Writing Process: As I Wake from an American Dream
A look behind the scenes of my longest song, so far.
Let's talk about the writing process for "As I Wake from an American Dream."
Some songs come out clean and easy in a single sitting. A lot of the tracks on my first album, Hedera, worked that way; I was writing for the first time, so I didn't question anything, and left the ideas pretty close to their original form. I wrote "Stewardess" in 20 minutes while the plane I was travelling on landed in San Juan. The vocal take of "Garden I (You Own to Fight)" is an improvised demo placeholder, which I ended up keeping.
"America" was not like that. Over time, my process has steadily become more intentional and iterative—not to say that I don't improvise, or keep good ideas in tact, I just juice them for as much *special magic* as I can muster.
For years I had wanted to write an epic about America, where it played both the hero and the villain in a bizarre opera of its own creation. One day, like a deer at dusk, I caught it rustling in the weeds:
What eventually became the "chorus" (if you can call it that), showed up alongside a handful of other musings.
On this blessed first day of summer
May all sins be forgotten
I haven't seen my friends in ages
We all live in different cities
Useless driveways keep us pretty separate these days
But I’ll go see them anyways
Say the things I’ve gotta say
Then turn around and head back to my palace of a grave
You'd think no one heard the word pandemic before
Lysol wipes on the kitchen floor, strangers in the doorway
(It was March 2020, spring had triumphed over winter, and the Coronavirus was a new and fearful imposition).
In the past, I would typically wait for an idea to present itself more clearly, for “lightning" to strike—but, since I wanted to write and record everything quickly this time around, the process required some perspiration.
Cue writing anything and everything that comes to mind:
The beginnings of the first and second verse emerged here: dropping the anvil, losing the baby teeth; a setup, a backstory.
America had a guilty conscience
Washed itself in holy music
Saw the blood around its mouth
And took a selfie in the mirror
America, you look like a villain
But Canada looks like your ignorant cousin
The prescription said stop smoking
And let nothing stand in the way
Of fucking your black girls in the mountains
Profanity, mundanity: I like them both, in the right place, at the right time, but not here.
Chasing down the baby teeth idea, a form develops, with other verses following.
You're the shopping mall of ancient Rome
You're the lantern crowned cathedral dome
You’re the longest running oral rhyming poem
You’re the vendor of a trademarked kind of hope
You're the punchline to a never-ending joke
America, and the tapestry of kindness
That one didn’t make it.
I copied down North Korea's "Ten Principles for the Establishment of a Monolithic Ideological System," thinking it might be a useful reference. It wasn't.
The song had gained some momentum now; a star next to a verse has to mean something good, especially given the subject matter. I started keeping track of rhyming schemes, just to make sure I wasn’t going in circles.
At a certain point it felt like I had a million ideas, so I abandoned the existing structure to catch all of them. This lasted for quite a few pages, which I'll keep private for the moment—you'll read them some day.
After the deluge I tried getting back into the swing of things, but couldn't find the right angle of approach. I ended up writing another song, called "Casablanca," comprised entirely of Google search auto-fill results. It didn't make the record, and is now one of the many ideas serving a life sentence in bad song purgatory. It did, however, provide the G/G6sus chord shapes on guitar.
Armed with plenty of notebook fodder, I switched to the typewriter.
Changing verse order, etc.
You used your big machine to rule the world
You willed electricity out of ancient soil
You understood the wolves when they began to howl
You understood the workers in their ceaseless toil
Your politicians laughed and drunk (drowned in) barrels of oil
Recoil, spoil, tinfoil, induction coil
Really reaching there. Didn’t make it.
If cutting the two verses isn't a benefit,
try swapping them
Within a few typed revisions, I had landed upon a rough draft. The whole writing process happened over three chain-smoking, white knuckle days, and I couldn’t really tell what I was looking at anymore. I decided to let the song rest until it came time to record, in order to have some feeling of discovery when it was performed.
Returning to it weeks later, the fine details had worked themselves out, and I accepted the song as it was. Distance (and the pressures of limited studio time) will do that, for better or worse.
In the end, I'm not actually sure if I accomplished what I set out to do; these things always end up different than expected, even though you’re holding its hand the whole way. I think the song has some successful imagery, and I think it says some true things about America's character as a nation. There's just so much that could be said, that should be said, but didn't fit in here—that's how I know I have more songs to write.
Thanks for reading. Until next time,