Thursday, December 19, 2013

A New Christmear List



Though I never liked to admit it, Christmas has always been one of my favorite holidays. Life just gets better around Christmas--houses get covered in lights, the world smells of sugar, cinnamon and pine, the weather gets cold (and traditionally drizzly for my family), and there is an abundance of ridiculously delicious food.  I loved it when the boxes would come in from the garage and I got to put up all--and I mean all--of the Christmas decorations. I loved building little houses out of graham crackers while watching A Charlie Brown Christmas. And when I was a child, I loved the magic of waking up in the morning to find that the living room had been flooded with piles of neatly gift-wrapped, and sometimes GIANT, packages.

I used to make long lists of toys, but these days it has gotten difficult for me to think of things that I want that a person could go to a store for. Honestly, presents are nice, but being with family and good friends, and feeling taken care of is plenty. I guess I've gotten old...But in the spirit of the holidays (in some twisted way or another) I have spent some time making a list of Christmas wishes (that I mixed with shadows of New Year's resolutions and revolutionary fervor) for your perusing.

This year, I would like

  • To shake things up
  • To bring soul back to culture
  • Lyrics to have meaning
  • Music to have feeling
  • Dances to have story
  • To invoke silence to provoke thought
  • To pique curiosity and instill a desire--no a drive--to discover how we fit into the universe, be it through art or science, discussion or reflection (I want more reflection, by the way--there is so much to take in but we give ourselves so little time to digest), or a mixture of both, all and/or everything
  • The acknowledgment that the emotions we feel are as complex as the colors we see
  • The acknowledgment that it is okay to feel
  • You to come with me on a journey to discover not why we are here, but rather what it is like to truly be here
  • You to absorb all the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, feelings, emotions, words, thoughts, beliefs, situations, resolutions, chaos, clarity, craziness, kindness, lightness, darkness, suffering and satisfaction, and savor every bit of it
I can get myself some of the things on my list. Can you get me the rest?

A very happy, healthy(ish) and reinvigorating holiday season to you! I will see you in the new year (or sooner if I get ispired ;) )!

Be bold.

R

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Fixtures and a Phantom Audience



It was a one mile walk from the train station--the farthest I had ever piggy-backed my guitar. I kept expecting the wide thoroughfare I was walking to narrow into a cozy downtown street, but streets tend to not bend to my will.

The store was smaller than I expected and much louder--there was a rock duo practicing on the stage in the back. This was not the scenario I had in mind when I got on the train earlier that evening. I thought I was tonight's main attraction...To be fair, I was allowed to perform, but I was to perform on the empty sidewalk in front of the store and compete in loudness against the band inside and the speeding cars on the road.

I felt like an indoor cat thrown into the wild. Months of performing in the same cozy coffee shop had left me comfortable and soft. There are so many more distractions outside! And nowhere to focus! And it felt so ridiculous to fight to be heard when it seemed no one was listening.

Okay, well, actually, I was lucky and a friend of mine came to support me, but even then I found myself wondering, "Why am I doing this? Why did I travel for an hour to get here? Why am I trying to fight all this noise? Who cares? Who even knows that I'm here?" It's so easy to ask those questions and look for a reason to quit, because feeling like your presence doesn't matter tends to make you feel worthless and simply not happy.

But the thing about trying to succeed as a performer, or even just as a person wandering through life, is that you never know who is actually watching or listening. You don't know how thin the walls are, how good someone's hearing is or how far your illumination travels. You don't know the extent to which you are affecting your surroundings or, perhaps more profoundly, someone's life. And you may never know.

So, to quell the barrage of questions running rampant in my head, I reminded myself that I was not there for accolades and praise. I was there to gain experience and more importantly, I was there to make the world better in whatever little ways I could . I was there to be a floor lamp-- an unnoticed fixture in a room I could help light--because it's not a matter of how pretty or appreciated the lampshade is, but a matter of how bright the glow.

Be bold.

R

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Grease Monkey: The Magical Grime Beneath Our Fingernails

Here it is--the last of my Outlines and Offerings and the second (and final) "hidden track"!


I was never really a "car girl." I don't read Car and Driver. I don't keep rankings of horsepower or top speeds. Indeed, I probably wouldn't be able to tell you much about any car beyond the color and the company that made it (and only after looking at the hood ornament), but one summer my dad decided it was time for me to learn some basics about cars. And he was going to teach me on his old car.

I loved it. I loved crawling underneath its belly to bleed the brakes. I loved climbing into the engine compartment to change the spark plugs. I loved the fact that it had about eight keys to open all the different doors and compartments, and even with all those keys, you still had to coax and encourage the doors to open. Once we got it running, I loved the growl of the engine and the fact that you had to spin the steering wheel like you were on the teacup ride at Disneyland to make it turn. I loved the thought that I--as tiny and mortal as I am--could make such a huge, hulking, timeless beast of a car come to life.

And when I left it, I missed it. I missed the feel of its steel curves under my hands. I missed the physical labor that working on it required. I missed feeling like I was doing something that altered the world.

As much as I appreciate modern technology ( I wouldn't be able to do what I do without it), I think it can prevent us from getting our hands dirty and learning how reality works. It can keep us from building things, fixing things and understanding how we fit into the universe.

Working on that car reminded me how amazing and complicated our creations are and, more importantly, helped me rediscover the beauty and joy of existing in a tangible world.

Now mix all that with a love song.





Grease Monkey
By Rachel Oto

He was a mechanic
Grease spots on knees
He was friends with the concrete floors
And subtleties of how things work
How we could make things work

But, oh my sweet lovely, I’m blind
Suffering all my sweet losses
Like you

He took my naïve hands in his rough palms
Looked in my childish eyes
Told me, “Stay strong”
But I was never strong

But, oh, my sweet lovely, I’m blind
Suffering all my sweet losses
Oh, my sweet lonely goodbye
I should be pure and strong
Like you

Like you
Like you
Like you

‘Cause, oh, my sweet lovely, I’m blind
Suffering all my sweet losses
Oh, my sweet lonely goodbye
I should be pure and strong

Like you
Like you

Like you

Thank you for listening to these Outlines and Offerings. I will continue to post regularly and try to keep things thoughtful and musical.

Be bold.

R

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Bess: Hidden Tracks and Hauntings

Before I dive into today's song, I would like to announce that I will be performing at Meowmeowz Rock Shop in Pasadena this Friday, around 6 PM. Come out if you're in the area!

We are in the last week of songs for this round of recordings, and for all intents and purposes, these last two songs are the "hidden tracks."

I loved hidden tracks. They were the songs I imagined the artists would play if, for some miraculous reason, they decided to visit my house and put on a personal concert. Or they were the songs I imagined only I would know the lyrics to when they asked for volunteers to come up onstage to perform with them. They were the songs that proved what a devoted fan I was. I guess they served their purpose...

Anyway, at around the same time I was "finding" all the hidden tracks, my eighth grade literature teacher was begrudgingly exposing my class to poetry. She didn't really have anything against poems, but she made it very clear that she was against the "sad" poems that talked about lovers who were "stupid" enough to kill themselves in despair.

The title has gone through some transformation 
One such poem was Alfred Noyes'  "The Highwayman," a ballad about a thief who loves the inn-keeper's daughter, Bess. It was dark, romantic, violent and ended with death. It was all the things that my teacher didn't care for. I guess I was significantly more romantically-inclined than she was.

To me, it was the most beautiful poem I had ever read, and once I had read it (and re-read it) there was no way I would ever forget it. Indeed, after many years, it resurfaced as inspiration for a song.

As has the chorus
I was trying to write a song that absolutely wreaked of melancholy and heartbreak. I wanted a song to sing as I held my knees to my chest and pined for the boys who didn't love me. I wanted a song that would spear a hole into your gut and make you feel like your soul was draining out. I wanted a song about true love, pain and sacrifice, and as I tried to figure out how to write that song, I remembered "The Highwayman" and how it made me feel the first time I read it.

A change in the point of view, a journey into the emotions of a lover, a few tweaks to the story and lots of playing around with chords, and I had it.





Bess
By Rachel Oto

They’re on to your scent
To your cape and your clatter
They don’t sleep as soundly these days
They’ve all seen your face and the bounty beneath
But they don’t know I know it better
Better

Don’t leave without the brush of
My hair on your flesh and my kiss on your breath and
Tell me you’ll take me with you
One day soon, someday soon

They’re waiting in shadow
Til you leave my window
And ride down the trail to their men lurking
They’ve bound my wrists tight
A bullet my heart its site
And I will warn you with my own life

Don’t leave without the brush of
My hair on your flesh and my kiss on your breath and
Tell me you’ll take me with you
One day soon, someday soon

You heard my call
You fight them all
You hold me in your arms
You close my eyes
And whisper, “I love you”
And follow me far away
Far away

Don’t leave without the brush of
My hair on your flesh and my kiss on your breath and
Tell me you’ll take me with you
One day soon, someday

Don’t leave without the brush of
My hair on your flesh and my kiss on your neck
Tell me you’ll take me with you
One day soon
Someday soon

They’re on to your scent
To your cape and collateral

Be bold.

R

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Ash On the Ground: Lighting Fires

It started with a poem:


And as these things happen, it eventually turned into a song. A song based on the idea of internal fire. A song that ended up being about pain I didn't know.

I have been very fortunate in my life and have always found myself surrounded by the best sorts of people--supportive, caring, generous and kind people. Thus, the story arc of "Ash On the Ground" breaks the "write what you know" rule--I honestly don't have any firsthand experience with the situations presented in this song.

At least in terms of plot points I don't have any firsthand experience with the situations presented in this song.

But for me, it was never really about all of the terrible things that happen to the speaker, the abusive relationships or the suffering. It was a song of rebellion, a battle cry, a declaration of...self-ness. It was about courage, inner strength and self-validation. It was about claiming your place in the universe. It was about facing adversity. It was about overcoming adversity.

I don't know what it's like to be hurt in the exact ways I wrote about and I hope that doesn't make me sound duplicitous or disparaging, but I do know what it's like to realize your own worth. If you have ever been hurt in the ways I describe, there is very little I can say that will make things any better (real life is more complicated and painful than song), but I hope that the fire within you burns bright.





Ash on the Ground
By Rachel Oto

Father’s wonderful
Like a bayonet
Love with every strike of his steel hand
Baby don’t cry
Baby don’t cry
You’ll be alright
You’ll be alright
He says
Girl, this world’s a gun pointed at your head
Every bone I break is so you’ll make it
So you’ll be strong
So you’ll be strong
Baby I’m strong
Baby I’m stronger
And I’ll show you tonight
I know

He’s the blaze, the bang, the bite
He’s the flame, the fiercest fight
He’s the burn to keep me down
And I am just ash on the ground

Tommy’s beautiful
Like the jaws of death
Ring on every finger that has graced my head
Baby don’t cry
Baby don’t cry
I say
You’ll be alright
You’ll be alright
Nothing like the bruises blooming on my flesh
Bouquet of his love will be all I get
Nothing is wrong
Nothing is wrong
He says
Baby I’m strong
Baby I’m stronger
And you’re too weak to mind
I know

He’s the blaze, the bang, the bite
He’s the flame, the fiercest fight
He’s the burn to keep me down
And I am just ash on the ground

This can’t be it
This can’t be it
I’m more than this

Got to go on
I got to go on
Got to be strong
I got to be strong
Got to move on
I got to move on
Baby I’m strong
Baby I’m stronger

I’m the blaze, the bang, the bite
I’m the flame, the fiercest fight
I’m the fire you can’t put out
You are just—you are dust

I’m the blaze, the bang, the bite
I’m the flame, the fiercest fight
I’m the fire you can’t put out
You are just
You are dust
You are just

Ash on the ground

Be bold.

R

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Donut: Glory of the Suburbs


Back to regular posting. I hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving--I certainly did! There is something rejuvenating about going home to family and feeling taken care of. And eating a LOT of good food. Yes, I love going home to see my family and old friends, but when it comes to the activities available in my hometown, the feelings aren't always so amiable.

See, my sleepy little suburb, okay, technically very industrious, huge, kind-of-sort-of suburb-like city, goes to sleep early. If you want to hang out with friends outside of your house after ten o' clock (sometimes nine o' clock), your options are limited. Sometimes you sit in the car on the driveway and chat, sometimes you go for long meandering drives, but my friends and I usually end up at the local twenty-four-hour donut shop. It's not very glamorous, and more often than not, it's rather crowded, but it's a place where you can get out of the cold, indulge in relatively not-stale, fried, glazed treats and talk with old acquaintances.

I can't say that I keep close tabs on all the people I knew in high school, so it's usually interesting catching up with them, but sometimes these late night conversations leave me feeling...lonely. Or as though I'm not living on the same planet as the people I'm talking to. Or at the very least, as though we are speaking very different languages.

And there it is again--all the glorious angst!





Donut
By Rachel Oto

Hole-filled cakes for
Hole-filled hearts at
Dead-end hours in
Low-end cars
Slowly losing
Sugar-coating
On the table
A soul pours
A coffee stain

Maybe you would get me
If I could offer more
Eighty cents on the counter
Smiles dropped on the floor
But no one moves to
Claim the loose change that falls

Hole-filled cakes for
Hole-filled motives
Creamy centers
Every order
And words leave stains
Dried-up pain

Maybe you would get me
If I could offer more
Eighty cents on the counter
Smiles dropped on the floor

Maybe you would get me
If I could offer more
Eighty cents on the counter
Smiles dropped on the floor
But no one moves to
Claims the loose

Change that falls
Change that falls
Change that falls
Change that falls

Maybe you would get me
If I could offer more
Eighty cents on the counter
Smiles dropped on the floor

Maybe you would get me
If I could offer more
Eighty cents on the counter
Smiles dropped on the floor
But no one moves to
Claims the loose change
No one moves to
Claim the loose
No one moves to
Claim the loose
Change that falls


I might have to attempt to make donuts now...

Be bold.

R

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Duned: Biceps and Brooding

In high school, I was convinced I was going to die alone surrounded by handmade quilts and a bunch of pet snakes. I always felt a little too dark and sarcastic to be worth pursuing, and I was pretty sure that no one was interested in me. Was I kidding myself? Quite possibly, but, remember, I was riddled with insecurities as a teenager. It was difficult to believe that anyone saw anything beyond my academic record. Or maybe I was just too scared to believe such things.

Whatever the reasons, I put a spiny, protective spin on my singleness to shield my ego. I wasn't alone because I was ugly or unworthy of companionship. I was alone because I was protecting everyone from me. I was a hazard that needed to be kept away from people, because I was sure that if I let anyone get too close I would hurt them. I would end up driving them away with my darkness and freeze them out with my fears. I didn't want to hurt anyone. I would absorb the hurt for them and stop them before they got too close.

By the summer after my sophomore year of college, I was still pretty convinced I was going to die alone, but by that point I had experience to help justify my position. The details aren't important, but the mindset is...

That summer I decided to write a new song every day. I wanted to really dig into the craft of songwriting and discover what my limits were. I wanted to understand my process and I wanted to experience it under stress. That summer I wrote a LOT. Most of it was just okay, but some pieces stuck with me.

A month in, songs were getting more difficult to write--I was simply running out of ideas. But, one night I found myself sprawled on the living room carpet watching Prince of Persia, and inspiration struck.

I honestly don't remember what happened in that movie beyond Jake Gyllenhaal and his arms climbing up the sides of buildings, but I'm convinced that watching it affected my writing, because what I came up with that night was different from my previous songs. It contained interesting chord progressions and a very strong desert motif.

But while the sound was new, the content was not. Wrapped in the ancient desert sands was teenage pain that hadn't gone away.





Duned
By Rachel Oto

Drink up lips and fingertips, ‘cause I
Will likely leave you parched, desperate and dry

Love
Like water for our lives
I’m a mirage
Shimmer and draw you out to die

Lose your mind while you dehydrate and run for your life
Dream of green and trees with fruit so divine

Love
Like water for our lives
I’m a mirage
Shimmer and draw you out to die

You’ve traveled so far
Forgot where you are
I’m heat and hot sand
Get out while you can

Drink up lips and fingertips, ‘cause I
Will steal all your passion and desire

Love
Like water for our lives
I’m a mirage
Shimmer and draw you out

Love
Like water for our lives
I’m a mirage
Shimmer and draw you out

To die


(NOTE: I realize as I write these posts and expose my soul, just what a mess I sound like and just how many issues I had (maybe still have). I'm not looking for pity or compassion--writing has given me as much catharsis and clarity as I could hope for. It's just that it struck me after writing my first few posts that most people don't really care about the mechanics of songwriting as much as they do the emotions behind it. So, it is with that thought that I give you a look into my mind and provide you with something human to hold on to. However, once these songs hit your ears, they are yours to interpret and integrate into your world as you will. I would love to hear your impressions and interpretations.)

Be bold.

R

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Gray Coat: A Dance with Insecurity

I've gotten better over the years, but when I was younger I was a huge show-off. I absolutely loved getting in front of people and [insert action here]. Sing, dance, sing and dance, act, do cartwheels and walk-overs (both front and back), talk in accents, be absolutely ridiculous, you name it--if I could do it I would and if I couldn't do it you were going to watch me try.

I want to be very clear--my parents were (and still are) very loving and gave me plenty of attention. It was just that...I needed the rest of the world to love me and give me plenty of attention, too. For whatever reason(s), I didn't have very many friends when I was a young child. It always seemed like people didn't want to play with me. I imagine I was something of a bossy and melodramatic preschooler (yes, that's how young we're talking), but I think a lot of my insecurities stemmed from that. 

And from my insecurities (and whatever natural inclination I had) grew my love of performing, because you didn't have to have a ton of friends to be the center of attention on a stage. You could just be you, do your thing and substitute the adoration of a crowd for the closeness of a group of friends. 

Don't worry. Like I said, I've gotten better. I still love performing, but I do have some incredibly close friends who I hold dear. The thing is that we cannot completely get rid of the wounds from our childhood. Part of me will always feel like I don't quite belong, that people don't want to interact with me or don't see me, that I am best kept at a distance, to be observed but not held close, that my worth is only apparent when I am onstage. I realize that these things are probably not true, but these are the scars that I wear. And while most of the time they are faded to the point of being almost invisible, they sometimes flare up, pinch and burn bright.

To be honest, this too has gotten better over time, but there was a point when my scars would appear as I watched others perform--as I wished it was me onstage being cheered by the crowd. I would think about how much the audience loved the performers, how much better a job I could do, how much the crowd would never know, how much attention I was not getting because I was not the one on stage. I would leave shows and concerts feeling jealous and frustrated, because I felt I could do better and I wanted that recognition. 
Do I sound like a horrible person yet? 

I learned. Shows are to be experienced and enjoyed. Performers are to be appreciated, encouraged and supported. There is no room to be jealous of our contemporaries. That is not to say that there is no room to try to be better than our contemporaries, but there is no point in letting pride and/or insecurities get in the way of what is supposed to be entertainment.


However, an emotion as strong as jealousy sure does make for interesting songwriting.




Gray Coat
By Rachel Oto

Through the haze of lantern-lit
Smoky rooms with gold coins spent
On shots of courage with a twist
On coasters on an old oak bar
Heels stomp a salted stage
Ruffled skirts kiss fishnet legs
This the best parts of their days
Hoping to attract her gaze
From me they all look away
But

Slip me in a red lace dress
And I’d bewitch and make them twitch
Oh, I could make them want me fast
Just as she makes castanets
Of their hearts
She burns her mark on their poor hearts
Each fiery dance
It’s clear I never had a chance
Here

Condensation starts to drip
Down the sides of glasses sipped
And down the sides of minds unzipped
With all the ways the night could end
Roses thrown at dainty feet
A graceful bow, but doesn’t meet
Their hungry eyes as she retreats
Disappointment squirms in seats
And not a second glance
But

Slip me in a red lace dress
And I’d bewitch and make them twitch
Oh, I could make them want me fast
Just as she makes castanets
Of their hearts
She burns her mark on their poor hearts
Each fiery dance
It’s clear I never had a chance

The tab is paid and I slip out on crowded streets
The sidewalk full of pretty girls in pretty things
Me and my gray coat pass by so quietly
They don’t know what they’re missing
But

Slip me in a red lace dress
And I’d bewitch and make them twitch
Oh, I could make them want me fast
Just as she makes castanets
Of their hearts
She burns her mark on their poor hearts
Each fiery dance

Slip me in a red lace dress
Just as she makes castanets
Of their hearts
She burns her mark on their poor hearts
Each fiery dance
It’s clear I never had a chance
Here

Just for the record, you don't need a red lace dress to get noticed.

Be bold.

R

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Monsters: Rats, Cats, Misery



The house looked nice enough. The floors had just been redone in most of the rooms and the kitchen...Oh, the kitchen! The kitchen had these beautiful, huge counters that screamed to be covered in platters of homemade cookies and cakes. Yes. It looked nice.

But that was because we couldn't see the vermin running in the walls. We couldn't see their beady eyes staring at us from under the cupboards. We couldn't see their little rat faces going through our things (at least in the beginning), but man, could we hear them.

Thudding in the walls, scurrying behind the oven, thrashing under the sink, and one terrifying night, rustling and squeaking in my bedroom as I tried to fall asleep. Many nights were spent making angry cat noises in the dark trying to keep the rodents away. I know that rats are smaller than me, but that doesn't stop them from being scary and unwelcome.

I guess there is some truth in the idea that our struggles give us material to write about, because in my frustration and anxiety over the rat infestation, I was inspired to write lyrics to a tune I had been working on for months. It was a song complete with lines about "beady eyes searching the floor," "hasty hands through careless piles" and heavily veiled references to rat poison. It was great! And then I re-read what I had written and went,"Are you kidding me? A song about rats???"

There's really nothing wrong with a song about rats, but to me this song just felt so...Domestic? Contrived? Not cool? Like an ad for an extermination company. That's what it was--this song could have been the anthem for some pest control operation. I put it down, let it simmer on the back burner.

Writing about rats wasn't going to work, but the first draft did start me in the right direction. Working in my favor--though I don't think I realized it at the time--was the underlying concept about fighting things in the dark. At some point (almost a year later), I realized what I needed to be fighting. I had to fight what we all fight in the dark--our monsters.

I wouldn't say that it came easily. If you look at my notes you'll find many, many layers of edits and rewrites, but in the end, it seemed to come together.




The landlords never took care of the rat problem, but thankfully I have since moved out of that house. However, while the rats are gone from my life (hopefully), there are still nights when the monsters come out, and at those times, it's nice to have a song to combat them with.



Monsters
By Rachel Oto

Shadow crawling ‘cross the floor
Crept right under the closed door
Hope that it’s a dream
Hope that I don’t wake screaming

Darkness slinking to my bed
Blistered lips beside my head
It’s getting stronger
Loneliness is a monster
Whispering my missteps
It goes on and on and I want

Sleep or I want sun
I begged it, “Please
Leave me alone”
Pleaded

Don’t haunt me with my suffering
I made my choices and drink their poisons
Don’t eat me have some mercy please
Frighten myself with all my misery

Sharpened claws around my throat
Evil weight press out my hope
Red eyes are gleaming
 Calm turns to rapid breathing
Slimy arms take hold
And I am told I must be bold if I want

Sleep or I want sun
I told it, “Leave
Or there will be blood”
Told it

Don’t haunt me with my suffering
I made my choices and drink their poisons
Don’t eat me have some mercy please
Frighten myself with all my misery

 
Turn the lights off
Let’s go
I will win this round
Turn the lights off, let’s go
I can take you down
Turn the lights off, let’s go
Turn the lights off, let’s go
Turn the lights off, let’s go
Turn this nightmare right around

You don’t scare me with suffering
I make my choices and know their poisons
Won’t get me begging on my knees
Go spend the night with all your misery

‘Cause you won’t scare me
You don’t scare me
You won’t get me begging on my knees

Go spend the night with all your misery

Here's to fighting our monsters, both in our walls or in our heads.

Be bold.

R

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Stained: Specific to Universal


Sometimes I write because I'm inspired. Sometimes I write for the release. Sometimes I write because it's an assignment. I would complain, but writing a song for class is just about the most fun type of homework I can think of.

"Stained" was one of those "assignment songs." For a songwriting class, we were instructed to write a ballad (which was defined as "No faster than 65 beats per minute"). For some people that's easy. For others, like me, that's something of a challenge--my default tempo is around 180 bpm.

So, I was moseying along like a lethargic horse and managed to come up with a chord progression and melody that I liked. Actually, if my memory is to be trusted, I came up with the chorus pretty quickly. I remember making the conscious decision to keep it really simple, because in my mind there is little as boring as delivering a lengthy, verbose chorus at a snail's pace. And then repeating it. So, very early on the chorus was set as this:

Oh, you seep into all that I see
Oh, you seep into all that I see


The problems were the verses. With the chorus set as it was, it felt right to have the verses be lists of the things that "seeped into all that I see." The issue was coming up with what those things were Actually, coming up with things that could be "stained" wasn't really the issue either. In a darker time I had written a poem about all the things that reminded me of someone special and it contained a rather long list of things. No, the problem was coming up with the right things.


In a previous songwriting class, we were introduced to the notion of taking specifics about a situation and tying them into universal experiences. Though I had a LOT of specific details to help me write "Stained," many of them were too specific, some of them were just kind of strange, and some of them made no sense out of context. And while I made a few attempts to add context back in, it just slowed down the song (which you don't want to do when you're already going really slowly).

There was lots of writing and scratching out. Lots of brainstorming and scribbling. Lots of trying to figure out what details from my own experience would resonate with other people. This was a song about my own heartbreak and at the same time it needed to be a song about all heartbreak ever. This needed to be a song that people could play in their heads as they hug their knees trying to keep the feeling of humanity inside and the loneliness and sheer emptiness out. This needed to be a song that I could sing to myself when faced with reminders of sweet moments that would never happen again. This needed to be...a song to cry to.

And for me it was. Perhaps it was the stress of the semester or a myriad of other things on my mind, but the first time I played it through to myself...Sometimes you just know you have it right.

(NOTE: I know the assignment required the song to be slower than 65 bpm, but sometimes songs just want to go a little faster than what the teacher wants...)



Stained
By Rachel Oto

Tainted are the city streets, hot French toast and worn out jeans
I pray it will go away
Long train rides and cotton sheets
Rock guitar—these memories are stained
I say, “It’s all okay”
But

You’ve seeped into all that I see
Oh, you seeped into all that I see

Soccer balls and laser beams
Cypress groves
Oh how my dreams are plagued since you went away
Cups of cola with no ice
Stubborn hair and half-closed eyes
They’re stained with all of my pain
‘Cause

You’ve seeped into all that I see
Oh, you seeped into all that I see

There’s no running without stumbling on
Visions of all the things that we have done
All the blocks, boulevards, stars and stairwells are stained
Oh oh

‘Cause
You’ve seeped into all that I see

Oh, you seeped into all that I see

Thanks for reading and listening!

Be bold.

R

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Lo and Behold: Follow the Feeling

Before the fermenting and editing, there is a moment of inspiration. A snippet of melody, a line of poetry, a strumming pattern, a chord change, a picture, a movie, an encounter, a concept--there is something that hooks in your mind and demands your attention--something that makes you feel something. And after you feel that something, the rest of the entire process is following that feeling to a new experience.

For today's song, "Lo and Behold," the thing that caught my attention was a chord progression. I was sitting with my guitar (as I tend to do) and stumbled upon it. The changes were faster than the ones I normally use though the chords themselves were my default chords. It was a little different and a little exciting.

I made some adjustments to arrive at a progression that I liked and then started playing around with melodies. To contrast with the quicker chord changes, I tried holding longer notes in the chorus. While the rest of the song changed dramatically as it went through the writing process, that aspect of the melody--the sustained note at the top of the chorus--remained the same.

At this point, I had no idea what the words were going to be and the melodic lines were still a little...let's say, "loose" for my taste. For me, lyrics tend to form and hold the tune in place, but I had no idea what to write about. And what word could I stick as that important long, first note of the chorus? "Oh" seemed like cheating...


As if to avoid the challenge of the chorus, the first lyrics I came up with were for the first verse. Perhaps I was in a slightly violent mood, but the first line (which I later changed) helped set the tone for the rest of the song:


We bathed in the blood of our captors



The rest of the first verse soon followed, but the chorus! Ugh. There is little as frustrating as knowing that there is a combination of words to express what needs to be expressed and not knowing what those words are or in what order they should be in. Oh, go, slow, show...

After much thought, I did come up with a first line for the chorus that felt right, and with that in place, the rest of the song came together relatively quickly. It also wasn't long before I found myself dancing around my apartment rocking out to my new baby.


In retrospect, it does kind of feels like it "just came to me," but as I think back to the struggle to get it to where it is now, it becomes quite clear that it did not just "fall into my lap." But perhaps that is the magic of certain songs--though the process of getting to the destination could have been difficult, the final product simply feels so right that all the hardships are forgotten and you believe that there was never any question about the destination or of your arrival.





Lo And Behold
By Rachel Oto

I bathed in the tears of the victors
As I stained their words on my hands
I claimed I’d be brave ever after
I promised that I’d make my stand
But

Lo and behold
I am no hero
With only piercing tongue
I am not the one to save us

I walked in the wake of the madness
As I prayed that the demons had left
I struggled with knowing that emptiness
Is all I ever meant
But

Lo and behold
I am no hero
The only bells I’ve rung
Proclaimed I’m not the one to save us

Who will fight the wars
Who will claim the honors
Who will wear the scars
Who will face our monsters
When all hope is gone

Lo and behold
I am no hero
But let the battle come
Prove I am someone

Lo and behold
I am no hero
Ooh, only when I’m done
Will I know I’m the one

Ooh, only when I’m done

Will I know I’m the one to save me

Thanks for listening!

Be bold.

R

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Leap: Lords and Lessons in Editing

Last post, I mentioned the importance of letting your songs stew. Today's post is about the importance of editing and revising.

A couple of years ago during the holidays, I had a "brilliant" idea. Given my previously mentioned love of taking familiar songs and twisting, poking and reinterpreting them into new forms, starting on Christmas Day and for each of the following eleven days, I planned to write a song featuring the corresponding gift sung about in the classic carol "The Twelve Days of Christmas." So, on Christmas, I would write about a partridge in a pear tree, the next day I would write about turtle doves, the next day French hens, etc., until I was writing about drummers drumming.

I don't know if you've ever tried to write a song a day for any extended period of time, but let me tell you, it's not easy--especially if the period of time overlaps Christmas, New Years, and all of the festivities in between and after. Anyway, with some struggle and delay, I got pretty much through the twelve days successfully (I might have dropped the geese a-laying...) and found myself with a handful of new songs.

Some of these songs were good. Some of them had good parts. Some of them were just good efforts. But I let all of them slip from the forefront of my mind as classes started up again. It wasn't until the following year when I was flipping through old works did it strike me that I actually kind of liked my song for the Tenth Day of Christmas--"Leaping Lords."

Or, I liked things about it. I liked the melodies, the choruses and the seed of the idea behind it. Other things, made me cringe. See, when you try to write a song based on "lords a-leaping", you tend to want to mention lords or how they leap even if it makes no sense to do so otherwise. My original first draft illustrated this beautifully. The first verse went like this:
First attempt at "Leap"...Utter nonsense.



Light swords and leaping lords
Mushrooms and magic doors
Go play so far away
Stardust and flooded dreams
Soak into reality and we hope
And we hope we are really seeing



Second attempt at "Leap"...Still kind of out there.
Yeah...I guess at the time I imagined these lords leaping into Alice's Wonderland or some alternate universe. I am happy to say that this wasn't the version I settled on during my holiday writing spree. No. That version looked more like this:




Go on and leap, my lord
This is as far as the world goes
So take a moment's break
Then plant your left foot and push
With all force over the darkness
And stretch into the land you hope is



As part of the project I guess it kind of worked. Kind of. As a song I would want to perform for regular people it didn't work at all. Who was I, the singer of this song? Who is "my lord" and what is trying to do? Where is he going? Why? I think while I was writing this version, I had Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials in my head. The lord was like Lord Asriel, and I was...his assistant, I guess. Whatever the logic, it felt too much like being dumped into a story with nothing to hang onto.

I still liked the choruses though. And I liked the re-write's second verse. From these, I came to the conclusion that this song was not about jumping through holes in the universe, but about jumping from the comfortable world that we know to the mysterious world of the way things could be given enough courage. Additionally, I decided to drop all the things about "my lord"--it was no longer Christmas and who needs unnecessary constraints?

With the new freedom and sense of direction, I was able to shape a first verse and streamline the rest of the song. After lots of prodding, rearranging and thinking (TANGENT! I highly recommend thinking in the shower--your circulation is great, the acoustics are as wet as the tub you're standing in, and no one's there to judge your *shower safe* happy dance when inspiration strikes), this is what I had (the production came later):



Leap
By Rachel Oto

Stories are how we know
This is as far as the world goes
Let’s make a grand escape
Let’s plant our left feet and push with
All force over the darkness
Step into the land we hope is

Beyond the rules
Beyond the rules they lay
Nothing like fools
Nothing like fools
To push the boundaries
And sing as they go

They’re standing at the brink we’re
Further than the world thinks exists
Oh, I insist we are
Out of their earthly reach
Here comes eternity
And all we've dreamed and all we've seen by

Breaking the rules
Breaking the rules they lay
I’ll be a fool
I’ll be a fool
And push the boundaries

Oh, how they fear the leap
Between the warmth of safety
And the sting of maybe, yeah
Oh, how they fear the deep
Dark abyss that keeps you and me
Far from everything they seem to see

Stories are how we know
Stories are how we know
Stories are how we know

Stories are all they know

Amazingly, throughout the entire writing process, the choruses changed very little. The tricky part was figuring out how to support them. Songs are very much like essays. Choruses tend to be like thesis statements (there are exceptions, of course, but generally speaking this is the case) and thus verses, at least in my head, are like the pieces of evidence supporting the chorus.

But, just like when you write an essay, though you may know where you want to go, sometimes it's not clear what words you need to say to get there. You might get lucky, find a flow and simply follow it to your destination, but more likely, you will find it necessary to stop, go back, revise and rewrite, at which point the key becomes not getting discouraged. Making revisions does not mean that you are stupid or incapable of writing. We must remember that writing is a process. Each layer of edits is like a wave wearing down a rock, slowly exposing the gold within.

Thanks for reading and/or listening! Next song coming Tuesday. In the meantime, get excited and...

Be bold.

R

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Mary: Little Lamb Stew

Firstly, I would like to say "Thank you!" to everyone who has Liked my Facebook page so far! The support really means a lot to me and I hope that I prove to be a worthy block of text/picture/video/audio in your newsfeeds.

Secondly, please welcome to the world the first piece from Outlines and Offerings, "Mary"--a song about a "little lamb" who wants to escape the pasture. (It's more badass than it sounds, I swear!)


Given my fondness of wolves, sheep and the twisting of expectations, I guess it isn't surprising that this line popped into my head one day:

Mary was a little lamb

I can't remember exactly what prompted it, but it was one of those lines that brought with it the outline of a song--probably because it was based on a song. But in my song Mary would be a lamb instead of a girl with a lamb. Or maybe Mary would actually be a wolf dressed as a lamb. Or maybe Mary would be unhappy as a lamb. I wasn't entirely sure, so I started writing.


First draft of chorus for "Mary"
I got through a verse and a chorus when I became pretty sure I was going in the wrong direction. The chorus dragged and the melody was boring (I honestly can't recall what the tune of that first draft was), but I wanted it to work so badly! I set it aside and after a few days attempted to write a second verse. It was like decorating a crumbling house. Frustrated, I put it down again.

It wasn't until four months had passed did I pick it back up. I was sitting on my bedroom floor with my guitar amusing myself with a very simple arrangement of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star." After playing through it a couple of times, I started to wonder what other songs I could arrange like that (a simple melody over arpeggiated diatonic chords). I'm pretty convinced my mind had never stopped thinking about my previously abandoned song, because it suggested "Mary Had a Little Lamb." And then it said, "And make it minor."

BAM!

Final draft of "Mary" with revised chorus
That's how I should start my verses!

Everything suddenly made sense. I pulled out the lyrics I had previously written and before I knew it, I had melodically interesting verses and, by my standards, an elegantly simple chorus. I love it when a song comes together.


 A few minor revisions and some production later, I found myself with this:







Mary
By Rachel Oto

Mary was a little lamb
Wide-eyed babe with naïve hands
She had a soul as white as snow
Or so the shepherd said

Secret of a quiet child
She was born of wolves and wild
The field thinks she’s sweet and mild
But if they saw her shed her woolen coat they’d understand
That

Mary, Mary is a lion-hearted lamb
Mary
Mary, Mary is a lion-hearted lamb
Mary

Mary, tired of wearing fleece
Of being a docile, fluffy sheep
Took a chance and jumped the fence
The shepherd fell asleep

At next count, the truth came out
The little lamb was forest bound
The flock thinks that she’ll come around
And wander back down to the pasture
Bat her eyes and eat the grass but

Mary, Mary is a lion-hearted lamb
Mary
Mary, Mary is a lion-hearted lamb
Mary

No hook or crook to follow
No hook or crook to lead her
No, ‘cause

Mary, Mary is a lion-hearted lamb
Mary
Mary, Mary is a lion-hearted lamb
Mary

Mary, Mary is a lion-hearted lamb
Mary
Mary, Mary is a lion-hearted lamb
Mary

Is a lion-hearted lamb
Mary is a lion-hearted lamb
Mary

And that, my children, is the story of "Mary"--the song that needed to simmer for ages, like a stew, before before being served to the public. Actually, I feel that most songs should be allowed to simmer a little before being declared done, and even after they're done, they should be allowed to rest before being served. Songs really are like food for the soul.

Thank you again, for all your support! I hope you enjoyed "Mary"--the next song will be posted on Thursday! Until then...

Be bold.

R