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’ve been songwriting seriously for about 16 years now. Of course, sometimes I get burned out on it. When that used to happen, I’d head downtown to take refuge in another rhythmic, lyrical art form: slam poetry.
In my 20s, I’d vacation from music at poetry nights in Baltimore like Be Free Fridays (which is still running) and my beloved, departed Slamicide. It was held weekly in the basement of a Cosi bread company at Hopkins University that’s now a 7-11. Underneath cases now stocked with slurpees and beef jerky, I once heard national champions, people who appeared on tv for Def Poetry Jam, and local wordsmiths who’s originality and delivery gave me a creative jolt. I published a little chap book of my own before I ever had the guts to release a solo CD.
At Slamicide, I developed a love of slant rhyme, alliteration, homonyms and idiomatic expressions. “No Lantern” is a slam poem that happens to be set to music.
** verse 1**
There are two rhyme schemes trading off within the lines: the EEs of feed/deeper/leaving/feeling/evening/bring and the Ahs of starving/garden/laughter. The rhymes are slant … never resolving too easily. That’s a great way to create tension, but it’s also a great way to show off a little. Slant rhymes feel more personal, more specific because it’s all about similarities your ear and your pronunciation finds in words that aren’t that closely related. It’s a lot less likely anyone else would choose the same combinations. It almost forces originality. Meanwhile, the rhythm is basically a sonnet. Sing-songy. Da da da. It keeps it an earworm, another goal I had in keeping the chorus very simple:
The song is also an exploration of the homonym “light” (as illumination, as weight, as depth of meaning, as hope) and idiomatic expressions for love like “carrying a torch” or “leaving a light on.” I was led to the expression “Keep Your Lantern Lit,” and its symbolic meanings through my friend, Kipyn Martin’s incredible song of the same title, about holding on to hope that two people will find each other at a train station.
I didn’t want to find anybody. I was enjoying my single life on the road, knowing many/loving none as Gregg Allman would say. I had an oasis though, in the form of a particular friend. We could be madly in love for a week at a time, when we both had the time, meeting back up every year or so to do it all over again. We kept it light, and no one was carrying a torch.
One such week, we road tripped half the country together during a terrible drought. One careless spark could have set the countryside ablaze – tell me God’s not a songwriter. My companion was both a songwriter and a chain smoker, and I found myself moved watching him shelter every cigarette butt from the wind, mindful of every ember. For someone who could be haphazard handling the emotions of others, (and I’m not just talking about him, here), it made me feel uncomfortably warm toward him and irrationally angry. I kept my thoughts to myself, and scribbled feverishly in my notebook.
**verse 2, through I know me**
Musically, “No Lantern” also tested my discomfort with partnership, becoming the most collaborative track on the CD. I’d written a guitar line very different from my usual fingerwork, intentionally copying the signature playing style of the very man it was about. But why settle, I thought, once I was recording the CD? I invited him to play on the album version. The only payment he asked was for me to fix a semantic error in one of the lyrics. Once we had that down, Zach Teran went to work with his fretless, crafting a Pastorious-level bass part so complicated we marveled at how it found every space it could without making the arrangement feel cluttered. And percussionist, J.K., helped us work out a very Paul Simon kind of rhythm section to create something I could have never achieved alone: a super dancy groove.
That left just the final vocal take to record, and life starting to get in the way: my sinus infection delayed all the vocals a few days, and my producer, Joel, had to step out for a softball game with his local league. I got ready for bed, trying to relax. Maybe we weren’t gonna finish the album in time …
At 11pm, Joel rolled in from the game and convinced me to take an 11th hour crack at the vocals. He cued it up and went to take a shower while I tried to figure out if I needed to put a bra back on … I mean … did I need it for breath support? I’d never really thought about it. I never sang in my pajamas before. Regardless, Braless, alone in the dark of Sparks, NV, I did 5 straight takes and hit save.