Making Americayana: Got to Go

After figuring out how my hero was born, the next episode in the story that I wanted to tackle was his exile. In many versions of the Ramayana (IMVOTR), Rama is exiled to the forest for fourteen years by his father at the request of one of his father’s other wives, who wants the throne for her own son, Rama’s brother. His wife and some combination of his brothers vow to follow him into the forest, and they have many adventures while traveling across India.

While trying to figure out why my hero would have to leave the family that had sacrificed so much to get him and head “out on the road” as I had already decided in “Burn So Bright,” I started thinking about how IMVOTR, Rama’s divine nature is unclear to the people around him (and sometimes even to himself). How unnerving it must be, I thought, to grow up around someone who just might be a god.

That in turn made me think of the HBO series Carnivale, about a young man who discovers he can bring the dead back to life; shunned by his family for possessing these unnatural powers, he joins a traveling circus troupe (the series was unfortunately canceled before revealing the true nature of the struggle between the hero and his apparently evil counterpart, a charismatic preacher). Why not combine aspects of both of those characters, I thought, and have my hero exiled by a community suspicious of the glimpses of uncanny powers that even he does not understand, and forced to make his living traveling the land as a preacher? Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger definitely had some influence in this idea as well.

Musically, “Got to Go” is pretty straight-up rockabilly — there’s a lot of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” in its DNA, especially in the lead guitar line. One slightly unusual aspect of the music is the percussion, which is made up largely of looped claps and table drumming; at this stage in the project I still had the idea that I was not going to use any software percussion, but rather just create loops of percussion I could do on my own. That idea didn’t stick, but it’s mostly in effect here. I’m also pretty happy with the distortion on the vocals and the harmonica, both of which were done through a Green Bullet microphone run through my guitar amp, in a nod to Little Walter.

Making Americayana: A Small Sacrifice

When I finally decided that “Burn So Bright” didn’t quite cover the whole story that I wanted to tell, and that I wanted to challenge myself to write an entire song cycle reimagining the Ramayana via country music, I also decided that I was going to try to write and record the whole album in sequence. While I had a rough idea of the various episodes that frequently occur retellings of the story, I wanted to see how each song would lead to the next lyrically and stylistically. So for the first song I was going to consciously write as part of this project, I wanted to start at the beginning of the story.

In many versions of the Ramayana (I guess I need to start using the acronym IMVOTR, since I’m going to be using this qualification a lot in these blog posts) the story begins with Rama’s birth. Usually, the story goes, Rama is an avatar of Vishnu, who crosses over to Earth in order to defeat the demon king Ravana. This ten-headed rakshasa, for complicated reasons, can be killed neither by a god nor a man; a god who is also a man, however, seems to have been an acceptable loophole (protip for demons: always read the fine print).

IMVOTR, Rama’s conception involves a long, complicated Vedic sacrifice performed by his father, King Dasaratha. As I thought about the kind of old, weird America where I intended to have the album unfold, I couldn’t figure out what the equivalent of such a sacrifice might be in such a milieu. Then I realized that that old standby of blues and Americana, the deal with the devil, was not unlike the ancient Vedic sacrifices — giving up something of value in the hope that a supernatural figure will provide what you want or need. I just needed to figure out why one of our hero’s parents would make that deal with the devil.

At the time I was writing “A Small Sacrifice,” I had a number of friends and relatives who were trying to have children, and it got me thinking about the lengths that people will go to become parents — frustrating years of trying IVF or other therapies, traveling to distant continents to adopt, and so on. Like Dasaratha, they were making profound efforts to get something they desperately wanted. Perhaps one of our hero’s parents would desire his birth so deeply that they’d be willing to give up their lives to make it happen. In the end, I decided to tell the story from the point of view of our hero’s mother, whose desire for a child leads her to make a deal with the local priest, who may or may not be a representative of the divine, or the diabolical.

The actual recording of the song started with the rhythm track, which is just a sample of a vinyl record that I slightly chopped up to provide a steady 4/4 beat. The chord progression is very simple, and repeats throughout the song, so to keep it interesting I started it out very sparse and added new elements with each verse — this kind of layering is something I do on a lot of songs. The first stringed instrument you hear is a ukulele, filtered through GarageBand’s “Telephone” effect.

The next verse introduces an acoustic guitar and a tinkling piano, then a banjo, then a tambourine and bass. The latter two were software instruments on GarageBand, since I didn’t own a bass yet; even after I bought one a couple years later and went back to re-record live some of the software bass parts I had been working with, I decided to leave this one as is. It’s so simple and, to me, perfect, that I could only screw it up by trying to make it more complicated. Finally, I added in a Telecaster played through my then-brand-new Fender Twin Reverb amp; I was (and still am) enamored with that classic vintage reverb sound, and you’ll hear it all over this record.

The thing that really ties the song together, though, is that haunting sample that starts the song and loops throughout the entire tune. I knew I wanted to add some kind of sample to add the feel of “ritual,” and I scoured Freesound.org for just the right one. When I stumbled upon this recording of a church choir in Holland, it felt perfect. Even though its rhythm is nothing like that of “A Small Sacrifice,” I love the way it winds in and out of the quiet spaces of the song, swelling and receding in a way that gave exactly the beautiful but slightly creepy texture I was looking for.

In an interesting epilogue, when I finally finished the album a good five years or so after I originally downloaded Klankbeeld’s recording, I went back to Freesound to try to figure out where to provide attribution. It turned out that the original recording had been accidentally deleted and was no longer available. But since I still had a copy on my computer, I was able to return it to its grateful creator halfway around the world. Sometimes the internet is amazing.

My 2017 Mixtape

As I’ve done the last few years, I’m posting a playlist of some of my favorite songs of the year for 2017. Rather than also post the list of my top 25 albums compiled for my annual higher ed web music nerd list, the songs are listed on the playlist in the order of my ranking (so, for example, She-Devils put out my favorite album of the year, Valerie June had my second-ranked, and so on). I had intended to recuse myself from including Americayana on the list, but just couldn’t resist the lure of getting to 25 albums. I’d love to hear what you think of the selections, and hope you all have a 2018 worth singing about.

On Tom Petty

It’s been just over two weeks since Tom Petty died, and some time stuck in an airport last week finally gave me a chance to jot down my thoughts on one of my favorite songwriters. My generation has lost a lot of its musical heroes in the last few years. We’ve been through this before, of course — back in the 90s with Cobain and Staley and Buckley and Tupac and a dozen others who, to borrow the cliche from an earlier generation, burned out before they ever had the chance to fade away. In this second, most recent round of losses, some — Chris Cornell, Phife-Dawg — are our contemporaries, who managed to make it through the peak of their fame and go on to establish long careers, only to have them cut short by illness, whether mental or physical. Others — Prince, David Bowie — were like cool older siblings, or the badass aunts & uncles who showed us you could be our parents’ age but still keep surprising everyone.

Tom Petty is the first of this recent group to whom I felt a real connection. I respected Prince and Bowie as artists, but their music never really did it for me. I owned and enjoyed (and still do) Soundgarden and A Tribe Called Quest albums, but they never really felt like “mine.” Petty’s music did, though. I wasn’t a fan from childhood. Yes, a cassette of Damn the Torpedos was in the rotation along with Bob Dylan and Huey Lewis and The Highwaymen in my dad’s truck when I would go visit him out west each summer, and I remember hearing the early stuff on the classic rock station that always played on the school bus, and the new stuff on the Top 40 station that I listened to because I didn’t know any better, and I remember seeing the video for “Into the Great Wide Open” at the houses of friends who had MTV. But it wasn’t until the Greatest Hits album came out, and “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” was suddenly everywhere, that something clicked. Somehow that adolescent switch had been flipped that turns some of us from people who hear music to people who listen to music, where what had been sonic wallpaper suddenly becomes the soundtrack to our own lives.

By the time Wildflowers (still my favorite Petty album) came out, I’d discovered a whole new way of listening, like the shift from black-and-white to color in The Wizard of Oz. And heard through that filter, Petty was unique among the songwriters I heard around me. He wasn’t creating surrealist wordscapes like Dylan or his grunge-era heir apparent, Beck. He wasn’t dramatic, confessional and angsty like Eddie Vedder and Adam Duritz (two other songwriters I idolized back then, but whose output has not aged nearly as well as Petty’s). He was crafting these understated impressionist short stories of characters in a moment in time, with enough specificity to create a mise-en-scène but leaving just enough space to allow your imagination fill in the gaps. In “Time to Move On,“ a woman is “moving through the airport, she’s an honest defector, conscientious objector, now her own protector;” I swear there’s an entire novel waiting in those two lines.

Yet Petty also seemed to never take himself too seriously. A deep sense of empathy for his characters lives side-by-side with a great sense of humor— the line in “Down South” where his narrator is “gonna impress all the women, pretend I’m Samuel Clemens, wear seersucker and white linens” never fails to make me smile. And on songs like “Free Fallin’,” he was able to take two-and-a-half chords and make them simultaneously anthemic and achingly intimate, timeless and completely of the moment. He was one of the artists who made me want to write songs, and his fingerprints are all over just about every song I’ve written in the last fifteen years (there’s a particularly obvious nod to him in the “it’s good to be king” line in “A Small Sacrifice”). If I ever manage to write anything even half as good as one of his tunes, I’ll consider my little hobby a perfect success.

Making Americayana: Burn So Bright

Most of the songs on Americayana were written and recorded in the order they appear on the album, but “Burn So Bright” is the major exception – it was the first song written for the album, and in a lot of ways laid out the framework of the whole project.

The spark of the idea that became “Burn So Bright” came more than ten years ago, while listening to a song that might as well be Holy Scripture within the country music canon: “Ring of Fire,” by Johnny Cash. I had spent some time in grad school studying a famous episode that pops up some form in nearly every version of the Ramayana: the agnipariksha, or the test of fire.

In most versions of the story, Sita, the wife of the exiled king Rama (who is usually considered to be an avatar of the god Vishnu, sent to earth to destroy the ten-headed demon Ravana) is kidnapped by Ravana and taken to his kingdom of Lanka. Rama leads an army to defeat the demons, kill Ravana, and free Sita. But then a curious thing happens: Rama tells Sita that, since she has lived in another man’s house, she has been defiled; while it was his duty to save her, she’s no longer worthy of being his wife. Sita declares that she remains entirely pure and not only never allowed Ravana to touch her, but never let her mind wander from Rama. She then (depending upon the version) either orders that a fire be built so that she may enter it to prove her purity, or is told by Rama that such is the only way he can be sure of her faithfulness. Sita enters the fire and remains untouched by the flames, proving her purity and giving Rama the justification to take her back (there are also versions in which Rama and Sita are described as planning the whole thing to happen as it did, with a shadow version of Sita created specifically to be kidnapped by Ravana, while the real Sita was spirited off for safekeeping by the fire god Agni; in these versions the fire test is simply how the real Sita is returned to our world).

With the story of the fire test bouncing around in my head, all it took was hearing the chorus of “Ring of Fire” one day to suddenly make me realize that at its core, the narrative structure of the Ramayana is basically that of a country tune: a seemingly true love destroyed by suspicion, with the murder of the “other man” thrown in to make it extra juicy. By that time I had also encountered the work of Nina Paley, who was at the time creating some fantastic Flash animations of characters from the Ramayana set to the songs of Annette Hanshaw (she would eventually bring them all together in the fantastic full-length film, Sita Sings the Blues, which you can watch or download for free).

Nina’s work helped make clear to me the potential for cross-pollination in two ostensibly very different artistic traditions. Like many versions of the story that I had read or heard, her work also highlights just how unfair and misogynist the entire notion of the fire test is (the versions where Sita is hidden by Agni that I noted above would seem to be attempts to deal with the uncomfortable idea of a supposed paragon of virtue acting like such a cruel jerk).

So, when I decided to write a country song retelling the Ramayana, I wanted to accomplish two things: to reframe the story within the idioms of country music, and to retell the story from Sita’s perspective. The first task wasn’t tough; I didn’t quite know yet why the Rama character was out on the road, but the ramblin’ exile is an established trope in the genre. The Ravana character, instead of disguising himself as a mendicant sage to kidnap Sita as in most versions of the story, becomes a door-to-door salesman of bibles and knives who just happens to be in the right(?) place at the right time. Along the way, the theme that emerged from the Sita character’s perspective was how hard, even infuriating, it must be to be married to someone who can (or thinks they can) do no wrong: “best intentions make an awful mess,” as she says in the song. Perhaps, faced with living with that kind of self-righteousness all the time, she might have actually been looking for a way out, and who could blame her? In this version, she becomes the agent of what happens to her rather than the object.

After I finished the song back in 2008 or so, I took it to my band at the time, The Lost Cartographers. Our keyboardist, Erin Fusco, gave it a compositional polish, adding in the chord changes in the pre-chorus and the outro, and together the band performed it live a number of times. Eventually we figured it didn’t quite fit with some of the other songs were doing, and I decided that someday I was going to do a Ramayana concept album that I would somehow fit “Burn So Bright” into.

While it was the first song written for the album, its recording was done in sequence, so I had already finished a good chunk of the album before I sat down to record this. Given the relatively mellow songs on either side of it I decided I wanted to keep the rocking feel of the Lost Cartographers’ version, but maybe even kick it up a notch into a kind of messy garage rock tune. The stomps and claps that provide the backbone of the percussion for the song were recorded in my dining room (I love that you can still kind of hear the glasses in our wine rack clinking together), and were recycled from a recording of “My Name Is Charles Guiteau” that I did as a promotional piece for a production of Assassins. My lovely wife provided the vocals, one of two songs on the album in which she provides the voice of our heroine.

Making Americayana (Part I)

Inspired by one of my favorite podcasts, Song Exploder, I’ve decided to do a series of blog posts about the making of my new album, Americayana.

One of the questions that I’ve gotten a lot over the last few years when it came up in conversation that I was working on a alternative country album about Hindu mythology(no, seriously, it did actually come up in conversation) was: how did you get interested in all this?

The truth is that I’ve been interested in “mythology” – which we’ll define for the sake of expediency as “shared narrative traditions concerning the heroic or divine” – since I was a small child. In first grade, when each of us had to bring a book to read to the class, I chose a child’s adaptation of the story of Demeter and Persephone. From Greek mythology, I moved on to Arthurian legend and Celtic myth, and designed my own major in Comparative Mythology at Oberlin College.

It was at Oberlin that I first found out about the story of Rama and Sita, in a class on Hindu Mythology taught by one of the greatest teachers I’ve ever had, Paula Richman. Through her classes and her books (I can’t recommend the edited volumes Many Ramayanas and Questioning Ramayanas highly enough) she made me see not only what great stories were contained in this diverse narrative tradition, but also how compelling they had been – and still are – to millions of people across thousands of years. I learned about not only the historical epic, first written down in Sanskrit between 300 BCE and 300 CE, but about how these tales still provided models for how people could and should live their lives in media as diverse as 1980s state-run Indian television and Indonesian shadow-puppetry. I learned about the ways these stories were still vibrant in everything from art-house LGBT cinema to fundamentalist politics and everything in between.

I was, in short, hooked. One of the subjects of my honors thesis was the relationship of Rama and Sita, and I went on to do a master’s degree and several years toward a Ph.D. in History of Religions at the University of Chicago Divinity School, studying (among other things) the way that tellings in different media changed the story of the Sita’s trial by fire and uses of the Rama story in anti-Muslim Hindu nationalist activism. I spent a summer in Jaipur, Rajasthan, studying Hindi. And while I never did finish that Ph.D., I also never lost my love for these characters, or for the storytellers who have brought them to life over and over in so many different forms for so many centuries. Americayana is my own humble contribution to that tradition, and over the rest of the posts in this series I’ll share some of the stories behind the songs.

Of course, if there’s anything specific you’d like to know about, leave a comment and I’ll be sure to address your question. Thanks for listening!

Announcing “Americayana”

I’m very pleased to announce the completion of a project that I’ve been working on for more than five years now, a solo album called “Americayana.” I’ve been describing it as Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger meets the Ramayana: each of the ten songs on the album reimagines part of the ancient South Asian epic in 20th-century America, using the idioms of country, blues, and early rock. I spent years studying the narrative traditions surrounding Rama and Sita, from Sanskrit texts to Bollywood retellings, so I’m excited to add my own humble contribution to this particular sea of stories.

The album is currently available to stream and purchase on Bandcamp.com, with other streaming and download services available soon, and a limited number of physical copies (CDs! How quaint!) will be available on cdbaby.com in the near future.

2016 Mixtape: Elegy for a Dumpsterfire

It’s that time again… time for the end-of-the-year mixtape. While I usually just choose my favorite tracks from the year, it felt like this disaster of a year needed to be reflected in the song choices, so you might notice a little more of a narrative embedded in this year’s selections. Here’s to a better year ahead.

My 2015 Mixtape

I started making yearly mixtapes back in high school, when a family friend offered to trade me a subscription to Rolling Stone each Christmas in exchange for keeping her up to date on what the kids were listening to in those days. While I now have not the slightest idea what the kids are listening to today, the wonders of the internet allow me to share that annual mixtape with many more friends, plus a few random strangers. I hope you enjoy, and have great 2016.

Recording: Church Service in Fiji

Back in October, my wife and I were fortunate to be able to take a trip to Fiji, and during the part of our stay when we were in the Yasawa chain of islands, were able to attend a church service in the village of Soso on the island of Naviti.

Music is everywhere in Fiji, and churches are no exception. I recorded some of the songs (and a bit of the preaching) before and during the service. A big vinaka to the church members for allowing us to attend, and for welcoming us so whole-heartedly to their village.