These Fighting Times
What To Do When A Solicitor Knocks
Sometimes when I write songs I hear a (metaphoric) ringing of the doorbell. I answered the door during the writing of ‘These Fighting Times’. I was surprised to find a ragtag crew of vagabonds, heroes and madmen on my doorstep. Colorful characters waiting for someone to tell their story.
I love good stories as much as I love music. My first aspiration was to be a short fiction writer. Then my father gave me a beat-up guitar called ‘The Conquistador’ and songwriting became my mistress.
I think of the songs on ‘These Fighting Times’ as the collection of short stories I would have written if I had taken up the pen instead of the guitar.
Some of the songs I wrote were scripts to short films that I saw in my mind. Some are based on the lives of people I’ve met.
Fairy tales. Subtle comedies. Loose autobiographies.
‘Peter James McKee’ is about a boy who becomes the king of the ocean.
‘Oregon’ is about the life of an old man I met in a diner.
‘Mexico’ is about a cowboy who loses everything and hits the road in hopes of finding a new life.
‘California’ is a neurotic love story. A comedy or a tragedy (depending on how you look at it).
‘Duncan Jones’ is about a mad genius who is obsessed with flying.
‘The Ballad of the Blind Patriot’ is written from the perspective of an extremist.
There’s also some songs that are just light and fun (‘House By The Sea’, ‘Conquistador’).
Writing a collection of story songs gave me the opportunity to write from a different point of view. It opened up exciting new ways to explore complicated themes and expanded my ideas about what a song can be.
Time Travel & Explosive Devices
‘These Fighting Times’ signifies the deepening of my relationship with folk music.
Some of the songs feel like they come straight out of the past. Folk music of the 1960’s is etched upon my mind, and that influence comes out stronger than ever on the new album. The songs are inspired by classics like Paul Simon and James Taylor; also new favorites such as Josh Ritter and The Weepies.
Another influence made its way onto the record.
When I was a teenager I loved heavy metal and hard rock. My first band was a grunge trio called ‘Chief Lewis’. We were named after the chief of police in my hometown. He kept shutting down our practices.
Then I mellowed out.
Some of the songs on ‘These Fighting Times’ are an experiment in marrying folk music with loud electric guitars. I am excited by the results.
How To Fly Solo (While Being Shot At)
When it came time to make a new record I knew 2 things: I wanted to produce it myself, and I wanted it to be my best writing to date.
I had 3 problems: I didn’t have any recording gear. I’d never really engineered anything. And I didn’t have any songs.
But being unfit for a task has never stopped me before...
‘These Fighting Times’ is the first album that I’ve ever fully self-produced. I had not engineered anything since college (where I nearly failed my recording arts class).
I built a humble recording studio: A 10‘X10’ space. 2 microphones. A mid-level pre-amp. A couple pairs of headphones.
My goal was to record a great sounding album with minimalistic gear. At times it was a headache, but I am confident that I pulled through (with help from my friends).
Life Bleeds Into Song
In 2010 my life was going amazingly well.
I was playing over a hundred dates a year. My album won awards. I was playing with artists whom I admire on bigger stages. I was making better money than ever before.
Years of hard work was finally paying off.
And then Death came to town. We lost people that we loved.
A floodgate of mourning opened in my heart.
It was not just a loss of what once was. It was a loss of what could be.
I was left with a need for healing. I wrote the songs on ‘These Fighting Times’ in the midst of this.
On Boxing Day of 2010 we bought our first house. It was new, but unfinished (a great metaphor).
I decided to tour less for a season and focus on a few major projects:
- Build a studio and learn to engineer
- Write and record an album
- Landscape the untamed badlands behind the house
- Finish the basement
- Produce music for a few friends
I would spend my mornings working outside and write songs in the afternoon. After a few months I started to notice that the songs had a theme: Loss, Hope & Geography.
The theme of loss came in different ways: Loss of life. Loss of love. Loss of home. Loss of touch with reality.
But I also started to see hope in the songs: Hope for a future. Hope that things can be repaired. Hope of a life beyond life.
I noticed that the West Coast started to emerge as the setting for the record...
Skeletons, Pictures of Jesus, Etc.
Angela and I visited Rome in the summer of 2011. It was there that I stumbled upon a poignant picture of hope that brought light into my darkness.
On the last day of the trip we visited a church that has a very unusual monument in the basement. Long ago the monks took the bones of their deceased brothers and lined a hallway with them. They arranged the bones in such a way that it became a work of art that proclaims the brevity of life and the hope of resurrection.
It’s kind of creepy.
At one end of the hallway there is a picture of Jesus calling Lazarus from the tomb. As I was looking at the painting I was reminded of things that I believe:
That life is good.
That death is not the original intention.
That death has already been overcome.
That life will reign again.
That we are not alone in our pain.
Something changed in my heart in the presence of that picture. I found hope rising up in the crucible of tragedy.
That’s what inspired the final track on the album (‘See You Again’).
Over the next year and a half I worked every day until I finished my projects.
I dug trenches. I wrote songs. I painted. I planted. I moved over a ton of paving stones up a steep hill.
I worked the land by the sweat of my brow.
I didn’t realize that every stroke of the hammer; every chord strummed; every word sang; every stone moved was somehow leading me one step closer to healing.
I believe that my work on the house, yard and album became one and the same thing: I was responding to the ugliness of death by struggling to create a beauty that affirms the goodness of life.
Along the way I again found meaning and hope. I had wrestled with the angel. I had not let go.
I was limping, but I had been given a new name.
Throw Punches. Don’t Throw Fights.
I believe that a strange act of grace sometimes turns our pain into someone else’s healing. I hope that happens with the songs on ‘These Fighting Times’.
There have been times when I’ve felt like a boxer in a ring against a much stronger fighter. That’s why I chose the title.
Life will deal us punches, but I believe that if we stand our ground and keep fighting we will emerge from the ring victorious.
Bruised, but victorious.
Houses By The Sea
Not every day is rainy.
There will be more sunny days, so let’s keep holding our ground. The joy is worth it.
October 22, 2012