This post was originally published on tumblr on April 28th, 2016.
So, here it is. Asphalt Ghosts. Whew.
And here’s a story about it, and me.
Back in my early twenties, writing songs and singing them seemed like a natural extension of my obsession with listening to music, much like writing poetry and stories in my teens had seemed like a natural extension of my love of reading novels. But then, one day, I just…stopped. Over the last ten years, there were many, many times when I thought I’d never write another song, that every attempt would limp along in fits and starts until I put it out of its misery. The bones of many a euthanized song still clutter the shelves in Lindsey and I’s music room now, preserved like fossils in old moleskine notebooks. Because for a while there, I was sort of a poser.
They say that the best way to get better at writing is to read a lot, and there’s truth to that. Reading has definitely made me a better writer from a mechanical standpoint, but it’s rarely given me any ideas of what to write about. And that was my problem with songwriting for the last decade: I didn’t know what to write about. The sad bastard folk music that had spawned from my failed early romances and my playing Bob Dylan albums endlessly in college had begun to feel one-dimensional and self-indulgent, but I didn’t know where to go next. I’ve never really believed in the whole tortured artist stereotype, but I’m frequently struck by how much of the music in our pop cultural landscape is about some angst or another. I wanted to find a way to write something heartfelt without being heartbroken, but there weren’t a lot of examples to draw on. So, I suppose I set my own.
I kept playing guitar and occasionally performing, but it was always the same old songs in the same old ways, and it became a hobby more than anything else, a way to relax after a long day at work, a way to mindlessly zone out when I was stressed. I filmed a four-hour “live concert” video in my apartment in Pullman before moving out after what felt like a lifetime living there, recording every song I knew reasonably well and a few that I didn’t. It was my own personal, hauntingly solitary Big Cypress. It felt like the end of something. I moved into a big Cape Cod on a hill afterward and had roommates for the first time in six years. I didn’t play guitar for almost a year. When I moved to Oregon at the end of that year, I had to brush a thick rime of dust off of my guitar cases before putting them in the back of the car.
Though I wasn’t writing, and barely playing, I was doing other things. I drove across the U.S. ten times. I fell in love, for real. I hiked hundreds of miles. I took up running and completed two half marathons. I climbed a hundred mountains. Really. I did. A hundred. I got engaged. That almost seems even more unbelievable than the mountains thing, but it’s true. I grew up, I guess. I lived my life.
Then, one day, just as suddenly as I had stopped writing songs, I started again.
It happened about a year ago, with a song called “The Light.” For a year or so before that, I’d been using the music room in our rental house to record covers and some new versions of old songs, posting them on SoundCloud as “7 inch singles.” These downloads were two or three mp3s each, which kept each release to a manageable size – something I could complete in a weekend – but conceptualizing them as a series kept me on task. All told, I recorded five “singles” and had a blast doing it. Slowly, I remembered how my recording setup worked, and, slowly, sitting down to lay down a few tracks for fun became less daunting. And I was doing this mostly for fun…but I was also doing it because I harbored this hope that if I just recorded enough of others’ music, I would remember how to make my own.
I’d had a kernel of an idea for a while, which was that I wanted to write a story song, a waltz. And the main character would be a woman, because I’d never tried to write a song that featured a woman as anything other than the love object. But what would it be about? What would she do? Looking at my own life over the last few years, where I’d been, and where I’d ended up, I had a thought: it would be a song about how “settling down” can be a good thing. The road, a constant theme in my songs for fifteen years, would now be something to grow out of, rather than something to revel in. What could be better than the freedom of the road? What could make you give it up, without regrets? I thought maybe I knew the answer. I wrote the first two lines one night:
“Sara wore her failure like you wear your piece of mind / In that moment just before you want to leave yourself behind. / She knew the train could change her for the better, or for the worse / tying forest to the desert like the chorus to the verse.”
And the next day I wrote the rest in class while my students worked on a peer review assignment. Once I had the rhythm and the idea figured out, it just clicked. I came home and played it, and it was so fun.
I decided the song needed to be more than just an acoustic guitar and a harmonica. It needed to be lusher, more composed. I’d spent the last fifteen years of my life obsessing over Phish’s and other bands’ intricate instrumental compositions, but had never tried writing unique melodies myself. All my songs were pretty traditionally structured. My melodies were basic folk-singer melodies. I’d always just taken a “solo over the verse chords” approach to instrumental passages. But if I was finally going to write songs again, I wanted to write different songs. So I wrote a short little lick to go between the verses in “The Light,” and an outro reminiscent of some of my favorite Ryan Adams and the Cardinals live jams. I taught myself to record vocal rounds and layered guitars. When Lindsey told me she liked the melody line in the song’s chorus because it was weird, I knew I was on to something. And somewhere in the back of my head, the notion that these qualities – long songs, songs about the road, songs about growing up but not getting old, lots of reverb-y guitars, vocal overdubs, and composed instrumental passages – could make a whole album instead of just one song started to coalesce into something solid.
“California” and “Generals” soon followed. I’d always wanted to have a song called “California” that worked as a sort of counterpoint to my old song “Not California.” Brooding over a lost, idealized love is a bad thing I’ve always been really good at. Learning to let that impulse go is a lot harder to do. Being able to break out of destructive cycles and move on is something we all struggle with, and “California” is meant to be a celebration of the times I’ve managed to do that.
I wanted the album to have a more abstract, experimental track on it, so “Generals” was written based on a stranger’s napkin graffiti that Lindsey took a picture of at a restaurant and my binge-watching Battlestar Galactica while preparing lesson plans for a class on medieval literature. I like to imagine that Jeff Tweedy would be proud. It might be my favorite track on the album.
The other three tunes are all old songs, and in fact the album was originally going to include “Back To Ohio” and “Millie,” too, before I realized that it was already fifty-two minutes long with six songs on it and that adding more was ridiculous.
I’d been wanting, for a long, long, time, to put down a version of “Not California” that included Lindsey’s vocals, and ever since I introduced the extended bridge into the song when I started playing it at Rico’s in Pullman back in 2008, it had felt to me like that bridge needed to be drenched in 80s-alt-rock guitar feedback. I’m not sure why. I can’t explain these things. But when I wrote the song eleven years ago, this is what it sounded like in my head. And now it’s finally out of my head, and on tape.
“Hand In Hand” was originally two songs, an instrumental tune called, a bit pompously, “Acteon’s Groove,” and the wordy bit called “Love Song in D.” I’d never quite liked the lyrics of “Love Song,” nor the fact that they were a bit vague without any real purpose other than to be vague in an artsy way and seemed to add up to a pessimistic take on love. I recorded a version of “Acteon’s Groove > Love Song in D” (as it was titled on the 4-track tape, which I still have) that tried to mesh the two tunes in 2006, but frankly I didn’t have the guitar chops or the recording chops to make it sound right. Flash forward to now, throw in some changed, more purposeful lyrics revolving around the song’s original demo title (“Hand In Hand”), a bit more optimism, and more guitars, and I feel like this song, too, finally sounds like it was always supposed to.
I wrote “Palace” in 2005 (I think) when I was spending a lot of time jamming with friends of mine who were way better at guitar than me. I wanted it to be something I could bring to those sessions, a launchpad into some serious midnight space jamming after a few minutes of weird lyrics and a catchy verse riff. But again, my own technical limitations got in the way and the version that ended up on my first album faded out after a few seconds of the shitty harmonica jam that followed the lyrics. So when it came time to record Ghosts, I really wanted to lay down a jam-heavy version of this song in particular, which has always felt as if it never got a chance to serve its intended purpose. It would be the pinnacle of my new focus on composed instrumentals, and would involve lots of guitars. I hoped I could make a song that was engaging for at least ten minutes, but even going into the sessions I didn’t really think it would work that well. But…somehow, it did. As I was improvising different approaches to the jam early in the Ghosts sessions, the one-chord, spacey section led sort of naturally into a blues riff that I really enjoyed and knew I could compose a decent melody over, and then…then, literally as I was playing that blues riff as it appears on the record, I slid into “Twist” by Phish, despite never having actually played it before. And that’s when I knew I could put together a cohesive, twelve-minute version of “Palace.” So I did, and what you hear is really just a more intricate version of the seven or so minutes of improvisation that I put down that first day of recording.
At first, I balked at the idea of including three old songs along with the three new songs, especially since two of those three old songs had already been on my first album in different incarnations. It didn’t feel like moving forward, but revisiting tired, old territory. But now, looking at the finished project, it feels right. Each of those old songs have been reworked significantly, and yet in reworking them I feel like I’ve somehow brought them closer to where they should have been in the first place, if that makes any sense. I’ve had a big, guitar-shaped hole in me for ten years, but I’m finally filling it back up, and I suppose that’s as much because of where I’ve been as it is because of where I’m going. Ghosts feels both like the end of something old and the beginning of something new, and so the mix of old and new tunes suits it, I think. And if not, I’ve already got sketches for eight new songs in my (non-moleskine) notebook so once summer hits I can start working on the next album. I think it might end up being called Speed. Not like the movie, but like “Can I actually get my point across in a song that’s less than eight minutes long for once?”
That said, I hope you like eight minute songs.
I hope you like Asphalt Ghosts.