Midnight Clear

A friend e-mailed me yesterday – “Julia! Where’s the family Christmas video?!” And I realized I had only posted it on Facebook and not shared it through my other usual online portals.

I’m so touched and encouraged to hear every year from loved ones who look forward to this. Yes I am unmistakeably an introvert, but the older I get, the more I treasure the presence of others in my life.

So – happy holidays to you and yours! May you be filled with courage and kindness as you step into the new decade. We need you today and always – your voice, your face, your perspective, the passion, joy, challenge, wisdom that only you can bring us.

No Hard Feelings

This is one of those songs I’d categorize as a cautionary tale, a vision of what the wrong thing looks like. I think it’s about apathy, about what we stand to lose when we choose to stop caring. Maybe a nod to T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men.”

Except, of course, for the moments I quoted in the second verse – Neil Armstrong’s moon walk, Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech envisioning racial harmony, Woody Guthrie’s song about roaming and rambling freely across the land, Carl Sagan’s poetic musing about our fragile home. These are moments of vision, passion, generosity – moments where people cared.

More of that please.

All we ever were
All we can become
Wrapped up in a moment
Setting with the sun

No hard feelings
It’s as easy as walking away
It’s the kind of simple stupid thing
That people do every day
No hard feelings
They just flow with no effort from me
Down the river of what might have been
Out to the salty sea

Small step for a man
I have a dream
This land is your land
Suspended in a sunbeam

No hard feelings
It’s as easy as walking away
It’s the kind of simple stupid thing
That people do every day
No hard feelings
They just flow with no effort from me
Down the river of what might have been
Out to the salty sea

Verdict

If week 34 of #songaweek2018 hadn’t been during summer vacation, I would probably have taken the time to multi-track this song. Would have loved to get some juicy vocal layers in there, but instead I contented myself with wailing through a live take. It was enough, and left time to play games and go to the lake with my kids while we soak up these last days before school starts again.

The suggested theme was “verdict,” so that’s the title. Because the song is sort of about, “what’s the ultimate thing we have to say about everything?” Or if you prefer, “what’s it all about?” Or “where’s it all headed?” For a serious-minded person who spends a serious amount of time contemplating death and the cosmos, I have this inimitable weed-like hope. It’s a weed like some sort of wildflower, dying back and disappearing for months at a time, but then inevitably springing up again, even bursting into colorful flower when the season is right.

Autumn is coming, and I know my mood will deepen and darken along with the days. But hope, like all living things, needs to sleep now and then, and I’ll hold on and stand guard while she’s out cold.

And if I spend the end just running from the dark
And if I keep my deepest love choked in my heart
Why do the stars still shine at night?

And if I hold my cold desire like a curse
And shun the sunlight from my meager universe
What is this breath that fills my hungry lungs
This song that rises from my thirsty tongue?
Aah . . .

And when it all is bound to fall like dying leaves
And bonds we make are sure to break like brittle trees
Why do the seeds keep taking root?

And if these years will end in tears and certain loss
and when I keep the faith it leads me to a cross
What is this hope that grows inside my bones
This love that stretches out to the unknown?
Aah . . .

There is a siren in my mind compelling me
It’s like a word that I once heard –
before I learned to speak
Aah . . .

No Strings Attached

These days it feels like everything’s for sale and getting more expensive. Even as some things actually get cheaper financially, we’re all paying higher prices with the health and well-being of our shared life on this planet.

But that’s not entirely true. So much around us is just given, generously and constantly, day after day, night after night. No strings attached. And yet we would benefit by paying something for these gifts – attention.

This song (for week 29 of #songaweek2018) was partially inspired by my reading of Elizabeth Kolbert’s book The Sixth Extinction, as well as Episode 313 (“Right to Roam”) of the podcast 99% Invisible.

The sky’s all yours for the looking
The birds all round you are singing for free
No strings attached
No strings attached

The ground’s all yours for the walking
and running and jumping and kicking up heels
No strings attached
No strings attached

Fly . . .
Fly . . .

The night’s all yours for the dreaming
The moon and stars keep shining for free
No strings attached
No strings attached

The rock’s all yours for the climbing
The trees and mountains and fences and walls
The world’s all yours for the wandering
Your life’s all yours for the living
No strings attached
No strings attached

Won’t You Come Home Antonio

The idea for this song came somewhat randomly to me a couple weeks ago, so I made a quick recording of the tune which became the chorus. I also had this name, “Bill Bailey,” connected to it in my mind, as in “won’t you come home Bill Bailey?” and it seemed vaguely familiar. Sure enough, my subconscious was aware of this old jazz standard written in 1902, even though when I pulled it up to listen I didn’t recognize it at all – and the tune idea I had was different.

The suggested theme for week 21 of #songaweek2018 was “apology,” so “won’t you come home” seemed like a good place to start. I initially sang the song “won’t you come home sweet darlin'” – but then thought a specific name would make it feel more real and folksy. Of course I wasn’t going to use “Bill Bailey,” so I went searching for three-syllable male* names. An “o” in the second syllable to round out the assonance in “won’t you come home” would be a major bonus. “Antonio” held on as my favorite even though I have to roll the last two syllables together to make it fit; and a very helpful group of my Facebook friends weighed in with a hefty list of actual three-syllable names when I requested it.

It was fun writing the song in a way that you can’t really tell who needs to apologize here, or what happened. A bit of open-ended fiction the listener can fill out as they please.

Oh, also recently I really enjoyed hearing this rebroadcast of a This American Life episode (#339, Act One) I remember hearing the first time. Usually I skip the rebroadcasts but I really like this one, about writing breakup songs. So I was thinking about that too when I wrote this.

Won’t you come home
Won’t you come home
Won’t you come home Antonio
Won’t you come home
Won’t you come home
Won’t you come on home now

I got beers in the fridge
I got tears in my eyes
And a heaping helping of humble pie
If you come back tonight I got some presence for you
I’m gonna stay by your stay by your
stay by your stay by your side

Won’t you come home . . .

You might think you got me figured just because you’re my man
but I think you better try to understand
I might be crying on the outside
But I’m crying on the inside,
crying on the inside too

Won’t you come home . . .

I don’t want to leave you I don’t want to lose you
I just want to stay here and love you
I could probably fall in love with the whole wide world
But I want to get specific,
I want to get specific with you

 

*There are plenty of three-syllable female or gender-neutral names I might have used instead, but since the song later refers to “my man” and “man” needs to rhyme with “understand,” this time I wanted a male name.

Bloomington Avenue

Last Sunday we trekked over to Minneapolis to see my daughter and her friend – and lots of other revellers – in the annual MayDay parade put on by In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theater. While watching, I thought, this might be Bloomington Avenue’s favorite day of the year, when for a few hours cars aren’t allowed and the street gets to feel dancing feet and music and laughter and the best things about the people in its neighborhood celebrating the return of spring.

Then later that day I looked up the suggested theme for week 19 of #songaweek2018, and lo and behold! it was “streets.” And so I wrote this song and made a video with footage I took while watching the parade. I’ll probably never actually perform this song, may never even revisit it, but it was fun to put it together.

Well aint you the lively one
Aint you the lovely one
There is something different about you today
The people of the city look good on you
Extracted from their cars

Bloomington Avenue look at you shine!
decked out in your Mayday finest
No more snowy white coat
And just for now
For a couple bright hours on a Sunday afternoon
Filled with dancing flowers, stilt-walkers and balloons
We can hear your heart beat

beautiful feet dancing over you
Drums reverberating off of you
Music and laughter and color everywhere
The only tires are bicycle tires

My Own Heart

With over seven billion people in the world now and the Internet giving many of us instant access to publish whatever we create, it’s easy to completely ignore all the good work that’s come before us. That’s partly why I enjoy setting old poems to music. It’s a little like sneaking vegetables into casseroles for picky kids.

Another reason is because it helps me engage on a deeper level with a poem, because I’m reading and speaking and singing it over and over as I work out a rhythm and a melody. The words get to work on me more than when I just read them straight through.

And usually by the time I’m finished making a poem into a song, I also have it memorized – a mental exercise I don’t perform enough in my post-academic life.

Here’s Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem, “My Own Heart,” with more or less the chords from that old favorite “Heart and Soul.” My song for week 18 of #songaweek2018.

My own heart let me more have pity on; let
Me live to my sad self hereafter kind,
Charitable; not live this tormented mind
With this tormented mind tormenting yet.
I cast for comfort I can no more get
By groping round my comfortless, than blind
Eyes in their dark can day or thirst can find
Thirst’s all-in-all in all a world of wet.

Soul, self; come, poor Jackself, I do advise
You, jaded, let be; call off thoughts awhile
Elsewhere; leave comfort root-room; let joy size
At God knows when to God knows what; whose smile
‘s not wrung, see you; unforeseen times rather—as skies
Betweenpie mountains—lights a lovely mile.

Teeny Tiny Little Bit in Love With You

Well, at last – a happy simple song! Guess I was feeling a little drunk on spring which has finally come, in full force, to my part of the northland – and remembering the spring I met Nathan and how it felt to fall so hard in love.

Just a quick rough recording on my phone, made while facing the new sheetrock in the kitchen so I could enjoy a little natural reverb.

I don’t need to say much more about this song (for week 17 of #songaweek2018), except that tomorrow my beloved and I celebrate twenty years of marriage, and I’m thankful to be able to say, I’m still a teeny tiny little bit in love with him.

Oh, and yesterday we played it with our band and it was an instant success! I’m excited to perform this one.

There’s word going round about a woman you know
They say she’s trying to hide what she can’t help but show
so I looked her up and sat her down for a talk
But she couldn’t sit still so then we went for a walk
And the spring in her step and the thrill in her veins
And your name on an endless looping track in her brain
Told me everything I needed, yes the rumors are true
I’m just a teeny tiny little bit in love with you

She said she’d meet you tomorrow, tonight or right now
Don’t matter where or why, or what or how
It’s mainly just the who that she cares about
And you know that’s you, you’re the one who makes her shout
To the flowers and trees, to the birds and butterflies
About how you make her feel like she just opened her eyes
On a world bright with beauty and this radical truth
I’m just a teeny tiny little bit in love with you

I like to think of her and you in closer quarters
I like to think you’re thinking of that too
I hope that you and she could find a place to loiter
I hope you’re hoping for that same thing too

Well I suppose I’ll have to come down from this natural high
nothing lasts forever but the wondering why
but you could come with me on my hike back down
to my everyday life in an everyday town
And hold my hand and own my heart
and share with me a house and a car
Cause while it ebbs and it flows, this current stays true
I’m just a teeny tiny little bit in love with you

Old State New City, Home As I’ll Ever Be

It’s been a few months. Of leaving Colorado, loading all our stuff in storage and living in my parents’ basement, looking for houses in Saint Paul (we finally got the fifth one we offered on), getting kids launched into new schools, updating drivers’ licenses and vehicle registrations, you get the idea.

We’ve been moved into our new house for just over a month now, and we’re starting to get reacquainted with living in the Twin Cities, eleven years after we left it. There is so much going on here, and I’m excited to dig into it! Last Saturday we went to hear The Salt Vine and Annie Mack at the Aster Cafe; Tuesday night we sat in on a dress rehearsal for Sam’s Son, an upcoming musical; and last night Nathan and I biked over to Humboldt High School to hear the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra give a free concert for residents of our neighborhood – and then on over to Wabasha Brewing to sample beers from our most local brewery (we were not disappointed – Cathedral Porter and Darktober, mmm!).

I’m eager to start playing music here again. We’ve got some big renovation projects happening in our house that will take a lot of our attention for probably the first year we’re here, but I’m hoping to at least get out and hit a few coffee shops soon.

In the meantime, here is a very rough laptop recording of a song I wrote this summer. (We haven’t gotten the recording equipment set up yet.) You can glimpse our gutted kitchen through the doorway behind me! Reminds me a little of this video Nathan and I made years ago in the house we gutted in Owatonna.

Lyrics:

You’ll never recognize your life’s undertow

That subtle subcurrent stays hidden

Till what you should have done a long time ago

Meets what you are because you didn’t

Keep your eyes open wide

Wear your heart on the outside

Clowns and cynics clog our pocket scrolls

We search for angels on the airwaves

We trip and tangle in the threads of trolls

Ensconced in our respective enclaves

Reach your mind towards the light

Hold your soul through its dark night

Keep your heart open wide

Wear your eyes on the outside

Of all of this cursed and kissed existence

You may not feel it for a long hard time

But joy comes ever back around

And nothing beautiful stays in the lines

And demagogues eventually fall down

Raise your voice through the haze

Hold my hand through these dark days

Keep your ears open wide

Let the best songs inside

Of all of this cursed and kissed existence

 

Cloudy Days, Starry Night

It’s been a rough few weeks of gray and rain here in usually-sunny Colorado. But I am happy to report that I will be playing out tomorrow night. I’ve even got a couple brand new songs to play!

The show will be 7:30-9:00 pm on Friday May 22nd at Starry Night Espresso Cafe, 112 S. College Ave in Fort Collins. (www.cafestarrynight.com)