Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Sittin' in the Backseat: "it was a pleasure to burn" production diary

For this album, I have a few guests stopping in. The words for "Sittin' in the Backseat" were written by a talented lyricist at FAWM who goes by Shay. I hooked up with her work last year with "No Excuse, No Reason." That turned out so well that I knew I wanted to snatch up some of her work again.

Sittin' in the backseat, leanin' on the window
I can see your lips move but I can't hear you
Over the stereo

Puttin' all your anger down on the floorboard
You don't even realize, starin' into his eyes
You are a victim of your own accord
Upset like the weather ruffled up your feathers
It's a big ole fiery mess; can't feel my feet in this wreck,
An' it's ten seconds 'til we're severed

Sittin' in the backseat, leaning on the window
I can see your lips move but I can't hear you
Over the stereo

Tempers roared like dragon's breath, n' I came face to face with death
Couldn't run the other way; numb to the core, I just prayed
Held on so tight to my breath ...
He loves you, don't you know; promised he'd never let you go
I saw him pull you from this wreck an' I hoped for one more breath
To say I love you so ...

Sittin' in the backseat, leaning on the window
It's getting cold now, I'll see you somehow
Heaven's calling me to go

Sittin' in the backseat, leaning on the window
I don't see your lips move, no, I can't hear you
Over the stereo

A few things drew me to these lyrics. First, I like the story and its ambiguities. You get the sense of a love-triangle here, but how does the narrator feel about that? There's some distance in the chorus that stands in tension with the verses. Secondly, the imagery is great. Shay has a knack for taking up everyday images (like a car ride) and using them as ... well, vehicles for wonderful metaphors. "Upset like the weather ruffled up your feathers" is fantastic. And that leads me to the next thing that drew me to these lyrics: the abundance of internal rhymes. I love unconventional poetic play like that.

Creating what is effectively an accompaniment to someone else's ideas is always a challenge. I'm sure that Shay writes with a certain rhythm, if not melody, in mind, but she's adamant about giving her collaborator's a free hand. For this work, the particular challenge was that there isn't a clear chorus. It's all written in tercets with lots of internal rhymes. Indeed, for a long time I had little more than a tenuous chord progression. Over the course of nearly two weeks (that's nearly half of FAWM), I fished about for a "sound." Was this a folk song? The car motif didn't seem to fit that genre. A country tune? The metaphors were just too poetic for that vein.

With a mixture of counter-culture glee and dread I decided this would be a rock song, and that I'd have to ask Tom Petty over for some crooning and composition advice. It was at this point that I really found the chorus, which in retrospect is obvious: any tercet that opens with "Sittin' in the backseat." To provide some variation, I added a break/solo with a dramatic tempo change.

I finished principle recording for this during FAWM, but there are some sigfinicant changes that I've made since, especially with the vocals:

In my "Tom Petty" state of mind, I was looking for something low-key and rich on the vocal harmonies. As I put these down, I could tell there wasn't enough energy there but I couldn't find a good timbre that fit in the tempo. It felt like I was yelling or just forcing things, especially in the chorus. (You don't hear that in the demo; it didn't work, so it didn't make the mix.) This first recording was good enough for FAWM, but I knew I had to revisit things for the album. I suppose it was really just a matter of time away from the mixing board, and the decisions to put away the Petty-esque smoothness of my original intentions and pick up my signature growl.

Another significant change is the turnarounds: they're gone. I always wanted this song to have a lot of dynamics, but upon review, the turnarounds are just dead weight, especially that piano-only riff after the first chorus. It's very pretty, but it doesn't fit with the rising crescendo of the story, and the slow-down for the solo works better musically and narratively. I was kind of sad to see the first solo go, since it's hard for me to write good guitar solos, but sometimes you have to step aside and do what's right for the song.

I promised a song about Whitnet Houston this week and I'm ready to deliver. Come back soon!

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