I don’t know why a band that interprets and covers Bob Dylan songs has turned out to be a hotbed of personal and professional creativity. I love being in the band The Zimmermen so much.
First and foremost, because it’s FUN. That is the first reason, and it flies in the face of everything in society that says what you love must be serious.
But part of the reason that band is so fun, is that the members of the band are serious about it. They approach the songs of Bob Dylan like the living, breathing sacraments they are. They come to them with all of themselves, as you must with a sacrament, and they imbue them with an irreverent reverence that only the truly alive can bestow on songs that are themselves, truly alive.
John Carpender is, in many ways, the engine of the band. He studies the songs. He asks questions. Later, alone, he rehearses. At the show, he watches the musicians, particularly Lenny Pincus, our leader, like a hawk. Seriously. Like a HAWK. I am so proud of his work on drums on songs for “Every Soul Grows to the Light,” and have been glad to have him as part of the Jenny & Friends band from time to time. Special bonus: in addition to being a great musician, he, his wife Liz, and his kids Henry and Halliday are great company.
He told me a few years ago he was ready to put a little more of his prodigious muscle into songwriting and creativity. I invited him to take a spot at one of my monthly musical residencies, “Acoustic Fridays with Jenny & Friends.” This gave me a totally different view of him as an artist. Generous, thoughtful, and actually quite capable with a guitar in his hands, self-effacing as he might be about it.
So when it came time to put together the “7.16: Haiku Milieu: Begin with the End in Mind” show, I thought of him. I knew he would come to the table with a good song.
His song says out loud what my haiku was hinting. Let’s just say, it and the video exceeded my wildest expectations. You can view it here: https://youtu.be/YFiJLm1p2Zs.
And now, enjoy these words from John Carpender:
“I was fortunate that the chance to write a song based on one of Jenny’s haiku came to me when it did. I’m primarily a drummer and had been pretty much idle due to the pandemic that swept the globe. It was a relief to have a musical project to work on.
But Jenny’s haiku, like Jenny herself, are mostly positive and optimistic, reaching to identify beauty and connectivity. They are full of light.
However I was, and have been, in a rather dark place personally. I simply didn’t have a pretty, uplifting song in me at that moment. The haiku I chose reads: you devour me/ sure that you set the trap but/ I’m inside you now.
These are the first words of the song I ultimately created. Yes, dark. But I’d been sunken deep in a mire of both world events and personal challenges that I was primed to address musically. I don’t want to define the meaning of the song too much, but I will say it is not primarily about the pandemic. It’s really about the many things we, as individuals and as a society, ignore and which ultimately threaten to “devour” us because of our own denial.
With regard to collaboration, I turned to three young artists who were right here in my home. First, my son Henry, ensconced in my basement after returning from the end of his education at the Eastman School of Music, offered me the opportunity to focus on the musical aspect of the project by taking over the technical part.
He has vastly better understanding of quality home recording than I do and that was essential in starting with drums. For me, that’s a must. I have to start with what I do best, to have a solid foundation. So after the structure of the song was established on acoustic guitar, I began with recording drums.
Then first guitar, then second guitar, then bass. Then the rough recording was due- Jenny wanted to know where I was in the process. And so I sang my own version of the sinister little song I created and sent it along with apologies for feeling certain it diverged from the aesthetic of what I imagined other artists contributing. Frankly, I felt like going with a dark sinister rock song risked throwing a big grenade into the proceedings.
But, not surprisingly, Jenny gave me her full endorsement and encouraged me follow it. (are any of you who know her at all surprised?)
I then decided the song might be a bit less ominous if I asked my daughter Halliday to sing it in her sweet voice. She is a lovely singer, but perhaps more used to singing in school choir than singing lead on an old guy’s rock song. But I thought perhaps her voice would lighten the mood.
I thought that for about 30 seconds.
I quickly realized that the sweetness and unembellished purity of her delivery would actually make the song even creepier. And that turned out to be the perfect choice. So Henry engineered a vocal session for his sister, and like the budding producer he is, guided her along through several takes and created a composite of those based on his own assessment of what sounded best. I think I was mowing the lawn. After vocals were done I added the synth that comes in late and adds another layer of creepy retro-weirdness to it all. So that’s both my kids helping me out.
Then I asked Henry, who graduated from music school with a degree in trombone performance, for which we awaited his diploma in the mail, to add a final touch. Perhaps, his education having been cut short, he had his own issues to express. I left him pretty wide latitude. I knew that I just wanted trombone to come in at the end, after the vocal ended. I’d imagined a multi-tracked “section” part.
Instead, Henry created total mayhem. Rather than solidifying the song as it closes, the crazed and seemingly random multiple trombone parts that erupt at the end of the song serve to make it come apart, shattering the song structure altogether, veering outside the lines and extending beyond the end of all the other instrumental tracks. It was perfect.
I added one sampled bowed cymbal screech lifted from the internet, which happens between the first two verses, and the song part was done.
As for the video…. Hmmm….”begin with the end in mind”… Well, here’s what actually happened.
I’m not much of a visual artist. My first idea was that perhaps Halliday could sing or synch the vocal in a static 1-shot video with me pretending to play guitar in the background, probably out of focus BECAUSE THAT’S ART. But then the better path came upon us.
Her boyfriend Alec Peterson, also a student at DePaul. was visiting. He’s a film student. PERFECT! And so the collaborative paradigm of “make the kids do it” was again deployed. I basically told Halliday “hey you and Alec should make a video of the song.” I mean, if you have a house full of talented creative and totally bored kids just hanging around during a global pandemic, why not give them something to do, right? The video is entirely their creation. All I said was “Halliday can be in it, or not. She can be lipsynching, or not. And don’t make it funny. It’s a creepy, dark song, so follow that.” That’s pretty much it. I believe they used a camera Alec had that was good for shooting at night, as well as using an iPhone. Alec edited the video back home in Texas.
I saw it for the first time the day before it was due. I had no fear that it would be anything but great, and I was right. Okay, I’m biased by the fact that it’s basically a video of my daughter…
I was very gratified by the reaction of those watching during the online viewing party. I had feared freaking out the many exceptional artists, most of whom followed a more acoustic path. I’m also very thankful to Jenny for the opportunity to both express something I clearly needed to express and to do so in collaboration with fearless and creative young people that I love so much.” – John Carpender