(This is the 14th chapter in this semi-autobiographical series. This chapter was initially in the form of an email sent to my music fan email list on September 24, 2020. It has been slightly edited for this blog. All the previous chapters in this series can be found on the column to the right. Go here to start at the beginning.)
I wrote the 3 songs of Word at different times, and recorded home demos of them. In 2015, in parallel with my Total Flower Chaos recording project, I took these 3 songs to Brian Hunter, engineer at Sawtelle Studio at Swallow Hill, to remix at professional-level quality. Brian had engineered Me and The Other Side of Nowhere, so I trusted his expertise. We also re-recorded the vocals, and, in some cases, we edited and/or added some things to the songs. I then released the 3 songs as a digital-only EP called Word. Here’s a description of the 3 songs.
Wave the Flag and Give ’em God (2006)
I got the idea for this song in 2006, while walking with my handheld digital recorder to a Chinese restaurant near my house. I was thinking about how politicians use patriotism and religion to manipulate people. I wrote in character of a cynical campaign manager advising his rather dull candidate; it was obvious at the time that my models were Karl Rove and George Bush. I also referenced Bill Clinton, during the verse where the campaign manager advises him, “you need to start going to church.” When Clinton was impeached, I noticed that, all of the sudden, there were photos and videos of him and HIllary attending church, which we had never seen before. To me it was an obvious attempt to suck up to the religious right that was calling for his impeachment.
For the music, I programmed a hip-hop beat on my drum machine, and recorded electric bass and two electric guitar layers. I then recorded the spoken word vocals. I mixed it myself. I included it as a hidden track on my first acoustic CD as a songwriter, Some Songs I Wrote.
While re-mixing it with Brian Hunter in 2016, I sampled the ending of speeches by the last three presidents, saying “God Bless America.” In the song, the campaign manager advises the candidate:
I want you to end every speech by saying
“God Bless America”
Those 3 words are so powerful
Those 3 words alone will get you millions of votes
Those 3 words combine the two things
patriotism and religion
that allow you to manipulate the common people.
So that’s why I say:
Wave the flag, and give ’em God.
Wave the flag, and give ’em God.
You can listen to, and download, the remix of Wave the Flag and Give ’em God on my Bandcamp site.
I’m not going to discuss the lyrics of this song here, because it has a surprise ending, and I don’t want to give it away. But also the politics of this song need an explanation that would be too lengthy for an email. Someday I will write a separate blog about it instead. Suffice to say that the topic is the impact of European colonial settlements on indigenous people. But not the indigenous people that you think, hence the surprise.
They ridiculed our religion
They ridiculed our way of life
They said we were backward people
They said they brought “civilization” to a backward land
They lied about our history
Some of them even said we were never here when they arrived
But we were here.
The music of Indigenous is perhaps my most creative and adventurous. I used a synthesizer to simulate non-western instruments. It’s definitely the best synth playing I’ve ever done. I created beat on GarageBand that wasn’t a typical kick drum/snare sound. Then I added western instruments that I know how to play– acoustic guitar, electric guitar and electric bass. For the song outro, I play a guitar solo on a heavily distorted electric guitar. My model for this solo was Carlos Santana, because he plays with so much emotion, and you can hear it. I think it’s one of my best– if not my best– guitar solo.
Like the other two songs, I took the tracks I recorded at home to Brian Hunter at Swallow Hill. I re-recorded the vocal, and Brian remixed the tracks. Check it out on my Bandcamp site.
Accept, Embrace, Surrender (2012-2013)
There is a 4-day class series given every year at the Song School by Paul Reisler, called Directed Writing. In that class, Paul pairs everyone up with a random person, and you exchange stories about “something that changed you as a person.” (It was at this class in 2004 that I met Lori Cook, and she wrote “Little White Boy.”) My friend, Nancy Farmer, took this class in 2011, and was paired up with a singer-songwriter by the name of Joe Stevens. Joe’s story was that he had been born a girl, but it never felt right. He always felt like a boy. As a young adult, he decided to make the change. This was the story Nancy had to write a song about– and she did– but she felt like she had not done the story justice, and wanted to write a new song for Joe. I met Nancy at the Song School the following year, in 2012, and she told me about it. I was intrigued by the challenge, and offered to co-write, and she accepted.
We began work on it at the Song School in 2012, and continued into the fall. I had recently seen the documentary movie “Free Style,” which is about free style rapping. People gather in small groups and take turns rapping. It all has to be improvised on the spot– nothing can be previously written– and it of course has to rhyme. And around the same time I saw the Eminem movie, “8 Mile,” which is about “battles,” another form of improvisational rapping.
After seeing those movies, I decided to try free styling while walking around my neighborhood with my handheld digital recorder. I had no plans to be a rapper, but I thought it might help me generate some lines for songs, particularly for the song I was doing with Nancy for Joe. It was very fruitful– I got a lot of potential lines from it. But in hearing myself back on the recordings, it occurred to me that this style– hip hop– seemed to fit the subject matter. Hip hop rap has attitude; it’s defiant. And what is more defiant that transforming your gender, and becoming who you really are?
I told this to Nancy. She was less acquainted with hip hop than I was, but she was willing to give it a go. I drove up to Jamestown, Colorado, where she lives, and we walked around Jamestown free-styling and recording it. Nancy took to it like a fish to water. She came up with great lines. We soon had enough material, and now just had to put it together in a coherent form.
For the music, I decided to make it a blend of hip hop, folk and rock. I programmed the drum machine, and recorded it all the instruments at home. I rapped the verses, and Nancy sang the chorus. Nancy also doubled some of the rapped verse lines for emphasis, in true hip-hop style. I then mixed it, and we played it for Joe at the 2013 Song School.
I don’t know who I am
but I’ve got my suspicions
What you see isn’t me
and the signs point in both directions
In 2015 I took the tracks to Brian Hunter at Swallow Hill, and he added some effects and remixed it. Please have a listen to Accept, Embrace, Surrender by Rob Roper and Nancy Farmer on my Bandcamp site, and download it if you like it.
The Release of Word
Word was released in January, 2016. Given the decline in CD sales, I decided to release the 3 songs of Word in digital form only, for download and streaming. You can listen to them on most of the streaming services, such as Apple Music, Tidal, Deezer, Amazon Prime, Spotify, etc. But please consider buying the downloads, since even a $1 download pays 500-1000 times more than a steam. And Bandcamp allows you to pay more than a dollar if you want to help the artist. All download money helps me pay for future recording projects.
Since I didn’t release Word as a CD, I didn’t hire a graphics artist to design the CD artwork. But I needed a pseudo-album cover for the digital release, so I created a simple text cover, as you can see above. Boring. I’m hoping to find a fan who is a graphics artist who would like to volunteer their time and skills to design an “album cover” for Word. Better yet, artwork for each of the 3 songs. It could be a different artist for each song. I would love that. But alas, I have not found such a person yet. Email me if you’re interested: email@example.com
Next: I go back to school to study music theory.