11 days left in 2017, 11 tracks on my 2017 CD, "A Message in the Mess." Follow this free, song-a-day countdown. CD available on itunes, spotify and this site.
There are two things that can make a songwriter’s life difficult: A happy relationship and writer’s block. I found myself on the road, completely unable to write, for months. And to a person for whom blank paper and a micron drafting pen is almost all the seduction needed to get a song up … I felt completely lost without a story to tell.
I’d always been obsessed with stories. As a nervous, curious kid, I consumed them as a lot of people do: to show me what I didn’t want to embarrass myself asking someone about. I was a fairy-tale enthusiast who became a journalist, desperate for answers: What could I mine from the experience of others that would help me understand being alive?
When I took up songwriting, the hardest part was shedding journalism’s golden rule: Don’t fill in the gaps with what you don’t know. If you didn’t see it, you can’t make it up. It took me a long time to reacquaint myself with poetic license. I started by keeping a notebook, collecting the best eavesdropped or unconsciously brilliant lines I overheard in public, saving them for later.
Possibly the best line came from a homeless man in Washington, D.C. on Halloween night. He was wrapped head to toe in caution tape, a bizarre, highlighter-yellow urban mummy. Our group, standing outside the club we were playing, commented on his “costume.”
“This is no costume,” he said. “I am seriously fucked up.”
I “bought” that line from Marcel there on the street for $10, and promised him I would put him in a song. It took me two years.
Why did it take so long? I knew that line had something more to it than just being funny. It said something bigger about people. I just wasn’t sure what. It took meeting a second character in Oregon during the height of my writer’s block to figure it out.
Allison, who introduced herself as “Jasmine (this month),” had dreadlocked hair that fell well past the ass of her patchwork skirt. She was very drunk, and her valley-girl voice seemed incongruous with the rest of her. Every sentence ended in upspeak.
“I would completely take you to spain with me, if you want to go ……I have a present for you …”
She held out her closed fist, ready to deliver its contents into the open palm I was supposed to present. I did the quick mental math on all the small unpleasantness one could house in a fist: tacks, spiders, something sticky … and decided I had to know. I offered my cupped palm. She deposited something unrecognizable: small, hard, white. I asked what it was.
“Oh, that’s a piece of my tooth … it broke. And I don’t need it anymore … but maybe it will bring you luck…..”
My first thought was not disgust. My first thought was: “I need a pen.”
My second thought was: I will remember this girl for the rest of my life. In that moment, I remembered Marcel the same way, larger than life and crystal clear. Taken together, I realized something about life: Isn’t it insane that THAT’s what it takes to be memorable? It became the thesis/chorus of my song, “Lunatic Yell,” written 5 minutes later.
“Lunatic Yell” is what I call the “three-vignette folk song.” Each verse highlights a different side of your central thesis/chorus, which takes separate, seemingly unconnected observations from outside of you – from the lives of others – links them thematically by the chorus, and then applies them to you as a truth about human experience in the final verse, the “what does it all mean?” section of the song. We’re ALL as “fucked up” and dubiously costumed as Marcel. We’re all falling apart a little like Allison. I translated them into a story about everyone. My producer, Joel Ackerson, translated them into an intentionally stumbling mandolin line, beautifully meandering through the song just like my off-kilter characters.
*** third verse***
What it all means is that it takes a lot to be memorable, and we all want to be memorable to at least someone. To be seen. To be part of someone’s story. And the crazy stories seem to keep a little longer, spread a little further. Marcel and Oregon Allison are such incredible characters, they could have come from a fairy tale. They could have been the ghosts of my composing past, guiding my way out of writer’s block. But they were also as real as you and me, and because I could see them … now you can, too.
Oh, yeah, everyone always asks if I still have the tooth. Absolutely. I mean, it might be magic.