Song Portrait #14: Middleman

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Many years ago I was bumming around the Pioneer Square neighborhood of Seattle, and I decided to visit the Gold Rush Museum.  The museum celebrates the history of Seattle during the years of the Klondike Gold Rush. In 1896 gold was discovered in the Yukon Territory of Canada.  When word of this reached Seattle, merchants rushed to make Seattle the official “Gateway to the Gold Fields”.  A rumor existed that prospectors would not be allowed to enter Canada without a year’s worth of supplies.  Shop owners quickly exploited this rumor.  Why mine for gold when they could mine the miners? 

Most artists are gold miners.  We give up comfort and stability to chase after a dream that will probably not come true.  The gold we are mining for is recognition.  Most of us will compose/paint/choreograph/sing/write/act/dance/perform whether or not we receive any recognition, but having one’s work recognized is the ultimate golden nugget.  It is the chance to quit that soul sucking day job.  It is the chance to have more time and money to put into creating more art. It is a validation that the trek was worth it.  Of course, where there are miners, there are always folks waiting to mine the miners. 

I started writing songs in the late 90’s and became very serious about pursuing this whole singer-songwriter thing around 2000, so when I started this endeavor I was living in a pretty low tech world.  Independent musicians were starting to have websites, but social media sites did not exist.  It was normal not to have a cell phone and smart phones were still years in the future. That said, calls and emails were not expected to be responded to instantaneously.  Sending a venue a CD was a normal part of the booking process. 

Over the next decade technology advanced tremendously!  Making decent quality recordings and videos became cheap and easy. Social media sites sprang up.  It became increasingly easier for independent musicians to manage their careers and book their own shows and tours.  Club owners and bookers found themselves overwhelmed by independent artists trying to book shows via email and social media.  It is not surprising that a market opened up for a bunch of middlemen. 

Over the years I’ve watched so many artists who are truly talented and original pour money into companies like Sonic Bids or X-Ray and never get anything in return.  Even music teachers get screwed by companies like Take Lessons.  All of these middlemen have created a business model that aids consumers and creates endless frustration and financial hardship for musicians.  So why do we go through the middlemen?  Because more and more venues or festivals will not listen to your material unless it is submitted through Sonic Bids.  Because the first thing that comes up when I google “guitar lessons Seattle” is TakeLessons.com. 

After I went to the Gold Rush Museum I had the idea of writing a song about mining the miners that used the Gold Rush analogy.  The idea sat in the back of my head for years.  Then this song just came out.  It came out without out any references to Victorian era Seattle, panning for gold, or trekking through the Canadian wild.  I was just pissed one day and wrote this song in about an hour.  It also came out with power chords. 

Power chords are two note chords consisting of just the root and fifth of the chord.  They are usually found in punk rock and are easy to play.  I have to admit, I’ve prided myself on being a good finger picker and playing fancy jazz chords for a long time, but the last three songs I have written on guitar (I See Gold, Las Vegas Bride and this song) have been all power chords.  I have been really into Amy Ray for the past few years….she rocks.  I think I am having a power chord revolution.

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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.

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