Wake Up Ophelia (The Song Series)

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I jokingly call this the greatest love story I’ve ever written.   I say it with tongue in cheek because it’s the only love story I’ve ever written.   But also because it’s a seedy, salty, nasty little story, with pain, hurt, desperation, heartbreak, rage, violence, and passion as its main ingredients.   But make no mistake, a love story it is.   The story of Arthur and Ophelia is one that originated in my novel The Assassination of Gabriel Champion.  The book is a modern fable and a meditation on violence and redemption.   And Arthur’s and Ophelia’s story is only a small part of the overall landscape of the book, yet it’s a pivotal one.   In writing the story, creating these characters, and then living with them over the years of refining and rewriting the book, I fell in love with them.  They are the most imperfect people you could possibly conceive of, they are rich in pathos and pain, they are complicated, infuriating, and they are forever sewn to my heart.

Somewhere along the line, during the years of nursing this book into its rightful being, I was inspired to write a song about Arthur and Ophelia (not even the main characters).  And of course, considering the source, the song HAD to be blues.

Wake Up Ophelia would end up debuting on my first album of original songs, Resting On the Rock, a few years later, although many years before the book itself would be published.

I thought the writing of the lyrics would be easy, because their story was already there.  But in taking it on, I discovered that there were actually quite a few challenges ahead.  First off, I needed to decide which angle would be the focus of the song, because Arthur and Ophelia are sort of epic within the scope of the novel, yet suddenly we’ve got 3 verses and a chorus in which to tell their story, not the luxury of an entire book.  And that proved tricky.  I eventually came to the conclusion that Ophelia’s death was the moment that merited a song written (yes, it’s a bit of a spoiler; but if you haven’t read the book yet, believe me nothing’s ruined . . . now, go read the book!).   And so, the song would become Arthur’s plea to Ophelia after snuffing out her life.  I needed to find a way to express the arc of their love, their substance addiction, their desperation for and violence upon each other, and finally the deed, all within the confines of five 4-line stanzas, two of which are a repeated chorus.

I knew that what would aid me would be to approach the whole thing as poetry.  There’s a different palate for poetry than for prose.  Prose begs linear detail and chronology (not always, but as a matter of standard), whereas poetry can, through the artful twist of a word or phrase, illuminate everything.   For example, I think “he made his arms erupt”  is all that’s really needed to capture the entire nature and scope of a man’s addiction.  And I had an entire story to re-work in this way.   To get it all in, within the space of few words.  Poetry.

Once I was able to figure out the basic prosody of the verse, the words began to fall into place, and so next came the music.   Now, like I said, it couldn’t possibly be anything other than blues.  And so inevitably the thought is:  What’s there to write?  The blues is the blues.  The form is universal.  Well, the lesson I would come to learn in the years that this song came into being, grew its legs, and was eventually recorded, is that the blues ain’t jes’ one thang.  And as hardheaded as I have been known to be, it took some years for that to really sink in, but we’ll get to that.

At the time I was first conceiving of Ophelia’s story as a song, I had been listening nonstop to Tito & Tarantula, the stoner rock band out of East L.A.   There’s a song of theirs called The Strange Face of Love that is this enigmatic, engine-revving shuffle that cannot be stopped!   And I instantly thought, “Well, that’s it!   That’s what I need for my song.”  But it wasn’t only the feel that struck me.  It was that their song was a minor blues.  That’s certainly not unheard of.  It’s just not the more common dominant seventh environment that’s so familiar to our ears.  Wake Up Ophelia in a minor key would lend an even further dankness to the proceedings.  Done.  Decision made.  Song written.

I sang it around town for a few years.  It never even had a chart.  I would just say, “blues in A minor,”  tell the musicians it’s a shuffle, count it off, and go.  And while it worked perfectly alright, I can’t say I felt especially connected to the story in the song, nor did I feel that it had the emotional heft of an opus, when in truth that IS how I felt about Arthur and Ophelia’s story in book form.  And honestly I don’t even think I was aware of just how unsatisfying the song was for me.   I just chalked it up to being “not one of my best,” and didn’t really feel any need to do anything about it.   Or so I thought.

Fast forward to the year 2000, and it was, at last, time to start writing songs for Resting On the Rock, which I had conceptualized as a project that would take its inspiration from the folk vocabulary of other cultures, including America’s roots and blues movement.  Wake Up Ophelia  fit that bill, so I took it into the studio with some musicians to record, with the hope that it would jump start the rest of the canon for me.  And I did exactly as I had done every time I’d ever sung it on a gig.  I just called the key, said it was a shuffle blues, counted it off, and sang.   We did a few takes.  I got quick mixes.  And I took all the takes home to study, and to determine which I liked best.  It was sort of ZZ Top meets saloon music.  And as I listened back, there was something unsatisfying about all of it.  Every take.   It wasn’t the playing.   Let me be very clear about that.  These guys, Ken Rosser, Ross Wright, David Arana, and Chris Wabich, are some of the best I know.   They played their asses off.   And had the subject matter of the lyrics been anything else (my baby done left me, blah, blah, blah . . . ) perhaps I would’ve dug it as I dig everything these guys play.

But in this case, I heard my song’s meaning and power just get lost in what sounded like nothing more than a romping bar blues, the kind you get up and dance to, not the kind you shudder to hear and to witness, and are forever changed.

Forgive my hyperbole.  I do have visions of wanting to change the world in whatever tiny ways my talents can achieve.   So, yes, I wanted shuddering.

I lived with the recording, and listened to it a hundred times, a thousand times, realizing that I’d been singing this song, played just this way, or close enough, for years, but not until locking it into recorded history, and actually having the luxury to study it did I realize how unrepresentative it actually was of Arthur and Ophelia’s dark tale.   And then to try and figure out what exactly wasn’t working.   And whatever that was, this much I knew, was my fault.  Because I hadn’t bothered to take the time to actually compose.  That’s the tricky thing about blues.  You can dismiss it without even realizing you’ve done so.

The first thought that struck me, after so many listens that I’ve lost count, was that the driving shuffle was not right.  Not exactly.   It was precisely what was needed on the chorus, because the chorus is the plea.   The begging, imploring plea.   That energy is required.  But the verses are expository.  The verses describe their world.  And their world is a place of sadness and despair, and begs sobriety.   So, I decided that the verses should be played with a half time feel, and at a tempo of about 64.   Very sparse, not note-y, not chops-y, but vibe-y.  And that vibe needed to be messy, crunchy, grungy, but with texture, not with busy-ness.  When I thought back to the Tito & Tarantula tune, I realized that that’s exactly what they do.  I’d been so hypnotized by that burning shuffle of theirs that I hadn’t really noticed what they were doing on their verses.  This would give the song some actual shape and dynamics.  Places to go TO, places to come FROM.   A meditation, to a full-on assault, back to a meditation, back again to the assault, and so forth.

Next were the chord changes.   Something about what had been played didn’t sit right.  I realized that clashes were actually occurring between chords and melody, because the melody I’d written didn’t resolve to the tonic by the end of a phrase, the way blues traditionally does, but instead to the dominant, and only resolved to the tonic once we were into the next verse, as opposed to the dominant merely being used as a passing chord.   So, I dropped everything, and I just listened to a LOT of blues for awhile.   Now, you can never go wrong with the brilliance of a Son House, or a Big Mama Thornton, or a Howlin’ Wolf.   Those singers are special stars in the firmaments.  Or even contemporary folks like Chris Whitley and Jack White.  Yes, I was listening to everyone I could possibly consume from every walk of blues life.  But the changes, the changes, were still driving me crazy.  Of course, I was able to make sure a chart would resolve the verses to the dominant; I just wasn’t especially crazy about the traditional changes.  I plucked around on the piano for weeks, trying to discover something different, when I just happened to find my answer in the most unlikely yard.  I ran across a Daniel Lanois track called Blue Waltz, and my mind was blown by an absolutely simple set of chord changes on what was ostensibly the blues, and which were so left of the middle that I was stopped in my tracks, and knew that this chord progression was what my song was screaming for.   What’s so funny to me is that it’s only the last four bars of a 12-bar blues that he does anything even remotely twisted with.  So simple, and yet so profoundly odd.

Now, I have improved somewhat over the years, but at the time my ear was pretty poor for hearing changes and being able to transcribe them; what’s called a “take down.”   So I asked Ross Wright, the bass player on this song, if he would listen to the Lanois track and help me jot down the changes, because, yes, he’d already been informed that we were going to redo this song.  Those four bars are a set of changes that actually yank the Lanois track right out of the blues palate altogether for just an instant, to something more squared, if that makes any sense.  No real blue notes.  And yet there was still the issue of how to take the establishment of those changes, whatever modal construct they came from, and resolve them to the dominant.  And this was where Ross was incredibly helpful.

So, finally I was starting to have a structure that was specific and fixed, and not just a case of calling blues, describing it as a shuffle, and having everyone play what they’ve played a thousand times on a thousand gigs.

I had called up Ken Rosser shortly after our session, in the midst of my song’s identity crisis.  I confessed I wasn’t happy with how we’d done the song, and that a lot of it was in the structure . . . that there was none!  Because I had not fine-tuned a specific set of mechanics.  But that a good deal of it, as well, maybe even more crucially, had to do with concept and interpretation, which I hadn’t bothered to relay.  I guess I thought the emotion could all come from me.  That I wouldn’t need to communicate it to the musicians playing it.   But that is so wrong.  We talked very intimately about color and mood and shade and dramatic arc.  He was SO on my wave length with this!  We each discovered in that conversation how much a fan we both were of ambient tone and atmospherics, texture more than notes, manipulation of sound, all in the service of emotional connection.  And as much as I like to talk  (and have done so several times already in this song series) about Ken and me being musical soul mates, let me say here that this moment of discussing Wake Up Ophelia was truly the breakthrough moment for us, and would firmly establish the musical relationship we’ve now had for nearly 15 years.

As far as my own part in this, I had originally, and for years, sung the song in A minor, which is a perfectly comfortable key for this old alto.  But as everything in the song was being revisited and re-envisioned, I decided to lower the key to where the first notes out of my mouth (which are the lowest notes in the melody) would be at my lowest possible register.  It’s not the most attractive part of my register, and with not a lot of physical power there, but it does lend a quality of something intimate and fragile, almost struggling.  Plenty of room to move up to the shouting chorus, but at least in the new key of F minor it would start off with a vulnerable simmer.

One of the final things I decided on, before we went back in to re-record, was to eliminate the keyboard.  David Arana is a wonderful player; I’ve done countless gigs with him, the most prevalent of those being with The Orchestre Surreal for the past 18 years.   But the presence of piano on this blues most definitely gave it its saloon vibe, which I realized only afterwards that I did not want.  I wanted something sonically dense, where a piano really pierces sharply through any kind of texture.  Plus I didn’t feel I needed two chordal instruments.  The guitar was plenty on that front.   And we’re talking Ken Rosser here!  Known for texture and aural layers of richness, even within one single pass.   He was all I needed.  In fact, it was that decision about instrumentation that would set the tone for the rest of the songs I would eventually compose for Resting On the Rock.

On the day we were scheduled to re-record, Chris Wabich wasn’t available (he, the working-est drummer in town), and so our recording engineer, who also just happens to be a drummer, offered to step in and do double-duty.   Michael Kramer has been my mixing engineer on every record I’ve ever helmed, but this song goes down as the only song of mine he’s ever played on.  And he was great!   Running back and forth from control booth to drum booth had to take a toll on his concentration, and yet both drumming and engineering that day were stellar.

We assembled at the same studio for round two.  We’re talking months later, after all the soul searching I’d had to do.  I had Ross bring in his F-Bass fretless instead of the Alembic fretted bass he’d used on the prior recording.  I thought the new approach, the new texture, the new mood, really called for that quality.  And my only instruction to him, a man known for very note-y, virtuosic playing, was to just simplify, leave space, yet without sacrificing pulse.  And I handed everyone the chart of my (finally!) structured composition.

Here’s where I’d like to mention that Ken Rosser walked into the session with a fever of 102, and was, understandably, not in the best of moods.  Oh boy!  But what a trooper to still show up instead of asking if we could reschedule.  He set up his gear in a corner, far away from everyone else, and had little tolerance for the chatting and laughing and all the things we do in the studio between takes.  I think it’s safe to say we were all kind of afraid of Ken that day :).  He used the house guitar amp, which was a beat-to-shit small vintage tweed Fender combo amp with a Deluxe Reverb, and he’d brought in a cheap Danelectro guitar, where one of the switches was intermittent and it wouldn’t stay in tune, which Ken confessed was a purposeful choice that, based on our talk, he felt would be perfect for the raw, urgent vibe.  That conceptual idea, for Ken, translated into cranking up the amp until it was rattling and shaking, or as he has said, “It’s Hendrix at the Fillmore West, or Neil Young in full meltdown mode . . . there’s no way to get that sound and not endanger something or someone,”  and with the plan to use reverse delay effects during the verses, and three fuzz boxes chained together at the same time during the choruses and solo.   I just needed one last whispered caucus with the fevered lion before we did a take, to reiterate the concept, and at this point I simply said that since it was about a woman dying I wanted the guitar to sound like a man on his last manic leg in this life, and that I wanted the solo to sound like a woman wailing, like the cries of the damned.

Well, folks, I don’t know what Ken Rosser was channeling that day, but I suspect all credit is owed to that 102° fever, and I, for one, thank God for it.  It was some of the dankest, darkest, most connected, plugged in, tapping something ancestral, killer music I’ve ever heard created.

Which brings us to the ending of the song.  The ending on this recording is such a far cry from that of our original.  That one resolved with the typical blues tag ― the classic 12/8, triplet-y, descending, Robert Johnson turnaround sequence, that almost begs an “ohhhh yeahhhhh” on the ending fermata, with jazz hands!  I know.  I’m being facetious.  And I truly do love Robert Johnson.  It just was not the call for my song.  Though in all fairness, because there are traditions, it’s what you’re likely to get when all you do is call some blues, and you haven’t bothered to architect it.   The new ending was designed to be a vamp on the tonic, still in the full shuffle, and for everyone to play out in their momentum, which we would gradually fade in the mix, the dramatic metaphor being that life goes on even in the midst of death, even after “The End.”   I liked the idea of a song about death having no ending.

And, on how we ended up doing it, a special note of credit needs to go out to Ross Wright.

We were recording live.  No isolation booths (except for the vocals).  No punching.  No cutting & pasting.  Yes, I did later overdub some harmonies on the chorus, and Ross did grab a Gretsch guitar off the wall after the session was officially wrapped (and Ken went home to sleep off his fever) and added a few wobbly chords at the beginning for mood.  But otherwise this was live, so if we screwed up we started over.   We were 98% through our first take, which was clearly a winner.  And as we landed on the tonic for the ending cadence, there we were, just sizzling on the F minor, and on bar 5 of this vamp Ross suddenly went from the tonic to the sub-dominant, as if we were going back through the form changes (those wonderful Lanois-inspired changes).  I had eye contact with everyone from my booth, and I shot a look at Ross, as in “No!  Oh shit!  You weren’t supposed to go there.”  And he shot a look back at me that said, “Sorry!  But now we’re here.  It’s a great take.  Let’s just keep going.”  We all shot a look at each other ― all except for Ken, who was in this world of his own, curing the freaking common cold and uncovering the secret to eternal youth ― and we all agreed to just keep going.  Well, progressing to that chord change, which Ken hadn’t expected, only propelled him into an even deeper, danker level of depth and depravity and marvel and wonder and amplifier overdrive.  Even Ross had this crazy instant during that cadence of slowly sliding his fingers across the neck of his bass for this pedal-to-the-metal grunge moment that just exploded everything.  And so, what had been instructed to be just this simple vamp-out became a whole second solo for Ken, with a second life, and which flung open the doors of Heaven and Hell both.  MY GOD was it stunning.  More hyperbole, yes.  But this is how I think of Ken.  He’s a transporter of souls, a deliverer.  We eventually did settle on that tonic, which would be faded later in the mix, but the world was on fire by that point.  And I smiled at Ross, shaking my head, who, instead of yelling “cut!” or “my bad!” had managed to remain calm and turn his little mistake into a stunning afterlife moment for all involved, and for the song.  I defy you to tell me that you don’t hear Ophelia’s cries in that outro solo.

When the take was done, the general consensus was that it was a great take, “now let’s do a few more.”  And my only response was “why?”

Quarter note = 64.   The tempo of big, bad, tragic, Shakespearean pathos.

 

 

Click here to listen on Bandcamp

 

 

Wake up Ophelia.  Don’t lay so still.

The sun’s goin’ down, and it’s time for a meal.

I’ve got the whiskey if you’ll bring the buzz,

and together, like in a story, we can fall in love.

 

With a tremble and a whisper he cried, I know you’re there.

I can see you hidin’ deep inside those dark eyes somewhere.

Where’s my feisty woman?  Where’s my sweet honey bee?

Please, please, Ophelia, don’t leave me!

 

Wake up Ophelia.  Don’t you dim your bright eyes.

Wake up Ophelia.  Never listen to my lies.

Better get yourself away from danger, girl.

Please wake up and rise.

 

That man, oh how he begged.  Pleadin’ hands around her throat.

“Wake up Ophelia” were the desperate words he spoke.

And he leaned into his whiskey, and he made his arms erupt,

as he begged his sweet Ophelia to please wake up.

 

Wake up Ophelia.  Don’t you dim your bright eyes.

Wake up Ophelia.  Never listen to my lies.

Better get yourself away from danger, girl.

Please wake up and rise.

 

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, is a recipient of the Heritage/Soulword Magazine Award in poetry, and has produced several albums of music and a yoga/mindfulness CD.   Bindi Girl Chronicles is her writing blog.

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Winter (The Song Series)

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It’s been a while now since I contributed to the Song Series I’d begun.   Life just took me in other directions for awhile with this blog.   But the series is back.   And this time, I’d like to tell you about the writing and recording of my one and only holiday song.

As I prepared for my very first holiday album, Winter, which came out two years ago, I knew automatically that it would be an album of covers.   Who wants to hear an entire album of holidays songs of nothing they’ve ever heard before.   Folks want the favorites.   And of the faves, there are more to choose from than I could possibly count, and of course I chose an odd collection of songs both classic and fringy.   Some old, some not so old.  It was important to me that I cover the wide berth of the emotional spectrum that the holidays can bring.   Christmas time is associated with joy.   But there are plenty out there who anticipate the holidays warily, because they have no romantic partner, because they have no family, because it’s a holiday that plays up the virtues of family, romance, happiness etc, and for those without, it only plays up their failings.  I swear, the last thing I want to do is to be a downer about this, because I LOVE the holidays. Always have.   But I also have great empathy for those who find that time of year melancholy.   And I really wanted to make an album that spoke to them too.   So, while there are plenty of happy, jolly songs included on my holiday album, there are also somber and reflective ones.   For example, I included the Pogues’ song Fairytale of New York, which is a sentiment about the homeless on Christmas Eve.  Guess what folks?   That reality exists.   And it’s a song of such heart wrenching pathos and nostalgia.  Just my kind of song.

A N Y W A Y . . .  at the eleventh hour of recording, after having spent months culling through Christmas songs old and new, traditional and not so, and selecting just the right ones to tell Christmas as I wanted to tell it, I suddenly decided that while this needed to be a cover CD, I couldn’t resist the temptation to contribute at least one original.   And so, I set about the task of composing my first ever holiday song.

In writing Winter (which became the title track), I wanted a song that rang of Christmas without being overtly Christmasy.  Meaning it could be played any time of year and not seem out of place, in the same spirit as My Favorite Things (also on my album).

And then what to write about.  A love song perhaps, about falling in love in winter.  Love has often happened for me this way, so it seemed a natural to write about.   What’s funny is that I’ve actually written very few love songs.   That’s just never seemed to be a persistent subject in my consciousness.   And even in this song’s case, I wasn’t in love when I wrote it.  I’ve been single for a long time now.  But, as all holiday songs seem to do, I was made nostalgic for loves of my past that seemed in many cases to have bloomed in winter.

I’m also a winter baby, so this felt very much at home . . . in spite of the irony that I sort of hate snow.   But I had to let that hate go, release it for its irrationality, and embrace the magic of snow instead.  It actually wasn’t hard to do, as I’d been absolutely mesmerized by a series of photos that my friend Jean Marinelli had recently taken at her folks’ home in Iowa of a hoar frost.   I was so blown away by this sight that I HAD to work the term “hoar frost” into my lyric, and in fact, the whole song became shaped around that idea.   And yes, in case it’s not obvious, I used one of those breathtaking shots of Jean’s as my cover art, which is also above.

When it came time to go into the studio, we recorded the song live, with the instrumentation of guitar, bass, drums, and vocals.   I described to the musicians on the day of recording that I wanted a sort of 16th-note feel, but without it being R&B, that stylistically I wanted something a little floatier, and not backbeat-heavy at all.   But that was pretty much the extent of my description, as I didn’t really have a firm grasp yet on the sound I wanted. Compositionally, it was a pretty simple form, simple changes.  I’ve grown fond of simple folk ideas, and I envisioned folk for this song.  So I just needed to hear something first, and shape or grow the song from there.   And that’s exactly what we did, which means that even though the song is all my writing, the whole development of the bigger picture was most assuredly collaborative with my awesome trio of artists, Ken Rosser, Randy Landas, and Lynn Coulter.

On the day of recording, in the funky Boho studio of recording engineer John McDuffie, we laid down a track, did a few different takes, and I chose the strongest one.   And I instantly knew that I was going to want Ken, the guitarist on this album, and my old pal and longtime musical soul mate, to layer and layer and layer.

Weeks later, the two of us met at his studio alone, a studio he has named Po’Tools (which tickles me; any studio guys out there will chuckle), and I proceeded to tell him what I was envisioning.   Over Ken’s basic track, which was played on a Gibson ES-335, the first thing he added was a Jerry Jones electric 12-string “for maximum jingle-jangle, baby!” (Ken’s own words).   And then, because one of Ken’s magnificent fortes is looping and texture and grunge and friction and these crazy, wild aural manipulations of his instrument, I asked him if he could give me a layer of something that sounded like snowfall or snowflakes.   Now, snowfall doesn’t have a sound, unless you’re talking about a winter storm, and then that’s really just wind you’re hearing.   But I had a sound in my head that sounded like snowflakes, and I swear (as I knew would happen!) Ken Rosser just understood what I meant perfectly.

And did he ever give it to me!   He created this sound with a PRS McCarty, processed through an Eventide Pitchfactor effect.  The only reason I can even articulate that is because I just asked him to recount it to me for this article.  It’s all Greek to me.   But it absolutely captured what I had intended.

And once that effect was in place, it changed everything else for me.   Suddenly I heard the drums differently. The bass differently.   But we’ll get to them in a minute.

Ken had taken a solo on the original live track with the Gibson.  It was a notier, jazzier solo, something perfectly befitting how the song was originally played by the trio.   But once these other layers began to shape the track in a very specific way, Ken felt that another kind of solo was really needed in place of the original.

KEN:
“The new solo was done on the PRS McCarty, roughly using Lindsey Buckingham’s solo on Fleetwood Mac’s Silver Spring as a model . . . because once we’d put all the layers on, I felt pretty strongly that the solo should just paraphrase the melody and then shut the fuck up.  Lindsey’s influence was really just about sound and some articulation things . . . I doubt anyone else would get that without being told . . .”

We both remember it being really hot in the studio when we were doing this, thus giving the musical evocations of snowfall an ironic tinge.

Next I went into yet a third studio, with drummer Lynn Coulter and my mixing engineer Mike Kramer, and had Lynn replace his drum track.   Actually, no, he didn’t replace it.   He layered, also.  Just added to what was there.   I played him a Bon Iver track that I have loved for a long time, a song called Holocene.   The drums on that song are very floaty and light.   So, I had Lynn, whose drumming is just so special (I can’t wait to talk about him more when I write about my songs  An Old Black Man Someday  and  Last Chance Mojo Eye  for the Song Series . . . the special things he does with those two . . . whew!) . . . I had Lynn play an almost “train” feel with brushes, and to layer in some shakers, and other high-resonance percussion toys.   I wanted everything to have a feeling of lightness and light.   Not heavy, not barrelly, not thundering, not bass-drum-y, but floating, and sparkling, and light.   I wanted to evoke a startling, blinding, white hoar frost.  I wanted to capture Jean’s photographs.   And it was slowly but surely starting to do exactly that.

I then sent the tracks over to Randy Landas, our bass player.   I asked him if he thought he needed to do something different than what he’d originally played, since there was now so much else re-shaping the song at this point.   He gave me back a track with a bass part that was much less percussive, and much more melodic and with elongated tones.  It was absolutely lovely.  In fact, if I recall correctly, his original bass track was done on a string bass, but the re-do was done on a fretless, which just fits the texture of the song perfectly.

I’d been talking about putting a glockenspiel part on the song, a tiny part I’d actually written for it.   And I was just going to play it on the keyboard with a glock patch, but Lynn Coulter encouraged me to practice on his glockenspiel, and then record the real thing.   Well, we did!   I was so tickled to be able to give myself a glockenspiel credit.   But I will confess here that I “helped it out” and strengthened it with a track on synthesizer as well, as my glock chops were pretty sad and pitiful.   But still!  They’re there!   🙂

Lastly, of course, were the vocals.  They had already been cut, on the original live session, but as I lived with the song, and its growing, evolving, developing state, from a bare-bones pop song to a fully thick, rich, textural invocation of snowfall and hoar frosts and white Christmases, I took a page from one of my deepest hearts, the late Elliott Smith.   He has this doubled vocal effect on most of his tracks, and I thought that might be a really cool thing to do with Winter.   But rather than trying a stereo delay on my original vocal ( I’m not saying that that’s how Elliott did it; I have no idea how he did it), I simply, literally, provided the doubled part . . . I sang along with myself.   Two Angelas in unison.

I must say, the song actually sounds like winter.   Ambient, washy, and spritely, it evokes snow on the ground, and bobsleds, and snow fights, and down jackets.   I don’t exactly hate the snow anymore.  Funny how that can happen.

Please enjoy Winter.

 

 Click here to listen on Bandcamp

 

I always fall in love in winter
More than any other time
There’s just something about snowfall
And the scent of Christmas pines

I always fall in love in winter
A time of goodwill and peace
There is just no season better
For inspiring a little heat

It can have its reputation
For bleak and dreary days
But the first glimpse of a hoar frost
Will set any heart ablaze
It will set your heart ablaze

I tend to fall in love in winter
when the merry songs of children start
There is just no season greater
To inspire the romantic heart

 

 

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.

Blue Sea of August (The Song Series)

Blue Sea of August

 

“ 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:
.
.

KEN ROSSER
This is one of my favorite tracks I’ve ever played on.

 

ACB
Apocalyptic slide?   Yeah, David Kelly!   That’s just about perfect.

 

KEN ROSSER
Just here to be of service.

 

ACB
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.

 

KEN ROSSER
Still never seen Swept Away . . . I need to fix that.

 

ACB
Dude!  . . . . . . . . . . .  That’s all I’ll say.

 

KEN ROSSER
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.

 

ACB
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.

 

KEN ROSSER
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.

 

ACB
Sinéad O’Connor should record this song!!

 

KEN ROSSER
If that makes you a butt load of money, you owe me dinner.

 

ACB
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.

 

KEN ROSSER
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.

 

ACB
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).

 


Click here to listen on Bandcamp

 

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.

Fix the Bend (The Song Series)

FixTheBend

I’ve decided to start a little songsmith series here on Bind Girl Chronicles, detailing the inspiration, inception, and creative process behind the songs that I’ve composed.   I wouldn’t, by any stretch, call myself a prolific writer. I’ve written remarkably few songs in my 3 decades as a musician.   But each one has been an undertaking that has felt meaningful, has had its mountains for sure, and hopefully translates in finished product as something meaningful for you, the listener.

And so I’ll start with Fix the Bend, a song I wrote in 1989, but didn’t feature on any public recording until 2004.

CS Lewis, in his science fiction / fantasy novel Out of the Silent Planet, called us, “us” meaning earthlings, the Bent Ones, because of his book’s assertion that we divide the beautiful forces of the world with our intolerance, ignorance, and hubris. And so from Lewis’ label “the Bent Ones” came the title for my song Fix the Bend, an ode to human beings’ struggle to find meaning through works, and through legacy.

As I began to compose, and instantly chose a 6/8 rhythmic pattern, and an “empty fifth” riff, the song seemed to find its way toward something very Africanesque.

(Geek Warning!   An empty fifth, which is also sometimes called an open fifth, is a chord with the root and fifth only, and no third.   The third determines if the chord will be major or minor, and so the absence of one makes it a chord that can fit in most any harmonic environment.  There’s an angularity and a stoicism to the empty fifth, IMO.)

And so, since it seemed to be developing in a vague sort of neo-Carribean/African way, I asked my brother-in-law, McKinley Thomas, who had spent many years living in Tanzania and therefore spoke fluent Kiswahili, if he would translate the phrase “fix the bend” for me, something to use as a kind of chant to churn beneath the bed of the song. What he came back to me with was so enigmatic sounding.

Kulekebisha Imeeda Kumbo translates roughly as to “right what is wrong” or even “repair what is broken.”   I just loved its power. I loved its ancientness.   And I loved that it had so many syllables and hard consonants!   Something I could really work with in terms of creating a chant.   That seemed to be the completing factor of this song about the human race just scrambling to give their lives meaning in a world that is growing increasingly bent.

The song was written years before I produced my album Resting on the Rock, but other than a home studio recording that was largely sequenced and synthed all out of early-90s-style proportion, it had never appeared on any record.   So, when it came time to assemble a body of material for Resting on the Rock, I pulled it off the symbolic dusty shelf, and brought it to the guitar-led trio that I was calling The Global Folk.   The Global Folk (who, on rare occasions any longer, do still come out of hiding for a special occasion), consists of  multi-stringed instrumentalist Ken Rosser, bassist Ross Wright, and drummer and ethnic percussion whiz Paul Angers.  And they brought the song to life in a very different, very organic, very folkloric way. Ken Rosser plays the electric 12-string guitar and his iconic electric sitar on the track.  Ross Wright plays the fretless bass.  Paul Angers contributes a wonderful layering of African drums, which include the tbilat, djembe, tsanatsel, and tiwa shakers.   And even I contribute a little “marimba” synth sound for flavor, playing the main empty-5th riff, and of course lead vocal.   The crowning factor, however, are the deep baritone voices of Glenn Carlos and Kellum Lewis chanting the haunting words that McKinley had given us.

I am really tickled with this song, and its treatment by the Global Folk.   One thing I really know about Ken Rosser, whom I’ve often called, in all earnestness, my musical soul mate, is his way with an electric sitar.   He plays the real gourded thing as well.  But when it comes to the electric, he has absolutely no interest in trying to replicate the acoustic sitar sound, texture, tone, even style.   He considers it a different animal altogether.   And as such, his takes on a most unexpected role in this song.   His solo, on the electric sitar, is almost blues . . . and with every bit of pathos that goes with the blues.   Very exciting for me.

I’d originally had the composition move into a brief 5/4 cadence before rushing back into the loping 6/8, which was meant to be a kind of power-trio moment, which really worked well in its original synth-y form.   But with these real instruments playing something more aligned with nature and a folk-culture stamp than with the synthetic gloss of the original conception (and that lovely, self-indulgent, time-signature-change-every-3-bars, dated, 1993 sound), the 5/4 moment really no longer had a place.  I didn’t want to lose the “spiritual zone” of the 6/8.

The song opens with just the tiniest grace note of Martin Luther King’s 1963 speech on the Lincoln steps. Seemed appropriate.

I hope you enjoy Fix the Bend.

 

Click here to listen on Bandcamp

 

men will try to give their sons the moon
boys in turn they leave their fathers soon
women fight to raise their daughters right
and they try,   and they try

 lovers pen the epic prose of spring
preachers preach the words “let freedom ring”
soldiers fight the battles they are sold
and they try,   and they try

fix the bend …

painters leave their lives on muraled walls
heroes leave their mark upon us all
live to shout that we must fix the bend
and they try,   and they try

fix the bend …
(kulekebisha imeeda kumbo)

creatures say of us from other worlds
“look see how they’ve dulled their shiny pearl”
mother earth she screams to fix the bend
we must try,   we must try

fix the bend …
(kulekebisha imeeda kumbo)

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.