Just a scrap today. This isn't part of the song "Posthistoric"—that's done, I think, at least on the lyrics front—but it's very much of a piece with that writing process, and probably has a place on the album. Somewhere. It's hard to know. It's hard to know much of anything these days, innit?
Oh, boy, this song is trying SO hard to happen.
It began as something half-dreamed. Melodies often visit when I'm in a hypnagogic state ("White Flag" started that way, for example). Sometimes I have a moment of being conscious enough to register that I'm hearing a song that I need to write down. Sometimes it takes a while to figure out that the song doesn't already exist in the world—and these doubts can persist for a long while. Sometimes, I assume, I just fall asleep, and the song vanishes into whatever world of ghosts almost-songs inhabit.
Anyway, this is a song specifically about the dissolution of borders between sleeping and waking, unknowing and knowing, and that...really seems to have made it harder to write.
The different colors of ink speak to the number of writing sessions; the curly brackets and misspellings, to the uncertainty and distraction.
I made it extra complicated for myself by attempting to work on this in Taos, having left the first sleepy notes in Chicago. So this is an excavation of what might or might not be a memory.
I'd like to think I can finish this one. I still like the original idea (the lines beginning "when the barriers evaporate"), and it fits thematically with a lot of the other pieces for Posthistoric/Backroads. But I think I'm going to have to start over on a fresh piece of paper.
My great-uncle Baz died before I was born, but he is legendary in the family. Among other things, he served in both world wars. In 1919, he completed the first Transcontinental Air Race (which claimed seven lives). In WWII—as a colonel—he went AWOL from where he was supposed to be so that he could jump with the paratroopers on D-Day. (It was his first parachute jump; he was 51.) He also played a season as a minor-league catcher and got an engineering degree from MIT. As you do.
In WWI, he flew over 100 missions as an observer (a combined spy/gunner in the rear seat of a two-seater). It was hazardous, not only because the Germans were taking special aim at the observers but also because aviation still had a lot of kinks yet to be ironed out. Some had fuel tanks that could skid into the pilot if the flight angle changed too sharply. More than once, Baz had to climb out onto the tail to balance the plane on landing.
Some crashes couldn't be avoided. Baz diagrammed one in a letter home, shown here as duplicated in his daughter's book:
The plane flipped forward over the nose, and Baz and his French pilot found themselves upside down, still strapped in. After making sure they were both all right, the pilot said, "C'est la guerre, Bagby, donnez-moi un cigarette."
And THAT is for sure a song. The melody it suggests to me is straight out of a dingy French dance hall, which is not the sort of thing I usually write, but which is just fine for an album called Posthistoric that may well be coming out on or about the end date for American civilization. I'm still drafting the lyrics—and kindly refrain from judging my first-draft French grammar—but here's where things stand.
Damn right there's a key change. Bienvenue à l'enfer, c'est la guerre.
I've been thinking a lot this summer, unsurprisingly, about apologies and absolution. Who gets them, who doesn't; the power dynamics of forgiveness; the gestures and actions of atonement; the apologies I should have made, the ones I shouldn't, the ones I'll never get, the ones that still haunt me.
The meditation is turning into a sort of Aimee Mann–ish ballad. I like it a lot so far, though there are some significant gaps in the lyrics, and I barely have verses at all.
In the larger scope of the year's songwriting, there are two basic styles duking it out. More and more I think that I'm working on two albums, not one. The themes feel too disparate to belong in the same place. I seem to have to write a certain number of country/roots songs in order to write a similar number of pop/rock songs. (This happened with Highway Gothic too, though we only recorded the one album that time; there are still a number of unrecorded compositions from that process. Of the ones that made it onto the album, "The Age and the Ache" and "White Flag" were the closest to the country/roots feel.) For now, I'm thinking of the roots collection as Backroads, and the pop—or whatever it is—as Posthistoric.
Sometimes things do not work on the first try and there's nothing you can do but scrap them and start over. Essential to have a clear labeling system:
(This is some music from The Dancing Plague, which I scored for Right Brain Project in 2016. I used some samples that mean I can't ever distribute it online, but it was a fun bit of composition nonetheless.)
Early this year—at a point when this still seemed like a large personal loss—I learned that Moleskine had stopped making its pocket-size music notebooks, on which my creative process has depended for most of my adult life. (They do still offer a bigger music notebook, but one, it won't fit in an evening bag, and two, my songwriting process seems to need the smaller pages. There are a lot of false starts in songwriting, and I don't like taking up a whole big page just to write what may not come to more than a couple of lines.)
The closest replacement I could find was this Roterfaden model, with a dot grid on the verso and staff paper on the recto. The red stamp on the front was nicely old-school, and the pages were the right size. But it did not have a cover. This was a problem: any notebook of mine is going to be carried around, smushed, beat up, and eventually used as a coaster. Roterfaden sells very nice customizable leather covers, but they are well beyond my budget.
So! I made my own. Here's the process, for anyone who might want to try it. This makes a flexible, tough cover, similar to oilskin. You could incorporate board for a true hardcover, but I think you'd have to do that with library paste rather than sewing.
From some past sewing projects, I already had decent-sized scraps of cork fabric, lining, ribbon for the bookmark, and quarter-inch elastic for the strap. (To make masks this spring, I had to buy 50 damn yards of elastic; all smaller quantities were sold out. I have half a football field of black elastic. Hit me up if you need some.)
Roterfaden's custom bindings include a metal clip that attaches the notebook to the cover and lets you replace the inner pages as needed. After a bit of time perusing r/notebooks, I determined that the best option was probably a wallet clip. So I ordered that from a craft supply shop, and it was the only thing I had to buy new.
I cut front and back pockets from the lining fabric. Each was 12 cm x 16 cm. Mistake #1: they should have been slightly narrower. (This fabric and the cork cover are both from the delightful Oak Fabrics, btw.)
I pressed and hemmed the pockets around all four edges. Next, I hand-stitched the long spring side of the wallet clip to a rectangle of lining to make the spine. Mistake #2: the spring is shorter than the spine, and that means the notebook sits a little crooked in the finished cover. I should have put piping or a pipe cleaner in the top bit of the spine to even things out.
I folded the rectangle over and stitched it to the inside of the cork to set the spine. The clip adds a lot of height to the fabric, so to stitch alongside it, you have to use a zipper foot. Mistake #2.5: I very clearly didn't get the fabric straight here. (At this point I had already had to push away Arthur multiple times, and I just wanted to finish before he succeeded in his baffling but constant goal of eating thread.)
Portrait of an unrepentant thread-eater, banished to the windowsill:
Next step was to set the pockets, the bookmark (brown), and the elastic strap (black). Here's the pinned assembly. Since the elastic strap is a loop, you have to leave a gap in the bottom seam. After sewing the rest of the edges, hand-stitch the bottom of the strap into place. (There may be a different way to do that, but I am not an experienced enough sewist to figure it out.)
And that's it! Not a moment too soon, as I have already inflicted some damage on the front paper. This isn't a shining bit of perfect precious workmanship, but it does the main job and looks kind of nice. And now I know how to do it again, should the need arise.
Here's an early draft of "Bender," the track we cut from Highway Gothic. (We'll still make it available on the four-side extended LP, when that's possible.)
The idea for the song came its first line, "I need you like the devil needs an advocate." It's pretty much all similes from there. Unfortunately good similes are difficult to write.
Anyway there were a lot of swings and misses on this one, some quite feeble indeed. (That is, tbh, one of the reasons the song is so short.) I had completely forgotten about the line "I need you like Lost needed a season 5." Presumably the verse would've concluded "That must be the reason I've / Binged it all again."
One of these days, if live concerts are a thing we can do again, we ought to play the draft versions of things. Including Thomas's version of "O Chem" ("Telephone, Jellophone...").
It's been a week of Broken Things, so in lieu of a complete song, here's a lyric that hasn't found a home yet. A counterpart, I guess, to the idea that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
(I think this might actually fit in one of the current songs in progress? But if I try to record a demo this week I will probably wind up electrocuting myself.)
Here's the original draft of "The Age and the Ache," which took a bit of rearranging before it settled into its final form.
Typically I jot down the first idea for a lyric on the recto page. Then, later, I can leaf through the notebook and see if anything grabs me. The first idea for this song was the pair of lyrics that turned into the verse motif, "You pretend you're free / I'll pretend I'm beautiful." That's pretty much the essence of the song, and most of the lyrics followed pretty quickly (which you can tell from the fact that they're mostly in the same color of ink).
I use curly brackets to mark words and phrases when I think they need revision, or I can't choose between several similar phrasings, or I'm not sure about keeping the line. It's a handy way to keep writing without stopping to fuss over minutiae. I was gunning hard for "really and truly alone" here, but it's bracketed twice, and it never made it in.
On the verso page you can see the tab of the riff—which I think Charlie plays a little differently with the slide, and which we replaced with accordion in the final recording—and my frustrated attempt at working out the correct music-theory name of a chord in the chorus. Still not sure I ever arrived at the correct name, to be honest.
Songs rarely arrive neatly, at least not for me. ("Like" did, and I almost resent it for that: it makes every other writing process seem proportionally harder.) "Posthistoric" took multiple tries, across two notebooks, with months elapsing between the initial idea and the finished song.
There are almost always a lot of early lines that don't make it to the final song. Sometimes you have to write an idea down to figure out that it doesn't belong. I had forgotten that this draft included a reference to the Loudness War.
People tend to assume that I have some great overarching System of Ink Color. I do always have a lot of different-colored pens around: my day gigs involve (or used to involve) a lot of proofreading on hard-copy layouts; in rehearsals, I try to color-code my line and blocking notes by day, so I can tell at a glance which ones are the most recent. In the music notebooks, though, a change in ink color just means I started the song, stalled out, and happened to grab a different pen when I came back to it later.
The "URL" line that ends the recording appeared on its own at least a year ago, with no attached idea for a song. I thought for a while that it might just wind up being a stand-alone joke in the liner notes. In this song, it's still a little detached from the rest, but...well, if it doesn't belong in this song, it doesn't belong anywhere.
Below is a verse I couldn't use (though I did put the Joyce quote at the top of the lyrics on Bandcamp). I always tell myself I'm saving such things for later. It's rarely true. But I do love the image of some future historian tracing thoughts in the embossed lines of a rollerball point on a seemingly blank scrap of paper.
Songwriter & multidisciplinary artist