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Archive for the ‘Project Song’ Category

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SOUNDTRACK: MOBY-One Song, Two Days, Three Versions (Project Song: May 4, 2010).

Project Song was a nifty little show that NPR Music created.  The premise was that NPR would give a musician some prompts and a recording studio.  They then had two days to write and record a song.  I don’t know how much of the process was to be filmed, but presumably most of it. Then it would be edited down to a fifteen minute show.  The results are pretty cool and it’s a shame they only made five of them.

The fifth and (presumably) final one they did was about six months after the previous one.  This Project was offered to Moby.

Moby generally works alone in his New York apartment, but for Project Song, we asked him to bring along a collaborator. He picked Kelli Scarr, a Brooklyn-based singer and songwriter with a breathtaking voice. They arrived at NPR, a bit nervous and eager.

It takes weeks, even years, to write a song. NPR Music’s Project Song challenges musicians to do it in just two days. And every Project Song participant has worked right up to the last-minute — that is, until Moby.

He and collaborator Kelli Scarr finished their song in a little more than a single day. In fact, they had so much time left over, they recorded a second version of the song. And after that, they gave a small concert for the staff at NPR.

I kicked off the songwriting process by showing them a series of photographs and words. The surreal images came from New York artist Phil Toledano; you can see more of his work at NPR’s Picture Show blog. Moby and Scarr are both drawn to an image of a man in the woods wearing a trenchcoat. [Moby: “A disconcerting loneliness that I really like”].  There’s a brown briefcase on the earthen floor beside him, and his head looks like a glowing storm cloud.

Next, I gave them a series of words to choose from. Moby picked the word “flight.” Scarr chose “Sunday,” which Moby calls “the most depressing day of the week.”

Not too long after, Moby puts the card with the word “Sunday” printed on it, along with the photograph, on a nearby chair. He picks up a bass guitar and immediately starts playing a riff in the key of E. Turns out, this hastily played bass line would become the bedrock for their new song.

Just six hours later, the first of three versions of “Gone to Sleep” was recorded.

When he arrives he says he thought about cheating with chords ahead of time, but he likes the idea of jumping headlong into a project.  And as the blurb says, within minutes he’s got a bass line, some synths and drums.  Then a guitar line and more keyboard sounds.

Then they work on lyrics.  Moby says, “My favorite type of unsettling art is art that isn’t immediately unsettling.”  he cites the classic example of “Mack the Knife.”  You first hear it and it’s happy and then you listen to the lyrics and its terrifying.

The end of the video clip plays the whole song, guitar and piano and atmospheric.  Then over the closing credits they play a somewhat less atmospheric, gentler version of the song.  And then there’s the Tiny Desk which is altogether different.

It’s like Moby broke Project Song by making it seem too easy.

[READ: July 27, 2017] “Christina the Astonishing (1150-1224)”

I’ve read a few things by Vladez Quade, but this one is quite different from anything else.  It’s actually quite different form anything else I’ve read, period.  The closest author this reminded me of would be Brendan Connell, who likes to thoroughly investigate a historical character (real or imagined).

But this story is based on an actual; person:

St. Christina the Astonishing has been recognized as a saint since the 12th century. She was placed in the calendar of the saints by at least two bishops of the Catholic Church in two different centuries (17th & 19th) that also recognized her life in a religious order and preservation of her relics.

The story tells of her life from the point of view of her older sister and is written in a rather formal, almost canonical, style with section headings in an old style: “How She was Led Forth from the Body and How She Lived Again.”

The narrator, Mara, tells us that Christina lay dead in her coffin, a grave awaiting her.  Mara is sad, she loved Christina, “I see this now.  She was difficult, unknowable but I loved her.”

But at the same time she says that perhaps if they had hastened, outrun the melody.  If we’d only got those last words out, “He might have spared us our miracle.”

For indeed, the dead Christina not only rose bodily from her coffin, she levitated to the rafters. The narrator and her sister Gertrude clutched each other in fear. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: CHRIS WALLA AND J. ROBBINS-Create ‘Mercury’ (Project Song: October 12, 2009).

Project Song was a nifty little show that NPR Music created.  The premise was that NPR would give a musician some prompts and a recording studio.  They then had two days to write and record a song.  I don’t know how much of the process was to be filmed, but presumably most of it. Then it would be edited down to a fifteen minute show.  The results are pretty cool and it’s a shame they only made five of them.

The fourth one they did was over a year and a half after the previous one.  This Project was offered to Chris Walla (of Death Cab for Cutie) and a performer he’d admired, J. Robbins (of Jawbox and Burning Airlines).

What made this project especially difficult was that the two had never even met before they stepped into NPR’s performance studio.

I supplied some inspiration for their song: photo collages created by artist Tom Chambers [The picture are really, really cool]. They chose a photograph of a house in a canyon filled with water, tilted and flooded. Not far from the house is a dog on a boat, floating either toward or away from the house. I also supplied a series of words. They selected the word “cerebral” and promised when they wrote the song not to be too cerebral about it.

Unlike the pairing from Georgie James, this pair is instantly excited at the possibilities–changes and ideas.

Robbins says he will not write any lyrics, it takes him a month and a half to hone them,

But it didn’t take long for Robbins to pick up his bass guitar, for Walla to pick up a guitar, and for the two to begin their musical friendship.

They were inspired by JG Ballard and his drowned world series. In these books there are people who know the world is dying but they embrace it as a forward movement into the unknown

J. get a great bass line right away (its sounds very Death Cab, interestingly).  Bob asks about the music and J. says the music sounds like a dog on a boat heading towards a half-submerged house.  And Walla is singing the word “mercury.”

Walla and Robbins were joined by Robbins’ friend, drummer Darren Zentek.

He adds a wonderful beat and the song sounds great.  They get excited filling out the possibilities–end on the bridge!

Walla goes off by himself to write lyrics.  And Robbins works on a piano part.  And then things really come together when Walla picks up the 12 string.

The song they created, “Mercury,” takes its subject matter from that photograph, which is a bit of a cataclysmic scenario turned into a song about the climate crisis.

The result has a definite Death Cab feel, but with Robbins and Walla alternating lead vocals it is a different, wonderful thing.

[READ: July 23, 2018] “I Walk Between the Raindrops”

This story centers around Valentine’s Day.  But it’s a T.C. Boyle story so there’s always something else to look forward to.

I love the way this story opens with Brandon the narrator telling us.

This past Valentine’s Day, I was in Kingman, Arizona, with my wife, Nola, staying in the Motel 6 there, just off the I-40. You might not think of Kingman as a prime location for a romantic getaway (who would?), but Nola and I have been married for fifteen years now, and romance is just part of the continuum….  Were we slumming?  Yes, sure.  We could have stayed anywhere we liked…and if it’s not ideal, at least it’s different.

They were there because Nola’s father lives nearby and they decided to pay a visit and to let Nola search for antiques.  They went to Denny’s (the only place her father will eat), and after eating, Nola went antiquing and Brandon went to a bar to wait for her.

It’s not unfriendly (despite some graffiti like “fuck you, liberal pussies” (which he chooses to take as ironic), but he doesn’t order a Pinot Noir or anything.  (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: NELLIE McKAY-Reveals ‘Cavendish’ (Project Song: April 2, 2008).

Project Song was a nifty little show that NPR Music created.  The premise was that NPR would give a musician some prompts and a recording studio.  They then had two days to write and record a song.  I don’t know how much of the process was to be filmed, but presumably most of it. Then it would be edited down to a fifteen minute show.  The results are pretty cool and it’s a shame they only made five of them.

The third one they did was five months after the previous one.  As with the Stephin Merritt project, McKay was solo, but she had a lot of problems and recriminations.

When I invited Nellie McKay to participate in Project Song, I figured she’d write some witty words and hammer something out on the piano. I don’t mean to make it sound so simple, but listen to the music of Nellie McKay, and she’s the one who makes it seem so easy.

McKay came into our studio looking as if she’d just walked off a movie set. In fact, at times in conversation, a young Judy Garland came to mind. She took great care with her curly blonde hair and her beautiful pinstriped suit.

I laid some photographs [all from the Library of Congress] and some words on our makeshift bar for her to consider as jumping-off points for the song she would write over the next few days.

It didn’t take long for McKay to settle on a black-and-white photograph of some men dancing the Charleston out in front of a movie theater. To go with the picture, she chose the word “Bravado.” Those two things would inspire and inform her song.

And then, despite a bit of hemming and hawing, McKay proceeded to sit behind the grand piano and begin drawing musical staff lines on some note paper. She began composing her song.

Although perhaps the consternation and questioning was more of her conscious mind, because it sounds like she was much more confident than she appeared.  “Why couldn’t I have written a song in secret and brought it in and pretended to be confused?”

Here’s what I now know that I didn’t know at the time: In just a few hours of playing at the piano, Nellie McKay wrote her song. I know that now, because I can look at the zoom lens of our video camera and see all the scribbles in her notebook. The words are mostly there, and so is the music.

She pokes out notes on the piano and scribbles in her book.  Then she plays the ukulele (with wah wah).  She hems and haws quite a bit, playing with Bob’s computer to make three distinct drum parts.  She talks with Bob.

“Its hard enough to do a bad pastiche which is what I’m aiming at now.  This is the worst thing, I wrote a complicated bad song.”

She finally asks Bob, the constant cheerleader, “where’s your cynicism, you work for NPR?”

From my perspective in the control room of our studio, what I heard for the better part of our first day was some tinkering, some scribbling, and more tinkering. She’d pick up the ukulele and play more piano, but I couldn’t hear a song emerging.

Then she plays some cello on top.  Then it’s on to some haunting backing vocals.

Bob’s mind is boggled: “to put down the uke part first after what I’ve heard, why not play the piano first?  Her answer: “I’m sick of the piano!”

She says she’s big on secrecy and doesn’t understand how other people did it.  Before revealing that she decides to put down “the thunderclap, perhaps the loon, a little bit of backing vocals, and then I’ll freak out a bit more and then I’ll try to do the main vocals.”

The lyrics, however — and even the title — were a closely kept secret until the final hours of the final day.

Then she reveals the dramatic, multi-faceted, three-part song.  It is stunning that she came up with this.  There’s sound effects, spoken word, Latin rhythms and then a torch song part with horns and falsetto.

And this is it, a song about a London hotel called the Cavendish. A song about some of its guests, like D.H. Lawrence and The Beatles, and of better, simpler times. A wonderful theatrical journey from Nellie McKay — someone who seems connected with the past and unsure of her present.

The Cavendish was a real hotel.  They went through a lot of change.  The hotel has been through two wold wars.  The Latin part is exotic–lovely and yet unsettling.

[READ: January 24, 2018] “The Gulch”

The centerpiece of this story is vile and horrible even to think about.  The story begins with it, it focuses on it but then it also kind of dismisses it at the end.

The story is basically about three juvenile delinquents who have crucified a boy in their class (he did not survive).  It begins with a description of the cross they created with pressure-treated wood and rope from a neighborhood laundry line.

It is written in a kind of casual style from Detective Collard’s point of view.  There’s lots of parenthetical asides “The one who dreamed up the scheme (for lack of a better word).”

One of the boys admitted to digging the hole but then said he wasn’t there in sport or heart. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACKGEORGIE JAMES-Builds ‘Monument’ In Two Days (Project Song: December 17, 2007).

Project Song was a nifty little show that NPR Music created.  The premise was that NPR would give a musician some prompts and a recording studio.  They then had two days to write and record a song.  I don’t know how much of the process was to be filmed, but presumably most of it. Then it would be edited down to a fifteen minute show.  The results are pretty cool and it’s a shame they only made five of them.

The second one they did was with Georgie James

Georgie James is a band on the rise [Note: they broke up on August 4, 2008]. The duo makes smart, infectious pop with tight harmonies and jangling guitars — an upbeat and innocent sound that’s made its debut album (Places, 2007) a sleeper success.  Georgie James got its start when drummer John Davis’ former band, Q and Not U, disbanded in 2005.  Davis turned to his singer-songwriter friend, Burhenn, to forge something new.

At first, the two seemed like an unlikely pair. Davis had spent the past seven years releasing records with his bandmates on the legendary D.C. punk label Dischord and touring the world. Burhenn, on the other hand, had been releasing solo projects on her own label, Laboratory Records, and playing smaller venues on the east and west coast.

They eventually settled on a stark but serene image by New York photographer Phil Toledano, depicting a bare room with a large pile of books stacked in the middle. For the phrase, the band chose “Something Joyful.”

Their process seems tense to me.  But maybe that’s just how they bounce ideas off of each other.

He chose the words “something joyful.”  She chose David Bowie and 45.
She likes the pile of books in empty room–she sees it youthful and he sees it as disuse, disrepair, neglect.  They decide to use that picture and the phrase “something joyful.”

She plays piano melody banging out ideas for the tune on the first day. There’s lots of discussion and back and forth–very different from Merritt’s solitary style.

“It’s really difficult when you have two people who are trying to meet in the middle,” Burhenn says. “We each had a different vision of where this was going to go, and to try to very quickly throw that together is a difficult thing.”

They change styles.  She suggests maybe a Talking Heads’ vibe.  She sings it in a David Byrne-ish drawl but he doesn’t like it.  She says this is turning into a nightmare and fears the song sounds like John Cougar Mellencamp or Rod Stewart.

But in the final hour they pulled it out.

Davis added drums, bass and guitar. The two layered the sound with multiple harmonies and hand-claps.

Two days later, they had a song they called “Monument.” It’s a three-and-a-half-minute pop gem that marries the contrasting loneliness of the photograph with the spirit of “something joyful.”

As they walk out she says, “I think it’s awesome.”  And it’s very catchy.

[READ: February 2, 2018] “All That Glass”

This is a peculiar story that starts out seemingly reasonable and then just goes off the rails.

A man says his wife no longer wants to sleep in the bedroom anymore.  He took it as an attack against him and wondered what he did.  But she ignores that and says she wants to move into the conservatory.  He agrees but says that “All that glass, it gets cold in there at night.”

She moves some basics into the conservatory.  He thought it was odd, but it gave the conservatory a good spring cleaning.

It was cold in there at night  She wore extra clothes though, and that was that. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: STEPHIN MERRITT: Two Days, ‘A Million Faces’ (Project Song: November 4, 2007).

Project Song was a nifty little show that NPR Music created.  The premise was that NPR would give a musician some prompts and a recording studio.  They then had two days to write and record a song.  I don’t know how much of the process was to be filmed, but presumably most of it. Then it would be edited down to a fifteen minute show.  The results are pretty cool and it’s a shame they only made five of them.

The first one they did was with Magnetic Field’s singer/songwriter/wizard Stephin Meritt.

Merritt is quite prolific so this seemed like it would be no big challenge.  They showed him six images and six words.  He had to choose one picture and one word.  He chose a picture and the word 1974.

Merritt does most of his writing sitting in a bar, with throbbing music in the background.

“Some recording artists write in the studio,” he tells All Songs Considered host Bob Boilen. “I think they’re crazy.”

So for the first installment of a new multimedia experiment called Project Song, All Songs Consideredset up a bar for Merritt in NPR’s Studio 4A, an expansive wood-floored room with plenty of space for a creative artist to spread out and experiment. We supplied him with a grand piano, an assortment of other keyboards (including a ’70s MOOG synthesizer), drums and guitars — even a sampler, from which Merritt extracted the sound of a vintage Mellotron.

The photograph he chose, by artist Phil Toledano, is an incredible image of a man covered head to toe in what looks like a bodysuit made of baby dolls.

In Merritt’s imagination the man shape shifts as a criminal.

For the music, he chose a “Shepherd tone” which is the illusion of ever ascending pitches.

And then we watch Merritt recording instruments and vocals and talking to the recording engineer.

It is very cool to see how this song evolves with bass, guitar, synth and more added in.

The final two minutes wrap up his take on.  He says he would normally work a lot longer.  There is only one section to the song. (It’s verse no chorus?) Yes.   The song is based on a loop because he finished the song sooner than he might have.  “But I write lots of fairly simple songs, and I like this one.”

[READ: Feb 3, 2016] “Silk Brocade”

Once again Tessa Hadley easily transports me to another time and place.

In this story, we meet Ann Gallagher, a talented seamstress who has started a small business with her gregarious friend Kit.  They are going to make couture dresses and more.

Unfortunately, old friends of theirs have come a-calling.  And today, Nola Higgins straight from Fishponds, has come asking a favor.

Turns out that Nola is getting married to nobility and she hopes that Ann can make a dress from some gorgeous old silk brocade that was in his house.  Ann is fully intending to turn her away–saying that Nola will never be able to afford their work–until she learns about the money. (more…)

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