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.