Skip to content

Song Sources: The Habit of Fear

July 9, 2022

In Feburary 2020, I was serving on a murder trial jury in Baltimore (for the second time), and finished rereading One Hundred Years of Solitude during the breaks between courtroom time. Near the end of the book, the last living illegitimate child of Colonel Beundia appears on the doorstep of the family’s house seeking refuge:

One hot dawn they both woke up in alarm at an urgent knocking on the street door. It was a dark old man with large green eyes that gave his face a ghostly phosphorescence and with a cross of ashes on his forehead. His clothing in tatters, his shoes cracked, the old knapsack on his shoulder his only luggage, he looked like a beggar, but his bearing had a dignity that was in frank contradiction to his appearance. It was only necessary to look at him once, even in the shadows of the parlor, to realize that the secret strength that allowed him to live was not the instinct of self-preservation but the habit of fear.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude, translated by Gregory Rabassa

The family doesn’t recognize him and chases him into the street, where he’s killed by his pursuers as the child of a political enemy.

The passage gave me a title and a chorus for a song that I originally started after a conversation with other artist friends about damaging our hands. Obviously a hand is not truly necessary for the survival of the body, but it does feel like it’s necessary for the mind (or soul, if that’s your thing). It’s a fear I experience regularly: I worry about accidentally cutting a finger, even a little, when making dinner, because especially in February (when I do so much recording), I can’t fret or pluck a string with a bandage on the finger, and the time lost is so precious. One of my pinkies is permanently misshapen because I broke it in college. I broke a thumb in middle school. Both were left hand injuries. If things had gone slightly differently, I might not have the use those fingers, and it could have changed whether I was able to play an instrument that gives me so much joy. The fear that I’ll do something permanent is kind of always in the back of my mind now. The fear is practically animalistic.

It’s easy to imagine that, within weeks of writing this song in February 2020, some more pressing fears changed the meaning of the song.

Want it on iTunes, Spotify, or somewhere else instead of Bandcamp? Try here.

Lyrics

You are hunted from birth,
A deer in the throng
A lion without a pride

What keeps you alive
Is not the will to survive
Or the will to be free
It keeps your mind clear
The habit of fear

You’re a bird with no song
A winter-stripped tree
In the moment before the dawn

We all fall from the nest, break free from the herd
Hunger and thirst in the dust
But somehow we find from the last to the first
What we can and what we must

The song was written lyrics-first, but with some intention toward the kind of melody I wanted. The short verses were an experiment — I rarely write words that are intended to be held for a long time — and the near-rhyme in the second verse was purely coincidental. I wanted to convey as much as possible in few words, and emphasize that fear can strike predators and prey alike. We’re used to thinking about animal like deer being frightened — they exhibit a freeze response in fearful situations, or run away, though I have personally witnessed a deer fighting a human and they can be very dangerous. We’re not used to thinking of lions as fearful, but a wild animal’s instinct is to avoid any injury if they can: in the wild it doesn’t matter if they can kill another animal if they are wounded and die from infection or because they can’t run and hunt. Even plants can issue a warning chemical to their neighbors when in danger, or curl their leaves when exposed to too much heat, something that looks like cowering.

I sat on the verses and chorus for a few days. So I did something that I was never particularly good at before 2020’s FAWM: I asked myself, “What is this song really missing?” A third verse didn’t make sense. I’d already thoroughly described the bleakness I wanted to express, and there was no story here to finish.

The obvious musical answer is a bridge, but lyrically, the answer was “hope.” I am not, generally, good at expressing hope in my songs. I can be a pessimistic person, and an anxious one, and while I’m not an unhappy person, I don’t necessarily write happiness well. There’s a reason I chose, years ago, to embrace the description “ugly things” for my subject matter.

The bridge isn’t some great insight, you might even say that it’s simply describing that you need to Do The Necessary, as it were, to live. But fear and anxiety have a way of beating people down, just like depression or trauma, until doing just the necessary things in life is a challenge, until even the survival instinct is just another expression of fear. So at the very last moment, the song simply says, “Everyone is afraid. It’s okay.”

Is it sufficiently hopeful to make up for the bleak words in the verses and chorus? I don’t know. But it’s at least it’s something.

Music

Tag
|G    Em  D|           

Verse
|Em   D    | C   G
|Em   D    | C
|G    Em  D|             

Chorus
|G    Em   | C      |G    Em    | C
|G    Em  D|        |C          | G

Bridge
|G         |Em      |C         |D
|G         |Em      |C         |D

The short verses and peculiar structure to the chorus meant doing something with the melody I very, very rarely even consider doing as part of the melody, melisma (singing multiple notes for a single syllable). This did come back to bite me when it came time for other people to sing a harmony part, but I didn’t plan harmony parts when originally writing the music.

The opening riff was just some verse intro chords (G – Em – D), but it doubled as an unusual ending, since it resolves on the V chord of the key rather than the tonic. Interestingly, it ended up sounding like it resolves to the correct chord, even though I wouldn’t describe anything about the tune as being in a different mode.

The riff also gave me something to build the chorus chord progression around — the first two lines are G – Em – C before quoting the riff again. The next time the riff is quoted, after the line “the habit of fear,” it’s actually the start of the verse.

A long instrumental in this song probably wouldn’t have worked, but book ending the verses with the riff also meant that the guitar solo could be very succinct, just like the words in the verses. It’s built around a repeated motif of double stops on the B and E strings:

E-(pickup bar)--|-----10-10--------|--------5s8-7----------
B-------8h10-8--|--10b12-12r10-8-8h|10-88~~-------8~~---10s
G-9s11----------|------------------|-----------------------
D---------------|------------------|-----------------------
A---------------|------------------|-----------------------
E---------------|------------------|-----------------------
E|---15---15------14|14h15r14-12~--14-------12-------------
B|15b17---17r15-----|--------------13b15r13-12b13r12-------
G|------------------|--------------------------------------
D|------------------|--------------------------------------
A|------------------|--------------------------------------
E|------------------|--------------------------------------
E|------10------------|-------------------10--------------
B|10b12----12r10-8-10s|12-10-10~~---10s12----12s10-8~~----
G|--------------------|-----------------------------------
D|--------------------|-----------------------------------
A|--------------------|-----------------------------------
E|--------------------|-----------------------------------

The bridge is one of those bog-standard chord progressions (I-vi-IV-V) and ends with a lick ripped off of Richard Thompson, doubled in two octaves:

E|------10-------10-----------------
B|10h12----10h12----10h12--(10)s8~~-
G|----------------------------------
D|----------------------------------
A|----------------------------------
E|----------------------------------

Recording

I recorded the demo as part of February Album Writing Month. It was the last song I wrote and recorded for FAWM 2020, and it was the only song that year I did a full band arrangement. I was coming off a couple years’ break while I was in school and there was more than the usual chaff, but I was very happy with this song when I finished the recording, and having it in my pocket made me realize that I’d actually have enough material to finish the Midway Fair album we had started in 2016.

Slight detour: This album was originally intended as a 2017 release, and would have included some of the tracks that were released on monsters. Chris Hamilton was our “fill-in” drummer for a couple years while Tim Taormino was spending time raising his firstborn. This isn’t to say that Chris H. wasn’t a vital part of the band, just that we originally brought him on without knowing when Tim would be back. Chris H. ended up writing multiple good drum parts for unreleased songs, mostly ones I had written during February Album Writing Month 2013 and 2014. Six of them ended up on this record (I play drums on one of them, “Ringing His Bell,” though I originally planned for Tim to record it); we recorded everything but the vocals for five of them during a weekend session in 2016 at Chris Freeland’s place (Beat Babies Studios). Then Chris H. had to leave the band, and Tim wasn’t quite ready to come back yet, so I shelved it for a few months, which turned into a couple years when I decided to go back to school for a computer science degree. To wrap this mess up, along with a couple otherwise unreleased songs, the good FAWM songs from 2020 filled in the gap I had created by releasing monsters.

When the pandemic hit, like a lot of other people I suddenly found myself with a lot of extra time on my hand. I checked in with Chris F., and it turned out that he was desperate for work. We worked it out where I could record the vocals and guitars at my place, and he could record the drums at his. I handed off the demos from FAWM and gave him pretty broad discretion about which ones he wanted to work on, and “The Habit of Fear” was one of the first ones he picked. He gave me back a drum part and I overdubbed it.

I don’t have Chris’s recording notes, but for my part I tended to stick with ribbon mics for both the acoustic and electric tracks, though for the electric I used my DIY u47 build as a distance mic. (I don’t know how much of it Chris used). The guitar amp used absolutely everywhere was my 5W Sakura amp, and the bass is always direct to one of my FET/germanium preamps. The lead vocals are always the DIY 251 build.

For this song, everything but the drums was recorded at my house by me. The pandemic gave us a lot of extra time, but since we didn’t feel safe hanging out, it also meant that I couldn’t have Joe, Rick, and Chris H. over for vocal parts. Joe and Chris H. were able to turn in a few vocal tracks for other songs recorded at their place, but Rick was never able to find a space in the house to record, and the harmonies for this song were particularly time consuming. Ultimately we decided to just keep the ones I did that were intended to teach other people the parts. I still don’t know how I feel about it. I definitely think the other guys could have done them better, particularly since having the same vocalist do echoed vocal parts is a little odd, but there’s something solitary about the nature of the song and maybe it’s fitting that there’s only one person talking.

Chris F. finished the mix for this song fairly early on, but we did eventually decide that the first draft of the song was missing a couple things musically: Chris asked for something with eighth notes to fill out the bridge, and I sent him a half dozen palm-muted guitars meant to sound like pizzicato violins.

I don’t think either me or Chris F. intended it to be an advance single when we were working on it, even though I knew very early that it would be the title track. I let the other members of the band name the songs they thought should be released ahead of the album.

I didn’t want to have to be responsible for the decision, as if it would be important in the long run.

Maybe because I’m a bit of a coward.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: