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3/19/18

Is it true what they say, that all good things must come to an end? It’s at least half right; all things must end, at whatever time their end is met, whether they’ve been good things or bad things or anything in between. So it is today, from a one-room home in Phoenix, that I will write a final entry in this here blog, nearly 10 years after beginning it from a tiny third-floor bedroom in a Georgetown row house.

This ending is not meant to signify an end of my love for music, songwriting and active listening — nor will I end my exploration of these things in written form or otherwise. But this blog, this forum, this means, is something I can no longer commit creative energies to. And that’s OK.

I thought today was the right day to write this farewell because I listened to the new record from The Decemberists, and was immediately hooked on the opening lines from track one: “Oh, for once in my/Oh, for once in my life/Could just something go/Could just something go right?” Backed by acoustic guitar, highlighted with harmonies the second time around with a quick pick-up from the tambourine, it’s a beautifully crafted and powerful song — and such a perfect sentiment to hear put to music as I begin a new chapter, with so much ahead of me and so much to leave on the cutting room floor. I’m taking the best from the old world while I begin the new, as we do with any change in life, and to be accompanied by greats like The Decemberists is a warm comfort. The record, I’ll Be Your Girl, is rich and layered, edgy and nerdy, in true Decemberists form, and I’m looking forward to playing it again and again.

I’m still forever struck by these moments of musical magic, even if I no longer write about them. I like to think I’ve reserved a special place in my heart and mind for hearing the right song at the right time, and that I’ve documented enough of these moments in a decade to see some through-lines. Like what it means to be stilled to the bone by someone’s work, how it feels to be frozen in your tracks when something fits just right. How the proper amount of sadness can somehow cure yours. How the loudest volume on earbuds can hurt so good. How the right words and the right notes can turn your outlook around on a dime.  These moments have stunned me, surprised me and saved me — and even if I’m not writing about them anymore, I’ll be looking for them on every next listen.

Until we meet again,
MD

 

“Oh, for once in my
Oh, for once in my life
Could just something go
Could just something go right?

I’ve been waiting all my life
I’ve been waiting all my life
All my life
My life
All my life
All my life.”

~Once In My Life

The Decemberists, I’ll Be Your Girl

9/29/17

Too much music, not enough time, so the story always goes across these nine years of musical musings. I still haven’t fully synthesized my thoughts on Brand New’s Science Fiction, I’ve got lots of notes but haven’t quite gotten the nerve to sit down and face them. The new Josh Ritter is amazing, and I’ve only made it to the gym this week when the new Taylor Swift singles from Reputation were involved. But tonight I like this Good Old War song, “Part of Me” off their latest EP, a song that I actually discovered on Taylor’s Spotify playlist. It’s good stuff, sad and true with its simple picking and stirring harmonies and subtle slide guitar. I like songs that are brave enough to repeat a good line or two this often. Sounds like the kind of song I’d like to sing sometime. But again, not enough time or nerve, whichever is a more believable excuse. So instead, it’s all locked up somewhere, which I guess is kind of what this song is about.

“But I’m always looking forward for an open door
I found an outlet for all my feelings
They’re trying to cut the cord…

I’m thinking, we’ve got to run
If you’re holding on the seams will come undone
And you’ll only get part of me.
We don’t want to catch a break while we’re playing it safe
You’ll only get part of me…

~Part of Me
Good Old War, Part of Me

6/23/17

Yesterday I dove deep into Spotify’s Tori Amos catalog, pouring over every favorite song I’ve heard a thousand times and listening to lesser-known tracks with fresh ears. Tori is a timeless staple for me, she offered me so much comfort and inspiration as an adolescent wanna-be artist, and now, as an increasingly aging person aware of her flaws, aware of the holes and wholes in her life, Tori still provides a new lens

I always loved her literary ways, her mysterious metaphors and brilliant, huge sounds, her passionate piano and throaty, grasping voice. One of the best examples of her strengths is Gold Dust, the 2011 collection with new and old tracks in an orchestral setting. Songs like “Winter” and “Cloud On My Tongue” that I’ve heard for more than half of life still hit me in new ways, while I get to take in “Snow Cherries From France” or the title track with slightly older ears than when I first heard them. So many of her songs serve as this chapter markings for my life, I can remember when and where I was when I first glommed onto them, and now they provide this mirror where I can see how much or little me and my feelings and my life has changed.

Despite my devotion, I don’t listen to Tori a ton anymore. Maybe it’s to keep the experience profound, because the times that I do listen to her take on a spiritual, ceremonial quality. I don’t do anything except listen to Tori, maybe I dance and move a little, maybe I cry. I sing and I hear and I fall into the music, I can’t focus on things like email or mindless internet scrolling when Tori is on. She is the artist who inspired me many years ago to be more than just a person, to be a person who wanted to create and live openly, and while I am still in many ways getting there, she can still light that fire.

 
“Sights and sounds
Pull me back down
Another year

I was here
I was here

Whipping past
The reflecting pool
Me and you
Skipping school
And we make it up
As we go along

We make it up we
Go along…”

~Gold Dust
Tori Amos, Gold Dust

3/7/17

One of the best things about getting older? You start caring less and less about what people think of you and your tastes. So it is without a shred of shame I admit I have almost exclusively listened to Ed Sheeran since his billion-views busting Divide album came out Friday (OK, with some Japandroids, The Menzingers and Laura Marling thrown in there, too) and I still think he’s one of the best pop songwriters of his generation.

Sheeran’s spoken word delivery can be construed as annoying to some, but I dig the rhythms and phrases he finds. His guitar playing is distinct and often innovative. And lord, those ballads — he can break hearts and mend them with a refrain with the best of them. “Photograph” and “Tenerife Sea” held the place as my favorite love songs of his last record while “Hearts Don’t Break Around Here” and “Dive” are the ones I’m most into this time around.

My favorite song on the record, though, the one that I go back to play before skipping among the others, is “Castle On The Hill,” a dedication to the friends Ed grew up with and the times they shared. It’s a familiar story for anyone who spent their teenage years with a tight knit group who inevitably broke away from each other as they grew up and life pulled them in separate directions.

Not only is the musicality of the song gorgeous and moving and triumphant, but the topic is one that’s been on my mind a lot lately. Maybe it’s living across the country from those who know me best, maybe it’s wishing we were better able to share the activities and interests of our lives together again. Maybe it’s wishing I had more reunions to look forward to. All I know is when I hear Ed Sheeran sing about driving down country roads, singing to “Tiny Dancer” with his friends and watching sunsets, I think about wandering the city long past our bedtimes, meeting up on a grassy hillside and watching the stars preside over our dreams as we wished upon each and every one of them we’d never have to grow up.

“I’m on my way
Driving at ninety down those country lanes
Singing to “Tiny Dancer”
And I miss the way you make me feel, and it’s real
We watched the sunset over the castle on the hill…”

~Castle On The Hill
Ed Sheeran, Divide

 

2/6/17

Eight days ago, I had one of the finest concert experiences in recent memory at The Wiltern. I went to see John K. Sampson, one of my all-time favorite songwriters and frontman of the late greats The Weakerthans. He was opening for Frank Turner, an artist I knew but didn’t really know — not until I saw him on stage, anyway.

Sampson rocketed through favorites like “Aside” and “Sun in an Empty Room” along with tracks from his beautiful new solo LP Winter Wheat. I highly recommend it pensive listening sessions, when you need something to sink into that isn’t too aggressive but is still deep and smart. He introduced his group as “a soft rock band from Canada” and I think that’s a fine way to say it. I sang along with every word I knew from a seat up in the mezzanine, head tucked on my boyfriend’s shoulder. I felt warm and safe, comforted by the familiar voice that has accompanied so many highs and lows over the years.

Frank Turner, on the other hand, I didn’t know much about except for strolls through his discography in the week leading up to a song. When his set started with the unveiling of two big positive-negative light-up displays on either side of the stage, and his band entered in coordinating black and white suits, I knew this was going to be a show. Not just a concert but a performance, with engagement and attitude and stagecraft aplenty. And it was! Turner is an undeniable band leader, he’s got that charisma and energy to bounce him all over the stage without losing the audience’s eye once. His band played their own respective hearts out, and backed him up well during the almost-rockabilly punk tunes as much as the poppier side. I loved the keys and drums set up on risers in the back, creating a stage that looked like something out of a 1960s variety show. We’re so used to seeing bands set up in the same formation, and I like it when artists go out of their way to make a setup that feels like their own.

Frank’s songs have an emotional vulnerability to them that spoke to me instantly, and something about a crowd of thousands singing and jumping along to these introspective thoughts was quite moving. A word about the crowd: audiences LOVE Frank. It was clear people had seen him before, and first-timers like us were the minority of the group. But I’d instantly go back and see him again. The songs were that good, the performance was that sharp and the experience was that fun, a kind of suspended reality and coming together that felt light and strong and necessary. Three cheers to Frank and his stellar team, fans included, for giving me a night at The Wiltern I’ll never forget.

“Some days I wake up dazed my dear,
And don’t know where I am.
I’ve been running now so long I’m scared
I’ve forgotten how to stand.
I stand alone in airport bars
And gather thoughts to think:
That if all I had was one long road
It could drive a man to drink.

But then I remember you,
And the way you shine like truth in all you do.
And if you remembered me,
You could save me from the way I tend to be.”

~The Way I Tend To Be
Frank Turner, Tape Deck Heart

1/26/17

A little bit of pre-work cleaning yesterday had me moving around my stacks of vinyl in order to vacuum underneath the stereo, which led to a detour of sorting through the collection. I came across Billy Joel’s Turnstiles, which was among the first albums I played on CD as a kid. It was one of a handful of discs that my uncle gave my family after we got our first CD player, probably somewhere around 1994 or 1995.

Playing around with the 5-disc Sony changer — especially when I wasn’t supposed to —was one of my favorite escapes. I sat by the big, cloth-covered standing speakers in our basement and (regrettably) picked at the fibers, trying to hear every little sound at the same time. Turntstiles worked its way around The Beatles’ Abbey Road and Rubber Soul, plus the soundtrack to “The Lion King,” the first disc I picked out myself. I was a pretty young kid but Joel’s solid voice, big choruses and fancy piano work struck me, so here I was this first grader glomming onto songs about, at their heart, existential crises.

Years later, I find so much more meaning in these songs, not just their pop sensibilities. With “Summer, Highland Falls,” a song I could recite word for word in front of crowd even after not playing it in many years, older and wiser ears will hear a lot more in this song than a child or even a college kid will.  I think it’s one of his strongest lyrical showings, right up there with “Vienna” and “Piano Man,” rife with lessons and imagery. As you get older, you learn to live with the choices, challenges and regrets you’ve accumulated over the years. You learn to respond to what’s in front of you.  It might leave you devastated, but other times, you might find yourself happy beyond your wildest dreams. Trouble is, nothing stays the same long enough to live in either extreme, and so you learn how to accept the reality in front of you no matter what it looks like. You learn to keep moving forward.

“They say that these are not the best of times
But they’re the only times I’ve ever known
And I believe there is a time for meditation
In cathedrals of our own
Now I have seen that sad surrender in my lover’s eyes
And I can only stand apart and sympathize
For we are always what our situations hand us
It’s either sadness or euphoria”

~Summer, Highland Falls
Billy Joel, Turnstiles

1/22/17

fullsizerender

You know that feeling when you’re nearing the end of a book, and you start to read less and less of it because you don’t want it to be over yet? That’s where I am with Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run.” It’s 500+ pages of honest reflections, poignant insights and touching memories from one of the most legendary rock heroes, and the tale of his rise to his vaunted status as told by the man himself does not disappoint.

There’s a lot to learn about Springsteen’s life and upbringing here. How his childhood affected his life, for better or for worse, is a reoccurring theme throughout each of the brief, segmented chapters. He is humble, even when admitting the size of his own ego, which I think is a respectable thing to admit and speaks volumes to the self-awareness he has cultivated — often a difficult, but necessary, thing for creative people to do. He talks about his struggles with depression in an honest and forthcoming way, as a memoir demands, but he doesn’t ever seem to wade into “poor me” status; rather, his struggles are just one part of the journey. But some of the passages that really excite me are the ones that reflect on songwriting.

Springsteen songs are iconic, in a way that’s hard to untangle the man from the work. Reading “Born to Run” makes clear how much heart and soul, feeling and thought was poured into these songs, and not just the hits. Every album came from a specific story or theme Springsteen wanted to portray, partly stemming from reactions to his own life circumstances as much as the world around him. His thoughts about attention to detail, as quoted in the above photograph, speak to this in a very honest way. Good songwriting, as I have said, is good writing, and good writing translates across mediums. Strong characters. Small details. An economy of language. This is all bedrock. You think about the songs that have been loved for so many decades by fans of all generations, and there’s a timelessness to them. No retreat, baby, no surrender. When I read about what it took for Springsteen to create these songs, it’s inspiring to know how hard he worked, and also how much he cared about what he making. One can’t cross the finish line without a real drive to do so.

I told myself I wasn’t going to go on a Springsteen catalog binge until after I finished the book, but yesterday I couldn’t help myself. I snuck a few listens of “Chapter and Verse,” just to satisfy my palette, and kept coming back to “The Rising,” a song I associate with post-9/11 America, the feelings of that tragic time and the attempt to come together as a nation. Its messages still ring true today — especially today, in fact — and it is proof the themes an artist touches on at one point in their career may come back again and again, giving that song new life and new associations. This endurance is a key ingredient in songwriting that is as celebrated and beloved as Springsteen’s work, it’s something any of the greats have. But so much music is put out into the world that just a few people might hear, or ever remember, is that work worth less than songs that are globally famous, cemented into history and have brought so much emotion and feeling to the fore? It’s easy to say “yes,” but I can’t say for certain; it all tells a story, it all connects back to someone’s idea. But it makes me think about how rare great work really is, and how dedicated one must be to achieve it, an objective that unifies musicians and creators of all kinds. Everyone is just trying to tell a story, to connect, to be remembered.

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