I fall in love too easily
I've decided to anthologize the little essays I've been writing about each of the songs on the new album into a couple of blog posts. Read Part I here.
Only in it for the T-shirt
The light blue t-shirt is from the last big jazz festival I attended — back when that was something I did, traveling to different destinations that had a festival that was part of the IJFO — the International Jazz Festival Organization — a little box ticking exercise of mine of yore that is now on indefinite hiatus. Maybe I’ll get back to it some day. But it’s simply not tenable these days and it was always a bit lonely anyway, however exotic the destination was, without someone to travel with.
So that’s how I ended up in Western Finland — driving back and forth between this little town called Pori and the location I ended up staying at some 40 minutes away (usually I prefer the train in Europe, but not possible that time round). Plenty of time to observe the Finnish countryside, and plenty enough light at that latitude even at midnight, after the festival had wrapped up. So I wrote “A Finnish Midsummer Midnight” — I won’t claim the botanical litany in the verses is entirely accurate — but the bridge — “now I’m so far away from the crowds, all those people that make me feel so lost and alone — the only time I don’t feel lonely is when I’m truly on my own” — that was real.
Travel on your own has its advantages (you can set your own pace, for instance). But it can get dispiriting to be around so many people yet feel isolated — perhaps counter intuitively desiring to flee deeper into that isolation as a way to somehow salve the wound. And in the end, if you have no one to share the experience with, what are you left with? Sometimes I think I was only in it for the t-shirt.
Speaking of t-shirts, I did get one of the t-shirts from my new album done up (the dark blue one) — just to have something physical to show folks and reassure myself that my design would work. I have a few modifications to make (tweak the colors, make the duck’s head stand out a bit more) but I’m happy with the result and my supplier, @customink has been very helpful.
My shirt is a reduced color version of album art — a house on the water with a wave rising up ahead of it and on the roof of the house, a duck, wearing pants, playing guitar? Who wouldn’t want that?
Get one of your own at: http://igg.me/at/homeatsea
Of Detours and Alternate Routes
Bill Evans at the Village Vanguard with bassist Scott LaFaro flanking him on the left and drummer Paul Motion to the right.
While my first album had the track “Sunday is Made for Loving” in the mix, with its upright bass accompaniment, the second one definitely brings the jazzier side of my repertoire to the fore. And production-wise, for the track “An Alternate Route” even the guitar is eschewed in favor of a jazz piano trio backing my vocals, with producer Ben Osheroff at the keys. Although as I recall, I was cribbing more from “My Foolish Heart” when I wrote my song it was Evans’ version of “Detour Ahead” from these classic sessions at the Village Vanguard that I referenced when explaining the sound I was going for.
“Alternate Route” is one of those rare cases where the song, at least for me, is really all about the bridge. This one is a long winding beast that backtracks and goes off in new directions — never settling on a harmonic progression that repeats, only going further afield, as do the lyrics. The ending itself was serendipitous— it’s dissonance owing more to misplaced fingers on my part than any sort of theory.
It ends up being quite the detour, but the journey has it’s own merits in my opinion, which is also the feeling of the song’s protagonist as he holds out hope that some connection can ultimately be made with this other person who he obviously feels is worth the trip.
You can pre-order my new album at: http://igg.me/at/homeatsea
Bassist and fellow San Francisco songwriter Elliot Racine recently was describing to myself and Shawn Byron at an open mic what he termed as his latest “personal fad” — an obsession and fascination with different types of cinnamon — and how he was spending his time reading about different varieties and places of origin of the spice.
I can relate — having through various such fads myself. There was a point where I was all about claypot cooking — and trying to procure the various vessels described in Paula Wolfert's book on the subject to try the recipes therein. And is apparent from the photo, there was a period of time when I was heavy into the essential oils (note — turns out you don’t really need them, that’s just good branding).
I wasn’t in it for all the pseudoscientific claims regarding supposed capabilities of said oils, but certainly I think there’s a therapeutic aspect in terms of effecting mood and I love the sensual variety. And the hunt. Finding a new location that was a purveyor of such things and going on an expedition to sample their wares was always a bit exciting.
So that’s where to reference to blue tansy and essential oils in general comes from in “‘Til I Wash You Away” — another song on the new album. It’s a piece that touches on the interaction between sense and memory and unrequited love.
Please pre-order the album at: http://igg.me/at/homeatsea
All That I Can Share
“Visit Laguna Chaxa, don’t disturb the flamingos“
“All I Can Share Is Photos” is a sort of travelogue of my time in Chile a few years ago, but the history of the song goes back to the days when my primary output musically was MIDI based compositions created with score writing software and programs like “Band In a Box” that would automatically generate arrangements. It had a different title back then and no lyrics in particular beyond a refrain. This was stuff I never dared to share. I could get a bit adventurous in my chord choices back then, being unconstrained by notions of theory.
I hadn’t thought of this piece in years but for some reason while I was on this trip, it came back to me and I couldn’t get it out of my head. So I started trying to pen some lyrics that would fit it. We start with a fairly detailed portrait of a scene from a jazz festival in Santiago where one group played “It’s Only a Paper Moon” (referred to as “a Harold Arlen tune” mostly to avoid repeating the word moon) as I watched from a park on the other side of the river. This was where all the locals were hanging out, as that was free. From there it’s up to San Pedro de Atacama before heading to Valparaiso (Valpo for those in the know) and finally back home, where it all becomes just a memory.
Somewhat bizarre both harmonically and structurally, in some ways it’s the dark horse of the album. The guitarist on this track is Mario M. Noche, who first did his bossa nova take on the tune at EGPhest II, the second edition of my annual birthday show — it also happens to coincide with Mario’s birthday. Since my producer Ben Osheroff also saw this as a bossa number, I invited Mario to come in and reprise his take on the song as he was going to be able to effect that far better than I had any hope of doing. Between his rhythm track, the guitar fills he added for the solo section and the piano part Ben put down, the track really came together beautifully.
You can now preorder the album at: http://igg.me/at/homeatsea
Ex Post Facto Externalities
Having been to sea and ranged as far as Finland and Chile, it’s now off to the depths of outer space — to the Oort Cloud which surrounds our solar system. An electric bass supplants the upright on this track, which is a the lone straight up rock song of the album — I would even call it a rock epic.
“The Comet and The Wandering Moon” is the first new song I attempted after the first EGPhest — after having so many other artists cover my songs, the prospect of writing new ones was a bit intimidating... well a bit more so than usual anyway.
The idea started with the fanciful notion of grabbing a comet by its tail, which I think of as owing a bit to something like "The Little Prince" and maybe a bit inspired by the Alison Kraus / Robert Plant cover of “Killing the Blues.” Then there’s the game einy-meanie-miny-moe, though I guess given that little rhyme’s history, it might be considered “problematic.”
More problematic was the fact that not long after I’d finished the song, a certain presidential candidate’s tendency to grab women by their nether regions became known and I felt that cast an unfortunate pall over this new composition. I was hoping the episode would pass into obscurity along with everything else related to this character after the following November... no one was so fortunate, alas.
So those are the vagaries of writing — or creating anything. The meaning it takes on after you create it is not something you can control. A similar thing happened with a crucial line The Albatross Song. The choice to not change these works and even include them as is on the album might just be stubbornness on my part, but I hope they will end up having longevity beyond this moment.
You can order the album at: http://igg.me/at/homeatsea
“Sunrise” by Claude Monet.
“You Will Sail With Me” — our penultimate track — is the oldest song on the new album, an artifact from a previous millennium, if memory serves (it rarely does these days). It started as an exercise in minimalism — using just an arpeggio of a single chord as the backdrop to hang words and melody over (as opposed to the more complex changes I’m want to use). And the words themselves are sparse as well, with verses that fold back onto themselves and a chorus that ebbs off into ever shorter phrases.
The track is a soundscape built on top of a loop of that arpeggio. Louise Nalbandian’s haunting ooohs, recorded inside a cave, sweep over the pattern. An echoing electric guitar played by producer Ben Osheroff clangs and lingers with a sound that reminds me of the soundtrack to the Doctor Who episode the “Seeds of Doom” — otherworldly and ethereal. The upright bass is looped in as well.
But the real stand out here is Ben Visini on drums. Visini is a tour de force throughout the album, ably adapting to all the genres thrown at him. As a sort of reward, he gets to cut loose here and just compose on the fly — to go wherever his imagination would take him him with soft mallet rolls, delicate cymbal scrapes or cacophonous crashes.
While recording Ben O. would just close him eyes and get a bit lost in a meditative trance, absorbing all the percussive textures washing over us. After a few takes he remarked that this was the reason he does this.
Had Ben O. had his druthers, the album would have ended with this track. While I was tempted go along with this approach, I had one last song that I felt had to cap off this set...
The album is available for pre-order at: http://igg.me/at/homeatsea
An Acoustic Apertif
Pablo Picasso’s “The Old Guitarist”
And now we come to the conclusion — to the last track of the new album, “Your Inexorable Pull.” As the otherworldly layers of “You Will Sail” lap up against some distant shore and subside, there is a brief clearing of the throat, as if I as a songwriter and performer am reasserting my own presence on the album before launching into a live solo acoustic performance — just my voice and my guitar — going back to basics after our journey together through so many different genres and soundscapes.
With my first album, I was a bit against the somewhat cliche acoustic close out, having wanted to end (perhaps melodramatically) on the thrashing on the Dm chord that is the culmination of the grungy distortion-laden “Lover for a Day” — itself part of a mini-suite that begins with its philosophical counterpart “The Fish Song.” But in the end there seemed to be no other logical home for “The Light In Sylvia’s Window” so eventually I acquiesced.
Now I felt like such an aperitif was necessary. In part because that seemed like the natural realm of this song. In part because it is the logical counter point to “Lighthouse at the Edge of the World” — which, while not the opener, is close (perhaps Albatross is a “prelude”). Where in Lighthouse we were lamenting what seemed like an inevitable pushing away of intimates, here we acquiesce and even delight a bit in the strange and inexplicable pull of someone who is still largely unfamiliar. It is short and sweet with some vocal escapades I perhaps can’t quite pull off but are none the less heartfelt.
I will return with one last concluding essay, but in the meantime, please consider pre-ordering the album.
Postscript: The Pushes and Pulls of Attachment
Display window of the "Pirate Supply Store" at 826 Valencia St in San Francisco
And so we conclude our series of essays about each of the songs on the album. Hopefully this has been useful to you, dear reader, in helping you understand what you’d be getting yourself into if you were to commit to at least giving it a spin when it comes out, if not going so far as to pre-order this beast to help towards the cause of spreading the word.
If nothing else it’s been helpful for me. At the very least, it’s gotten me doing some writing on a regular basis in a sort of short essay form. More importantly it’s put the songs in perspective for me and helped with some lingering questions in my mind. I've heard some artists muse on NPR that it took them years to figure out what their songs or albums were all about. So in that, this is a gift.
It has been noted by others that I have a lot of songs about the ocean. Yet not all of them made it onto the record while some perhaps less likely candidates did. Part of this is just time constraints and keeping a project like this from spinning out of control in terms of time and money. But there are definitely pieces I’ve written — “Boil the Ocean” comes to mind — that would have been perfectly logical constituent parts thematically if one was trying to be terribly literal about an album entitled “At Home At Sea.” However, sometimes one’s choices are made more out of passion than logic when it comes to assembling things like this.
Perhaps, like when I name something the “_____ Song” that’s because this title is a bit of a head fake — if not, in this case, just good marketing, given how often the phrase is repeated in The Albatross Song’s chorus.
If I were to sum up the album in a single word, that word would be “attachment.” While it’s not an uncommon theme for me to write about, I think it’s fair to say, in one way or another, each of the songs that are part of this collection touches on that issue in one way or another, It’s called out rather explicitly in the 2nd verse of the Albatross Song — “Does your restless spirit wander yet get hopelessly attached?” — a reference to the titular bird and its mating habits, of course, but also the same issues that a jazz standard like “I Fall in Love Too Easily” has a performer like Chet Baker crooning about.
So these are meditations on attachments gone wrong, attempts to let go, if not completely, then to at least accept the reality. However, while in “An Alternate Route” the protagonist still embraces his continuing fondness for the object of his affections as a motivating force to continue on and in “Lifetimes Without You” what seems like centuries of longing weighs on us, this is no celebration of unrequited love. Nor is it an attempt to romanticize it. Even in “An Alternate Route,” our protagonist is acutely aware that what place he eventually may find in his would be love’s heart may not be the place he was looking for initially. Like with “You Will Sail With Me” the fantasy (which might be where the attachment lies as much as with the person in question) is acknowledged to be “just a dream.” There is at least an acquiescence to reality and need to let it go… by like Saint Augustine, perhaps not just yet.
And that’s not to say it’s easy. There is at time a recklessness that can come from this kind of pain (“Finnish”), if not just a lot of internal monologuing (“Ephemera”) but ultimately we can acknowledge that some relationships are indeed bound to be unhealthy and should be avoided (“Comet”) or are simply inherently limited (“Photos”) even if the best we can hope for in the moment is the solace of removing ourselves from the reminders of whoever we are pining for (“Wash You Away”). This is altogether healthier than assuming that the gates of that particular paradise will ever be opened to us. But this is not to say that the draw of others must be left behind completely, we can accept it, even revel a bit in its mystery (“Your Inexorable Pull”).
Friend and fellow songwriter Amy Obenski just the other day encouraging people on the Facebook to give a full album a handful of listens through and not just focus on an artist’s top Spotify songs. Some artists will tell you that the album is dead. Only release singles. For certain songs, this can certainly work. But I’d be hesitant to put Finnish out there on its own considering what a dark place it goes — it needs its natural complement — an Alternate Route. Not just because of the cleaver(-ish) juxtaposition of two songs that involve travel and roads — but because it is truly an alternate route, a different frame of mind — instead of giving into our desire to speed up and get away from anyone else within visual range, we can also embrace the strange journey we are on, wherever it takes us.
For the travelogue that seeks out solace in complete annihilation of connection, there’s the travelogue where our weary traveler is still trying to reach out, albeit however feebly it communicates the experiences he’s having. For the the pieces where I’m largely stuck in my head like Ephemera, there’s also being awash in a sensual ocean of outside stimulus (Wash You Away).
Pushes and pulls.
It’s a bit more evident when it’s all part of some whole, the sum that adds up to more than its constituent parts, as the cliche goes.
Yes, as an album it’s an eclectic mishmash genre-wise — but aren’t we all when it comes down to it? No one is just one thing and no one listens to just one type of music, at least if they’re not completely lost within their own myopic self-importance and need to engage in condescension to inflate their ego. Yeah, there are things I'm not into, but it's rare to meet a musician who doesn't at least appreciate other forms of music outside their performance comfort zone or what they brand themselves as. Maybe being bound to a single genre makes the publicist’s job easier and that's a constraint an artist should try and work within to be commercially successful. For better or worse, I chose otherwise.
So does the title “At Home At Sea” (or “@ Home @ Sea” if I feel like wrecking havoc with cataloging systems) still fit? After all, it’s not a collection of sea shanties as some might think it implies and maybe the original underlying ideas of “trying to find a place in trying to find a place” are not as prevalent as I might have imagined initially. Certainly the title is “tongue in cheek” and “ironic” — but that’s really always been the case — that much could be ascertained from my choice of cover art. That the house is floating incongruously on the ocean about be swamped by a huge wave does bely that the notion at we are truly feeling “at home” when at any moment our precarious existence could be wiped out. And yet there sits our little avatar, a duck wearing pants, sitting on the roof, playing his guitar.
It seems apropos to me, so I never questioned that choice.
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The extended musings of a songwriter.