Walk a Mile and The London Games

At the beginning of July, Stacey Haber of the Music Firm UK reached out to me to find out if I’d be willing to write and record a song for a social awareness campaign launching in conjunction with the 2012 Olympic Games in London. The campaign is called “Walk a Mile,” and draws its name from the familiar notion of walking a mile in someone else’s shoes. It’s an off-shoot of the State Department’s “Hours Against Hate” initiative, which encourages inter-faith and inter-cultural tolerance, and is sponsored by the International Olympic Truce Centre. Dave Stewart (of the Eurythmics) contributed the theme song for the whole thing. All of that sounded pretty good, and I was flattered to be invited, so I wrote a new song. You can listen right here, and read on below:

But the clock was ticking. It was July 1, I was in a hotel room in Florida, and my house had just been burglarized in Los Angeles, so I wasn’t sure if I even had any guitars apart from a battered old acoustic I had with me. The band and I only had two weeks to get them a finished track of a song that didn’t exist yet. Jaron Luksa, the inimitable force of nature who recorded our record The Ghost of John Henry, was on tour with Amanda Palmer, and would not be able to record us when I got back to town, so I had to find a studio, too.

I wrote the song in my hotel room that night, and recorded a demo of it on my phone (on my phone!), which I sent off to the band and the Music Firm, to make sure everybody was ok with it. I believe deeply in the importance of empathy, but not so much in pithy expressions — especially in lyrics — so I only wanted to move forward if I could come up with a song that got the idea across without actually saying “you should really walk a mile in somebody’s shoes before you judge them.”

When I put out the first Sci-Fi Romance album, for the first year that it was out, I donated every cent that came in from it to a group called Charity: Water (and if you haven’t read the story of 9-year-old Rachel Beckwith’s Charity: Water campaign, which raised over $1 million dollars after she was killed in a car accident, please do so). Charity: Water helps people in developing nations get access to clean drinking water by digging freshwater wells, so people no longer have to carry dirty water miles a day in old gasoline cans.  That image was the first place my mind went when thinking about this new song, and from there, the other three lyrical vignettes came very easily.

The world does not want what’s best for us. We’re all struggling daily against entropy, and fighting to stay upright in the face of circumstances that would knock us down. The only thing we have, really, is each other. We’re all in the same boat, and it will stay afloat or sink based on our willingness to help each other out. In my mind, that’s done best by recognizing that though our paths diverge, the people walking them share much, much more in common than we may differ.

To me, that’s a joyful realization. So I wanted the song to feel full of life and joy and camaraderie. If you know many of my songs, you know I don’t do “joyful” very often, so I hope you enjoy this one. I don’t know when you’ll get another like it from me…

We wound up recording the day after Woody Guthrie’s 100th birthday with Eric Rennaker in a fantastic studio called Bedrock in Echo Park, and the track was mixed and mastered by Tim Moore at Mas Music Productions in Highland Park (both in Los Angeles). They are good folks, and you should hit them up if you need studio time. And THANK YOU! to the wonderful people who gave up their Sunday afternoon to come sing in the Sci-Fi Romance Choir at the end of the song — Molly, Emma, Oscar, Rebecca, and of course, Kurt, Jody, and I joined in, too.

You can download the song for free right here:

Also, nothing much was taken in the burglary. We were lucky.

House of the Rising Sun

We headed into the studio with ten songs to record for our next album, “The Ghost of John Henry,” but at the last minute, I decided to add an 11th to the schedule (we had to go up to 11, after all…).  In a lot of ways, recording that last song —  “House of the Rising Sun” — was the most terrifying part of this entire process for me.  Here are some people who have also recorded versions of this song: Nina Simone. The Animals. Bob Dylan. Woody Guthrie. Lead Belly. Pete Seeger. Joan Baez.

So you can see why I was a little nervous about tackling this monster.  What on earth could I add to what had already been done with it?  Well, now we know the answer, one way or the other:

You can download our version of “House of the Rising Sun” for free, here:

It’s an old, old song, and Wikipedia will be happy to tell you all about it.  But as much as I simply enjoy the song — musically, thematically, what-have-you — there is a lot of personal weight behind it.  My dad played in bands from the time he was a kid, and when I came along, the first song I remember him playing for me on guitar was the Animals’ version of “House of the Rising Sun.” Consequently, those arpeggios (or maybe “Louie, Louie”) were probably the first thing I ever tried to play on guitar, although my hands were too small and that effort went nowhere, landing me behind a drum kit, instead.  When my kids came along and I sang them to sleep every night, one of the songs I sang them was “House of the Rising Sun.” (I did sing them some less depressing ones, too, in case you’re worried.)  I began incorporating “House” into some of my solo acoustic shows, and then we began playing it together as a band.  It seemed like something we should try to get down since we were in the studio, anyway, and it had a little extra meaning because, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, my dad came in from Texas to play bass on the sessions.

I had the conscious thought regarding this song more than any other in this process, “I must get this right.”  If it wasn’t right, if it didn’t bring another voice or perspective or sonic experience to the table, then it would just be some band doing a forgettable cover song.  I hope this isn’t that.  And I like to think that it isn’t simply arrogance to believe it isn’t.  I’m not aware of another version quite as dark, quite as …eerie?…haunting? as ours.  Jody’s cello part brings a texture and a sadness that really linger for me.  And I hope I always remember sitting in the control room listening back to the drum tracks for the first time, and everybody’s jaws just dropping when Kurt played that monster fill that powers the song into its finale.

The video I made to go along with the recording is much more evocative than literal, and for the photos that make it up I drew on the wonderful resource that is the American Memory Project.  The photo effort that produced the images I used in the video was the same effort that produced the iconic “Migrant Mother” photo Dorothea Lange took in a work camp full of families uprooted by the Dust Bowl.  Dorothea Lange shot several of the photos used in this video, most notably the photos of the two men walking down the road, past a billboard inviting them to take the train next time and “relax.”  The last photo of the video was actually taken in the Autumn of 1910, and is the oldest one I used.

The American Memory collection online is an utterly stunning collection of photos, documents, and recordings dating back to the 1400s. I cannot recommend enough spending some time with it.