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Song Sources: “Gone to California”

September 17, 2014

This is part of an ongoing series about our recordings. To read more in this series, click on the category “Song Sources: Stories behind the recordings.”

“Gone to California” is written as a letter from an estranged father to the son he left at birth. I had been delving into writing some songs where characters did unsavory things for what might be good reasons, and “Gone to California” was one of the best results of that experiment.

Lyrics

The last inch of land. (You are here.)

The first verse simple sets the stage and provides the frame:

Well, I’ve gone to California
to the last inch of land
Someday you’ll understand, son
When you grow to be a man

Since I was specifically writing the song to elicit a conflicting reaction on the part of the listener, it was important to figure out a way to make the narrator (the father writing the letter) if not reprehensible at least a obviously disgraceful. The “Well” at the beginning is a bit more than just an extra syllable in this case. There’s a slight flippancy to it that I thought fit the character. The character’s cluelessness is also on display in the condescending last line of the verse.

The chorus tangentially provides a bit of background on “how we got into this mess” in the guise of some advice:

You can run forever if the end is in sight
And the best way to love is blind
Water can drown you or keep you alive
But the devil’s gonna get you every time

There’s a bit of defensiveness in this, but it really is true that it’s a lot easier to judge someone when you’ve never been in there shoes. So if you can see a way out of a situation, you don’t have any trouble reaching for your goals, and it’s easy to tell someone else to love their partner blindly, and not everything is cut and dry, and sometimes you’re just screwed. I think a lot about empathy when I write, trying to really get into someone’s head and be honest with why they make a decision, regardless of whether I think the decision is the right one or the wrong one. Almost everyone who does things thinks they’re doing the right thing.

More background on “how we got into this mess”:

I was married at twenty to the first girl I laid
And I never planned on a son
There was nowhere to work and no way to get paid
And there’s more pretty girls than one

Since I already had it in mind that the character was a little clueless, having a bit of crassness in there was important, and the last line being from an old song made it seem like the sort of inappropriate joking that might go on if they met in person.

Some nights when I lay me down to sleep
I can smell her body next to me
And the river will carry me down to the sea
And someday my conscience will be free
Someday my conscience will be free

The bridge provides a bit more clarity about the timeline of the letter. I decided I needed something to show that it was being written after the narrator had already left, but also to show that he does regret his decision on some level, and that he did in fact love the wife he left. There’s a bit a nod to Springsteen’s “The River” here, too. I also imagined the bridge not being in the letter itself, but rather something that the writer was thinking as he wrote it, but that’s not really explicit in the lyrics.

The last verse gets to the real heart of the matter, that the letter is actually a plea for forgiveness:

Someday when you’re older and you read this letter
And you’re old enough to decide if you agree
Was it better to leave behind two people to suffer
Or stay by their side and make it three?

Is there a way to look at the father’s decision to run off as if it was the least bad decision? There’s no way to do both, but would having a father around who couldn’t hold down a job and might make the people around him miserable really a recipe for a happier household than one that had no father at all? The “when you’re older” is a callback to the first verse, but it means something a little different this time. At the time the letter is opened, the only judgment for the reader make is an emotional reaction toward his father that just picked up and left because he just didn’t feel like sticking around with his family. It’s perhaps less condescending now that some context has been provided, and maybe at some future time, the reader might think differently about it.

Music

The guitar riff was originally is based around a few notes of the hornpipe “Off to California,” with the timing and chords altered significantly to make it sound graver. It’s Irish in origin but was popular in the U.S. in the 19th century, presumably during the gold rush. The Session has numerous names and variants, so I would venture a guess that it’s older than that and was appropriated for different occasions (many tunes are) before it was written down and the name stuck.

I derived the verse melody from what was left, except that the verse is a bit simpler and jumps up an octave on the line going into the chorus.

Otherwise, the song was a fairly stock Americana/roots rock with big open chords. Jen did the overall arrangement of the song so that it had more dynamics, and we added the falsetto parts after trying a few things in band practice to add a part to contrast with the “up-ness” of the bridge.

Chris wrote his drum part. I was pretty thrilled that he used the “girl group” beat. It’s very different from what was in the song originally, but I thought it worked really well for the recording to give the song a different texture.

Recording

Like all the other tracks on the EP, the drums were recorded to a scratch track that Jen and I did, and then all other parts were overdubbed. I did the guitars last, and I made an effort to pare things back to the bare minimum. The drums and piano came out very tight, so I wanted to stay out of their way. Although there are two different guitar takes, for the most part, one is only on the riffs, and the other is only on the verse and chorus.

Tweet tweet. Wobble wobble.

Jen did her usual backing vocals, but I wanted a different texture behind the bridge to separate it further from the verses and chorus. Joe does really good “Ahhs” on his recordings, so we wrote a quick harmony part for him in the middle of the session and it came out sounding just right.

Gear-wise, the piano is again Chris’s upright, and the viola bass is going into Chris’s Ampeg. The guitar is my red telecaster from the Fireworks album. The tremolo was a tap tempo version of my Cardinal tremolo that I built. The amp’s tremolo sounded really good but I think it was a hair too slow for what I wanted. It’s a clean guitar otherwise with just a tiny bit of compression and the Tone King’s reverb.

Here’s how to play it if anyone’s interested:

Riff (with tremolo on 1/16th notes)
A                                     F#m                                         A                                    F#m                            A
E———————————-——————————————————-——-——————-————————————-
B——————–—————————-———————————————————-——-——————-——————-
G———————————2-———————————-——–————-——2—————————-————————
D———————————-————-—2———4——-4———4—2—4——4—2—————2-—4———————-
A—0——0—4—2—0————2/4———4-——4-——————-—————————2/4————4—2—0———
E———————————-———-——————-——————————-——-——————-——————————

A
Well, I’ve gone to California
F#m
to the last inch of land
A
Someday you’ll understand, son
F#m                                       E          E6  E
When you grow to be a man

D                                                    A
You can run forever if the end is in sight
D                                                     E
And the best way to love is blind
D                                                A
Water can drown you or keep you alive
D                         E                          A
But the devil’s gonna get you every time

I was married at twenty to the first girl I laid
And I never planned on a son
There was nowhere to work and no way to get paid
And there’s more pretty girls than one

D                                                      E
Some nights when I lay me down to sleep
D                                                      E
I can smell her body next to me
D                                                      E
And the river will carry me down to the sea
D                                   E                                   F#m
And someday my conscience will be free
D                         E                                   A
Someday my conscience will be free

Someday when you’re older and you read this letter
And you’re old enough to decide if you agree
Was it better to leave behind two people to suffer
Or stay by their side and make it three?

Song Sources: Most Distant Star

September 10, 2014

“Most Distant Star” is a love story between an aborigine and a meteor.

No one seems to believe me when I tell them that …

(I want to be clear that my use of the word “aborigine” in this post is only meant as a person from pre-history and not the native peoples of Australia.)

Lyrics

A long way from anywhere lions live.

This was one of those songs that came pretty much all at once. I wrote it over the course of a Saturday while sitting in our library, and like the song “Robin” from the Baltimericana EP (which I wrote after this song if you want an idea of how long this has been waiting to be recorded), it was the result of thinking up some slightly odd images to write a song about. In this case, it was an aborigine looking up at a meteor and imagining it was a person falling to earth, so he sets out on a long journey to meet them.

You were the light and the most distant star
And a fusion reaction in the engine for your part

What can I say, I like me some anacronisms … the engine is his p …. uh, heart. The second line was one of the few lines in the song that was tweaked after the initial writing session. There’s a callback to it in the song “Ones and Zeroes” later on the EP. I’ve lost the first handwritten copy of the lyrics, but I know that the word “fusion” was in the original line, but not “engine.”

And I was tired of the dark
I was hungry and poor
An animal desperate to stay warm

Do we rhyme?
Are we together?
Well not all the time, but more often than never

Okay, we’re now firmly back in the most distant past.

And I put faith in my feet, and a thousand miles to bear
There was storm in the silence and a fire in the air
And the august sky was streaked with my grandmother’s hair
And you were aground in the unknown

Neither distant nor a star.

I usually say “meteorite” when I’m talking about the song, but the duration required for someone to walk a thousand miles, assuming our narrator isn’t exaggerating and can accurately measure a mile, indicates that the astronomical phenomenon must be multiple meteors or a comet. “August sky” is a reference to the time the song takes place: in the summer, during the Perseid meteor shower. This also hints at the location, which we’ll pin down  more firmly later, but just know that the shower is primarily visible from the northern hemisphere.

Somehow we talked despite lightyears between
About the prides of lions and the fears of the weak
And even in the daytime I could keep you
First to the right to get home

“Prides of lions” sort of gives the setting. Lions lived in Africa but also the middle east. “First to the right to get home” is a reference to Peter Pan’s directions to Neverland (“second to the right, and straight on till morning”). In Peter Pan, the stars are actually people, but they can’t interact with anyone or take an active roll in the events in Neverland.

There was no moment of panic, no injuring words
No discord, confusion, or imperfect third
And I tried to keep you close
But you kept falling away
And everything burns away
Everything burns away
Everything burns away
Everything burns away
Someday

If it wasn’t clear from the conceit of the song or from the previous stanza in the bridge, there was no way for this story to be anything but unrequited love. If I’m going with a literal reading of the lyrics, then the meteor shower only lasts for a short time. You can go out every clear night for weeks and see shooting stars, and then all of a sudden they’re gone. You could see what looks like one that makes it through the atmosphere and will make it to the ground, but you’re not going to find it unless you happen to be right there, or it simply burns up and doesn’t make it all the way to the earth.

It made no sense to return to the chorus at this point, so the song ends with wordless vocals.

Music

The main riff is extremely close to the one in “End of the World” from our first album. I don’t know if I was practicing that song at the time I wrote this, or if it just happens to be coincidental, but they really are quite close. The music, like the lyrics, came in one sitting, with Jen tweaking some of the chords in later arranging sessions. One thing I had in mind almost from the very beginning was duplicating the lead vocal an octave above. Joe and I recorded the very first scratch track for the song a week or two after I wrote it, and, except for the song being at a slower tempo, it’s very similar to where the song ended up.

The tune is very modal, jumping up to the relative minor but staying very close to a six-note scale common in a lot of Celtic music (no seventh). The chord harmonies reflect this, with most of them pedaling an F note, and the 7th note is only used in chords when some tension is needed. The rhythms are also fairly straight, jumping into a gallop for the first couple lines of the chorus but otherwise sticking to 8th note patterns or big chords.

Recording

Maxiphoned!

For the recording itself, Jen and I did the initial scratch tracks with Chris, who then played the drums against them. We overdubbed everything over the drums during a weekend in late January.

I think what I’m most proud of on this recording is that the lead vocal was the first take, and it’s all one take. I was very sick with a bacterial infection at the time we were working on these recordings, and after I did this take I didn’t get anything else usable for the rest of the day. I did go back and add a couple more “oohs” (for the ending) later.

The piano is Chris Freeland’s upright in the studio, which we decided early on would be on every piano track. Jen and I spent the year before doing this recording playing in her living room on the acoustic piano, so the electric piano just wasn’t going to sound right on any of these songs. The bass is my/Joe’s Epi viola bass, straight into an old Ampeg amp of Chris’s, which is the setup we used for “Silent Little Bells.”

All guitar tracks are using Don Quixotecaster, mostly run through a compressor (my Bearhug) and delay pedal (the Strymon El Capistan) into my Tone King Imperial. The single note parts in the background that sound a bit like strings are the DQcaster run through a fuzz pedal with a bunch of volume pedal shenanigans, while I held the guitar’s headstock to the amp to keep the strings vibrating. Cheaper than an e-bow! There’s also a background track run through a harmonic tremolo that I recorded at home. I was a lot less overdub-happy on this song than in the past, but this song has more guitar tracks on it than the entire remainder of the EP.

I’d also like to say that although I took a ton of gear to the studio, I ended up hardly using any of it. The more toys I acquire and make, the less I feel like writing anything that needs them. Funny how that works.

Here’s how to play it if anyone’s interested:

Capo 3, delay set on quarter notes

Riff
E—8/10—8——————————8—————————-
B—————–8/10——–x–8h10———10—8—6p3—6—
G—5/7—-5————–x—————————————(5)–
D—————–5/7———————————————–3—
A————————————————————————-
E————————————————————————-

Verse
F6     F
You were the light and the most distant star

F6   F
A fusion reaction in the engine for your part

Bb                  C                   F6                    F
I was tired of the dark I was hungry and poor

F6 F      Bb       C                     F
an animal desperate to stay warm

Chorus
F                            Csus4
Do we rhyme? Are we together?

Dm                                                        F
Well not all the time but more often than never

F Bb F
Oh Oh Oh

Verse 2
I put faith in my feet, and a thousand miles to bear
There was storm in silence and fire in the air
And the August sky was streaked with my grandmother’s hair
And you were a ground in the unknown

Chorus
Riff (ending on Dm instead of F

Bridge 1
Bb                                                    F                                                         Bb                                          F
Somehow we talked despite lightyears between about the prides of lions and the fears of the weak

Bb                                              F                                 Bb                                          C
And even in the daytime I could keep you First to the right to get home

Bridge 2
Dm                                                                 F                                    Dm                                      F
There was no moment of panic, no injuring words, no discord, confusion, or imperfect third
Dm                                                                               F                                Dm                                C
and I tried to keep you close but you kept falling away and everything burns away

Bridge 3
Dm                               F         Dm                                 F
Everything burns away, everything burns away
Dm                                F                    C
Everything burns away, someday

(Ending is the riff three times.)

If you squint, our summer schedule almost looks like a tour

May 12, 2014

We’ll be hitting some of our favorite spots in Baltimore, as well as DC and Frederick. Looking at them in a list, it almost looks like a tour! Of course, they’re separated by weeks or even months between each show, and I get to go home and sleep each night, so of course it’s not.

One of the highlights for me is that we get to share some stage time with our friends Miss Shevaughn and Yuma Wray again, on August 8. Now those are some real road warriors … Erin and Chris have lived most of their married life out of their van, putting down some roots briefly in California and the DC-Baltimore-Frederick area. This official video of the first track off their new album is a sunny representation of that:

Of course, five days in the car and you’re desperate for a real shower, cramped and cranky from sleeping upright, and starting to question the validity of your meal choices. But it’s honed them into a far better band than they were a few years ago, and I loved their music even when it was a lot more prototypical.

Touring is one thing I never got a chance to do, so it’s something that’s “missing” from my musical education. I don’t travel well: I dislike driving, I really dislike flying. Even when we played in New York (well, Brooklyn), I drove home at 1:00 in the morning. I don’t recommend that. When I lived in Texas, I didn’t have a problem traveling four or six hours to play shows, but gas was cheap then, and you must be a lot tougher when you’re only twenty, because 2:00 a.m. when you’ve been up since 6 in the morning isn’t painful at all. And, of course, I was in the military at the time, so I couldn’t just pack up and take off.

I can pinpoint the moment I knew I could never be a touring musician: I was sitting around listening to a conversation between some friends from a jam session in San Antonio; many of them had toured, a couple had even been roadies for “name” bands going back forty years, and one of them made a comment about one of his favorite musicians being fifty and living in his car. There was a lot of derision in the way he said it, and this came out of a musician who had been on a label and had a minor radio hit in the 80s, did his time with alcoholism and a broken family (his son played drums with him, though, so they had patched things up years ago), and hadn’t had a job other than playing his guitar in decades. I thought about whether there was anything I’d rather do than play music at any given time, and once I realized that there were other things I enjoyed doing, I scratched off “go on tour” from my to-do list.

It’s funny how you can regret something that you know you’d hate, but then again, one of my neuroses is that I live in a state of constant self-doubt, embarrassment, and regret no matter how happy I am with a decision I’ve made.

Anyway … here’s our summer shows:

Friday, May 30, 2014: Joe Squared for the dinner set, 7:00-9:00.

Joe Squared
133 W. North Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21201
Phone: 410-545-0444
7:00-9:00

Sunday, June 8, 2014: World Folk Music Association showcase with IONA and Laura Dungan & Aaron Fowler.

El Golfo Restaurant
8739 Flower Ave
Silver Spring, MD 20901
7:00 p.m.
For reservations, call 301-608-2121

Sunday July 13, 2014: Todd Walker’s Sunday Songwriters’ Songfest at Frederick Coffee Co. and Cafe.

Frederick Coffee Co. and Cafe
100 N. East Street
Frederick, MD 21701
4:00-7:00 p.m.

Friday, August 8, 2014: Joe Squarednight show with the Katie Bowers Band (that’s Katie and Joe Scala) and Miss Shevaughn and Yuma Wray.

Joe Squared
133 W. North Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21201
Phone: 410-545-0444
10:00 p.m. showtime

Saturday, October 4, 2014: Teavolve with Beggar’s Ride. Details TBA.

FAWM 2014 wrap-up

February 27, 2014

I did February Album Writing Month (FAWM) again this year.FAWM, for those who don’t know, is a self-challenge to write 14 songs in the month of February. Despite getting a late start and having a few weeks of feeling bad due to illness, I even finished a few days early thanks to some collaboration with my friend Mosno.

Read more about the process, read about the highlights, and my overall thoughts on the challenge here.

New show added — January 24th at Cellar Stage

December 29, 2013

On Friday, January 24th, 2014, we’ll be part of a showcase at Uptown Concerts’ Cellar Stage (in Hamilton, Baltimore, MD) along with Lynn Hollyfield, Jessica Smucker, and Neptune’s Car. It’s kind of a big deal for us, because it means that we’re not just an opening act this time when we play there, and we get to bring along Joe Scala to make a full trio.

You can check out info for the show at Uptownconcerts.com and on our shows page.

“Baltimericana” released (Jon & Joe side project recording)

October 21, 2013

Just thought I’d post a little note over here about the Baltimericana EP. This was a home recording project that Joe and I recorded starting last summer. It’s finally ready. There are four new songs on it, and it’s a free download. You can listen to it here:

And I’ve done some “Song Sources” posts about the writing process behind the tracks over on my blog. Check em out here.

“A Hole in Everything” – Co-Writing Session

April 14, 2013

That’s a working title for a new song with lyrics by me and Jen.

Co-writing continues to be an enjoyable (if sometimes weird) experience for me. This time it was with Jen, and we finished a song I’ve been working on for almost two years. I had a first verse, and then every time I tried to write a second verse, I just couldn’t come up with anything good.

So I played Jen the first verse (and chorus). It was a pretty bare bones character sketch of two people with very different personalities.

I know you were the kind
to be always one branch higher
Anything to be at the top of the tree
And I was the tongue-tied boy
Rooted and grounded and bored
Maybe a broken arm was all I need

Somewhat ironically, it was Jen who pushed for it to be more of a story, so we talked about what kind of relationship between the characters was implied by what was already written, and then something really fun occurred to us: we made it a duet, which is not something we’ve done ever. This opened up an entirely new way to explore the song, because now instead of one person talking about himself and someone else, it was two people talking about the other person.

Male character:
I know you were the kind
to be always one branch higher
Anything to be at the top of the tree

Female character:
When I finished my climb
I knew I was a flier
My heart wanted much more than you and me

Second verse:

Female character:
Always biting your tongue
You played helpless and quiet
Clinging to restraints you were chained to the ground

Male character:
I was the tongue-tied boy
Rooted and grounded and bored
Maybe a broken arm was all I need

I’m quite pleased with what came out. “Miscommunication” is good fodder for stories. Jen commented that the net result is that there’s a disconnect between them, some breakdown in compatibility and their basic ability to even understand each other to work past it. There’s also an interesting psychological bit with the way the narrators construct their sentences: his lines start have “I” as the subject even when talking about the other person; hers use “I” to talk about herself and “you” to talk about the other person.

Jen is better than I am at actually saying what “she” (or her narrator) means, and also seems to have a much easier time being completely open and honest about her own personal experience, so it’s a good foil to my tendency to be oblique sometimes to the point of obscurity. Her willingness to throw every idea out there really helped put me at ease for the session. Mostly I was relegated to rewording things slightly to maintain the rhyme scheme and rhythm, but lyrically it’s a true collaboration now.

The song has a chorus, and we did some fun vocal things with the harmonies, but I’ll save talking about those for when we have a recording of some sort.

-Jon

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