"Play Me (Uptempo)"

I want to live in a song
so you can play me all night long
Pull my guitar right on out of her case
Strum my strings from the treble to the bass
I want to live in a song

I want to live in a vinyl 45
so you can make me spin and jive
Lay my record on the old turntable
Slip in my grooves if you’re willing and able
I want to live in a vinyl 45

I want to live in a drum
so you can make my skin thrum
Brush my high hat and stroke my cymbal
Play the whole kit if you’re feeling nimble
I want to live in a drum

Play me all night long—
play every note if you're strong
I want to live in a song

Our experience of a song can change drastically depending upon even a simple thing like tempo (just think about how effective tempo change is in songs like “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Shout”). In music theater a song is often performed in a different tempo often with a whole chorus instead of as a solo for a “reprise”. In the groundbreaking 1927 musical “Showboat” (Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein) the legendary ballad “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” is performed as a rollicking, up-beat dance tune as well as a heart-breaking slow, ballad.

I wrote the original version of “Play Me” for the piano as a slow ballad with unusual jazzy chord changes (see prior blog post here). I rarely bring a keyboard to gigs, however, so I eventually decided to adapt the song for the guitar. Local Charlotte musician, Dan Hood, came up with the blues standard tempo and chord changes for this version of the song. It was a version and mood I never heard or anticipated but is now one of my favorite ways to perform the song. The “Free Planet Radio” musicians made this song feel like a standard “NY Jazz club” song. Fitting to end my cd with a song that involved extensive collaboration with other musicians to bring the song to life.

I’ve enjoyed sharing the stories of how all these songs came to life over the past year. Looking forward to the stories yet to come.

"Little Song Blues"

Sing your little song
Sing it right or wrong
Can’t nobody else sing it
but you

You got to sing it by the hour—
even sing it in the shower
Sing away your disappointed tears
Ain’t nobody gonna applaud
Ain’t nobody gonna cheer
That’s why you sing
real loud

‘Cause the song
is in the singing
And the reason’s
in the rhyme
So find your own muse
and sing your little song blues

The last song on the “Play Me” cd is a tribute not only to musicians who rehearse, write songs, and perform—often to little acclaim (or money these days). But the same is true for all of us—we do our “little thing” and sometimes can get down because it seems like we aren’t making a difference or that no one appreciates our contributions. It can get pretty discouraging. So I wrote this song to encourage us all (including me) to keep being ourselves and doing our own little thing. Strangely enough this little song I sing to keep spirits up is the only song I’ve ever written in less than an hour and which never went through any major revisions. I wrote it (humming the tune in my head) with a sandwich in one hand and a pen and paper in the other (though the instrumentation took me a good bit longer). I hope you will find it encouraging when you get down. After all: “the song is in the singing, and the reason’s in the rhyme. So find your own muse, and sing your little song blues.”

"Haunted by 2am"

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
Hours stand
while years
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
unseen
For time’s toll
calls
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.

"Brown Shoes"

It was his yearly trip to the city store:
rows and rows of boots and galoshes
This one’s too loose
That one’s too tight
This one’s too cheap
but that one’s not right
Big decision keeps him looking for more:
can he find one pair from so many choices?

Let me be your brown shoes—
the ones you always choose
your brown shoes
Make you feel so fine
We fit together soul to sole
You’ll say: “I’m so glad you’re mine all mine”
Brown shoes

They were a perfect pair—
easy to wear
Nice support
Room in the toes
Courting was short
He had a proposal:
lace on up with a golden tether
Buff the shine with lots of care
At the end of the day go home together

Chorus
We’ll travel the miles no matter the weather
All we need is some good shoe leather
Jump over puddles
Run in the rain
Kick up dust on a country lane
Brown shoes

The tread is worn, but the boots are still here
He’s loved these shoes for many a year
Color’s faded, scuffs on the heel
A brand new pair might seem like a deal
But he’s not seduced by a fancy label
He’ll stick with these shoes as long as he’s able

Chorus

You’re my brown shoes—
the one I always choose
my brown shoes

Love: wanting it, losing it, regretting it, lusting after it; it's a favorite subject for songwriters. And yet most of us, if we are lucky, spend a lot more time experiencing the steady, daily work of a relationship not flying in the highs of a new passion or thrown to our knees by it's loss. I have been married a long time, so I wanted to write a song that paid tribute to my husband and to a love that has been steadfast over the years. Not much of a story arc, though, so how to make it interesting? At the time I was trying to write this song I was meeting regularly with a group of songwriters. We would spend time each session doing a free-association writing exercise about a random subject. The idea is to write for 10 minutes without picking up your pen or stopping to think--and to use as much sense-specific detail as possible: see, hear, taste, smell, touch. It was my turn to throw out a topic. I glanced at my friend's feet and blurted out "brown shoes". We started the timer, I put my pen on the paper, and this is what came out (transcribed from my notebook exactly as I wrote it with only a word or two added for clarity):

My mother-in-law tells the story of taking her six-year-old son (my future husband) to the big city to pick out shoes. As the "neglected" middle child of 5 (two older brothers and twin sisters), he took full advantage of the day and talked incessantly to anyone in ear-shot including the shoe attendant at the department store who was patiently trying one pair after another of brown shoes on him. If the present gives insight into the past, he would not have chosen the first brown shoe he came upon. This one too tight here; that one too roomy. This one the wrong shade of brown, the other something uncomfortable in the heel. I can relate to the growing exasperation of the salesperson: "It's just a damn brown shoe! Choose a pair. Your feet will make the shoes adapt to it!" But he knows that you have to choose shoes carefully. You spend your whole day in them with the weight of your body dependent on the careful construction. Through mud puddles, across dirt roads, the linoleum floors of middle school, hot sticky pavement of parking lots, lush carpeted floors at home, feet on the coffee table, couch and sofa. He will travel miles in these shoes and the wrong pair--rubbing a blister here, a bruise there--can ruin a day. It could cause you to decline the walk to the store with a friend, miss the dodge ball game at recess, make you too grumpy to ask that cute girl for a date to the bowling alley.

So it's important to take your time and choose those simple things well. But this was no consolation to the shoe store attendant who--according to my mother-in-law--finally looked at her in exasperation and declared: "He must be an only child." To which my mother-in-law defiantly responded: "Well, he is today!"

It was only after the exercise, reading back over my notes that I realized I had the beginnings of a song. It was a little odd to realize I was creating a metaphor in which I cast myself as a brown shoe. (And a little tricky to make sure it doesn't sound derogatory.) And do you get the proposal ("lace on up with a golden tether--a ring like a shoelace?"). It's not a normal love song, I'll grant you, but it's turned into a fun, upbeat song to play.

The other fun thing to know about this song is that there is a key change that happens at the bridge, but it's so subtle a lot of people listening probably don't even catch it. When I was working on the music for the song, the chords began to feel too repetitive. I added a bridge to try to give the song a lift, but it didn't help. Then I remembered a Johnny Cash song.

Cash's "Walk the Line" only has 5 chords in it and sounds simple--even repetitive, but each of the verses have a different sound. The reason is because he changes keys at every verse (5 verses, 4 key changes, 3 different keys). You can hear him do it if you listen closely. He sings the verse and then pick some notes going up (or down) and then he hums. For non-music theory people the note he is humming is the new "starting note" for the melody each time. He uses similar chords but their relationship to each other changes. (For people who know some music theory, he lands on the 5 chord and makes it the new tonic note.)

In my song the bridge telegraphs that a change is ahead, but I come back to the same chord I started the bridge with (a B--which is the tonic in the 1st two verses). By the time I reach the end of the bridge, however, the B chord is functioning as the 5 chord. I don't really understand exactly why it all works. It has something to do with math and the cool way that 4ths and 5ths relate to each other: if you are going up the scale the distance between an E to an A is a 4th, if you are going down the scale it is a fifth. And since most songs use 1, 4, 5, it's a cool trick to have up your sleeve.) I do know it has been one of the hardest of my own songs for me to memorize because I keep getting lost in the song--similar chords but the patterns are constantly changing. And that's kind of like a long-term love, too, isn't it?

 

 

 

 

 

"Laughing Through My Tears"

I’m late for work
The car won’t start
The rent’s past due
My phone is fried
Paid my bills with a bad bank card
Now the power’s off
I’ve lost my pride
Only one thing left to do  

Go on laughing through my tears
Yes, laughing away my fears
When I’m down so far, and I feel so low
that’s when up’s the only place to go
I’ll go on laughing—
yes, laughing
away my tears    

My old man stumbled in late last night
smelling like beer and sweet perfume
Said he works too hard
His life ain’t right
I bring him down
He needs more room
Only one thing left to do
Go on laughing—
yes, laughing
away my tears

One thing’s for certain:
there will always be sorrow
But I won’t waste time crying
‘cause there ain’t always tomorrow
So I’ll go on laughing
—yes, laughing
away my tears

Sometimes when I’ve experienced deep sorrow and pain, I’ve cried so hard that I suddenly started—inexplicably—laughing. It’s one of my favorite emotions—like the sun breaking through the clouds after a terrible storm. It’s the beauty and symbolism of the rainbow; the reminder that there can be joy after pain.

“Laughing Through My Tears” was the first song I ever recorded (as a single). I wrote it after several friends experienced personal disasters. When my friend, Katya Lezin, had her book signing (in which she wrote about her experience with treatment for ovarian cancer), she asked if I would sing it at the event at which all of her doctors and many fellow patients would attend. I was terrified and told her I wanted to say no. (I was still learning how to play guitar and perform.) But she talked me into it, and I premiered the recording that night (see my post from January 2013 here). Katya, a generous friend, also hosted me for a house concert and wrote an article about it for the Charlotte Observer a couple years later (see post here).

To be human is to experience sorrow, but the ability to overcome sorrow—even laughing—marks the best of who we can be as humans. (The idea that we can overcome sorrow by giving up our desire for the way we thought things would be is, in fact, one of Buddhism’s basic teachings.) I try to remember these deep truths when life gets hard—as it inevitably does for all of us. Let’s laugh together.

"Heart for a Ride"

Full lyrics and listening links below (scroll down for story behind song). Buy cd and note cards of lyrics from "Store".

He had lines across his fingers
—eyes that kind of linger—
this man ain’t got no 9 to 5 job
Dressed in black and denim
with just a touch of venom
What kind of man wears bright blue shoes?
When he set his hook in
started reeling me in
he had me sittin’ with him knee to knee (ooh!)
He took my head for a spin
and my heart for a ride

He prowled across the stage,
set the hall a hummin’,
cast a gaze around at his prey
Voice like smoke and whiskey
—sweet and kind of frisky—
one taste went right to my head
He painted ballads like Woody,
gave Johnny his due
Think Mary Chapin just might trill out a purr (llll)
He took my head for a spin
and my heart for a ride

Now I know that I am kind of naïve
I could have sworn he was singin’ for me
As he turned for the door,
I started yellin’ for more
He oughta tattoo “caveat emptor”
He took my head for a spin
and my heart for a ride

Music—live performances—reach thoughts/emotions didn’t even know you had

Wonderful and awful at the same time: like falling in love

Write song about that experience—references to some of my music crushes

Music--especially live performance--can reach thoughts and emotions you didn't even know you were having. Someone sings on a song onstage and you feel like they are singing the song directly to you and about you. It can be wonderful and awful at the same time (like falling in love). I've experienced this phenomenon from the stage and the audience. It's a performer's job to seduce the audience, but sometimes audience members confuse the performance with reality. Of course this can go badly awry, but this song is a raucous send-up of the experience. (see blog post "Keep on Talking" for how giving piano player for this song, Chad Lawson, the direction to play like Bob Malone led to Bob coming to Charlotte to record a song with me).

The song was written using a workshop exercise developed by Ellis Paul and mined his performance of "Kick out the Lights (Johnny Cash)" for inspiration. Thanks, Ellis.

"Two Steps From Disaster"

Full lyrics and listening links below (scroll down for story behind song). Buy cd and note cards of lyrics from "Store".

I heard that storm was a mile away
so I lingered long over one last call
Took one strike to fell that old tree
If I’d’ve been at home, it would‘ve felled me

Just a wink
or a stare
or a drink
and a dare:
one step
maybe two steps
from disaster

Saw him comin’ half a mile away
with his slicked back hair that said devil may care
His missing ring revealed a mal intent
but when he flashed that smile—down I went (Chorus)

Obey the rules like your Mama said
You oughta know
You reap what you sow
Just don’t think you’re better than the man on the street
‘cause one bad turn’ll sweep you off your feet (Chorus)

Who doesn’t love to stand in the grocery store aisle and be entertained by others' misfortune and mistakes? The higher the fame achieved, the longer and more spectacular the fall. “Two Steps from Disaster” was inspired by nonstop stories about government officials (and even someone I knew personally) that were hitting the news several years ago. I was talking on the phone with a friend about it (as well as disappointments she had had in her life), and I said: “We’re all only two steps from disaster.” I said to her then. Ok. Time to write a song about it.

About 10 years ago I spent several years singing with a gospel choir at a homeless center. One of the many things I learned from that experience is that there’s a very thin line between success and failure, fame and public humiliation. We are human; we all make mistakes. Some of us have good fortune and/or the resources to learn from those mistakes and move on, but others don’t.

We often judge other people based on how they look (race, religion, gender, class) or mistakes we presume they have made when, in fact, we don’t know anything about their specific circumstances. Life is capricious. None of us control where we were born, our family circumstances, our genetics, or even most of the life events that happen to us. We like to think we control our destinies (maybe that’s why we judge others so harshly at times—to buttress that belief), but in truth we control very little. Tragedy can strike anyone—and that person may be partly to blame or not. Either way I think it behooves us all to extend a little more grace to each other. Yes, “you reap what you sow”—just don’t automatically assume you are better because you got a better harvest...this time.

"Something True"

Full lyrics and listening links below (scroll down for story behind song). Buy cd and note cards of lyrics from "Store".

Tell me something true—
a promise between me and you:
a lover’s first gaze,
broken-hearted clichés,
long, lonely Valentine days

Won’t you open your heart?
Open your heart
let me in

Tell me something real—
something only you feel:
how your heels clicked the floor
when you walked out that door
a silence that started to roar

But the words fly around
without making a sound
drawing near
with anger and fear
Then dry up in the air
in unspoken despair
like rain that never hits ground (Chorus)

Please tell me tonight
before I give up this fight
Tell me
something
true

Chris Rosser plays the piano for this recording on the "Play Me" cd (we played guitars on the version for the "Something True" EP). I have played the piano for much longer than the guitar, so I often hear songs on the piano first and adapt them for the guitar later (one reason why I recorded 5 of my songs in two different ways for "Something True" and "Play Me" cds. My background in music theatre is readily apparent in this version of the song. A fellow musician commented he could see the darkened stage with a soloist singing this song at a heightened moment of tension in a play. And I did get to sing this on a darkened stage (although not in a play...at least not yet...) for over 800 people at the Knight Theatre in Charlotte (you can watch the video along with the song introduction here). It was quite a moment. After watching the video you can scroll down on the same blog post for a description of the writing process.

"Keep on Talking"

Full lyrics and listening links below (scroll down for story behind song). Buy cd and note cards of lyrics from "Store".

You flash your power suit
flaunt your stacks of gold
You think the human heart
can be bartered and sold
Save all your bills
I won’t be one of your shills
You can keep on walking
‘cause I’m already gone

I hear you talk so big
always sneering a dig
You build yourself tall
by making others small
The sound of your voice
is music to your own ears
You can keep on talking
‘cause I’m already gone

Why don’t you play fair?
Why can’t you be nice?
Do you sell your soul
for any asking price?

You say I’ll stack the deck—
deal you in
buy you fortune and fame
(yeah you’re good at this game)
But when I’m burned by the flame
I’ll know who to blame
You can keep on talking
‘cause I’m already gone

Keep on talking
I’m gonna keep on walking
You can keep on talking
‘cause I’m already
gone

One of the biggest surprises for me as I have been on this crazy journey of learning how to write and record my own songs has been the generosity of fellow artists. The impetus for writing the song, “Keep on Talking” came from enjoying hearing Bob Malone play the piano at a Tosco Music Party. Bob played the piano with such full abandon, joy, and skill that it was exhilarating to watch. I joined his email list and began following his career. (He has a solo career as well as playing in John Fogerty’s band.) A year or two later, I had the chance to speak to him at a small concert. I told him I enjoyed his music so much that recently, when I was in the recording studio, I told the piano player (Chad Lawson, who is, stylistically almost at the opposite end of the spectrum but equally as enthralling) to “channel Bob Malone” and sent him some Youtube videos to listen to. Bob got a kick out of this story. A few weeks later Bob launched a kickstarter campaign to fund his most recent cd in which he offered to “play a track for your cd” for an astonishingly affordable amount. I bought it. But I had no idea what I wanted him to play. I was working on recording my first full cd of original songs and was a song or two short of a full cd, so I knew what I had to do. I needed to write a song for Bob to play.

I knew I wanted the song to allow Bob to show the range of his talent, so I hit upon the idea of making the piano a character in the song. The piano would be a show-off—an over-the-top, ego-centric scene-stealer. What better show-off than a bully? At the time (summer of 2015) it seemed that cyber-bullying and crass political dialogue (whether in social media or on tv) seemed to be reaching a crescendo. I tried to keep the description of the bully full of specific details but attached to neither gender nor specific traits (other than a bully). I wanted to rally the audience around the idea that we don’t have to feel helpless or retaliate when encountering a bully. We can use our commitment to respect and honor each other to take away the bully’s power. We can refuse to participate—refuse to give the bully the attention he or she craves.

Three years later I see the song in a different light. As a society we pretend to be offended by bullies, but in reality I think our individualistic, hero-worshipping culture secretly loves bullies. In the same way that I thrilled in Bob’s “over-the-top” playing style, we love the “over-the-top” nature of bullies. We love their brashness, their confidence, their “to hell with everyone else I’m going to get what I want” fortitude. Propelled by social media and the frenetic pace of our lives, it takes a lot to get our attention. Nothing leads to irrelevancy sooner than being boring; bullies are anything but boring. And (in Hollywood fashion) we love the story even more when a hero appears to swoop in to put the bully in his or her place. We love a good fight.

And so lately when I perform this song, I am aware of the thrill of swaggering with bravado: facing the bully and saying "I'm not afraid of you!" It's enacting a fantasy we all have of saying the perfect thing at the perfect moment: putting someone else in his or her own "place". So maybe the song isn't really a call for solidarity with others around respect but a fantasy of empowerment. But it sure is fun.

"Never Enough"

Full lyrics and listening links below (scroll down for story behind song). Buy cd and note cards of lyrics from "Store".

You used to save up words that I spoke
like pennies you found
lying lost on the ground
Roll me up in your arms
keep me safe from harm
then hold me up to the light
Now the days are all spent
Don’t know where the time went
and I feel so empty

It’s never enough, no it’s never enough, no it’s never enough
Would you stay for awhile?
It’s never enough, no it’s never enough, no it’s never enough
Would you please make me smile?

Sometimes when you look into the mirror
do you know who you see?
Are you who you should be?
Do you know where you’re going?
Do you like where you’ve been?
Do you wish you could start over again?
You got what you wanted
You thought you were free
Now you can’t get what you need (Chorus)

We’re spending our time
like there’s time to spare
We’re just now starting to care
that it’s never enough

To be alive is to be constantly striving. And for humans, who are conscious of our striving, the breadth and depth of our desire seems boundless. We want more of everything: more money, more love, more power, more success...above all, more time. We yearn for more from the moment we draw our first breath to the last—only intensifying the struggle (for all but the wisest of us) the more we are aware of our limits. At middle age we seem to suddenly recognize our own mortality and buck against it any way we can...usually by striving for more of what it is we think we want.

This song, “Never Enough,” went through several major rewrites—primarily, I think, because I had a hard time describing that sense of wanting more in a concrete way. I didn’t want to define a circumstance too narrowly but ended up with too broad a concept.  I’d play the song in a workshop and everyone would look at me quizzically at the end.

Although I think I finally got to an emotionally resonant song, it is interesting to me that people have interpreted that sense of “wanting more” from both sides of the equation. I was relating to the “wanting more”, but others were exasperated by the sense that no matter how much they do or give or try, it is never enough.

In the first verse a relationship that was once treasured is no longer deemed valuable. The currency of a relationship—words we speak to one another, time spent physically with another, or visually cherishing the other—is spent.  Why? It’s not clear. One partner wants more, the other has given all that can be given and it’s still “never enough.”

In the second verse, the listener confronts the dissatisfaction with self: “are you who you should be?” We set goals for ourselves and, even if we achieve those goals, we find it isn’t enough.  For some of us, perhaps we chose the wrong goals “can’t get what you need,” for others of us perhaps we haven’t learned to be content with what we have.

The (shortened) third verse is a reminder that no matter which part of the journey we are on (wanting more or giving more), our time is limited. There is no “time to spare.” At this point I hope the chorus has even more resonance: “stay for awhile” (learn how to be still), “make me smile” (practice gratitude). As the Buddhists remind us, we only have the current moment, so we should cherish it. Let the current moment teach us that now is enough in spite of—or perhaps even because of—our constant longing for more.

"Play Me"

Full lyrics and listening links below (scroll down for story behind song). Buy cd and note cards of lyrics from "Store".

I want to live in a song
so you can play me all night long
Pull my guitar right on out of her case
Strum my strings from the treble to the bass
I want to live in a song

I want to live in a vinyl 45
so you can make me spin and jive
Lay my record on the old turntable
Slip in my grooves if you’re willing and able
I want to live in a vinyl 45

I want to live in a drum
so you can make my skin thrum
Brush my high hat and stroke my cymbal
Play the whole kit if you’re feeling nimble
I want to live in a drum

Play me all night long—
I want to live in a song

Music provides a common language for people—no matter one’s ethnicity, age, race, gender, religion, or political views. No other art form can transport us to a shared emotional state so quickly and completely—mind, body and soul. And for musicians, the act of playing together creates a synchronicity that is rarely reached in any other human endeavor. Name the key, count off the beat, and we are off on a journey together. The math and geometry of music sketch a road map so that no one gets lost (or at least not for long because you can always return home to the tonic note—the first note of the scale—and the “1”—the downbeat, the first beat of a measure).

It took two years before this shy, people-pleasing introvert would even sing this song in public. Singing such a forward, suggestive song pushed me pretty far out of my comfort zone. But creative endeavors require vulnerability, so in the end I recorded this song not once but three times, made it the title song for my first full album, and rarely play a set without including this song. 

Knowing my music theatre past and my love of 20th century lyricists give the song some context. Lorenz Hart, Ira Gershwin, and Cole Porter (to name a few of my favorites) used witty lyrics filled with metaphors, puns and double entendres to express forbidden feelings (Hart’s Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered, Porter’s “You’re the Top”). Lyricists for music theatre (such as Stephen Sondheim) used clever rhymes, rhythm and word play to add layers of complexity to the drama. I also appreciate the way current hip hop and pop artists coin new phrases with multi-layered metaphors and word pattern and rhythm—conveying deep meaning in a go-down easy musical context.

Songs must be entertaining and at least partially understood upon a first listen. But I think the best songs contain clues and multiple meanings that only deepen upon repeated listening. That’s why I still love to sit down and listen to an artist’s cd with lyrics in hand.  Words can be so multi-layered. My favorite word in this song was “play”. Here’s a shortened list of meanings of the word play (all of which were intended in that one 4 letter word):

Play (verb): (acting): personify, impersonate;(beguile): deceive, fool, double-cross, seduce; make a sound with an instrument; make a visit, see; frolic, cavort, whoop it up; carouse, paint the town red; compete, challenge, grapple with; act-up, misbehave; amuse oneself, trifle, not be serious, flirt with; caress, cuddle, toy with; deal with, handle, cope with; manage, operate; depict, portray; exploit, make use of; feign, pretend, imagine; mess with, handle; fidget, squirm; field, handle, retrieve; finesse, bluff; frolic, dance; cut loose, raise hell, go on a tear; dare, gamble, put trust in, wager, defy; manage, take care of, utilize; interpret, translate....

Before I started performing the song for audiences, I was afraid my intent would be misinterpreted—that women would feel uncomfortable and men would feel empowered in ways I did not intend in their behavior toward me or other women. I have found the opposite to be true. It’s women who have felt empowered. As I perform the song, women tend to respond with laughter and clapping. I think women respond so strongly because we often experience the world as objects (especially of the “male gaze”) instead of as subjects. Objectification, the continued physical and mental abuse of women, and the political battleground of women’s bodies stunt women’s ability to speak and act and keep us from being whole human beings. A song that starts with a woman speaking in the nominative (not subjective) case with an active (not passive) verb (“I want”) flips the usual power dynamic—a woman in charge of her own body (including her sexuality). It’s thrilling and fun.

The slower-paced, jazzy version with more complex chord progressions is the original version, and thus the one I chose to include as the third song (often the anchoring song on an album). I wrote it from a very melancholic, lonely, and yearning space and so this version of the song is meant to evoke feelings of unrequited longing. Sometimes the world only makes sense when I am singing a song—especially if I am singing with another musician or singing for someone who is intently listening. The sound waves wash over me like a blessing, and I can almost reach out and touch the electrical charge connecting me to someone else. Most of us, I think, feel quite disconnected from each other. The latest tragedy, act of violence, or dehumanizing word or deed is so dispiriting, I want to wrap myself up in music and hide away. Enjoying music together is a glorious respite from the disconnectedness we feel in our families, friendships, communities, and countries. That impulse—wanting to live in a song—is at the heart of the song “Play Me” and why I made it the title song for my cd.

"Greenwich Mean Time"

Full lyrics and listening links below (scroll down for story behind song). Buy cd and note cards of lyrics from "Store".

Dear old friend, you’re my prime meridian
Grounded in space—no change of attitude
marking one place. While I travel the Latitudes
and broaden my views. But when I’m confused
you guide me along. You're my 0 and 360
My Greenwich Mean Time       
I can navigate a vessel,
but that don’t make me special
I only see my one piece of sky
And all the miles between
make it hard for us to see eye to eye.
But you can’t deny you were there in the beginning,
and you’ll be there till the end
You're my 0 and 360. My Greenwich Mean Time.                            
When the clouds block out the sun
and the moon refuses to shine. 
If you'll be my East and West,
 I’ll be your North and South. 
And together we’ll find our way
The length of my days is written in your hands
and the curve of your smile like that old brass line
calling me home. No matter how far I roam. No matter where I lay my head. 
It’s you, my dear oldest friend can set me back on Mean Time

We were sitting at the dinner table in Burlington, NC relaxing after all the wedding festivities were over. My parents and sister had flown across the country and another family had driven eleven hours—all to help friends of fifty years with a wedding in their home. Toward the end of the meal, the father of the bride looked around the table at all of us gathered there and exclaimed: “What is it about old friends?”

The three couples at the wedding have been friends since the 1960’s, and the friendship continues strong today. In the late 60s, my Dad began serving as pastor of a little church outside of Oxford, Mississippi. We lived in an asbestos-shingled house on a dirt road, complete with a cattle gap on the driveway. The second couple and their family lived about three miles away; they farmed cotton. When the third young couple and their family moved to the community a couple years later the friendships gelled for life. Whether for church events, weekday dinners, or neighborhood parties, my parents and their friends all worked together to grow, build, bake, or sew whatever needed doing—creating something grand and beautiful from meager resources.

I was 8 when we left Mississippi for South Carolina. My Dad subsequently pastored churches in Atlanta and Missoula, MT. The third family moved to NC where they worked in construction and organic farming. The cotton farmer eventually retired and lives in the same house that still looks almost exactly as I remember it from childhood; most of their children and grandchildren live just a few miles away with the exception of one grandchild who lives in England. My parents’ and their friends’ lives have diverged from each other over the past 45 years in almost every way imaginable, and yet the friendships have lasted.

It takes a lot of work and good intentions on both sides to be friends with those who are different from you. It seems these days that fewer and fewer people are willing to put in that hard work. The value of diversity and difference as a goal unto itself is being questioned and undermined at every turn. In fact, in almost every decision we make these days whether online (listening to music, reading an article, watching tv, buying goods or services) or in the physical world (buying a house, choosing a school for our children, or our jobs and social activities), we encounter forces (both active and passive) that funnel us into groups of people who are “like” us. It may make things easier in the day-to-day to habitually choose sameness (and it certainly makes it easier to get us to “click” and “buy”), but I think “sameness” causes us to lose our way—our sense of purpose and direction—both individually and collectively.

My answer to the question “What is it about old friends?” is the song “Greenwich Mean Time” (on my latest cd “Play Me”). Old friends (and family) orient us in our own lives. They help us understand who we are, and how we got here. We remember each other in childhood or youth and are reminded of choices we have made then and now. They are also the people we have potentially diverged from the most in our lives. And yet, if we are lucky, they still accept us as we are. I have a lot of fun in the song using the metaphors of time and measurement to explain friendship. My prior blog post of four years ago goes into more detail about Greenwich, England (the location of the “prime meridian”—or 0 degrees longitude) and some of the other metaphors I wrote into the song. One of the main points I make in the song is the importance of difference. We can’t know where we are in the world without two measurements: longitude and latitude. Those are very different kinds of measurements, but only lines at different angles can intersect. Parallel lines never converge. The intersecting and diverging lines of longitude and latitude help us learn where we came from, where we are, and where we are headed.

 

 

 

 

"When Dragons Were Real"

Full lyrics and listening links below (scroll down for story behind song). Buy cd and note cards of lyrics from "Store".

"We were knights in armor of shining steel
fearless in battle on our noble steeds
When you scraped your knee
or got scared in the night,
you would run to me
and I’d make it all right
I could be brave
if you could believe
Back when unicorns danced
and dragons were real

Maybe one fine day we’ll be heroes again
standing proud and true on our own homeland
We will chase away monsters from under the bed
Find happy ever after in the lives we have led
We will believe
and we will recall
back when unicorns danced
and dragons were real

Now my armor’s rusted and paint’s begun to peel
There are bills to be paid and deadlines to meet
Words are our weapons
 we hurl in the abyss
Wounds from wars
don’t heal with a kiss
You don’t believe—
you don’t even recall
Back when unicorns danced
and dragons were real

Close your eyes
(just close your eyes)
Wish on a star
Don’t let this hard world
break your heart in two
Magic still lives
in you

I wrote the song "When Dragons Were Real" four years ago when my first child was about to leave home for college. During rehearsals with my bass player, Cheryl, we spent more and more time talking about how we were dreading our oldest children leaving for college. Finally she announced: “You have to write a song about this!” I had attended several songwriting workshops and started my own weekly songwriting group but had only written a few songs at that point. I told her I didn’t think I could do it. Nonetheless, every week she asked how her song was coming along. So I worked at it—and wrote terrible drafts with sappy lyrics. I wrote and rewrote lyrics about being happy to let my child go into the world and discover new adventures. But all my background notes and journaling were about how sad I was. As I reflected on my sadness, I knew I was dreading simply missing him. But mostly my sadness was about this part of my life being over. Part of the wonder of being a parent is getting to relive your own childhood (if you were lucky enough to have a happy childhood). You tell remembered stories, go back to forgotten places, act silly, and (at least pretend to) believe in magic. You get to be the hero in your own life. But now, with both of my children well into adolescence, the magic of childhood was over. Again

Fortunately I had two therapists in my song-writing group (thank you Mark Larson and DeWitt Crosby!). After the second time the song had been taken apart in critiques, Mark finally said “I don’t think you are writing a song about letting go. I think you want to hold on.” Aha. But the struggle didn’t end with the lyrics. I had to figure out how to play it on the guitar. I knew I wanted to create a “magic” sound in the musical riff. Nanci Griffith’s harmonic ping for the elevator at Woolworth’s in her song “Love at the 5 and Dime” was the perfect inspiration (see my youtube cover here). In order to get the harmonic ring sound with a chord, I knew I would need to write the song in open tuning. Although I only knew one song in open tuning at the time, fortunately, Nanci's was the song I knew.

Chris Rosser and I play guitars in the recording; however, I took the unusual step of crediting the piano player, Chad Lawson, in the song title because I was so moved by his interpretation of the song. Chad is a chart-topping classical musician who interprets classical and early 20th century composers as well as writing his own original compositions. His gift is creating magic in the silence between notes. He knows when to be restrained, and when to cut loose. I had hired him to record three other songs but not this one. When he said he’d worked on an arrangement, we went ahead and recorded him. I’ll never forget hearing him bring this song to life on the piano. The hairs on my arm stood up and tears ran down my face—a beautiful moment of creation for which I am so grateful.

After months and years of work, I am finally releasing this baby song into the world. You never know where something you create might end up—the ripples in other lives—but you hope for the best and let go.

 

Leaving the Nest

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photos by Jack Oates

My father recently photographed a family of robins in their nest—from the early days of tending the eggs, to indefatigably feeding the demanding chicks, to the chicks taking flight, and one final farewell (and snack) from the edge of the yard. Dad almost captured the moment when the last chick left, but the movement of his camera so startled the chick that she leapt off the nest, careened through the air and crash-landed on the opposite side of the yard.

In two days I take my second (and last) child to her freshman year in college (hopefully without the crash landing): the proverbial “empty nest”. I have the usual mix of emotions: relief (they launched!), fear (they launched!), liberty (a quiet house!), loneliness (a quiet house!), excitement (what’s next?), unmoored (what’s next?). As I enjoy Dad’s pictures, I’ve contemplated the empty nest—as in completely empty. You don’t see Mama and Papa Robin moping forlornly in the nest (or throwing a block party for that matter). They are gone, too. Life has it’s seasons, and this one has passed. Time to let go--leave the nest. And yet....

Whether one has children or not, there comes a point in middle age when you think: Is this all? What do I want to leave behind? Do I have unfulfilled dreams and how will I honor that impulse? Do I need to learn to accept life’s disappointments or risk a new challenge (even if I fail)? And the philosophers among us keep asking: Why am I here? What is all this living for? What does anything really mean in the face of decay and mortality?

I am grateful to have recently been introduced to a wonderful new podcast created by Mark Peres titled (aptly) “On Life and Meaning”.  He interviews people from disparate professions and cultures about what gives their life meaning—from the famous (Peter Reinhart, baker, writer, educator) to the not-so-famous (me). I reflect on my life and what propelled me into songwriting and performing again. I also play the two songs I dedicated to my children: “When Dragons Were Real” (coming out on cd soon!) and “Edge of a Hurricane”. Having children reconnected me to my own childhood—that sense of wonder, joy, and unbridled hope and love—only to lose it all over again when my children grew up. And now the specter of time and frailty looms, and the world seeming even darker and hate-filled than ever before. At times like these it seems even more important not to let go, but to hold on to that wonder and hope and love that still lives within us all.