Category Archives: Confessions | Demystifying Songwriting

These posts are my open letter to all songwriters, in an effort to honor my muses and heroes by acknowledging their contribution to my knowledge, and to demystify the process to those writers seeking kinship.

Confessions | Molotov

For those of you who were around for the ole Roadside Attractions part of my career, you’ll remember that Thor, Seb, Phil & Craig really loved tunes like Nuages and Minor Swing and that we leaned heavily on the jazz swing stuff in our whole set. Well, I’ve never been able to pick like that, but I loved some of the forms so much that I wanted to take a crack at my own song.

The melody was kicking around in my head for a long time before I was able to set words to it. Some of it is true and some of it is fiction, as with most of the songs. But some of the images come from the madness of Henry Miller’s Crazy Cock. Here’s the synopsis:

“In 1930 Henry Miller moved from New York to Paris, leaving behind — at least temporarily — his tempestuous marriage to June Smith and a novel that had sprung from his anguish over her love affair with a mysterious woman named Jean Kronski. Begun in 1927, Crazy Cock is the story of Tony Bring, a struggling writer whose bourgeois inclinations collide with the disordered bohemianism of his much-beloved wife, Hildred, particularly when her lover, Vanya, comes to live with them in their already cramped Greenwich Village apartment. In a world swirling with violence, sex, and passion, the three struggle with their desires, inching ever nearer to insanity, each unable to break away from this dangerous and consuming love triangle.”

What you’re reading feels like a terrible dream through most of the book – you can’t tell which events and exchanges are real and which are imagined. You get indignant at all of the characters, and Henry doesn’t ask you to love any of them, leaving no clear antagonist regardless of the narrator’s grief. I wanted to take the selfishness out of context a little bit and put the events into the hands of a higher more fate-like power for my tale. I wanted to talk about angels and saviors when I wrote about the steerings of these characters, whether I believe in them or not.

I wanted to conjure the feeling you get in the pit of your stomach when you’re out drinking and you know you’ve had enough, but you don’t give a fuck and you order another anyway because you’ve had a fucking hard day and you’re going to have some goddamn fun, even if you know it will end very badly- throwing yourself into the fire intentionally to test the fate that you resent controlling you. Of course, decisions like that always hurt in the end- we are only human.

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Our saviors must be in a drunken row, cause they are kicking up mischief in the clouds & you’re a Molotov Cocktail smashing through the window of my heart, come on baby, burn me to the ground

You ring my bell, then go running for the hills, the flesh is weak, but the spirit wills. We were sitting in the hearth and the fire burned so hot, we couldn’t tell our fear from our thrill

And gin never tastes so good as when I am in this mood, & I want to get stirred not shaken,  it’s only then my joints stop aching, everything burns that is not stone

When all the smoke clears off I will patch the shingles of the roof to keep the angels out, but you can poke your umbrella through the gaping hole of my want

Confessions | House That Built Itself

House That Built Itself is probably the closest I come to my own voice, rather than speaking in character like the rest of the record. It’s the most ‘confessional’ piece on Moxie.  It was based on reading the sonnets of Jorge Luis Borges, whose voice you can hear on the record, speaking to an audience at a reading. I loved that particular clip of him speaking because of how much room he leaves his listener to make the words mean whatever they need to mean to them. He gives you the framework on which to build your own fantasy, and even in translation his language is so melodic and rhythmic that you can almost sing everything he says. In one of his sonnets he makes a reference to iron being created to destroy, to kill, and that it can be destroyed itself by misuse and neglect. Here’s the sample, it’s entirely worth the whole listen!

When things happen to us, good or bad, we make a choice every time about how we will take it. We could be weak and sour and never see the good in anything. Or we can choose to find the best in even the most difficult circumstances. It’s those folks, the ones who can build empires out of the force of their own will that make this world better. You have to own what you are, you have to choose.

The artistic cliche in this beast, also the most confessional line of it, is about lingering in my own worst danger until the inevitable collapse. After all, there’s only so much shit you can take before something gives. The muse has been good to me, I listen and she speaks. But sometimes it takes breaking myself (via alcohol, relationships, bad choices) to weaken and slow my mind enough enough to receive it. I’m a steely woman, wary- but I Choose to find the beauty, often (almost always) wrapped in self-torture, and this particular torture was so predictably tragic that it now feels like a dream, something outside of me that acted itself out through me. One of the first pieces of art I ever made was a collage of a bird flying with its open cage clutched in its talons- the idea that however ‘free’ I am, I will always carry what I fear, my own worst danger, regardless of how it slows me down.

I was listening to a lot of Dylan when I wrote it, especially Another Side. Enter the naked bulb…

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This old house won’t be level again, and its corners will never be square

But the steam radiator will polish me up, a spitshine

Darlin’, if you see the spark in my eyes through their sermons that pleasure is sin

Then their iron made to wound us will rust in the rain and we will not stand condemned

The tide pushes back up the river until the world seems upside down

And I will linger in my own worst danger until the levee comes crashing down

Hold me up to the naked bulb, swirl me around in your glass like wine

The bouquet of your skin lingers here on my breath, I will sing in your blood like a wolf in the night

Honey, you know we can weather this storm through the flood and the rage and the fire

And I will live fearless in this crazy world knowing you are my one desire

Why(,) I love a double entendre…

When I was a teenager traveling to CT with my mom to record our first album, we often stayed with a friend in Mystic, the beautiful debutante Elena. She, I am now convinced, was and certainly still is where ever in her travels she may be, an angel of the highest degree. She had the most lovely home absolutely filled with books and a heart so generous that there was nothing she would ever hold back from us. So with her blessing, I dove headlong into philosophical (mostly existentialist, who’da thunk?) texts, my first real experiences with the beats, and I fell completely and unabashedly IN LOVE with the Algonquins, Dorothy Parker being, in my humble adolescent opinion, the coolest thing since sliced bread.

Dorothy was not a happy gal. Not the kind of gal you look at and think to yourself, ‘you know, she’s really got it figured out’. And even as a hormonal hillbilly teenager, I knew and understood this. But, all the same, she was the One gal that could sit at the same table as the most intelligent men of her time and beat them to every punch. With her gallows humour and tragically whetted wit, she really did have a number of things figured out. And like so many of us to come after, she fell back (with humour and even sometimes grace) on the same weapons of self-destruction on which all bleeding hearts must fall back. Selfish and wary relationships, alcohol and the need for art above all else, regardless of the cost.

I am now twice the age I was when I began that journey.

Every word still sticks under my tongue like hard candy, and when I swallow the juices are still as sweet. My life has brought me round to a loving and nurturing lifelong relationship built on the rock of our shared experience and commitment to art instead of the tumult that Dorothy faced and fostered in her partners. I am lucky, I don’t deserve it. I’ve also chosen to yoke (and bless) myself with a home and hearth, a business that nurtures that shared experience with our whole community, rather than living off advances in apartments with only a typewriter for company. But our souls, and those words are not so far apart and our lyrical kinship carved forever in my own art.

Here is the poem that struck me. Everyone anticipates how they will feel at certain turning points in their lives. Girls wonder and plan their wedding days, students anticipate their glorious careers, everyone notices the onset of those first gray hairs and hope that they age as gracefully as possible. But not everyone can be so painfully honest with themselves. Not everyone has the stomach to look in the mirror and say “you are ugly” and mean it, and love it for what it is the way that we love our parents even when they are losing their strength and vitality, as we love our children when they make grave mistakes, as we love our partners when we take the biggest of risks together

The double entendre in this poem came to me in the same ridiculous childish logic that I’ve never been able to escape. When other people read this poem, they read “I loved them until they loved me” to mean that once they loved her, she no longer loved them. Which is obviously what she meant, it is a confession. When I first read that line, I believed it to mean (and to a degree I still do, because I am a proud creature and I want to) I kept on loving them until they could not help but love me in turn. Cest la vie…

Ballade at Thirty-five

This, no song of an ingénue, This, no ballad of innocence; This, the rhyme of a lady who Followed ever her natural bents. This, a solo of sapience, This, a chantey of sophistry, This, the sum of experiments, — I loved them until they loved me.

Decked in garments of sable hue, Daubed with ashes of myriad Lents, Wearing shower bouquets of rue, Walk I ever in penitence. Oft I roam, as my heart repents, Through God’s acre of memory, Marking stones, in my reverence, “I loved them until they loved me.”

Pictures pass me in long review,– Marching columns of dead events. I was tender, and, often, true; Ever a prey to coincidence. Always knew I the consequence; Always saw what the end would be. We’re as Nature has made us — hence I loved them until they loved me.

~Dorothy Parker

Confessions | Belly & Cheers, Darlin’

Belly & Cheers, Darlin’ are twins, variations on the same chord progression and each in their own way, my deepest foray into the idea of living death. Belly was written on the darkest longest night of my life. It was written about the fear that sometimes keeps me from ‘living’, couched in the postponement of a love affair. We make choices every day about how adventurous we are willing to be. How close we will go to the edge, how much money we’ll put down on a horse, balancing the simple good of our every day lives against the crazy shit we really want to do. We all justify that slice of chocolate cake by eating a salad now and again. Why don’t we just eat the cake?

Belly’s setting was a nod to growing up in the generation when Madonna was queen of the pop charts. I always loved the way she set a stage for each song- whether it was dancing in the street on a latino block in La Isla Bonita or a Marilyn Monroe-style song and dance in Material Girl. She wanted you to be able to close your eyes and listen and be transported to the scene of the song. I wanted to set the same kind of almost-strangers-sniffing-each-other-out stage that she set in Crazy For You, but without the innocence. I wanted the glances through the ‘smoky air’ to be so full of unanswered angst you could cut that air with a knife. But I also wanted the danger of it to be completely irresistible, so groovy that you almost had to give yourself over to it. But even in the postponement of acting on it I wanted to leave the hook-up inevitable. Some of the off-kilter metaphors are in the style of Gertrude Stein, whose book of poetry/prose called ‘Lifting Belly’ provided the name. Please read it if you haven’t yet.

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I’ll admit I love this running around but not all the way not with you, not now | Your voice always carries over the crowd and the room goes up in the flames of my cheeks

We have all the time in the world right now, I talk crazy I weave smiles around them all to keep them knowing this irrational desire is growing

My lungs fill with the air from your lungs and I am drunk in an instant. My nails dig into the skin of my thighs to keep my tongue from loosing the truth, loosing it all over you

If I could step outside for a cigarette just to calm the hardest moments of it, if I could put my eyes onto something I wanted more, but it’s you I adore

Our other lovers howl to the sound of a want that they don’t know, how their bodies burn down to the embers we’ve already made of ourselves

Cheers, Darlin’ is the fast forward and slow motion result of the inevitable hook-up, repulsion, self-loathing and finally death of the affair. It has elements of the ideas in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, when a relationship is so difficult that you consciously try to forget the details so that you can be free, numb and maybe even happy again one day. In forgetting the details of the pain, you also lose the beauty and the joy and the high of it- the dichotomy of the intensity of the joy being equal to the darkness left in its absence. When there is enough history between that darkness and you, and things appear more objective, there comes a sense of the futility of it. You can’t go through life without loving and loving is what opens the doors to pain. So to fight it is useless. Some of this idea as well as the nods in the production of the recording are to Tom Waits’ song Dirt In the Ground, up until we get to the breakdown.

Another fun thing about growing up in the ’80s was the film The Goonies. The breakdown, even with its Beach Boys style vocal arrangement, was a loving nod to the scene at the bottom of the wishing well when the Goonies were confronted with the choice of playing out their adventure or giving up and going home. Even when mediocre comfort is right in front of us, sometimes we choose to do what is frightening, we take the gamble because in it is hope for something much greater. The title comes from a sense that these two songs are forever joined not only in chord structure but in purpose, and the only person I’ve seen come close to touching the eyeball of that purpose is Damien Rice in his song by the same title. And of course, there are nods to Poe and Shakespeare in the poetry, why not?

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Will it really matter if she loved you once you’re bedded in your grave? WHen your spirit leaves your body it won’t remember your name, won’t remember your sadness, won’t remember your pain

Will it really matter once you’re laid in the ground and the earth has reclaimed all you’ve built, the fading of your memories overtakes your misdeeds and the grass has gone to seed. Once you are dead and buried and her perfume has blown off on the breeze…

When that tempest screams through the timbers of the house you once proudly kept, the bones rise up from the embers and even the worms are at rest, the heat of your blood will have tempered and your song will be all that is left

Confessions | An Introduction

This being the first, I will explain.

I have been cautioned not to attribute my influences, not to credit my teachers, not to measure the debt I owe to the folks who have unknowingly given me so much for fear of inciting the horned gods of intellectual property. I’ve never believed for a moment that any word or feeling I could have would be the first, only, or most precious against the words and emotions and adventures of anyone else. Maybe it was the tribal upbringing, but I have always sat at the feet of those I adore fully prepared to give everything they gave to me over to those who would eventually look to me as a bearer of that wisdom. Why would anyone want to teach if they believed that knowledge they struggled so hard to attain would be hoarded by the student, only to die unrealized by the next generation?

And yet, so many of the things that lend to my lyrics and melodies are so obvious, perhaps this is all just fluff and you’ll know what I mean before I say it. So while I’m grateful that the ‘lawyers’ among my friends, family, and colleagues would like to protect me from the entrapments and possibly the vanity of explaining my process, explain I shall… one song at a time