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.

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Guest Song Portrait #3: Had It All by Heather Stewart

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I met up with my very good friend and fellow songwriter, Brad Swanson, for a co-writing session. I brought in this melody with the idea that it would be a traditional love song. We got to talking about life and death and love, as you do in these songwriting sessions. My father had recently and somewhat unexpectedly passed away which was an extreme wake up call for me. I went on a tirade to Brad about how I wanted to make sure on my death bed I was proud of taking risks, facing my fears and accomplishing my goals. Thus, the song was born. It is a love song of sorts, but a love of life and taking the chance to have it all.

Song Portrait #8: Black Widows – Featuring piano from Shoreline’s Piano Time

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Black Widows was a writing assignment to write a fun song.

I’ll explain further:
When I tell people I am a musician a common response I’ve gotten over the years is, “That must be really fun!” Fun? I wouldn’t describe playing, or writing music as being fun. Here are some terms that describe my relationship with music: gut-wrenching, therapeutic, spiritual, life affirming, insightful, exploratory, and empowering. Music has been an all consuming force in my life.  Fun is a term I use to describe things like laying in bed and eating ice cream while watching Project Runway.

As a singer-songwriter, I have learned that sometimes all those gut-wrenching and therapeutic songs are songs that are just for me, not songs for an audience. I have also learned that when I let music become all consuming I get eaten alive.

Black Widows was an exercise in lightening up and writing a fun song. I had been playing with this rather fun piano part for a while. Instead of digging deep in to my soul for some lyrics I came up with this story about a black widow. “Noises in the night and little things that bite” are fun, you ask? Sure. They are fun in a gleeful, yet macabre way. I already explained in the first paragraph how I struggle with fun.

I wrote this song for my band at the time, The Whiskey Romance, to perform. Since then I have gone from writing mostly songs about myself, to writing mostly songs about other characters. I find that the content still comes from my soul and that the songs are just as gut-wrenching, theraputic, spiritual, life affirming, insightful, exploratory, and empowering without slipping in to boring, whiney singer-songwriter mode. At least that is my intention.

NOW ABOUT THE PIANO!
The city of Shoreline, Washington has hosted Piano Time for two years now. Piano Time is a month long installation of music and art throughout the city of Shoreline. Twelve pianos were made in to pieces of art by local artists and displayed throughout the city during the month of August. The pianos were open to the public to play. I managed to make it to nine of the pianos. A friend of mine was tuning the pianos all month and gave me a tip that the Alice in Wonderland piano was in the best condition. I fell in love with this piano when I saw it.  I think Black Widows was the perfect song to play on it. Both are playful, yet dark. Whimsical, yet creepy. The artist who painted this is Heather Carr. I checked out her website and really enjoyed entering her world.  Her website is: http://heatherunderground.com .

Guest Song Portrait #2: At Sea by Chris Darby

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On Sunday, December 7th, 1941, planes from Japan attacked the United States Naval base at Pearl Harbor, off the coast of Hawaii. It’s a story that most people growing up in the United States know well. My grandfather, Thomas O’Reilly, was there on that morning, and lived to tell the tale. Many were not so lucky. Today, at 93 years of age, he is one of the remaining Pearl Harbor survivors. He has a great many stories about that incident, and the Second World War, and I consider myself lucky to be able to visit him whenever I visit southern California, where he has made his home.

One of the things he has told me over the years might seem a relatively minor thing in the scheme of stories he has to tell. But it resounded with me a great deal the moment I heard it. We were talking about customs in the Navy, and he told me that when a sailor is lost at sea, instead of listing them as ‘deceased’, or ‘missing in action’, they are referred to as ‘at sea’. I thought that was a most poetic way of putting it, and now I often think of those who have passed as being at sea. It helps me keep them in my thoughts.

Just before Thanksgiving of last year, a very good friend of mine passed away from cancer. Even though she had been diagnosed with it for about a year before that, I thought there was no way she wouldn’t survive. Life has a funny way of surprising us sometimes. Even now, I still can’t believe she is gone.

A couple of months after I got the news, I reflected back to the Navy custom that my grandfather had relayed to me. I thought I could base a song around it, and dedicate it to my friend. This is what I came up with. It still needs some work, but it is the song I am the most proud of at this moment.

This video was recorded in a cabin in southern Missouri, where I have just started work on my first solo album. This song will definitely appear on that. I will be residing in this cabin until the album is complete.

At Sea

The ocean breeze sings me a song tonight
These gentle winds will roll me to sleep tonight
Out here at sea, these stars will be my guide
These soft winds will roll me to sleep

When everything is lonely I’m at peace
Forgive me now forgive me, for I may never leave
I’ll stay on this ship and we will sail
Away, away, away into the pale

The ocean breeze sings me a song tonight
These gentle waves will roll me to sleep tonight
Out here at sea, these stars will be my guide
These soft winds will roll me to sleep

I was a weary captains son
And I woke upon the water in the end
No duties left, and nothing to defend
Now I am just a lonely ocean song

The ocean breeze sings me a song tonight
These gentle waves will roll me to sleep tonight
Out here at sea, these stars will be my guide
These soft winds will roll me to sleep

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.

Guest Song Portrait #1: Monongah by Robert Rial

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Regarding my song “Monongah” and writing The Great Disaster Song
By Robert Rial

I suppose I am a bit morbid, but historic criminal masterminds and epic disasters, especially ones causing massive body counts, have always been favorite song topics of mine. So far, I have written a song about John Dillinger and his demise outside the Biograph Theater, a song about the infamous serial murderer H.H. Holmes, who ran amuck during Chicago’s 1893 Colombian Exposition, a song about a Chicago mob hitman and boss named Felix “Milwaukee Phil” Alderisio, and two mining disaster ballads, one with a happy ending and one with a sad ending.
The song with a happy ending is called “Nine For Nine” and tells the tale of the 2002 coal mining rescue of nine men at Quecreek Mine, in Somerset County, Pennsylvania. The first line of the chorus is literally stolen from a headline I read on a Chicago Sun-Times paper as I walked by a newspaper box the day after the men were rescued:
“They tied themselves together so they wouldn’t die alone.”
I saw this headline and immediately thought to myself, wow, if that isn’t a lyric waiting to be written about in further detail. So I got some change out of my pocket and bought that Sun-Times, read about the rescue on the blue line train on my way home, and proceeded to write the song that very night.
But a rescue is hardly a great disaster. For this, we must move on to the subject at hand, “Monongah”. For a more complete outline of events, please visit the links below. But to give you the short and sweet version, the worst coal mining disaster in American history took place, killing close to 500 people virtually instantaneously on December 6, 1907. The deaths left 250 widows and more than 1000 fatherless children. It should be noted that ‘07 was a particularly bad year for mining deaths, with 3,242 American coal miners dying in that one year. The Monongah disaster paved the way for mining reform. Many safety precautions that could have prevented the explosion were simply not employed that day at Monongah, such as safety lamps (like the ‘Davy Lamp’), permissible explosives and mine preparation techniques. The disaster is believed to have been caused by the ignition of a mixture of coal-dust and methane, or “fire damp”, which caused an explosion that tore through Shafts #6 and #8. One might think the miners were killed by fire, but actually most died from suffocation due to the majority of their oxygen being consumed by the explosion. This is referred to as “after damp”. As you can see, there are numerous details in this story which I was able to mine during the writing of “Monongah”.
Writing disaster themed songs partially originated for me in the writing of several break up songs.  Break up songs are not necessarily disaster songs, but they can be.  Parting ways is sometimes the most disastrously painful thing humans can go through.   Some of my best material came out of desiring catharsis after a traumatic break up. When life itself was a disaster.  This harnessing and release of sorrow through song is powerful.
Writing the great disaster song is about embracing the absurdity and senselessness that accompany such events, and about reporting the facts in an entertaining way. Embellishing the truth is acceptable if it makes the story better, but I have found that most of these tales are so horrible that sprucing them up with hyperbole is unnecessary. There are as many different ways to approach a disaster ballad as there are types of disasters. Industrial disasters are sometimes due to criminal negligence, but seldom due to malicious sabotage.  There is a faceless anonymity to a natural disaster.  The chaos and randomness defy logic.
What is next on my disaster song plate? Many people dying all at the same time is very fascinating to me.  I plan on exploring that theme more in the future, if I have not chosen to write some happier material. Perhaps a joyful ditty about the atomic bomb…

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monongah_Mining_disaster
http://www.historyinsidepictures.com/Pages/MonongahCoalMineExplosionMemorialPhotographsoftheWorstMiningDisasterinUSHistory.aspx

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.