Most of the time when a song's subject is just too damn personal I drown it in metaphor and leave it at that (see "Chiaroscuro" for all the ways my parents' divorce is like the Washington Mall). If I can't make something funny or ironic, I hide it away so listeners might not figure out exactly what I'm saying. I have a few songs, however, that are just beat-for-beat retellings of actual events. "NSFW" - a title I always meant to change, but I guess it's too late now - is like that, but there are some things I had to keep vague. I wish I could tell this story outright. I wish I could use his real name. I wish he would read this. I promise he won't.
This is a story about a one night stand that didn't quite happen. It could have. I wanted it to. I had wanted it to for months, and given my history of keeping myself square in the proverbial friendzone I was baffled when he made a move. Also drunk. And drenched in cheap whiskey from Haley Bowery's since retired Super Soaker. I wasn't even supposed to be there - the cab driver had refused to take me to my own apartment so I wound up stuck at his. We sat on the floor and went through his old CDs like a couple of high schoolers. "Tonight Tonight" was playing from the stereo when he kissed me.
We'd been keeping time with each other for months, and most people didn't know. We'd sneak away from parties and spend hours talking, talking, talking. Mostly him, to be honest, although he let me get enough words in edgewise for me to believe that he cared for me. He was fucking someone else though. And when I paused the proceedings long enough to ask what their deal was (I am fairly certain that elegant phrasing was my exact words), I knew from his reaction that he wasn't going to commit to me anymore than he committed to her. Even drunk I am cautious by nature. "I can't be this for you,” I told him. “Can't because I'm in love with you” was the part I didn't say. I wonder if he knew.
There was no reason for me to stay once we decided sex was off the table. Only by that time it was 5am and I was more or less stranded at his apartment. So I stayed over, but I sure as hell didn't sleep. And that's where this song picks up - it's the chaos in my head from that night and the days immediately after, wondering if I'd made the right choice. I assume for the purposes of the narrative that he's sleeping soundly throughout my existential crisis (how he slept through that loud ass bridge I'll never know), although I'm not sure if that's true. I'm not really sure about anything he did, or said, or wanted. After a while I stopped trying to find out.
The title "NSFW" had a number of reasons behind it. Originally it was code for me not to accidentally email the demo to anyone, since this strapping example of chivalry had sworn me to secrecy regarding our not-quite affair. It's also meant to be ironic, a NSFW tag for a night when no sex actually occurred. Mostly though, it's an accurate description of the two of us the next day. He marched off to his office job on little to no sleep, and I was still hungover when I went in to wait tables at 5pm. We weren't suitable for anything. Certainly not one another, that much is clear.
(for the first half of this story, see track 3.)
When I wrote this song, I wanted it to be two things: a courtroom drama and an MGM musical. I have no idea why these two very different genres attached themselves to one another in my head, but whenever I think of this song, I picture its subject on trial, surrounded by tap dancers.
It usually takes me a couple of years before I can write a song about a man. I need them fully out of my system before I can write about a situation with the ironic detachment I use to keep myself from falling apart entirely onstage. This song was quicker - in fact, this man has heard me play this song, although I don't think he knew it was about him. He didn't really listen to lyrics.
Are you getting the impression that I'm still angry at this person? You are correct. That's why there's a several month gap between the post for "Surrender, Dorothy" and this one; I didn't know how to talk about this song. I rage in this song, not only at its particular inspiration, but at every man I've ever known who used me as an audience. My feelings, my thoughts, my art didn't matter to men like this one. They just wanted someone to talk at about their feelings, their thoughts, their art. They wrote fairy tale renditions of their own lives, recited them aloud and depended on my approval to make them real. When I was younger I confused this kind of behavior with love, or at the very least respect. I'm significantly more jaded now.
The song ends in a slight reversal. He spent years telling me his life story, but in the final chorus he's banned to the dark of the house, forced to listen to my testimony with no opportunity for rebuttal. He can stay there.
Happy Halloween, everyone! In honor of the holiday, allow me to present to you my new single, the cover art for which is a picture of me age elevenish, dressed in a DIY witch outfit. I still make that face to this day.
"Surrender Dorothy" is really the heart of this album. I wrote this song upon realizing something kind of bizarre about my childhood. See, I was a theater kid. Of course I was a theater kid, look at me. I did fairly well for myself role-wise, usually getting cast as whatever the antagonist character was in that particular play (this is the same girl who grew up to name her band "vs The Many", so there you go). In traditional musicals, female villains are frequently vamps/sexpots. However, the very qualities I had that made me perfect for these roles (low voice, big ass, affinity for wild gesticulation) also made me completely unattractive to teenage boys. The upshot of this is that I spent much of my teen years having middle aged theater teachers tell me to "be sexier" when I'd never kissed a dude. My first kiss was a stage kiss, as Petra in A Little Night Music at age seventeen, with the 22 year old college student playing Frid.
It's a bit of a mind fuck, honestly. I learned to be a caricature of sexiness without ever having a chance to learn about sexuality. Don't get me wrong, I'm grateful that I was able to perform so frequently in my teens. I'm certainly not blaming anyone for these circumstances, and I'm not angry about it, but that juxtaposition was a really important part of making me the person I am today. Namely, a loud, brash, gutter-minded mezzo who can't flirt. Like at all. Like not even a little bit.
The song also expresses my feelings about the whole Madonna/Whore dichotomy that still exists in pop culture. The biggest issue I find with this trope is that it defines women solely by how they fit into men's lives, which happens in real life more often than I think we'd like to admit. I've been involved with a few too many men who seem to see me as a prop for their story arc (see the rest of my catalog). But I'm not a character in some bro's novella*. I'm not a manic pixie dream girl, or an ingenue, or a hooker with a heart of gold. I'm a fucking person, and I am a fucking person even when I'm not fucking someone else.
"Surrender Dorothy" repeatedly asks the question "where do the funny ones go?" If I ever figure that out I'll let you know.
"Hotel Empire" is meant to be the turning point of the album, arc wise. The songs that come before it are women trying unsuccessfully to be good, and the songs that follow are women trying unsuccessfully to be bad. I had originally intended there to be another song called "Final Girl" that would bridge these two mindsets, but it was going to compare losing one's virginity to the final showdown of a horror movie and to be perfectly honest my first time wasn't that interesting.
"Hotel Empire" is inspired by Hitchcock, specifically Vertigo. It's a retelling of the film's plot line from the heroine's point of view with a few very large artistic liberties. A significant amount of my own experience is woven into the lyrics; this song serves as the conclusion of a relationship that winds through all of my albums thus far. Wanna hear a tiny musical? It goes Muse/Poor Leander/True Believers/Lady Of The Court/Hideous Adorable/Better Off My Way and this one.
Roughly, the story of Vertigo concerns a man (Jimmy Stewart, in peak Jimmy Stewart mode) who falls in love with a woman who dies halfway through the film. He spends the second half trying to turn a different woman into the love he lost, only to discover that they were the same woman all along. She sincerely loves him, but their whole relationship was an elaborate set up. This...did not happen to me. However, it did resonate with me in that I was once a woman who allowed her life to be dictated by the feelings of men. The repeated refrain of "go on, go on, I said I'm fine" is the mantra of so many women who are told again and again that to feel is wrong, to stand up for yourself is aggressive, and to raise your voice even slightly is "crazy".
My friend Jenny, who is very wise, once told me that "girls are crazy, but it's not our fault". Now don't get me wrong, I've heard plenty of stories of women doing some really fucked up shit to their boyfriends. But I think it's important to note that a lot of women are driven "crazy" by the fact that we're told constantly that our feelings don't matter or aren't real. We squash our thoughts and opinions down for as long as we can, playing the Good Girl until eventually, inevitably, we snap.
I didn't snap quite as bad as the character in the song. In the movie Jimmy Stewart's character chases his girlfriend to the top of a bell tower where she falls to her death, in my version she drags him down with her. When I snapped, I drunkenly told a young man who I had loved for many years that I "didn't even recognize" him anymore. I had swallowed my feelings for and about him for years, foolishly believing that keeping him in my life was worth the pain he caused me. He blustered away in a rage, leaving me to weep on the street for hours over everything I thought I had lost. I didn't contact him again after that. I have run into him at a few parties, and each time he looks panicked at the sight of me, as if he fears I might harm him. I'm confident that he tells his friends I am crazy.
Go on. I said I'm fine.
This song was inspired by documentaries, which makes sense as it's the most autobiographical track on the album. I wanted it to sound like it could be on the soundtrack for the Ken Burns miniseries The Civil War, which I watched with my parents as a kid. It's a song about America, and family, and grief, and the reference felt appropriate.
The lyrics are both a narration of a trip my younger sister and I took to the National Mall and a musing on my parents' divorce. My parents split up when I was 27, and it's strange when your family breaks apart after you're already grown. I didn't feel affected by it at first, or maybe it was that as an adult I didn't feel that I was allowed to be affected.
Each verse is about a different monument: first the Lincoln Memorial, then the Vietnam Wall, and then the White House. As my sister and I walked through the park, we realized that although our mother comes from a military family (her grandfather, father, and brother all fought overseas in various wars), we knew almost nothing about their service. I felt detached from my personal history, and adrift among the pieces of what used to be my nuclear family. I see that sense of detachment in the relationships I make now - I don't trust people to tell me the truth, and I never expect them to stay.
The title comes from a photographic/film technique that emphasizes the contrast between light and shadow. It's a reference both to the effect of the national mall after dark and the fact that try as I might, I can not divide my personal history into good and bad, black and white.
This one is my mother's favorite.
"The Auteur" is a Rom-Com. And not an especially good one, either. This isn't a Grant/Hepburn venture. It's not even a Hanks/Ryan venture. This is one of those trope-infested, endlessly predictable, cookie-cutter stories that were all too prevalent in the mid-2000s. I'd mostly stopped watching Rom-Coms by the end of the 90s, which might be why I launched myself headlong into a series of ill-advised life choices. If I'd watched more shitty movies, I would have been warned.
Our story begins with banter. The opening line is one of my favorite things that I've ever written - it combines a backhanded compliment with a challenge to a duel, which is as good a summation of this particular relationship as any. The leading man in question and I sniped at each other and traded barbs for years, while a procession of Totally Wrong For Him women stood off to the side, waiting for the war to end. In a true romantic comedy he eventually would have realized that I was the girl for him all along. Spoiler alert: I was not.
He would have been terrible for me too, of course. I stayed in this situation a lot longer than I should have, which is strange considering the story arch of the song it inspired. We never actually dated, but in "The Auteur" the pair couple off and instantly begin making each other miserable. The "right" girl becomes a carbon copy of the "wrong" girl, and the story begins again. The whole song revolves around the age old mantra "if they cheat with you, they'll cheat on you." I knew this story was going to end badly, so much so that I couldn't even imagine a happy ending for this song.
For more on the actual ending of this story, tune in for track nine.
This song started out about one person, and ended up being about someone completely different. Sometimes I'll have a lyric hanging around unused for years, and then I'll meet someone who just happens to fit the sentiment perfectly. In this case, it was "weary traveler ease your mind, I am not your siren/take heart - you survive this crash." When I first wrote that lyric it meant "I'm not going to hurt you." It eventually came to mean "you'll move on from this as if nothing happened."
The film pairing for this song is a period drama - think Merchant Ivory, or if you're a TV person, Downton Abbey. It's the story of a night out in Brooklyn with a man who was about to leave town forever, who (unbeknownst to me) had another woman waiting for him at home. I cringe when I think about how wrapped up I was in this one event. It seems so small and insignificant now, but at the time the romance of it felt urgent and enormous. The actual event was played out by drunk, insecure twenty-somethings, but this kind of story is timeless. I wanted to give it an update. And some neuroses.
When I think about these period romance dramas, I always imagine one of history's great cliches: one partner standing on the platform, the other waving sadly as the train pulls away, parting them forever. After staying out until dawn, annoying several bartenders, and slow dancing without music in a subway station, the subject of this song and I caught an F train back into Manhattan. He fell asleep, and I woke him just before his stop. He said goodbye, left the train, and walked away. The doors closed, and just as the train started to move he jumped back into the window, waving goodbye a second time.
I never saw him again.
The second track on the album was inspired by bathroom graffiti. Several years ago I was doing...something at Bar Matchless in Greenpoint. The ellipsis is not intended to indicate nefarious behavior. I sincerely don’t remember why I was there, and if something terrible had happened I’m sure I wouldn’t have allowed myself to forget it. At any rate, someone had Sharpied one of the walls with the sentence “The Revolution Will Be Art Directed”. I thought it was funny, and I wrote it down.
This song is about ambition and desire for change, and the fears that hold us back. In a delightful bit of meta-irony I'm having difficulty expressing the influences and emotions behind the lyrics because I'm scared I won't be able to articulate them properly. I'm an intensely neurotic person who questions her own attitudes and perceptions all the time, and sometimes I wonder how much of my life is genuine and how much is "just for show." If I speak out, if I rebel, is it because I am a revolutionary or because I want to be perceived as such? Does it matter what my motivations are if the end result is the same? And how much good am I really doing anyway, when most of my interactions are within an internet echo chamber?
I don't know the answer to any of these questions. The song ends with a repeated "when I rise up", which could be a promise or a threat depending on what you think of my motives. Either way, given how difficult it was for me to write this blog post I doubt you'll have anything to worry about any time soon.
I’m having a rough year, friends. I don’t think I’ve ever had this many ups and downs in so short a time span. I finished an album back in January, intending to release it in June. Now it’s September. Oops.
I kept delaying this release because I’m really proud of this album. I made it with the crazy talented producer Nate Jasensky, and amazing musicians Max Tholenaar-Maples, Carl Limbacher and Wells Albritton. It’s the most punk thing I’ve ever written while still hearkening back to my roots as a Sondheim-obsessed theater youth. I wanted to give it a proper roll out.
My shit is still decidedly not together, no word yet on when it might be. I’ve decided that if the stars won’t align for the perfect album release I might as well fucking do it now. Or rather, two months from now. The album is called Cinemascope, and it will be released on November 18th, 2016. I’ll put it on the internet, and you can stream or buy it. Please buy it. I’m unemployed.
Here’s the cover art. Look how cool this is! My sister Clara Cavins took the notes “red?” and “I don’t know, like old timey horror movies I guess?” and made this cool thing. Take a moment to bask in its glory:
When I started writing this album, I wanted to do something different than what I had done previously. I took a look at some of my older songs and realized that the lyrics describe feelings rather than scenes. I decided I wanted to write lyrics that created pictures in people’s minds, so the listener can visualize what’s happening throughout the album. This idea eventually morphed into movies, and I decided that every song would have a corresponding film genre (more on that in the weeks to come). The songs tell stories about women who are trying to squeeze themselves into “correct” personalities as laid out by films and tv: Strong Female Character, Romantic Lead, Other Woman, and so on. In each song someone is squeezing into a role that isn’t quite right, because none of these prescribed roles are realistic in the actual world. If this intrigues you, watch this space: in the leadup to the release, I plan to self-indulgently babble about the influences behind each of Cinemascope’s ten tracks. Starting with this one:
“Smoke Is Rising,” the album opener, was my first exercise in writing visually. The lyrics tell the story of a woman who has set herself on fire. After every verse she claims to be “visible for miles”; she’ll be gone at the end of the song but for this brief time she is the star. This song pre-dates the film genre concept, but you can imagine my delight when I realized how nicely the jazzy piano arrangement evokes Film Noir (way to go, past me). This wannabe femme fatale is destroying herself for attention, desperate to set herself apart from “other girls.” She’s doing a terrible job though, as nothing could be more ordinary than a woman ruining parts of herself for the benefit of others (I speak from experience). While this narrative is hardly intended as aspirational, I do think there’s value in (metaphorically) burning shit to the ground every now and then. Not for pity or for the spotlight, but for an opportunity to start again at zero.
If you’ve seen us live in the past year you’ve heard most of the songs on this record, but not this one. I don’t play this one live because I already have to bring a guitar to and from my house and bringing an additional instrument for one song would be, you know, dumb. If you like, here is the first demo of “Smoke Is Rising,” recorded on GarageBand in 2010. I was living in a studio in Brooklyn for less than a grand a month, wearing a wig to work because management hated my scarlet hair, and making peace with the mouse who lived in my stove. I was 27 and still clinging to a life that had already left me behind. I hadn’t started setting fires.
Hello friends and enemies!
Happy 2016! In lieu of making any “resolutions” this year, I’ve decided to drop you all a note about the plans I have for the next twelve months. I’ve got a lot of exciting music projects in the works, and if I put them on the internet that means I have to actually do them. Thanks for your help in keeping me accountable for my various goals!
FIRST I’m excited to announce that I’ve just completed my next full length album. I recorded the 10 song LP with the incredible Nate Jasensky here in Brooklyn, aided and abetted by my talented pals Carl Limbacher, Max Tholenaar-Maples, and Wells Albritton. The album is called Cinemascope, and it’s a concept album about female identity based around classic film genres. It will be available to the public this summer, so watch this space for details to come.
SECOND I’ve just started working on a new EP, which I plan on self-recording and self-releasing at some point this year. The idea is to write five songs which can be performed three different ways; first I’ll upload a video of the song in a folk acoustic style, then a video of a punk rendition with the full band, and finally a lyric video with the song recorded in a pop style. In so doing I will a) develop a repertory of songs I can perform solo and b) finally learn how to make drums happen in Garage Band.
THIRD given my background in musical theater it was really only a matter of time before I decided to write an ensemble piece. I’m currently in the research stage for a song cycle based on creepypasta (for the uninitiated, spooky urban legends told on the internet). These stories scare the bejesus out of me, so I figured they’d be a good way to tap into a previously unused part of my creative brain. I plan on enlisting a group of Friends Who Are Good At Singing to perform the songs live in concert in New York City this October (spoooooOOOOOoooooky).
These three are just the things I’m prepared to announce at present. This year will also be filled with music videos, touring, the 4th annual Spring Fling 98 with the indomitable Haley Bowery, and lots of other delicious musical treats. If you haven’t already, please Like my Facebook Page or Follow Me On Twitter so I can keep you nice and updated.
I hope the first two weeks of 2016 have treated you well. I can’t wait to share all this music with you in the months to come!