Song: If Only

This is from a series of posts about songs from my album, Broken Open.

Writing

Track number five of Broken Open is If Only.

I wrote the song, If Only only a few days after experiencing the breakup that formed the basis of the second song, Alone Again. I had been playing around with the basic guitar riff in the context of a standard blues progression for a few months and I started hearing the melody taking shape as I played guitar out in my backyard.  At first I was singing along but without words until the lyrics began to take shape…

You wake with me in the morning sun
You cry with me when the day’s undone

When I breathe
I can feel that you’re inside of me

Girl, if you only knew how I love you
Girl, if you only knew how I love you

It’s  a sweet melody and it ended up being kind of an ode (epitaph?) to my newly lost relationship – what was and what could have been.  My heart was very open (broken open, in fact)  and I was really feeling deeply my connection to my former lover, regardless my current situation.  I remember how painful it could be whenever I would see ‘two’ of anything.  I would burst into tears just seeing our two towels on the rack in the bathroom…

I see you in every place I go
I see you in everything I do

I hear you in everything I say
I feel you with everything I am

The pain of the breakup woke me up in so many ways and I was suddenly much more present whenever we were together.  The time we spent together just after breaking up was surprisingly sweet and I was seeing our connection on the deepest levels…

In your eyes
I can see the deepest part of me

And I felt that deep connection regardless of whether we were together or apart…

When you’re near
Or you’re a million miles away

Of course, when we were apart, feeling that connection could be very painful – but that’s a topic for another song.

Recording

This song had a nice quality when performed with just voice and acoustic guitar, but I wanted to create something larger.  I wanted something that could capture the exhilaration and uplift I felt in the crescendos (When I breath…) whenever I would sing the song. Rich Lamb really outdid himself on this one with the keyboard parts.  I know this was his favorite track of the batch of songs we recorded first and his playing really shines on the piano and organ. And once he laid down his parts, the song really began to open up.

I loved the organ riff Rich played during the instrumental breaks that I used it to open the song.  It’s one of the wonderful things about digital recording that you can often change the arrangement of a song even after parts have been laid down.

When mixing this song, I thought a lot about what instruments I could cut from the different sections so that the texture of the song could change as it progressed.  I remember reading about Quincy Jones‘ recording style when he was always looking for what instruments he could leave out to create more space in the song and I always try to keep that in mind.  It’s often true that less is more. It’s all to easy to end up with an undifferentiated wall of sound where you can’t hear any of the instruments clearly. I’m usually trying to go for something that feels and sounds more intimate.

Style

The opening riff with the organ and guitar reminds me of Traffic.  I’ve always loved the keyboard textures that Steve Winwood used in that band.  I love three part harmonies and both CSN and The Roaches came to mind when I was recording them on this song.

Song: Distraction

This is from a series of posts about songs from my album, Broken Open.

Writing

Broken Open‘s fourth track is Distraction.

The roots of this song go back to my college days at MIT when I was obsessing over a woman with whom I had a brief relationship.  Surely just about everyone has had the experience of falling in love with someone and not being able to get them off your mind.  It’s pleasant enough – especially at first – but there is also a dark side…

I’ve been going crazy
Since I saw you baby
I’ve been thinking maybe
I can find a way for me to get free
Of this obsession that’s surrounding me
But I just can’t see
Anything but what you mean to me

You’re driving me to distraction
Can’t concentrate on anything
You’re driving me to distraction
Can’t concentrate on anything but you

The chorus of the song started out as a bass riff that my bandmate, Alex Rosen, came up with.  He used to play bass with no amp while working at the Senior House front desk (the dormitory we lived at) so he could practice during free moments.  He came up with quite a few bass riffs during those times and he would bring them to jams to see if we could develop them into songs. All of my compostions with Alex were done that way: Spontaneous CombustionEllen with the Squinty EyesLet Your Love and Pull The Plug.

Working up some chords to go with Alex’s bass riff, I managed to came up with the chorus lyrics, trying to describe was going on for me at the time.  For a while music was the only thing strong enough to break through that spell I was under.  Although I really liked the hook in the chorus, I was never too impressed with the meandering verse section we came up at the time.

When I was putting songs together for this album, I remembered another jam we used to play that had no words. It had a nice hypnotic groove and some interesting rhythms and I remember how we’d play it over and over going around and around.  At some point, I realized that it worked perfectly as a replacement for the original verse section and the final version of this song was born.

Don’t know if it’s showing
But my confusion’s growing
Don’t know where I’m going
I got no way of knowing if I’ll ever get free

Recording

This song was a lot of fun to record because I got to play the kind of grinding rhythm that always feels satisfying.  Rich Lamb came up with a great simple piano part – I suggested a 50’s rock and roll kind of thing.  The hammering drum part that Rich Pagano came up with as it moves into the chorus and also the way that he returns to a more straight ahead beat at the very end of the song are also great touches.

I had a blast making car sounds that fly around your head during the break before the guitar solo.  I got that sound by playing my strat with lots of whammy bar action through a Fulltone 70’s pedal (silicon fuzzface distortion) into a Fulltone Dejavibe (univibe clone) and then into a cranked marshall amp.

Style

The grind at the beginning reminds me a little of the Smithereens – one of their early hits – I forget the name.

The inspiration for the car sounds comes Jimi Hendrix’s car crash guitar freakout at the end of “House Burning Down”– – definitely one of my favorite Jimi Hendrix ‘moments’.

The solo at the end reminds me bit of Eric Clapton with a little Stevie Ray Vaughan – classic blues riffs passed down through the ages.

Song: Gone

This is from a series of posts about songs from my album, Broken Open.

Writing

The third track on Broken Open is Gone.

This song is the last one I wrote for the album, so it’s a little out of order here, chronologically speaking.  During the course of recording this album, I sat for a total of about eleven months in silent meditation retreats.  This song was inspired by experiences I had in my first long retreat which lasted three months. Some of my experiences on that retreat were very profound and others were quite psychedelic.

I’m trying to relate a little bit of my journey in consciousness while trying to experience and connect with the highest reality – or deepest truth – about who (or what) I am.  My concept of reality began with the Western dualistic point of view I was raised with, and over time, has evolved towards a more Eastern non-dual understanding.

Looking up into the sky
I thought I’d find you there but I don’t know why
At times the nights would be so long
I’d be just biding time up until the dawn

You know that I always wanted to find it
I couldn’t see what was hiding it

The second verse is an attempt to express some of the experiences of a long retreat: the dissolving of self-identity where fixed ideas about who you are begin to fall away as you start to dis-identify with the roles you play in life; the suffering that comes from attachments and desires (even the smallest ones) which can become very pronounced.

Strewn in pieces on the floor
I could have had it all but I’d still want more
Getting out of my disguise
You know it took some time before realized

The thing that I’ve always wanted to free me
Is just this thing that’s been dreaming me

I’m gone. How about you?

In this last verse, I’m wondering how I can integrate the deeper understandings or insights that came from my intensive meditation practices into my life and my interactions in the world.

I’m wide awake inside a dream
How will I find my way back from in between?

Recording

All the lead guitar in this song was recorded backwards. It was a fun process putting it all together because I could never be sure exactly how a guitar phrase would sound when flipped in reverse and how it would flow with chord changes.

Sometimes I would have an idea of what note I wanted to start with and where I wanted to end up, but other times I would just play and then grab the best parts and see if I could fit them together in a way that made musical sense. Although the guitar solo is a patchwork of edits, I was really happy with the end result in that I somehow managed, in some small way, to express through my guitar, the euphoria and joy that I experience when sitting in silence for extended periods of time.

Song: Alone Again

This is from a series of posts about songs from my album, Broken Open.

Writing

The second track on Broken Open is Alone Again

We were living together for five years and I thought everything was going pretty well.  Sure, we had some “issues” but nothing we couldn”t work out, right?  I agreed to couples therapy so we could deal with these issues head-on.  We’d go together sometimes and separately other times.

Therapy was really working for me.  I was opening up in ways I had never done before and and starting to really get in touch with a lot of childhood suffering that I’d internalized mostly related to my father’s alcoholism.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t going so well for her and she decided to stop going.  A few weeks later, I come home to a note on the dining room table…

She said, “I’m leaving – for real”
Yeah, that’s what she said to me
In the note she left for me
And then the room began to reel
And I lost touch with reality
And nothing was the same for me from then

It was bad.  Oddly enough, I started writing this song about a year before this happened.  I came up with the chorus and the bridge section, although the words were a little different: “Could I survive this alone?” and I remember thinking, “Hmm. This sounds like a breakup song.  What’s up with that?” Maybe part of me knew the relationship was doomed, but consciously I was not expecting it to ever end.  I really did think that it would be forever.

Now I’m alone again
Now I’m alone again

My first reaction was utter despair interwoven with intense bouts of self-hate. There were times, early on in the process – especially when we were together – if I could stay in the moment without thinking about the past or the future, that I could feel incredibly peaceful and even happy.  It was strangely euphoric.  I think this tragic experience woke me up in a way that I hadn’t been in many years. Inevitably though, I would start tripping out about the past or the future and the grief would become almost unbearable. I felt completely at a loss because all my plans for the future were now gone, and I realized just how much I defined myself by that relationship.  I didn’t have a clue who I was or what I was doing outside of it.

Everything seems so unreal now
Nothing’s like it was before
She’s locked the door and I can’t find the key
I never knew that I could feel
So apart from what I used to be
Without her I’m just not sure who I am

I watched my mind play these games over and over again: trying to figure out what went wrong and how I could have not seen this coming.  Endlessly my mind would play these loops over and over as if there was actually a way I could think my way out of this disaster.

Every time I feel the pain
It’s getting harder to stay sane
I feel the walls are closing in
I wish that I could start again

I felt like my whole life had ground to a halt. The “us” that I knew and loved was over and it took me so long to let go of it.  In my mind, our life together and all it’s sweetness was so very vivid and I was still totally in love with that memory.  In contrast, it was hard for me to even remember what it was like to be alone and to feel like it was okay to be single.

And it’s getting harder not to be in love
Every morning I wake up without you near to me
And the clock stopped ticking and the paper didn’t come
The second you left me here

Things got a lot worse after this disaster before they got better (my father got cancer and died about 6 months later).  Looking back I can see how this breakup and it’s aftermath led directly to the changes that were hinted at in the first track and I think of it now as the best thing that ever happened to me.  No joke.

Recording

This was one of the first songs I recorded for this album and I started in the usual way, by recording myself singing with acoustic guitar (Guild D52 NT Dreadnaught) along to a click track. One was of evaluating a song is to see how well it holds up with just a simple guitar or piano accompaniment. If it doesn’t sound good like that, then maybe the song itself (chords and melody) needs a little more work.

I was still getting used to recording digitally (since my previous album was recorded on tape) and I was new to Protools when I began working on this song so progress was pretty slow at first. Mixing this song was more challenging than some of the later ones because as time went on I was able to lay down better sounding tracks to begin with so there was less to ‘fix in the mix’, so to speak.

I used a Line 6 POD amplifier simulator box for the rhythm electric guitars which were played on my strat with a Marshall Plexi setting on the POD. They came out okay but I eventually upgraded to a VOX tonelab amplifier simulator which sounded much better. After using that for a while, I noticed that I was always gravitating towards a few amps: Marshall, Fender and Vox. I eventually gave up on the amp simulators and just bought three small low wattage tube amps: a 18 watt Marshall Plexi Clone (think Jimi Hendrix), a Vox AC15 (think early Beatles) and a Fender Deluxe Reverb (think late Beatles).

I like the flexibility of being able to use different mics and different mic placement to get different sounds which is something I can’t do with a simulation. I also like the subtle (or sometimes not so subtle) feedback that happens when the sound of the amp interacts with the strings of the guitar. When it’s just right the sound really gels into something alive and organic and it’s something that will never happen if you are recording with an amp simulator through headphones.

Song: Evolution

This is from a series of posts about songs from my album, Broken Open.

Writing

Broken Open begins with the track Evolution

As opposed to the idea that I am the creator of these songs, my experience of songwriting would be more accurately described as “tuning in” to a song that already exists “out there” in some other realm.  My job then, is merely to find a way to translate it into a form that can be shared in the physical world.

The seeds of this song began appearing in my consciousness about a decade ago.  I came up with the riff that begins the chorus section and some vague lyrics about “the sound of a revolution” but I didn’t get too far with that idea and so the song just layed unfinished for a long time.

As I was starting to write songs for this new collection, I started to get the feeling that a big change in my life was coming and the lyrics of the song began coming out and started to reflect the idea that a personal evolution/revolution was about to take place.  I had no idea what this meant at the time I was writing it but I was about to find out.

There’s a funny thing about evolution
It creeps up on you from behind
Get ready for a brand new revolution
And it’s all inside your mind

The first verse is talking about this deep longing I’ve always had to understand what the hell is going on here on this planet.  I’ve never been able to shake this feeling that there’s a deeper level to existence and that we are only provided glimpses of from time to time.

I’ve been searching for it all my life
The final solution
Take a trip beyond the veil of time
Beyond the illusion

The second verse includes the higher-level reflection of this personal evolution…

This whole world is confusing to me
And I don’t know why
First you see us crawl out of the ocean
Then we take to the sky

The lyrics of the last section of the song were inspired by a news report I happened to catch about snipers in some war-torn city who were shooting random people from their perch on rooftops of tall buildings.  It made me wonder what would motivate a person to do spend their time in that way and if they knew that this was their very last day on earth would they choose to spend their precious time on earth in a different way.

But where is the future that you want to go to?
I’d like to know
If you had just one day here
How would you defend the time that you’d spend?
Would it be a good one?
For everyone?

It’s funny that I’ve always thought of the second half of this song as “the bridge”, since if that’s the case, it’s  a bridge to nowhere in that the song ends as soon as it returns to the original key and somewhat abruptly ends.

The lyrics of the final ”coda” section expose my uncertain feelings about where this  process of  personal evolution and indeed the evolution of our species is headed.

If you had just one day here…
And I wonder in time
if we’ll survive

Recording

I began the recording process by recording myself singing with acoustic guitar (Guild D52 NT Dreadnaught) along to a click track. I then laid down some electric guitar and bass before bringing the tracks to Rich Pagano’s New Calcutta recording studio in NYC for him to lay down the drum tracks.

I love recording with Rich Pagano since picks up on the groove I have going on in my head without my having to direct him.  In the few cases where he has lays down something different than what I had orignally envisioned, his drum part never ceases to grow on me.

At Rich Pagano’s suggestion, I re-recorded the bass once his drum tracks were laid down.  While the original track was okay, I was much better able to lock into a groove playing along with the drum track once it was recorded.  After this experience, I realized that the best results would usually come when I had the drum tracks laid down as early in the recording process as possible and then layering the other instruments on top of that solid foundation.

Rich Lamb recorded his piano and organ tracks after the electric rhythm guitar part (Fender Stratocaster) were finalized.  He recorded two different takes of the organ solo and I found that they really worked well together so you are hearing both organ tracks at once during the organ solo section.

Style

Listening to the finished song, I can hear the influence of the Beatles’ “Magical Mystery Tour” especially in the backing vocals. John Lennon has been a huge influence on my vocal style since I grew up listening to and singing along with The Beatles and their later period songs were always the ones that really drew me in.

The electric guitar riff that introduces the chorus reminds me a little of Lynyrd Skynrd for some reason (“Sweet Home Alabama” maybe?)

I love those organ heavy sixties tracks by bands The Doors and Iron Butterfly so that was the inspiration for having some organ in that first solo bit.

Far and away, my biggest influence on guitar has been Jimi Hendrix and I think that comes through both in the backwards intro and also in the closing solo (someone compared my guitar tone to Jimi’s “The Wind Cries Mary”). A Fender Stratocaster through a Marshall amp is my favorite sound on earth.