Seventeen years after Andrew first walked into my dorm room bearing a few CDs he thought I might love, we wrote and recorded a song together.
It’s here. I would love it if you listened to it. He built a thing himself so it could play music nicely, so it’s just easier if you do it there, though I know all of this back and forth is a lot to ask.
Okay. You’re back. I hope you liked it. The process for writing this song was incredibly roundabout. We both love music and I sing (mostly around the house these days) and he plays like every instrument and is also really into digital music recording. So this seems like something we should have already done, but it’s been a struggle.
As a fiction writer, my approach to lyric-writing has always been literal and narrative-driven (my poetry phase in college was short-lived). Some of my favorite songs are narrative, but most of them aren’t. Over a decade ago, we wrote a couple of songs we were happy with, but the process always felt somewhat stilted. I wrote words and handed them over to him so he could come up with music. There was not a lot of back and forth. And then, I don’t know, there were jobs and babies and that sort of thing. We never recorded the songs, but we do still know them.
Then this year I decided to write a novel about a bunch of musicians. And the thing that both drew me to the subject and scared me about it was that there would have to be songs, or at least partial lyrics of songs, and it would be my job to write them. Even if I could make the lyrics good, lyrics printed on the page lack the impact of an actual song. Beyond that, if I wrote lyrics but there wasn’t really a song with a melody and an arrangement and maybe even a recording, it seemed to me that the reader might sense that the song was not really a song at all, but half a song or less, and there would be a lack of verisimilitude throughout the novel. The solution, of course, was to write whole songs. It would have seemed an arduous form of method acting if it weren’t for the fact that I’ve always wanted to be a songwriter, and that I really wanted to figure out how to work with Andrew musically.
I wrote the first few lyrics of this song as part of a scene. It’s an idea the has-been rock star, Dean Callahan, has been kicking around, and he plays it for the teenage protagonist, Johanna. In a later scene, he plays her the whole song. The first verse has changed a little, and the reader is in Johanna’s point of view, hearing it. I’d imagined I might be able to do things like write a scene and stick in something like “[song about X here].” But I found I couldn’t fake my way through the scene without knowing the song. At first it was frustrating because it became clear that I would spend most of a work session (several hours) tinkering with a pretty small number of words. If I’d been writing a scene with a good sense of direction, I probably could have cranked out 1000 words in that time. But I had to slow down and make it a legitimate song. To my surprise, by the time I finished the lyrics I had an idea for the melody. I sang it to myself a few times. It felt, more than any song I’d attempted before, like a solid little bundle of song.
When Andrew got home I told him I thought I had a song. With a melody and stuff! We had to do things like eat dinner, clean up, and get the kids to bed. After they were in bed I sang him the song. It was embarrassing. I wasn’t sure if the lyrics were any good. I didn’t yet know how the verse and chorus related to each other musically. I told him I wanted the chorus to be higher than the verse, but I wasn’t sure how much higher. He got out his ukulele. I had a loose idea for the melody of the verse. He helped me make it better. The chorus stayed the same as it had been in my head, but he figured out where to put it musically. After maybe an hour, I was singing the whole song while he played. “You made it sound like a song!” I said.
The next day he recorded a ukulele part and got me to sing along with it. He recorded me singing along as a reference track so he could redo his track later. When he played it back I was disappointed. I hadn’t heard myself sing in a long time, and I still sounded like a sixties folk singer. “I want to sound like I’m singing from the bottom of a hole,” I told him. “Like Bruce Springsteen on Nebraska. This record is Dean Callahan’s Nebraska. He’s going back to his roots.”
He only laughed at me a little. We talked about what could be done with reverb and a real mic but how I will never sound like Springsteen. We talked about how even though the song started out as the composition of a character in my book, we were recording it as ourselves, and it would change because of that. I’d imagined the chorus sounding loud and ragged but neither of us sings like that. We decided to just make it sound like us and what we like. I listened to some recordings of songs I love. “Maybe Sam Phillips or Kristin Hersh,” I said. So that’s when Andrew double tracked the vocals. “See also Elliott Smith,” he said.
After that I was out of it for a while. For a week or so, he’d go into his office and come out to play me a recording of what he had so far. He kept adding new parts, new tracks. By the second week it was time to record the vocals we’d actually use, and then some harmonies. Boy do I not have a good ear for harmony. I felt like an idiot as he banged out the note on the piano in the hopes I wouldn’t miss it again, but the tracks sound nice now.
Although this is very much a home studio in 2014 and not what my characters are working with in the scenes I’m writing now, I did learn a lot about what order things get done in, how it comes together, how it feels to be up at the mic recording. Andrew has broken down the technical aspects of the recording stuff back on his blog. I will simply say that I am blown away by both his musicianship and his knowledge of recording software and equipment. I knew I’d never regret marrying a guy who could play the piano the way he can, and who brought a copy of Joni Mitchell’s Blue to my dorm room that day.
So we’re going to try to keep doing this. I don’t see any other way I can write the book, and we’re happy with this track. We’re a little stunned that we figured out a way to fit it into our lives, but we’ve got some breathing room now that the kids are a little older. That problem with overly narrative lyrics seems to be helped by the fact that I am writing a novel about these people. I’m chronicling their thoughts and delving into their backstories, and I guess that makes me feel like I don’t have to cram it all into the song. The whole story will exist somewhere else. It’s also freeing to write as a different character. Every song about a relationship doesn’t have to be about our relationship, and that’s a relief within our marriage.
I have a few phrases I’m thinking about for Dean’s next song, but nothing concrete. I have a retro country idea for one of Johanna’s songs. I guess we’re working on a concept album. You know, like The Wall.