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