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.

Song Portrait #4: Nemesis

I had been working on a song about Narcissus when I got sidetracked by the detail of how the beautiful boy, Narcissus, ended up at the river bank where he ultimately met his demise.  Researching the story led me down another path which led to the creation of a whole other song.

Narcissus was quite vain and proud.  He was admired by many suitors, but none of them were good enough for him.  One of these suitors was a nymph by the name of Echo.  She had been a talkative nymph who was admired by Aphrodite for her voice and song.  This ended when she tricked Hera, the jealous wife of Zeus.  Hera put a curse on Echo so that the only thing she could say was the last word said to her.  Echo fell in love with Narcissus and followed him through the woods.  When he finally met this strange creature who could only repeat back his own last words, he rejected her.  After this, the heartbroken Echo withered away in despair, until only her voice remained.

The goddess Nemesis soon heard of this and decided to punish Narcissus by luring him to the river, where he would become mesmerized by the only creature perfect enough for him – his own reflection.  The name Nemesis is derived from the Greek word nemein, which means “to give what is due”.  She is an avenger of evil deeds and undeserved good fortune.  She is also a spirit of divine retribution for those who fall victim to hubris.  The words “echo” and “narcissist” clearly have meanings derived from the characters in the story.  The word “nemesis”, however has evolved to mean something different in modern English.  According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the definition of nemesis is  “one that inflicts retribution or vengeance” or “a formidable and usually victorious rival or opponent”.   Most people associate the word with vengeance, when in actuality, Nemesis is a goddess of justice.

I starting working on this song during the peak of Occupy Wall Street, so I was thinking a lot about the ideas of justice and redistribution.  I worked on it a little bit over the course of a few days and the song pretty much wrote itself.  I’d say it is 1/3 current events and 2/3 classic mythology.  I am finding that every instance in modern life has some parallel mythological story – and that is why these stories are so loved and continue to be told.

So, what happened to Narcissus?  Well, because of Nemesis and his own hubris, he did perish.  I do not necessarily think of him as a bad guy though.  You will see how I feel about him when I finish his song – which I am still working on.

Song Portrait #3: Fruited Plains

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I wrote Fruited Plains in February of 2011 as part of my second RPM challenge. The RPM challenge is a home recording challenge where participants complete an album of original music in the month of February.

I was really enjoying my life this particular February. I only had to go to my day job three days a week on account of being seven months pregnant. I had free time. Aside from nesting, I was studying things that interest me, and working on the writing and recording required to complete the RPM challenge. I started out the challenge by recording a few songs I had already written. For one of the previously written tracks, “Ballad of a Folk Singer Waitress”, I had added a banjo track that I was quite happy with.

I do not really play the banjo. My husband plays tenor guitar and tenor banjo. I live with these instruments (we live with a lot of instruments) and I understood the tuning and a few basic chords.  It was not, however, an instrument I was truly proficient at. While adding the banjo track, I had become mesmerized with the timbre of the instrument. I had also been forced to learn some more chords and become more familiar with the instrument. After I finished recording a few previously written songs, I needed to write some new material. The banjo provided the perfect inspiration.

I wrote the music to the song and lyrics soon followed. The music I had come up with made me think of some documentaries I had recently watched about agriculture in the United States and the Monsanto Corporation. The topics covered included the legality of patenting seeds, the power of lobbyists, GMOs, and how farmers receive a subsidy for overproducing crops that are not fit for human consumption. There was a profound sadness in hearing farmers talk about how a once noble profession was being destroyed by greed, corporate bullies, and a system that works against what is best for farmers and consumers. I added some lyrical elements of “America the Beautiful” and then twisted them to create the image of a dystopia. Some songs take me years to write. This one took less than two hours.

Aside from the vocal and banjo tracks, I added an acoustic guitar part and some back up vocals. The recording I finished for the RPM challenge is available on my website, www.erinjordan.com .

I am a huge proponent of eating organic and my day job is actually working at an organic food restaurant. This song is particularly timely because the spending bill HR 933 which includes a “farmer assurance provision” (section 735) was signed in to law recently. Referred to as the “Monsanto Protection Act,” this provision was written with representatives from Monsanto and bars courts from restricting the use of GMO crops and seeds regardless of what new information comes to light about the harmful effects of GMOs.

There is a huge amount of information available about these issues.  If you are in to brevity, below are two articles that briefly explain the bill in question and how the Monsanto Protection Act became a part of it.   For now, I am going to continue working on my own organic garden.  The baby I was pregnant with when I wrote this song is now two, and is a great gardening assistant.   He picks out all the rocks and gives the worms plenty of love.  These are my small ways of telling Monsanto to suck it.

Monsanto Protection Act: 5 Terrifying Things To Know About the HR 933 Provision

How the Monsanto Protection Act Snuck in to Law

Song Portrait #2: Medusa

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This is the song that started my series of mythology songs. I have been intrigued by the character of Medusa for a long time. Twice I have spent a good chunk of the afternoon entwining rubber snakes in my hair to dress up as Medusa for Halloween. I guess I really am a snake lady. The process of researching the myth and writing the song was so interesting and enjoyable that I decided to write an entire series of songs based on Greek and Roman mythology.

I love these stories because the characters and the lessons are so universal and timeless. It was also interesting to revisit many of these stories as an adult. When we learn myths and fairy tales as children a whole lot of sex and violence is left out – and it should be. Just last week I checked out a children’s version of Snow White from the library. Upon reading it, I decided it was too scary for my toddler. It was, by far, not the most brutal version of the story.

Medusa’s story is particularly brutal, making the children’s version one of many misconstrued details and omissions. I have heard two of these versions. In one, Medusa is an extremely vain woman and Athena punishes her by turning her in to a hideous monster. The moral of the story is that beauty is temporary and skin deep. There is another junior version of the story that is not so kind to Athena. In this version Athena is in love with Poseidon and Poseidon is more interested in Medusa. Athena turns the beautiful Medusa into a hideous monster out of vengeance.

When I revisited this story I found that there are many variations. The following is the version I based the song on:

Medusa was an extremely beautiful woman who was pursued by many men. Despite her line of admirers, she chose a life of service as a priestess in the temple of Athena. Poseidon, the god of the sea, was attracted to her. She rejected him. She was then raped and impregnated by Poseidon. Athena was furious. Fornication was a violation of sacred service, and by some accounts Athena was in love with Poseidon. Either way, Medusa was the one who was punished. Athena turned her in to a hideous monster with hair made of venomous snakes. Anyone who looked directly at her would be turned to stone.

Ultimately Medusa’s secluded and lonely life was ended when she was slain by Perseus. With the aid of Hermes’ winged sandals, Hades’ cap of invisibility, and a mirrored shield provided by Athena, Perseus beheaded and killed Medusa. When she was beheaded , her fully grown offspring, a unicorn and giant warrior named Chrysaor, sprung out of her neck. The head of Medusa was given to Athena and attached to her shield. The head continued to turn onlookers in to stone.

Medusa’s name means “guardian” or “protectress”. The timeless and universal question in Medusa’s story is that of victim or villain. In my song she is clearly a victim. The relationship between her and Athena is that of women perpetuating a cycle of victimization instead of empowering each other. I could go on for a long time (a really long time……) about the symbolism in this song, how timely it is, how it relates to my own life, and meanings of specific word choices – but I am going to just shut up and let the song speak for itself. Enjoy!