“ I’m a sucker for a burnished alto voice and an apocalyptic slide,
so this kinda works for me…”
– David Kelly
The first and last tracks on 2008’s Music For the Weeping Woman, which are Blue Sea of August and Bells (Of the Blue Sea), are actually the same song, but bookend the entire record with a vocal version and an instrumental rendering. There is a bonus track, which is not available on the hard copy recording, but only as a single download, that is a marriage or mash-up of the two. This is the recording featured here now.
Blue Sea of August was the first song I wrote towards the album project Music For the Weeping Woman. I had a very specific, narrow, and focused idea of what I wanted to accomplish with this album, and with the individual songs: An ode to the vulnerability of women and their tears, and the myriad of emotional engines behind the phenomenon of tears, the seed of inspiration being Picasso’s “Weeping Women” series. I’d just seen the movie Cold Mountain, and there is a song that plays throughout the film that was written by Sting, and sung by Alison Krauss, two of my favorite musicians, so that got my attention. It was the most eerie and haunting ballad I think I’d ever heard, and really captured that sense of ancient folklore and American roots. It was also such as ridiculously simple form whose simplicity was almost deceiving for how powerful it was. I was instantly inspired to create something along similar lines. Blue Sea of August is about longing and loss in the most general sense of those words, but it wasn’t until I wrote the lyric “When my true love comes a-marching home” (an unexpected nod to the transpiration of the soldier) that I was really hit with the full scope of what longing and loss could encompass, and that it was potentially massive. That’s the lyric portion of things. When it came to the music part, it was my first time writing in a very small form, an almost (really stretching the boundaries on this) dactylic tetrameter quatrain, and allowing that to be the entire song (four stanzas of it), and resolving it without the standard pop music arrival chorus. It’s completely rubato, and yet with that implied dactylic design.
As for the title, I took it from the 1975 Lena Wertmüller film Swept Away, whose complete title is actually Swept Away By An Unusual Destiny In the Blue Sea of August. But the movie studio nixed the cumbersome title, and went with the shortened version for its official release. Personally, I think they kept the wrong half of the title. And so, IN swoops Angela to happily take it off their hands. I had no idea what kind of deep thirsting I was about to unleash as I began to compose.
Once the song was written, and in preparation for recording it, I had lots of conversations with guitarist Ken Rosser, my partner on this album, on the conceptual ideas for the song. Of the many developments that came out of our confabs, and the incredible way in which (despite the fact that I am the sole composer) this was completely collaborative, was Ken’s idea to do, as well, an instrumental version of the song. He had an entire layering concept in mind, and there isn’t often a bright idea of Ken’s that I say “no” to. Once this absolute stunner was executed, and I added some Tibetan singing bowls to the proceeding, I knew it would require its own title. Enter Bells (Of the Blue Sea).
Fast forward to just a few months ago (roughly 6 years after the album’s release), and I decided to mash up both versions and make it available as an extended single. I posted the track on Facebook, and got a really lovely thread going, beginning with the quotation at the top of this piece. And while there were several participants on this thread, for the purpose of this piece I have culled only Ken’s and my contributions. The rest were generally some pretty amazing and gracious accolades, but the process, as Ken and I excitedly recalled it, is really what I wanted to expound on here.
As transcribed from Facebook:
This is one of my favorite tracks I’ve ever played on.
Apocalyptic slide? Yeah, David Kelly! That’s just about perfect.
Just here to be of service.
I think of this song as almost a sea shanty, but without the yo-ho-ho-ness of your typical sea shanties. Instead there is a quality of looming doom in the music, much like that sense one might get from staring out at the sea, and acknowledging its ever-elusive horizon. I wanted the feeling of a haunting, and I imparted that to Ken. So he began experimenting with loops and feedback, and this kind of grungy aural thing that almost evoked the sound of whales, or the creaking of a haunted barge (seriously!), and suddenly this unfolding of a dark abyss began to take shape. I am a sucker for pathos, and Ken really captures that sense of loss and longing that is the prevalent intention. And then there is the super-tremendous instrumental rendering of the song, whose textures are even thicker and darker and more perilous. Ken gets me so well! He is an absolute revelation on these tracks, and they remain my favorite on the album.
Still never seen Swept Away . . . I need to fix that.
Dude! . . . . . . . . . . . That’s all I’ll say.
Once you get into the emotional space of the piece it’s just a matter of framing and reinforcing. So, because there was this tonic/dominant drone, I used an idea I’d gotten from the composer Angelo Badalamenti to add another layer of harmonic tension and release that would sort of work around that. Then it was just coming up with those sounds, which are a pretty standard part of my vocabulary – using fuzz boxes and delays to generate layers of tones, and then sub tones and overtones.
Doing an instrumental recasting of the melody was an idea I’d heard in tons of film scores, where there’s a vocal theme song but little instrumental snippets of it reappear throughout – Breakfast At Tiffany’s (MoonRiver) and Alice In Wonderland being two that immediately come to mind. And I felt like since the record was basically a dialog between the guitar and voice, the guitar should get the last word.
Guitar-wise, this was me paying homage to some of my biggest influences, David Torn (whom I was becoming friends with at the time and was advising me a lot), Terje Rypdal, and Ry Cooder (especially his Trespass soundtrack).
I used a G&L Legacy for the whammy bar stuff and Larry Pogreba guitar for the slide, through Lovepedal Eternity and Wolfetone Chaos fuzz pedals and the Echoplex Digital Pro for the loops/delays, into a VHT Pittbull 45 amp.
Yeah, and I used a single index finger on the low end of the synthesizer, on the tonic for about 16 bars, and then on the dominant for about 16 bars. Very complicated stuff on this end, Ken. Don’t feel intimidated.
Angela, I thought you might find this funny, as I don’t think I’d ever told you. When I did that melody instrumentally I was really trying to fixate on getting a vocal phrasing and for some reason the actual voice that popped in my head was Sinéad O’Connor’s, because I imagined that a song about the sea would work well in her Irish brogue, with this slightly angry sneer to it. There’s even one of her little pet vocal tics that I snuck in there, that sorta cracks me up a little when I hear it now.
Sinéad O’Connor should record this song!!
If that makes you a butt load of money, you owe me dinner.
From now on, when I listen to Bells (Of the Blue Sea) I’ll be listening for Essences of Sinéad.
So, the funny thing on MY end about your Sinéad inspirations is that I’ve always had a tug at me from the Irish when it comes to my songwriting. (Where the hell does that even come from? I’m a black chick from Compton!) But if you think about Far Above Rubies, and a couple others of mine, there’s definitely an ancestral tug of some sort there.
Yeah, it’s funny how that is. And well, I figure – you go back far enough, we’re all from East Africa a few hundred millennia ago . . . the black American and Irish experience are just different shades of the human experience, taking the long view.
Anyway, what were we talking about?
(End of Facebook transcription).
I know that we could go on and on about this. It was such a fun recording process for us. But I’ll stop here, and I hope you enjoy Blue Sea of August / Bells (Of the Blue Sea).
There is a calm on the blue sea of August
There is a balm that anoints my head
It is the promise that my one true love
Will find me before I’m put to bed
There is a haze on the blue sea of August
There is a gaze that shines its eyes on me
It is the warning that I’d best be ready
When my true love beckons tenderly
There is a gleam on the blue sea of August
There is a dream that settles on the foam
It is that love will ne’er again falter
When my true love comes a-marching home
There is a gust on the blue sea of August
There is a lust all other seasons lack
‘Tis in the heat of a summer’s high noon
When the sea swears to bring my true love back
Angela Carole Brown is the author of three published books, The Assassination of Gabriel Champion, The Kidney Journals: Memoirs of a Desperate Lifesaver, and Trading Fours, and has produced several albums of music and a yoga/mindfulness CD. Bindi Girl Chronicles is her writing blog. Follow her on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram & YouTube.