Full Bloom is called Southern Belles.  This trip has a special place in my memory, because looking back, this trip presented me with many eerie premonitions of what to come…..but more about that in my next entry.

 

 

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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.

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.