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 .

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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.

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.

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