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Song Sources: “Put on the Brake”

February 26, 2011

This is part of an ongoing series about the recordings on our new album, due out in March 2011. To read more in this series, click on the category “Song Sources: Stories behind the recordings.”

This was one of the most frustrating recordings I’ve ever made—Even though it’s one of the simplest songs I’ve written in the past 5 years. But we stuck with it and ended up with what I think is a good headphones song.

The Lyrics

Said oh no, you’re gonna make a mistake
But you know, know, know there’s gotta be some give and take
Pull yourself together, for heaven’s sake
However fast you’re going better put on the break

Got a heart full of fire, full of jealousy and hate
I’ve been scared and tired and it’s getting hard to take
Someday you know, you’ve gotta lie in the bed you make
However fast you’re going, you better put on the brake

Said I’d be there for you, come what may
But the more I love, the more you make my poor heart ache
Someday you’ll regret it in the morning when you wake
However fast you’re going, you better put on the brake

This song was written in the same week as “1962,” and it was, essentially, a forced songwriting exercise. I just picked a sound and tried writing a song around it. In this case it was “-ake.”

I think that, when done right, this produces some interesting lyrics; done wrong you can simply end up rhyming for the same of rhyming. That’s no fun. I had actually tried a couple other sounds, and they either didn’t produce enough words or produced too many overused rhymes (I have a tendency to overuse -ay) or just produced some very pedestrian lines. I got the idea early on to use lots of set phrases like “heaven’s sake” and “give and take,” and to use as much assonance as possible on “o” throughout, because that sound is about as far as you can get from the really hard “-ake.” I had to allow myself a little lenience in the first lines of the second and third verses. It wasn’t a perfect effort by any means.

Extending the idea of the set phrases, the tag line sounds like it ought to be a set phrase, but Google gives no hits if you put it into quotes. This is one of those cases that can really lead a lot of artists to believe in muses and such, because the line came out fully formed and on its own.

Well, almost. It was “gotta put on the brake” instead of “better put . . .,” but the story in the song eventually forced it into a suggested action for one person instead of general advice about things everyone has to do.

The story is vague enough that it could be a standard breakup song, but to me it was about one person dealing with a partner struggling with addiction. They’re not necessarily breaking up, although the relationship is certainly at the breaking point. It would be nice to know that people stick by their partners and help them get through a difficult time, resulting in happy ever after. That almost never happens.

The story’s a composite of a lot of people I know. I had a somewhat complicated friendship with a friend of a friend. Let’s call her “Bee” and him “Abe.” Bee was fun to hang out with, but eventually I realized that she drank what I considered a lot pretty much every day (probably at least 3 drinks, which some people probably think isn’t too far above normal, I’m sure). Her mother had called me an “enabler” at one point, and I felt really bad because I often brought over a bottle of wine a lot of times when we and our mutual friend, Abe, hung out. Bee’s mother didn’t mean I was enabling her daughter’s drinking. At least I think she didn’t, but she could have. She meant I was enabling Abe’s mopey and depressed and sometimes immature nature.

I wrote a really long letter to Bee trying to express my concern about her drinking. It was the “right” thing to do only in some parallel universe where you go it alone to address a young, intelligent person’s drinking habits and expect them to say “thanks” and moderate their vices to your own personal tastes. At the time it felt brave, and viscerally honest. I would never do it now. I’m certain of that. And I have very conflicted feelings about that certainty.

I think adulthood is a process of growing less honest.

Anyway, it didn’t go well. She explained that she was well aware of her habits and didn’t think it was a problem. She might have been right. I told her I wasn’t comfortable hanging out with her because it would just depress me. Abe didn’t back me up. He was right not to, because he’d been friends with her for probably a decade and she was like his little sister. I said a stupid thing to him about it. If he reads this, I’m sorry.

I don’t think I should share the other relationship this was primarily cobbled together from. There’s only a certain amount of honesty I can handle at once.

The Music

Despite being heavily driven by the guitar riff, the music was written on a piano. (The music for “1962” was first written on a piano, too. I was writing everything on the piano at the time.) The same chord progression is used throughout: C Am F G Am. (At the time I wrote it, there was a slight variation in the second line, but Jen convinced me to standardize it, which was a smart move.) This is very, very close to what I call the “do0-wop chord progression.” The chord progression of the tonic, relative minor, sub dominant, dominant can be applied to dozens of doo-wop songs, but more generally appears in thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of songs. It’s not quite as ubiquitous as the chord progression in Pachabel’s Canon, but it’s close. I think this is the only song I’ve ever written where I intentionally used a common chord progression, and the first time I’ve written something without a separate chord progression for a chorus.

The first line is actually very difficult for me to sing, and it took a long time (and lots of nose wrinkles from Jen) before I was able to get it good enough to record (and even then I had to scrap the first vocal take in its entirety for Jen to be able to harmonize).

This wasn’t originally intended as a duet. That decision was made shortly before wrapping up the record. We’ve only done it live as a duet once, because the timing of the lyrics can get dicey, or as Jen would probably put it, “Jon won’t sing it the same way every time.”

The Recording

This was the most frustrating recording I’ve ever made.

Just how frustrating? While doing my solo record, I did a six hour recording session on my dad’s song “Sweet Island Girl” and got nothing I could keep. That was a picnic compared to this one.

We got everything except the vocals and the lead guitar down without too much trouble. The drums and rhythm guitar are obviously simple parts, and Jen’s piano playing was really excellent. I just wasn’t happy with the lead guitar. Too many licks got reused, and there was overall a lack of focus. Essentially, this is a jam song (it’s often over 6 minutes when we do it live, and the original recorded version was pushing 5 minutes with a fadeout), and I’d experienced the problem that every jam band must experience when they go into the studio: The moment when you realize that that 11 minute solo really is in fact boring.

I spent about 3 hours on the lead guitar part and it just felt lifeless when I listened to it later (a rather lifeless and pitchy lead vocal wasn’t helping). I sitll have that somewhere. It had a clean, sparkly tone. I went in for another session and blew another 3 hours, getting nothing I liked. Chris and I were dialing in more distortion, and I was starting to feel like it was turning into Clapton instead of Knopfler.

Just to make me feel worse about my inability to craft an interesting solo over a simple chord progression, we scrapped the first lead recording, and it turned out that when I asked others about it (well, Mike Ward and Jen), they had liked it. Doh. I still think the final take is far better, so maybe it’s for the best.

Finally I got the idea to put an organ in the song, and got Mike Ward to create a few solos on the spot. Chris and I had a chat about the song and he asked what I thought the song was about, instrumentally. If I could only have three instruments in the song, what would they be?

I thought back to how it was written on a piano, and decided that it was about the keys, voice, and drums. We decided to focus on those. We cut half of the first solo, ditching the electric guitar solo and splicing together half of Jen’s piano solo with an organ solo. We cut most of the ending, removing all the guitar solos except the riff in the verses (one eventually made it back in on the fadeout).

Chris played bass and it started feeling like a real song. I redid the lead vocal for something simultaneously more aggressive and warm and standardized as much of the phrasing as possible, which made it a little easier for Jen to overdub the entire thing. Jen was as surprised as we were that she pretty much nailed the entire duet in fewer than 6 takes.

One of the things Chris really liked on the first album was how disparate my and Jen’s voices were on songs like “Help Me Out,” where I sound shouty and ravaged and she sounds polished. It was nice to get some of that on this album, too, since my vocals were a lot more practiced and smooth this time around.

I wanted the song to sound intimate despite a guitar riff that is very in-your-face. I had so many guitar takes (there’s at least six) that it just made more sense to leave them all in at fairly low volume than to pick them apart for what I wanted. The whole thing ended up feeling like a giant pillow of warm fuzzy guitar tones. We couched a lot of things in reverb, but kept the vocals very close. This gives a sense of the people being closer to the listener than the instruments. There are ways we could have mixed this that it would have sounded more like a stadium rocker, but that wouldn’t have really matched the feel of the rest of the album.

All this cutting created a new problem, though: When Chris and I tried to splice together the ending, we’d been sliding around a little on the click and things didn’t match up. We spent a few hours trying to sort it out before I just got frustrated and considered ditching the song. We tried so many things that I can’t even remember, now, what in the end solved the problem.

The last thing we did before the final mixing on the song was add the “oohs” at the end. This brings the focus back to the people in the story in the middle of an extended instrumental solo.

For once, I’m not going to post the lyrics and chords at the end. Anyone should be able to work with what’s there earlier in the article!


Track credits:
Jon – Guitars and vocals
Jen – Piano and vocals
Tim – Drums
Mike Ward – Organ

Engineered by Chris Freeland at Beat Babies Studios, Woodstock, MD
Mastered by Mat Leffler-Schulman at Mobtown Studios, Baltimore, MD

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