Category Archives: Further into Songs

Further into Songs // Chris Kiehne – A Widower’s Kind

 

“Further into Songs” is a PHW feature that traces the roots and inspirations behind some of my favorite songs I’ve featured on this blog.  The best part is the thoughts come directly from the artists themselves. 

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Chris Kiehne has released two endlessly listenable folk albums this year.  The first was a collection of gorgeous zombie-inspired originals called Pray for Daylight which sort of plays out like The Walking Dead meets Our Endless Numbered Days.  The second has an even stranger premise – A Widower’s Kind features re-imaginings of 10 Hank Williams’ songs.  Recorded in a two week burst of creativity, the album takes some of Williams’ most morbid songs (his words) and updates them with newly added lyrics and themes – about a 50/50 split according to Kiehne.  Though it might seem like sacrilege to change such classic material, he makes it work beautifully, and, below, adamantly defends his right to attempt something so severely uncommon:

 

I’ve wanted to undertake a project like A Widower’s Kind since I first heard Hank’s song, “The Angel of Death.”  This would have been sometime late in my high school career, when I first picked up The Complete Hank Williams.  “The Angel of Death” led me to sort of unconsciously internalize this sub-category of Hank songs, these overtly mournful, spiritual songs about death and loss that he’d written and never properly recorded or released.  How or why exactly I was so suddenly moved to rewrite them all decade later (I wrote and recorded A Widower’s Kind in like two weeks, which, for me, is bafflingly quick) is a mystery.  The writing process was pretty effortless; I wanted to amplify the senses of loss, mourning, and resigned loneliness in the songs, and I wanted to minimize (for the sake of some narrative complexity) the overtly Christian “escape-routes.”  At the risk of walking directly into a semantic minefield, I’ll say that I don’t tend to consider any songs or texts or anything inviolably sacred.  So, while I can’t exactly imagine anyone actually improving upon “Famous Blue Raincoat” or “Surf’s Up,” that doesn’t mean that I don’t think they should try.  If narrative theft and revision was a legitimate creative exercise for Will Shakespeare, it’s good for me.  And that is my official stance on why I would ever attempt to disassemble and rewrite ten of my favorite Hank Williams songs. 

I read a pull-quote recently from someone involved with the “Hank Meets Mermaid Avenue” project that Dylan is spearheading, and it’s essential articulation was, “How could I ever claim to have co-written a song with the incomparable Hank Williams?”  I’ve spent some time thinking about that – and about my own outrageous presumptuousness for claiming exactly that – and while I appreciate the artist’s earnestness I clearly don’t share it.  To me, this whole process of writing songs or stories or drawing dog portraits or whatever it is you do, it’s about contributing to and propagating a lineage.  The whole process is genealogical, not divine.  You participate in a dialogue with a song or a book or a painting and then you respond to it.  The influence of whatever document is internalized and then rearticulated and modified and that’s where the progress comes from.  There’s not a shot in hell I’d be writing anything except Friday the 13th fan-fiction had I never read Shakespeare, John Cheever, Nabokov, whoever.  I incriminate those dudes with direct responsibility for everything I produce.  And if I didn’t believe that country singers hadn’t elevated the art of lyricism and song-craft in that half-century since Hank’s death – that people like Willie and Merle and Dolly and Keith and Gram Parsons and Gene Clark hadn’t called the corners and channeled Hank’s ghost and pushed the enterprise forward – then I wouldn’t be too optimistic about this whole business of writing songs. 

What is sacred is Hank’s voice.  That thing is a celestial weapon; it’s not going anywhere.  Song-craft and production and technical limitations, these things are plastic and evolving.  But people are still just mostly people and our internal cords, our guts, the emotional landscapes that we stumble across, I don’t think they’re much different than they’ve ever been.  Hank’s gift was that he had this voice that bypasses all intellectual or critical circuitry and death-grips those unchanging gut-cords and just rips them apart.  I don’t think I’m going to irremediably ruin any of Hank’s songs by rewriting his words.  I actually think I’ve improved a couple.  But I’ll save anybody who thinks they can outperform Hank the trouble: nopers.

It was thinking about Hank’s voice that most directly influenced (and altered) A Widower’s Kind.  I tend to be a pretty unreasonable perfectionist when I record, which is a sad thing.  I feel like I too-often inadvertently sterilize what might otherwise resemble a song with some vibrancy.  I had recorded most of a sort of proto-Widower’s Kind, cleanly, multi-tracked with folk instrumentation and arrangements, but the more I listened to that version of the album, and the more I listened to Hank’s own versions of the songs I was modifying, the more frustrated I became, because the Widower’s Kind I had recorded just didn’t seem to have anything to do with those parts of Hank that I admire and envy, the expressiveness of his voice and it’s capacity to instantaneously create and embolden the subtext of a song.  So, with a little help from Old Overholt, I scrapped the initial version, sang the tunes live into GarageBand (I still regret not using the old analog Tascam, but it’s at my parents’ house in Baltimore), and called it done.  My voice obviously isn’t quite a billionth of the instrument that Hank’s was.  But, still, this was the first time on record I’d ever really focused on it, focused on singing as an expressive act, focused on trying to express that subtext.  Generally, I’m of the Bill Callahan approach: get the words across, and do it plainly.  The words matter.  But while I recorded Widower’s Kind, for the first time, I did it with a complete disregard for the text itself.  I think it’s the best my voice has sounded on record, and I’m happy with that.  It was ultimately that decision that transformed this thing – which otherwise was really just a creative exercise to keep limber – into something that I’m pretty proud of, something that I hope might do some gut-cord ripping of its own. 

 

MP3  ::  My Sweet Love Ain’t Around

MP3  ::  I Can’t Get You Off Of My Mind

(from A Widower’s Kind. Download here)

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Further into Songs // The Creepy Crawlies – “Get Buried!”

“Further Into Songs” is a PHW feature that traces the roots, influences, and creative process behind my current favorite songs.  The best part is that the words come directly from the artists themselves, so there’s little of my hyperbolic nonsense.

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With its swooning back & forth boy/girl vocals, honeyed melodies, and slyly biting lyrics, “Get Buried!” might just be 2011’s quintessential indie-pop song.  You hear sometimes about songwriters being overcome with inspiration and banging out tunes like this in 5 or 10 frenzied minutes.  That wasn’t exactly the case for Chris Donlon of The Creepy Crawlies, who below expounds on the somewhat labored creative process behind this seriously re-playable jam:

Some people will ride a wave of inspiration and write a complete song in 5 minutes. This has maybe happened a couple of times for me, but usually I seem to let time bend the original inspiration, and warp it into something a little different. 

A good example of letting time be a songwriting partner is “Get Buried!”.

Around 2008 I had recently acquired my first electric guitar by a stroke of luck. My uncle gave me a free guitar he had picked up from Craig’slist, but the catch was that it was deconstructed in a box, so I had to re-build it. I replaced strings, springs, tuning heads and more and ended up with an electric guitar that played fantastically. It’s almost embarrassing to admit because of how basic it is and how long it took me to discover, but playing an actual electric guitar was very liberating and I couldn’t wait to write songs with it. (by the way If you ever want to fall in love with an instrument build it yourself)

Also around this time I was listening to a lot of formative shoegaze bands like Black Tambourine, The Field Mice, the Jesus and Mary Chain, and Henry’s Dress and I was feeling the urge to try and create a loud, straight-forward pop song with interesting textures. I went scavenging through my storehouse of song ideas and came across a melody I had written several years ago as the poppy ending to a slow song I had never recorded. It was catchy and simple – “let’s let those bad feelings get buried again”. Kate and I talked about it and we decided that it deserved to be a chorus and have it’s own song, so I extracted it and began to write new verses around it on my new crush of an electric guitar.

In the original context the song was more genuinely celebratory. The Bad Feelings had been defeated. While I wrote the new verses, in a process kind of like finding a letter you had written in a time capsule and responding to it with where you are today, I knew I wanted to write something that would contrast and complicate the chorus. The lyrics are pretty direct I think, but in essence they sum up a period of time where I was working a lot, feeling like a slowly shrinking speck in an indifferent universe, and worried that life was passing me by.   

As for denial, here’s what I’ll say: hypothetically you are headed for a cliff. It is unavoidable. Do you spend your time staring at the cliff, agonizing about how far off it is, how rapidly you’re approaching, and what it will be like to finally go over it? Or do you perhaps close your eyes, enjoy the sensation of the wind blowing through your hair, accept the adrenaline thrill of the ride and turn the radio on?

Like the songwriting, the recording also took place over time – from 2008 to 2011. I recorded a demo and the demo simply evolved, layer by layer, month by month, in fits and spurts, into what it is now. There are 3 layers of guitar: one clean, one electric, and another with a kind of envelope filter effect on it. The drums are electronic and have the original samples and a layer where I sent the drum signal to an amplifier and recorded the output, a process called “re-amping.” There are two bass parts playing together throughout the verses. Two keyboards: one ambient and a hammond playing the more melodic parts. As I learned about different recording and mixing techniques I’d go back to the song and tweak it, but I always kept in my mind the idea of getting “buried” in the sound, to have tectonically shifting textures creating an immersive experience without losing a “pop” feel. Basically trying to create as big a sound as I could from my bedroom and with my limited engineering knowledge.

So yeah I’m a fan of letting songs grow and ripen at their own pace, whatever it turns out to be. I often think that if I have anything, it’s not enormous talent, just enormous patience.

MP3  ::  Get Buried!

(from Denial Is A Free EP. Download here)

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Further Into Songs // Antiques – “Everybody! Do the Twist”

“Further Into Songs” is a PHW feature that allows artists to expound on the roots and influences behind great songs. 

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I had no idea what I (and in turn, you) was (were) in for when I asked Antiques, my official band of Summer 2K11, to share some thoughts on a song from their excellent recent album JWNS.  The album, which has been blasting out of my car windows for a few weeks now, continues to impress both for its ramshackle charm and its echoes of vintage 90’s lo-fi and garage rock.  Here Timothy Griffiths sheds some light on the fantastical manner that album highlight “Everybody! Do the Twist” was conceived:    

The song “Everybody! Do the Twist!” originated in a series of images that came to me one night while I was having difficulty sleeping.  One specific and disconcerting image kept returning to me, again and again, every time I closed my eyes.  The image consisted of a gaunt Christ-figure formed entirely of bits of metal and wire and swathed in a large linen robe of sorts that billowed in the soft wind.  The cloth was very sheer and it was easy for me to discern the grotesque outline of the metallic structure underneath.  All around this ghastly apparition were gathered dozens of diminutive rat-faced men, appearing no larger than fifteen or twenty inches in height, though it was difficult to be certain of that, as I had little with which to compare them.  They could have been giants at a distance, I suppose.  In any case, these rat-faced things were perched on various platforms erected around the Christ-figure in a dizzying array; cantilevered, kaleidoscoping and swing-like constructions– it is impossible to accurately describe the nature of that bizarre edifice, or, indeed, how it remained standing.  Each of the rat-faced men had a button or a lever on his platform, and these were pushed or pulled at times with a concerted fury, at other times with indifference, and sometimes not at all, seemingly at the whim of each individual, and the collective manipulation of these devices produced a corresponding movement of the Christ-figure, which writhed or compressed into a ball or spun wearily in circles.  I found myself simultaneously horrified and, perversely, entertained by this scene, much in the way one is frightened, yet also titillated by the demoniac masterworks of Bosch and Bruegel.  Sleep would not come to me while in this excited state, so I rose from my bed and began to pace around the room.

As I paced, I began to think about something a friend had told me a few days earlier, when we had chanced to meet at a restaurant called The Brawl, a favorite of mine.  He, after consuming a few too many drinks, began to relate the utterly odd and tragic story of his father’s death at the hands of his mother.  His mother, he told me, had worked for years in a small convenience store in the country, and was often alone in the store during the slow hours of the night.  His father, unbeknownst to the other members of the family, was a prolific thief, responsible for a spate of armed robberies stretching across three counties.  Whenever news of these robberies showed up on television, the husband would turn to the wife and say, “Honey, I know you’ve got that little silver pistol hidden under the counter at the store, but I want you to promise me, if you ever get held up, that you won’t even think of using it.  It won’t do you no good and it’ll probably get you killed.”  The wife always agreed to this request, as the pistol wasn’t hers (it belonged to the store’s owner) and she had never been entirely comfortable with having it under the counter.  After the husband had heard several such reassurances from his wife, he decided he would rob the store.  He entered the store in the middle of the night, dressed in clothes unfamiliar to his wife and with his face covered by a mask; he also carried a large rifle, which he had left unloaded.  He yelled loudly for everyone to put their hands up, then he ordered his wife to open the cash drawer.  The store’s only patron at that hour was an elderly man who often wandered in during the night and became trapped in the aisles.  This elderly man, having become quite agitated at all the commotion, stumbled into a shelf of soup cans and managed to knock several of them onto the floor.  Upon hearing this noise, the husband spun and pointed the rifle at the old man, his finger tense on the trigger.  The wife, fearing for the elderly man’s life, pulled the silver pistol from beneath the counter and fired two bullets into her husband’s chest.  As he lay on the floor, bleeding, she stripped off his mask and only then realized what she had done.

My friend told this story to me and confessed that lately he had been feeling more and more uncertain that his mother had been unaware of his father’s identity on that strange night.  “How could she have missed it?” he asked me.  “There had been dozens of thefts, all that money coming in, my father sneaking around at odd hours.  She must have had some idea.”  This terrible thought, that his mother had in fact knowingly murdered his father, was beginning to have a disturbing effect on my friend.  He told me he had been drinking far too much.  He told me that he had lost his job.  I was deeply concerned for his well-being, but didn’t know what to say.

With these disharmonious and worrying thoughts clashing in my mind, I sat down and began to write the song that would eventually become “Everybody! Do the Twist!”  It is my firm hope that the song conveys to you, the listener, some remnant of what I felt on that sleepless night.

All Best,

Timothy M. Griffiths

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MP3  ::  Everybody! Do the Twist

(from JWNS. Buy here)

Previously:

MP3  ::  ETC

MP3  ::  Forgiveness

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Previous “Further Into Songs”:

Arrange – “Ivory Carpets”

David Shane Smith – “Benzene”

Dirty Beaches – “Lord Only Knows”

Disappears – “Revisiting”

Shakysnakes – “You, You, You”

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