Wednesday, June 20, 2012

A Cold Freezin' Night: "it was a pleasure to burn" production diary

Things have just about wrapped up around the studio. The last chord has been strummed, the last MIDI part tinkered with, the last microphone tucked away. People in bland khaki uniforms are sweeping the floors and carrying out the trash in the reserved, honorable silence of their profession. I've crafted a neat little lyrics booklet to include in the album download and given the mixes those final tweaks.

But I have one more story to tell you, about a weird, weird song and the Gift of Music.

A cold freezin' night
I wish I was a boy
A cold freezin' night
Oh, baby

Why do you always get away with things?
It's not fair
I need to think, think of something
So you can stay alive
I can kill you with a rifle, with a shotgun, if I care
Probably by cut all your your toes off
Make my way up from there

A cold freezin' night
I wish I was a boy
A cold freezin' night
Oh, baby

Boys do tougher than girls
And I wish I was a boy
I'm gonna rip all your hair off
And everybody's gonna think
He is an asshole
He is that asshole
I'm gonna all rip your hair off
An' then you're gonna be

A cold freezin' night
I wish I was a boy
A cold freezin' night
Oh, baby, sing with me

A cold freezing night
I believe I can soar
A cold freezing night
I believe

I usually like to include a someone else's song on an album. There's so much great songwriting out there, and I always enjoy a good cover. And what makes a good cover is the same thing that makes a good movie adaptation: bringing something new to the table, engaging the original work in a way that sheds light on it a different angle. To wit, here's The Books' original composition:

Yup, totally different, but there are some key common touchstones. To explain, I feel I have to rewind all the way to this past December/January to the Gift of Music, which is a wonderful tradition over at Song Fight!. Each winter holiday season, any one who likes signs up by offering three different songs that they'd like to see covered. The potential cover songs are distributed more or less randomly and each participant picks one song to cover (or more, if they really want). Et voil√†: a new album's worth of music with some of the most interesting twists on both your favorite songs and tunes you've never heard of.

I will admit, my list was... challenging. I finally settled on The Books' deliriously post-modern mash-up because the words tickle my feminist bones. But this is where my ideals about a good cover song come into play. I feel that core of the song, the melody, should be respected as well as the lyrics, but the rest can be - should be - changed.

So what do you do with a song that has no melody?

You make one up, of course! The Books are big about sampling and recombination, so I felt it was justified to plunder their "lyrics" and reconstitute a song that was more my style. Thus was born the melodic center of what you hear today, and that was pretty much it for my submission to G.o.M. I like the minimal percussion, the 180 take of giving the whole composition a melody, and I like the vocal harmonies of the chorus.

But I wasn't really satisfied. The song didn't go anywhere, and it just kind of... well, stopped. To create more energy and variation, I thought about a solo or a bridge. Yet, this past Sunday, sitting in front of my mixing board, I had an epiphany: this is a sampling song! Forgetting about any guitar noodling or a key change, I headed to my favorite audio junkyard, SampleSwap and sifted through the wonderful disjecta there, bringing home the rattling tin cans, PVC pipes and whirly, wispy bits of noise you hear. The new mix is much improved, with a clearer nod to its sampled, post-modern roots. It's also the perfect final track with its disregard of the fourth wall and distinct sonic approach, leaning against the back wall of the party, cooly sipping its Pabst Blue Ribbon, nodding at its brooding half-sister Soul Clap and thinking "it was a pleasure to burn."

Monday, June 18, 2012

Broken Doll: "it was a pleasure to burn" production diary

I'm a compassionate, generous person by nature, ironically to the point of selfishness: I collect broken dolls in order to fix them. Some times, though, it turns out that the collector is the one that needs mending.

By Joelk75 :

Crafting a story about a voyage can be a journey unto itself. I published the lyrics to this last Fall. The entire song has since undergone some substantial changes.

the stage was small; the billing, too
it was still the show to end all shows
you take your coffee black but a little sweet
these things stick with me even still
like morning traffic through a dirty pane
waking you from fevered dreams
like letting go while i kicked and screamed
(like letting go with a kiss)

i am letting too much slip away
seems there's nothing left to hang on
just a voice on a distant plain
echoes of things pretending
you are my mirror; i am thine
it's still not - no not the same
there's a hole where you used to shine
(spots on the sun feel no shame)

how do you do it? i 
wanna know
this broken doll that you take home
how do you do it? i wanna know
this broken soul you make whole

in that forest of steel and stone
we fought our dragons and we lost
we played at love to bind our wounds
never noticing the cost
lamb or lion it's all the same
i am your shadow ever hence
this lullaby a searing flame
(i am too long hunting this)

how do you do it? i wanna know
this broken doll that you take home
how do you do it? i wanna know
this broken soul you make whole

One of the first things I noticed when I came back to "Broken Doll" is that the melody is rather samey and the verses are long. To keep things interesting and create more dynamics, I decided to double-time the melody in the second half of the verse, making a kind of pre-chorus. I then reduced the choruses from three to two. I even though about making that part a bridge but it's the core of the song, lyrically; so I decided it would work better as a refrain.

I rearranged the verse order for a better narrative: opening with an identifiable setting that establishes the spatial and thematic relations of the characters. I seem to have a tendency to write the ending or the middle of a story first. Even here, the second verse is a kind of flash-forward, the present-tense narrator's point of view on the past events he's ruminating. There are also some modifications to pronouns (well, several). The original story was the intersection of two love triangles but that wasn't really coming through in the verses and it works better to focus on the single, strong relationship.

Like many of my unprompted creations, the recording of "Broken Doll" was a rather organic process, taking the better part of a week. My original plan was for something very minimal: a pair of hard-panned guitar parts, a piano and some very light percussion (like an egg shaker), and maybe - maybe - some electric guitar holding down the low end. Alas, I don't have an egg shaker, and the samples I have are too busy for the low-key vibe of this song. Fine, skip the shaker bit. Oh, maybe a cello would be good instead of a bass guitar. Hrm, no. Organ? Yes. (I am far too enamored of this wonderful little VSTi...). And that chorus, it just has to build. Best thing for that: drums! over-driven guitars! bass! The end product doesn't match my original intentions at all, but I'm still very happy with where it goes.

I always knew that this song would be part of it was a pleasure to burn because its lyrics matched the theme so well. Sonically, she's become something of an outlier: the end product of my development over the past few months. A closer sibling would be my last Song Fight! submission: "Wish You Would," with its E Street-style backing parts and 70's rock vibe.

But outliers are good: proof that I'm stretching my musical muscles, exploring new places and learning new things.

This weekend was unexpectedly productive: studio work is done, I've pretty much settled on the track-order and the lyrics booklet is 90%! Come back on Wednesday for the final production diary entry, and the story behind my take on a song by The Books.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Puzzle Pieces: Nightmare Fuel no. 0

"We never go in there," said Hatter. "That is not the tea cupboard and holds neither ravens nor writing-desks nor anything that may seem so similar one unto the other. " There was something peculiar - well, more peculiar than the other other odd things: his voice crescendoed and became increasingly staccato while his eyes raised towards the ceiling though his neck did not crane. "No, in fact, that room holds things that are quite opposite!" Louder and faster: "Things that are dry to touchy, black to horizon ribbons, breath to - " Silence. A quick dip of the Adam's Apple. His eyes, once nearly rolled back under their lids, now darted to the shadow beyond the doorway, shadows that writhed in feline ways, a Cheshire grin threatening to emerge. "No, my dear, " Hatter said in a voice so calm it reminded me of my father's baritone at his most sanely stoic, "we never go there."

by John Tenniel; from Wikimedia Commons
"And it never comes here." Hatter gestured toward his tea cup: cobalt blue with golden sigils that matched a pot scattered amongst the multitude. Before me as well was a cup: delicate white with blue designs that could must have been Chinese or ancient Sumerian - or was that cuneiform? Surely it had a matching teapot somewhere... Yes, there: that glimmer of white and blue far down the table, many years away it seems, as light counts time. Its lid rattled gently as Dormouse poked her nose out, then slipped back inside.

"It won't do to stare," interrupted Hatter, and I started, for I had indeed been staring. Then my eyes were drawn to the blue symbols on my cup. The figures seemed on the cusp of movement, of dancing some ancient rite.

"No, it won't do," Hatter repeated. "The dancers are puzzle pieces, you see."

I did not see.

"They complete the...." another glance toward the shadows, "... the Other." He swallowed and then his face flickered with mad indifference. "It's tea, hot tea, that always does the trick." He gave me a grin that could cut barbed wire and then poured me out with wicked aplomb. "One lump or two?"


Just a little warm up prompted / inspired by Bliss Morgan's Nightmare Fuel project.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

All Swear About Murder: "it was a pleasure to burn" production diary

First off, a quick announcement: I've made all of the tracks for it was a pleasure to burn available for free download! I hadn't done this before for a few reasons. First, the album's not done yet and, as twentieth-century as it is, I still prefer albums to individual tracks as a method of distribution and consumption. Second, Bandcamp limits my bandwidth to 200 downloads a month.

But I realized that it was silly and egotistical to make the songs streaming-only. It should be up to you, the listener, how you want to encounter this music. Also, it's a "limit" of two hundred downloads. If I somehow magically break that barrier, it will be a happy problem indeed.

So, enjoy! Grab the tracks as you please, play them where you want on the device you want. Just, please respect the Creative Commons Attribute-Share-Alike license I'm using. Most importantly, thanks for listening!

On with the show: new track, new stories!

Some times, mistakes are fortuituous. Some times, you just happen to know the right people at the right moment. And some times, it's the wrong moment. "All Swear About Murder" fell out of a Google+ conversation I had last Fall with Denise Hudson (whose work you should totally check out, by the way). Well, the title fell off the back of that truck. The story is pure Appalachian Noir.

you were standing in a shadow of blue
a chord in one hand my heart to undo
you were a cipher, a mistress code
a wind-talker in melody clothed
& we sang all night
& whispered the day
you were standing but i heard you croon
a siren sang your secret tune

it was a tryst it was a whirlwind
but all good things must find their end
your études your ivory keys
my six-string down on its knees
i play the blues
you play for you
it was a tryst it was too facile
i was all swear about blue gun steel

i was all swear about your demise
shed not a tear for all your lies
they put me in chains and on the stand
i told the tale 'bout your demands
'bout what you took from me
my ransomed heart
i was all swear about your timely end
but never said a word about our bed

I don't often write murder ballads. But when I do, they don't have a chorus and I use slide guitar.

I made a demo of this song for FAWM. As you can hear, this girl has undergone several changes. When I started writing, I knew that I wanted to craft a song with no chorus. The original draft has a bridge, but it was always a problematic thing.

I took the chance to perform "All Swear" for a local Atlanta songwriters' group and I realized during the discussion session that 1) the bridge was not working and 2) it still needed a refrain of some kind. And hey, the purely musical refrain for "Susan" is awesome, so why not do that again?

Yes, I'm totally borrowing from myself. Or doing a retread of an idea I explored once. Shoot me. If it works, do it twice more. That's the basis of a song, isn't it?

I also changed the order of the verses after the group discussion because I realized that I was starting the story at the end, and that moving verse two to the first slot would make the story more accessible, since it establishes the setting. That first line is the one real thing in this entire song; I really did meet someone for the first time in a shadow of blue. Also, the last line "about our bed" is the zinger twist, so it's good to hold that back.

Recording of the fully-produced track was a rather organic thing. Since I wasn't under time constraints to submit this to a contest, I was able to fiddle with sounds and tones. So there are at least three different guitar tones there (I love that warbly guitar tone, which harkens to the black-and-white wild west sections of Kill Bill Volume 2 for me). And my favorite organ. And a piano. And acoustic guitars because that's where the whole thing started, right?  (Actually, recording the acoustic was a pain in the rear; I'm finger-strumming again and it was so quiet that I had to work mic positions and the gain and blah, blah blah. Eventually, I double tracked most of it just for volume.)

To make a long story short (too late!) The recording process resulted in a series of happy accidents that gave me the cool intro and that dramatic drop-off at the end of the second break.

There's probably some unfulfilled potential with the tempo change that leads into the third verse; could be a moment for a bridge or another kind of break. As it is, this track is somewhat weak on its own, but it's going to make a killer lead-in for "Where You Can Go."

Besides, some times you just have step back, brush the gunshot residue off of your sleeve and go "good enough."

Saturday, June 9, 2012


my love is a flower pressed between her sorrow and the pages
she pens to keep unbound until the morrow for sun must rise
stars must sigh charcoal twilight giving way to azure

my soul is a whisper passed along lips of secret lovers
strangers of the witching hour whose sheets fold origami passion
salty lips uncover discover recover hands that must caress
eyes that must rest upon a warm skin that should not be seen
let alone touched tasted consumed

my dream is a traitor lost along the road to Judea
long miles i have let slip between us while tracing small steps
the angel's tread of souls more blindly wise than me
for hearts must believe must feel that they pump and push and pull
our tongues entwined pressing between them this unbearable cry
the petals of a blossom tucked away in the oubliette of her Alexandria

Friday, June 8, 2012

always someone's monster: "it was a pleasure to burn" production diary

I've actually written about this song before, since she was crafted for SpinTunes 4.1. The challenge was two-fold, as always: right about a childhood nightmare and make liberal use of rubato. For this song, I totally nailed the first challenge and totally tanked the second but still advanced to the next round.

'Cuz it's a good song, even if it is in many ways the antithesis to the feel-good pop of Panacea.

my mother was adamant
that woman was made of steel
so one night she stole away
said she couldn't feel

my father wasn't there
his jaw slack, his eyes a-glaze
he awoke hard one day
left the porch, the house ablaze

and i tell you all of this
so you can understand

my mother always said
there are no monsters under your bed
in the closet they abide
keep them there

i am working my way on through
my family tree of twisted branches
climb on down to the tangled roots
find out where my shadow dances

i am looking for the answer
to the question you asked me
if you are always someone's monster
are you ever really free

and i tell you all of this
so you will take my hand

my mother always said
there are no monsters under your bed
in the closet they abide
keep them there

Let's be honest, there's no rubato here, at least strictly speaking. I change tempo a lot, but there's little variation within any given phrase. I just don't have the vocal control to pull of something like this:

Nonetheless, there's lots that I love about this tune, and that's why she's coming onto the album. First, I like the imagery I conjure with these words. Its both quotidian and dark, evoking those shadows we like to ignore on the clean, manicured streets of suburbia. Second, the constant tempo shifts let me (force me to?) make several sections, with lots of dynamics. Like To The Devil (and probably several other tracks, since I love dynamics), this song loves to pause and then rush forward. Third, it defies conventional songwriting structure in a productive way: Verse - Verse - Pre-chorus - Chorus - Verse - Verse - Pre-chorus - Chorus - Coda. (Yeah, that's right. When's the last time you heard a song with a coda?) Like a dream, this composition wanders into unexpected places, pivots and turns at unusual moments, explodes and then drifts away.

The updated mix has a few new touches I'll mention for the archive. I've added some more oomph to the opening with an organ part (there are two different organs in this song). I redid the vocals in the chorus because originally they dipped too far into my growl-voice. I need bombast for that part but not anger. Nailing and mixing those six bars was probably the hardest part of the entire song-creation process. Finally, I removed the echoes in the second half of each verse, and I really like how sparse it leaves that section.

The remaining tunes on my list actually require full production (why didn't I do them first, when I had the time?) But I'm well into a murder ballad with no chorus (but lots of wicked slide guitar), and actually I have a cover of song from The Books that just needs some re-arranging, so maybe that will come along soon as well. Keep an ear out, we're in the home stretch!

Thursday, June 7, 2012

To The Devil: "it was a pleasure to burn" production diary

Professional obligations have eclipsed my musical predilections for the past week, so I have been remiss in posting the piecemeal progress I've made towards completing it was a pleasure to burn. Nonetheless, progress there has been, and below you may find the evidence thereof.

"To The Devil" is one of my unprompted compositions, which means she arrived without call from either a Song Fight! or SpinTunes challenge, nor even during FAWM.

i spoke to the devil but he had nothing to say
cuz i had beat him down, beat him all damn day
Beelzebub came a knockin', came up right to my door
tried to whisper sweet nothin's so i put him on the floor

i spoke to the devil
i spoke with my fist
i spoke to the devil
now he's on my list

course there is what Freddy said about the black abyss
can you win that staring game and make Satan miss?
if this is that hubris thing, then just let me be
if i can make my way there blind, his blood will set me free

i spoke to the devil
i spoke to the devil
you want no truck with me

though it winds like a serpent, i can walk the path
sow the seeds of destruction, pick the grapes of wrath
i spoke to the devil but was only talkin' aloud
i am my own hemlock i weave my own shroud

i spoke to the devil
bluffed the father of lies
i spoke to the devil, boy
you better let me pass on by

i spoke to the devil
i spoke to the devil and lived
you want no truck with me

This song actually comes from a pretty dark place, so I have trouble talking about it. Let's start with structure and my trademark references.

"To the Devil" is a pretty straight-up rock song. I knew this right from the get go, and so it's lathered in dynamics, bombast and a simple chord progression. In its initial iteration, the whole vocal delivery was rather monotone. I was trying to play it cool, underlying an assured delivery with lyrics soaked in doubt and not a little self-loathing. I wanted there to be a tension between the raucous triumph of the music and the dark introspection of the words: fragile aggression.

I'm very happy with the dynamics of this song, the way it ebbs and flows, but for the new take, I knew that it need more of that. So, I redid the percussion track entirely. (Hooray for EzDrummer!) and put more energy into the chorus. The call/response in that section was a last-minute editing decision; I'm on the fence and it may not survive (entirely) the last edit before I consider the album complete.

References to literature and philosophy abound. Overall, I was thinking of Charlie Daniel's "The Devil Went Down the Georgia" as well as anti-heroes that figure in so much of Johnny's Cash's work.

"Freddy" and his "black abyss" is a nod to one Nietzsche's more famous quotes:
Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you. (Beyond Good and Evil.)
The second half of verse two is actually a very oblique reference to Oedipus at Colonus, the third and final part of Sophocles' Theban Plays, in which the now-blinded king ruminates upon his dire fate. It's a pessimistic work, even for a tragedy. And no mention of "hemlock" could miss evoking the fate of Socrates, who was condemned to death for basically being a skeptic and "corrupting the youth" of Athens with rational thought, of all things.

The "grapes of wrath," here has nothing to do with the Steinbeck novel, but rather his source: The Battle Hymn of the Republic." Which is, in turn, a reference to Revelations 14: 19-20. I'm just part of a long chain of borrowing.

Personally, I'll manage to say that writing this song was kind of cathartic. It's hyperbolic, of course: my life is pretty good, but I had settled into a kind of mid-winter glum and channeled my shadow into a song that might make Kurt Cobain go "Dude, you have issues."

More music has been made since I've fallen quiet. Come back soon (like, tomorrow) and I'll tell you about more dark shadows that I've summoned.