Song 47 – The Coldest Day of the Year

 

Friends, this time of year is jam packed with holiday traditions, and this, being my 4th holiday song, is now part of them. It’s fun having a specific concept for at least one song a year. Because this one always has to be somewhat holiday themed, it forces me to approach songwriting in a new way and mix things up a little bit. I can’t just record whatever pops up in my head, but instead I have to guide my thoughts and filter through ideas until I find something that works.

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This year, as a way to focus my thoughts, I imagined the contrast between the winter solstice, which is typically cold and dark where I live, and the winter feasts that take place at around the same time. It is chilly and gloomy outside, but bright, warm and cheery inside.

With that in mind, it wasn’t long before I had a melody worked out. The words, however, went through a few drafts. The first version was focused entirely on the feasts themselves, and the wide variety of foods involved. I just listed all the traditional dishes and foodstuffs that people prepare each year – it ended up being a really long list!

But then it occurred to me that the magic of the feast isn’t the food, it’s the people. So I scratched out the version that just made my stomach grumble and focused on what really mattered – family and friends. Without them, a feast is a lonely affair. But with them, it’s a time to celebrate and be happy.

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Folks! I hope you all have a wonderful December and can enjoy time with your friends and family. If you’d like to sing or play along with this month’s song, here’s the song sheet.

 

Song 46 – I Love You

I pretty much take my ukulele everywhere I go. Actually, that’s one of the reasons I bought it in the first place. My cello is awesome, but it’s hardly portable. You can’t put it in an overhead compartment and checking it on a plane is like playing Russian roulette. Even just driving around town, my cello doesn’t make a good “toss in the back of car and go” instrument. The ukulele is the instrument of choice for travel. Compared to a cello, it’s absolutely tiny. It fits in my backpack so it doesn’t even count as a separate carry on when flying. When it came for me to head to Cold Spring Harbor for a conference last spring, I had my ukulele with me.

Usually when I go there, they put me up in a pretty nice dormitory style building. It’s not on campus, but there’s a shuttle van and I always enjoy getting to know the shuttle drivers. They’ve lived there their whole lives and usually have some interesting stories to tell about the place.

However, last time the put me up in run down motel in a strip-mall right next to a major highway. It was a terrible, dark place with unpredictable plumbing. But, regardless of the setting, I got to see a really, really beautiful sunset. It was one of those skies that goes from deep purple to a darkest blue without a cloud in the sky. Stars were just starting to shine through and looked like gems sprinkled on velvet. And that’s when this song came to me.

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This is an approximation of what I saw out the window when I wrote this song. It was much cooler in person.

As soon as I got home, I wanted to record this tune – but I knew I wanted drums and bass on this song, so for logistical reasons, I’ve had to wait until now. But it was worth the wait! Robert Cantrell and local bass legend, FJ Ventre, and I spent an evening with Al out at Warrior Sound and made some amazing music. For the second time this year, I was lucky and Robert brought his collection of percussion instruments and, starting in the “solo” section you can hear a very distinct afro-cuban rhythm that has probably never been paired with a ukulele before. This song is a perfect example of how much more I can accomplish when such talented people bring their own style to a tune.

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Lately, my songs haven’t had a lot of ukulele in them, but rest assured, I still play it all the time. It’s my go-to travel instrument.

Folks! I hope you had a wonderful October and have a great November. I’m already excited about recording my annual holiday tune and I can’t wait for you to hear it. If you’d like to sing or play along with “I Love You”, here’s the song sheet.

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Here’s what the sunset looked like at Warrior Sound, right before we started to record this song.

Song 45 – Roses

Ack! I’ve had a few technical difficulties this month and have fallen behind for the first time in recent memory. Usually by this time I will have had everything done for days. The video will have been idling, the writeup will have been stowed in a “draft” folder, and all I need to do is click on the “Publish” button for everything to go live. This month… wow! I’m currently uploading the video to YouTube with my fingers crossed, hoping the audio sounds okay…

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As for the story of the song. This one is about a very close friend and I’m not sure I’m allowed to give away too many details. I hate to say that – it feels like I’m cheating you somehow, and I don’t want to do that at all. The lyrics aren’t very cryptic, so you should be able to figure it out. Needless to say, it’s been a rough couple of months. I had originally planned on recording a happy song in September, but it just wasn’t meant to be. Let’s hope I can record it in October! It’s a fun one.
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So, in lieu of a story this month, I’m giving you lots of pictures of the kittens. They just do the things they do.

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Friends, I hope you had a wonderful month and that you enjoy all that October has to bring to you. If you’d like to play or sing along with my new tune, here’s the song sheet.

Song 44 -Nasty Weather

I suppose there are a lot of ways to write a song. Some say you should start with the words, and find a melody that expresses those words, or the meaning underneath those words. Others say you should start with a melody and find words that capture its spirit. Of course, there is also everything in between. I definitely do a little bit of both, and sometimes the words and the melody come out at the same time. These bursts of creativity usually occur during or immediately after a shower.

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Many people asked for pictures from Iceland. Here’s one of me at the start of a hike. That’s the Arctic Ocean to the right.

The melody, once created, suggests a handful of chords (or harmonies) that I can choose from. Often one progression (a sequence of chords) can enhance the mood that the melody implies, creating a bold statement of either joy or sorrow, and another can mask it somewhat, making a more subtle statement. Since I can’t take my guitar or cello into the shower to experiment with various chords, I usually make these decisions shortly after dressing.

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Here’s another picture of that same hike. It was fantastic. There were wild blueberries growing on the side of the trail. They tasted a little sour.

With a verse, or chorus, as well as a few chords in hand, the remaining parts of the song form a puzzle. If I have time, I’ll work on this puzzle as much as I can at that moment, but usually I try to solve it as I bike the work. Often, upon arriving at work, you can spot me in the furthest, most isolated corner in the lobby recording any additional ideas I came up with.

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Of course, you can’t show pictures of Iceland without a picture of waterfall. These things are all over the place.

At the end of the day, I try to remember the song I started in the morning. If so, that is usually a good sign that I should record it, or at least dedicate the time to completing it by filling in the missing pieces . If not, I’ll wait a few days and see if it comes back to me. Again, if it does, then it goes into the pile of tunes worth serious consideration. If not, I usually let it slip away. Sometimes songs sit in the “pile of songs worth serious consideration” for years before being finished. Some puzzles are harder to solve than others.

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Of course, I can’t just show you pictures of Iceland. The cats need to be given proper representation as well.

This particular song, “Nasty Weather”, came to me in the form of a chorus, both words and melody at the same time. After singing it a few times, I realized that the line “we’re in for nasty weather” was a quote from an old Talking Heads song called “Burning Down the House”. Although I have no idea what that Talking Heads song is actually about, the reference reminded me that friend I once played in a band with was getting divorced. The news struck me pretty hard because the couple, at the time, were inseparable. It seemed like it was just a few years ago that I played my cello during their wedding ceremony. And from this memory, the backbone for the verses was formed. The rest of the song came together in the two days that followed.

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Folks! I hope you had a great month. Mine was wonderful. I spent the first half of it in Iceland admiring the waterfalls (featured in the video) and enjoying the nature. If you’d like to sing or play along with my song, here’s the song sheet!

Song 43 – Maybe It’ll Go Away

I hope I don’t ruin this song by telling you that it’s about my hernia. I’m not sure how many rock songs are about hernias, but there can’t be many, and this might be a first. The story behind this song has two different sides – “before and after”. Let’s start with the “before”.

My general attitude towards health problems is to hope they will just go away. I know that sounds naive, but colds never last more than a few weeks; minor aches usually take care of themselves. Most burns, blisters, cuts and bruises, while painful, just need a bandaid and some patience. Thus, when I first felt hernia pain, my instinct was to think “maybe it’ll go away.” It didn’t.

It was a long time before I asked a doctor for help. Years. When I finally asked, I was relieved and hopeful that now, with professionals doing all that they could, the pain would finally go away. And it did, for a few months. When it came back, fiercer and meaner than before, I went through another, shorter “let’s wait and see – maybe it’ll go away” phase.

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Robert pulled double duty on this song – playing conga drums and a traditional drum kit.

When I asked for help the second time, the first test result came back negative – suggesting that there wasn’t anything wrong with me. This was depressing and confusing. Was everything in my head? Should I have waited longer and healed on my own?

Ultimately, you know how the story ends. I had surgery a second time and, fingers crossed, I’ve been cured.robert_on_drums_20160720.jpg

So that was the dark “before” part of the story. Now we’ve come to to fun part.

When I returned home to recover from the second surgery, I was flooded with love and support from so many friends and loved ones. People brought me food to eat, games to play and books to read. And I can’t remember how many times someone moved something heavy for me. It was touching and humbling to have so many people care for me in so many ways.

That spirit of helping me out was carried over to the recording of this song. Robert, Brian and Al (from Warrior Sound) went way above and beyond the call of duty to make this song a reality. Without them, well, let’s not even try to imagine what this would sound like without them. So, from rehearsals, to recording, to mixing – at each step – I was given an amazing amount of help to make this happen.

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Since the kittens are not in the video, I’ve included a picture that I took right before my trip to Iceland. They grow larger and larger (and more lovable) each day! In fact, the black one, Poe, is sleeping in my lap, right now,as I type. The grey one is sleeping at my feet.

Even though this is a song about an unusual subject, I hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed making it with my friends. If you’d like to sing or play along, here’s the song sheet.

Song 42 – Another Day

This song is for my neighbor, and every bit of it is true. But there’s a lot that leads up to it, so let me tell that part here.

Just over 3 years ago I moved into a beautiful new house built by Paul Snow. One very pleasant, and unexpected bonus was my new neighbor; a retired professor. Although I feared he would be annoyed at me for the noise and bother from the construction, we hit it off immediately. Even though he was over twice my age, he was quick to smile and joke and we spent afternoons sipping wine on the front porch telling each other stories and discovering how much we had in common.

My neighbor turned out to be a living history book about all of my heroes. He told me about hearing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. give a speech in St. Louis. He told me about going to a classical music master class with Igor Stravinsky. And he told me about chance run ins with nobel prize winners.

So it was a big shock when, one evening, a police officer knocked on my door and asked if I had seen my neighbor recently. Someone reported that he was missing. After worrying for a week, we found him being treated for cancer. This came as another big shock. The good news is that the treatment has been very successful. He’s back home and just as friendly and funny as ever before.

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Here’s the latest instrument to join the family. It the awkwardly named “Baritone Tenor”. It plays a relatively subtle role in this months song – it adds body and fullness and sits between the higher guitar line and the bass. You can hear what it does most clearly at the onset of the last chorus.

I hope everyone had a great month. Mine had it’s ups and downs. It started with surgery, but it is ending with me feeling very optimistic about my recovery. Today I walked for 40 minutes without any noticeable pain. If you’d like to sing or play along with this one, here’s the song sheet.

What’s up the cat videos? (or, What happened to SoundCloud?) When I started recording a song each month, 3 and a half years ago, I never thought I’d record more than a few songs, tops. At the time, SoundCloud was an easy way to share my music. It had some nice features (you could download the MP3, for example) but it also had a limit on the number of songs I could upload. Back when I started, I was pretty certain I’d never get close to 40 songs, but as time went by, I proved myself wrong (I’m up to song 42 and I’ve got at least 6 more floating around in the back of my head waiting to be recorded). So, having run out of SoundCloud space, I had to put my music somewhere else. YouTube will host as many song as I write, for the rest of my life, so that’s what I eventually settled on. The reason I use cat videos (for now) is that I usually spend all my spare time on the song, but I’d still like to have a little something for you to look at while it plays.

Song 41 – Say Your Goodbyes

This song is about pain. Specifically, the pain of rejection, which is just about the worst kind that I can imagine. I used this song to put my own physical pain in perspective.

Early in May, it became clear that the hernia surgery I had in February was a failure. Up until the recurrence, I had been feeling great. I had been pain free for 3 months. My jogging was stronger than it had been in years. The possibilities of what I could do, physically, seemed limitless, and I no longer feared getting out of bed each morning. I daydreamed about hiking to the tops of mountains and running races. But then, right after telling my friends I had recovered, I felt an intense ripping and stabbing sensation that brought everything to an end.

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The ultrasound machine they used on me was so fancy it had a knob to control the space/time continuum.

To be honest, the pain was so intense and so different from what I felt before that it took days before I realized something was very wrong. I kept hoping it would go away on its own – that it could take care of itself somehow. But it just got worse; an ultrasound and physical exam confirmed the need for additional surgery.

This was a relief. My worst fear was of an inability to diagnose what was wrong. This happened early, when a CT-scan said there was nothing abnormal. But the final diagnoses made me optimistic for the first time in weeks. I knew there was something that could be done and that I might feel better sometime soon. In the meantime, I tried to keep things in perspective, and that’s what this month’s song did for me. It’s a sad one for sure, but it helped me through a hard time.

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Both Red and Poe enjoy the window seats around the house.

I’m looking forward to June. I’ll start recovering and I hope I’ll feel better. I hope you have a great June, too. If you’d like to sing or play along with this one, here’s the song sheet.