Welcome to "53 Songs in 53 Weeks"! To celebrate turning 53, I'm going to write, record, and release a new song every week for next 53 weeks.
Stylistically, this going to be all over the map. Some will be in the same folk/rock vein that you're used to with my music, but many will not. Some will be quite avantgarde and experimental, as I am, in the end, as much a fan of John Cage as I am of John Cale. Some will be fragments, some will be instrumentals, some will be polished, others won't be polished at all. The goal here is to never let the perfect be the enemy of the good, but to just let the ideas that careen around in my head come out in musical form and present themselves to the world.
The whole shebang will culminate on Feb 22, 2024, with a concert at ProArts on Maui, so if you are kind of person who saves the date a year in advance, please do so!
Then, I'll take the best 10-12 tracks, remix or re-record them, and produce an album.
So -- speaking of John Cale -- first up is a song called "Halfway." I was thinking of Cale when I wrote it, but by the time I recorded it, the mood had somehow turned into Depeche Mode channeling Leonard Cohen. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.)
I hope you enjoy!
In 1943, Woody Guthrie--one of the greatest folk songwriters of all time--doodled a list of 33 New Year's resolutions, which includes such gems as "Wash Teeth if Any," "Change Socks," and "Stay Glad." (You can read the entire list at https://cdn8.openculture.com/2014/01/...) A few years ago, I used "Stay Glad" as a prompt for a song, and I thought that in would be keeping with nature of this current project to mine the list for other possible song titles. So, I had my computer pick a random number between 1 and 33. It chose #13, "Read Lots Good Books." We'll revisit the list later in the project. Enjoy!
If there's going to be an overarching theme to this year of music, it's going to be an exploration of the way artificial intelligence seeps into every aspect of our modern lives. I wanted to write a song in the style of Meredith Monk or Steve Reich and I wanted to write a song about how hard it seems to be for AI to understand artistic vision. So, I asked an AI program to write me a poem about a robot trying to write a poem. It was better than I expected it would be (I'm posting it below), but still not great. But then I thought, "Wouldn't this sound better in Italian? Everything sounds more poetic in Italian." So I had Google translate the poem and then I had a computer voice read it as I recorded the music. This is a little weirder than some of the stuff you may be used to hearing from me -- it's a signpost of things to come.
Jane Austen -- author of such notable novels as "Pride and Prejudice," "Emma," "Persuasion," and "Sense and Sensibility" -- was also a poet. A kind of silly poet. The lyrics to this song are drawn from a poem she wrote of the same title, which was probably composed in the 1790s as a scold to her friend Mister Best, who would not take their mutual friend Martha Lloyd for a spa treatment. We don't know who Mr. Best was, but he was obviously concerned about his health. The "Richard's pills" mentioned in the song are likely a reference to the patent elixirs of Richard Stoughton, the second person to ever receive a patent for medicine in England. (The original poem has more verses that I left out due to time considerations. You're welcome.)
The only certain things in life (or so they say) are death and taxes. I started writing a song about taxes, but that didn't pan out*, so I decided to write about death instead. The title comes from Macbeth: "And all our yesterdays have lighted fools The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle. Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, And then is heard no more."
The refrain is from the Gospel of St. Matthew (and, more directly, from a hymn), which notes that we know not the hour that Jesus will return ("Therefore be ye also ready: for in such an hour as ye think not the Son of man cometh" Matthew 22:44). That idea has been repurposed here to be generally about not knowing the hour (or place) that death will appear. Fun!
* I think the taxes song will eventually see the light of day; it's just not quite ready for primetime.
** Edited to add: this song is turning into the runaway hit from this project...in Ireland. Who da thunk it?
Today’s song has a lot of sources. It all started seeing my friend Vinnie Linares direct “Albatross” back in January just as this “53 Songs” project was taking shape. I was reminded both that I love Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” and that there’s a benefit in taking older works of art and reimagining them.
Then, my friend Colin Meloy* asked ChatGPT to write him a song in the style of his band, the Decemberists. The results were mediocre, but Meloy recorded it anyway (listen at https://boingboing.net/2023/02/15/the.... So, in the same vein, I asked ChatGPT to write a sea shanty that retold the story of the Rime of Ancient Mariner. I actually had to ask it twice, as the first version stopped halfway through the story! I combined the two shanties, finessed the lyrics a bit, and then sat down with my bespoke ukulele (a gift from luthier Peter Sgouros) to write a tune. By the time I got around to recording the song for this week’s release, it had morphed in my head to something more cinematic, so the ukulele was dropped in favor of a string section, but phase 2 of this project is going to have a lot more acoustic music, so stay tuned for that ukes appearance.
All of that is a long way of introducing “The Sea Shanty of the Ancient Mariner.” Watch the lyric video on YouTube here or link to www.kimosongs.com where you can access all your favorite streaming services.
* not my actual friend, but I feel like we would be friends if Colin would just give it half a chance.
When I released this song last week, I was, in fact, on the beautiful blue Danube, somewhere outside of Bratislava, Slovakia. This song is dedicated to one of my earliest musical mentors, Richard Trythall, who passed away last year. In the 1960s and 70s, Trythall composed a number of experimental pieces as a part of the "musique concrète" movement, where songs crafted as sound collages using sound recordings from a diverse array of sources. (If you aren't familiar with this facet of classical music but are a fan of the Beatles, you know musique concrète from "Revolution #9.") Today's song isn't exactly true musique concrète, but it does feature a sample of the famous Strauss waltz, The Blue Danube. I took the sample from a recording in the Library of Congress, ca. 1910, and extracted just a few musical phrases, which are layered over a droning synthesized backing track that never wavers from a D-Minor chord. The effect is supposed to be trance-like. About halfway through, the Strauss gives way to a motif played on the Erhu, which isn't a Turkish instrument, but is nevertheless intended to evoke the Ottoman siege of Vienna.
"The Wizard of Oz" has been called America's "greatest and best-loved homegrown fairytale." If there are two things that are true of fairytales, it's that A) they tend to moralize or teach a lesson; and B) there's usually a significant body count. I decided to concentrate on B) this week, especially after going back to the novel, which I read many times as a kid, and realizing that Dorothy and her companions just can't keep from killing. If this is America's greatest homegrown fairytale, what does that say about America? That's a theme we'll certainly be exploring more in the coming weeks.
This week's song has a lot in common musically with last week's song ("Dorothy Kills Again") in part because they were written and recorded at the same time, and in part because I seem to be channeling my inner Brad Roberts a lot lately. (If you don't know who that is, he's the lead singer of Crash Test Dummies with an awesome bass voice. I can totally hear him singing either one of these songs.)
Anyway, the title refers to the following quote from "The Brothers Karamazov":
“The more stupid one is, the closer one is to reality. The more stupid one is, the clearer one is. Stupidity is brief and artless, while intelligence squirms and hides itself. Intelligence is unprincipled, but stupidity is honest and straightforward.”
Enjoy! Leave your feedback! And, most of all -- do share!
Welcome to Week #10, a piece of classical minimalism with sampled birdsong recorded (mostly) in Melk, Austria.
Today's piece has many points of inspiration: John Adams (the composer of "Shaker Loops," not the president); Olivier Messiaen, the French composer who attempted to transcribe birdsong onto sheet music; and Steve Reich, who in 1967 wrote "Slow Motion Sound," a conceptual piece wherein he instructed musicians to "very gradually slow down a recorded sound to many times its original length without changing its pitch or timbre at all."(http://musicandcomputersbook.com/popups/chapter5/xbit_5_1.php)
At the time, the technology hadn't caught up to Reich's instruction, and the piece remained theoretical, but in 1994, Chris Hughes released "Slow Motion Blackbird," which used recorded birdsong following Reich's instructions. That piece was the immediate influence on mine, though in the end I decided not to slow down any of the bird calls and went off in another direction, layering my recorded birdsong over a slow progression through the eight major chords in a D-minor progression. Most of these bird sounds are recorded in a lovely wooded area on the banks of Danube River in Melk, Austria. (Clever ornithologists might be able to both identify the birds AND hear which ones aren't recorded in Melk.) The subtitle is Melk Loops not only because the birdsong repeats (in a mostly random pattern), but also because it was recorded by walking around a loop trail.
If you are interested in my instrumental output, visit • Composer: James N... , which features more pieces like this intermingled with a number of composers who've been influential to my output.
There are quite a few program notes here for Week #11, so let's dive right in.
I was having a wee bit of writer's block, so I decided to return to the same inspiration as my Week #2 song, "Read Lots Good Books," -- namely, the 1943 list of New Year's resolutions drafted by Woody Guthrie. I asked the computer to pick a random number and it chose #17, which turns out to be "Don't Get Lonesome." As I wrote this song, I was thinking a lot not of Woody, but of one of his disciples, Bruce Springsteen, in particular his amazing 1982 album "Nebraska," which Springsteen recorded primarily on a 4-track recorder. Though my song is souped up with some strings and piano, I was aiming for a Nebreaska-esque vibe, both in the lyrics and final production. I certainly think I'm channeling Springsteen with my harmonica playing. (There's also so line about "turning all the girls' heads," which is a play on a line from "Glory Days," written around the same time but included on his "Born in the USA" LP.)
The imagery in this video is entirely generated by A.I., specifically the DALL-E2 program. I simply entered the lyrics into the program -- one stanza at a time -- and let it decide what to do. I used about 60% of the images it generated. The one featured in the instrumental section is, I think, the computer's attempt at creating a motivational poster. Ha!
Lastly: if you haven't had a chance to listen to songs #1-10 and give feedback, the survey remains open at https://s.surveyplanet.com/cp7ukspx
Week #12's title kind of tells the whole story, doesn't it? (If you haven't been following the news, there's a good summary of the recent Ed Sheeran trial at https://www.nytimes.com/article/ed-sheeran-marvin-gaye-copyright-trial.html)
Soon, I'm going to start uploading my lyrics to Musixmatch (which, in turn, will license them to Spotify, et al, so that they are available on multiple streaming services) but in the meantime, I think the lyrics to this particular song are worth reading, so please watch the lyric video and let me know what you think! As with last week's video for "Don't Get Lonesome" ( • Don't Get Lonesom... ), all the images are A.I.-generated, mostly using couplets from the lyrics as prompts. Because of various safeguards in place, some lyrics couldn't be turned into images, such as "Must he suffer" and "stealing somebody's song," so I had rejigger the prompts in those cases. The poor A.I. didn't want to draw a picture of Ed Sheeran suffering, and can you blame it?