Do Spotify’s army of robots know me better than I know myself? Can an affinity for late 90s musical theater flops and Carly Rae Jepsen really define who we are? What if you only listen to Death Cab For Cutie when you’re shitcanned? Each week, I’ll attempt to decide who I am, what I like, and why on earth I like it with the help of Spotify’s Discover Weekly.
I’ve wanted to start this series for a while now - the problem was Spotify’s suggestions for me are very hit or miss. This is probably because Spotify has somehow both diversified and limited the music I listen to. I save anything that sounds interesting and then once every few months go on a new music binge where I listen to all of it at one time. On the day-to-day, however, I listen to a lot of comforting garbage ("you can do that on Spotify, because you don’t have to pay for it" she said, feeling intense musician guilt). I also have a tendency to listen to the same song over and over again. Yes, I know, you do that too, but I don’t think you do it as much as I do. I’m actually frightened to start linking to my personal account here because I don’t want anyone to know just how many times I listen to “Alive With The Glory Of Love” by Say Anything in any given month. Don’t get me wrong, that’s a good song, but it’s not 1547 times a month good.
I also really, really love the song “Expensive” by Tori Kelly - it makes me happy every time I hear it. You know what else I listen to a lot? The original London cast recording of American Psycho. You know what else? “I Wanna Get Better” by Bleachers. You know what else? Lorde’s new song. And Radiohead’s old songs. And Fall Out Boy. And Lizzo. And sometimes I get drunk and listen to my own music on Spotify like an asshole because it’s easier than pulling up the mp3s on my laptop. No wonder the robots are confused.
Fortunately, for my inaugural week of this blog I got a pretty good mix. So let’s start with…
“FUU” - Dream Wife
This is my new anthem for ass kicking. Not that I kick a lot of ass, but this song makes me feel like I COULD PROBABLY IF I FELT LIKE IT. These women are UK based at the moment, but fingers crossed they make it to New York sometime soon. Also there's no lyrics for this song online and I'm dying to know what the last verse means, so if you speak Icelandic hit me up.
Probably chosen for me because: I listen to “Rebel Girl” whenever I’m trying to overcome social anxiety.
“Fountain of Youth” - Local Natives
I, like many the incorrigible narcissist in their early to mid 30s, sometimes see my life as if it were a tv show or movie. I am the protagonist (it’s my Head TV, I get to be in charge), and my friends and frenemies all have arcs that contribute to the major theme of...I don’t know, the harsh realities of adulthood or some shit. Anyway, this song sounds like it should be playing over the last few minutes of the final episode, as our heroes realize that under the Trump regime the world is no longer safe, for most people it never was, and that their previous feelings of hope and comfort were merely the illusions of arrogant youth. Still better than the final season of How I Met Your Mother.
Probably chosen for me because: I have a playlist saved on my phone that is almost entirely male-fronted indie rock bands from the mid-to-late oughts. I made it for my friends but I think I’m the only person who listens to it.
“Black Stars” - Xenia Rubinos
This song is absolutely gorgeous. I had never heard of Xenia Rubinos before and I'm so glad to have been introduced to her music. I was immediately struck by how unique and sparse the production is on this track, and even more so after reading what the artist herself had to say about the lyrics. This one was my favorite of the week, so good job, robots.
Probably chosen for me because: I’ve been actively trying to listen to fewer male-fronted indie rock bands from the mid-to-late oughts.
"Born Again" - Saint Motel
I am an absolute sucker for songs like this that pair snarky lyrics about the World At Large with jaunty, optimistic arrangements. This song had me at the first line: “There’s no need to be nervous, I’m not dangerous anymore." It bops and sways along for the first three minutes only to build to a choir at the end, because it’s poking fun at religion so of course it does. I’ll be checking out more from these guys as well, hopefully the rest of their songs are as delightful as this one.
Probably chosen for me because: I spent several months listening to I Love You Honeybear before I started to think that maybe Father John Misty is not making a meta commentary on fragile masculinity, but is actually just male and fragile.
“Intermission” - Emma Pollock
I saw Emma Pollock open for *I THINK* Rilo Kiley around 2007. I was both absolutely stunned by her music and super jealous that she was as good as she is and opening for *I THINK* Rilo Kiley. (Internalized misogyny is a rough gig, kids.) I spent a whole summer listening to her album Watch The Fireworks - my memory is a little foggy on this, but I may have bought my copy from her directly at the merch table. Just hearing her voice again filled me with this sort of bittersweet nostalgia. It makes me want to be 25 again and have picnics in Central Park and go to Yoga To The People and stay out all night and pine after terrible boys. Her voice sounds like believing in your future.
Probably chosen for me because: Spotify has been stalking my musical tastes since before Spotify existed; Spotify is clearly Skynet.
Honorable Mentions: “Boundary Road” - All Our Exes Live In Texas (like the Dixie Chicks and The Roches all smushed together!), “Child” - Ninet Tayeb (not Running Music so much as Running Away From Your Troubled Past Music)
OVERALL GRADE: Most of these songs were pretty enjoyable and sounded like Things I Would Like. I give this playlist two out of three Dream Wives.
That’s all for now, friends. Tune in next week for further adventures into whatever portion of my brain is responsible for my occasionally great, occasionally awful taste in music.
Note: I thought I would be able to link to last week's playlist before it recycled into a new playlist and I...could not. So I'll have a full playlist of all the tunes linked next week but for now you'll just have to search for them yourselves, you lazy jerks.
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.