Sense Memory

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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.

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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.

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In My House

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In my last post I was reminiscing on my time spent in Frigiliana, Spain in 2006, in the early stages of writing songs for No Straight Lines.

It is an extraordinary thing to hole up in a place like that to write songs.  You bring your instrument, your tape recorder, your notebooks, your rough ideas.  You know no one, though you always make friends.  Everything around you has a newness to it.  You arrive full of hope.  What you might possibly draw from your surroundings you can never know, and that’s why you go there.  Fes, where I spent time in 2004 writing, was a relentless beehive of people.  Frigiliana, arriving as I did during the rainy off-season, was a silent, whitewashed dream.  Ironically, in each place I got exactly what I wanted — total anonymity.

I love literature easily as much as I love music.  Many times during the writing of No Straight Lines I re-read Lorca‘s inspiring “In Search of Duende” essays and many times over his poetry.  Modern flamenco owes a lot to Lorca, having organized with Manuel de Falla the legendary 1922 Concorso de Cante Jondo in Granada, that helped flamenco begin to be appreciated for the incredibly deep art form it is.

cante_jondooriginalAn amazing recording from that event exists.  A number of years ago Sonifolk, a label in Madrid, released a CD of performances from the Concorso along with various selections from both de Falla’s and Lorca’s personal flamenco collections.  It’s quite a slice of history.  I naturally had that with me in Frigiliana as well.

Songs are miniatures.  I often think of them as akin to pottery, certainly not high art.  They’re hand-thrown objects that might at best hold a few ideas, assuming the listener wishes to store something there.  The lyrics have to fit around the outside.  Half of the time they crack in the oven.  They most likely get thrown out and only rarely passed down through generations.  If I consult the higher arts for direction now and then, it is only as someone seeks a flashlight in the dark.  I love being informed by what is out there in the world.  But I can’t fit into my own pants from ten years ago, let alone a larger figure’s shoes.

Stumbling down the hill to Frigiliana’s central café every morning, I blew through two café con leches at the bar thumbing through yesterday’s emails on my Blackberry while the the chief of police nursed a breakfast sherry next to me.  Afterwards I trudged back up the many steps to my rented house, where I spent the day hard at work writing, as the shape of the album began to finally take seed in my mind.

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Songs like “I Threw Your Heart” and “Came So Close” off of No Straight Lines became highly influenced by flamenco lyrics.  For a really nice, concise collection, check out “Gypsy Cante,” selected and translated by Will Kirkland.  In the meantime, below is an Andalusian poem in a similar vein, one of my very favorites.  As the writer (and lawyer) José Monleón once aptly remarked, “Flamenco is a tragedy in the first person.”

In my house
I am keeping a garden,
so I can sell flowers
for you if hard times come.

I went out to the fields to cry
like a mad man screaming,
and even the wind kept telling
me that you loved someone else.

From your neck hangs a cross
Set in gold and ivory.
Let me die on it
And crucify myself there,
On that cross that hangs from your neck.

I have bought three knives
For you to end my life,
So that I will not have to
Suffer the pain
Of hating you.

 

Frigiliana

 

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In my last post I was writing about Al-Andalus music.  “Al-Andalus” refers to the lengthy period from roughly 711 through 1492 during which major parts of Spain were under Moorish (i.e., Muslim) rule.  If you enjoyed the music I linked to there then why not throw this on some Saturday while you’re cleaning house…a Spotify playlist that purportedly contains a full 26 hours of Al-Andalus influenced music (assuming you’re willing to use Spotify, which I do have mixed feelings about).  https://play.spotify.com/user/prakalos/playlist/0NxQpTdmstDfIVRlJ6Qp6E

The small, whitewashed hillside Andalusian village of Frigiliana looms large in the creation of No Straight Lines. I rented a house there in early 2006 where I worked on a number of songs that wound up on the album, and where I took the photo above.  But to discuss Frigiliana I need to go way back.

Sometime around 2000 I took a trip to Spain.  After visiting old friends in Granada (I started going there in 1979), I wound my way through Murcia and Andalusia on back roads ending up in Seville in an old hotel near the Cathedral Gino Dauri had recommended to me.  It’s fitting I mention Gino, because he would later play his own role in No Straight Lines.  I met Gino really soon after moving to LA in 1980.  Probably the best-known flamenco player in LA during those years (though rejected by some purists because he was always into experimentation), he later sold me the Hermanos Conde flamenco guitar I used for most of the nylon string guitar parts on No Straight Lines.  Gino was quite a character…but if I were to go off on Gino – whose flamboyant life was cut down way too soon by cancer about 10 years ago – I’d lose the ever-important meticulous and decisive train of thought that so defines this blog.

My travel journals say I was re-reading Lorca’s plays, Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises” and Jan Morris‘ excellent “Spain” book during that trip.  As I’ve noted elsewhere, I often hand-pick books to read whenever I travel that are tied in some way to the place I am in.  I so strongly recommend traveling that way, it adds immensely to any trip.

But I digress, because on the way to Seville I had discovered this amazing small whitewashed village called Frigiliana, only 5 miles inland from the Mediterranean town of Nerja, but seemingly still 500 years in the past.  I arrived around 2:30 in the afternoon. The town was utterly dead and I mean utterly. There were a few dusty ancient cars and a handful of existential donkeys spread around the main square.  It was incredibly hot.  I started walking up into the village on these winding walkways that seemed to never end.

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I finally arrived at an outdoor café perched high on the hillside already closed for the afternoon with a large unoccupied patio that looked out over the Mediterranean in the distance.  I was totally winded so I sat down to catch my breath.  Remarkably, Pat Metheny Group’s “First Circle” album was playing softly through the patio speakers.  Having recorded This Perfect Day a few years earlier with PMG bassist Steve Rodby (who also played on No Straight Lines) but also knowing both Lyle Mays and Pedro Aznar in that group, I had a really uncanny feeling sitting there — in such thoroughly familiar musical surroundings, while simultaneously in some faraway distant place and time.

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For some reason I afterwards often thought if I ever found myself with an extended period of time to write, I might want to return to Frigiliana.  So in early 2006 (through an incredibly generous 5-month leave of absence granted my employer Morrison & Foerster to allow me to travel and work on music) I holed up there for a steady month of writing.  The photo above was taken from the rooftop of the 600 year-old house I rented, looking out beyond the newer part of Frigiliana to the Mediterranean beyond.

I’ll write more about my time in Frigiliana later, but today I am making Ajo Blanco (white garlic) soup, and that’s what prompted this post — the interconnectedness of Al-Andalus music and Ajo Blanco soup.  Because it was the Moors who introduced almonds to the Iberian Peninsula and most likely also invented Ajo Blanco.

Whenever I had put in an especially hard morning of work in Frigiliana, I rewarded myself with lunch at La Bodeguilla, a family-run place featuring regional food.  They made a truly memorable Choto Frito (stewed kid) that I always ordered with Ajo Blanco and Migas (fried breadcrumbs with garlic) on the side.  (For a short article on Andalusian food, see http://www.marbellagoldenmile.com/andalucian-food.asp).

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Not only is Ajo Blanco incredibly good, it’s just about the easiest thing in the world to make.  If you’re interested, I’ve included my recipe below, created from trial and error.  It makes batch large enough for about 12 servings or 1 small foot bath.

3 cups blanched almonds

6 garlic clove

one 6″ x 3″ piece of day-old white bread, crust removed

1 1/4 cup Spanish olive oil

10 tablespoon sherry vinegar (vinagre de Jerez)

4 teaspoons salt

5 1/2 cups water

Instructions:  Cover bread with water and soak 5 minutes.  Meanwhile, pulse the almonds and garlic in a blender or processor until finely ground.  Then squeeze the excess water out of the bread and pulse it into the almond mix until it becomes a thick paste.  With the motor running add the olive oil slowly, followed by the vinegar and salt, and finally the water.  Put the soup in a tureen in the refrigerator and cool for at least a couple of hours.  This will get you started, but then taste the soup and add more water, salt or vinegar to suit your taste.  It should be tangy.

 

 

 

 

 

Al-Andalus

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Throughout the period I was working on “No Straight Lines,” I was listening to a fair amount of Al-Andalus music (i.e., dating from the period roughly 711-1492 A.D.).  I’ve been keen on it ever since hearing the wonderful group Al-Andalus from Portland, Oregon 10 or 15 years ago.  The cross-fertilization of Spain and Morocco during that era was extraordinarily rich and anyone traveling around either Southern Spain or Northern Morocco often stumbles upon many syncretic relics, including an entire section of the Fes medina built during the Al-Andalus era.  It’s not unusual to see Al-Andalus groups using cello and violin (played in the lap) but playing melismatic maqams rather than European parts.

Here’s but one example:

The photo at the top of this post is from the medina in Fes, taken during the 2004 Fes Festival.  The one below is from a back street in Malaga in 2006 when I spent an extended period of time in Frigiliana and Malaga writing songs for “No Straight Lines.”  How far apart are they really?

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The Mediterranean region continues to be a particularly potent area for musical collaboration.  When it came out in 1988, I loved the Ketama record “Songhai” that featured Toumani Diabate on kora and Danny Thompson on upright bass (I was a big Pentangle fan during the 1970s).  I enjoy what Javier Limon has recently been doing with Buika and Anouska Shankar, and what Neopolitans like Enzo Avitabile and Pino Danieli have long done with cross-cultural references in their corner of the region.  During work on “No Straight Lines” I listened quite a bit to Karim Ziad‘s very cool “Ifrika” CD, a refreshing Gnawa-meets-Zawinul thing.  In short, these various musics all share antecedents of one sort or another, just as we are all connected to each other, however tenuously it seems at times.

When it first came out, I saw the extraordinary film “Latcho Drom” in a theatre, and afterwards listened to its soundtrack album hundreds of times, I’m sure.  I had already encountered a lot of flamenco by then and was highly curious about its origins, which are explored in the film through Romani performances from all parts of the world.  I watched many more Tony Gatlif films during the making of “No Straight Lines,” so many of his characters torn between Spain and North Africa.  My friend Cihtli Ocampo was the featured female dancer in Gatlif’s amazing film “Exils” (for which he received the Best Director award at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival) and her husband Ethan Margolis played on and contributed to “No Straight Lines” in numerous other ways.

While not strictly Al-Andalus, the group that I probably got the most inspiration from while working on “No Straight Lines” was Radio Tarifa.  I love their melding of flamenco with North African influences, but also the way they work really unusual instruments like hautbois de poitou, crumhorn, argul into their productions.  To my ears theirs is a really novel and successful alchemy.  And I love that they recorded their first album in their living room, which is where I recorded most of “No Straight Lines,” since I years ago sold my studio and now no longer even have a soundproofed room.  If you’ve never checked out Radio Tarifa, here’s a short video that will introduce you to them:

As I review this post I am struck by how much music I refer to, when in fact I have always found it next to impossible to listen to other music when working on an album, lest I get distracted or lose focus.  But I can see why one common thread that binds these artists together — their celebration of a world larger than themselves — was and continues to be an inspiration.