"Yeah, I'm not sure this song is about L.A."
— Robb Hagle (Swamp Child) introducing his version of this song at EGPhest III
The L.A. Song began with a pair of trips down to Los Angeles in the Spring of 2017.
During the first, I was meeting up with my sister and her family on their way to a pilgrimage to Disneyland from East Central Illinois. For me the highlight was not the amusement park but a chance to spend some time with my nieces on the beach and at the tide pools of Southern California. One day the younger of the girls was drawing a line in the sand as she walked and insisted that I follow the line as she drew it, at times with huge loops and flourishes that gave the path twists and bends not unlike all the freeways one has to navigate while in Los Angeles.
At another point I took up a stick of my own and claimed that if I finished writing her name in the sand she'd fall under my control — a bit of silliness owing to a notion from a Doctor Who episode about the power of naming things (The Shakespeare Code, if you must know) but she took it so seriously and desperately tried to stop me. So I’d write a letter and she’d use her stick to scratch it out and I’d spin around trying to write her whole name out, her spinning with me as I went, using her hands and feet to sabotage my efforts as I tried to write with one hand and tried to hold her off with another.
It was these sorts of games we were playing that I was thinking I’d try and capture when I started writing, as well as just the experience of Southern California in general. I was back in L.A. a month later for the ASCAP Expo which is held in Hollywood. A few experiences there, notably with one of those hustlers you encounter on Hollywood Boulevard and just how tacky the walk of fame felt that provided some additional fodder for the lyrics.
It was an interesting piece to write, with the word “forever” cropping up organically, as did this sort of rhythmic structure that was pulling at the second half of the verse to want to vamp a bit on single chord for an uneven number of bars. It was an exercise in letting order gradually emerge from what seemed to be chaos and also letting the words develop into their own sort of form without necessarily pushing them too hard in one direction or another until an overall form began to take shape. Like a good dough, you could just sense the words becoming more pliable and starting to go from a sticky mess to something resilient and part of a whole.
At the time I was messing about a bit with chord chords from Duke Ellington’s “I Didn’t Know About You” (I was first familiar with Monk’s take on “Straight No Chaser”) and that became this section I thought of as an interlude, maybe a bridge. While messing about with that I flipped through my jazz fakebook and landed on “Blue In Green” and it’s opening BbMaj7#11 chord struck me as interesting. It became the basis for the opening broken chords of my composition. I don’t know where that F augmented chord came from, it just felt right.
The structure that developed is a bit unusual — although “forever” could loosely be considered a refrain, I didn’t have a proper chorus. The interlude section seemed to work nicely as an outro, but I had decided that I’d keep it lyrically simply as “oohs” and “L.A.” in contrast to the verse as opposed to piling more words and information into the thing. But this section was coming later than you’d expect a chorus to come. Part of the reason for that was I liked the idea of delaying “the reveal” about the location until we’d gotten into L.A.’s traffic. But it also felt a bit natural as already I felt like a verse that was fingerpicked building to increasing rhythmic intensity felt right for the overall arrangement I was teasing out.
Things happen along the way as you’re writing you don’t really plan, but amuse you, even if its more of a visual gag — “labyrinth and “landscape” both starting with “la” was totally unintentional. Some things came less easy — Olga getting name checked was simply because I couldn’t begin to get all the details about this photographer that came up to a group i was with in a Mexican restaurant during the ASCAP Expo. She was trying to hustle us into buy some cheap photo prints she'd taken of us for an outrageous amount of money (she eventually parted with them for the grand sum of a dollar — probably still a bit more than what they cost her). She could have been a whole verse, or a song, but I needed to have this vignette that was a few lines. Instead of trying to describe her in great detail, I just gave her name because that seemed to say enough and had a nice assonance with some of the other surrounding words.
Still, despite the fact it was a bit odd, it proved to be popular when I played it out at open mics. My little interlude/outro was sufficiently catchy that people would actually join in despite it only appearing twice in the song. This was part of the impetus for giving it a place as an instrumental intro. When I played it at the Utah open mic, I brought in a lead sheet and asked the host, Brendan Getzell to sit in on piano — Brendan’s good that way. I was particularly delighted with what he was adding in my “interlude” section.
Later on, they happened to have a drum kit on the stage for the featured act and I asked Ben Visini to sit in along with Brendan (Ben’s actually contributed to a full length album I’ve been working on). Probably one of the more rewarding things is when another musician comes up and tells you that your composition was fun to play, So I felt like I had something. It was this way that the L.A. Song was added to my short list of songs I wanted to get recorded having released my first album earlier in the year. I also didn't readily conceive of it as being part of an larger project, so it would work well a a "one off."
Around about the same time I was offered the feature slot at the Neck of the Woods open mic for an early December date. Knowing the dynamics of that venue, I knew I wanted a band to back me in order to keep the audience engaged. One of the people I tapped for that gig was Robb Hagle, who I knew from the Hotel Utah and I liked his lead guitar work when I heard him play in his band Swamp Child. Robb generously let me use his practice space at Light Rail and the song became a band favorite that actually had its debut at the Utah for an “unusual combo” theme night at the open mic. As the group gelled, I found myself enjoying Robb’s part so much I began imaging if there was a way I could marry what he was doing with what Brendan would add when he’d sat in.
For recording I’d gotten in touch with producer Ben Bernstein who’s based out of Oakland, which ultimately proved logistically problematic for myself given the divide that is bay so this collaboration may be a one shot deal. But Ben’s an excellent bass player in addition doing recording and mixing and we recorded him and Mike Stevens on drums together at Mike’s studio on Hayward where he has a kit all mic’d up and ready to go (which was a nice and efficient way to get real drums on a track). After getting myself and Robb tracked on top of the rhythm section, Brendan and I worked out a part at his place in San Francisco, at which point the track really took shape.
Michelle Renee’s part came a bit later — although I’d had a female backing vocalist for my initial outing at NOTW, she proved unavailable for a subsequent show in February and for recording purposes. I knew Michelle from the Utah as well and she joined in for the February gig on short notice. The part we worked out felt like the final missing piece, so I brought her into the studio to wrap up the single I’m now releasing. We got it all mixed and mastered in time for me to have it ready for the next time I’d be down in So Cal, which was when the ASCAP Expo would be happening again in May so I could use it as the basis for video that I intended shoot while I was in town for the conference…
Anyway, it's out now. It's one of those things, you start with the collection of things (memories and impressions) and something else entirely comes out of it that is a bit hard to describe but also just seems to work for reasons you can't entirely explain. The quote at the top of the post was something Robb said when he covered the song at EGPhest (my birthday show where other artists cover my songs). As with "The Fish Song" the piece's insistence that it is about something in particular is probably the best indiction that you are being misdirected. To me, it's a collage, you will likely see connections and ideas there that I am blissfully unaware of. And that's the thing, I can tell a lot about where it came from and how I made it. It's up to you figure out what it means to you and how it makes you feel.
Please check out the song or the video. I hope you enjoy it.
The extended musings of a songwriter.