Wednesday, September 9, 2015

She Disowned My Life

People who write, know: what you tap into when you write can be an anticipation of circumstances in your life yet to come. Turns out, I wrote She Disowned My Life in the fall of 1995, in my dorm room (322 Holmes Hall) in North Halls (the artists’ dorms on campus), in State College, Pa, while attending Penn State. Musically, I was thinking both Big Star (who I had discovered that summer via my friend Steve Kurutz) and early Elvis Costello, who liked to write, early in his career, in the key of E. What was I writing about? It seems to me, with twenty years’ hindsight, I was tapping into what was about to happen in early ’96; my first long-term relationship, almost a marriage, with Jennifer Strawser. Not to get catechistic, but did she disown my life? Sort of; we were just kids, but she was looking for a sense of intensity about her and total dedication that I didn’t always have to offer, and when we broke up in the fall of ’96 (I was “disowned”), that was one salient reason. Fast-forward a dozen years: I brought the song to the Eris Temple to record in ’07, having had it in my back pocket for an extended period of time, and booked drummer Pete Leonard, who had played in my high school band, to do the session. The day of the session I felt rather unhinged about what was going on. It sounded chaotic and messy to me. Another writer’s quirk, especially when music is involved: you can’t hear a goddamned thing when you’re too close to what you’ve just done. So, whatever I was tapping into when we were recording (probably my break-up with Mary Harju six months after), the recording was shelved for eight years. Eight years, and I finally see that Matt, Pete, and I stumbled onto a new kind of rock magic that day in North-West Philly.

On a technical note: the hippest thing about Matt Stevenson's masterful mix is how he handles the rhythm guitar track. Rhythm guitar is what leads us into the song, but soon disappears into what amounts to subtle shadings, chiaroscuro, for the remainder of the track. What dominates the sonic landscape is then bass under lead guitar, making the sort of gestures common to Radio City-era Big Star and Robbie Robertson, originally derived from gospel and classical models. The bass under lead guitar sound-scape which dominates the track (other than vocals/percussion) amounts to a unique composite; and the art, as sometimes happens, is all in what is left out. I can't not think of Prince, and the bass track being left off of When Doves Cry; I also think of the acoustic guitar tracks which weave in and out of Led Zeppelin songs, whose devotees often use chiaroscuro to describe Zeppelin records too. There's even a touch of metaphysics: the protagonist is dealing with a relationship situation abraded by a hostile and/or evanescent love interest; and the rhythm guitar track, which begins with a certain amount of gusto and disappears into a shadowy mist, doubles for this evanescent Muse.

As per the icing on the cake peccadillo: the Eris Temple studio is "underground"; beneath street level. Yet, most of the studio space consists of a room with a relatively high ceiling. What is recorded in this room thus sounds airier, more expansive, than what was recorded at Main Street West in South Philly. The Eris Temple studio space is also crepuscular, i.e. not particularly well-lit. Every major session at Eris Temple was a kind of night session. The one street-level window, in the south-east corner of the room towards the ceiling, lets in almost nothing. Physiologically, Main Street West was more comfortable and comforting; Matt's books and CDs strewn all over the place, large windows, ample lighting. The sturm und drang around the Eris Temple studio space was about strangeness, odd angles, and (often) physiological discomfort. The Eris Temple was made as a studio space to drag performances out of musicians who didn't know they it had in them. In retrospect, She Disowned My Life works that way for me. The darkness and the oddness of the place and the space pushed me to sing the song with a certain looseness and conviction I couldn't have had at Main Street West. The high ceilings allowed the whole production to resonate to its own frequency.

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