11 days left in 2017, 11 tracks on my 2017 CD, "A Message in the Mess." Follow this free, song-a-day mini-podcast countdown. CD available on itunes, spotify and this site.
I was once asked: “What’s the most successful song you’ve ever written?” How do you measure a song’s success? In how many people download it? In how many heartfelt letters you get about it? Maybe how hard you had to work on it, or – my personal favorite – how many people did I make cry?
My other favorite yardstick is: Does it hold up over time, evolving constantly to matter all over again? A love story that’s beautiful until it’s not, and then even that part is beautiful, too. specific enough and vague enough to work in almost any era, and to soundtrack almost any moment. If I have to pick from mine, that song is “Ask For Me.”
I still wish I’d been able to perform it at one wedding in particular: The two told me they were brought together, drawn to my song playing at a party. It’s stories like that, people finding themselves in your song, that can keep it fresh for you … especially when the love song you once wrote asking someone to take a chance on you becomes just as appropriate later when love is slipping away. It’s the only song I’ve ever written like that: as true at the beginning of love as it was at its end. Maybe because “Ask for me” itself is such a timeless phrase, and means so many things.
I chose it for exactly that reason. I love exploring the multiple meanings of language in songs. Asking after a person you’ve been told to come find. Asking someone for a favor on someone else’s behalf. Or what felt like a fresh, bold statement, especially for me: Hey, YOU … ask me for myself … and I just might give it to you. Ask because I can’t ask.
We courted each other with wordplay. I couldn’t ask for him - He belonged to someone else. There was a spark, but nobody could act on it. It helped that he lived more than 9 hours away, and we only came through to play the bar in his town a couple times a year.
**if you go down to the bar**
The second he was single … I wrote the song, originally with the intent of playing it when he came to a show. Throwing down the gauntlet. Songwriters are so weird. We can’t just talk to people. We have to write them an opus to ask them on a date.
It was bold, but it was timid. I’d been through a lot, and he was starting up a fire in me I thought was out. But mostly, he’s a red-head, and the fire line in the song came from that. And here’s a deep, dark secret: “finding the melody,” I got that line from “Interview With the Vampire.” I liked the idea of remembering the lost music of falling in love.
**broken down, tired**
The song … like our love … went through a major edit. For years, the bridge was a desperate, repeated statement I thought was super profound: “We only get what we ask for, not what we deserve.” But, my producer, Joel Ackerson, helped me see that the entire song was already screaming that … no need to beat people over the head with it. Instead, we took the reprise of the first verse and upped the vocal anty, giving the desperation to the performance. Showing you instead of telling you. Here’s another secret: the vocal take on the entire song is the scratch vocal we did in a Basement here in Baltimore on a hundred-dollar mic. It was so raw we knew we might never get it twice:
**reprised verse 1**
One of the other edits was the lead instrument. It went from my acoustic guitar to a sparse piano and textural electric guitar. Some of this was because of my changing relationship with the song. I wasn’t still asking for this guy 5 years later, but I was still singing the song every night to bars of people all over the country … asking them to listen to me. The clinking of plates in the beginning of the recording and those single notes of piano signified what was in my mind when I sang it now: Me in the corner of a noisy restaurant, nearly unaccompanied. Then a kind of dream sequence of a full band and full production. And it comes back to reality in the end, just me and my guitar. Joel arranges all of his songs in this cinematic way. And I loved having him sing with me, another voice interpreting my feelings all over again. He told me when he recorded it in his studio out near Reno, NV, he was nearly screaming:
And so the song survives … just like the red-head’s and my friendship … many years beyond our love, and changing in meaning to stay relevant. I can never thank him enough for the gift of this song. And especially today, on his birthday, it’s the gift I give to you.