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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