“I Am Half-Sick of Shadows”
— Alfred, Lord Tennyson, The Lady of Shallot
“Lady of the Shadows” is a song that began as one of those post EGPhest efforts to convince myself I can still actually write new songs.
EGPhest is this event I’ve done for three years running where I invite other songwriters to indulge me by singing my songs for my birthday. It’s all very nice to hear folks cover the tunes I’ve written — which I appreciate it to no end — and of course people say all sorts of wonderful things about me (mostly owing to the fact it is my birthday) — which is lovely, of course, but far from stroking my ego the whole affair actually is a bit intimidating. What if I can’t ever write anything again that people like? Which I guess is a typical for writers, but somehow I feel like this whole affair ups the ante.
Anyway, after the first EGPhest, I embarked on a rather intense effort to write a song called “The Comet and the Wandering Moon” (more about that one in the months to come) and after EGPhest 2 I wrote “Lady of the Shadows” — oddly enough although I’ve been writing a number of songs since EGPhest 3, there hasn’t necessarily been a single “one” that’s been the focus.
The idea for LotS (as the cool kids will call it, no doubt) originates from my friend Luna Taylor, another singer songwriter I know from the Bay Area music scene (though she’s subsequently moved down to San Diego). Luna, by the way, is also responsible for the cover art for this single. Luna has this lovely habit of photographing shadows — she has a whole Facebook photo album dedicated to this pursuit and actually uses the hashtag “shadowgirl.”
One night while hanging around Bazaar Cafe with future proprietors Josh and Rozanne as well as Shawn Byron and his wife Jen, Rozanne took to referring to Jen as the “golden lady” owing to the fact Jen was wearing yellow and has long blonde hair. For some reason this stuck in my head and got cross pollinated with Luna’s photo taking habits, so in my mind Luna became “the lady of the shadows.”
This seemed to me like the sort of phrase that I must have picked up from somewhere so I did what any self respecting wrier does, which is to do a Google search. This brought up Tennyson’s “Lady of Shallot” which I was heretofore unfamiliar. For those similarly unfamiliar, the basic story of this poem is that there is this woman who resides in a tower and is quite isolated there (reasons unspecified) who creates pictures of what she sees through mirror on a loom (once again, reasons unspecified). Then along comes Lancelot of the Arthurian legend through the fields in the glow of the sunlight (hence Lancelot’s armor aflame in LotS) at which point our protagonist decides to leave her tower, get on a boat, and then proceeds to die (reasons unspecified, yet again). She is later found by the local peasantry who are all like “who is this woman?” And that’s the poem. It’s filled with lots of gorgeous imagery, which tends to go on ad nauseam and some folks have even put the poem to song, which come off as a bit interminable. But still, you know, it’s great literature or something.
Anyway, at some point while this woman is stuck up in her tower she mutters that she is “half sick fo shadows” and it’s apparently one of the better known bits of the poem and probably the reason it came up in my Google search. Being sick of shadows is a situation I doubt Luna would ever find herself in.
With all that in mind, with a premise for a song like “Lady fo the Shadows” one must immediately set out to find rhymes for the word “shadow” — of which there are a paltry few. But the rhyming dictionary did provide some “near” rhymes like “vaquero” and “Kilimanjaro” — the latter of which I felt like I just had to use. It immediately brought to mind Ernest Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” — so we’ve got another literary reference. Plato’s Republic with his whole notion about us only seeing the world as shadows on a cave wall seemed like an obvious choice to make it a trio.
The payoff is somewhat akin to Dylan sneering “you’ve read all of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books” but with perhaps a bit more nuance. For instance, yes, our protagonist is familiar with the arguments Plato makes regarding our ability to know reality as only a mere shadow of itself, but she still nonetheless has an affection for those shadows (and therefore perhaps the ever so limited understanding we have of reality? At this point I let other people do the analysis — mostly I just thought it sounded pretty).
A half rhyme with “scarecrow” brought to mind this image of our protagonist dancing around a frosty field in November — something which I have no knowledge of Luna ever actually doing, but it was a fun idea so I decided to make it my opening scene. It also worked well for the overall “ad campaign” — such as it is.
Also around about the time I ended up hanging out a bit with Brandi Cheek of Swamp Child after a Balanced Breakfast meeting. As it happened Andy Strong was leading the group that morning and at the time he was doing the booking at PianoFight. I encouraged Brandi, being from New Orleans, to approach Andy (likewise being from the South) about doing a booking, knowing a certain cultural affinity would be to her benefit in that regards (didn’t help me get on the bill, but oh well). This led to a subsequent conversation about her Southern roots where she mentioned how sometimes she’ll say certain sayings from her native land that make her boyfriend laugh (this boyfriend being, BTW, Robb Hagle, who plays lead guitar on “The L.A. Song” and is a Midwesterner like myself) — one of said sayings being “ridden hard and put to bed wet.”
Well this seemed to me to be a little bit of poetry, and as incongruous as it seemed, I kind of wanted to use it in this song I was working on. The term actually refers to horses (get your mind out of the gutter) and the practice, or perhaps lack of it, of not cleaning them up (hence the wet) after a hard day of riding. In my research of this phrase I came across all sorts of additional terms in the realm of horsey-type phrases like “green broke” that I felt like I had to incorporate as well as “sunfishing” and “crow hopping” which sounded so much more evocative than spinning or twirling for our lady as she danced about the field.
It was actually a couple of drafts in before the refrain morphed simply from “Lovely Lady of the Shadows” being repeated to making sure we emphasized that she took photos of the shadows as well. For the harmony I cribbed largely from Bill Evans’ “Jade Vision” — one of those strange flashes of inspiration one can't quite account for but some reason happens to work (at least in my opinion). I did throw in a D Augmented chord, largely because I had thought I would try and ape Sonny Rollins’ “Shadow Waltz” at one point for the lols. The instrumental bridge with its chromatic ascension is largely my own invention — I knew the song needed a little bit of a break but felt a bit iffy about even attempting it as it felt like I was already vandalizing someone else’s work as it was, but in the end I think it turned out quite lovely and I’ve got some very appreciative reactions when I play it live.
When it came to recording, I decided to use this song as the “pilot” project for working with Ben Osheroff as my producer. I met Ben through his now fiancee Louise Nalbandian (who contributes vocals to the song). Louise I know through the Bay Area music scene, Balanced Breakfast and open mics like the one KC Turner was hosting at the now defunct Doc’s Lab. I’d invited Louise to be part of my second residency at Bazaar Cafe and as part of her set she brought in Ben (on accordion) — whom she’d recently met — and his friend Chaz (on violin) to play some traditional Armenian songs. At the time I recall Ben saying some nice things about my song “Lighthouse at the Edge of the World” but it was the better part of year later when we met again at a pop-up event Louise was playing at Amado’s that he asked if there was a recording of that song. Although Shawn Byron had recorded his version, I did not yet have one of my own, at which point Ben expressed interest in creating one.
Since I had in mind a full album built around Lighthouse and am a bit protective about in general, I wanted to start with something less ambitious in scope to figure out if this would be a good fit as far a working relationship went (Ben gives me a hard time about this). Like “The L.A. Song,” LotS was new and I didn’t necessarily feel like she fell into an overall set, so doing her as a one off was appealing. It also felt like something that didn’t need to be huge in scope production-wise. So we brought in a bass player (playing and electric upright) so we could record the guitar and bass together in Louise’s living room. Ben added parts for Wurlitzer and accordion as well the tambourine. In addition to Louise’s backing vocals, I brought in Shawn Byron for some backing overdubs — Shawn had just a accompanied me on the song for a show at the Lost Church and I thought a second male vocal added an interesting texture.
With LotS finished, Ben I decided to embark on a full length album project, which had to be finished rather quickly given his ambition to head to South America and travel for an extended period of time. But more on that project later. For now, please indulge me and take a listen to our first collaboration together, “Lady of the Shadows.”
Thank you to Tohm Lev for stepping into the shoes of our eponymous lady for the purpose of the promotional video. Tohm has accompanied me on backing vocals on this song in the past and she is wonderfully creative songwriter in her own right.
Give the song a spin on Spotify, YouTube, Apple Music or bandcamp.
- E.G. Phillips
The extended musings of a songwriter.