Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Songs

Throughout the week following the release of Progress Report, I featured a track from the EP each day on The Lady anoNYMous' Facebook page. Each morning I posted a link to a song and wrote about its creation. Below is an edited compilation of those posts.


So, here's the story behind my special, exclusive introduction for Progress Report.

I was agonizing over the order of my songs, trying to decide which songs best followed/preceded each other, and this process included deciding which song to start the EP with. I thought maybe "The Manic Widow," but I really wanted "A Determined Snail" to precede it. Both of those songs were very difficult in arranging among the others. Originally, a song of mine called "The Trip Begins," which I had pretty much rewritten and remastered from beginning to end for this release, was going to start things off, but it didn't feel right leading into either "Snail" or "Widow." So what better way to solve my problem than to write a whole new song, right? I wrote it in a day...and the melody was there, but as a whole it was atrocious, so I rewrote it the next day. Sounds like a simple enough song, right? Well, it can take me several days to give a song a beginning, middle, and end sometimes, and that's when I call it done...but, as you may know from seeing posts of these songs as works in progress, they're never really done. Something will sound off to me or I'll have a random insight/inspiration, and the songs change. It was really hard to approve these versions as suitable for this EP.

So this song was kind of a rush job...did you notice? I know, it's simple and repetitive, and while I might call it soothing, you might say it puts you to sleep. But I like the subtle changes each time the melody repeats, how the background instruments are showcased in the middle, and how it all wraps up in a different take on the first riff from "A Determined Snail." And for something that was only supposed to be around thirty seconds long, it has become a whole song that I am very proud of. I think it turned out quite lovely indeed. As my mother (even snails have mothers) said, "It makes me think of a leaf drifting down lazily into a stream." Yeah, she really said that.

A Determined Snail

The story behind this song is that it began as an early experiment. I tried my hand at a reggae guitar riff and toyed with beats and synths, hoping for a trip-hop sound. I liked what was coming out of me, and it was a fun experiment, but I shelved it for a while in favor of songs that had more intention behind them. One night, perhaps weeks later, I picked it up again after I had "finished" another project and found it shifting moods and growing instead of just repetitive riffs to a beat. I began to think of a stoned snail, blissfully pushing a boulder larger than itself up hill. That was how I happened to feel about myself and life at that moment. I've come to realize that, even though I consider myself pretty intelligent, I can be a slow learner and I can make some very poor choices when it comes to life and the big stuff; that I'm not very adept at living. The snail seemed like the right metaphor, and yet I felt optimistic and cheerful at the time, hence the blitzed-out quality to the snail. This image became the song, and when I titled it, though it seemed ridiculous, it felt unquestionably fitting. The snail stuck as a mental representation of myself and became a mascot for this project.

The song was shelved for another little while, as an ending wasn't readily apparent. When I returned to it, something grim and bluesy flowed out quite easily, and this also felt right. I wanted to explore this further, but also wanted to wrap up the song, so it became a two-parter: the attitude of the snail and it's grim, determined passage through darkness. This latter part later became, of course, "A Minor Distraction."

The Manic Widow

This actually started out as a cover song. It failed. I was trying to figure out the chords for the repetitive riff in Tori Amos' "Professional Widow," hoping to give it a more electronic/industrial spin and knowing that, even with my esophagus healing, I could pull off some semblance of the vocals for that song, as she practically spits out the verses. But there was no hope of my fingers pulling off those chords or approaching the speed with which she plays them. Frustrated, I banged out a few chords to a dance beat that turned out nothing like I was hoping to set my "Widow" cover to. Instead of deleting this miserable attempt, I thought that maybe I could salvage something out of it and titled it "Inept Widow" as a vicious jab at myself.

Now, I'm always working on multiple songs at a time. There are a few I've shelved and never finished, while I focus like a laser on others until they have a beginning, middle, and end (what I call their "bones") established. Sometimes an unfinished song is nothing more than a riff that I discovered and love too much to abandon, even though it's going nowhere. Such was the urgent cello/bass riff at the center of much of this song. I couldn't figure out what to do with it, but I recorded it, saved it, and let it sit for several weeks, just as "Inept Widow" was doing.

At times, I returned to "Widow" and recorded a new riff or two, and sometimes they flowed and sometimes they didn't, and the overall recording was just a mess of ideas. It wasn't until I recorded that bouncy, manic little piano solo you hear that I truly felt inspired to continue it and keep going. Meanwhile, I had tried accompanying my saved cello/bass riff with piano a few times, and recorded some of the results, tentatively entitling them "Urgency." The idea to include some of these in "Widow," while making the cello and bass it's core, came to me, and I decided on keeping a dance beat instead of trying to come up with something darker and more industrial. After that, it was a matter of fusing the ideas for two different songs into one, discarding what didn't work and re-recording what did. At that point, everything came together quite easily and quickly, and I was pleased with the result.

Now clearly it no longer resembled "Professional Widow" anymore, except that both songs feature repetitive piano-banging. As I had begun fusing the two songs, the title of the project had become "Maniacal Widow," but I wanted to toss "Widow" out of the title all together. What made me keep it was that I had listed my Facebook relationship status as "Widowed" for a while, as that was honestly how I had felt following the tumultuous dissolution of a six-year relationship. No details about that relationship or the years-long period of grieving it here, except that I do believe I had gone temporarily insane and I'm still recovering from it.

The title "The Manic Widow" seemed right, befitting of an aspect of myself, and she has since become a living, breathing character. She is always dancing by herself to the music in her head in her ramshackle cabin in the middle of the woods where the Snail comes upon her during Its journey. Her mood is always shifting, as is the music in her head, and it never quite reaches peace or happiness, but fluctuates constantly between mania, anger, and sadness. She is unable to love or let herself be loved, but she is desperate for love all the same.


The inspiration for this song was quite simple: I wanted to write the kind of music I fantasized about writing as a teenager. I loved piano. I absolutely adored Tori Amos' first two albums, Little Earthquakes and Under the Pink. But I absolutely, utterly thrilled when guitars would appear in her songs, such as the electric guitars in Precious Things and The Waitress, or the iconic acoustic refrain that opens Cornflake Girl. I didn't want to do away with the piano, and the string arrangements on those albums are gorgeous, but I wanted more guitars. I loved '90s alternative rock. I wanted Tori meets Hole.

I was also very into multi-ethnic fusions then, such as Dead Can Dance (which I still love to this day), Enigma, and Delirium. These days, I'm into less electronic manifestations of this kind of music, with the exception of Afro Celt Sound System.

So when I fantasized about having a band and creating music as a teenager, I basically wanted guitars and pianos with tribal beats, ethnic melodies, and string arrangements...with some raspy vocals and scream-singing, naturally. Something like Courtney Love doing a duet with Jonathan Davis.

Well, I'm not recording vocals right now, as my esophagus was damaged during my hospitalization last year (and it's had a scope shoved down it repeatedly since) but I think I got the rest of it right. And I had been thinking about the song's relationship to the Snail as I had been writing it, and I had the thought that it would urge It to gather speed, like those songs that you can't help but drive faster during if you're not paying attention.

Glory and Wrath

This is the second song I wrote when starting this project, before I even knew this was going to BE a project. It started out simple enough. I decided to rip off a riff from one of my favorite songs and then build my own song off it. I thought of the main strings-and-bass riff that carries Portishead's "Glory Box," mimicked it, and went from there.

Of course, it started to become my own song when I started to write the piano part, and then the percussion and the cello gave it that Dead Can Dance sort of sound that I love so much. When the song told me it was time to start wrapping thing up, I decided all of the instruments should just kind of go nuts and then let out a nice wail...and then what? I was stuck. I'd recorded the percussion going on much longer. I was trying to think of another bass riff, just plucking away at the strings, and recording...and I liked it. Just some freestyle bass, plunking along. I did the same with my keys and recorded that in one take as well, and then the song was finished, and I was pleased and happy and I haven't edited this song at all (except to re-record the cello solo) since.As for how it relates to the Snail's story, I really don't know, except that I always picture the Widow going Fairuza Balk-in-The Craft kinda crazy at the end.

To The Grind

Like "Glory and Wrath," this song was very easy to write, but also very hard to play in places because of the speed needed. Dexterity has never been one of my strong suits, or rapid hand-eye coordination. The upright bass at the end of "Glory and Wrath," with no frets and strings that require a pounding to get the right sound, was exhausting as I had to record take after take until I got it right. Same with the string section and the bass guitar in the song. The tempo in the final recording is actually sped up by four or five bpm, but it was still very difficult for me to record and took several takes. I don't know why I would write music that difficult for me to keep up with, but I did. The result is gratifying, though. This might be my favorite song on the EP.

Similar to "Momentum," this is the kind of song I fantasized about making when I was a teenager. Some industrial/piano-rock hybrid with fast and heavy strings with tribal beats that you can dance to. It isn't what I set out to write, but it what started as a trip-hop experiment turned into this very naturally and quickly. During a brief break from writing it, I heard the repetitive, industrial-quality wail of the guitars in the head and had no idea how to make that sound, but when I sat down to write, it was as if my fingers were drawn to the right frets and I knew exactly how to slide them to make that sound.

One of my favorite synth sounds that I use on nearly every song is called "Fifth Element," and the reason its one of my favorites is because of how many options I'm given to manipulate it, plus it responds to pressure and where you place your fingers on the keys very nicely. Fingertip to the edge, you have a whistling with heavy reverb; slide your finger forward, and it swells into a much more obviously electronic sound. Layering this on top of the guitar in places helped produce that "dying-humpback-whale-out-of-water" sound.

To make the song complete, a guitar riff that I wrote when I first started playing in my late-mid teens fit perfectly into this song and nestled comfortably among the piano I had already written. As the song progressed, I alternated playing that riff on the piano and building chords around it. There was never any question of what to write next during this song. I was never stumped, never had to experiment to try and find out what came next. Everything progressed very naturally.

The title also came very easily. The guitars are very grinding, for one thing. And when I looked to the Snail for guidance, I just saw it powering through any obstacle, any distraction, getting "back to the grindstone," as the old saying goes. And the name had to evoke dancing your ass off, as well. And it's a song you can grind to. You see where I'm going with this?

Then, I pictured a group of friends raising their glasses in a toast: "To The Grind!"

A Minor Distraction

This song was the inspiration for putting together the EP. Obviously, it began as a continuation of "A Determined Snail," exploring the darker direction that song had taken near its end. When I was writing "Snail," the section that would eventually become this song's beginning just sort of popped out unbidden. There's no other way to describe it. It was a complete surprise to myself. When I played it back after recording the guitar, drums, and synth, I was delighted and also very surprised at the radically different direction the song has suddenly shifted toward. While I felt "Snail" beginning to wrap itself up, I knew I had to explore that direction further. In a very real way, curiosity compelled me and the Snail to explore a different direction.

The title of the song came very early on because of this. The song is the result of letting myself be distracted by this shift in a minor-key direction that "Snail" took, hence, "A Minor Distraction." Of course the title has other meaning layered onto it now, but that's how it came about. As the song progressed, I envisioned the Snail making its way through a dark, forbidding forest as part of its journey, which was shaping up to mimic the faery tale formula of beginning > setting-out-on-a-journey > passage-through-darkness > lesson-learned in my head. This song became a sort of "Progress Report" of the Snail's journey, and so it gained an alternate title of "Progress Report / The Snail Revisited."

I was loving this song so much while I was writing it that I wanted to feature it as a single of sorts. This is where the idea for publishing some material before I had enough for a full-length album came from. I was going to drop the title "A Minor Distraction" in favor of "Progress Report" and make this song and "A Determined Snail" the centerpieces, and thus the idea for an EP was born. I just needed to satisfactorily edit some of the other material I had already written. Simple, right?

Well, of course I was continuing to write more material at the time, and some of it I loved so much that it *had* to be included, and other songs that were intended for the EP were shoved aside. As it shaped up, I realized I was telling part of a story, the whole of which would come later. As it turned out, this EP was a Progress Report for the larger story that I'm intending to tell, and has also been "A Minor Distraction" along the way.