James Curley and I have been friends for a long time. I daresay, we have both been Irish that whole entire time. We have certainly both been writing songs that whole time. Very quickly, it became clear that we had little choice in the matter of becoming friends.
James is as devoted to the art and craft of songwriting, as he is to Irish hospitality. Robin and I think fondly and often of the times we sat James' table, and experienced his unique genius in the kitchen.
Through James, I have gotten to know his beautiful wife Ilsabe, a wonderful songwriter and singer. Their band is called Earnest and Troubled, and you will hear both James and Ilsabe's artistry on the song they brought to life together, "Streets Below," for the "Haiku Milieu: Begin with the End in Mind," here: https://youtu.be/Iacj0rca1XY.
Enjoy this reflection from James:
"I consider myself a lazy songwriter in the sense that I usually wait for something to inspire me and start the process I’ve grown accustomed to over the 40+ years I’ve been writing. I’ve been urged countless times to ‘just write’ regardless of inspiration and to keep notebooks, etc. I don’t. I’ve never been interested in quantity of song output and have grown accustomed to the unpredictable and unscheduled arrival of the Muse. I like the surprise, I guess. It’s like hearing the doorbell ring and when you open the door, there’s a lifelong friend standing there with a pizza and a six pack of beer saying, “It’s been too long, old friend.” And in general, I like the songs I’ve written this way. I like pizza and beer, too.
This is not to say I’m lazy overall as it relates to music. I play regularly to hone my guitar skills. I spend days - sometimes weeks – playing in alternate tunings. I work on fretboard efficiencies to reduce ‘finger squeak’ and look for alternate chord voicings. I arrange cover versions of songs I love by other artists. I craft fingerstyle versions of well-known songs so I can understand the relationships of the notes to the chords to the fretboard to the tuning. I sing other artist’s songs in various keys to tease out some expression I haven’t met yet and to see if it takes me ‘inside’ the head and heart of the songwriter. But writing my own songs? Well, we’ll just see if something ‘shows up’ along the way.
So, it was challenging for me to accept Jenny’s invitation to choose a haiku/photo from her burgeoning collection, and then write a song inspired by it. Ok, sounds like fun, right? I can probably ‘noodle’ my way to something sooner or later. Wait… there’s a …deadline?
I associate deadlines with day jobs. I’ve rarely met the Muse at my day job. There are exceptions to that. Since my job has involved a lot of driving over the years, the Muse occasionally rides shotgun on a long car trip and I’ve often arrived at my destination with the first draft of a new song sung into a voice recorder (now an app) and the delicious feeling I played ‘hooky’ from work and wrote a song when I could have been phoning customers or co-workers or whatever. And of course, I pushed back against another dreaded ‘deadline’ at work. ‘Deadline’ is a curious word when you think about it. Pretty morbid. But I digress.
So, what to do? I had to choose a haiku somehow. Then I had to hope it inspires something in the song arena. Then I had to draft the song, refine it, finish it, record a video of it in some fashion and feel good enough about the song and video to send to Jenny – by the deadline! Still, a promise is a promise. So off I went.
Suffice to say that scrolling through the haiku images on Jenny’s Instagram feed was inspiring all on its own, and I had a lot of meaningful moments with many of them, but no song inspiration. Meanwhile, the demonstrations in the streets had flared up behind the BLM movement, and I couldn’t help but be reminded of the summer race-related riots in 1968 – 72 in the neighborhood where I grew up in South Philadelphia. I was drawn back to them in my memory in a visceral way – all the tension, hatred, violence, action and reaction of those events. I was 11 years old in 1968, emerging from childhood into adolescence in a turbulent environment not unlike the present moment here in America.
And then it happened. I scrolled onto the haiku image that ignited the various fuses all at once. The memory fuse. The lyrical fuse contained in the haiku. And the musical fuse.
Musically, I had been ‘noodling’ with the idea of writing a song that never ‘resolves’ to the fifth interval in the chord progression, as most Folk and Country/Americana songs do. I wanted to make use of only the first, second, flatted third, and fourth intervals to create ‘tension’ without resolution. That’s not an original idea in popular music, but it was unusual in my songwriting patterns over the years. I had also been ‘noodling’ with dropping measures in verses to create ‘urgency’ in a song, like there was someplace to get to that just wouldn’t wait. Also not original but a ‘stretch’ for me. I had already written a musical pattern and rough melody with these ideas but hadn’t really thought about lyrics for it. The pattern ‘felt’ like something I wanted to do but didn’t have a lyric idea that fit the emotional tone of the progression.
This was the image and haiku that lit the fuses.
Boom! All at once it hit me. I remembered summer mornings in my neighborhood as a kid. We had a six-story factory at the end of the block I lived on, and the sun wouldn’t peek above the building until mid-morning. I recalled very clearly a morning where I sat on my front steps watching the shadow of the building recede and waiting for one of my friends to come out. The moon was still in the sky and I could clearly see it while waiting for the sun to finally show up over the building.
Here are some photographs of the street where I grew up. In the first, you can see the kind of front steps we had. In the second, the building is in the upper right quadrant, the first and second story factory windows showing at the end of the block across the tiny concrete backyard expanse of the ten row houses between ours and the end of the block.
My friends and I did the tin can with a string thing. What kid in my generation didn’t? Phones were connected by wires. Wires were a kind of string. If you pulled the string tight, the sound in one can vibrated along the string to the other can pressed against the kid’s ear. Magic! So that’s how phones worked, sort of. Amazing!
We also used to play ‘detective’ and ‘cops and robbers’ – pretending we were chasing murderers or solving crimes and locking people up! These were good memories of innocence clashing in my head with the memories of the riots… a neighborhood friend a few years younger getting killed - shot at point blank range; most kids I knew, including me, throwing rocks and bottles at the ‘other’ kids and getting the same in return. The vandalism, destruction, and chaos that turned the idyllic street of my childhood into a battleground strewn with broken glass and stained with blood. The busloads of riot police who occupied our neighborhood 24/7 for the whole summer. For several summers.
The lyric wrote itself in a very rough way all at once. Boom. Just like that a lyric. Boom. Just like that it fit perfectly into the ‘noodled’ riff I had written for musical tension. I had the eerie feeling that Jenny’s request to me was prescient in some way…like this song had been waiting to be written all along. Like I had already written the music while waiting for the moment to arrive. Like I had not chronicled this particular episode of my journey from innocence to experience yet despite a lifetime of awareness devoted to it. Like the Muse didn’t ring the doorbell – she jumped out of a closet yelling she’d been there the whole time!
And then… collaboration!
I am so lucky. I’m married to my musical partner. Didn’t see that one coming after being widowed, but the universe had other plans for me. I heard Ilsabe play once about a decade before I met her, and I still remembered the song and her delivery of it. Then I heard the CD she had released around that time and was struck by the clarity and resonance of the songs on that record. She’s a gifted lyricist with a keen eye for detail, clarity of thought and expression, and meaning. After playing the song for her, she took the lyric and rewrote much of it, so it made sense to her as a person who had not shared the experiences that I was channeling. She made it “universal” so it would speak to anyone anywhere.
She’s also a gifted singer with an instinctive feel for vocal harmony – something that has always eluded me. She makes me want to be a better singer, and to learn to hear the harmony as a ‘whole’ in addition to the distinct notes.
And when we had the lyric edited, she edited it once again and found more places to polish it. Three verses; the first two evoking the childhood memories that triggered the song. The last verse ‘flips’ from childhood to the adult world of riots and violence and real danger. The chorus following the first two verses are innocent, the final chorus resonates in tone with the final verse. All of it taking place on the same street, under the same sun and moon.
Not done yet! Ilsabe points out there needs to be transition from the first part of the song to the second. There’s an emotional passage to navigate for the listener, and jumping from an innocence themed chorus to an adult themed verse seemed clumsy.
We considered writing a bridge but felt like there were already enough words. Well, to be honest, Ilsabe thought there were enough words. I NEVER think there are enough words, and that can get a songwriter in trouble and send the listener away. There’s beauty in collaboration and co-writing if only for that reason.
So, we decided we needed a musical bridge. It dawned on me that now might be a time to introduce the fifth interval missing in the rest of the song. I felt right away that a minor key bridge would retain the tension in the song and introduce a ‘dark’ element already suggested by the flatted third that opens each verse, thus setting up the darkness of the song’s closing lyrics.
Boom! Done. A completed song that ‘felt’ right to both of us. The video was just us playing and singing it and that was enough. We only did three takes and used the last take.
Ilsabe and I have collaborated on other songs since first meeting and developing a relationship that blossomed into marriage and full life partnership. But never like this – under a deadline, with a specific inspirational trigger. Inspiring!
I’ve never been much of a collaborator and this was eye-opening for me. It’s not ‘better’ than solo writing which can be very satisfying. But it IS different, and invigorating, and very, very rewarding.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention collaborating with Jenny. Her request to engage the creative process was and is an eye-opener for me. I feel like the old dog who learned a new trick. Hopefully there are more new tricks to come. Jenny Bienemann is not just a songwriter, performer, musician, artist. She’s an ‘impresario’ – from Latin for one who undertakes ‘adventurous and daring’ enterprises. Thanks for daring me and for the adventure!" - James Curley