Lisbon 2005

DSC00159

In 2005 I traveled to Lisbon to continue writing songs for “NO STRAIGHT LINES.”  I was considering moving there at the time, where I thought I might try to set up a European legal practice representing high-end clients needing advice on U.S. intellectual property law.  I met with several of the largest Lisbon firms and explored various strategies with them, made a few friends I still keep in touch with today, and wound up doing a few Portuguese deals afterwards as result, but eventually decided against the move.  I was also hoping to meet up with Mafalda Arnauth on that trip to see if she might be interested in singing on the album, but she was out of the country on tour.

But all was not lost, of course, because I was there mostly for Fernando Pessoa.

pessoaFernando Pessoa

Tucked away in a corner of Praça do Comércio (back behind the red trolley car in the photo above), the main square of Lisbon that fronts the Tagus (i.e., Lisboa’s version of St. Marks’ Square in Venice), one can find the illustrious Restaurant Café Martinho da Arcada, Pessoa’s favorite haunt.  I of course needed to eat there at least once, though I chose not to try the juliana soup (see below), cod and fried eggs with cheese Pessoa usually ingested there.  I can’t remember what I had, but it was probably the grilled sardines or caldo verde, neither of which I could ever get enough of in Lisboa.

sopa-juliana

I am in the process of re-reading one my favorite books of all time, Fernando Pessoa’s remarkable “The Book of Disquiet.”  Pessoa’s work has been swirling around my head ever since I first discovered him in the early 1980s.  I often read Pessoa while I was working on “No Straight Lines,” and plainly see his influence on certain lyrics on the album, especially I suppose “At The End Of The Day.”  But it has been now more than 10 years since I last read cover-to-cover this tour de force of prose.  I’m savoring it page by page.

For anyone who has never encountered the amazing work of Fernando Pessoa here is an exquisite short poem of his from 1933 found in “Poems of Fernando Pessoa” (translated and edited by Edwin Honig and Susan M. Brown), Ecco Press, one of my very favorites:

To be great, be whole; exclude
Nothing, exaggerate nothing that is you.
Be whole in everything. Put all you are
Into the smallest thing you do.
The whole moon gleams in every pool.
It rides so high.

I owe my discovery of Pessoa to Dori Caymmi who, at a feijoada at John Pisano‘s years ago (more on that subject and John later), told me Pessoa was his favorite poet in the Portuguese language.  That led me to first read Pessoa’s poetry, and later everything of his I could ever get my hands on.  This being back in the 1980s, a fair amount of his work still wasn’t readily available in the U.S. in English translation then, including “The Book of Disquiet,” though that has changed.

It turned out that I had already by then heard a fair amount of Pessoa without knowing it.  It wasn’t until I traveled to Lisbon in 2005 that I discovered the album “Various Artists – A Música em Pessoa”

and realized I had been listening to these songs for years without knowing the lyrics came from Pessoa — songs by Jobim, Edu Lobo, Dori and his sister Nana Caymmi (my favorite female singer from Brasil, at least from the MPB era) and many others I knew so well.  Vicente Soto Sordera”s “Pessoa Flamenco” is another great offering, showing Pessoa’s influence extending into the flamenco realm.

I’ll write more about Pessoa later.  I’m far more interested in his literary output than others’ use of his work as lyrics, but it’s gratifying to see the world embracing this visionary poet and thinker.

Advertisements

Sense Memory

2014-05-09 16.12.05 copyML

This blog purports to be about the making of NO STRAIGHT LINES but so far I have mostly written about the places in which I spent time writing.  But this isn’t and shouldn’t be another travel site.  It’s about one singer-songwriter’s extended process of creating a “concept album.”  There is probably no good reason to do one any more, not in this commercial era.  It’s too much work to justify projects like this in a world where tracks get broken up into single tracks and shuffled.  So in part it’s a fond goodbye to an era.

Many years ago I was sitting in my apartment in Cambridge, Mass. in the middle of winter recording demos of my newest songs.  It was very late in the afternoon.  I had my headphones on, facing the windows, with the light filtering in.  Suddenly my head was intoxicated with the smell of my high school girlfriend’s skin and hair.  Right in the middle of recording some song that had nothing to do with her at all, I was transported a million miles away back to my her and to my adolescence almost ten years earlier.  The sensory experience was so intense, coming suddenly out of nowhere as it did, had I been standing it might have buckled my knees.  And here was what made it so amazingly potent: During the entire time she and I had been together I had never once noticed the smell of her skin or her hair.  It was only years later, on that otherwise unremarkable day, that I experienced it for the very first time and recognized immediately what it was.

So this post is about sense memory and about providence, about how good things eventually come to us — and about the writing of one particular song off my album — “A Million Miles Away” — as the song came together over a several year period in a most unusual and gratifying way.

It began in Frigiliana, during that period I’ve written about in which I spent many weeks in that rented 600-year old house writing material for this album.  One of the musical ideas I was working on at the time consisted of the arpeggiated introduction and opening chords for “A Million Miles Away,” though I had at that time no lyrical ideas whatsoever and no sense of song structure.  I just loved playing this little passage, over and over again, though I never was able to turn it into anything.  Eventually I would wind up setting it aside.

DSCN0249ML

One day I was having lunch at La Taberna de Sacristan, a small patio restaurant I liked in the square just below the cathedral. Daydreaming in the noonday sun, I found myself ruminating on how the pursuit of art and beauty can lead a person to a place beyond return where only those things will satisfy the soul, with no way back.  The idea wasn’t at all clearly formed, but it did make an impression on me as having some power of truth to it, some potential basis for a lyric.  When I went back through my journals later to see what I wrote that day, I found I had scrawled the words “a million miles away…in a world of books and ideas.”  Very little.  My journals are filled with these kinds of things, almost never leading anywhere.  I bet only 1 out every 100 ideas I’ve written down like this ever amount to anything, yet it’s all part of the process.

A couple of years later, back in LA, I was writing a song on the piano, one I never finished about misplaced patriotism.  The song was starting to take shape and I had a number of lyric ideas jotted down.  One afternoon I recalled that little abandoned guitar introduction I had been working on in Spain, and wondered if perhaps that arpeggiated section might work on this new song.  I began playing it over and over again on the piano, just as I had in Spain on the guitar, and found myself dreamily transported back to those days.  For some inexplicable reason, out of nowhere it suddenly occurred to me that the lyric idea I had in the square in Frigiliana that day about being “a million miles away” might work perfectly with the arpeggiated guitar part I had been working on up the hill in my house at the very same time, two fragments I had never previously connected.  It was as if those two ideas were inherently linked together, not only by temperament, but by time and place – and yet it took years for this recognition to dawn upon me, and in the most roundabout manner imaginable.  The song became something else, heading off in its own direction, but these are its curious origins.

After all these years I am still in awe of the writing process, forever humble in its presence.

If reflections like this interest anyone, this story was based upon one of the Session Notes on my website that can be accessed from my MUSIC page.  I have some kind of Session Note for every song I’ve ever released.