Shadows slip through the room
whispering doubt and gloom
The wind moans and the trees
tremble with fear
And the owl cries, “Who?”
The clock in the hall sings its chime
Each ring marks the time
fly quickly by
And the owl cries, “Who?”
Dawn tiptoes in with a smile
Awake now but only awhile
Still the clock ticks even though
no one can hear
Darkness now only a dream
but it waits
For time’s toll
one and all
And the owl cries, “Who?”
One thing you learn early on as a songwriter is that the process of writing a song can take you on a journey that you didn’t expect or intend. One of the most frequent protests when a song is being critiqued is to assert, “but that’s not how it happened!” Songwriters get an inspiration from an event or a phrase or a tune and hang on too tightly to the original inspiration.
Acclaimed folk songwriter Si Kahn once told me: “When I write a song in the first person voice (“I”), it’s usually a story about someone else. If I write a song in the third person, it’s most often related to my own story.” It’s a canny way to remind the songwriter self that the personal story should be subjugated to the universal, and the universal should be informed by the details of personal specificity. You are writing a song, not compiling a fact sheet, so all the details should serve the song—even if that means throwing out the original idea or event or inspiration for the song.
Haunted by 2am is the only song I’ve written whose title is not contained anywhere in the lyrics—which is even more ironic given that the original “hook” that I heard in my head were those words and the melody that starts the song (now “Shadows slip through the room”). Numerous rewrites and playing the song for my songwriting group led to my shifting the lyric to what serves as the chorus (“And the owl cries: ‘Who?’ Haunted by 2am”). I had never particularly liked the sound of an “m” on a high note—especially just after the haunting sound of “who” that is the owl’s voice but also the existential question of who’s time is up next. When I was about to record the song, I suddenly decided to get rid of the extra lyric and allow the word “who” to echo over the entire refrain. It was a last minute decision—but a good one.
The style of the song is also the most radical departure from all the other songs because it was inspired by two classical pieces: the Westminster Chimes and Handel’s “I Know My Redeemer Liveth”. When I was writing the song I was remembering my experience of insomnia as a child. Lying awake in my bed I could hear my parent’s grandfather clock as it chimed every 15 minutes (and gong solemnly on the hour). I knew I wanted to evoke that sound in the song. As I researched the Westminster chimes, I discovered that Handel had also used these chimes as inspiration for his famous soprano aria “I Know My Redeemer Liveth” from his Messiah oratorio. I’ve sung the aria, and it is a beautiful testament of faith that God will redeem the sinner in the final days. What a perfect combination of music to evoke in an existential song. Evoke deep faith in the midst of the relentless, inevitable passage of time that the chimes evoke. I added my own questioning lyrics and interplayed both musical themes throughout the piece.
Another reason why this musical theme is so effective (for me and for Handel!) has to do with the “magic” of 4ths and 5ths. The same two note theme is played throughout the piece (E and B) but the notes sound different depending upon which note is played first and whether the note goes up or down. E up to B is a 5th. E down to B is a 4th. B up to E is a 4th. B down to E is a 5th. 4ths and 5ths are the “bread and butter” of almost any song one can think of. It is rare that a song would not have a 4th or 5th chord in it (if not the only chords used other than the tonic).
I rarely get to play this song at gigs because I usually don’t bring a keyboard with me (and this piece has to be played on a piano). But I did have an opportunity to debut this piece in several performances with my college professor, Anthony Abbott, the award-winning poet. I took a creative writing class with Tony in college. He and I collaborated on performances of his work “Angel Dialogues”. There are two spoken parts (the poet and the angel), and I added music underneath parts of the poetry and sang songs at various intervals. As it turned out “Haunted by 2am” was perfect for the work and was a favorite during the readings. See the blog posts here and here for those performances.
The addition of the cello in the recording was another happy serendipity. This song is the only piece I play the piano part on, but as we were finishing up recording, I really wanted to add another instrument to give the song a fuller sound. I decided that the mournful sound of the cello would be perfect, so I composed the part (adding more elements of the musical themes). The only problem was finding a cellist in one day—and all the cellists my producer knew were booked. I went to a local pub in Asheville and shared a table with a couple. As we talked over the course of the evening, it turned out she was a professional cellist—and available the next day to record! It’s amazing how much chance events can affect a song. I’ve learned to stay open to possibilities when composing, performing and recording songs.