I thought I would start blogging about the recording of my first EP as Norton Scott Star Vehicle. So far I’ve decided on a working title, Once Human, and a length of approximately 20 minutes, or 5 songs, which have already been chosen. Going forward, I’m thinking of including breakdowns of excerpted lyrics and the sometimes several-fold meanings behind them, a little bio stuff that might explain my style and artistic choices, and pretty much anything of interest that happens throughout the process. It’s perhaps a more daunting task than the actual writing and recording of the music mostly because I’ll need to wear more than one hat at a time and that can get tricky if not cumbersome. I’ll try nonetheless, starting with this post.
Why am I doing this? It could be I’m writing about myself because no one else is, but the real answer is “I don’t know”. I just feel it might be a worthwhile pursuit in a way that reveals itself later. That impulse is similar to what begins every single creative journey I’ve ever had. An idea hits – a single line that’s arrived in the night or a melody that’s carried over into waking – and a small rush of adrenaline fills my brain. Imagine a gleam far across a mountainous forest as if something shiny has momentarily reflected the sun. You’re not sure what it is but you know it must be found. Lured by the possibilities, you negotiate a challenging terrain until at last it’s at your feet, or hung high in a tree above you. It almost doesn’t matter what it is because the journey has imbued it with great personal significance. All that’s left to do is secure it for shining up later.
That’s what I’m doing with my songs: shining them up a bit. Two already exist in demo form and have been tested before both real and virtual audiences. They contributed towards a number of bookings and even helped me win first place in a fancy contest. Over the others in the demo set, I felt they best represent the two criteria that I believe are most important for a debut EP: commercial appeal and essence of style. In other words, for an unknown artist, song choice should be based on what will get you noticed and what best represents your point of view. At this moment in time, “Gods Came Down” and “A Few More Miles” do both of these things pretty well so they immediately made the cut. The remaining complement of tunes had to be drafted from a cache of 36. About a dozen have been performed live while others never quite squeezed into a set for various reasons, but each was judged using the same criteria and all were required to hold a kindred tone so as to give the record a cohesive vibe. Interestingly – and I learned this happened to Prince a lot which is why so much of his stuff went unreleased – three of my most recently written got the nod. His explanation was that they better represented how he felt at the time of recording, and that makes sense. Therefore, “Lip Reader”, “In Half” and the title track, “Once Human” round out the collection. I’ll get into each and what inspired them as we go, but for now let’s start with one of the two that presently exist in demo form.
“Gods Came Down” was written on a Takemine G-series defect that I got off eBay for about $200. It’s a light guitar that I’ve used for cover gigs because it’s easy to sling around and carry over the heads of tipsy revelers and you can do four hours on your feet without too much of a problem. A couple of years ago I carried it to the top floor of my double trinity in Philly and started messing around with a drop-D tuning. For those who don’t know, all that means is that you tune the low E string a little lower which changes the kinds of chords you tend to play. For the most part they become darker or more disquieting and since I was writing songs for my rock three-piece Darwin Candidate at the time, I was all set up to grumble and brood.
But instead of writing a dark rock riff, I began seeing how earthy and ethereal I could go, finding open chords that blended into something soothing yet introspective. While all that sounds very scholarly and deliberate, writing for me is anything but. I go entirely by feel, and tend to hum along with melodies that begin to form while hunting for progressions that fit and follow. It continues like this, sort of feeling around in the dark woods for a safe foothold as you seek an assured path and a clear direction appears. The folky sing-along nature of the verses where a short phrase is echoed came early, and images of floppy-haired, poncho-wearing bohemians sitting around a fire circle appeared in my mind’s eye. Other images of artists of the late 60s and early 70s – Woodstock, Baez and Dylan, Lennon, Guthrie – began flashing in and out and I sensed a war protest song brewing. Certainly there was enough violence in the news actively disturbing me, and what then followed were images of wounded warriors or American and Arab descent, breathing their last, talking to their gods, making their peace in the mud.
As is often the case, the song took on a sadness that I find easy to access. But I didn’t stay on the ground with the soldiers very long. Instead, led perhaps by my being on the top floor of my home or maybe my interest in science fiction, I rose high into the atmosphere and looked upon the destruction as if a member of an alien race that may have had a hand in creating humankind (ergo, the titular gods). Telling their story as they watched us kill one another added a dual focus and from there I began moving from ground to sky and back again. In doing so, I vacillated between the fruitless despair of violent conflict and its endless cycle, and a disappointing senselessness under the stars. In the song, the gods came down “to inspire” but instead “they cried”, and their tears “rained on fire”. I don’t always write myself into such a dark place, but on that day, with those images in my head, a foreboding sense of doom was difficult to shake.
Since recording the demo, I’ve been asked about the song and had others offer their stabs at its meaning. Among them I’ve gotten the dissolution of relationships and a cry for gun control. One thing I find so wonderful and fascinating about writing songs other than how they take on different meanings for different people is how they unintentionally reveal things about ourselves, and those themes weren’t far from my experience. I think many artists create from an unexpressed perspective whether they’re aware of it or not, which is why writing and playing can be so therapeutic. “Gods” definitely feels like an immersion into and subsequent shedding of existential heaviness when I play it, and it usually kicks off my sets. Some party, huh? Actually, I find it sets a somber mood but from its tiny fire struggling against the cold night I try to bring the room together. From there, if all goes to plan, we can “work to build a new day”.
Tomorrow, I begin laying the first tracks, so wish me luck. There are some technical considerations involving how to put down the various layers and utilize the harmonizer but I’ll leave those to another post. Instead, enjoy if you will a sample of where it all began. In every song I write lives my father who taught me how to play guitar when I was 5 years-old (5 songs on the EP – coincidence?), starting with the ukulele. He was a fan of 60s and 70s folk music and there was always a James Taylor or Joan Baez record playing throughout the house. I created this for his birthday this past March and it barely covers how much I appreciate what he did for me.