#3 Boxed In (The Squirrel) (“Better” track by track)

I did “behind the song” blog series for both of my last two albums, and some people seem to like them, so I thought I would do it again! “Boxed In (The Squirrel)” is the third track from my latest release, Better. For convenience, the lyrics and YouTube & Spotify streams are at the bottom of this post.


Out of all the old song ideas I finally turned into finished songs in February, this one had to be the one that had been lying around the longest. In fact, I think I was kicking the idea around even before I really got into songwriting and I was considering it for a short story. (I used to write really terrible short stories as a kid.)

It was originally “Housed In” (not sure why I thought that sounded catchy), and it wasn’t an idea for any words or melodies but just a concept: a squirrel who lives in a forest and bemusedly watches the suburbs get built up around him, unable to understand why the human species lives its life in elaborate wooden compartments that go way beyond shelter.

It was one of those ideas that kept getting shuffled around from one song idea list to another. Every time I went to write some new songs, I kept passing it over because it seemed too hard to write and I wasn’t sure it would make a good song. It felt tacky. And difficult because most of my songs tend not to be super imaginative, as my listeners know; what you see is usually what you get with me. To be fair, the meaning of this song is still very transparent, but at least I attempted to tell it from a different perspective than my immediate one.

But for February Album Writing Month, a lot of times I just went for things. I wanted to try out different things, to take risks, and honestly to clear out some old ideas so that I didn’t have to keep passing over the same ones over and over till the end of my days. Also, once I get into the groove of an intensive songwriting period, my confidence increases, so songs that seemed difficult start to feel more within reach. Eventually one day I looked at that idea and thought, “Yep, I could hammer out that song today.”

If you read my last blog entry (about “Make It Right”), you’ll recall that I play a little game with myself where I choose a random artist/songwriter I like and focus on emulating them for a particular song. For this song, I (sort of) randomly chose The Homeless Gospel Choir and Micah Schnabel. (I know they’re not the same, but musically and vibe wise, I associate them with each other and I only imitate weakly anyway.) I actually highly recommend this game, and plan to continue using it myself, because having an artist to emulate gives me a concrete sound to aim for (where I can actually go stream that artist’s songs for inspiration), and I feel like it helps me push through when I feel stuck. I’ll be like, “Where would this person go from here?” and it works! It’s always my own creation, but imagining I’m channeling someone else can help me push forward.

For the song’s influences, I should also mention that I partly felt like I was channeling Chris T-T. He has so many wonderful, cleverly done animal-related songs where he empathizes with them in some way (check out “Giraffes #1,” “The Hedgehog Song” or “100,000 Turkeys”) and I’ve been influenced by that. The squirrel doesn’t revolt in my song, but maybe he will in a sequel, you never know.

A quirk of this song is that it’s about going outside and being around people BUT was released smack in the middle of a time when the world is on pandemic lockdown. I didn’t want to exclude the song from my release because I liked it a lot, but anyone who watched my virtual quarantined shows know that I was very self-conscious of being seen as a pandemic denier and constantly felt the need to mention that I wrote the song in February. But that was really just me getting in my own head. The few times I forgot to give that spiel, no one batted an eye at the song.

As for beginning to write the song, like I have said before, I normally like to write an outline first. The basic one I came up with for this song, through brainstorming, was:

  1. squirrel observes condominium complex and is baffled by the compartmentalization of the people he observes
  2. squirrel observes the wider suburbs and realizes the complex is more than just a fluke
  3. squirrel observes the city and comes to the pleasant realization that humans also have a more communal side to them.

The next part — taking the outline and musical vision and actually completing the song — is either the slog or the magic, depending on how easily the lines come to you (in this case somewhere in between), that’s hard to explain either way. Melodically I think I was conscious of trying to write a somewhat higher melody than a lot of my other songs. For some reason I tend to write near the bottom of my range (feels more comfortable, I guess), but listeners tend to prefer the songs that show the higher end of my range.

The one lyric whose source I can identify is “there’s a human on the other side of your wall.” That actually came from a second song idea I had lying around. When I’m sitting in bed quietly I can hear my neighbor moving around, sneezing, his phone vibrating. I know he hears me singing every genre of music at all hours of the day and night, though he’s never complained. We’re so physically close and there’s some kind of meaningful connection there, but I don’t even know him. I’m honestly not even sure if I could point out which neighbor he is! So I had the idea to write a whole song exploring that, how you can have a whole parallel life story with the person who lives on the other side of your wall and they can live and die without your ever knowing them, despite your heads being literally next to each other through the wall. But when I was writing this song, I realized how well that would fit in, so I just included it as part of the chorus.

How this all came together into a song I actually like (and so do at least a few other people) is the part I can’t explain. I’ll take these songs as I can get them, though!


I used to live in a tree
And now I live in the siding of a condominium complex
As a squirrel my shelter protects my body from the elements
But these giant decorated wood compartments, they are something else
One for the baby in a crib, one for the cooking
And a little one for all the clothes they use to hide their skin beneath

Why do you want to box yourself in?
There’s a human on the other side of your wall
Their head is 7 inches away from your head, and you don’t know them
Why do you want to box yourself in?

They try to get me to leave
‘Cause I’m a wild animal and that makes me dirty
They like to separate from the outside, they like their privacy
And as I skitter to the other side the suburbs rise up around me
As I realize this building’s the rule, not the exception
This is how humans live, this is their first choice

They try to get me to leave
And this time, I sneak into a moving truck
We travel for so long I start to feel sick
But out in the open on the other side is the city
Buildings that reach up to the sky, every window compartmentalized
But I see another kind of place now
There’s strangers reading together and eating together and shyly approaching each other over beer
You know, you don’t have to be so shy
‘Cause she’s just as lonely as you are.

#2 “Make It Right” (“Better” track by track)

I did “behind the song” blog series for both of my last two albums, and some people seem to like them, so I thought I would do it again! “Make It Right” is the second track from my latest release, Better. For convenience, the lyrics and YouTube & Spotify streams are at the bottom of this post.


Like many of my songs, “Make It Right” started out as a random idea for a line that I previously didn’t know what to do with. However, each of my songs is usually built with more than one such idea, but in this case, it was just this one line (words and music) and I wrote the rest of the song from scratch: “I’ve been waiting for a long time, waiting for a long time, you’ve been standing on the sidelines, standing on the sidelines.” I also knew that at the end of the song I would change “long time” to “lifetime” for a cool escalation.

At the same time, I was interested in writing more songs about relationships. Personally, I’m not a very romantic person, and right now I’m so focused on building my music career that the idea of a relationship barely even crosses my mind. I do believe in writing about what you know, but I can also only write so many songs about solitude. I felt like a good solution was to think about other people’s stories (fictional or not) and do my best to tap into their emotions, because then I have a good chance of writing about it almost as though I was writing about myself.

I sat with my “waiting for a long time/standing on the sidelines” line for a while trying to brainstorm different directions in which I could take it. I mean, really, it could apply to a million different situations where one person is waiting for something and another person is being indecisive, but it really seemed to fit best with a romantic relationship.

A common TV trope, sexist or not, is a man and a woman being in a casual relationship where the woman is waiting for a committed relationship that the man has zero interest in. Boring as it is, that’s what I had in mind. But my intention wasn’t to tap into that trope, but to challenge myself to tap into the emotions involved and write about those, not the story. I’ve always been interested in developing this skill, of focusing in so well on the emotions that it ends up being relatable to countless situations. Storytelling is important and I love story songs, but many extremely successful songs focus on emotions or symbols and tell no real story. I think I did a good job because nobody really seemed to view it as being about a casual relationship until I told them. One of my first listeners said it reminded them of their estranged parent.

So that idea of the emotions I wanted to express was all I really had when I sat down to write. I did finish the chorus first, because the lines I had, ending with “standing on the sidelines,” didn’t feel decisive, like the end of a chorus. It felt like it needed another line to define the song, so I brainstormed and improvised a bit, and “tonight is your last chance to make it right” is what I came up with.

Then it was just a matter of filling out the rest, which (unusual for me) was pretty much just improvised on the spot, with a little bit of attention to rhyme, but you will notice I rarely use perfect rhymes anyway. I just write what feels right to me. Normally though, I do write some kind of outline of where I want the song to go in each verse/part. But in this case, I basically wrote the first three lines and decided that was going to be a verse, and then just improvised a second and third verse that fit the same melody. Finally, I decided it needed a little bridge to change things up and make the song a little bit longer, so I added the “You can make this right” part, very bare bones but it did the trick for me.

The chords and melody were actually the result of a songwriting game I’ve started to play with myself to increase my output and creativity, where I randomly select an artist from my music library to try to emulate. In this case, I chose Ashlee Simpson – yes, I still like her debut album from 2004 and I’m not ashamed of it! Of course the song didn’t really come out sounding anything like her, but the exercise helped me come up with a sound that, to me, felt different from what I’d usually do. Perhaps the melody was a bit uncreative – I admit that’s one of my weaknesses and I do work on it, but it largely stems from my love of punk/rock songs, which tend to be extremely simple beneath the noise and production. I do like what I did with the rhythm, though.

I actually tried pitching this track for blogs and playlists using the paid version of SubmitHub (the free version is essentially useless in my opinion). For the unfamiliar: when you pay for SubmitHub Premium, outlets have to respond with non-copy/pasted feedback if they don’t approve your track, or your credits are automatically refunded. I basically just wanted to see if it was worth it. I got a handful of placements, but to be honest, the quality wasn’t great, so whether it’s worth it depends on how desperate you are just to say you were on some blog or playlist somewhere.

Anyway, I actually found the feedback interesting and somewhat useful (though not necessarily worth the cost). I had to read between the lines because plenty of the feedback canceled each other out. I literally got comments telling me my voice was amazing but the song was boring, and other comments telling me the song was interesting but they didn’t like my voice. It seems like people who are into rock/punk music are the ones who like my vocals – and I’m painfully aware I don’t sing in that style that nearly every upcoming successful female singer seems to sound like right now (not because I’m too cool, but because I literally don’t know how to sound like that, haha). That said, because my vocal and songwriting technique is apparently more pop/rock or even pop punk than folk (at least in this song), the biggest feedback I got was just that it should be filled out with other instrumentation besides just vocals and acoustic guitar. (That’s something I’m definitely working on for my next release next year, if finances allow it.) Some also mentioned the lackluster melody that I conceded earlier. However, nearly all the feedback on the guitar was positive, so that’s something at least!

It’s a lot to take in for future reference, but I still like the song. It feels like me, it expressed exactly what I set out to express, and that’s honestly my primary goal every time I sit down to write.



We’ve been down here so many times before
A roller coaster for so many years
And it’s not like I could ever think of asking you for anything

Oh lately, it’s been taking its toll
I’m finding gray hairs that I’ve been letting go
But it’s not like you would ever notice if you caught me worrying

‘Cause I’ve been waiting for a long time, waiting for a long time
You’ve been standing on the sidelines, standing on the sidelines
And tonight is your last chance to make it right

I woke up this morning, I straightened out my hair
I haven’t heard from you, unspoken words are clear
And it’s not like you could ever argue that I owed you anything
And it’s not like you have ever helped me with the weight I’m carrying

You can make this right, you can make it right
You don’t have to give up the fight, please don’t give up the fight

‘Cause I’ve been waiting for a lifetime, waiting for a lifetime
And tonight is your last chance to make it right