It was somewhere in San Pedro de Atacama — probably The Valley of the Moon, when the song came back to me. It’d been years since I thought about it, and yet there it was, inexplicably. I’d written it under a different title ages ago. I never had more than a single line at the end of the chorus section and not the one I used.
I’d been in Providencia a few days before, a neighborhood in Santiago, for its eponymous jazz festival — my excuse for choosing to go to Chile when I did. This was something I used to do. Pick a jazz festival somewhere in the world and go to it. Just an excuse to to explore a place I’d never been before. I wasn’t able to get a ticket to the event itself, but on the other side of the river from the festival was a park where the locals were hanging out, catching the show for free. There were some vendors walking around the crowd that was camped out on the slightly terraced ground all looking towards the sculpture garden where the festival was being held. It was a pretty good view of the stage, albeit from a distance. One of the songs that stuck out was a rendition of “Its Only a Paper Moon” which seemed a bit funny to me because they were literally underneath a decidedly real moon, which to me had a distinctly yellow hue that I’d attribute to the atmospheric haze of Santiago. It was one of those moments that you want to capture somehow so I’d started playing around with just trying to get that down somehow as lines to a song.
So now I had some music to set these lines to — though they weren’t really behaving. But then again, neither does the chord progression, which towards the end of the verse has an odd key change that carries over into the chorus.. That was deliberate messing about at the time but led to an interesting sort of build up. I didn’t quite have the refrain yet, but I had in mind the fact that my attempt to take a photo of the moon and the jazz quartet with my camera phone had come out as basically a blurry smudge in the dark — hardly a satisfying representation of the experience.
I was doing a lot of the usual things you do in San Pedro — salt flats, geysers, the Flamingo National Preserves. It was all beautiful but it was a lonely experience. I met a lovely family from Brazil in the hotel where I was staying and there was the daily churn of tour groups where your thrust together with a collection of strangers for a few hours to share in a little adventure, but for the most part I was on my own. I was sending photos to someone back in San Francisco each day, and it was nice to be able to share the experience in that way, but it also felt a bit hollow.
While visiting one of the saltwater lagoons (with a salinity greater than that of the Dead Sea), I managed to get the moccasins I was wearing sopping wet and having failed to rinse them off properly, a thick layer of salt was left behind after they dried out. So that’s where the “salt encrusted shoes” line came from. It just sounded interesting to me, and once I had the full refrain, I liked the way the assonance of “salt” and “all” as well as “shoes” and “truth is” got embedded into the section along with the much more deliberate attempt to have rhymes at the end of the 1st and 4th lines of the chorus. It’s almost ABBA with “shoes” and “truth is” being close enough for government work. Getting the cadence of the last line to be anything other than a odd number of bars just didn’t seem to work, so I went with it and left it as a “bar five” as they say in the biz.
So the second verse became a collage of more things I was seeing an experiencing — the natural beauty of Chile’s northern deserts and the colorful but decaying urban beauty of Valparaiso. One could write endlessly about the murals and neglected architectural gems of Valpo or the ruddy desert palette of Valle de Luna, so I feel like I gave it all rather short shrift with all of two lines. But of course photos can never capture it all (and it’s a curated version of the experience at that), so I guess it works out.
Then of course one has to come back to one’s own reality and that’s the third verse. Which at first seems unreal. But ultimately we travel to come back. Hopefully having learned and experienced some new things and allowing us to look at our own world in a fresh light. I would argue there’s also something of ourselves we leave behind in the place we visited— that experience, which if you’ve had the luxury of traveling with someone else, you can reminisce about together. But otherwise what else was it besides the equivalent of a dream? Only more slightly more substantive because of the keepsakes we collected and the photos we took.
There is also a whole other subtext to the song and what and who it might be about that I think I will leave to the listener’s imaginations. There’s the literal carrying of a device (i.e. my phone) that allows me to share all these experience with the world, but I trust the emotional weight is such that it’s clear there’s another level to it all.
Aside from the odd key changes, there’s a lot of suspended chords and dissonant tensions (that MajorMinor7 in the chorus, for instance). This led to some gentle ribbing from Mario Noche when he covered it at EGPhest II, suggesting I’d given him an unusually hard song to play. He prefaced his performance with his own composition, a tribute to Jobim, and then launched into a bossa nova version of the song.
So when it came time to record and my producer Ben Osheroff wanted to do it as a bossa, bringing Mario into the recording studio seemed fitting. Prior to that we had struggled a bit as to what to do with the instrumental passage — I’d imagined it as more of a horn section, but so far we hadn't been able to make it work. Ben had Mario do some guitar licks over the verse section and between that and the piano we later added, the track came together unexpectedly well.
I was a bit surprised when the song got picked up for a premiere in Americana UK, but also glad that the track gets a chance to shine. It’s been released as a single now, so take a listen.
The extended musings of a songwriter.