#3 Have You Ever Slept with the Lights on? (“The Fine Print” track by track)

For the third album in a row, I’ve decided to showcase each track in a “behind the song” blog series. I hope some listeners find it interesting or helpful. “Have You Ever Slept with the Lights on?” is the third track from my latest release, The Fine Print. For convenience, the lyrics and YouTube & Spotify streams are at the bottom of this post.

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Out of 50+ songs that I wrote in the latter half of 2020, this one almost didn’t make it onto my 8-track album. I wondered if it was too cheesy or childish. After all, it’s basically an unapologetic proclamation of fear and vulnerability.

I didn’t write it thinking I would share it. One of the main effects of doing 50/90 (50 songs in 90 days) and other intensive songwriting is that I don’t feel any pressure for everything to be good or shareable. I feel free to write exactly what I’m feeling and what I want to express — or alternatively, something completely silly and pointless (but in this case it was the former). Then when the songs are finished and I’m preparing for a release, I feel free to polish and share only what I still want to express and what I’m musically proud of.

I didn’t set the goal of releasing eight songs, I just planned to release however many songs I really felt like putting out there. There were some songs that I went back and forth on, and this was one of them. Musically, I did feel like this was one of the catchier songs, and that was confirmed when I shared the songs with other people. On the other hand, I knew the sentiments were not necessarily cool or socially desirable. But it was definitely one of the most genuine and honest songs in the batch, and that’s much more important to me in my music.

So, with two marks in its favor and only superficial negatives, it made the cut. And after asking about 10 different people to listen to the batch and tell me their favorite(s), this one handily got more votes than any other song. It seemed like that was mostly because of the melody, but I think the lyrics played a role too.

So in the spirit of being vulnerable and not caring if I seem cool or appropriate, let’s get super real. I was thinking about people I admire, like Frank Turner, when I started writing this, but it did become much more than that as I wrote.

I don’t know if everyone does this, but for most of my life (childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood, which is only just coming to an end), as I’ve searched for an identity and tried to find my footing in the world, I’ve felt such an irresistible impulse to connect with people who seem to have it together and who represent who and what I want to be in the future. I know that’s probably just a part of being human, but I always felt weirdly ashamed and uncomfortable with that part of myself. I was always trying to find an explanation: why am I so obsessed with connecting with these people? What do I truly want from them — what do I want them to tell me or give me? And probably most importantly: how do I stop, and just become comfortable in my own skin and trust myself without regard to anyone else?

I think I only recently started to come up with a satisfying answer (and that’s only because I’m slowly overcoming this need and actually becoming completely self-reliant). It’s pretty stupidly obvious and simple: I only ever wanted them to tell me with absolute certainty that I would be okay. And of course, no one could possibly do that. But what this song is about is that if I could only tell them how I was really feeling with no “coolness” filter — that sometimes I’m really scared and I have no idea what to do — and if they could tell me that they 100% remember feeling the exact same way, and that they might even still feel that way a little bit now, albeit happy and fulfilled and successful and experienced, then maybe I could keep that knowledge in my pocket and touch my fingers to it when I need some strength and self-belief.

I say that the song became more than this because when I really get into a flow with a song and it becomes something worthwhile, it always takes on a life of its own. So I wasn’t just thinking about the people I admire. I was also thinking about my strengths and my perseverance in spite of every fear. I was thinking about how I felt as a child. I was thinking about young girls and kids right now who might be feeling that same way now. And that’s why I think I ultimately did want to release this song, because it really ended up meaning quite a lot to me by the time I was finished.

I did add more instruments to this one: electric guitar, some drum loops, and virtual bass (that I wrote myself). I would say I did a pretty good job; it was one of my favorite arrangements from the album. I’m probably proudest of the simple little electric guitar hooks on here, which I actually wrote pretty quickly, but they add so much. (Almost every single listener seems to hear them as keys, but they are definitely guitar!)

So basically, a deeply personally meaningful song combined with one of my first full arrangements that I did myself. I’m proud of this one, my friends and family like it, and I hope other people did too!

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LYRICS

I’ve always wished I could ask you
If you were ever afraid
And how old were you when the fear finally went away
It’s been my steadiest friend
And though I try to defeat it every day
It’s so hard for me to fall asleep
So afraid of what could go wrong tomorrow

Have you ever slept with the lights on?
Do you get scared when you’re all alone
Do you ever worry that something’s wrong
And your safety net’s gonna break soon
Have you ever slept with the lights on, lights on, lights on?

But I get up every morning
And I force myself to follow a dream
My stomach never settles and my heart struggles to break free
But with every word from my mouth
And with every face I meet
I know these nerves are just excitement
A sign that shows just how much this all really means to me

Someday I’ll do my best to help
The next generation like you help me
And maybe I’ll never get my answer till one day
My most promising protege asks me the same thing

Have you ever slept with the lights on?
Do you get scared when you’re all alone
Do you ever worry that something’s wrong
And your safety net’s gonna break soon
Have you ever slept with the lights on, lights on, lights on?

#2 Boulder (“The Fine Print” track by track)

For the third album in a row, I’ve decided to showcase each track in a “behind the song” blog series. I hope some listeners find it interesting or helpful. “Boulder” is the second track from my latest release, The Fine Print. For convenience, the lyrics and YouTube & Spotify streams are at the bottom of this post.

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This song actually started its life as an assignment! Over the past year, as I’ve had more free time to work on the creative side of my music, I’ve tried out a bunch of online songwriting courses. One of my favorites of those is The Songwriting Academy’s (UK) weekly masterclasses. Every week an experienced (generally pop) songwriter does a presentation about the creative or business side of songwriting and there’s an assignment.

One week the theme was empowering pop songs. “Firework” by Katy Perry was actually presented as the prime example. I knew I wasn’t going to (and didn’t even want to) write another “Firework,” but I figured it would be a nice exercise to write my own version of an empowering song.

I started by brainstorming some images and metaphors that felt empowering to me, because that was part of the idea of the exercise. I came up with a bunch, but for some reason the idea of pushing a boulder stuck with me. Maybe because it’s a common enough image in general, but I can’t really think of an example of someone using it in a song. (Correct me if I’m wrong as it sounds like my kind of a song!) Most of the other images I could think of were pretty overdone in songwriting.

I started with a couple of other constraints: first, the key of A, because in my mind each key — played with open chords on acoustic guitar — has a different feeling: G and C are basically your old standbys that can do anything; D and A are the most empowering, positive ones (A being the quirkier of the two), and E can either be quirky or kind of punky. I think this is more of a factor of the specific songs I’ve happened to cover and write in each key rather than some kind of musical genius (or a universal fact), but anyway, that’s how I chose the key.

The other constraint was deciding the structure ahead of time. Obviously, the chorus was going to be the high point that summarized the empowered feeling. The reason I didn’t put my main image (the boulder) as the chorus is that I had written those final lines already, I liked them, and they didn’t really seem to work as a chorus. I knew that was going to be the ending. I decided that I would organize the verses simply by time: verse 1 would loosely focus on the past and verse 2 would loosely focus on the present.

I find that these kinds of constraints and pre-planning usually lets the exact lyrics and melody write themselves, and this case was no different. Although I can’t see it holding up to “Firework” for the average music fan, I was pleasantly surprised by my results. It’s a nice little tune, and I’m particularly fond of some of the lyrics in the first verse — “days when a little push led to a dream come true, and months and months when I tried and tried and I barely made it through.” For me, that was one of those lines that expressed a feeling/experience perfectly from within.

A careful, musically inclined listener might notice that the strumming pattern I use for this song is one I seem to have gotten hooked on in the past year. My first instinct used to be the “Old Faithful” pattern (DDUUDU) or what I like to call “acoustic punk strum” (DDUDU), but now it’s this one. I have to consciously force myself to come up with something different. Most of the songs on this release actually used this same strumming pattern until I went in and changed some of them. Hopefully I did a good job of that so they don’t all sound the same.

Production wise, this was the track that eased the listener into more instrumentation after the first track being acoustic only. I added some minimal electric guitar chords, vocal harmonies towards the end, bass, and minimal (digital) drums. Actually, I added the instruments to all of the songs first, taking each song where I felt like it wanted to go, and then I listened to them to decide the ordering. I liked the idea of starting and ending acoustic, with the bigger songs in the middle.

Anyway, overall, I’m happy with this song, and I hope other people enjoy it too.

P.S. If you haven’t already, I highly recommend checking out this song in the Spotify mobile app, which as far as I know is the only place where you can see Canvas art (3-8 second videos that loop while you’re listening to a song). My favorite graphic designer, Matthew J. Corrales (I highly recommend him for all your design and animation needs), has been creating Canvases for some of my songs, and this one (featuring a cool animated boulder rolling down a hill) is one of my favorites.

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LYRICS

I’ve had ups and I’ve had downs in my time
Moments on top of a mountain, and moments down in the grime
And I’ve had days when a little push led to a dream come true
And months and months when I tried and tried and I barely made it through

But I’m powerful, so I won’t just take anything
For I was born to sound off… to sing
So I’ll take all of my pain, put it in a song
And nobody’s gonna tell me that it’s wrong
Because now that I’ve made my mind up, I’m dangerously strong
And I think I knew that all along

And as I grow the gains get higher and the failure’s less
And I never, feel regretful, as long as I do my best
And I get people telling me how much my music means
And after years and years of trying, I’m finally who I want to be

I pushed a boulder and it rolled
I flicked on a light switch and the world lit up
I pushed a boulder and it rolled, it rolled

#1 The Bench at the Top of the World (“The Fine Print” track by track)

For the third album in a row, I’ve decided to showcase each track in a “behind the song” blog series. I hope some listeners find it interesting or helpful. “The Bench at the Top of the World” is the first track from my latest release, The Fine Print. For convenience, the lyrics and YouTube & Spotify streams are at the bottom of this post.

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Of all the songs on my new album, I definitely think I’ve had the longest and most serious relationship with this one. It wasn’t actually the first one I wrote in the batch (though all were written in the same three-month span), but it was the first one I fell in love with and began playing in my weekly Facebook Live streams. I liked it so much that I played it nearly every week, and when I didn’t it was often requested.

It evolved over time, and yet this was one of only two songs that I kept acoustic (the other being the last track, “I’ll Bring My Voice”). But of those two, the other is very delicate and begs to be acoustic, whereas this one has a more acoustic punk feel. I honestly could have seen it going either way because I felt that it was catchy enough to stand on its own, but the style was also suitable for a fuller arrangement. I saved it for last for that reason, and in the end, time made the decision for me. I was exhausted from arranging all the other songs and I felt it was better to keep the arrangment bare than to do a bad job with it.

bench at the top of the worldThe song came about for a few reasons. First, I was missing London, my happy place — in particular my favorite bench on Parliament Hill, Hampstead Heath (which was correctly and precisely identified in a photo by one of my fans from London on Facebook). Full disclosure: this is not my actual favorite bench, but this bench happened to be more photogenic than my actual favorite.

London is my favorite place in the world. As weird as it is to be in love with a city, I’m in love with it. From the first moment I set foot there, I’ve just always felt weirdly at peace and at home there. I was fortunate to go once a twice or year for several years in a row, but at this point I haven’t been there since December 2018! And two and a half years is a long time to be away from the one you love, so I was feeling a little sad, which is the perfect reason to write a song.

Ironically, it’s always hardest for me to finish songs that mean a lot to me because I’m afraid I won’t do justice to the emotions I’m trying to convey. So partly to motivate myself, I ended up trying to get a songwriting challenge going in one of many musician groups I’m a part of. I said we should all write a song about our favorite place in the world. Unfortunately, nobody else cared about my challenge and I don’t think a single person took me up on it. But on the bright side, evidently I was able to motivate myself to finish this song!

Musically, I think I was listening to Xtra Mile artists (my favorite record label) a lot. In this case, I don’t feel like I was particularly channeling Frank Turner (my favorite songwriter, in case you’ve been living under a rock), but other songwriters like Dan Allen of Ducking Punches. I’ve always liked his style, and I felt like this was the one time I was kind of channeling it.

If you haven’t already, I highly recommend checking out this song in the Spotify mobile app, which as far as I know is the only place where you can see Canvas art (3-8 second videos that loop while you’re listening to a song). My favorite graphic designer, Matthew J. Corrales (I highly recommend him for all your design and animation needs), has been working on some Canvases for my songs, and this is the first one he completed. He used my bench photo and created some sky animation with clouds and the day passing to night. I thought it was very cool!

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LYRICS

It’s always such a struggle to get here
But this is my favorite spot in the world
For daydreaming
And looking out onto the city that I love

Even if some might say it’s too much work
Or they’d simply pass it by and they’d take no notice
I’m in it for the long haul, even if it hurts
Meet me on the bench at the top of the world

It’s always such a struggle to get here
But this is my favorite city in the world
Sense of belonging
And finally feeling like it’s my chance to be heard

Even if some might say it costs too much
Or that they can’t stand all the oppressive crowding
For me I can always see the beauty, it’s got that touch
Meet me on the bench at the top of the world