Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Every Girl You Meet

I pretty much have to write this post backwards, because while there’s a long and winding backstory, there’s a more exciting ending. “Parentheses,” a song I cowrote with Jen Foster, was featured in an instrumental on the online series “Venice,” and is now available on Jen’s website for download. And frankly, I could stop typing right there and that would be blogworthy.

“Venice” is a spinoff-that-isn’t-a-spinoff from the cancelled soap THE GUIDING LIGHT. But even if you’re not a soap fan, the circuitous new-media route “Venice” has taken is an object lesson on how the television business is changing before our eyes.

THE GUIDING LIGHT featured a budding romance between two female characters, Olivia (played by Chrystal Chapell) and Natalia (played by Jessica Leccia). Neither character was identified as gay (as a matter of fact, they were in love with the same man). But the producers decided to bring them together, on a very long arc, so that their relationship grew naturally, over time. They never quite got to being a couple on GL, as it was cancelled two years ago.

However, Olivia and Natalia had a huge fan base (google “Otalia” and you’ll see what I mean). There were a lot of women, gay and otherwise, who watched in amazement as a mainstream soap showed a realistic incipient romance between two women, that wasn’t portrayed as sensationalistic or unhealthy. Fans wanted to know that “Otalia” finally got together.

So actress Crystal Chapell and writer Kim Turissi decided to “put on a show.” They created a web-only series taking place in Venice Beach, CA, with the two actresses from GUIDING LIGHT playing two totally new characters (Gina, an artist, and Ani, a photographer). In this series, both characters are gay, and have a history, but as the series starts they are breaking apart.

“Venice” was done on a shoestring, with actors and technicians donating their services for a while, just to get it done, with the hopes it would become a viable entertainment in time, finding its way to cable or even network. The first season had short (ten minute or so) episodes, filmed in peoples’ homes.

Season 3 is now started; the production values are way up and the storylines are coming into focus, Music plays a big part in “Venice” and the fans follow every artist whose music is featured, including my friend Coles Whalen. The show is supported in part by selling subscriptions to the series – you need to pay for access, but it’s only $10 for the whole season.

But the main musical voice belongs to Jen Foster, whose song “Venice Beach” was chosen to be the theme song. Jen’s music appears often on “Venice” and when she performs, the fans come out to hear her. (Jen deserves – and will eventually get – a blog post of her own. )

So in Episode 2, which was posted tonight, Gina and Ani have a big scene on the beach, where Gina discovers that Ani’s current lover may have hit her. The music underscoring the entire scene is the arrangement for“Parentheses” featuring my lyric and Jen’s music (with some collaborative overlap). The music fit the scene like a glove, and the lyric (which wasn’t used on screen) could be their theme song.

It’s wonderful to watch the song finally see the light of day. Available now at!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Long(ing)ley to Nashville

A few years back, when I was looking around on the International Songwriting Competition site, listening to past winners, I saw an irresistible title. The winner in 2006 for Americana was “Girls With Apartments In Nashville” by Joy Lynn White and Duane Jarvis. It’s a little lyric about the flood of young, pretty things who flock to Nashville, ready to take the town by storm with their voice, their fretwork and their songs. Film actors to LA, stage actors to NYC, country singers to Nashville.

And when someone tells you they’re making that move, gonna make it in the big city, you want to wish them well, you hope the best for them, and at the same time you wince inwardly, knowing the odds, and how ruthless a dream can be in cutting down sensible advice.

But I think Liz Longley has a better shot than most. I had heard about Liz for a while, as she’s originally from Philly, and her name comes up from time to time (“oh, she’s great!”) but I hadn’t made it out to one of her gigs. Last night, my friends Seth Glier and Ryan Hommel were back at the Tin Angel, and they were opening for Liz. Liz and Seth went to music school together, are good friends, and are currently touring to raise awareness of food banks – on the “Food For Thought” tour, they are collecting non-perishable foods for delivery within the community. (I made sure I brought a nice full bag, which of course broke while carrying it out to the van).

But as I say, she a lot working in her favor. Her songwriting is quite good – humorous at times, creative, a knack for phrasing, and with the crucial knowledge of when a song happens…what events, sent through the prism of what notions, crystallize into a few verses and chorus that say a little and resonate.

And she’s young, which is a two-edged sword. Young people flock to Nashville, and most will be chewed up by the system because of their lack of life experience. But you have to be young, and stay young, to attract any attention from those who shine the spotlights so many want to feel on their faces.

More to the point, she has a fan base already, built up with care from Philly out to the rest of the country. People in Nashville don’t want to figure out what they can do for you – they want to know what you can do for them. You can’t build a fan base in Nashville, just about everyone there is a fellow songwriter. But it’s a smart place to be – for collaboration, networking, studio sessions – if you have musical life outside. Relationships with songwriters and venues all over the map – something to offer, something that means something.

And her boyfriend, Gus Berry, who plays guitar and sings backup with her, is mainly into production and engineering, which is where actual money is being made these days. So they won’t starve. And knowing your way around a studio is crucial for the do-it-yourself-ness of today’s market.

So, with a solid fanbase, a studio guru, a few CDs in the can, a catalog of songs, a record of co-writing, plus youth and good looks and a sweet voice – there’s not much more you can pack in your trunk before heading to Music City USA. I was glad to meet Liz last night, and wish her and Gus well in Nashville, I hope the best for them, and I didn’t even wince inwardly when I said that.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

A Tale of Two Venues

It was the best of venues. It was the worst of venues. At least on two different nights.

I went out to back-to-back gigs, both times to see friends perform, and the two experiences couldn’t have been more different.

Friday’s gig was certainly not the performers’ fault. Michael G. Ronstadt was excellent as always, backing up singer Casey Reid Alvarez, and then doing a set with one of his regular partners David Trotta. Also performing was Dani Mari, a singer/songwriter who apparently runs an Open Mic at Triumph Brewing Company in Old City.

The venue was Connie’s Ric Rac, a deliciously raffish bar/space in the Italian Market. Walls covered with the work of local artists (most of it erotic or just obscene), rickety tables and comfy sofas, family bartenders and a makeshift stage with decent acoustics. Just a spit from 9th and Passyunk, where Pat’s and Geno’s have their cheesesteak standoff.

But Friday night was the final night of the playoffs, with the Phillies trying to make it to the next stage. Ever been in South Philly when there was a crucial playoff game in the balance? Madness.

There was almost no audience to speak of. And the game was being projected on a side awall with the sound off (while the musicians were playing). So the musicians were literally playing second fiddle. I thought about being indignant on their behalf but a) what kind of a bar in South Philly doesn’t show a playoff game, and b) if the game weren’t on there would have been no audience at all. So be it.

The musicians had the opportunity to experiment and riff a bit. I was there for the music, but admit to keeping an occasional eye on the score. Ronstadt and Trotta finished a song at almost the same second the Phils lost, and there was a real hesitation to the applause – nobody wanted to sound like they were applauding the tragic end of the season.

The next night was Burlap and Bean to see Seth Glier and Ryan Hommel and that was as smooth as a gig as it could have been. B&B has turned into a serious venue, especially on Saturday nights. They’ve added a permanent stage and mounted speakers, and it’s a real ‘listening room’ (no ball games, no conversation, just hearing the music). Seth and Ryan were in magnificent form and played for more than an hour, covering Seth’s past, present and future work.

The opener was a soulful Aussie gal named Mia Dyson – she has a huge throaty Americana voice (like Lucinda Williams) and is obviously moving forward with what promises to be a nice career. Keep an eye out for her on her East Coast tour.

B & B is a great venue to hear singer/songwriters when they come through town. I’d go back to Connie’s Ric Rac too – Michael tells me that on most nights it’s a much better venue. As long as you avoid playoff nights.a

Thursday, September 8, 2011


Taking some songwriting lessons this morning. Which is to say I’m listening to the new Paul Simon album (“So Beautiful or So What”). And yes, Simon’s writing is idiosyncratic, for sure, but so is Mozart’s and so is Sondheim’s. Paul Simon has forgotten more about songwriting than I’ll ever know.

The lesson I’m leaning – that I’m re-learning – is how to not tell the story. Most of us overexplicate. We explain, we add so many words, we narrate – we are afraid of leaving gaps in the listener’s mental image, and we are afraid of leaving out connector words (definite articles, prepositions, etc.).

In one song about the afterlife (lots of songs about the end of days and the kingdom to come, Simon just turned 70), he sees a beautiful girl and tries to pick her up. The lines are short with internal rhymes, and without (literally) missing a beat, he says “Maybe you/ Maybe me/Maybe baby makes three” and there you have it. Says it all, cleverly, compactly, without spending several sentences about him trying to pick her up. Economy of language and thought.

In another song, he is listening to the radio, and he comments on how the pop station doesn’t sound like the music of his youth, he comments on the talk radio station, and stops at the gospel. Is that a perfect metaphor for life or what? Pop radio = youth, talk radio = middle-age, gospel = end of days. And that’s not even what the song is about, it’s just woven into the narrative.

He makes it seem effortless, but of course it’s not. He has said in interviews that he thought of the line “So Beautiful or so what” years ago and held onto it. It’s only now that he found a way to use it, or knew that he knew how to write it. It was too good a line to waste, and too good to use prematurely.

It’s the song “Rewrite” that grabs me most on the first few listens, in terms of songwriting economy. It’s about a Vietnam vet, old and broken down, working at a car wash. He’s either literally working on a screenplay at night, or he’s mentally working on a screenplay of his life (or it’s a metaphor) – rewriting it for a happy ending. Chorus is a simple eight lines:

I been working on my rewrite
Gonna change the ending
Gonna throw away my title
And toss it in the trash
Every minute after midnight
All the time I’m spending
It’s just for working on my rewrite
Gonna turn it into cash

Lovely rhymes across the verses (ending/spending, rewrite/midnight), spoken in vernacular, sketched in image of late nights and futile hope.

And there are only two eight-line verses, with very short lines, sketching in the story, but sketching in the barest details we need to know. In the first verse, he says he’s working at the car wash and:

Everybody says the old guy
Working at the car wash
Hasn’t got a brain cell
Left since Vietnam

That gives you a lot to think about. And it’s one long sentence spread over four musical phrases (that’s half the verse right there). “Everybody” – customers, coworkers – thinks he’s a dimwit. You can picture whomever you want but you get the picture.

And the second verse starts with:

I’ll eliminate the pages
Where the father has a breakdown
And he has to leave the family
But he really meant no harm

And there’s your story. The second half of the verse says that he’s going to put in a happier ending but you almost don’t need to know that. In another extended line he has told you how he ended up at the car wash, and why he’s “rewriting.” The short bridge is just a short internal prayer for help, and like most good bridges, gives the song a little pause so you can live in it another moment or two.

What sort of breakdown? Drugs? Alcohol? PTSD? Other mental illness? Do we care? Does it matter? It doesn’t matter – it’s a detail that needed to be removed.

You need to strip your story down, scrub it clean, take out every word and idea that doesn’t add. You *can* do a more complicated song, and there’s nothing wrong with it, but you need to choose to write that way. And you can’t choose to do that unless you have the discipline to strip it down to the bone before building it up again.

When you rewrite.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Hasten Your Process

Every new collaboration forces me to flex different muscles. This is good, because I discover (and develop) new muscles, but it’s maddening because I hate getting out of my comfort zones. But who doesn’t.

I prefer writing a lyric and finding someone with the right feel to work on it with me. As the song is developed, I can hear where lines could be shorter/longer, where words aren’t singing correctly, and I still do many rewrites. I take another look at the lyric to better meld with the musical statement being made.

I’ve been given music with a strong melodic line, and asked to write lyrics. This takes me a while, as I have to listen and listen and listen again, waiting for a story to take shape, a title, a musical journey, that goes with the music. It’s better if there’s already a title, but usually there isn’t. I do arguably better work in this context, as I’m writing to someone else’s sensibilities, instead of asking someone to write to mine.

But recently I had the experience of a whole new level of composition, working with cellist Michael G. Ronstadt. Michael is a prodigy on the instrument, and can make it sound like a bass, a guitar, a violin or even percussion; and plays in rock, folk and jazz styles. We are working on three pieces right now and one of them has had me tearing my hair out for many weeks.

Two were “fairly” straightforward. We are working on “Little Jack Horner” and that one came pretty easily – I had a basic melody in mind, and Michael began to envision chords, patterns, movement and we worked through the song in about an hour. We are also working on “Falling Angels” and Michael came up with very unusual music, to the point where I was doing major rewriting to match his work; we are close to finished that one, and it’s pretty special.

But the third piece was based on Michael’s almost-classical cello instrumental “Hasten Your Row” (on his most recent CD). He told me of a dream he had of a group of rowers fleeing some unnamed danger. He had no idea what sort of lyrical setting it should take, and gave me free rein.

Free rein was maddening. The cello work was exceptional, moving and compelling, and any musical line needed to not obscure it. I thought about his dream, and the music subconsciously reminded me of Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd; I imagined a bosun (singing a slow bass line) and a crew (chorus of tenors) and maybe some languid sopranos as the voices of the deep. But this meant not just lyricwriting, but composition.

I used GarageBand and sang over the cello, creating a bass line, melody with some snatches of lyric and constructed a lyric to it. Eventually I was able to sing, and transcribe the bosun part. But then I had to do a high line, faster snatches of music, in counterpoint to the bass, with some harmony, some atonality…..well, folks, I am pretty good at writing words, but writing music is sloooooooooooooow for me.

What finally worked was to write lyrics without worrying about the music. To construct, measure by measure, what words would be sung, creating rhymes and images. Then I was able to try to sing the words, in concert with my recorded bass. I was able to see where I had too many words to fit (and still work), where I wanted to hold notes, where I needed a few more syllables….etc. All the while transcribing the music into Finale. Thank goodness I know basic music notation.

There’s still a lot to do, but Michael and I went over the piece, as it is so far, in detail, and I think it’s going to be something very special when it’s done. What fun it would be to have some high school or chorale group perform it……even a professional one, dare I hope?

Friday, April 1, 2011

Happier Days

Just came across this LIFE Magazine (online) photo from a Grammy reception in 2008. I'm in between Rick Denzien and Aly Cat, both local Philly artists.

It's a licensed image, so I can't display it here, you'll have to click through. But it's a darn good picture.

Friday, March 4, 2011

The Next Right Thing

Watching an artist’s trajectory can be thrilling. While with some artists, the question is how will their talent develop, with others the question is what will they do with all that freaking talent.

Seth Glier has innate songwriting instincts that put some experienced songwriters to shame. He understands structure and how to develop ideas from component to component. He has an agility, and facilty, with rhyme, and doesn’t overuse it; knowing when to surprise the ear with internal rhymes, and knowing when to smooth the edges with near rhymes. He finds and weaves images that catch the ear and engage the inner eye.

Besides the writing ability, he is an accomplished composer and pianist, and has a gorgeous tenor voice complete with a daring falsetto. See him in performance sometime. He is the real deal, the complete package, the cat’s meow *and* pajamas.

So after traveling the country back and forth, doing his early experimentation on self-produced CDs, developing a fan base and settling into a performance style, finally getting a real label-produced CD out into the world......what does he do next?

He does The Next Right Thing.

There is a lot of say about Seth’s second MPress-produced album and not all of it can fit in this blog post. You hear him reaching for new points of view, yearning for the life experience to give him more to write about; trying different metaphorical languages, willing to let himself fail, and far more often succeeding.

The first striking thing about the CD is how stylistically different the opening title track is from the rest of the album. ‘The Next Right Thing” (which often opens his show) is a high vocal over a Native American drumbeat, an a capella two-verse rumination on religion. The first verse describes a huge multi-cultural religious gathering, lamenting and praying and condemning; the second verse describes a woman dying on her bed, praying for a favorable judgement. With the chorus “People need a miracle/To do the Next Right Thing.”

The rest of the album has ballads of all sorts (even uptempo ones like “Lauralee”) and after the first track you think you may have wandered into the wrong playlist; but listening, and sinking deeper into each song, you begin to realize Seth has written an album about faith. And hope. And wondering what, if anything, to believe in.

Not only in explicitly religious songs like “Down With The Ship” with the iconography and discussion of belief systems, or “I Don’t Need You” in which the singer needs hope and faith and something to believe. But in “Book of Matches” where a family’s house burns down and the singer (and the family) think more of the love and future they still have. And in “What The Others Have Done,” in which a woman considers the latest in a string of men, hoping this one will finally be the one. Or in the two back-to-back songs about driving long distances to see a girl (“Walk Katy Home” and “Lauralee”), in which a journey is taken with the hope of love and redemption at the end. Belief and faith and hope come up again and again in these songs.

What’s most exciting is to hear Seth deliberating changing the narrative voice. It’s very easy to fall into writing “I/You” songs -- where the singer “I” is discussing his relationship with the girl (“You”), and certainly those songs are in here -- good ones, too. But there are songs about other characters (“Down With The Ship, “What The Others Have Done”, “Book of Matches”), even female characters, as well as a straight narration song like “The Next Right Thing.” Even “I Don’t Need You,” though it clearly is an “I/You” song, is more about what the singer *does* need, other than someone to love.

This is a lovely album and worth several, or numerous, or myriad listens. And as always, Seth’d beautiful voice, piano and writing, and supported and shaped by Ryan Hommel’s (producer/sideman/BFF) guitar and production.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Creative Juices

If I knew where they came from I’d be able to find them more often. I wrote a lyric a couple of years ago that included the line “The river isn’t always gonna flow.” Because it isn’t. You’re lucky to find it in full roar, and you have to wander great distances sometimes between one roaring stream and another.

I quick glance at the last year of my blog shows….well……a lot of wandering between bodies of water. Longeurs. Gaps. Lacunae. Sporadic posting with a lot of hemming and embarrassed hawing.

Some disappointments and a lot of re-evaluation. That sums up 2010, I think.

What’s interesting is that, before I did a lot of lyricwriting, I got my creative juices flowing in the theatre, onstage and off. And I gave that up for a few years so I could concentrate on the writing more. So when my well seemed to be running dry, I shuffled back, and for the last few months I’ve been back to stage work, getting back in front of an audience.

It’s therapeutic, in many ways, and it’s definitely a confidence builder. Haven’t been able to write a lick, as my headspace has been filled up with line-learing and character-creating, but it’s all part of life’s rich pageant, as the lady said.

So, 2011, what’s in store? I’ve begun some collaboration experiments with jazz/rock/folk cellist Michael G. Ronstadt, I have irons in the fire with my friends The Lyra Project, and I will have a song cut on Jen Foster’s upcoming 2011 CD (date TBA).

Not a bad start to the year. I’m off now to get on a stage under the bright lights, and in a couple weeks will go back to dark corners with my notepad and journal.

I’ll keep you posted.