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Song Sources: Ringing His Bell

August 5, 2022

Nostalgia is a hell of a drug, so this song makes me feel nostalgic despite its events being made up and its musical style (70’s blue-eyed soul) being over a decade removed from my childhood. “Ringing His Bell” is fiction, but the places in it are real: Mary Street in the song is Mary Avenue in Hamilton, two streets over from the street I grew up on, and the stream is either Herring Run, which winds through much of northeast Baltimore (past the house where I was born), or Stemmers Run in Parkville. My friends and I would ride our bikes and drop them next to the stream in the summer, and try not to fall in too deep when we hopped around on the rocks in the stream bed. There were a couple spots where it was deep enough to be chest high so we’d wear our swim trunks if we planned ahead. You know, back at the age where you’ve probably never even heard the names of the bacteria that make them unsafe to swim in. But if my memory is reliable, the “no swimming” signs didn’t start appearing until I was in high school.

Written just before “Hold Tight” in February of 2014, this song has made it into many live set lists throughout the years, always sounding just a little different than what you hear here. It was slated to be recorded for the album that became Monsters, and even almost missed inclusion on The Habit of Fear — it was the last song recorded for the record, added because I thought we needed a both positive and upbeat song somewhere in the mix.

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Lyrics

| Fmaj76 |
In and out of reverie
| C6 F | C6 F
What will and will never be
| Bb6 C6 | Bb6 C6sus2
In his mind he’s thirteen
| F |
He’s a king and she’s a queen

| F6 F |
They roll on (ooh)
| | C
Da da da da da da
| F |
Down the hill to Mary Street
| Bb6 C6
On his handlebars his girl
| Bb6 C6sus2
Sunlight in her curls
| F | Fmaj76
And she’s ringing his bell

She’s still a hard act to follow
She’s his today and his tomorrow
They’re waist deep in the water
She’s a queen and he’s a pauper

They walk on (ooh)
Da da da da da da
Down to wade in the the stream
Her fingers laced between
Sunlight on her skin
She’s ringing his bell

| Bb | | F |
Concentrate on the moment
| Bb | | F |
Concentrate on the moment
Be a child at play

People say you always remember your first love, so that’s what this is. I didn’t have a girlfriend at this age, but some of my friends did, and some of them, let’s just say, got in more trouble than they should have, but for the most part this is meant to capture that nebulous moment where you can’t figure out if you’re a grown-up or a child. When we’re children we often wish we were grown-up, and then once we’re a grown-up, sometimes we wish we were children. The imagination of an adult is often little better than remembering things, like here, where it’s essentially remembering being able to imagine things, imagination by proxy.

The centrality of the bike is actually something from something specific: One of my elementary and middle school classmates mentioned riding bikes a lot with one of my best friends. Funny thing was, I never remembered hanging out with her … but my memory for things I went through at that age isn’t always the best. I also often remember people in my childhood differently than they were, since I was awkward and had low self-esteem and often didn’t understand whether people were being sincere or making fun of me. Maybe this made me less likely to think about it shortly after and more likely to forget as I got older.

Music

The music is based around 6th chords, like any good soul song should be. The chords are colorful (major 7ths, 6th chords, and some inversions I’m not going to write out in the chart), but there aren’t any modulations or other tricks — the song owes more to the folkier Van Morrison albums of the 70s than the Stax records of the 60s.

Verse
| Fmaj76 |
| C6 F | C6 F
| Bb6 C6 | Bb6 C6sus2
| F |

Chorus
| F6 F |
| | C
| Bb6 C6 | Bb6 C6sus2
| F | Fmaj76

Bridge
| Bb | | F |
| Bb | | F |

One oddity in the recording is the instrumental, which is only 7 bars instead of 8. The reason is that it started early when I recorded the demo back in 2014, but by the time I got around to making the real recording, it sounded wrong to fix it. The guitar solo is mostly outlining the chords; it’s almost intact from the original demo — in fact, I reamped part of the original guitar parts that were recorded direct to the interface — but I replayed it to clean it up the performance.

Our regular drummer, Tim, loves this song and was really bummed that he didn’t get to play on the recording. I love the part he plays, but I couldn’t get him over to the house during the pandemic, and I also couldn’t remember his part well enough to try to duplicated it. Chris Hamilton had written a completely different part for the song that sounds much more modern, a very sparse part with a heavy kick drum emphasis, which was good in live sets where we wanted something more chill sounding, but didn’t work for the reason I was putting the song on the record (to get something upbeat on there). Chris Freeland was sort of done recording drum parts for this record, and I didn’t want to have to both write a new part and score it out or try to teach it to someone, so that left me. We all play very different parts to the song; the original demo was just me hitting a guitar case and clapping, so there was a lot of room for innovation. (I think the only thing we all do the same is the ride bell after “She’s ringing his bell.”) I did a lot of takes over several days as I tried to get each part of the song to feel right — since I didn’t have an exact part in my head I was trying to get out, this meant a lot of experimentation, especially seeing how sparse I could make the parts. Avoiding the snare completely in the verse does help with the song’s dynamics. Uncharacteristically, I wrote a fill (the big fill in the chorus) that uses a third (high) tom.

With the bones of the song down, I started looking for the right color to add with the electric guitars. The main lead and rhythm guitars weren’t substantially different from the original demo, but the delay guitar in the left ear of the choruses helped pick the song up (taking it out results in a radically different feel), and some quick extra overdubs helped reinforce the hook — the guitar response to “She’s ringing his bell” at the end of the choruses.

It’s been hard to get the band to do the falsetto backing vocals live. Maybe someday!

Recording

The recording process essentially involved replacing the original demo, so there isn’t much exciting to talk about here.

One thing I did that I had never done before was reamp one of the guitar parts — the original lead guitar — even though I didn’t keep most of it. In the demo, the part was recorded to the interface, without even using an amp sim. I sent it back out to the amp and while it helped a little, the original performance wasn’t great so I relearned all the parts and replayed them.

The guitars are the red tele for the the lead guitars, and the Don Quixotecaster for the rhythm parts and the delay-heavy guitar part in the chorus, both always run through the Sakura amp. The bass is direct to one of my FET preamps (it almost always is), and the drums are my Sakae kit with overheads, bass, and snare miced (no tom mics or room mic).

Hopefully this evokes in some other people some of the same feelings it does for me.

Song Sources: Hold Tight

August 5, 2022

This song has an odd — possibly even embarrassing — genesis, one I’ve kept secret for years, based on a TV show. I never even told people in the original liner notes during February Album Writing Month in 2014 when I wrote it! (Oooh, mysterious!)

The official story was that it came from one of the “muse tools” on FAWM, which describes the structure of a story. The generated structure was that it’s told in the first person, there are two characters, and they’re in a moving vehicle.

Since this is a song where one character is driving his brother to the hospital after being shot during a drug deal gone wrong, and it takes place in the desert, you might suppose it was inspired by a 5-year-long critically unassailable show involving a pair of drug manufacturers taking place in New Mexico, but you’d be wrong. (At the time I’m not sure how much of that show I’d seen, and I’ve never watched all of it.) Instead, it came from the characters Merle and Daryl from The Walking Dead. And since that show was continuing its slow but noticeable decline in its 4th season at the time, this might seem especially lame, but in my defense, I had only just started watching the first and second seasons (still good), curled up on the couch dealing with a stomach problem for most February. Merle’s character has a history of selling (and using) drugs, and he calls Daryl “little brother” all the time, and that’s where the chorus and part of the story came from.

I did think it was worth an honorable mention in my 2014 FAWM wrap-up …

This could have been a Midway Fair song in 2009, but now it would probably be out of place. There are a couple lines that need a tweak or two, but overall I think it’s strong, especially for how few words I used. It’s about a drug deal gone wrong, and the older brother is rushing his younger brother to the hospital, but they’re out in the middle of nowhere.

My 2014 FAWM wrap-up

… but I cooled on it afterward and didn’t pick it back up on my own. Then Joe asked to cover it, and I was jamming with someone else at their house one time and they said they wanted to play it, and then eventually, maybe a year later, Joe asked if we could add it to the Midway Fair setlist. So I thought maybe I was wrong to sleep on it. Audience members liked it, and it’s become one of our most popular songs. And in a way, since Rick and Joe loved singing the harmonies so much, they made it one of my favorite songs of ours.

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

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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.

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Song Sources: Out of My Mind

July 9, 2020

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.”

Looks and sounds 50 years old.

This classic country song was one of my 2017 February Album Writing Month compositions. The song was really born out of the desire to use the ambiguous wording of the phrase in the title: Because while most of the time it refers to someone being crazy, it can also just mean that you aren’t thinking about something. So a breakup song it was.

Lyrics

Once I had the title, the lyrics came fairly easily. One of the only lines I remember struggling with was the second line — I wanted to reuse the word “worry” from the first line in the sense of the potentially physically damaging act of “worrying” something.

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Song Sources: Now We’re Gone

December 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.”

This song has a few origins: An online friend from the Madbean DIY pedals forum, an NPR story, and the Britcom Coupling. I usually just tell people it’s about my friend to avoid the last one. Not because Coupling isn’t one of the best shows that ever aired, mind you …

This is the nadir, emotionally, for Monsters. There are other sad songs on the album, but none as heavy as this one.

Lyrics

An online friend broke up with his girlfriend several years ago, but they were on the lease together for the apartment and neither could afford to move out. He was an oil worker and work was sporadic. Weeks in he was willing to do almost anything if it meant he could get the money to stop having the constant reminder of a bad breakup in the next room.

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Song Sources: Somewhere Between

September 7, 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.”

I wrote this song in my head during a run a few years ago. I started it somewhere around the half mile mark and had everything but the bridge in my head by the time I finished the third mile. Sometimes they really do come to you that quickly. I was playing with Stephen Lee during his brief stint in Baltimore and I definitely owe him for the dark tone and twang in the song.

Lyrics

This is your classic boy-meets-girl, boy-has-job-that-keeps-him-traveling-all-the-time-and-considers-his-entire-life-a-mistake story.

A friend of mine in San Antonio — someone who was a professional musician all their life — was telling me about the time they met a really well-known songwriter, who was still living in his car into his 50s. Someone who had written one or two hits for other people but was still just scraping by, working like a dog their whole life just to do something they love. My friend said that he didn’t want to end up like that — and he hadn’t. He’d sobered up two decades before and had a wonderful son who was also a musician. Another friend of mine is getting married this year, and I remember her telling me how angry she was that she’d spent years living out of a van putting in as much work as people with less talent (my words, not hers), and she was approaching her late 30s with nothing to show for it, whether from music or “real” life. She’s having success on both fronts now.

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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.

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February Album Writin Month 2015 retrospectacle (cross-post from Jon’s blog)

March 7, 2015

New music from me as of 3/1/15! Here’s my 2015 February Album Writing Month wrap-up post. You can stream the 12 tracks I wrote on my own below (or download them from Bandcamp for “name your price”), but be sure to check out the blog post for the writing and recording details, as well as my epic-length collaboration with Joe and Mosno. Joe Scala’s playlist is also in the blog post, as well as some people I discovered through FAWM this year whose work really stood out to me. Go check it out!

Song Sources: Most Distant Star

October 2, 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.”

“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.”

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Song Sources: “Gone to California”

October 2, 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.

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