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Song Sources: Firebird

September 1, 2019

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.”

800px-firebird

Image from Wikipedia; illustration by Ivan Bilibin.

Back in 2013, Joe Scala was doing his first February Album Writing Month and asked me to co-write a song with him. We brainstormed some ideas, one of which involved the Slavic folk myth of the firebird, a creature that is a “blessing and a harbinger of doom to its captor.” We didn’t end up writing a song using the myth, but I filed it away and went off on my own to write a song vaguely based on it, which became this little piece of magical realism on Monsters.

Lyrics

The story takes place during the second world war, in Finland. (The firebird also appears in Finnish folklore.)

Finland has an interesting but complicated World War II history; they sided with Germany (though not as an axis power), and had been put in a difficult position in part because of the threat from Russia. But they did not permit genocide to take place in their country, and sheltered Jewish refugees from other German-occupied areas. Nor did they give up being a democracy, unlike all of Germany’s other allies in the war. Despite being massively outnumbered by the Russian forces that attacked them, Finland never fell and Helsinki was one of the only capitals of Europe that was not occupied at the end of the war. And they gave the world the polttopullo, the Molotov cocktail. They lost territory to Russia (still a major sore point between the two countries) and were hit pretty hard with reparations after the war.

In the song, a young man is going  hunting, and his mother gives him some extra ammunition warns him to return before nightfall. After he chases a deer into the nearly-frozen stream, snow starts to fall more heavily, and he gets lost, unable to see his footprints and trace his way back to the road until an approaching column of Russian soldiers reveals its location. While hiding from them he succumbs to sleep but is awoken by a vivid dream. He rushes home ahead of the soldiers and leads his mother from their house just before it’s destroyed.

“Put on your wool cap and your best leather boots
It’s already snowing and the crows have taken flight
In case you run into trouble I loaded an extra bandolier
Stay on the road and be home before night”

“Be home before night
keep your back to the dark and the
sun on your right
be home before night”

He found a songbird’s feather and he kept it for luck
He saw a deer at the crossroads but was slow to load
It bolted for the creek and it fell through the ice
His tracks snowed over and so did the road

Some hours on he heard the sound of machines
And a diesel smoke column blew over the spruce
Heard a fleeing hawk owl as the soldiers approached
And lay in the heather to stay hidden from view

He closed his eyes for a time and breathed on his hands
Snow covered his cap and he couldn’t feel his feet
He wiped the frost from his face, pulled his coat tight for heat
But the footsteps like heartbeats lulled him to sleep

And in his dream he saw sunlight streak through the leaves
And a firebird singing like a summer eventide
Followed ‘til he came to a dead apple tree
And there lay the deer with a wound in her side

He opened his eyes and saw the last soldier pass
Picked up his rifle and took a straight path to home
Took his mother by the hand and said there’s no time to lose
And they watched from a distance as a shell hit their home

The feather is the firebird myth sneaking into the “real world” part of the story; the firebird itself only appears in the dream to warn him of the impending danger, and I didn’t use the plot of the actual folk story, in which a prince must capture the bird to marry a princess (a seemingly impossible task meant to get rid of him).

I mined some other European folklore elements for the story. “Straying from the road,” or wandering, is the root of the word “error” and has been used in thousands of stories. The deer that evades capture by a hunter is a popular motif in English folklore — usually it’s a white deer (or stag) in that case, and it’s a representative from the otherworld. There’s an old superstition that hearing an owl overhead is an omen of death, and an apple tree sometimes appears in Slavic folktales as a place where powerful dreams happen.

After some false starts before I hit on the second world war setting, the lyrics only went through a couple revisions, but they were written somewhat slowly and deliberately over about a week. I started with prose and molded it into lines and rhymes, and made some adjustments to the words to fix the stress and make them easier to sing while I was recording the first scratch tracks.

Music

The music follows some unusual patterns; the first and third lines have a pair of 2/4 bars at the end (essentially making them three bars). The chorus is regular 4/4, but the bridge changes to cut time (2/4) with the same chord pattern as the verse. The verse employs some call-and-response between the guitar and the vocal (taking advantage of a bit of extra air in the structure). I think this was the first song I had written that used staggered vocals for the chorus, which I used again on a couple other songs on the record.

Often I’ll cop some elements from the native folk music of a country when I write something historically-tinged, but in this case, the overall chord structure is drawn from Celtic (particularly Irish) ballads, just going up to the four chord on the second and third lines and leaving the five chord out of the melody for the most part. It’s very modal despite having a somewhat complex chord pattern overall. Finnish folk music that I’ve heard, on the other hand, tends toward minor chords and the harmonic minor scale, or sometimes something closer to polka.

Recording

This is a fairly early home recording for me. The tracking was done in December 2014, and I spent quite a bit of time off and on remixing the song and fiddling with the drums, before doing a final remix and master while preparing to release the song.

Every instrument was miced with a Sennheiser MK4 straight into a Focusrite Scarlett, so there’s nothing fancy going on equipmentwise.

I got a little extra space on the vocals by recording in the archway between our living room and dining room.

I made the recording just after I finished building my 5W Sakura amp, and I’ve modified the amp since I made the recording, so I can’t recreate the guitar sound. Normally I would use two microphones on an amp, but my notes and the track list says that I just distance-miced the amp, about 12″ away from the center of the cone. The “steel guitar” (which is just a regular guitar with a slide and a volume pedal) and the bass are the same setup.

The acoustic is my Tennessee played with a pick pretty much in march time — the verse parts is particularly simple, played with simple downstrokes on the beat.

The drums are programmed of course. This was probably the first track that I obsessively programmed the drums, and I went back several times trying to get more humanization into them (introducing little errors and variation). Tim Taormino told me he liked the pattern and how the drums sounded, so I guess I did a good job on that.

The “mastering” chain was all in the box, mostly just some gentle EQ and a few stages of compression. Unfortunately I didn’t have my rack compressor available for the final mixdowns when I was remixing, so it took some tries to match the 2017 tracks like “Out of My Mind,” which had some much better bass control. This proved to be a consistent problem but fortunately my car has some overpowering bass and gave me a better way to reference the tracks than I could get at my computer with meters.

Overall it’s one of the home recordings I’m most proud of. I would have been nervous trying to recreate it if we went into the studio, and the guitar solo in particular would have been tough to match. It was a little too long to start the album off with, but it’s the earliest recording on the record, so it made sense to start off the Song Sources series for this record with it.

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