Believe it or not, this started as a country song. Welcome to Week #13 -- we have completed 25% of the "53 Songs in 53 Weeks" project! This week might be subtitled: "More proof that A.I. isn't ready to take over the world." As you probably know by now, one of the hallmarks of these songs has been to see the ways that artificial intelligence can help (or hinder) this songwriting project.
This song started by me asking ChatGPT to give me 10 tropes used in country music. If you listen to contemporary country, you'll recognize that the resulting list checked a number of familiar boxes, including family, patriotism, small-town life...and drinking.
I then asked ChatGPT to take those 10 tropes and weave them into a song. The result was awful. (Awful is being charitable.) I had originally thought I'd record it as a lark, but it was just so bad that I had to jettison any idea of putting the A.I.-generated words to music. However, I did like one line about drinking whiskey, and that became the genesis for this song. When it came time to set the lyrics to music, I veered in an entirely different direction, going for the sort of Paul Weller-esque, British white soul sound that was a big part of my musical life in the late 1980s.
A.I. was also not doing very well generating images for this lyric video. In part, that's because the protagonists in this song are having a fight, and the safeguards around many A.I. programs don't want to depict images of harm or violence. So, a number of images it produced were just of coffee. (And not just coffee, but barista-made lattes, which says...something.) However, the title is a nod to the song's country roots -- it's an homage to the great Dwight Yoakam LP "Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc."
When I started this project, I said I was going write, record, and release a new song a week. But self-imposed rules are made to be broken (right?) and so this week we have our first (and perhaps not last) cover song: "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" by the late Gordon Lightfoot.
I didn't listen to much Lightfoot when I was a young guitar player, though "Sundown" and "If You Could Read My Mind" were staples of 70s radio. However, when I started playing out in bars and restaurants on Maui, people would often come up to me and say, "You sound just like Gordon Lightfoot." I didn't hear it at first, but I accepted the compliment and I started weaving the above songs and "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" in my set lists. "Edmund Fitzgerald" has the ability to sound fresh and as if it's a century-and-a-half old all at the same time, which is kind of my thing, and it always brought out an enthusiastic response when I played it live.
In this recording, I tried to sound ethereal, an effect achieved through layers of synthesizers and by using auto-tune on the vocals. I'm not much of an auto-tune aficionado -- I use it for the occasional sour note -- but I think it lends a ghostly quality to the proceedings here.
RIP Mister Lightfoot -- thanks for the music.
PS: There's no lyric video because securing the rights to that would have been beyond my meager budget. But CDBaby, my record label, put out this non-lyric video. And, of course, click on the links on the menu bar to stream it on Spotify, Apple Music, etc.
Trigger warning: suicide.
The more I read about Stephen Foster, the more I think that he killed himself. Foster was one of the most prolific popular composers of the 19th century and has remained popular well into our own era. Songs such as "Camptown Races," "Oh! Susanna," "Beautiful Dreamer" and many, many more are still standards. But Foster had a tough life. His marriage fell apart pretty quickly, and, while his songs were favorites of theater troupes and minstrel companies, he was not always well-paid for his efforts. (Any songwriter can relate to this last part.)
By the end of his life in 1864, Foster was living in the New England Hotel on the Bowery in New York City, estranged from his wife and having trouble writing another hit song. His official cause of death was an accident -- he allegedly fell and cut his neck in his hotel room. That is to say, he DID cut his neck in his hotel room, but it might have been intentional. It was a sad end to a dynamically creative life.
When he died, Foster had a note in his pocket (included in the video) that said nothing but "Dear friends and gentle hearts." Was it the beginning of a song or the beginning of a suicide note? We’ll never know. At first, I thought I would write a song with that title, but one of my all-time favorite Stephen Foster songs is "Hard Times Come Again No More." So, I took the piano phrasing from the chorus of that song and built this one around it. My "Hard Times" attempts to act a bit like a Cubist painting -- it is simultaneously told from Foster's own point of view and that of Jane, his estranged wife. It is also, at its core, more universally about being pummeled by grief.
Share if you can via YouTube or your favorite streaming service--links to all the popular services are at www.kimosongs.com. I appreciate it when my songs find a new audience.
Welcome to Week #16 of the 53 Weeks Project, in which I embrace my birth name.
This song is, unsurprisingly, the sequel to the song from Week #10, "Into the Woods (Part 1: Melk Loops)." (https://youtu.be/fGqL9MhI6Lg) Has it really been six weeks since that song came out? Time does fly.
Anyway, the focus of Melk Loops was the birdsong that I'd recorded in the woods in Melk, Austria. The driving force in this similar piece is the sound of falling rain, recorded by me in various places on Maui, Hawaii. The chord progression in both songs is the same, though here it is in reverse. The idea of "loops" is a major component in contemporary minimalism, so the idea here is not just that the chord progression keeps looping back to the beginning but that the entire 2:44-minute piece could be set to play in an endless loop. That might be quite relaxing to try.
Petrichor is that familiar smell when rain first hits the earth.
From this point forward, all my vaguely classical, instrumental pieces will be released under my given name, James Nevius, in order to help the Spotify algorithms not get so confused. So if this is the type of music that interests you, give "James Nevius" a follow on Spotify or other streaming services.
If there's one thing that's emerged over the past 4+ months of this project, it's that the song I intend to write and song that gets released aren't always the same. Case in point: Week #17, "Medieval Romance."
This song started its life as a kind of Squeeze/Nick Lowe homage, and while I didn't stray too far from that initial blueprint, there's also a lot more "Avalon"-era Roxy Music in the mix here than was apparent during the writing process.
Also, this started off as two totally different songs: one that was going to be a pretty straight retelling of the Lancelot and Guinevere story, and another piece that has been totally jettisoned save for the chorus, which I used here.
In the end I decided to expand beyond the Lancelot tale to include three medieval romances in my song: the famous Arthurian love triangle; Robin Hood and Maid Marian; and a poem called "The Square of Low Degree."
(I should note that while Robin Hood is a medieval figure, Maid Marian doesn't get introduced to that tale until the Renaissance. Likewise, the eponymous squire of low degree has his roots in the 15th century, but the story didn't really achieve prominence until the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras.)
In the last verse of my song, the squire notes that what he's done is an act of "great chivalry." This is lifted directly from the poem:
"'Lady,' he sayd, 'be of good chere,
Your love lyveth and is here.
And he hath bene in Lombardy,
And done he hath great chyvalry.'"
Similarly, in the first verse of my song, Robin Hood calls Marian "a bonny fine maid of noble degree." That's the opening line of the most famous 17th-century ballad about Marian.
I've been a fan of the Arthurian sagas every since TH White's "Sword in the Stone" and (perhaps more importantly) the movie "Excalibur," and I may revisit this story again before this project is over.
Week #18 is a little ditty about the moment that you realize a relationship is over. The relationship itself might sputter on for weeks or months, but there's a moment--often only seen in hindsight--when you know that you'll never get back the spark that lit your romance in the first place.
I was inspired to write this song by a painting by Cy Twombly in the Museum Brandhorst in Munich. There's a giant installation there of his "Roses" series (https://www.museum-brandhorst.de/.../cy-twombly-at.../).
In addition to the painting of the flower, each canvas includes a snippet of poetry. On one of the blue paintings was this line: "the night is lit up by thorns and thunder," which I took as the prompt for this song.
"Blue roses" is also the nickname that the Gentleman Caller, Jim, gives to Laura in "The Glass Menagerie" by Tennessee Williams. His nickname (a mishearing of her disease, pleurosis) is often interpreted as a symbolism of Laura's unique and tragic character -- after all, how often do you see a blue rose? -- but it is almost certainly also a callback to a poem by Rudyard Kipling about death, which also features a gentleman caller.
Fun times! I hope you like the song. It has a little Lou Reed/John Cale in its DNA and I'm not sure what else. Maybe a little Suzanne Vega, too.
Week #19 is based on a true story and is about my Irish ancestor, William Berry, who grew up in Elmira, New York, and who (spoiler alert!) died in the Civil War.
We don't know much about the Berry family back in Ireland, though it seems likely they were from the northern counties (what today make up Northern Ireland). That means it is conceivable that William's father left from Belfast, perhaps around the time that the French fleet were in Bantry Bay during their unsuccessful attempt to assist the Society of United Irishmen, a republican group that was rebelling against British rule.
What little we know of William comes from the story retold in this song. He was evidently quite the talker -- in a history of Chemung County, NY, he is referred to as "the learned shoemaker" -- and someone convinced him to rent out a theater on Lake Street in Elmira so that people could pay admission and jeer at him from their seats. ("Poke bogey" is 19th-century slang for "make fun of.") Did that humiliation drive his desire to prove himself in the Civil War? That's an invention of this songwriter, but it certainly could be true.
I've written the song in a quasi-Irish ballad style. The chord progression is what's known as a "modal interchange" and is modeled on, most famously, the progression used in "The House of the Rising Sun." Other songs that use a similar cadence include a folk song called "Greenback Dollar" and a song I wrote and recorded a few years ago called "John Coxe." This song isn't a note-for-note remake of "John Coxe," but they have a lot of similar DNA.
This week's song is another ambient/classical/avant garde composition. This one is about World War II and is called "The Last Refuge." It comes in two movements: one with sampled dialog (video next to this text box) and one that's just music (see link below).
The video showcased here is for "The Last Refuge (Movement One: Words)," and it samples two interviews conducted soon after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. One is a self-described "co-ed" from Texas; this interview was conducted on or around January or February 1942 (https://www.loc.gov/item/afc1942003_sr33/).
The other interview, also done in Texas, is a woman sharing her thoughts on the US entry into the war. It was recorded on December 9, 1941 (https://www.loc.gov/item/afc1941004_sr12/) just two days after the attack.
The piece begins with each (edited) interview played separately; then they both loop back and play again, overlapping in the left and right channels, creating a sort of hypnotic drone of voices that is akin to its own instrument. My immediate inspiration for this is Steve Reich's "Different Trains," which is also about World War II and also uses sampled voices as instruments.
If you want to listen to the versions sans voices, go to https://youtu.be/t2jq_iGF2K4
Another week, another self-imposed rule broken. When I started this project, I told myself I wasn't going to release instrumentals two weeks in a row, but not only did I release two instrumentals simultaneously last week, here's yet a third one.
I've written a play called 'Ainakea, a retelling of Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, where the action is moved to the island of Maui in 1953. I'm staging a reading of the play this week and I thought it needed a little incidental music. So, here's the 'Ainakea theme, a short piece with strings, that I wrote for the play.
I swear, when this project is over and I release the finished CD, I'm going to call it "Thwarted by the Algorithm," because...well...that's what keeps happening to me.
Here's today's tale of woe and what you can do about it. My brand-new song is out today called, "Hello Mister H__________." I'm leaving out the offending word, but if you watch the lyric video posted here, you'll realize what it's called pretty soon. The song is a critique of small-mindedness, and so I find it delightfully ironic that the small-minded A.I. that scrubs Facebook, etc., looking for objectionable content can't tell the difference between the pro or con side of any argument. It just looks for red flags.
Well, my friends, this song is nothing by red flags for our robot overlords.
I'd love for you to take a listen and -- if you feel so moved -- share a link to the song via your favorite streaming service (link in the menubar).
More on this song: In some ways, it is the spiritual sibling of song #9, "Dostoyevsky Said" (which you can watch at https://youtu.be/E5CLkKIisVw).
Certainly, both address America's obsession with the right to bear arms, though this week's song more broadly addresses a number of other right-wing types, including the homophobe who hides behind freedom of speech, the book-banner asserting her parental rights, and the religious leader who favors exclusion.
The common thread that drives all these people is fear: fear of the other, fear of the unknown, fear of change, fear of loss of status... the list goes on and on. The song implores those people to consider -- if just for a moment -- that their point of view might actually be incorrect.
But that's not just good advice for the people with whom you disagree. All of us should try to put ourselves in the shoes of our antagonists. I'm not saying you'll agree with that person -- if you put yourself in the shoes of a Neo-Nazi, you'll find yourself fleeing quickly in the other direction -- but it can be an edifying exercise. Again, what you'll likely find if you dig deep enough is simply fear. My goal, if someone digs deep enough into my motivations, would be to find love ("agape" in Christian terms.)
A couple of other notes: the song sounds bombastic -- it's a bombastic topic -- so I tried to emulate Phil Spector's famed Wall of Sound technique. The irony that a song deploring gun violence uses Spector-eque sounds isn't lost on me.
Also: there's a line exhorting people to read the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 22. The visual in the video when I sing that line is a poster at a protest that's quoting Matthew 25. I couldn't find a sign with the verse I wanted.
Week #23, "Morning / Present / Evening" resists a familiar topic for me: our inability to hold on to the past.
A friend, we'll call him A_____, recently sent me a cassette tape that featured songs I'd written and recorded when I was 17 and 18 years old. I haven't had the guts to listen to it yet -- in part, as this song mentions, I fear damaging the tape itself. Around the same time this was happening, I had a bunch of HI-8 videotapes from 1999-2001 digitized, snippets of which feature in this video. When I watch my younger self and remember that person, I realize that the "me" I'm seeing on the videotape must have also been having memories of a younger "me" -- and that person had memories of a younger "me," and so on and so forth. In the end, it's all just how our synapses fire at any given moment.
I hope you enjoy both the video and the song. Both were a lot of fun to put together.
Week #24: "The Answer Man." This song is a bit of a trifle. There was a real, syndicated radio program in the 1930s and 40s called "The Answer Man," and many of the questions included in the dialog here are versions of ones sent in to that program. The final verse (where the questioner asks about the General Slcoum and a blimp "that's not the Hindenburg") are questions received by my office in New York in the 1990s. We were forever fielding weird queries -- despite being a non-profit arts organization and not a library -- and these were actual questions we'd get.