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.

 

Advertisements

Song Portrait #12: Dance of the Maenads

Do you like my laundry room? Why am I wearing a muumuu? Where have I been? I will address these important topics later. Right now I speak of Dionysus and the song at hand.

Dance of the Maenads is the seventh song I have completed for my song cycle based on Greek Mythology. Just as I have struggled with Dionysus over the years, I have also struggled to complete a song inspired by Dionysus, despite the fact that I find this god of drink, lust and general debauchery to be one of the most intriguing characters in Greek Mythology. I had started writing two songs prior to this one told from the perspective of Dionysus. I was not feeling either of them and dumped them, as I always do when the process of writing a song feels forced. Then I saw a production of The Bacchae.
Euripides’ The Bacchae, tells the tale of Dionysus and his plot to seek vengeance on the city of Thebes.

Dionysus is the child of Zeus and a mortal woman by the name of Semele. Dionysus was born when the jealous wife of Zeus, Hera, made Zeus send himself down as a lightning bolt to kill the pregnant Semele. This caused the premature birth of Dionysus. Most the inhabitants of Thebes do not believe this story and think the story was made up to cover Semele’s illegitimate pregnancy by a mortal man. Semele’s own sisters believe that Zeus killed her as a punishment for lying. Dionysus shows up in Thebes with a plot to introduce Dionysian rites to the city, avenge the slander of his mother’s name, prove his divinity, and inflict pain on those who have perpetuated the belief that he was not born a god. Among those who deny his divinity is King Pentheus, who is his mortal cousin. To carry out his plot, Dionysus sends many of the women of Thebes, including his aunts, in to a mad drunken frenzy. These women, known as the Maenads, go to the hills where they use their new found feelings of liberation to engage in all sorts of debauchery and worship Dionysus. I will not give away the tragic ending, but not surprisingly, the intoxicated Maenads lose sight of who they really are and allow Dionysus to use them to carry out some despicable acts.

After I saw the play, I realized that I can not write from the perspective of Dionysus because I am not like Dionysus. I am a Maenad. After I shifted my perspective the song came out really easily. Dionysus is the god of wine, fertility, ritual madness, religious ecstacy and theatre. He is most associated with the grape harvest and wine making. He is known as a volatile god who can bring both extreme pleasure and extreme pain. The song is about the dual nature of Dionysus and all that he brings, how the the thing that makes you feel free can quickly turn into your worst nightmare.

Oh, so about my laundry room, muumuu, and disappearance from this blog. I have been very tired due to being pregnant with my second child. Today is actually my due date. I have also not had the time or privacy I need to work on this blog or music in general as of lately. Today I had a few hours of glorious free time to shoot this video in my laundry room (which doubles as my late-night-practice-with-headphones-on-room). I really hope I can make more time for working on this song cycle in 2015.

Side note #1: The production of the The Bacchae I saw was a Hard Bard production. It was a really well done, lusty, freaky, modern take on the classic Greek tragedy. The actors were all superb, especially the gentleman who played Dionysus and played him as rather flaming. If you live in Seattle I highly recommend attending a Green Stage/Hard Bard production.

Side note #2: One of my most vivid memories from high school is the moment my freshman English teacher, Ms. Johnson-Manos, bluntly stated “I AM TALKING ABOUT THE GOD OF WINE AND ORGY AND YOU ALL LOOK BORED”. Believe me, I was not bored. I was enjoying your class……so please do not despair, brilliant English teachers of the world who are forced to teach unenlightened suburban freshman who don’t realize how cool you are……you are appreciated.

Song Portrait #11: I See Gold

I have enjoyed watching figure skating for as long as I can remember.  While I have no interest whatsoever in televised baseball, football, or basketball, I gleefully watch  Olympic figure skating every four years.  The costumes!  The music! The choreography! The DANGER!  In 1994 there was also a lot of drama.  Why can’t all sports be this interesting?

1994 was the year that Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding represented the United States in womens’ Olympic figure skating.  For anyone who doesn’t know the story, here is a synopsis:

Tonya Harding was not your typical ice princess.  She grew up in a very poor household with a father who worked odd jobs and an abusive mother who was a waitress.  Her parents let her try out ice skating during a trip to the mall when she was three and a half.  It was evident that she was a natural.  Aside from the fact that Tonya was an excellent skater and and excellent athlete, Tonya did not really fit in to the world of figure skating.  Figure skating is an expensive sport that requires families to spend a lot of money on ice time, coaches, and glamorous costumes.  Tonya often wore homemade costumes and selected music and make-up that was too declasse for the judges.  Despite her financial hardship and rebellious attitude, Tonya did mangage to excel and compete at a high level because she was good.  Knowing that she had some disadvantages, Tonya set out to become such an athlete that no judge could rightfully underscore her performance because of her music, attitude, or appearence.  She decided to become to the first American woman to land a triple axel jump in competition.  At this time the only woman in the world to do this was Japan’s Midori Ito.  In 1991 she did just this.  She landed the jump and won the title of U.S. National Champion.  Her next goal was to make the Olymipic team the following year.

1992 was not a good year for Tonya.  In order to escape her abusive mother and bad family situation, she had married a man named Jeff Gillooly at the age of 19.  The relationship was turbulent.  She was not focused, not in her best physical shape, and too distracted to skate well.  She continually fell on her attempt to land the triple axel.  She did not make the Olympic team.

Prior to the early 90’s both the summer and winter Olympics were held every four years during the same year.  After 1992 this changed.  It was declared that they would be in staggering years.  To establish this, the next Winter Olymics were scheduled for 1994, only two years after Tonya’s failure to make the team.  This was a second chance for Tonya and she was hell bent on making it this time.  During her performance at the National Championship she did a single axel where she had planned the triple, but still gave a fabulous performance.  Her top rival, Nancy Kerrigan, did not get to compete.  A mysterious man entered the ice arena, hit her in the knee with a police baton, and then fled.  Tonya came in first and was awarded a spot on the Olympic team and the title of National Champion.  Nancy, who had won the bronze medal in the 1992 Olympics, was choosen to be the other member of the Olympic team based on her past performances.

The culprits behind the knee whacking were found very easily.  One of the men involved, Shawn Eckart, had bragged to several people, including his mother, that he had been involved.  Once he was busted, he quickly implicated the other 3 men involved, including Jeff Gillooly.  There was no point in fighting the allegations, as they had left an obvious paper trail on their cross country hit.  They all confessed and claimed that Tonya had been involved in the plan.  Tonya denied this claim, separated from Jeff, and continued to train for the Olympics.

So what happened to Nancy Kerrigan?  Nancy Kerrigan was thought to be the United State’s best chance at a medal.  She was also a beloved skater.  She was graceful and did fit in to the role of “ice princess”.  Because of this she had endorsements and corporate sponsors to pay for the training, costumes, and privacy she needed.  She was a class act during the whole ordeal.  She kept interviews short or declined them.  She had a bad bone bruise, but it was decided that she could probably heal in time to compete at the Olympics.  She focused on rehabilitating her knee in the six short weeks she had before heading to Norway.

Tonya did compete.  The U.S. Olympic Commitee tried to have her removed from the team, but she managed to retain her place after threatening legal action. Since she had no financial resources, she stayed in the Olympic dorms and was followed by the media constantly.  At the end of the short program Nancy Kerrigan was in 1st and Tonya Harding was in 10th.  When Tonya came out to skate the long program she skated for a few seconds and then went to the judges in tears.  The lace on one of her skates had broken and she had not had time to properly repair it or put a new one on.  A skater is allowed to be given a later slot if she notifies the judges about any equipment failure early enough in the program.  She was given a later slot and did not do well, falling on the triple axel.  It should be noted that Tonya had a history of equipment failures at competitions.  Nancy gave the performance of her life, but she did not get the gold medal.  Gold was award to Oksana Baiul, a little know Ukrainian skater.  It is believed by many that Nancy was underscored and Oksana was overscored as punishment to the Americans for bringing their trashy drama to the Olympics Games.  Nancy took home silver and Tonya came in 8th.

After returning to the States, Tonya pled guilty to aiding in the cover-up and obstucting the investigation.  She was stripped of her title of 1994 U.S. National Champion, and banned from U.S. figure skating for life.  Due to the newfound interest in figure skating among the masses, Nancy, and a whole bunch of other figure skaters, went on to make millions in various “stars in ice” shows.  Soon after, she married her manager, retired from skating, and started a family.  To this day Tonya claims that she had no prior knowledge of the attack.  She had only attended high school through 10th grade, getting a GED and leaving early to focus on skating.  She has had a variety of jobs outside of the world of figure skating, including a stint as a professional boxer.  She is currently married and has a young son.  To this day, she is one of only six women to have landed the triple axel in competition.

Why does Tonya’s story interest me so much?  I have a special place in my heart for bad girls.  I also have a special place in my heart for underdogs.  I admire people who take risks.  I also admire people who are so passionate about one thing that they put every ounce of their being into pursuing this one passion.  People like this are doomed to let all the other parts of their life atrophy while feeding this all consuming passion.  I do not state in this song whether I think she was involved in the knee whacking plot.  This song is a tribute to Tonya, her struggles, and her triumphs.

Song Portrait #10: Natasha

Video

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)

Video

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

Video

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

Video

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.