Thursday, December 02, 2010

Smoke and Ash


And listen to the home demo...

Going back over the development of these songs is fascinating.

It's like an archeological dig. Lyrics scattered over two full writing books. Ideas floating in and out.

To wit: I found the first hint of the chorus of what eventually became the song Smoke and Ash on April 23, 2009.

It reads:

No it's not okay if you (illegible scratch out)
Go away it's not okay
If you stay here

No real context, although I guess it's notable that immediately following is scrawled "We wish our lives were as clear as the lights on the lines that lead us here," which became the punchline for Fading Days, the next song on the album. Of course, that line first appears even further back on February 28, 2009.


Back to Smoke and Ash.

On April 27, 2009, it becomes:

No it's not okay if you go
I'm we're I'm falling apart
in the days

By the end of that day it becomes:

No it's not okay if you go
We're fading away into

On April 28, 2009, some heavy lifting was done:

No it's not okay if you go
Stay we're fading away into
Into summer   melodies
       birds and words left
       in the air broken silence
       smoke and ash

Followed on the next page by:

Not it's not okay if you go
Stay we're fading away
Into smoke and ash
and words written

No it's not okay if you go
Stay we're fading away
        Into smoke and ash
    From the fires we'll
      couldn't (illegible)
        never forget

Aha!  Finally.  The chorus of Smoke and Ash more or less fully formed (although there are several small but significant changes it goes through before being finished).

After 13 pages of work on the verses on April 28, 2009 (transliterations of which I'll spare you), on April 29, 2009, I found the following:

Our broken days have burned away
But words you spoke like holy ghosts remain
Like "In time even love will change"
and "The bigger that your heart is
the harder it breaks"

No it's not okay if you go
Stay we're fading away into
Smoke and ash from fires
                   we'll never forget 

Trying the best we can
To stand up and make plans
             for what will come
But silence is easier than fear
We wish our lives were as clear 
        as the lights on the lines 
        that lead us here

(Chorus x2)
    (we'll always regret)

So: here is first draft of what I called Smoke and Ash.

The chords for the verses: Can't even remember them.  They weren't good.  Neither were the words. You can see a couple lines that wind up in other songs: the aforementioned "lives as clear as the lights" and also "the bigger that your heart is the harder it breaks," which wound up in Echo in Disguise, and was actually originally from a song I wrote in 2007/08 (!) for Things We Would Rather Lose called "The Silence That Remains."

The chords for the chorus however, survived intact.  This version was even in the same key as the final product.  Smoke and Ash taught me once and for all that you never, ever under any circumstances let go of a strong chorus.  You keep cranking out verses until you get something the stands next to your chorus, even if it takes months or years.  I had a somewhat similar rewriting experience with Skeletonskinandsky when I rewrote the verses wholesale several times, but Smoke and Ash was an even bigger undertaking: I essentially started over lyrically and harmonically.

On October 20, 2009, I started banging out new lyrical ideas for the verses, but left the chords intact.  Also on October 20, 22, 23, 26, 27, 28, November 3, 4, 5,  and 6, I kept pounding these new verses.

On November 17, 2009, "approx. midnight," I started a new writing book and the first page is labeled thusly:

Smoke and Ash

I walked out
And fell into the night
The city told me to hold on tight
Time is loud
It drowns out all our songs
Songs of love gone bad, the life we had, and right and wrong

No it's not okay if you go 
And go fading away into
Smoke and ash 
From fires we always regret

On our skin lie lines of yesterday's fights
Like two rivers run becoming one at the sea
A desperate heart knows nothing but its own sound
So feed it now, it's calling out in our dreams


Fascinating.  To me, at least.

There's tinkering on November 23, and then... nothing for this song until January 25, 2010,  when, after stumbling across a pretty fingerpicking pattern in the same key as the original chorus, I wrote a new first verse for Smoke and Ash on the 25th and 26th, and then a second verse on February 8 and 9.

And just like that, 10 months and (at least) two incarnations later, Smoke and Ash was done.

Sort of.  Not quite.

I demoed a quiet fingerpicking version with no bridge on March 4, 2010. (See above)

After Jay and I decided it was a winner, I finally pieced together a bridge (the last lyrics written for the record) on May 7, 2010, and demoed a more aggressive and completed Smoke and Ash on May 10, 2010.

Over a year after first writing the chorus.


Archeo-lyrical dig indeed.

The final lyrics, which I'll post below, speak for themselves.  There are a couple anchors/landmines, but it's simply a song about dealing with your past, rather than boxing it up and setting it aside, and all the other little things we do to avoid fully coming to terms with trauma.  Yes, I know we have to (and do) compartmentalize to some degree during crises just to survive, but at some point you have to tear open the boxes and confront the pain, the uncertainty... the anger.  Whatever it was you boxed up.  You have to stop filtering your words and falling into the days.  Otherwise, you risk fading away into the past and its troubles.  So the chorus turns into a more defiant statement of this purpose.

The recording session for this was great.  We nailed it after just a couple takes and Drew did some cool Space Echo stuff live during band tracking.  He also overdubbed a symphony of keys over the bridge, adding a unique texture.  I added one rhythm guitar to go with the one I recorded during basic tracking (we kept both), and also a solo of which I'm really proud.  A lot of attitude and feel.  And tone.

The vocals we did super-relaxed, which came across really well.  I pitched this song perfectly, if I do say so myself.  Very comfortable to sing and in my wheelhouse.   Jay added backgrounds and really killed the mix on this one.  It sounds gigantic, and somehow the vocals just cruise on top.

It really is a trip to look at the first two drafts and then the final lyrics and see how little they resemble each other.  I think there's a lesson there.  Somewhere.  About persistence.  And not settling.  And most of all, about hard work.  And unpacking those boxes until there's nothing left in 'em.



Is this any way to live?
Filling the silences with words poured through a sieve
Into your heart
Until it pulls apart

In this any way to die?
Falling into days until we close our eyes
And moving on
And moving on

It's not okay if you go
And go fading away into smoke
And ash from fires we'll always regret

Is this any way to be?
Sorting through photographs and dreaming of the sea
And who we were
So unsure

Is this any way to try?
We pack up boxes and we stack them to the sky
And build a wall
And they all fall

It's not okay if you go
And go fading away into smoke
And ash from fires we'll always regret

The light from your eyes
Falls on the lines on my face
As you try to replace 
What can only be taken away


It's not okay if you go
And go fading away into smoke
And ash from fires we'll always regret


Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Yesterday's Light


Some songs just fall from the sky.

And some songs are about falling from the sky.

Or more specifically, about waking up from a dream about falling from the sky.

Such is the subject of Yesterday's Light, the second song on In the Morning.

The initial and ostensible subject, at least.

Yesterday's Light is an instance where the process was more about stringing together images that I found evocative than writing about something specific. At least to start. Then, at some point, the images turned into a narrative and I was able to write with more focus and more direction, resulting in an impressionistic first verse and a more concrete second verse.

I wrote it all very quickly and the verse is just two chords, the chorus another two.

Most of the song is centered around a simple but pretty fingerpicking pattern I feel certain I stole from Jeff Tweedy almost wholesale. But, as is usually the case, the way we recorded the tune obscures its roots enough that it doesn't feel like a complete rip off.

Just a partial one.

The recording came very quickly in the studio. From the beginning we kept our playing very simple and sparse and after a couple tweaks to the feel we hit our stride and nailed a beautiful spacious take that just kind of simmers and bubbles like a neo-Soul tune.

Drew added a gorgeous reserved organ solo during overdubs, the kind of playing that is SO hard to do. It's hard to explain how tricky it is navigate the line between simple = tasteful and simple = boring, but Drew hit the tasteful side. (I think there's a Spinal Tap quote in there somewhere) with a crew of us coaching him from the control room. Just beautiful, emotional playing.

I added one ambient guitar (with Jay assisting on the wah) and it was on to vocals.

I pitched this tune fairly high knowing it would need to be sung as delicately as possible given the lyrics and subject matter. I think we attacked this in the middle of a 4 song flurry one night when my voice was super-warmed up, bordering on worn down. I don't remember doing a lot of takes of it. I just kind of got after it and suddenly we had enough good singing to make a take, the lesson there being to not over-think things, especially vocals.

Jay added one of his trademark layered background vocal choral arrangement and we were on to mixing.

And back to falling from the sky...

These lyrics wind up connecting to the album as a whole in several ways, initially with the "breathing in/breathing out" image (to the bridge of Lonesome Sound) and then with the "rooms" in the second verse, which are in Lonesome Sound and then turn up as a metaphor in Fading Days and again in Near at the end of the record.

In Yesterday's Light, the "middle of these rooms" is one of those anchors or land mines (or whatever I wind up settling on): soon after Andrea and I moved in together, we had to have a bunch of remodeling done to our condo, which involved the removal of walls and resulted in several of weeks of having all our furniture pushed to the middle of our rooms. Everything. Our bed, our couch, our dresser. Almost a month of living in the middle of our rooms. As hard as it was (what a great way to start our lives together), the image struck me as extremely real and powerful.

Other things I'm particularly proud of are "the tiny hours of night," and the way the whole first verse hangs together around the falling imagery and the not-so-oblique Icarus reference. Also, the verses don't rhyme but still find ways to be pleasant sounding.

The choruses connect the present and past, acknowledging that our pasts continue to touch who we are even after we move on. The last musical cadence is meant to be an echo of the last cadence of More, the first song on TWWRL. The "empty streets" are both the very real city streets of my early Sunday training runs for the marathon, and the symbolic empty streets of the morning of a new part of our lives.

The thing I'm most struck by is that this song marks a huge turning point for me in terms of being able acknowledge the "echoes of yesterday's light" without being crushed by them.

Both lyrically and in real life.

Which is really a huge part of what this record means and how it acts as closure for the first two Paper Arrows recordings.

Both lyrically and in real life.

To be continued...



Up in the sky and falling fast
The breathing in is easy, the breathing out goes first
And in these blue electric dreams
Our wings, they turn to dust
They burn into the dawn
We tumble to the ground

On empty streets with
Echoes of yesterday's light

Across a wire in the air
We come and go within the tiny hours of night
Quietly I kiss your cheek
And promise you that
Soon we won't be
Living in the middle of these rooms

On empty streets with
Echoes of yesterday's light


Friday, November 19, 2010

Lonesome Sound


How to start writing about In the Morning?

I guess I should start with the end of Things We Would Rather Lose.

The last line of that record is in the song Explosions Below:

"I'm turning the page on the last piece of love that she gave me."

Actually, I can't remember if I originally wrote "on the last piece of love" or "of the last piece of love," and I didn't annunciate well enough on the recording to make out on which word I settled. Maybe on purpose.

One of the reviews of TWWRL noted that I had mixed my metaphors in this line. Which I suppose is true. Or at the very least the metaphor is messy.

But really, it is an example of one of Elvis Costello's anchors. It means something very specific to me, and reality and poetic vehicle happened to intersect in such a perfect way I couldn't help but exploit it: the last physical thing my ex-wife gave me was the writing book in which I wrote Explosions Below. So there I was, physically turning the pages in this book and writing about turning the page on my relationship.

Heavy. Beautiful. Symbolic.

Does disclosing this increase the listener's understanding of this line and song and record? I'd like to think that even without this knowledge, one can figure out what's going on. So maybe it really is a case of what Elvis talked about with respect to these little anchors (for some reason, I want to call them land mines, but maybe that says more about me): they are selfish and solely for the author/performer.

Of course, now you know.

Anyway, on to In the Morning.

During the summer of 2008, we had started recording TWWRL, Andrea and I had just moved in together, and I was aching to start writing again. I was sitting up on our roof one beautiful summer day playing guitar and I stumbled into the chords which eventually became the first song on In the Morning some two and a half years later: Lonesome Sound.

This day in 2008, the song was called Lonesome Town. And it was terrible. Well, the music was solid but the lyrics? Bad. All over the place. Just a bunch of disconnected images.

So bad I got frustrated and set it aside for 9 months. In retrospect, I just had no idea what I was writing about yet. I knew I wanted to write in a different manner from Look Alive (simple, direct) and TWWRL (dense, dark), I just didn't know what that was.

So when I came back to it in the spring of 2009 during my morning writing sessions, I had a bit better sense of where my new material was going lyrically. And the lyrics still sucked pretty badly.

But I finished the music and knew that the music was really good: it had a strong hook and a nice straightforward arrangement that struck me as a great song in the making.

When I initially demoed the songs in late 2009 for Jay, I recorded it (I think?) as Lonesome Town and I anticipated Jay's feedback almost exactly: great music, wholesale rewrite of the lyrics necessary. At this point, the tunes I was writing had coalesced around the idea of morning (go figure), about a true and secure sense of optimism and light after dark. So as I started to dig into the rewrite of (what was by now) Lonesome Sound, I tried to embrace these themes and also strike a balance between directness and metaphor.

I was thrilled with the results, stressing most heavily over the bridge, but eventually finishing what I anticipated would turn into a strong recording.

And a strong recording it did turn into. Or something like that.

I can't remember which day at I.V. we attacked this one, but I do remember feeling an immediate and special energy around it. We dialed in a killer guitar tone on one of the studio's Telecasters, and set around crafting an arrangement with solid dynamics and a backbone. Everybody contributed little touches. Jay changed a bass note in the chorus which led to a nice variation in the motion of the chords. Darren created a wonderfully musical but still propulsive drum track. And Drew's organ playing just cooks in a way that allowed me to play the guitar sparsely and effectively. We even collaborated on what Jacob Slichter called the "Clearmountain pause," two bars of silence before a climactic reentrance of the band for a triumphant chorus.

We got the rhythm tracks all together as a band and Drew overdubbed a piano hook. In the subsequent sessions, I overdubbed just one minor guitar part, and it was on to vocals.

At this point, I could feel that this tune was a strong candidate to open up the album. We even had a Looney Tunes-esque sound of the tape machine starting up at the top of it, giving the beginning of the tune an extra sweep.

After trying a couple vocal approaches, we settled on a more relaxed yet still intense sound and finally Jay added some layered backgrounds and a cool texture with a programming loop.

And, 30 months after first banging out the chords on my roof, we had an opening track to our third album.

Lyrically, this song functions similarly to how More did on TWWRL: it's a topic sentence, introducing many of the themes and imagery that drive the album as a whole. Boxes, rooms, light, moving on... in a sense this song is at its core about putting the anguish on TWWRL to bed once and for all... about letting the sun set on the lonesome sounds that dominated Look Alive and TWWRL... and my life for a couple years.

There are also a couple of land mines. For me. And the person who gets them. Only.

To be continued...



Time's a box of rescued days
So cut the tape and show me what you saved
In our hearts, in these rooms
Beneath our skin it's not too soon
To throw it out and start again

As the light goes down
On this lonesome sound
As the light goes down
On this lonesome sound

We all pray for a flood
To come down and wash away the blood
Which spells our names in the snow
We spent the winter making ghosts
Now kick them out and let me in

As the light goes down
On this lonesome sound
As the light goes down
On this lonesome sound

I'm watching the wave break in your eyes
I'm leaving the broken nights behind
I'm breathing out until I can't
And breathing in
And breathing in

As the light goes down
On this lonesome sound
As the light goes down
On this lonesome sound


Wednesday, November 17, 2010

In the Morning: Roland Barthes, Elvis Costello, David Lowery

My senior year in college, I took a philosophy class called The Death of the Author. It was named after an essay by Roland Barthes and we spent an entire semester discussing how meaning is created in literature. Specifically, we kicked around whether the author or the reader is more responsible (or even at all responsible) for meaning and the implications of that conceit on art in general.

Which sounds kind of absurd.

But I find myself constantly referencing this class when it comes to writing and thinking about lyrics. I thought about it again as I read a profile of Elvis Costello in the New Yorker last week in which the author (natch) labeled Elvis a "textualist."

The exact quote is "[Elvis] doesn't feel that knowing a thing or two about an artist's private life can enhance one's appreciation or understanding of the work: he claims to be a textualist, at heart."

It goes on: "Some songs have lines in them which have very personal meanings and there's nothing to be gained by me sharing them," he said. "They're like an emotional anchor in the song, which means I can sing it and it has some significance to me." "It's too bad for the people who want to know, 'cause they ain't gonna know," he said. "They can't be there when whatever happened between those people happened. They don't know when you started loving them, or when you stopped loving them, or if you stopped loving them. And the songs don't tell the truth."

I find this quote particularly relevant in light of the fact that I am now in possession of the third Paper Arrows record: In the Morning. I got the final master on Friday, listened to it once as I drove it down to Bucktown to duplicate press copies, and then sat down with Andrea that night with a bottle of champagne to give it a closer listen in our living room.

And wow.

Sonically, it is really something else. Jay and Shane at I.V. just killed it. It is professional and polished while still bristling with energy. We recorded all the rhythm tracks together in a room and that approach (to my ears) translated to a more cohesive sound. I wrote most of the songs in the summer of 2009 during early morning writing sessions.

As I've described here, I'd get up at 5:30 a.m. every day during the week, write for an hour and a half, clean up, and then head to Baker, often writing on the train ride downtown. I demoed the results (13 new songs + 1 old) in the winter of 2009. Jay and I went over them, and I spent some serious time rewriting and revising in early 2010, finally settling on 10 songs to attack over three full days this August. In the following 3 months, I added some additional guitars and vocals, and finally it was mixed and mastered.

And on Friday, 18 months after I started writing for this record, we got to hear the finished product. I guess the best place to start talking about In the Morning is at the end of Things We Would Rather Lose.

I thought TWWRL was about recovery, about recovering from the loss which was chronicled on Look Alive. But upon further reflection, TWWRL was about the process of putting yourself into a position where you can recover from loss. It was about that murky middle-ground where you're strong enough to know you'll survive, but not strong enough to be fully vulnerable or whole again.

I had been thinking of the three Paper Arrows albums as seasons but I think they're really better conceived of in the following way:

Look Alive is the darkness just after sunset (which works nicely with the last song, When You Left, in which I sing "as darkness fell");

TWWRL is the sleepless night (concluding with finally being able to fall asleep);

and In the Morning is, well, pretty obviously the dawn of a new day.

Listening to In the Morning for the first time, I was really struck by the lyrics. I did more revising on this group of songs than I've ever done, and to my ears it resulted in the best and most concise lyrics I've ever written. They are a balance of simple and complex, literal and figurative, and direct and obtuse. There are images and metaphors I'm particularly proud of, carried over entire songs and even between songs, and there are lines in which I bypass poetics and speak in straight almost conversational terms.

Some songs contain little "anchors," words or references which coincide with very specific people, places, events and things in my life. Which brings me back to Roland Barthes and Elvis Costello.

At some point over the weekend, after listening to the disc, Andrea said something to the effect of she wished everyone could know how interconnected the lyrics are to real life. How carefully thought out and selected the images and references are. She obviously has a unique perspective and connection to the material, much of which is about her and us. So she gets a lot of the "anchors" on a very personal level. She gets the references to other songs, to other albums, to the actual events or things about which I'm writing.

I generally try to write with my previous songs in mind and to connect back to lyrics on other albums in an attempt to make the whole of the Paper Arrows catalogue tell a story. Really, my story. In a perfect world, in the post-modern philosophy world, the lyrics would mean exactly what they say without anyone knowing my story. Which I think they do.

I think if you knew nothing about me or my life over the last four years, you could listen to all three Paper Arrows records and have a pretty good grasp of what I'm talking about, what I've experienced. That being said, I also believe that art is an uniquely human condition. And I enjoy knowing a little something about the author and the conditions (both personal and historical) under which art was created.

So, I am going to do what I did for the last record, which is to go through the lyrics for each song on In the Morning and write a little bit about what they mean to me and the creative process. David Lowery (in my opinion, one of the best songwriters of the last 30 years) has been doing this over at his wonderful 300 Songs blog and if it's good enough for Mr. Lowery, it's good enough for me.

And screw Elvis and Roland.


Monday, October 04, 2010

Old and New

So I'm done (nearly) with my part of the new Paper Arrows record... down to a couple guitar parts and then it's mostly editing and mixing... always a weird feeling because you work so hard for so long and then, suddenly, you're done.

Most of the new songs were pushed out in the early morning hours of the spring/summer of 2009, refined, rewritten and demoed in early 2010, and then committed to tape and hard drive this August... a long but fairly standard road from inception to final product. Also weird is having it all recorded and still not knowing what it's going to sound like when it's finished...

One thing I do know is that I'm super proud of the songs, the arrangements, the band, and the vocals... especially the vocals, which scared me half to death but seem to have gone smoothly and quickly. Whereas the first two Paper Arrows records were (literally) built around acoustic demos and therefore extremely sympathetic to the original vocal approaches, this new record found us deconstructing the songs in the studio and recording as a band... and when it came time to record vocals, I found I had to reinvent my approach on many of the songs... which was great but challenging.

I never learn more about myself as an artist than when I'm recording vocals... every time, each recording process (and god knows I've been involved in enough of them) I discover a new capacity and grow as a singer and musician... One major feature of these songs is that I pitched them well... which has not always been the case. When I discovered I could sing (sort of) a high A several years ago, I felt the need to do so... which is fine, I guess.

But my voice is really at its best is the middle-upper range I've worked so hard to make comfortable. And that's how we sang the majority of these new tunes: comfortably. Not without intensity, not without emotion but... relaxed, easy. A marked contrast to the rough edges of Things We Would Rather Lose and a perfect match for the new material... which is very much about being at peace... finding hope and love again after the loss of Look Alive and the complete destruction of Things We Would Rather Lose.

So that's how the new stuff sounds. I think.

My fingers have been finding many many clues of new songs lately so... I'm leaning towards commencing a new writing push in the next couple weeks... I'd like to hear the new record finished first but I'm not sure I can hold out... too many ideas, too many figures in the fog I'd like to start clearing away and seeing what comes next... I think I have an inkling but one never knows until one gets in the middle of it... Or even until one gets out of the middle of it.

On the last album, I took the time to write a post on each song, which is something I'd like to do again with the new record over the remainder of the year... I've been additionally inspired by reading David Lowery's incredible blog 300 Songs... and while I have neither 300 Songs nor a biography quite as dramatic as Mr. Lowery's... I'm excited to get a little more biographical and historical (or was that hysterical?) about these new songs when the material calls for it... the writing and recording arc is such a magical (substitute: cathartic, spiritual, therapeutic, calming) process for me, I'd love to try to accurately represent its place and importance in my life...

So... There you have it. Another record nearly down, another about to start up...

And in the meantime, an attempt to put into words what is often beyond them.

I'm ready for it all.


Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Evening Out

The equinox is upon us, as is our favorite season. And somehow life seems to be imitating solar balance.

All the work we've done, all the excitement of the summer, the races, the wedding... is quietly slipping into a wonderfully busy fall.

Not without challenge... but at least the challenge in generally welcome, the product of successes. 

Here's to our personal equinox hanging on for more than a day and occurring more than semi-annually. Cheers.


Friday, August 27, 2010

How to Succeed at Racing

Can summer really be almost over? What a summer it has been... From the wedding to triathlons to album/music stuff...

Right now, the focus is on the Chicago Triathlon (this Sunday), our last race of four... the training has been amazing... in spite of a couple minor injuries (and in Andrea's case, one larger freak injury, which she has overcome like a champ) we have been training largely healthy since March... six full months of early Sunday mornings, 800 milligrams of ibuprofen, aching muscles, tired brains, jackassery on the lakefront...

And now, a chance to do our first "second race." Cannot wait. The weather looks clear... a bit warm but otherwise okay. The lake water temperature has been wonderful this year, and need only hold on for two more days...

With support from Andrea, I'm already eyeing the Madison Ironman race next September... which is crazy but... why not? If you told me in summer of '06 that I could run a marathon (or even a half-marathon) I would have laughed. I had never run more than 4 miles. Since then, I've done several half-marathons and two full marathons, not to mention numerous 10k races. If you had told me in the winter of 2008, when we started swimming at our gym, that I would get to the point where I could swim a mile in Lake Michigan on a day when there was a "small craft advisory" I would have laughed. I could barely swim two laps in a pool without stopping.

And the two most important steps for success in ANYTHING are: 1. Start. 2. Don't stop.

And I've started. And I haven't stopped yet. Which must mean I'm succeeding...

One lake training swim
One brutal mid-day 10k
One weekend brick
One achy morning
One blister
One sunburn
At a time.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Songs for You

CHICAGO Everything must start at the end So I'll write you here to Chicago Every note your heart will mend As I write you here to Chicago This is for you The things you couldn't say When times were blue Your "Bleeding into gray" 'Cause you deserve one too Until the day you came Here To Chicago To stay Here In Chicago Stay Here In Chicago Stay Here With me

MAYBE Maybe you hurt me 'cause you knew from the start Knew we were meant to be apart Maybe we should have just stayed away And moved on Maybe we tried cause we had nowhere else to go And love was just a one-chance show Thought that the rings upon our fingers Would fix us up Now I can smile at the thought of the miles We put between us Driving the roads, running on hope That we'd change Closing our eyes As we kiss our goodbyes Until next time And next time And finally you're here Where I am Maybe there was something in those summer nights In small-town dust and football lights But maybe it wasn't enough To see us through Maybe we watched it all slip away In each and every passing day And maybe looking back, all along, I knew too Now I can cry at the thought of the miles I put between us Chasing a dream, just out of reach It would stay Closing our eyes As we kiss our goodbye There's no next time No next time And finally you're gone And I'm here I'm here

FOR THE BEST How could you go And move on so fast? And walk through the door? And bury the past? I guess it's for the best I'm reaching out Not sure what I want But I know what I don't And I guess that's enough Maybe it's for the best It's the sound of making do It's the sound of life without you It's the sound of the choices we make And the promises we break And on up the coast To your beautiful life In house with a yard Two kids and a wife Maybe it's for the best It's the sound of growing up It's the sound of moving on from love It's the sound of losing the light Not willing to fight

BRIANNE Brianne... Do you know what you meant? I still have the box you made I still keep the games we played Locked up in here Brianne... Do you know what you were? The child I never bore My chance to be something more To someone in need I can still Hear your voice On Christmas morn Brianne... I'm so sorry my dear I didn't do enough I didn't see all the stuff A mother should have seen Brianne... I'm so happy you're clear Of that disaster zone And that you're not alone Maybe I'll meet him someday I can still Hear your voice I can still See your eyes When I said Goodbye Brianne...

GRAY Not again I felt this way before Then no words come out Choking on the quiet doubt Of all we planned I remember when I thought I knew the score Then it all changed again I was left with no defense A broken glass Looking back What if you came? What if I stayed? What if we let the days Fade away into gray? So much for something new This boat is sinking fast Try to patch the hole with work Try to save a soul from hurt Try to rescue light from dark Try to fix a broken heart Try to find a better way Try and try and try and Fail again I remember when What if you came? What if I stayed? What if we let the days Fade away into gray? Fade away into gray I'm fading, anyway

ERASE Gonna give my dog away Gonna move down by the bay Gonna sink into the city And be erased Gonna make a lot of bills Gonna do a lot of pills Gonna watch my blood run into the water Like an oil spill Hey look at all my friends! Hey look it's all pretend! I like this plastic life It's easier than love And lord knows... I'm done with love Gonna give to you my body Gonna give you what's left of my heart Gonna pray that you don't run away And leave me in the dark You can use me like you want 'Cause I can't feel a thing You can bruise me and abuse me And I still won't feel the sting Hey look at all my friends! Hey look it's all pretend! I like this plastic life It's easier than love And lord knows... I'm done with love Lord knows... I'll never really love again

NO, NO, NO You left me with a note No one should have to hold You left me with nowhere to go You left me with no, no, no A long time ago I wanted out of this hole But you told me no, no, no You sold me "no, don't go" "No, don't go" Years down the road When my love wants to know If I was over you I'll tell him "yes, yes, yes" I'll sell him "yes, yes, yes" I'll yell out "yes, yes, yes, yes, yes"

PAPER AND BONE Checking off days On the calendar page It's been a year Gone from the place I couldn't stay And now I'm out of here I had to cry And come all these miles Only to leave What's another goodbye As hard as I've tried Well I don't believe in love I don't believe in anything Out on the road Just embers and smoke Into the sun Nothing to show But echoes and ghosts From which to run Now that I know I'm just paper and bone And nothing more How can I hope To not be alone When I don't believe in love I don't believe in anything I don't believe in love I don't believe in anything 

BECAUSE OF YOU It's winter on the Plains And there's ice in the veins But in this country's heart I found a start I found a spark Because of you Days become weeks and months And soon spring will come The wind doesn't cut the skin 'Cause I'm letting light in I'm ready to win Because of you I'm ready for it all To finally come true I'm ready now to fall Into Chicago And stay Here In Chicago And stay Because Of you

BELIEVE That night When you came to me I watched you dress and leave At first light Breaking over the streets Wrapped in the sheets With you The thread That drew us to here Through heartache and fear And blues You said "I'm not going away I promise to stay For the rest of our days With you" In my dreams I can see us growing old When I breathe Your fire's taking hold When I cry I feel your fingers digging in In the sky We're washed of all our sins Your melodies, your melodies You sing my heart to sleep And when the morning light comes creeping in The healing is complete I'm yours, I'm yours Promise you won't leave I'm yours, I'm yours I believe, I believe In you I believe in me I believe it's true I believe...


Thursday, July 22, 2010

Thus Far

I've been digging deep lately... My first summer as a musician and a musician only has been thrilling for reasons personal, professional and creative.

The personal part is easy: I got married. To my soulmate and perfect partner. Surrounded by family and friends. And the event surpassed even our lofty expectations.

We've also crushed an entire season of triathlon training, with our third of four races at the end of July and one more in August... and they've gone well enough that I'm seriously entertaining signing up and training for the Ironman in Madison next year... as insane as that is.

The professional part is coming along as I juggle a full and Protean teaching schedule with Paper Arrows, Quell Records, The Odyssey, and more.

The creative part? In just a few short weeks Paper Arrows will take over I.V. Lab Studios for three full days to record our third album. We're going to approach this record a little differently than the first two in that we're all going to get in a room together and track as a live band. And then piece together the overdubs with the live tracks as the core.

The first two records were built separately around acoustic recordings I made. Which was great and a testament to Jay as a producer and all of us as musicians. But this new record... has to have a different feel. It needs to be a band in a room playing songs. Jay speaks of these new tunes as glowingly as I've heard him speak of any of our projects... and I can't wait to work face to face with him and Darren and Drew.

It will be intense and a bit of a high wire act, but I'm confident it will be exactly what it needs to be. I'm tentatively calling this record "In the Morning." It's hopeful and intimate. Energetic and tender. Simple but sophisticated.

It's the P to the S of Look Alive and the M of Things We Would Rather Lose (and no, that's not an S&M comment like that, you perv.) It's the Return of the Jedi to the...

You get the idea. I've also managed to write nearly an entire album of songs on the piano, 80% of it in one week, where I was cranking out 2 songs a day, an unheard of pace for me... writing on the piano has been fascinating and amazing... and I know that even if the songs never see the light of day, spending some time and energy creating on the piano has made me a much better writer.

Also, this group of songs is one of my first shots in a while (since the Odyssey?) at writing mostly non-autobiographically... the songs tell someone else's story. Which needs to be told.

So... as I struggle to write the last song of this cycle... I'm not sure what I want to do with all of them. I believe the answer will present itself in due time. It always does, in some form.

It's how I've gotten this far. And this far is pretty damn good and getting better...



Monday, June 28, 2010


Things are happening... albums are scheduled to be recorded, races are being run, lovers are getting united...

It's all wonderful. It's all a little unbelievable. Not that we're complaining.

We deserve to win sometimes. Or at least, set personal records. How many things have I done in the last 4 years that I thought I could never do? What is the common presence? Who is the common presence? Is triathloning (I am determined to make this word a verb... why not?) not the perfect metaphor for life? What a cheesy middle school lit class statement. 

Not metaphor as much as training... Triathloning is the perfect example of shit happens, figure it out, deal with it, move forward, manage pain, keep moving forward, finish. Do your best. Deal with the factors your can, manage the external circumstances beyond your control, of which there are MANY. 

That's the way life is... weird like that.

It pushes you towards people and things... sometimes without reason, sometimes so incredibly, so inexplicably, so tenuously... it's enough to make two perfect pagans believe that there's something out there... something at work... Something that every once in awhile, when you've been beaten down, when you've suffered through pain... when you've done your best, made mistakes, dealt with shit... when you've wished and wished and closed your eyes and wished some more and thought it was all for naught... Suddenly grants you your wishes.

And then... What's next?

What do you do when your wishes are granted?

You close your eyes and wish some more... And dismount from your bike, hustle into transition 2, pull your running shoes on... And shuffle out onto the run course on fatigued legs. With a big smile on your face.

A big smile on your tear-stained, blue-eyed face.



Thursday, May 06, 2010

Fading Days

In February, I was really struggling to put a capstone on the material for the new record... I had a solid group of 7 tunes culled mostly from my 2009 early morning writing sessions.

I had a re-written version of Lonesome Sound. And I had Smoke and Ash, which finally came together after a year of lurking in pieces and various failed attempts to pair a strong chorus with a commensurately strong song (say that 10 times fast). But still, the group felt incomplete... and I really wanted to wind up with 10 tunes.

Enter Fading Days. I've mentioned here before that the last two groups of songs I've written have had turning points where I'm able to see the context of the record as a whole and then write to that context... I unconsciously (or subconsciously) write myself into a group of songs and then very consciously try to write myself out of it.

But this group... I never really had that moment. Sure I could see what the record was going to be about, I could trace the themes and overall tone... but I wasn't really writing at these themes the way I had previously.

Interestingly, if I had one complaint about the 9 tunes we chose, it was that they were overwhelmingly positive and hopeful. Which was a double-edged sword... as the third record in the tried and true trilogy formula (introduction/crisis/resolution) this one had to be positive and hopeful... and frankly, my life is so positive and hopeful right now (knock on wood) that the material was, as previous records have been, just an honest reflection of me and my daily existence...

Buuuuttttttttt... I really like material that even at its most positive has a dark edge or three... a little twist or contending strand that balances it out... 'cause reality, even at its best, still has thorns. One of my favorite examples is any love song of the "''til death do us part" variety... sweet and beautiful, but, if done right, also a reminder of mortality... if that makes sense.

So in February, I lost my voice for a couple of weeks... a sinus infection was to blame. Very frustrating. But one day at the gym, a disembodied lyric from a verse I had scrapped months before crawled back into my head, this time in the form of a big hooky chorus...

** Do the echoes ever keep you up at night? Why did someone have to leave for us to get it right? It's okay to still have fading days I know you do... **

Later that day, I sat down and hashed out the music I heard in my head... and even tried to sing the chorus in my best Tom Waits voice... and then got to work at wood-shedding out the verses... Jay had pushed me to really work on my imagery and metaphors for this record and I took that to heart for this tune especially... very quickly I had all the verse lyrics and music and set the song aside until my voice healed.

Once I could sing it, I realized that I needed a bridge... and what was more, it seemed like the entire record was turning on this one particular passage... these 3 or 4 lines of lyrics. I've had that happen with a song before, but never with an entire record... it's a bizarre feeling... you feel like whatever content you put in even one line will be the line through which the whole group of songs is refracted...

On an even more specific level, I got down to literally the last line I needed to write and I STILL felt like the record was up for grabs... Amazing. Writing never ceases to take my breath away. Or frustrate me. Or both.

Anyway... after a week or so of trying line after line after line for this oh so important moment... I finally got it. As usual, it was way simpler than I was making it... Of course the postscript to this is that after Jay and I met to do some pre-production work, we decided that Smoke and Ash needed a bridge and I had a similar experience with those lyrics, but Fading Days still feels like the lynchpin... So... with much ado...

FADING DAYS If I could take your scars I'd lay them in a line And fix the skin with needle and thread Like the thread that runs from your life to mine And pulled us in until we met If I could live your days I'd put them in the ground And work the dirt until the colors bloomed Like the red that runs in rivers in these rooms Within my heart as it beats for you Do the echoes ever keep you up at night? Why did someone have to leave for us to get it right? It's okay to still have fading days I know you do If I could catch your tears I'd pour them in the sea Where they would mix and finally disappear When they were gone you know our lives would be as clear As the lights on the lines that lead us here Do the echoes ever keep you up at night? Why did someone have to leave for us to get it right? It's okay to still have fading days You know I do Where there is none Don't look for pain You can call it love 'Cause all love's not the same If we can stay then we'll both be saved Do the echoes ever keep you up at night? Why did someone have to leave for us to get it right? It's okay to still have fading days I know you do 


Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Return of that Joe Guy

So we've picked the 10 tunes we're going to attack for the new Paper Arrows record... which I'm calling "In the Morning." Very tentatively.

Jay and I got together last night to do some pre-production and tweak some of the arrangements, but the songs are about 95% there. I've made a conscious effort to avoid playing these tunes a lot on my own, so this session was a little like discovering someone else's work... which is a nice if not peculiar feeling.

I'm super-proud of the material already and excited about taking a slightly different approach to the recording sessions... we're going to (gulp) rehearse and then do a lot of the tracking in more of a live band setting, hoping to knock out the bulk of the tracking in two two day sessions in the big room at I.V. Labs... then do some overdubs if necessary and make the mixing process a little less burdensome and more geared towards a live sound... If the pre-production is any indication, we're on the right track.

I'm ready to buckle down, make the minor revisions we discussed last night, re-demo all the songs in final form, and get them to Drew and Darren with a eye towards booking sessions at the middle/end of the summer.

It's a little self-evident to say that the third album will complete a trilogy, but on top of the simple numerical descriptor, this new record feels like it will close the loop on the thematic arc that began with Look Alive and was furthered with Things We Would Rather Lose... that classic narrative of introduction/conflict/resolution.

If only the title of the first record started with an S, the second with an M, and the third with a P, well... that would be uber-nerdy.

I've got a large scale conceptual writing project in incubation right now, which I'll start on in earnest once I wrap up the loose ends of this record... but it's a little different in scope and approach... it seems like a logical step forward (or at least some away from) the material on LA, TWWRL, and this third record while still being a suitable follow-up but perhaps I'm getting ahead of myself.

Better to focus on the task at hand, the third record, or my "Return of the Jedi" Just without Ewoks. 



Sunday, April 11, 2010

5 and 300

As in 5 years I've been writing this blog and 300 posts... Wow, that's some perspective. Too much fucking perspective? I say, barbershop raga.

How is it that after getting rid of the day job I find myself with less time to write here...? Probably a good thing.

The new normal is fantastic but exhausting and I continue to be amazed at the proportion of having a career in music that involves administration. I guess it's really no different than any other career.

So... I would like to say I'll write more... there are many things to talk about... many new lyrics, many new successes... and writing here has, from the start, been an excellent way to crystalize my thoughts and feelings on a number of things, music-related and otherwise.

5 years gone away, singing broken songs, indeed.


Friday, April 09, 2010


I'll take away all your sorrow I'll take away all your pain Before today becomes tomorrow I'll say the things I couldn't say Cause time won't wait for us The sky might open up But I will keep you dry Until we're gone I will try to change the season As summer fades and embers smoke If the fight destroys the reason I'll write the song I never wrote Cause time won't wait for us The sky might open up But I will keep you dry Until we're gone I will cry when you are grieving And will smile when you are true When the time has come for leaving I'll fly with you into the blue Cause time won't wait for us The sky might open up But I will keep you dry Until we're gone Yes I will keep you dry until we're gone


Sunday, March 07, 2010


I've said it before and I'll say it again... like right now: writing is weird. Like sometimes you feel like you are just digging and digging and getting nowhere. Nothing works, nothing is good, nothing is inspired. And then, in a flash, something crystalizes for you and all the digging, all the work, comes into focus and makes sense and... you have success.

Speaking of success, MTV recently used a good portion of the song Things We Would Rather Lose on the Real World DC. Which was huge for us. And because of this, I've been taken by the possibility that we will have the means to record our third album sooner than I had anticipated... like this summer. Which is awesome.

In January or so, I demoed and sent to Jay about a dozen tunes... most of them came from my morning writing sessions of 2009. I was definitely happy with the group, and was hoping it would yield maybe five songs strong enough to record, leaving me to write another ten or so from which we'd cull another five and have ten songs. My general ratio has been to write two songs from every one that we decide to record.

So I was surprised when Jay came back with a list of eight that he thought were record-worthy. Surprised and happy. One song, he wanted me to completely rewrite the lyrics, but other than that, there were just a couple notes on some arrangement ideas.

So... that meant that we were really only a couple tunes from having our record ready... which was great but also a bit scary. When you (I) start writing for a project, there are unlimited possibilities. I tend to just write and write until I start to see themes develop organically... and then I grab the strongest and best organic themes, and start writing with those in mind. I think I've mentioned that I was waiting and waiting for this record to turn the corner and reveal the organic themes... develop some kind of creative inertia... and it just hadn't happened. I was happy with all the songs Jay picked, but the writing had all come with a lot of effort, a lot of deliberate effort.

This was not Look Alive or Things We Would Rather Lose where I seemed to be sweating songs out on a daily basis... choruses lingered for months, verses were crossed out and restarted... bridges were reverted to and then rewritten completely... It had been a frustrating and difficult time getting to the point of even having these eight songs... so I set into rewriting the one song, and pushing out a couple more to get to ten...

Then, an interesting thing happened: (I don't know why I ever doubt that it will... if you keep plugging away at creating, even when it feels like you're getting nowhere, you will eventually be rewarded with clarity... or something) the rewrite went incredibly well. I HATE rewriting on a large scale... or rather, I'm not very good at it: I usually take or leave the bulk of what I first write for a song, and if it's not good, I scrap it for parts.

But with this song, Lonesome Sound... I really felt like I nailed it. And really processed and responded to the feedback Jay had given me. After that (or during that), I finished the song Smoke and Ash, which I wrote about in my last post. The chorus had been hanging around and attached to no fewer than four songs... and I finally dialed in the right one... and I love the tone and the lyrical content... it was a little darker and moodier than the other songs, but still not depressing... just some added emotional weight to a group of songs that is largely positive, hopeful, and even playful at times.

Somewhat poetically right at this time, I lost my voice for about two weeks: a nasty sinus infection abetted by my stereotypically male tendency to avoid going to the doctor... the lesson? Antibiotics are good.

Anyway, I lost my voice and was stuck doing a lot of writing without a guitar in my hands. And I wrote this chorus (it really just kind of came to me in the middle of the day, nowhere near a guitar):

Do the echoes ever keep you up at night? Why did someone have to leave for us to get it right? It's okay to still have fading days I know you do

And what was more, I could hear the melody, the chords... I could hear the background singers... everything. It just popped into my head fully-formed like a reverse-Athena (natch). When that happens, you take notice. So I set about writing the rest with the idea that this was it: this was the last song of the record, and this needed to tie the whole thing together.

But no pressure...

Surprisingly, most of it came out very very quickly... and I was down to about six lines of lyrics to finish: a few in the verses and a bridge. And again, walking out of the gym one day last week, the bridge lyrics kind of just floated into my head and I had to scramble to write them down on my parking ticket.

And it was done.

Later that night, I sat in my living room and played all 10 songs for Andrea (and Tuman and Hendrix) and... well, I'm really really happy with them. I demoed the rewrite and the two new songs and sent them to Jay and, pending his comments, we should be ready to think about recording.

As I played through the songs, I was struck by one line in particular... in the first song I wrote in my morning writing sessions (called Dirty Engine), there's a line that goes "The days of easy love are gone/We're going to have to dig a little deeper"... and that line, in so many ways, is the message of the record. Emotionally, creatively, personally... dig a little deeper.

And I've been digging and digging and digging for me, for us, for PA... And it's paying off.


Monday, February 15, 2010

Smoke and Ash

Writing is so weird... creating is weird. The variety of ways you can get to where you need to be on any particular piece of creativity... you just never know how it's going to unfold, what the end result will be, and how it will relate to where you started and what you intended when you started.

In general, I find it's just best to as open to the possibilities as possible... work hard, be honest... be ready for anything. I finished writing (really, rewriting) a song last week and was curious as to when I had first started experimenting with the chorus... I knew it had been around for awhile and gone through (at least) two completely separate versions and several other false starts. According to my writing book, I first jotted down the words to the chorus in April of 2009... so about 10 months before I finally hit upon the "right" setting for them.

In between, I can trace the evolution (and de-evoluation) of the song until last week... truly a bizarre map... But... all's well that ends well. So...

SMOKE AND ASH Is this any way to live? Filling the silences with words poured through a sieve Into your heart Until it pulls apart Is this any way to die? Falling into days until we close our eyes And moving on And moving on No it's not okay if you go And go fading away into smoke And ash from fires we'll always regret Is this any way to be? Sorting through photographs and dreaming of the sea And who we were So unsure Is this any way to try? We pack up boxes and stack them to the sky To build a wall Until they all fall No it's not okay if you go And go fading away into smoke And ash from fires we'll always regret


Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Of Cats and Men

We got a Cat, a six month old male adopted from PAWS... he is, as yet, unnamed... he came with the name Bandit, but it doesn't suit his character and we haven't hit upon a good moniker.

He and the dog have gotten off to a pretty good start... Hendrix has been remarkably sweet and tolerant, and Cat is already showing signs of warming up to Hendrix... Adding a new animal to the 2010 mix has been an interesting twist... we have so much going on that we were unfazed when Cat's initial vet visit revealed he had a common parasite... the treatment was 5 days of oral medication followed by a bath... somewhat surprisingly, the oral medication administration was way more trying than the bath. 

Now that the medical trauma is (hopefully) over, we need a name...

Stay tuned.