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.

 

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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

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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.

Guest Song Portrait #4: Birchbark Canoe by Jeffery Straker

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I took a trip to the north of Saskatchewan, the Canadian province I’m from, a few summers ago. I had a concert in a town called Lac La Ronge and it was a great night in this northern community. Our hosts who we stayed with that night had a wood-fire-heated hot tub and we walked through snow to get into the thing. It was pretty magical looking up at the northern lights from the warmth of the steaming tub in the middle of a snowbank. The next day we were told by locals that we ought to stop at a place called ‘Robertson’s Trading Post’ before leaving if we wanted to see something local with a bit of fame attached to it. So we did. It was an actual real-life fully functioning trading post; like something from 100 years ago. It was full of pelts and furs and aboriginal arts and all sorts of incredible curiosities. If you weren’t coming in to Robertson’s as a trader you could just purchase stuff. I chose to buy a beautifully handcrafted canoe paddle – carved from one long piece of wood. I crammed it into my Volkswagen Jetta and headed home.

The paddle sat for a long time behind my TV, propped up against the wall of my living room as a rustic decoration for a few months before I thought much about it again. Then when I found myself just out of a relationship it took on a bit of a role. I started wondering about compromise and if I’d done enough of it in the relationship to try to make it work. Or if maybe I didn’t bend enough or do enough to make it work for the both of us.

The paddle was propped up behind my TV and as I watched the news one night I was staring at it and I had a flash visual of 2 people paddling an old canoe together across rough waters. And of course in that situation the 2 people were trying their hardest to paddle back to shore in the old canoe because their lives were at stake. There was no second guessing or bickering just 2 people trying as best they could to be a team to get the boat to shore. That’s what you’d do if you really had to – if there was no other option.

It seemed like a great metaphor for a relationship so I started typing out some lyrics into my laptop and soon I had my song ‘Birchbark Canoe’.
I hope you like it.

Here are the lyrics:
Starin at the autumn leaves, withered hangin on the trees
Is that, what I was like in the end?
Fallin far away from you, changing mind and changing hue
Saying, maybe we’re better off as friends

Flickered out, a fading dream, disappeared down clouded streams
Churning with rusted regard
Sailing out, the waters flow, to oceans of mistakes I’ve known
It’s true you only see them from afar

Throw a stone, the ripples flow, we’re driftin apart

CHORUS:
But if just you and me, were floatin out to sea
In a broken old birchbark canoe
We’d both find a way, to come back again
Together, ya that’s what we’d do
Aw, it’s true

The yellow sun, midday june, setting in a somber blue
Shadows tip-toed in, took you by the hand
They led you up a tidal wave, Left you in a blurring haze
Like you’d fallen, & just couldn’t seem to land

PC:
Throw a stone, the ripples flow and break on the sand

Chorus:
Fill/Instrumental
Chorus

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.

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.