A lot went into writing your favorite song--but how much do you really know about it? This week Andrew Vait, a singer-songwriter from Homer, Alaska, delves into Mason Jennings, painting on stage and the fragility of human life.
Song: "Paul & Sally's Mournful Song"
From Album: Closer to the Setting Sun
Release Date: June 10
When it was written: I started writing the melody and chord progression to "Paul & Sally's Mournful Song" in the fall of 2008 and finished it later that winter. I wrote the nine songs on Closer to the Setting Sun over a considerable span of time; this one being the oldest by far. It was September and I was driving around Seattle, listening to a Mason Jennings CD when the melody popped into my head. In this case, it was just the line: "Could it be, could it be; she is the one for me." By that time in my writing career, I was pretty sick of writing love songs. I had been experimenting with a few different storytelling techniques and eventually decided to go down that road. I got home and hammered out the guitar part to match the vocal melody. The idea to make it about two fictional characters would come later on.
Where it was written: I was at my apartment after a long day of teaching music lessons and I went for a run. It was pretty cold; I remember I could see my breath. I was near the Troll when the shift occurred to me; the characters would be torn apart by war. Over the years, my favorite books have been about war. A Bell for Adano, Catch-22, Slaughterhouse Five, The Things They Carried, etc. I loved the idea of a boy; hesitant, pious, astute. And this girl who just adores him, probably for all of those reasons. I made the war ambiguous (other than it being "overseas") so that the listener may attach a time-period of their choosing. I ran back to my apartment and finished writing the verses.
Favorite line in the song: I have to explain something before I talk about my lyrics. I've heard other songwriters say similar things to this: I have a hard time taking credit for my songs. I feel that they come from another place; perhaps divine (although I'm not really into the whole "God in Heaven" thing); or maybe it's arbitrary. Wherever it is, it's certainly somewhere beyond the confines of my head. I once read an interview with Paul Simon where he talks about the line "Like a bridge over troubled water, I will lay me down." One minute it's not there; the next it is willed into existence.
My favorite line from "Paul & Sally's Mournful Song" is: "Sally was tossing rocks into that riverbed."
There is something so serene and precise about this. You can see Sally; heart torn apart, passing the days, "Is he ever coming home?", skipping rocks, sighing, what-have-you. This is a description I borrowed from my roommate at the time; an old friend from Homer, Alaska. One of our friends asked him, "What do you think your mom would do if your dad passed away," or something comparatively morbid. He said, "I don't know, probably go toss rocks into the ocean or something." I'm not sure why I changed it to "riverbed." We live on the ocean in Homer, and I for one was rarely afforded the opportunity to toss rocks into rivers. It's just one of those things, I guess.
Which part was the hardest to come up with?: (spoiler alert:) Second verse: "Paul was praying on a bed of snow when the enemy stabbed him and slit his throat."
Here's how I got there. That same friend was helping me tighten up the lyrics. We were both listening to a lot of Warren Zevon at the time. The graphic descriptions in songs like "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner" and "Excitable Boy" were particularly intriguing to us. I had written a much more family-friendly version of Paul being killed. My friend suggested that I "go more Warren-Zevon." I came up with that line and asked him, "Can I do that?" Needless to say, it stuck.
If you could go back and change anything, what would it be?: I learned how to write songs by copying. That's what my teachers in college always told me to do: copy, copy, copy. There are some derivative elements to this song, but I'm not too upset about it. You could point out in the guitar part the proximity to "I Will Follow You Into the Dark" by Death Cab for Cutie, or the finger-picking style of John Mayer's "Stop This Train." Where the vocals fall in that certain way during the verses; that's Mason Jennings.
Odd fact about song: I had finished writing up through the second chorus, and I knew something needed to happen. I can't accurately describe where I got the idea to implement a Dixieland breakdown, but once it was there, it was there to stay. My friend and I would howl at the prospect; you take this really pretty guitar and vocal melody with grotesquely violent lyrics, and you stomp all over it with some brass instruments, a clarinet and a kick drum. My friend warned me through a grin, "You're going to have to record a few more albums before you can get away with something like this." Luckily, producer Pete Stewart and I saw eye-to-eye on the opportunity to do something totally out of left field. An odder fact is that the lead trumpet part was played by a spirited fellow named Adam Bruno, who used to tour with Cake.
What was your inspiration for writing the song?: I think that maybe every song starts out as a love song. Or some dark stab at politics, which generally yields similar results. As I said before, I was tired of writing love songs when the melody to "Paul & Sally's Mournful Song" popped into my head. The lyrical content is a striking deviation from my normal singer/songwriter product. I am consistently asked how I came about writing it, and I never can give a solid answer. I've always had a very active imagination. I guess this song is a testament to the reaches of how wild my imagination really is. Hopefully it goes further.
When was your favorite time performing it live?: I released Closer to the Setting Sun at Columbia City Theater on June 10 of this year. It was a lively evening and a packed house. I had carefully planned to hide the Dixieland band in the rear of the balcony at CCT, to surprise the audience. By the time "Paul & Sally's Mournful Song" came around in the set, I had already made my infamous faux pas of shushing the audience. Before I started the song, I did announce that I regretted saying anything previously because I had planned all along to ask the audience for some silence for this song. I really wanted to shock them; to give them a real treat, you know? I started playing to a mostly still room. I remember it well: Fritha Strand-Davern; the artist who did the album artwork, was painting onstage while I performed. In the moments before the Dixieland band would start to play, she was gazing up at the dark balcony, frozen in her spotlight, facing away from her unfinished painting. The audience grew restless: "What's happening?" ... "What is she looking at?" The tuba player dug into those first notes of the breakdown, followed by the trombone, trumpet, clarinet, and kick drum. Columbia City Theater exploded. It was the single most visceral reaction to music I have ever witnessed.
What is the meaning behind the song?: There is no glory in war, as far as I can tell, and any glory that might be advertised is a fabrication. In reality, human beings are fragile, terrified, and at the end of the day--whether they come home in a box or clutching the armrests of an airplane--they're all the same. I have a difficult time picturing myself in a mud pit with bullets flying over my head. Feeling the sickening dread of my inevitable demise, if you will. In writing "Paul & Sally's Mournful Song," I wanted to put myself as close as possible. I'm not trying to say "War is bad" or "Peace is good." Those would be more suitable statements for someone who knew what the hell they were talking about. I guess I'm just asking the question: "What if?"
Andrew Vait will be performing at Neumos on Sept. 7