In my journal writing this month I continue to explore themes around accepting what is now and simply being present. I find that I spend too much time trying to recreate an image or a memory or to fulfill a story that promises to give me peace (while missing out on peace in the moment). How can I navigate the complex relationship between personal history and narratives, memory, and the now? I don’t have the answers yet (probably will never) but “Swimming,” in a sense, is a mindful acknowledgement of this conundrum.
This recording captures my intention well. I recorded the guitar part in the front porch in the evening with the stereo condenser mic that’s built into my recorder, so you can hear all of the wonderful ambient bug and street noises. For the vocals, I mixed a close mic and a room mic to further the “I’m right there” vibe. I may add to the arrangement and tweak some lyrics in the coming weeks, but I am happy to have dislodged the writing block and to be re-inspired for songwriting.
Swimming (in my mind)
If you convince me, convince me to leave, I’m not sure I’ll ever know what to believe. Was it there in those gold times before we quit? I don’t think I was dreaming, I’m still swimming in it.
I’m still swimming in my mind.
And if I convince you, convince you to stay, I’m not sure you’ll ever be here anyway. It was real in those gold times, before the wars. I’m still up to my earlobes and you are standing on shore.
In late June I started writing songs after a dry spell of many years. The melodies and the lyrics are just popping up and I am letting them, giving them a space to be alive and change and grow. I am tending to them as I would a poem or any writing, but the process is different—a fluid exchange between set ideas and improvisation. It often starts with a melody and a couplet or two, and then expands as the music takes shape, because the written words on the page don’t tell the whole story.
The Roller Coaster is the third “finished” song this month, the first recording I want to share. It all started out with four lines that didn’t make it to the finished work. Those (ultimately discarded) lines formed the framework of the melody, which gave birth to the first lines of the finished song (and the concept as a whole). It was written over the course of a week, and this recording (the third in the process) was made on July 31st.
Musically, I’m in a strange place. My ear is better than it’s ever been, and my vision for what I want to do is clear. But i’m out of practice, and it takes real work to get what I hear in my brain out onto the tape. When it happens successfully, It’s a true and absolute joy. One thing I’ve been surprised by is how much the skills i’ve learned over the past several years doing non-music projects have made me a better songwriter. Things like: working incrementally and iteratively, taking breaks when things aren’t working, putting time in when it feels right AND when it doesn’t, practicing, accepting where I’m at, Taking risks.
My goal is to release a record before the year is through, but right now I’m focused on shepherding these songs into the world. I have faith that they will all come together in a way that makes sense to me, and hope that I can form them into a work that resonates with others, too.
The Roller Coaster
I’ve been getting high again just to come back down. All the turns you took me in turned me inside out.
As we fall, that’s all there is— I can’t even see. At the top I’m losing it, I can barely breathe.
Feels like I am going to die as I strap on in to face the fear and feel what’s here, not what might have been.
I decided to relieve myself of the impulse to make another tonal, semi-representative work by forcing myself to work with a non-representative palette. I painted this over three sessions and I feel pretty good about it. The one thing i really learned while painting this is how much the music i’m listening to influences my approach to making marks.
I struggled quite a bit at first to get into a flow with this painting. Zion was also painting in the studio next to me and I let him pick the music. It was a great mix, but around halfway through the session some kind of more improvisational jazz type of music started playing and the groove and the energy of the music started influencing my painting. Zion noticed it too and commented on it. I’m going to start to experiment with different music as i continue this painting practice. There is really something here to use.
I’ve put together another installment of my year-end favorite song mixes – this time it’s “15 songs from 2019.” There are a lot of really special songs that didn’t make the mix this year. I listened far and wide in 2019, but ultimately spent most of my time with several AMAZING records that came out this year (Vampire Weekend, Pavo Pavo, Tyler, The Creator, Burna Boy, Dangermouse & Karen O, Bon Iver, Leif Vollebeck).
Below is the track listing, a favorite lyric from each song, and my thoughts about each song. Let me know what you think!
1. Fool’s Game – Glen Hansard “I’m taking it with you and no other” I first started to really appreciate Glen Hansard after listening to his incredibly good tribute to Jason Molina, the EP “It Was Triumph We Once Proposed… Songs of Jason Molina.” Early this year, Hansard released “Fool’s Game” as an advance single for his album, “The Wild Willing.” I just love the epic and surprising journey this song takes me on. Each time the swell comes, it arrests me and takes me with it, spitting me out at the end, and soothing me with soft sounds and a voice singing words I can’t decipher, but I do understand.
2. Don’t Know How to Keep Loving You – Julia Jacklin “What if I cleaned up? what if I worked on my skin?” I have to mention Jason Molina again because it struck me one day as I listened on repeat—this Julia Jacklin song evokes a lot of what is so great about Magnolia Electric Co. records. It comes brimming with tension and energy, teetering on the edge of something. A superb rock song. What an amazing voice (the whole record is worth a listen).
3. What It Is – Angel Olsen “You just wanted to forget, you just wanted to forget.” Angel Olsen took her songwriting and sound to the next level on “All Mirrors.” The entire album is really special. I was fortunate enough to see her and her phenomenal band at The Riviera this year—one of those shows where the songs take on new, subtle layers of glory that make subsequent listens all the more enjoyable.
4. Every Woman – Vagabon “We reserve the right to be full, when we’re on our own.” I first heard Vagabon as the opener for Angel Olsen. “Every Woman” captures most what i liked about that live show: a unique voice and lots bubbling below the surface.
5. The Way That You Feel – Leif Vollebekk “You took me where I want to go, to the way that you feel.” I’m a huge Leif Vollebekk fan, and his new record, “New Ways,” is everything I hoped it would be. It was difficult to pick just one song from the record, because almost all of them are special to me in some way. Even now i’m second guessing myself (Hot tears? Blood Brother? I’m not your Lover?). I saw Leif play at Lincoln Hall and the music and performance was just out of this world. The players were excellent, and the songs tugged every heartstring available and some that I didn’t even know existed. I highly recommend the record and the live show.
6. Ministry – Karen O & Danger Mouse “Make me crystal clear, cast my heart anew.” I got hooked on this record on the first listen. The grooves and music themes that get built on and reflected throughout the record make this one of my go-to records for Sunday mornings or chill evenings. This is a great collaboration, and for me the record is more compelling than what either artist typically produces on their own.
7. HIGHEST IN THE ROOM – Travis Scott “Hope I make it outta here.” This is my guilty pleasure of the year. I have listened to this one song more than any other and I really can’t stop. Mike Dean production FTW. Hope I make it outta here.
8. Dangote – Burna Boy Burna Boy’s “African Giant” is a complete jam. It became my go-to selection for morning workouts and late night pinball sessions alike. It’s nearly impossible not to move your body to these songs. I picked “Dangote” for this list because for months whenever it came on I’d run over to my phone to see which track it was (but could never remember!). “Anybody” from the same record is another one to seek out.
9. EARFQUAKE – Tyler, The Creator “I just need some confirmation on how you feel, for real” “Igor” is another one of my most played albums this year (another top pick for morning workouts and downtown walks). The production, lyricism, and performances throughout are some of the best in hip-hop. EARFQUAKE is the most obvious single, but i could have picked any number of songs for this list.
10. Mystery Hour – Pavo Pavo “I’m designed to be unsatisfied” This song pushes all of my buttons. Layers and layers of fuzzy clouds of sound. Vocals, like two birds soaring above, weaving a path through the mist. Sadly, shortly after releasing this album, Pavo Pavo split up. I’ll never get to see a live show, but i’m thankful for the two great records they let into this world.
11. Flower Moon (feat. Steve Lacy) – Vampire Weekend “It was the right place, wrong time. Another night at the borderline.” My favorite song of my favorite record this year. If I didn’t have a self-imposed rule of only including one song per artist, there would be at least four Vampire Weekend songs on this list. “Father of the Bride” is, in my opinion, the best produced, best arranged, simply the best record of this year. The songs and melodies are catchy, and there’s a depth to the lyricism and the arrangements that makes my love for this record grow with each subsequent listen. On my trip to Colorado this September, I had this record playing on repeat through the mountains, and each time I listened I heard something subtle and new. “Flower Moon” is particularly great. The vocal harmonies, the horns, the percussion, the groove. The MAGIC.
12. Nina – Crumb “Nothing makes much sense you’ll see.” Allison turned me on to this moody, subtle, atmospheric record. Another go-to pick for Sunday morning breakfast making soundtracks, and chill evenings painting in my studio.
13. Naeem – Bon Iver “And I cannot seem to carry this all.” The high point of another stellar record that got lots and lots of studio/workshop/driving play this year. It took me a couple of listens to connect with these songs and the overall approach to the arrangements and production. Part of me still pines for the Bon Iver of old, the bearded porch-sitting aesthetic I so love. But these songs (Naeem included) retain deep veins of that essence while presenting as something completely different. The lyrics are still revealing and hiding in equal parts, evoking emotional response in fragments—but this time the fragments are elevated by the mastery of creative arrangement and production. The heart and soul of this song is Vernon’s vocal delivery and the delicate connections in sound and words. This song brings tears to my eyes nearly every time I hear it.
14. Come Home (feat. André 3000) – Anderson .Paak “No one even begs anymore.” Andre 3000 delivers one of the best performances ever in his guest verse. That alone is enough to put it on the list, but the rest of the song, and Anderson .Paak’s smooth soul delivery throughout makes it a sweet, sweet, song to listen to, and listen to again. One more time?
15. All My Happiness Is Gone – Purple Mountains “No way to last out here like this for long.” David Berman dropped this amazing record, then promptly left us. I don’t have the words to write about it, the song is enough.
Over the last few months i’ve been practicing guitar at least 5 times a week, in an effort to regain the abilities I lost by neglecting to play or compose music the last ten years or so. It’s been exciting to see how fast it can come back by simply practicing consistently and challenging myself. What i’d really like to do is get back in shape enough to start writing music again—and I’m pretty close. As i was writing in my journal the other day, it occurred to me that what i was thinking about in terms of my creative process for writing music hadn’t evolved in twenty years (which is the last period of time I was writing regularly). I just expect the inspiration to strike and whatever comes out to work or not work.
I’ve learned a lot about making things and harnessing my creativity in the last twenty years, and I’m excited to apply what i’ve learned to music writing for the first time. In every other creative discipline i’ve actively pursued, my process has evolved to include a lot of research and planning and more formal iterative processes.
Right now, I’m just at the beginning. Instead of jumping in on a new song, I’m taking some time to listen to the songs that move me the most, and observe what i like best about them. I’m writing sketches and short ideas without judgement and without diving into them deeper to force them into a song. I’m laying the groundwork, and it’s fun.
From 2004 to 2008 it was my habit to make a compilation of the twenty best songs I heard first during that year. After nearly ten years off, the music I heard in 2018 inspired me enough to put the work into making a new mix. This year, rather than linking each mp3 individually I’ve decided to present it as a single mp3 (link removed in 2020, contact me if you’d like a copy).
As i was whittling the list down from about 80 contenders, I noticed that lyrics played a big role in what made the cut. 2018 has been a rough year for me, full of change and hardships as well as personal leaps. Nearly all of these songs are ones that resonated with my emotional landscape in some way, and I find every one of these songs sonically engaging. The track-list below includes my favorite lyric from each song.
I hope you’ll download and listen and tell me what you think.