Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Peach, Plum, Pear

I was reading a blog written by a young, literate and outspoken Philadelphian last night, and discovered a fascinating writer/performer, Joanna Newsom, and her song, "Peach, Plum, Pear." (For those who take pains to avoid clicking links containing strong language, here is a direct link to the YouTube video). "lef"'s blog is, as most compelling blogs are, a bright and wide window into another person's world, and she doesn't pull her punches expressing herself).

At first I wasn’t sure if it might be a joke video. She’s pixie-ish, earnest and playing the harp, with let’s just say an unusual singing voice. But within 30 seconds I got that she was for real, and had something compelling going on. She does things with that harp I didn’t think were possible, the words were striking and she was deeply committed to her performance and her music.

I looked up the lyrics on songmeanings.net to get a better sense of them, and they were intriguing, the sort of collage lyric that fascinates me when it’s done right. There were all sorts of interpretations going on, but I noticed that most people tried to “figure it out” from the beginning of the song, in a linear way.

But it struck me that the title was barely used in the song. There’s no chorus, no refrain, there’s just a continuous stream of thought, culminating in the title. And that is never an accident. The title is the conclusion, the meaning and saving it until the very end is a tell that it is the keystone to the song.

It’s obvious the song is about shyness, and self-doubt, some relationship gone wrong or questioned, and some of the songmeanings posters circled around the fruits as metaphors for a woman’s self-image. And I think that’s exactly right, though it’s the declension itself that the song is about. A young woman is often described as a “peach,” new and bright, with smatterings of “peach fuzz” designating youth; a “plum” is a great prize, something special, a woman in the full, ripe bloom; and as women age, and gravity takes over, the phrase “pear-shaped” comes into play.

So those three little words, all fruits, all beginning with ‘p,’ are a concise progression. Soft and downy youth, ripe and mature womanhood, body-changing age. Or “golden turned to gray” as the song says. Peach, plum, pear.

And from that idea the rest of the song unravels (or ravels). It ties into the grocery store at the beginning, and brings together all the insecurities spoken of, in many ways, during the song. The song “makes sense” – the best of these songs, impenetrable at first, becomes wonderful to walk in after a little reflection. And I’m in love with the worlds of meaning distilled in those three fruits.

As a writer, I try to intuit another writer’s process, how s/he got from one thought to another. I can almost imagine her in the fruit section of a grocery store having this ‘pear-shaped’ thought, making the connection in her mind, calculating the phrase and reflecting on her life, her changing body, and imagining the start of a relationship, right there, where she was standing. It’s the sort of crystallized thought we try to put in our notebooks when it happens, the thought that becomes the greater song, and the thought that a day later, hours later, you won’t remember if it’s not written.

I’m going to look up more of Joanna Newsom's work, and see what else she’s written for me.

Monday, December 15, 2008

One dead Frenchman can't be wrong

During my first ever trip to Paris, I took a quiet solo hour to walk through the Pantheon near where we were staying. It was a little breathtaking to be close enough to Emile Zola’s tomb to tap it.

Zola was the flavor of the month, with a series of retrospective displays about his life and career. I knew about the Dreyfus case, and his heroic stand in public, but only a little about his writing. He was a naturalist, and made it his mission to advocate for art that showed life as it was, not enobled or impressionistic, but flat out telling the straight truth. I didn’t realize he had written a 20-novel “series” that followed one family. I figured I owed him something and bought “The Masterpiece” to read.

This is his novel about art, and the artistic impulse. Zola was friends with Cezanne and many other artists. All the characters in the book are based in part on real people (though many are amalgams of several people). It is the familiar and gritty story of a starving artist and friends, living in garrets and attics, creating art and arguing about its meaning, trying to get their pictures recognized by the establishment, and setting up their own salons in revolt. (Cezanne read the book, returned it without comment, and never spoke to Zola again)

All the characters compromise over time, selling themselves out, selling themselves short, selling their souls in the pursuits we all follow as we age, fame, money, security. Only Claude, the main character, remains obsessed with pure art, and it destroys him. The writer, Sandoz (based on Zola) finds the balance between writing what he believes in and making a living.

I should say that The Masterpiece is not a terribly fun read, but it’s rich in detail about Paris life of all sorts, and has a realistic view of human nature – which isn’t always pleasant. And the sex scenes were pretty frank for a pre-1900 book (tastefully described, but no panning to the curtains blowing, or dissolving into points of ellipses).

The passage that struck me the most was an older artist, once successful, telling Claude and a friend how awful it was to achieve success. That the real joy was the striving, the climbing, the rising – and while success gave one satisfaction for a while, it gave way to doubt and anxiety. Staying on top was so much harder, so much worse, then getting there. Would he ever again produce a work like the one that made his reputation? Was it a fluke? He couldn’t experiment now, too much was expected of him, he couldn’t paint just *anything*

I’ve been going through a dry spell in my own writing, spending time putting together words that have been requested, or trying to write what might ‘sell’ to another artist or composer. And I’ve been concentrating this year to learning the lay of the land, music business-wise, and have not been playing as much as working. I’ve looked over some of the really good lyrics I’ve written before, and wondered whether I need to drop back and just write things I like, not because I think they’ll be successful, but because I like them – and not care whether anyone else does.

I did have a good helping of success this year, but I’m afraid it’s frozen me for a bit. I don’t want to wind up like the artists in The Masterpiece. Here’s to some more inventive writing in 2009…..

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Little Things You Do Together

I’ve been browsing several of the “songwriting” forums and looking at the songs and lyrics that are being posted. What I see is a lot of people reaching for the big things, the big events, and trying to hang a lyric on them.

It is easy to make yourself, or someone else, cry, when imagining (or unfortunately, reliving) the death of a loved one. We all fear death, our own, our family, and the emotion that a ‘death song’ taps is a primal one, an inescapable one. A wedding song, about the joy and hope of a life together, brings to mind one’s own wedding and we shed tears of joy (or bitterness, as the case may be).

But that’s easy. When one writes about death or love, or birth, one can mistake the sincerity – and depth – of the emotion for the quality of the writing. A song describing the death of a parent will almost certainly make me cry – whether or not there is any skill in the writing. And if there is no craft, no skill in the writing, I feel cheated and used.

The hard thing is to write about something small, and find worlds in it. I ran across a group called “The Mountain Goats” and was struck by the minimalism of the writing. The first song on “The Sunset Tree” album is “You or Your Memory.” All that happens in this lyric is a guy checks into a cheap motel, goes down to the store to buy aspirin and wine coolers and goes back to the room. But it’s incredibly evocative. You can feel the room, feel the singer’s desperation and loss, with the simplest possible arrangement of music and words.

I admire that. It’s something to aspire to. (My own stab at writing in the style of this group is called “Hesitant Elegy”

When I can write about something small, and normal, and everyday, yet describe a person’s entire worldview in that moment, I know I’ve done something difficult.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Vantage Point

It's been a while since I posted a new song. Ian Ferrin (a frequent collaborator) was looking for something to work on, and I had a couple of lyrics hidden behind the scenes.

This one I had written on spec for an artist that was looking for material, and it wasn't used. The image was a couple at an art gallery, him unable to figure her out. There are plenty of ways to talk about a couple where one can't fathom the mind of the other (or maybe I just write about that a lot), and this was a good way in. Talking about trying to make sense of modern art, and modern relationships from different Vantage Points.

Ian stepped out of his comfort zone into a very cool pop setting, I think. Hope you enjoy "Vantage Point."

As usual, I found an appropriate picture from my photographic muse's Flickr page. This was a fitting off-kilter, oddly angled self-portrait, and the fact she's all dressed up worked with the lyric as well.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

In (someone's) zone

I usually approach writing like advanced carpentry. I picture myself at a work bench, patiently whittling and carving, going very slowly and laboring over a difficult point.

Much of my collaboration has been done over the Internet, asynchronously. I give a lyric to someone, and get back some musical ideas – I can think about them, and give considered feedback, or can do some rewriting.

Lately I’ve been “in the room” with another person, and you have to be “on” – you have to be in the zone, at the same time as other people are in the zone, and hopefully you’re in the *same* zone. Most of these times have started with a “finished” lyric – and working from there, making changes to it.
Last week I went to my first group songwriting session, where four people tried to write a song from scratch. You have to think fast and think out loud, and rush your thinking processes. It’s different, it’s instructive, but it’s not my favorite way to write. We did come up with something but I doubt it’s good as any one of us might have written on our own. It’s true, many people can have those eureka moments “in the room” but it may not be the best environment for my own set of muses…

Monday, October 27, 2008

The Eight Year Folly

I made a particularly foolish decision when I started to write seriously, but it was probably the best decision I could have made.

I always had a facility for rhyme and meter as a kid, and wrote verse – doggerel mostly – for peoples’ birthdays and whatnot. My Junior Year English teacher despaired of my ever doing anything worthwhile with my talent. By the middle of college, I abandoned writing as a hobby from my childhood.

Many years later, in 1995, after years of thinking that “I can certainly write something at least as good as *that*” I bludgeoned myself to sitting down and proving it to myself. See if I actually had the talent to pull something “worthwhile” off.

I started to write a song from a bride’s POV, in which, as she walked down the aisle, her whole relationship flashed in front of her eyes. I started to experiment with the five stages of death (anger, denial, bargaining, etc.). It got long, and I let it. I decided to let it be whatever it was going to be, rather than squeeze it into a box. Each section got longer, with its own verse structure, changing rhythms, changing tones, going for laughs but by the end speaking some truths from my heart through this “character.” I figure if the song were ever composed and performed it would run 10-15 minutes – a real monologue.

While I was writing that one, I thought I should try to write something “serious” and simple, with fewer rhymes, and wrote about a woman attending her mother’s funeral, while recalling a dream the night before of attending the funeral. I started with a non-rhyming verse pattern almost lifted from Sondheim’s “Pretty Woman” – this, too, grew larger and longer, creating another monologue in song.

I started to write a third, and a fourth, and the birth of my first son interrupted me for a good eight months. When I got my bearings back, I finished those two – probably the two best things I will ever write, and began to envision an entire theatrical evening of pieces like this.

The birth of my second son set me back four or five years. But I was determined to finish what I had started. And I refused to let myself write anything else until I was entirely finished with this extended piece. With the lengthy interruptions, it took more than eight years to get to a point where I could put it down and move on.

Eight years is a long time to obsess about something that will never been seen. I wrote long pieces in several styles, experimenting with forms and structures and rhyme schemes, spending months on each piece. The whole thing is terribly impractical, probably unworkable, and it will sit on my shelf gathering dust. I sometimes think of cannibalizing it, breaking off pieces for shorter works, but I can’t bring myself to take it apart.

But boy, when I had finished that project my muscles were limber as hell. I felt like I could write anything I wanted. It was a grueling period, but doing it taught me so much about expressing thoughts in song form. A foolish decision to take eight years to complete it, but it was the best exercise I could have had.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

My Life as a Record Producer....

Somehow I've taken my first little steps into "production" -- inevitable, I guess, but when I turn my head I'm not sure how I got here.

I’ve written six songs with Ian Ferrin. He’s a good guy and the songs are quite unlike any others I’ve written – these are pop ballads, a couple of which have a spiritual element to them (especially “World of Wonder”). Ian has moved on from pop songwriting, to other projects, but we have these songs and it would be nice to be able to send them out, or place them in other media. Give them some life beyond my website.

Ian and I agree that to market these songs we could use a stronger vocal to replace his own, and I’ve had it as a back burner project for a while. I’ve been looking into sending them to a studio in Nashville and hiring a demo pro, though that will be quite expensive (Nashville is a “top of the line” market). But it occurred to me that Philly has plenty of studios, and I should be able to find a good singer locally.

I do know someone with a studio that has quite reasonable rates (maybe 2/3 or less of Nashville prices). But finding the right singer is elusive. Of the six songs, some need a modern ‘pop’ sound, but some need a clearer voice, country or even theatre. “World of Wonder” is almost a Family Channel song, and “Crossing the Threshold” could work in a country market. I’m looking for a vocalist that can hit all the notes and all the styles.

I’ve put up a Craigslist ad, and gotten many responses, of all kinds. I’m trying to manage the process as best I can, giving a quick listen now, and saving the e-mails and clips to evaluate carefully over the weekend. I’ve responded to all people who have e-mailed in, letting them know I’ll get back to them one way or another.

After I listen to all the entrants, I still have the option of holding off on this, or going to Nashville and spending lots more money. I’m still hoping, though.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Bagels in Nashville

Nashville is not noted for its international cuisine. The approach to food is as meat-and-potatoes and no-nonsense and down-home as its approach to music: Real, authentic and with country roots.

So finding a decent bagel is not an easy proposition. They are a very, very New York phenomenon, and as any bagel snob knows, a real bagel is boiled before it is baked. (My unscientific and totally unfounded theory about why "good" bagels can be frozen and microwaved is the water content from the boiling process).

Luckily, one "authentic" chain, Brueggers, has two stores in Nashville, one downtown and one to the south-west a bit, close to where I was staying. And good thing, as I had promised to bring bagels to Jen Foster's for breakfast.

Jen Foster lives in Nashville, but is not a "Nashville artist." She is an "indie pop" artist, creating catchy ballads about the usual stuff of life (breakups, high school, love, remorse, joy, vacations, Home Depot, etc.) with a strong pop sound. She grabs effortlessly (it seems) for catchy hooks and is a first-rate lyricist, speaking and singing from her heart. And as an out lesbian, with a strong gay fan base, she does not move in the same circles as most Nashvillians (or as we joked, "Nash-villains").

But the label both defines and constricts her in an unfair way. Her music transcends any gender politics, as her numerous awards (Great American Song Contest, International Acoustic Music Awards, John Lennon Songwriting Contest) will attest. Take a listen to her newest song, "Closer to Nowhere," about the dead-endedness of most peoples' lives. This song won First Prize in the AAA category of the International Songwriting Competition last year.

Which is how I met her, as her name and picture were just below mine on the winners' page. I e-mailed her a congratulations (and it turned out we had a couple mutual friends). Several e-mails and missed phone dates later, I got together with her while I was in the city.

In person, she is warm and open and at a place in her life where she's quite comfortable with who she is. If we hadn't both had prior afternoon commitments, we might have just talked all day. It was a great visit and hopefully the first of many. She's like bagels in Nashville - tough to find, but of high quality and worth searching for.

Her new CD will come out in 2009, but four songs from it are currently available on "Songs From Thirty-Nine."

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Young Queen Coles

There’s much to say about Nashville, of course, and much of it has been said many times. This was my second visit, but only my first to really explore the music scene/business.

I have been told repeatedly and often that the Nashville scene rewards long-toiling residents, and is mostly closed to outsiders, carpetbaggers and their ilk. That’s probably true. It is very much a handshake, workshop, community town. And that’s not a knock, it’s perfectly understandable. You work with the folks who are around you all the time, and Nashville is so overpopulated with incredible musicians and great writers, that working remotely with an out-of-towner is an alien prospect.

Doesn’t stop a guy from trying, though.

I had a very good sit-down with Ralph Murphy of ASCAP, a courtly and eloquent gentleman with years of insight into the business, who gave me hard truths in the nicest possible way; and another good sitdown with a songwriter/self-publisher who gave me both en- and dis- couragement, and some good general advice.

I finally met my friend and co-writer, Eduard Glumov of Kazakhstan, and we took in Writers’ Night at the famed Bluebird Café. One great writer/singer after another. I enjoyed the enthusiasm of a guy named Maury Davis, and both of us were taken by a singer/writer named Julie Forester. Julie is a demo singer, and commits to her songs in a major way, approaching them as an actress as much as a vocalist. She thought her way through each ‘beat’ of the song, as a Yale Drama student might. Both Eduard and I wanted to talk to her about co-writing.

The next night, I caught up with Julie at a solo gig she was doing, at a bar that was a lot harder to find than it looked like on the map. I wanted to show up (because Nashville is a “showing up” town), and chat a bit more, before moving off to Writers’ Night The Blue Bar (a great disappointment, as when I got there, I found out they weren’t doing Writers’ Night that evening). She kept imploring the crowd to hang around for the other act, a lady named Coles Whalen, as she was “fierce.”

I hadn’t intended to stay, but “fierce” only begins to describe Coles Whalen. She sang with an intensity and commitment, with exemplary musicianship. Her songs were all closely observed mini-acts of sex, contrition and absolution. The performance and the musicianship were always fierce, the lyrics all good and in some cases exemplary. You should watch her video performance of “Wrecking Ball” and listen to “So it is” which is a lyric I wish I had written. That I wish I *could* write.

More Nashville later on, in particular a wonderful visit I had with Jen Foster, but she deserves more than a desultory paragraph….

Monday, September 29, 2008

The Man From Kazakhstan

Sorry for the radio silence, but there wasn't much songwriting news -- or even musing -- from Paris. I'm back now but am already preparing to head out again for a couple of days in Nashville next week. I was hoping to go later in the year, but my co-Grand-Prize Winner, Eduard Glumov, is in Nashville until mid-next-week.

Eduard makes his living off of music, and winning the ISC has changed his life. He has been running from meeting to meeting in Nashville, as well as getting some studio demos done (the new version of "I'm Not Your Friend" can be heard on his website).

It's odd, but he and I have only spoken on the phone twice, and have never met. All of our communication and co-writing has been via e-mail.

So I'll meet him early next week, and hopefully we'll spend a little songwriting time together. But he's got career things to do, and I'll be looking for other contacts as well. I expect to drop by NSAI, and go to Writers' Night at the Bluebird Cafe to meet some local writers.

Nashville is the one place where, more than anwhere else, writers are given their due, singers get their material from publishers who get songs from writers, and co-writing is not a foreign concept.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Another Song About Paris

If anyone wants me, I'll be in Paris for the week. Hopefully there will be some lyrics to be found there among the cafes.

I could sing songs about Paris
Till I ran out of breath
I defy you to find me just one
That hasn't been done
To death.

--- "Another Song About Paris" by Dave Frishberg

Friday, September 12, 2008

The Rumplestiltzkin song

As long as there's a video, I might as well show it. There was no camera operator, it was stationed, turned on and left to run, so it's not the best quality. And it was the end of an evening and I was getting a little weepy, but there you have it.

This is me at a fund-raiser I was hosting, singing "Rumplestiltzkin: Dead at 95"

The studio demo (sung by someone else) and the lyrics are at my website, of course.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Bitchin' Babes

I had an absurdly late night, last night. Only because I had to be up at a reasonable hour in the morning.

I went over to Tritone for their "night of funk," first to meet Deirdre Flint for a couple of beers. It was too loud to talk so we "texted" each other by scribbling notes on my notebook (songwriters always have paper and pen). We had a great visit, talking about songwriting, before she went home (at a reasonable hour, as she was headed west to rehearse for the Four Bitchin' Babes tour).

If you don't know Deirdre's work, you're in for a treat. She writes about childhood, junior high school (especially) and dating with satiric glee and a touch of wistfulness. The Junior High School songs (about being a cheerleader, about the stud at the roller rink, about reading Nancy Drew books, etc.) are particularly funny, as is her perennial favorite "The Boob Fairy" (no, you'll have to go download it now, won't you?)

But my main purpose for being out was to see, support and otherwise hook up with, Aly Cat. Aly is a bitchin' babe in her own right, and does things with a bass that are illegal in several states. She takes the stage surrounded by four excellent musicians (all male, 2 guitars, drums plus a percussion/trumpeter). They have a wonderful woven-together sound, and Aly not only kills on the bass, she has a strong clear voice as well. She was the final band of the night and it wasn't until her set that a few people got up and started to dance. Those in Philly should keep an eye out for her.

However she didn't get on stage until 12:30am....and by that time I wasn't about to show up to see her and then leave. But it was too late for extended conversation afterwards.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Performing, first in an occasional series

Those who know me know that I've had a history of performing, but do it quite seldom these days.

I'm something of a vaudevillian, more of a song-and-dance man. I have stage presence, a strong speaking voice, comic timing and a general comfort level on a stage. And a love of musical theatre.

I'm not a strong singer, so choose material carefully when I perform music - songs in my limited range, and that rely more on the 'acting and storytelling' and less on the sheer vocal quality. Those I can sell.

And I don't play an instrument, so must be accompanied by someone who can keep up with my eccentric and erratic phrasing. My musical ability is present, but limited - I understand, as a lyricist, how the words marry to the music, and how rhythms create different effects; but in terms of creating a full song, even in those cases when I've been able to work through a decent melody line and a not-bad chord progression, I still have to go to a solid musician and say, here's the melody, here are the chords, here's the feel and style the music should have - and let them go from there to play it.

All that said, I got on stage last weekend for the first time in a year, to host a fund-raiser cabaret. Many friends performed, and we had a whiz on the piano (who used to music-direct at a professional theatre). I sang a number of comic songs, including "Jaws" and "I Want To Be A Side Man" (by Dave Frishberg), "If I Had A Million Dollars" (by the Barenaked Ladies, which I sang with Cole Wheeler) and even adapted the famous Stan Freberg "Elderly Man River" sketch to perform with my son.

Towards the end of the evening I performed my own song, "Rumplestiltzkin: Dead at 95" which keeps turning out to be a better song than I thought it was when I wrote it. It's the songs you think about least that sometimes come out the best.
I get emotional towards the end of the evening, and it was difficult to keep my composure - I need to perform it more often to regain some control. But it was a heady moment. I'd love to hear someone else sing it live (there's a hired vocalist on the demo on my website), but it was an out-of-body experience to hear my own lyrics coming out of my own mouth.

The other treat of the evening was meeting noted comedic folk singer Deirdre Flint, who showed up to enjoy rather than perform. One of the performers sang her Bridesmaids Dress song, and Deirdre donated a couple CDs for the cause.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Thoughts on Competitions

There’s a lot of discussion about contests and competitions, whether they’re legitimate, whether they’re worth it, etc. Obviously I’m a little biased having won one of the biggest ones.

There’s no doubt that some contests are money-makers. All contests charge a fee for entry, which can be as high as $35/song (and as low as $10). That adds up when you have a lot of entries in a lot of contests. Adds up fast.

And many prizes are usually donations or promotions from music-related businesses. In some cases they’re giving away trial memberships in online services, which is SOP for a business trying to attract new subscribers.

But there are tons of legitimate expenses in running a competition, not the least of which is that they have to pay judges, and if they want good ones (known and respected in the music industry) they probably pay well. And while some contests are simply money-makers, several of them (especially the largest and most prestigious ones) are really about promoting songwriting and giving people a chance to show their best stuff.

Winning a contest does not make you the best, but it does give you a little stamp of approval. It’s a gold star. It gives you a chance to talk to people you wouldn’t ordinarily speak to. You might get someone’s attention for five minutes that wouldn’t have given you the time of day before. It gives you a shot of confidence; like that morning cup of coffee, it may eventually wear off but you have all sort of energy while under the influence.

I decided this year would be the “competition” year – lots of songs, lots of contests, lots of prizes. I have the ISC (and GASC) win under my belt, so I don’t need to prove that I can win the top prize. My goals are to get at least honorable mention, finalist, or similar mention in a few contests, and in a few categories. I am trying to show my range of styles, my ability to collaborate with several people and depth of talent. And I want to get my work in front of a lot of peole.

Goodnight Kiss Music was running a special contest to find material for a singer they’re promoting. The main prize was to get a song cut, so I entered a couple of songs and a few lyrics. One of the songs got an “exceptional merit” mention and two of the lyrics came in second and third. And I got a nice, private note from one of the judges with some very complimentary comments.

So, mission accomplished. So far.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Back, Pats On The

In a recent competition I entered, I spent a little more to get some written feedback on the two entries.    While these are finished songs and I don't expect to go back to them, I like to see how a professional ear receives them.   

I got the following comments on the lyrics:

"Vigil":    Your lyrics have a somewhat cloudy meaning but drew me in like a vortex.  I sense you mourning the emotional loss of your lover who is so consumed by hr own grievous loss that she has deteriorated into a lifeless shell of a person....This is a tragic and emotionally gripping song.

"El Dorado":  Your lyrics are magnificently visual.   You intertwine visions of "the golden one" and the rituals surrounding his rise as king with visions of pawning for money....Your lyrics are amazingly creative but hard to understand.   The title is awesome!...

It's hard submitting songs for competitions which have "thoughtful" lyrics -- denser images that take a little unravelling.   The kinds of songs that reward a few listens.   Still, strong imagery in both cases.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Captain's Daughter

A new song, or at least a new song clip, has been posted on my website.   It is a clip of "The Captain's Daughter," a very naughty sea shanty.

As I've noted before, I respond well to specific assignments and challenges, and count as one of my talents the ability to write in different voices.   So when a Renaissance Faire act(e) asked if I would create a speciality lyric for them, I was eager to give it a try.

"The Interpreters" are two women -- one of them Italian, the other one blonde -- who interpret the more incomprehensible speeches of the other.   It is a tavern act, and is very, very, *VERY* heavy on the sexual innuendo.   Renn Faires are as much about the sex and ale as they are about the costumes and crafts.   So throwing all my politically correct thoughts out the window, I wrote a traditional-sounding sea shanty about a captain's daughter that takes her responsibilities to keep the crew happy *very* seriously.    I even included a terribly archaic reference to the orient and a chinese ship, that led to a modern pun I hadn't heard before.

The ladies are currently performing the song at the Maryland Renaissance Faire, until October.  The CD is available there, and will eventually be sold on CDBaby.   

Friday, August 22, 2008

Do You Miss New York?

Sometimes people ask me “What’s your favorite song?” but it’s an impossible question. There are songs with staggering good lyrics -- some polished jewels, some elaborate palaces of words. Some are great for their cleverness, some for their lack of it There are songs I admire. Songs I love. Songs I try to emulate.

Since this is a songwriting blog, every so often I’ll talk about one of these songs and why I think it’s great. Or at least why I love it without it’s achieving greatness.

But when people do ask me for a favorite and make me answer, my fallback song is “Do You Miss New York?” by Dave Frishberg. Frishberg is a personal lyric-writing hero, able to make fabulous rhymes consistently without ever sounding forced. It’s an ease that, as a writer, I know is the product of a lot of sweat.

Frishberg is a jazz pianist and at first played other folks’ tunes, and eventually penned his own. He’s a generous collaborator, writing a melody here, contributing a lyric there, but his song have a very personal stamp on them. He’s the Woody Allen of jazz pianists, and I don’t mean that as any sort of insult.

“Do You Miss New York?” is a series of questions, comparing the hustle of life in NYC with a more peaceful life now. The questions are needling (“If you had to face it now, do you still think you could hack it?”) and funny (“Did you trade the whole parade for a pair of parking places?”) and wistful (“Does it feel like home or just another nice place to visit?”)

The lyrics float on a light, lilting jazz setting, that lulls you into a false sense of security. It’s comfortable, melodic and you nod along with it, smiling, agreeing with him that “this laid-back lifestyle” lacks “a certain satisfaction.” It has an odd structure – it has an intro (very retro), and instead of verses and bridge and chorus/refrain, it has an “A” melody and “B” melody. The song goes ABAB-ending straight through, and repeats that structure completely without repeating any lyrics. There are clever rhymes, unusual rhymes, internal rhymes, but they never overwhelm the song. They fall into place (seemingly) effortlessly.

And that’s when he gets you. The questions get more pointed. More honest – “Do you view your new terrain with a touch of condescension?” – and unhappy – “Do you dream your dreams out here, or is that passé?”

For this is not a song about leaving a place. It’s a song about having been young, and being young no longer. It’s not a song for anyone under 30. Everyone gets to a place where they remember being young but have trouble conjuring the feeling again –the recklessness, “the anger, the action,” the “tension” It all seems so far away. And you can’t go back, really, ever, try as you might (and doesn’t everyone try, despite the folly? Try to fix the mistakes? Or at least get a mulligan?) New York” in this song is not a place, it’s that time in your life when you had energy and opportunity and time and were too stupid to realize it. And now it’s too late.

When he gets to the end of the song, and asks, “Do you ever run into that guy who used to be you?” – I lose it, every time.

The song makes me laugh, smile, gasp in astonishment at the craftsmanship, and finally gets me right where I live, hard, even when I know what’s coming. It is a great, great, great song. It makes me want to try to write a song that great, and at the same time makes me want to give up songwriting in frustration that I’ll never write anything half this good.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Reynaldo The

I get to NYC so seldom that I tend to hit the same great places that are familiar to me, rather than do too much exploring. I was with a friend who was in town from Alabama, and had limited time to explore, so it was back to Rockwood Music Hall (where I had taken her on a previous visit) and over to The Living Room (where she hadn’t been yet).

We were in time for the 10pm act at Rockwood, and I said hi to Ken Rockwood (the proprietor and founder of “The Professor and Maryann,” an indie-rock duo), before the set. The act was a female singer/songwriter, piano-based, who sang pop-py songs about love and relationships. My friend pointed out that her playing and voice were very similar to Regina Spektor, though we agreed the songs weren’t anywhere near as interesting.

At The Living Room, the 10pm act was running over, two Iowa sisters and one guitar between them. Both with very big voices, sunny dispositions and incredibly long and thin arms (something in the air in Iowa). We stood in the back while they finished up, and then snagged a table for the (late) 11pm show.

I’m not sure exactly what the act was called – I think it was “Reynaldo The” fronted by Aldo Perez. Perez has a rock band called “Psycho the Clown,” a small group called “The Reynaldo The Trio” (it would be Reynaldo The Great, but apparently Reynaldo is not so great), and an avant-garde theatre enterprise called “Theater The.” There may be more incarnations, but we were apparently watching some permutation of "The Reynaldo The Ensemble."

We had no idea what to expect. There were six of them. A keyboardist who looked like a dressed-down Brad Pitt by way of Elton John mixed with mad scientist. An older fellow on the drums, in judges’ robes. A beefy KGB-agent type who was some sort of valet and general factotum, and played bongos and washboard. A tuba player dressed as a refugee from a Chekhov short story. A French maid who played the clarinet, bells and was the main backup singer. And Aldo Perez as Reynaldo, a shambling mound of wild energy and pompostity. He's described elsewhere on the web as the love child of Jim Carrey and John Waters.

I would describe the act, but it was indescribable. It was more of a modern clown show than anything else. An opening mime bit ended with Perez playing the nose flute maniacally. Odd musical pieces. The valet/factotum wound up being the company rapper. They sang “I’m My Own Grandpa” and “Oh What A Night,” all interspersed with “Reynaldo” being a general horses’ patootie while the rest of the band shot him glares. Clearly there was a backstory to the act that we weren’t seeing.

Special mention to Jenny Lee Mitchell, the French maid, who is operatically trained and could do just about anything with her voice. After several bits featuring her refined tones (which were out of keeping with Reynaldo’s musical wishes), she wound up being the best rapper in the bunch. A glance at her resume shows a lot of experience in physical comedy.

Apparently, Aldo Perez and company perform at the Living Room many Saturday nights and have several theatre and music ventures going. If you’re in the city, they’re worth a look. If you’re not, you can catch glimpses of them on YouTube.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Finalist in SOTY

Song of the Year has just posted its June 2008 contest results.

"Punch My Ticket" was named a Finalist for Rock. This means it wasn't the Winner, but was one of the top five entries. And since they don't list the writers or titles in alphabetical order, it looks like we came in third.

(They didn't list Ray Sharp as the co-writer, and I've e-mailed them to add his name. His name *was* on the entry, but they only listed the submitting writer)

I had one other song in the competition -- it's possible it's a runner-up but I won't know that until sometime next week.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Seven Syllables

I am working on a lyric with an artist right now, or at least the artist’s representative, and some rewrites were requested. Something wasn’t quite right with the last line of the first verse. It was all of six words, seven syllables (eight if you count the grace syllable at the beginning).

(I might as well say right now I’m not reproducing the actual verse, or lines, at least until I know whether or not this lyric will be committed, or will remain at liberty. If this lyric isn't picked up I will at least let you know what the replaced line was. But the process itself is interesting. ).

The line had to rhyme with “deep” and as you know there aren’t terribly many good rhymes for “deep” – at least not ones that you can use without them sticking out in unwanted ways. The few that work are used over and over and over again. I had it rhyming with the half-rhyme “heat” – it’s the kind of lyric that takes to half-rhymes, no worries there.

But the line needed to be redone. I thought of all the “eet” rhymes, and reconsidered all the “eep” rhymes. I moved on to “eed” and “eek” rhymes as well. There are tons of them, as any rhyming dictionary will tell you, but many would not work stylistically, or couldn’t sit at the end of a line, or wouldn’t fit the sentence as constructed.

I noodled around in the early evening, in the mid-evening, and the late evening. I didn’t want to let go of this problem and move on to fixing the other things. I needed to break the logjam. But I Could. Not. Find. The. Solution.

As I was moving on to sleep, I found a word I liked, something that extended the thought in the first three lines, and gave it some poetry. Just one word, with a certain resonance. And a half hour later I thought of a modifer for the word, an adjective, rhythmically pleasing, making it a “new” phrase, something I hadn’t heard before, something that sang. I jotted it down and went to sleep.

The next morning I turned it over and over in my head, and finally found the sentence construction that let me grab an “eek” rhyme that flowed without forcing. So the whole sentence became one with the first three lines.

Five words. Seven Syllables. And I don’t know how many freaking hours to come up with them.

Rewriting – what it’s all about.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Dance Gypsy, Sing Gypsy

So the New Pornographers were in Philly last night and rocked the Electric Factory.  There's not a lot to say, specifically -- they were in fine form, took the stage and did a relentless set for close to an hour.  The balance wasn't great, and it was almost impossible to hear the lyrics, which is a pet peeve of mine.   But it was a hot show.

Unfortuately, the opening act was overlong, and did not inspire.  Andrew Bird does a sort of alt-gypsy music.  He plays the electric violin (strumming it like a uke, doing Laurie Anderson-like tricks, playing gypsy riffs) as well as the electric guitar.  He whistles both piercingly and impressively.   He plays strange, haunting songs, in bygone styles, turned modern.    He certainly had some fans in the house.  I can't say that I "get" his music, though.

My date for the evening was my wife, who was not up to staying for the bitter end.   I warned her in advance about Andrew Bird, so she was prepared to sit through his set for the NPs.   He went on for a good hour and ten minutes, and she thought all his work sounded the same.

He was enamored of the new trend of looping himself live and playing over the loop.  This can be a cool technique (my wife calls it "cheating"), but he overuses it, like someone with a new gadget.     He likes to stretch out vocal lines, to the point of indulgence.

I think worst of all was the double-headed victrola set piece, that sat in front of the NPs drum set.   It of course called to mind the "vintage" sound of his music (I told my wife that his songs sound like they should be coming out of a victrola).  But he has a switch on a pedal that made the two victrola heads rotate -- which he had happen several times during his set to diminishing returns, as if there were many returns to be had to begin with.  It started off lame and ended up silly.

There was another set-piece victrola, the mouth facing the audience, that didn't do anything other than sit atop a monstrous trapezoidal pedestal that cluttered the stage.   We applauded when the roadies cleared it.

A half-hour, or 45-minute set even, would have been quite enough.   When all the clutter --aural and physical -- was off the stage, the NPs had two extra people and a lot more room to move.   We had to leave during the closing number (and missed the encore) but at least we got to hear them sing "Sing Me Spanish Techno"

It's not often that I'm that disappointed in a performers' set or work.   If a performer is not quite all that, usually the set is mercifully short and I don't begrudge someone their chance.  But this time the perfomer was unengaging, indulgent and went on longer than the main act.  Pity.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

On Assignment

I’ve always done my best writing when I had a specific assignment – usually one I’ve given myself.

“Write a Billy Joel lyric” (which became “Atlantic City”)

“Write a Paul Simon lyric” (“Somebody’s Son”)

“Write like The Mountain Goats” (“Hesitant Elegy”)

Too often I give myself time to write and….I stare and drink and stare some more. It’s tough enough to try to write when I schedule it rather than when the Muse is tugging my shoulder at an inopportune time. I can write anything I want, but what do I want?

I used to write to prove something to myself. Now that I have the confidence that I can, where do I go?

Recently I was in contact with an A&R rep for an established artist and she was looking for material that was poetic, and universal, but avoided all the stuff about rain, tears, soaring on wings. I knew what she didn’t want, but not what she wanted – relationship songs? Urban or ‘natural world’? Personal or songs about “everybody”?

Not much to go on, but I found I had something to focus on, and wrote three lyrics. One a lost love song using some western imagery; one an urban “bad relationship” song; and one just a meditation on a place, without any individual perspective. (None of these are available on my website currently, sorry). All very “poetic” – not conversational or straightforward.

I don’t know whether came closer to the mark or not, but words came more easily, and I felt over my slump.

Deadlines are good. Specifics are good. Assignments are good.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Runner Up

I just got word from the Song of the Year contest that both "Out in the Cold" (Adult Contemporary) and "Vinyl" (Rock) scored highly enough to be runners-up in the May 2008 competition.

Obviously, one hopes for higher, but it's nice to know that the judges liked the songs and gave them high marks.

There are ten categories in the SOTY contest, and there is a monthly winner (and four finalists).   After that, any song that is scored highly, regardless of category, is a runner-up, and there were 64 named for May.  (It's conceivable that a runner-up, entered in one category, could get a higher score than the winner of another category, depending on the competition, we'll never know).   I don't know how many entries there were, or how many in each category, unfortunately.

Congratulations go out to Ron Tintner ("Vinyl") and Anthony J. Spinella ("Out in the Cold") my co-writers.   The runners-up page only lists me, since I entered the songs -- I'm trying to get the SOTY folk to add my co-writers to the list.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Conch Shell

Well last night had a few interesting fillips.   One of which is that the pizza slices at the place below Lickety Split (401 South Street) are as big as your head.   I had two.  I was hungry.

I did double-duty last night, checking out artists I had seen previously, and generally being out and about.  My birthday started at midnight, so I was determined to be somewhere in the city when the odometer clicked over.

At Burlap and Bean in Newtown Square, Philly Songwriters was having their bi-weekly showcase. I came to see AlyCat, who I enjoyed at the PSP finals at Milkboy weeks earlier.

The evening kicked off with two thirds of Funkharp.   Terry "Thundercat" laid down the bass foundation, and Joseph sang, played guitar and harmonica (the "funkharp" itself)   He threw himself into his playing with some abandon.   They had a neat trick where they recorded a riff -- live -- and immediately looped it back and built on, or harmonized, with it.   Many wonderful effects.  Then there was that thing with the conch shell, but more on that later.

Folk singer Darcy Sebright was trying out her sea legs, or kaffeehaus arms, with some song she had written partly with the benefit of her Masters in poetry.   One song was written as a collage, the lyrics literally cut and pasted from another poem.   She sang directly to me and pressed a CD in my hand at the end of the evening, and her playing and voice and much more assured on the CD.    She also did a song about how her husband and she would leave little post-it notes to each other, and some wondered whether he was going to chide her about that after she left.

AlyCat rocked.  And rocks.   She had 4 of her 7-piece backup band.  There was a trumpet and there were bongos, plus electric *and* acoustic guitar.  Aly plays the electric bass and sings.   They have a very hot funk sound going, and they're worth checking out.   Afterwards I hung out with them a little, and we talked about maybe doing some writing together.  But time will tell.  Look for her at Tritone in September.

I made it into Center City to hook up with Lee Morgan.   Lee and his friend Ed were stuck playing to a near-empty (or totally empty) room for some small percentage of the bar which wasn't much.      But they played their Americana (and more harmonicas) with gusto and feeling.   They had been playing on and off for two hours when I got there, and Lee was still going after 1am when I left.

Oh, the conch shell -- Joseph, of Funkharp, pulled out an actual conch shell.  Thundercat laid down the familar opening bassline of the "Pink Panther" theme, and Joseph managed to blow out the melody, by using his hand to control the flow of air from the shell.   It was truly something to behold.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Folly of Wisdom

Two recent songwriting rewrite experiences.

I was working on a collaboration over the weekend with a couple people, writing a song for a young female singer. We started with a lyric I had on hand (not referenced as it’s still being developed, though it’s on my website if you want to try to figure it out). It was conceived as a dance lyric, something dark and edgy, the message being “I want you to be dangerous and scare me, hurt me, to make it interesting” – something Madonna might sing. It was the kind of writing “assignment” I would give myself, to write in a style I hadn’t tried yet.

During the collaboration process, we softened the message of the lyric, took out the “dangerous” elements, and the message became “I like you but don’t be such a wuss all the time” – a more universal feeling, probably. And we went through the all-too-familiar process of trying to retain something of interest while making it palatable for a larger audience.

A few months ago I went through a process with a composer who gave me a melody to set. I worked pretty hard on it, a lyric about a woman (it was also for a female singer) who had been through dark times (wrong boyfriends, wrong times, lots of mind-altering activities and soul-deadening sex) but was now in love with the right guy. The song contrasted night images (scary and dark cityscapes) with sun-drenched daytime images (in a nature setting). Coming out of the darkness into the light.

Despite a few attempts at rewrites, he finally said he thought the lyric was too dark for the music. I thought it was as hopeful as it could get – that it was enormously positive, a story of redemption. I use that theme a lot in my writing – I return to it over and over. So we decoupled the music and lyrics (I’ll rewrite the lyric at another time for different music).

And it finally hit me. As an older person, I understand what it’s like to live through the long, dark night of the soul, and come out the other side. Anyone may age does. But a young person doesn’t want to hear about that. The young don’t think the dark times will ever come to them. Those on the other side of the divide can warn all they want, but youth persists in believing in its invulnerability.

A young audience isn’t necessarily interested in hearing songs about difficult life experiences.


Friday, July 18, 2008

The Man Who Met Picasso

I posted something on a discussion board at the Muses' Muse a few days ago which I thought was worth ruminating on here. It started with a question about Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues." The lyric has no chorus, and barely mentions "Folsom Prison" -- and we were discussing titles and their purpose.

I'm one of those people that thinks the title is key. If you don't know the title of your song, you haven't figured out what the song *IS* yet. Songs are marvels of economy -- a few key strokes to tell your story, or paint your picture. You don't have the luxury of a short story to explain everything. The title tells you how to think about the rest of the story. And it's most interesting when the title isn't echoed in the song....

"Folsom Prison Blues" describes being in prison, and hearing a train in the distance. Most of the song talks about the train (representing freedom), and in the four verses (no chorus), only mentions Folsom Prison twice. I noted that if you called the song "Passing Train Blues" it wouldn't have half the impact -- and adding a chorus which featured the line or phrase "I've got those Folsom Prison Blues" would add nothing significant, and would actually detract from the narrative.

What I finally came to remember was a story I read more than 25 years ago, called "The Man Who Met Picasso" (I've since researched it and found out it's by Michael Swanwick, and can be found in a spec fic collection called "Gravity's Angels"). The main part of the story has Picasso telling a young artist to go stare at a particular painting, depicting a vista of orange rooftops, with one green one in the middle. The artist is to hold up his thumb so that it blocks the green roof, and start at the painting for a good half an hour, only then to take his thumb away.

When he does, the oranges become brighter and more vibrant. The presence of the green roof illuminates, by contrast, all that surrounds it.

Like the title that is not in the song, like the song with no chorus, it is often the seemingly strange element -- sometimes inexplicably there, sometimes mysteriously absent -- which is the key that lifts up the rest of the work. The green roof can raise something good to be something special.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

On background

I've been meaning to say a word about the background of the new site -- it's one of the features that makes it feel personal.

The original intent was to have some sort of "floating words" element in the design -- I'm a lyricist, after all, so there should be words. We talked about a flash opening with adjectives (beginning with z, m, u, l and s) waving.

Miralina gave me a draft idea that included some typed text in the background, faded so as not to detract from the text you were supposed to read. And I asked her if it would be possible to take handwritten papers and transform them (through the magic of scanning and photoshopping) into a background.

What you see in the background of the website (not the blog site) is actual rough copies of four lyrics -- my own writing -- cut and pasted and repeated for visual effect. You can see how I work on a lyric, the sorts of scribbles and crossings-out, the occasional rhyme selections scrawled on the side, the rewriting....I almost always work longhand. I have once or twice worked on a lyric on my computer, deleting and changing lines, but it's dissatisfying to delete. I like to see the history of the line, it makes it feel that I've worked for it.

It's the messy desk theory -- a clean desk means you're not working hard enough. What if I finished a lyric and all I had to show was a very cleanly-typed piece of paper?

I have had a fantasy of having to go to court to prove that I actually wrote a lyric, and hauling out my boxes of rough drafts and saying, "See, look at all the work I put in."

For the record, the four lyrics you can see are from "Yellow Mailbox" and "Slipped Away" (both turned into songs by Jim Chapman, "Midsummer" (another song, this one written by me for my wife) and "Inconcievable Joy" (a semi-autobiographical lyric I think came out well).

Monday, July 14, 2008

Punk Rock Girl

I am about 30 years too late to be starting to venture into the darker points in the demimonde.

I took myself out to Tritone on Friday night. I had passed the place many times, as it's right across the street from Bob and Barbara's Lounge. Bob and Barbara's is the kind of dive where, even though Philly is smoke-free, you can still smell the ground-in smoke of years past. It has what is probably the largest collection of Pabst Blue Ribbon memorabilia on the Eastern Seaboard -- the walls are covered top to bottom. The specialty of the house is a shot of Jim Beam and a can of Pabst. (Insert appropriate quote from Blue Velvet here).

Bob and Barbara's is known for Friday and Saturday night jazz, so it makes a cool hangout. And now that The Happy Rooster has changed hands, I am looking for new hangouts.

But I hadn't been to Tritone and it was obviously a hopping place. A funk/jazz bass player I had met at Philly Songwriters was playing there last Wednesday, but my wife's schedule kept me from attending. So on Friday I went on a whim.

The group onstage was KeN, a punk band. The lead singer was female, a fierce gal with glasses. I then realized that most of the band was female with the incongruous exception of the middle-aged male drummer. They rocked out, and I realized I could barely make out the words, but that wasn't really the point. The noise and energy and anger was the driving force -- I could try to write a punk lyric but there wouldn't be much point. You can't hear the words while they're singing and if you had the CD you wouldn't be worried about the lyrics either.

It's like a blues band -- the lyrics aren't the key component. When I hear blues, I hear the repeated chorus and that's about it. Other than that I'm just going with the music, not looking for a story.

Slowly discovering the various corners of Philly music....

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Open Mic Night

Open Mic Night

I finally made it to an Open Mic night. One glance at the Philly Songwriters resource pages tells you that Philly is a hell of an open mic town. There are several options on any given night of the week.

I chose to stay on well-trodden ground (for me) and went to World Café Live, where every Monday is Philly Rising, hosted by the irrepressible Boy Wonder. Sign-up starts at 6:30pm for 15-minute slots (2 songs only), and the fun begins at 7:30pm. (At 11pm or so, there are one-song slots). I took the prime piece of real estate at the very end of the bar, where I had to continually pull my feet in to avoid tripping Abby and Erin, the hard-working waitresses.

There were guitar wailers. There was hip-hop (some lame and some not). There was Keyboard Cathy, who cheerfully, and somewhat defiantly, sang songs about peanut butter and sushi (not together). There was Jack Gleason, a sort of happy hobbit, who coaxed interesting space-like electronica out of his guitar, and (though the magic of several gizmos) made it sound like an ‘invisible Irish choir.’ There was a 19-year-old fellow who, accompanied by his best friend on the piano, belted out some Elton John-esque ballads in a fiercely powerful voice. And on and on.

And if you sit there long enough, enjoying the music for what it is, and for the joy the individuals bring to it, you will eventually get the oyster with the pearl.

Lee Morgan got up and first did some extraordinary things with a harmonica, and then sang some Americana with great passion and feeling – he had “it” whatever “it” is. Unfortunately, he doesn’t co-write, but I think I can learn a lot from his writing in genres I’m still finding my way in.

And a new band, Bojibian, totally rocked the house. They’re all barely legal (just turning 22), and they’ve only been together for six months, and they play like they’ve been together for years. They were totally tight, vocally and instrumentally, all of them could play, and their beat was infectious. I chatted with Steven, the lead vocalist, afterwards, and will be talking to them more. They will be at World Café on July 19, so local folks should check them out.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

New look for the website

The new website is live.

If you're on the website now (zmulls.com), you're reading the blog, which will always list the first three posts on the front page (if you scroll).  And the website will link to the blog so you can read the archives.

I had the pleasure of engaging designer Miralina Stewart, who gave me a fresh new look, and spruced things up in general.   When she gets back from maternity leave, she'll be available to do the same for you.

You can still read the archive of lyrics and listen to over 25 songs I've collaborated on.

Welcome to the new Z. Mulls home!

Monday, June 30, 2008

Collaborations, long-distance

I love watching those movie scenes where a songwriting team sits and writes together. The composer plays chords, “la la la”s a melody and the lyricist shoots off couplets and rhymes and hooks. And I’ll bet there are people that do write that way.

Me? Like most writers I’m extremely introverted (which puzzles and baffles people who meet me, because I’ve learned how to fake being extroverted, or at least emulate it. But it’s work, and it’s not my natural state). When I write, there’s more stroking of chin and furrowing of brow and counting of beats than talking.

Writing for me is a slow, patient craft. I have to go to my worktable, mentally. Pull out my tools, clean the bench off, set my project in front of me and whittle patiently. I need quiet and stillness. Not the same as editing, when I’m crossing out two words and looking for the perfect replacement – then I can listen to any sort of suggestion and try it out.

So collaborating over the internet has been perfect. I have only spoken to two of my collaborators live, and only months after we have written something. Everything has been e-mails, private messages and MP3 files passed back and forth. I get the collaborator’s thoughts, mull them over, construct an answer, thought or solution, and write back. Asynchronously.

What I’ve missed, though, are the back-and-forth sessions, the reading of body language, the ability to hum or beat out a suggestion quickly, the demonstration “here’s what I mean”…. Also, the written word alone can lead to misunderstandings, which can’t be cleared up easily long distance.

This week I will have my first live collaboration session with some local artists, on a lyric that fits their style. They like the lyric, they want to work with me on it, and I’m going to their studio. I need to be open to their ideas, and to communicate mine and……well, we’ll see what happens. It’s a challenge and an opportunity.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Lower East Side

The first thing I should mention is that a "double cappucino" at Starbucks does not mean a larger serving. It means a cappucino with a shot of espresso added in. So while I intended to crank myself up for a long evening of music, I hadn't intended to zap myself quite that much.

I had an overnight in NYC recently, after seeing an entertainment lawyer to go over the basics of the business. There is an apartment I sometimes have access to on weekends, which makes city trips a little more affordable.

I had a chance to visit with heretofore online friend, jazz pianist Kerry Politzer. Kerry is a highly accomplished jazz artist (I highly recommend her Labyrinth jazz CD for all of your parties). Her latest CD, in a singer/songwriter style, is available from eMusic, along with her earlier work.

At Rockwood Music Hall, my venue of choice, I got to see Johnny Marnell, a hot young singer, and his band. His stuff was very tight, and when he announced "The F**k Song" a cheer went up among his fans. I got to say hello to him afterwards, and made sure I said hi to Ken Rockwood, the manager. Rockwood is a very small space, and they do over 8 acts a night, every night. The room fills up, empties, and fills up again every hour. And there's no cover (though you should drop something in the bucket for the musicians).

The lawyer suggested I go over to The Living Room, a larger venue, with a lounge/bar in front and a big showroom in the back behind the curtain. I saw Larune and Susan Hurtuk, who are friends and fellow performers. Larune is the stage name of Kamara Thomas, who performed a cycle of songs called "Postcards From Bulgaria" -- which on the first listen is an exploration of suicide and death (cheery subjects) but in an Americana idiom. I bought the CD and have been enjoying repeated listenings. I'm not sure if it's a work in progress or a fully realized vision yet.

I went back to Rockwood to see David Martel from Montreal. The band was quite surreal. There was the obligatory big bass player, and drummer to the side. But Martel had an almost musical theatre mien, and kept doing odd little comic takes. His backup singer, Natasha, was introverted, and stood with her hands folded, her shoulders hunched in on herself -- though she sounded wonderful. In addition, the band featured a female cellist (!) and accordion player (!!). It was a fascinating hour.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008


When you are working on the lyrics you are concentrating on the consonants

When you are working on the music you are concentrating on the vowels

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Philly Songwriters Concert

I went out to a Philly Songwriters Showcase to hear some of the other local folk, and to meet some people. The event was held at Burlap and Bean in Newtown Square, a very nice coffeeshop. I wish I could drink coffee at night, to get the full effect of the atmosphere (and to wake up my creative muscles) but coffee in the evening is something I only indulge in on vacation, when I'm by myself.

I finally made the acquaintance of Dena, who founded Philly Songwriters, and sat with her. I've talked to some other people around the country about the sorts of local groups they have. There are several "songwriter" circles in places, certainly some good supportive organizations; there are also organizations that seem to have been set up for the benefit of the founders. This is about as positive an example as you could find. Dena really is looking to give local voices a showcase, a chance to develop their sound, and to have people learn from each other.

The first act was Lee Whitaker, a folk singer with a solid presence and a strong folkie voice. His songs are plainspoken and he is one of those people who can really make his guitar "talk." He ran into a gentleman who played the harmonica, and who joined him on stage -- despite never having heard the songs before. You couldn't tell, he slipped right in.

The second act was The Lyra Project, a male-female duo who fell somewhere in the area between AAA and Adult Contemporary, with a spiritual pop bent. (Yes, tough to describe). Their sound was just perfect for a lyric I had on my site, and they've invited me to come to their studio next month to work on it with them.

Finally, a sister act, The Jones Girls, who sang lyrical songs about "mean boys" and who have trouble naming their songs, did a set. They are among the finalists for the Philly Songwriters contest next week, so I'll get to hear them again.

There's a lot of talent and lots of nice people out there....

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Rumplestiltzkin: Dead at 95

I've just posted the last of the current crop of demos. The song is Rumplestiltzkin: Dead at 95.

There's a Creativity Board at The Muses' Muse, and a thread where people write quick rhymes in response to proposed titles. One friend tried to stump everyone with this title. I quickly reviewed the story (maiden tries to save her father from king's anger by saying she can spin straw into gold, she promises her first born son to Rumplestiltzkin for the talent, the king marries her, she has a son and tricks Rumplestiltzkin by discovering his name).

So I wondered what happened to the characters over the last 30-40 years (assuming this is version of the story where Rumplestiltzkin leaves and doesn't die right away). The infant has grown up, the woman has been queen for years.....it was an opportunity to ask the question why did Rumplestiltzkin want that child so much.

It's not the smoothest of lyrics, but this is probably one of the most compact and perfect bridges I've ever written, and it makes the song work, I think.

I wrote out a melody and chords, and this is the third of the Blue Cave Studio demos, also with vocal by Lisa Gregory, and guitar by Darryl Gregory.

Everyone dies with several regrets...

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Queen of Multitasking

Some time ago a friend of mine on The Muses' Muse told me in a PM that she was the Queen of Multitasking.  I know a good title when I hear one.  I asked permission to steal it.

I wanted to write something quirky, Christine Lavin-ish.   I came up with a really baroque rhyme scheme:   ABACBCDE FGFHGHDE.

Yes it works.  And yes, I managed to hit the rhymes three verses running.    

I tried to interest some folkie types to work on the song but it never got off the ground.  Eventually I got a nagging tune in my head for it.

Now, I'm not the most accomplished musician, but I struggled to put together a melody and chord chart, with some help from Jim Chapman.    I hired Darryl Gregory at Blue Cave Studios to record it, with a female vocalist (Lisa Murray).

So....it's up on the website now.    Enjoy "Queen of Multitasking".

Friday, May 30, 2008

Santa, Santa

Years ago, before I declared myself a lyricist, but felt like scribbling some things, I wrote a joke-and-pun-laden Santa song. I recalled the famous song "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus," which ended with the sweet revelation that Santa Claus was really Daddy groping Mommy on the sofa.

I idly wondered if the reaction would have been similarly benign if it wasn't Mommy but one's girlfriend instead. So from just the title, "I Saw My Girlfriend Kissing Santa Claus" I whipped up a whole story with cascading choruses.

My friend Brian at the time was half of a folk-singer duo, and I persuaded him, as a lark, to set the song to music. We performed it at a couple of cabaret evenings.

Brian is on a break from music, to concentrate on his career as high-end woodworker, and his love of theatre (among other things), so we never got around to making a decent recording.
Years go by and I finally go to a small studio (with Brian's permission) and get it done. With the help of Darryl Gregory of Blue Cave Studios, we have The Santa, Santa song...


Sunday, May 18, 2008


This year I plan to enter many competitions. I don't expect to do this every year, but after winning the ISC and GASC, I want to show off several of my other songs and see if I can get some honorable mentions in different genres next year.

The first competition I am entering is the Indie International competition, an all-green comp (all entries are online only). For this competition I will enter "The Emperor" (Pop), "Yellow Mailbox" (Acoustic) and "Vancouver" (Rock).

This competition requires a separate profile page for each collaboration that enters, so I am building those. The "Vancouver" page, with bio information and me and "Wolf" of Wolf Music is here.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Demos in the works

I have signed a contract with Blue Cave Studios to do three acoustic demos, which should be ready by the end of the month. Blue Cave is run by Darryl Gregory, a member of the dormant band Swanky Hotel. The other two members of Swanky Hotel are personal friends, so I was happy to sign with Darryl to get a few songs recorded.

These will not be highly commercial songs. "Queen of Multitasking" is a comic novelty song in the Christine Lavin vein, and "Rumplestiltzkin: Dead at 95" is a folk song oddity that I'm just fond of. I've written the melody and basic chord structure for each of them, as they're simple enough musically.

"I Saw My Girlfriend Kissing Santa Claus (Santa, Santa)" (usually called "the 'Santa, Santa' song) was written many years ago by my friend Brian Boland. It's a "Johnny B. Goode"-style comic number with a flood of puns and jokes. It's about as perfect a "novelty song" as you can get.

I'll look forward to posting these on the website when they're done.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Whether I like it or not

It appears that I will be blogging, whether I really want to or not. Such is life in the world of music.

As an "internationally-known, prize-winning" lyricist, I have to have something on my home page, so will keep my thoughts as current as possible. I'll use this blog to report news on songs -- completed, demoed, recorded, etc. -- and occasionally muse about lyric-writing and song-writing. I will extol lyrics and lyricists I admire, and will of course rant when necessary.

The title of this blog comes from a favorite play, TRAVESTIES by Tom Stoppard. This play is about the role of the artist in society, and the interaction between art and revolution -- and the necessity of both. Art to memorialize society and revolution to transform it. The play is narrated by Henry Carr, a senile man, remembering his (mostly fictional) interactions in Zurich with James Joyce (artist), Vladimir Lenin (revolutionary) and Tristan Tzara (a revolutionary artist).

This is the last line of the play, as Carr wraps things up with his great insight for the evening:

"I learned three things in Zurich during the war. I wrote them down. Firstly, you're either a revolutionary or you're not, and if you're not you might as well be an artist as anything else. Secondly, if you can't be an artist, you might as well be a revolutionary...

"I forget the third thing...."

And that pretty much wraps it up for me as well.