Cure for songwriting block: 3-second songs

To wit, this one, commissioned by John Moe via Twitter, and titled “According to a recent study.” I know there’s a lot of dead air at the end. That’s to indicate me. Thinking.

Right-click or ctrl-click on this link to download the mp3.

Back catalog

Hey y’all — Tim Spalding of the very cool book site LibraryThing asked me on Twitter to write a new song. I barely touch my guitar these days, for whatever reason, and honestly I feel like the last one I wrote still needs some work (more verses, a shorter and more interesting break) so I don’t know when I’ll drum up the initiative to make that happen, but I figured I might as well zip up and post some old recordings for whoever might want them.

So here, from me and Shotgun Romance, the band I was formerly in during the time I was in it, are five classic amateur EPs never before available until now: Demo! Rough Recordings with Jeff! Demo! The live album: WKNC! The latest material: Random Songs! Act now! Supplies are infinitely copiable without degradation! And that’s not all — you also get this downloadable PDF with all the back catalog lyrics!

I’ve written more songs than these, but either there aren’t any recordings of them or the only recordings are bad ones. Also, for now I’m too lazy to put up and link to individual .mp3s, so if you want one song you’ll have to take several. Most would agree, I think, that the best songs I’ve written besides “All My Internet Friends” are “I Have a Mountain All to Myself,” “Route 20,” and “Shotgun.” Shotgun Romance’s version of the Talking Heads tune “Once in a Lifetime” is also popular.

Amanda French, Demo, 2002

Kind of odd, really, that the best-sounding recordings I’ve made so far have been the first ones I ever made, only a year or two after I started writing songs. I recorded these at my friend Jeff Romano’s studio outside of Charlottesville, Virginia. He’s a great engineer and producer, is Jeff. If I ever make a real CD, I’ll go to him.

  1. Two Cents
    A country tune about a woman who is unfortunately attracted to a sexy shiftless guy who gets her to support him. She takes off in the end, don’t worry. I always think people are going to laugh at the bit where she takes his guitar, but it only gets a laugh about 25% of the time.
  2. Chasin Tail
    Also a country tune. About chasin tail. In this song, the women do the chasing and the men are the tail.
  3. Sally Ann’s Daddy
    A bluegrass song about a stay-at-home dad who gets a little overprotective of his beloved baby girl.
  4. Route 20
    The first in the Heartbreak Trilogy. It’s a sad song about a breakup, but it’s also a sad song about how easy it is to get stuck in a rut, even (or especially) a good rut. The sin of acedia.

Amanda French, Rough Recordings with Jeff, 2004

Jeff gave me some recording time as a graduation present when I finally earned my Ph.D. in 2004. I was a bit hungover from graduation celebrations, as I recall, when we did this session, and we did it in his living room instead of downstairs in the studio. Most of the recordings were only so-so, definitely not better than the original demo, but I did perk up when Jeff played harmonica along with me.

  1. Sweet Young Thing
    This is the second song I ever wrote, and the first good song I ever wrote. It’s a reinterpretation of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem “Spring and Fall” (“Margaret, are you grieving / Over Goldengrove unleaving?”). I recorded this song for the original demo, but when I heard it I realized that I’d been playing it in way too high a key.
  2. Strangely Silent
    Number two in the Heartbreak Trilogy. An experiment in eighteenth-century ballad diction, its ornamentation, its melodramatic pathos. Inspired more by my friend Devon Sproule’s gorgeous “Come Comet or Dove” than by any real antique ballad, though.
  3. Get in Line
    The closest to a rock song I’ve ever written. It’s about a woman who rather enjoys the power trip of dishing out rejection, but you know that ain’t gonna make her happy.
  4. I Have a Mountain All to Myself
    Actually the impetus for writing this song was technical rather than emotional: I got sick of my shitty guitar playing and decided to write a song that I could actually play a decent break on. I kept my hand in the G position pretty much the whole time and figured out some relatively fancy things I could do with my fingers in that position. Also I wanted to write a song that was driven by imagery rather than by narrative or character. Those two technical considerations aside, the song was about my music and my dissertation: neither might be the best or the most successful, but they’re mine, dammit, and they’re not too shabby, and I have my whole life to get better at them. It’s also about how being single definitely has its rewards, of course. By the way, I also wrote a song about dissertating called “Grad School” that I’ve never recorded except for over at YouTube.
  5. Young Gun
    Third in the Heartbreak Trilogy. On the surface it’s about an Old West bandit with an inconvenient conscience who accidentally kills an innocent bystander, but underneath it’s about a guy who broke a woman’s heart and feels crappy about it.

Shotgun Romance, Demo, 2006

  1. Mountain (I Have a Mountain All to Myself)
    The more bluegrassy version with the band.
  2. Coo Coo
    I don’t sing this, nor did I write it: it’s Shotgun Romance’s mandolin player Ryan Parker singing a traditional tune.
  3. Slimy River Bottom
    Ditto for this song: this is an instrumental tune written by Shotgun Romance’s awesome banjo player Mike Baranski.
  4. Once in a Lifetime
    The killer bluegrass version of the Talking Heads classic. You may find yourself living in a shotgun shack.

Shotgun Romance, WKNC, 2007

This is us doing a live in studio performance on WKNC back in 2007. Plenty of banter between us and the very nice DJ, Steve Patrick, if you like that kind of thing.

  1. Intro
    The intro.
  2. Once in a Lifetime
    Not live: Steve Patrick plays the recording from the demo.
  3. Busy Bee talk Young Gun talk Earl’s Breakdown
    Don’t know why all three songs are one track, but they are. “Young Gun” isn’t live; it’s the version I recorded with Jeff. “Earl’s Breakdown” is a traditional instrumental tune where the banjo player retunes his string during the song. “Busy Bee” is a crowded cutesy song I wrote that’s mostly a catalog of all the stupid little adult tasks we all have to do, though some things are stupider than other things. I totally screw up the words in this performance, but you can read the lyrics.
  4. Talk and Mountain
    More banter, plus the Shotgun Romance demo version of “I Have a Mountain All to Myself,” which we all started calling “Mountain” because it’s shorter.
  5. Talk and Shotgun
    This is a live version of “Shotgun,” which is a song (like “Sally Ann’s Daddy” and “Young Gun”) in the voice of a guy. This particular guy is into guns, and in this song he explains what the appeal is. There’s a standalone studio version on my MySpace page if you want it, but this version rocks harder.
  6. Why Amber Plays Bass
    Banter. Not a song.
  7. Jolene
    Our dirge-like rendition (owing much to Mindy Smith) of the Dolly Parton classic.
  8. Outro
    The outro.

Amanda French, Random Songs, 2008-2009

  1. Will You
    Just a wistful little ditty about wanting to run away with a stranger in his pickup truck.
  2. Jed and Stacy’s Wedding Day
    My friend Stacy asked me to write a song for her wedding ceremony. Jed and Stacy met at a Beatles tribute band show, and so the band at their wedding reception was a Beatles tribute band, and I wrote sort of a mashup (or mash-next-to-each-other) of an original song and “Hey Jude.” The song probably loses quite a bit of mojo now that today is no longer May 17, 2008. The performance during the ceremony that day was a success, by the way, especially because I got to play with a couple of great musicians on keyboard and cello, friends of the groom’s. I couldn’t look at Stacy while I was singing, though, because I was afraid I’d start crying. But everyone sang along lustfully during the “na-na-na-nas” as they were supposed to, and we got hugely cheered, and the bride and groom said they liked it, so what else do you need?
  3. Pie
    A special commission from the Charlottesville Pie Down. Fun with fiddle.

Song for a Highly Valued Colleague Who Is Leaving the Organization to Pursue an Exciting New Opportunity (or, Go Do What You Gotta Do)

We hear you’re leaving, well, we won’t be grieving
So go on, just go on and go
We’ll stay behind and you’ll melt from our mind
Like a screen saver picture of snow

Ours was a team like an internet meme
An unstoppable panda bear sneeze
But when you’re gone, we’ll restart and go on
Like a workstation after a freeze

Yes, you’re the real deal, but that don’t mean we’ll feel
Abandoned or frightened or blue
We’ll clear the cache, drag your name to the trash
You can go do what you gotta do

Most corporations and organizations
Don’t need one particular guy
Someone gets fired and someone gets hired
And everyone somehow gets by

Staffers and bosses adjust to the losses
And HR repairs the machine
No one’s unique — well, at least, so to speak
Whatever, you know what I mean

Just cause you’re clever don’t mean that we’ll never
Find someone as brilliant as you
We’ll just replace you, we’ll copy and paste you
So go do what you gotta do

We wish you well and I’m sure you can tell
We’re not gonna beg you to stay
Daydream believer and coffee achiever
Be happy, and be on your way

We didn’t plan this, but we understand it
You just need to try something new
And when I say that we’ll all be okay
Well, that’s probably true
So go do what you gotta do

An update on the (lack of a) new recording

Just wanted to explain what happened with my attempt to record a new version of the song. I recorded it with a friend of mine, a professional musician, at his place in Raleigh, NC at the end of March, 2009. We only had a day to work, and I wasn’t at all happy with the session, for a few reasons. First, my friend asked me beforehand to figure out a tempo for the song using a metronome, since he wanted me to play with a click track during the recording. That made sense to me, since having a consistent tempo is pretty important when you want to add other instruments. But the tempo I had figured out turned out to be a hair too slow — it gave the song a much more lugubrious feel than I had wanted. Also, I hate trying to play to a metronome or click track; it feels so unnatural.

Making the unnaturalness worse was that we tracked the vocal and the guitar separately, which, again, was meant to make mixing and adding other instruments easier, but which I hated. I’m used to playing and singing at the same time, which means that my vocal inadequacies are covered by the guitar and vice versa. Hearing my voice alone much more clearly than usual (what with headphones) only made me nervous and self-conscious, which came right on through, clear as a bell, in the vocal performance. It’s a shame, too, because my friend said that he’d have been all in favor of having me play and sing at the same time — I mistakenly assumed that we should do it like the “real” musicians do.

Still, I thought that my friend might be able to work some magic on it — he’s a multi-instrumentalist and a terrific arranger of songs, and I thought that the recording might not sound so bad once it had other stuff mixed into it, stuff like bass and drums and lead guitar parts and maybe even some adorable plinky thumb piano. But my friend’s computer had some kind of problem (ironic, right?), and so he couldn’t get into the sessions. Eventually, he got it fixed, but I didn’t get the track until early December 2009, more than eight months after we recorded it. He had done a little work on it, such as double-tracking my voice, but he hadn’t added any other instrumentation. I don’t know whether I wasn’t clear enough about what I wanted him to do in production or whether he just didn’t bother because of all the technical issues he had, but after eight months I just didn’t want to pursue it any further.

I hate the new recording. It sounds “better” in the sense that it’s better audio quality, but it’s a much worse performance on my part (my voice is wobbly and off-key at many points), and the ever-so-slightly slower tempo makes it sound pretty depressing, and it hasn’t been tarted up at all in production with other instruments and whatnot. Bleah. It will never see the light of day, I vow.

My Raleigh friend has offered to let me do the session again for free, but even if I did want to spend the money to travel to Raleigh again, I would much rather either do it myself or do it with my buddy Jeff Romano of Greenwood Studio in Charlottesville, a professional engineer I’ve worked with before who’s made me some good demos.

Unfortunately, the money I made from donations went to my Raleigh friend, and, what with unemployment and what with more pressing uses for my money, I can’t afford either equipment or studio fees anytime soon. Maybe someday. But, I’ve gotta be honest, probably not — the song is now more than a year old, and people seem to enjoy the original version well enough.

Thanks for your support, though, and if I ever do make a better recording, all my internet friends will be the first to know. Meanwhile, share and play that free crappy home recording as much as you like! 🙂