The River’s Bend Sessions
Andrew and I decided our songwriting project needed its own home, so Andrew built something. It feels good to have given it a home. We just posted two new songs there. We wrote both of them in January, so they’ve been in progress for a long time.
You Never Knew Me
This one was at least 80% Andrew (the writing—the tracks are always about 95% Andrew). He wrote it on the last day of his two-week music focus. My memory of it is that I took our four-year-old down the street to his thirty-minute swimming lesson, dropped him off at a friend’s house (also just down the street), came home, and Andrew told me he’d written a song. Then he played me something that I thought was totally catchy and fully formed. I was excited because I liked the song a lot, and because he’d accomplished one of the things he’d set out to do during his time away from his regular work. I must point out here that although he wrote most of this song in an hour, it was on day ten of ten days he’d dedicated to thinking about and playing and writing music. This supports my theory (and I’m sure much research, which I don’t feel like looking up right now) about creativity. Sometimes it takes a long time to prepare the soil, and then when something grows it seems miraculous. But it’s not. He made the time and did the work.
When he played it for me, I liked the lyrical conceit (counting) even as I was surprised that he had chosen it (I hadn’t taken him for a formalist). The rhyme scheme was strict, which is something I like about songwriting—in choosing the original rhyme, the lyricist then limits the menu considerably. This can be both frustrating and an incredible relief for a writer who normally writes novels, which I both love and hate because anything can happen. There is no rhyme scheme to lean on. The more I’ve learned about structuring novels the better I’ve become at writing them.
By the time I got home, the song was musically all there. For lyrics, he’d written a chorus, the first verse, and the bridge. He was clear about what he wanted from me: one more verse (“It’s a pop song,” he said, “so it’s mostly chorus.”) and he wanted the choruses to shift. Also, I think, he needed a little help copyediting the chorus. No problem on the copyediting. But it was a little tricky to jump in on a song that was so close to done. I felt like I was catching up. I asked him if he wanted to stick with the counting device. He thought it might get too cute if it continued, but I thought once it started it needed to go for at least three counts (three is a magic number in fiction, at least). We agreed that we would need to subvert the expectation that the counting would continue at some point, though. I didn’t understand right away that there was an internal rhyme in the middle line of each verse, and at first I tried writing without it. Andrew asked me to go back. I ran upstairs and came up with some ideas. As I recall, we figured something out pretty quickly.
With a rhyme scheme this simple I felt it was important to use some half-rhymes so it wouldn’t feel too sing-songy. I am really happy with the last one, which ends the counting device but keeps the idea: “I count backwards in my mind/as if I could rewind/and take back all the years I tried to make you mine.” I have a few lines in various songs that make me squirm, but I know this one is solid. Because it’s a simple, catchy pop song and the chorus is repeated a lot, I like that the verses shift. The singer makes progress in his thinking, so that by the end, instead of “You never knew me at all,” it’s “You’ll never know me at all.”
Andrew worked on this track for a long time, trying to fit all the pieces together. (He’s written more about his writing and recording progress for both songs on his blog.) He wanted it to have tons of harmonies from the get go. It was fun to record them, though I had some rough moments. This song reminds me a bit, in spirit at least, of Fastball’s 1998 hit, “Out of My Head,” a song Andrew was very fond of. He’s also more than very fond of the Beatles, especially McCartney, and I think you can hear that here.
I guess I’ve reached the point where I’m getting cagey about how these songs function in the plot. As soon as I heard this one I knew just where it would go. Lou (Dean’s son) writes it in 2002, for the band he has with Johanna.
Can’t Let Another Man
This one was mostly written by me. Things always happen to the melody when I sing them to Andrew, but I think this one stayed close to what I sang. I did just listen to the voice memo I sent him and it was excruciatingly slow. I’ve had the idea in mind since the beginnings of the book. Not far into it, a man calls Johanna baby for the first time, and it seems very sexy and she can’t imagine ever getting tired of it. Knowing I’d be following her for twenty years, I relished the idea of making her get tired of it (if this seems cruel, I refer you to Kurt Vonnegut’s sixth rule for writing fiction: “Be a sadist. Now matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.”)
The lyrics are straightforward enough. It’s a sorry tale, and in some ways an old-fashioned one, but it’s not as old-fashioned as it should be, and that’s a theme in the book. Andrew came up with an Aretha-like piano part quickly, but neither of us was sure what to do with it in terms of production. It’s throw-backy, a torch song, and I thought it might be dangerously close to a show tune. So we pushed it to the back burner and worked on other things. At some point I listened to Jenny Lewis’s 2008 album, Acid Tongue, for the first time in a while. When I heard the title track I realized we could do something similar. There’s a gospel choir, soul record kind of thing going, but it feels modern to me. I love the writing and I love the track. I wish I could steal it for my book. I played it for Andrew and he got excited. He immediately set to work writing harmony parts and recording them. There are a lot of vocal tracks in this song and he did them in just a few hours. As soon as we found this song to ground us in a production concept it came together fast. It’s been mostly done for a long time, and Andrew’s been fiddling with it.
The only trouble was that I’d written myself a song that was challenging to sing. I’ve sung harder ones, but that was almost twenty years ago. I’m out of shape. Also, everything I’ve ever been taught about singing had to do with support and projection, but mics are sensitive and the technique for singing into them is totally different from singing onstage. A lot more nuance can come through, and there are tricks you can do, but I don’t know many of them. I’m still figuring it out. We did one session that Andrew thought might be good enough, but when he pieced together takes it sounded tight to me. There weren’t any big mistakes, but it didn’t sound like the story I was trying to tell. It sounded like I was trying hard and scared of messing up (I was). I told him we’d need to do it again. He managed not to sigh heavily and sent me the track to practice along to. I did.
The next night he gave me the full diva treatment and asked if I’d be more comfortable singing in the living room. I said yes. Of all the rooms in our home, I have put the most energy into making the living room comfortable and lovely and reflective of who we are. As a point of reference, I’ve tried to make it feel as much like the cover of Tapestry as I can without adopting a cat (We’re done with cats. RIP, Shadow.). Andrew dragged in the microphone and iPad and mixer. I tinkered with lighting. I drank bourbon-spiked tea. I gazed upon the album covers of Carole King and Roberta Flack in the soft light and imagined I was telling my story to a man I might be falling in love with. The tale is kind of funny and kind of sad. We did a few takes and got what we needed. We hope you like it.