There's a Story Behind Every Song

There’s a story behind every song. I’ve always personally enjoyed learning more of what a song was about, how it was created, the musicians that played on it etc. and I wanted to share those stories with my fans. So, I thought it would be a great idea to write about some of those thoughts and ideas that went into the creation of my albums and the songs on them.  

“Call me Ishmael” - I started to make this album sometime back in 2018. Writing songs was a hobby for me since my early teens.  It was something I worked on, daily, but most of the songs I wrote hardly saw the light of day.  I’d take them out and dust them off occasionally to play at local “Open Mic’s” and that was about it. But in 2014, I read an article that Steve Earle was going to host a songwriting camp” in Upstate NY. It was an easy decision to go as I was a huge fan of Steve’s song writing.  I had no idea what to expect, or what I was getting myself into, but it turned out to be quite the awakening for me. There were close to 100 songwriters from all over the world and as I have said many times since, it felt as if I found my lost tribe. This was where I was meant to be, as we were all kindred spirits with a passion for songwriting. In addition, everyone was also actively recording and performing. I left with the goal in mind of making an album and finally bringing some of my songs to life. But unlike many of my fellow songwriters from camp, I wasn’t interested in recording a group of mellow acoustic songs. I wanted to make an electric album. So, I worked on selecting and re-arranging 12 of my songs that would best fit. As luck would have it, my daughter Kelly introduced me to a recording engineer that she had worked with named Brett Grossman. Brett in turn brought in his friend Stephen Haaker as Producer and then everything started to take off from there. The three of us plotted out the album, rehearsed the songs and went into “Perfect Sound Studio” in Frogtown CA in Sept 2019 to record it.  I wound up playing guitar for most of the album (except for the lead guitar which was done by Sarven Manguiat), Rob Hall played bass, Aaron Durr keyboards, and Stephen Haaker  was on Drums. In addition we wound up recruiting some phenomenal musicians to fill out many of the songs: Fabian Chavez on Saxophone, Jon Manness on Trumpet, Ethan Sherman on Mandolin, and Bonnie Brooksbank on violin. Harrison and Phoebe Crenshaw along with Diana Ortiz handled all the wonderful backup vocals and harmonies, and my daughter Kelly made a guest appearance sharing lead vocals with me on the song “Strung Out”. My son Dan, who writes, designs, and does the artwork for Graphic Novels and Video Games, did all the design, layout and artwork for the CD. Brett Grossman recorded and mixed the album, and as fortune would have it, we were able to get Emily Lazar from “the Lodge” in New York to Master the CD. Of the 8 albums up for 2020 Album of the Year she mastered 3 (including Call me Ishmael) “Call Me Ishmael” was released on July 24, 2020.  One quick note, the CD title “Call Me Ishmael” comes from Herman Melville’s book “Moby Dick”. There is a lot that went into that song lyrically and musically which I plan to explain further. Here’s a clue though, the entire song’s story is revealed in the album cover artwork. Up next I plan to discuss Ishmael, plus each song on “Call me Ishmael” and the stories behind them.

Sunny Came Back 

This song was inspired by a song by Shawn Colvin called “Sunny Came Home.”  Which won her a Grammy for song and record of the year in 1998. I saw her at a show with Steve Earle and Steve would like to say she specialized in writing “Murder Ballads”. The song is about a woman named Sunny who basically burns down a house with her ex-boyfriend inside. I thought that it would be interesting to write the song from the ex-boyfriend’s point of view. So, I wrote this song about a batshit crazy girlfriend (and who doesn’t have at least one of those in their past) who burns down this guy’s house with him inside. I tried to write it in a folk rock, “Eagles” style, with lots of cool guitar riffs sprinkled throughout. Sarven Manguiat did a great job with the lead guitar on this song. I played acoustic guitar, Rob Hall played bass, and Stephen Haaker Drums. Harrison Crenshaw, Phoebe Crenshaw and Diana Ortiz were on back round vocals and harmonies. Brett Grossman and Stephen Haaker handled the engineering and production work and it was recorded at Perfect Sound Studio’s in Frogtown, CA.

Faces in the Crowd 

This was the last song we recorded for the Ishmael album. We recorded it live in the Studio and video taped the recording of it. It’s an older song and dates back to 1976.  We wanted a more acoustic song that we could use to interspace between some of the more up-tempo rock songs on the album and set up the albums third act. So, I took it out of mothballs and dusted it off. Being that the song was originally written so long ago, I went back and re-wrote most of the lyrics for it.  On the surface, this song is about a guy going back to an old hangout from his past hoping that he’ll run into an old flame (that was responsible for him going to jail) In the end she was only there in his memories. The song is also about getting older, the choices we’ve made in life, what we might have done differently and if it would have mattered in the end anyways. The song was originally inspired by the melody and title of the Beatles “I’ve just seen a face” and I also make sure I pay homage to Bob Dylan by referencing that the answers to it all  were still “Blowing in the Wind”. ‘Faces in the Crowd” was recorded at Perfect Sound Studio’s in Frogtown CA.  The musicians on this song are: Sarven Manguiat on acoustic guitar; Bonnie Brooksbank on violin; Rob Hall on Standup Bass; and Stephen Haaker on percussion. Brett Grossman and Sean Kellett were the engineers; and Stephen Haaker and Brett Grossman Produced the song. The video of “Faces in the Crowd” was shot and edited by Noel Ross.

Winter Higland Falls 

I grew up at West Point NY on the Military Academy Grounds. Right outside the South Gate was the town of “Highland Falls”. In the summer of 1975 Billy Joel moved into Highland Falls to write his “Turnstiles” album. One of the songs on the album that became popular (especially with the locals) was a song named “Summer Highland Falls”. However, nowhere in the song does he mention “Summer” or “Highland Falls”. He used to say if it was ok for Bob Dylan in “Rainy Day Woman” then he felt he could do the same thing. So, I figured if it was good enough for those two, why not do it as well.  Plus, it was the perfect metaphor, and since Billy Joel, never came up with “Winter Highland Falls” as a sequel, I decided I would grab it before he changed his mind. However, “Winter Highland Falls” is written about an entirely different subject matter than Billy Joels song. In mine, I wanted to discuss the decay of small towns across America and the consequent migration out of them. Small towns everywhere are being boarded up and essentially becoming ghost towns and young people are leaving in droves. I wanted to comment on it as I felt it was a topic that is not being talked about enough. Additionally, I like to reference lines and characters from other songs in mine.  In this song it’s “We got to get out of this place” by the Animals. (I always loved that song and wanted to give a little homage to it).  Now, from a musical and song structure perspective, the song borrows more from Bruce Springsteen than Billy Joels. Apparently. Bruce and I were both in love with the same girl (Wendy from Peter Pan).  He swept her up and took her out of town in “Born to Run”.  I do the same in “Winter Highland Falls” where I sing “Wendy take me by the hand. Head out in the night. Find your Neverland”. One of the musical devices I’ve noticed that Bruce Springsteen uses a lot is to change the song’s key when the band heads into a saxophone solo. I used this same idea during the instrumental break where I change key three times before I circle back to the original one. The idea was to give the image of riding on a motorcycle through the winding backroads in search of “Neverland” and the “Lost world of Rock and Roll”. And although we did use Tenor and Bari saxophone throughout this passage, I purposely moved away from a Clarence Clemons signature style of playing and more towards what you might hear on Mink Deville’s “Coup de Grace” album.  I also wanted a unique outro musically to close the song. We decided on using sax and violin together as the lead instruments for it, and I absolutely loved the results. I wound up playing guitar on this song.  The other musicians included: Stephen Haaker on Drums; Rob Hall on Bass; Fabian Chavez on Sax; Bonnie Brooksbank on Violin; Ethan Sherman on Mandolin and Diana Ortiz, Harrison Crenshaw, and Phoebe Crenshaw on backing vocals. Brett Grossman and Stephen Haaker again shared Production and Engineering  duties and we recorded the song at Perfect Sound Studio's in Frogtown CA.. Additionally, you can find a video I put together for this song on Youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vHzdctC0jV8

Ishmael 

 After attending Steve Earle’s “Camp Copperhead” I wanted to go home and write a “Copperhead Road” type of song as an homage to the experience.  Steve Earle uses “Drop D” tuning quite often in his songs so, that’s what I started with when I began to create this song. This tuning lent itself quite well towards developing the two main guitar “riffs” that are used throughout the song which in turn give it, it’s Outlaw Country/Deliverance feel.  Next, I needed to come up with a song idea. I wanted to write an Epic. One of the major epics in literature is Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick”.  So, I thought about writing a song that would parallel this story and at the same time allow me the ability to utilize different characters, analogies, interpretations in a similar way throughout  the song. At the same time, I was reading an article about  Mexican Cartels and learned that the smuggling of exotic animals was a very large business for them. So, I decided this would be a great subject to base my song on. “Call Me Ishmael” is one of the most famous opening lines in literature so, I wanted to open the song with the same line in order to immediately give the listener the “Moby Dick” story I was about to tell.  However, here is where I decided to throw my first curve ball. The narrator named “Ishmael” in my song is actually a Parrot that is captured by the cartel. The entire song is told from his perspective. I provided several clues to this with the drawing of “Ishmael the Parrot” on the back of the CD Jacket as well as the CD itself. I then decided to throw a second curve in the story and make a Jungle Cat named Jesus the Moby Dick character in the story.  I wanted the listeners think that Ishmael’s faith is what had him standing strong during his capture when Ishmael says: “Jesus is watching, Jesus is near, in the heart of the jungle I stand strong with no fear”. But it’s because he knows that Jesus “the Jungle Cat” has his back and is lurking in the high grass for just the right moment to attack the smugglers camp and rescue the captured animals (Law of the Jungle type of thing). Again, the drawing of Jesus and Ishmael are presented prominently on the back of the CD, as I wanted the story’s main characters to be portrayed on the CD Jacket in plain sight. Once the cartel/smugglers are asleep, Jesus attacks and destroys the camp setting Ishmael and the other captured animals free.  The Captain Ahab/Pablo Escobar swears he will chase Jesus “to the gates of hell” (Same as in Moby Dick, the villains never change). I had a lot of fun both musically and lyrically throughout the song. I’m a big fan of 70’s PROG Music, and so I wrote a PROG style bridge to represent the time when Jesus attacks the camp. Ethan Sherman on Steel Guitar and Mandolin brought this section alive. This was the part of the song that led me to claim the creation of a new Music Genre “Outlaw Country Prog”. Since this song was an 8-minute epic and the closing song we wanted to have a grand ending with a Huge Gong smash to end it.. Stephen and Brett went out on a “snipe hunt” to find the elusive gong to end the song and album with, but in the end the never did find one and we had to make do with some well mic’d symbols and magical editing. This is one of those songs we just didn’t want to end. In addition to myself on all guitar parts the musicians on this song included: Stephen Haaker, Drums; Rob Hall, Bass; Bonnie Brooksbank, violin; Fabian Chavez, Percussion; and Ethan Sherman on Mandolin and Steel Guitar .Diana Ortiz, Harrison Crenshaw, and Phoebe Crenshaw  are on backing vocals. Engineering and Production was done by Brett Grossman and Stephen Haaker. and we recorded this song at Perfect Sound Studio's  in Frogtown CA.