I was playing the West Beth Theatre in NYC in the fall of 1997 and before the show, I had played this for Mitchell on a piano backstage to see if he thought it was any good. I was gathering songs for my third album and was feeling the pressure. Both the Ron Sexsmith record and Other Songs had won some critical acclaim but my sales were nothing to write home about. The folks at Interscope felt It was time for my commercial breakthrough and were growing impatient or maybe just losing interest in me.
They recommended a whole slew of producers to help me break through but I was enjoying my collaboration with Froom and wanted to continue with him the way the Beatles had stayed with George Martin. The enthusiasm from the label seemed to fizzle out the moment I told them what my plans were but I felt if I was going to make a hit record I was determined to make it with Mitchell and Tchad. (I'm loyal that way.) We all converged on NYC in the summer of '98 and once again, we were happy to be back together (this time with Pete Thomas on drums). I had spent a week with Mitchell doing pre-production and both of us were experiencing some trouble on the home front and in fact, the whole session would be sort of shrouded in grey and like another song, it seemed "doomed from the start."
Mitchell felt I had some strong material, but Tchad didn't much care for the songs and seemed bored and disinterested for most of the session. In keeping with the tradition of "Several Miles" we got off on the wrong foot with a song called "If You'd Let Me Speak" and failed miserably. We ultimately scrapped it. The next song we tried was "Still Time" and I guess we found our footing. Universal Canada had given me a rosewood telecaster for my birthday a few months earlier and I'm playing it on this song and all over the record.
With Whereabouts we set out to make an ornate sound with strings, woodwinds and horns... sort of an everything but the kitchen sink approach. It was an attempt at my own version of Pet Sounds I guess you could say. I always loved that song "Walk Away Rene'" by The Left Banke and though it didn't inspire my song, it did inspire our approach to recording it in that sort of faux baroque style. Lyrically it's a guardedly optimistic song with a sad streak running through it. I was trying to convince myself that there was still time to get my act together even though I was in full blown "rock star clichÃ©" mode at the time. If you listen to the keyboard riff before the 2nd verse Mitchell hit's a bad note. I was so pre-occupied with my crazy life that I didn't even notice it until after the record came out.
RIGHT ABOUT NOW
I wrote this at the Melbourne Hilton in Australia in late '97. I was away a lot in those days and was having mixed feelings about life on the road. Anyway, when you're "down under" it's hard to know what time to call home and so I had tried calling Jocelyne but I woke her up at some ungodly hour (hence the line "Feel like calling but it's much too early for you").
On the tour bus earlier that year while touring America, my drummer Don Kerr had picked up a Burt Bacharach song book. I was going through it one day trying to glean some knowledge when I stumbled upon a chord progression that looked interesting to me. I can't remember what song it was but I started playing the chords in a different rhythm and key and came up with the foundation chords for "Right About Now."
To my ears it reminded me of an old Stylistics type song and I would end up playing these chords over and over without any words for months. Fast forward to the Melbourne Hilton and finally the lyrics started flowing. I was writing about my feelings of home sickness and of being knocked around by the business, not to mention all the late nights and touring. When we got in the studio, I liked the song, but I didn't know if I was the right person to sing it (Mitchell was a little concerned too!) but I gave it a good try.
To be honest, I think it's an "okay" track, but I think I could sing it much better now. My main problem with Whereabouts in general is my vocals over all. I think I sang terribly throughout and because Mitchell was dealing with his domestic problems and because Tchad seemed mostly bored, nobody would say anything to me about it. Things were getting a bit sloppy too - there was that chord I mentioned in "Still Time" and on "Right About Now" after the bridge there's a spastic guitar moment that I still can't believe we left on!
Anyway, it is what it is... nice string arrangement by Mitchell though.
MUST HAVE HEARD IT WRONG
When I was in grade 4, I had a crush on a girl named Sandy. I noticed that she was into sports so I lied and told her that I played on a hockey team. Much to my chagrin, she kept asking me when she could come and see me play and so I had to actually go out and join a team! What she didn't know was that I couldn't skate to save my life (which is kind of shameful when you're Canadian) but I figured I could probably fake goalie if need be and so I signed up as a goal-tender for the St Catharines Spartans which was a complete disaster. One weekend she came out to see me play and I let in 13 goals. My defence man actually asked me during the game "Can't you save anything?"
Anyway, the next day at school she came up to me and said, "You don't know how to skate!" Well, feeling a little "guilty as charged" I owned up to her about the whole charade. I thought she'd write me off altogether, but instead she offered to teach me how to skate and as luck would have it, there was a frozen pond right behind my house! So true to her word, the next night we were out on the pond and she was literally holding me up to keep me from falling down. At one point I remember her saying to me "Don't worry, I won't let you fall" which was one of those profound moments in my life, where even though I knew it was spoken by my friend Sandy, It seemed to come from some place higher and it has been echoing throughout my life ever since.
I was thinking about this when I wrote the opening lines "High above it all, these words have lingered on, I won't let you fall, though I must have heard it wrong." Like most of the songs on Whereabouts the lyrics are a bit sad and disillusioned. I've dealt with depression in my life but it was never as bad as it was during the time I was writing these songs. Without getting into the details, I was having suicidal thoughts on a regular basis but thankfully was too cowardly to go through with it. But this song sums up my state of mind at that time.
Aside from all that dark stuff, I always liked this song and the chord progression but, like a lot of the songs on this record I don't think we got a very good version of it. It ain't so bad I guess.
This is one of the better songs on the album I think.
I love the string arrangement and the banjo played by noted children's entertainer Dan Zanes. It's another Bing influenced piece and I was trying to write like Stephen Foster I suppose. I remember playing it one time for a label rep in the studio and afterwards she said "Don't you mean river bank? Riverbed is at the bottom of the river." I said "I know." When you write a song about sleeping at the bottom of a river you know you must be a little depressed.
Mitchell helped me a great deal with the minor instrumental section in the middle. He thought it would be a nice idea to re-state the melody over top of a descending minor progression and it's my favourite part of the song, especially the violin solo by Tracey Bonham. I remember Mitchell giving her instructions before her first take, saying "I want you to play the solo so sad that it will make an old Jewish man cry.... pretend I'm the old Jewish man!" Vocally, well I've sung better but what else is new? All and all, it's a nice arrangement and I think it was one of the more artistically successful recordings on Whereabouts.
FEEL FOR YOU
One of my least favourite songs and recordings is "Feel For You."
It was a bit of a Frankenstein experiment. Basically it was two songs spliced together and it seemed like a good idea at the time. I had the main song "Feel For You" (which originally sounded a bit like "Start Me Up" by the Stones) and I had this other one called "Good King Everywhere" that was loosely based on my biological dad who was never around.
Anyway, Mitchell liked the chorus of "Good King Everywhere" (Is it too late in the game etc") but didn't care for the verses and he felt that "Feel For You" sounded incomplete so during pre-production he suggested we try putting the two together. Initially we were both quite pleased with ourselves but now, with some perspective only time can bring, I don't think we pulled it off.
In keeping with tradition, this one has a questionable bass note that Brad Jones wanted to fix but like the other bum notes on previous songs we never got around to it. I think we felt it had character or something. We used to play this one a fair bit and it got a lot of airplay on my hometown radio station but it's one that I've decided to retire unless somebody desperately needs to hear it someday, but that's doubtful.
IN A FLASH
I had just arrived in Ireland for a music festival when my agent came up and told me that Jeff Buckley had died. I wasn't really a fan of his music to be honest but I had enormous respect for him and felt he was a true original. I had the music already written but it was set to some lyrics about the Oklahoma bombing and I ultimately felt it was too maudlin to sing. So after hearing about Jeff, I rewrote the words as a kind of tribute to him.
Here's another example of a fairly decent song with a fairly bad vocal performance. I don't know what was wrong with me but to my ears I'm singing nasally and sharp on most of the tracks but strangely enough this was pretty much the only song that Tchad seemed to connect with. He told me afterwards that it was a great song which meant a lot to me at the time. I still play it every now and then.
THE IDIOT BOY
I think this turned out pretty good if I do say so myself.
I was trying to write a sort of country song like "Ballad Of A Teenage Queen" by Johnny Cash - although you probably won't get that from listening to it. Mitchell's idea to go half time on the bridge was cool and it was certainly one of the more fun songs to record. Lyrically, I was writing about how man never seems to learn from his mistakes.
Also, that Clinton/Lewinsky scandal was going on at the time and so that was on my mind too. Mostly it was about me though.
The last verse was kind of fun to write. I had about 20 different options. I eventually decided on "God so loved the idiot boy, he gave him coffee grounds in a paper cup" which I made up on the spot while making instant coffee in a UK dressing room. Some of the other alternates I had are too ridiculous to mention. Fantastic bass playing by Brad Jones on the bridge and it's one of those songs that I still enjoy playing even though I feel slightly detached from the lyrics now.
I remember arriving exhausted in Stockholm after a long flight and finding out that I had to do a bunch of interviews in the hotel lobby, starting immediately. I was in a grumpy mood but my mood brightened noticeably upon seeing the first journalist walk through the door. She was one of those beautiful and charming Swedish girls (of which there are many) and needless to say, I was real happy to see her. After about 40 minutes of a flirty interview she had to go and make way for the other 4 journalists... who were all men.
Anyway, I wrote this with her in mind though I never saw her again. Mitchell thought it could be cool to approach it like an old Rod Stewart song and I even took a mandolin back to my room to try and come up with a part. (It's my one and only mandolin recording.) The only problem was, I don't sound anything like Rod Stewart!
The intro bit with the kettle drums and orchestra was my idea and it was fun hearing that come through the speakers but other than that I don't believe we were very successful in getting what we heard in our heads on the tape.
ONE GREY MORNING
Here's another song that got away from us a bit in the recording process.
I always liked the words but the recording of it? Not so much.
The horn arrangement sounded obnoxious to me and I was reminded of The Odd Couple theme by Henry Mancini (which I love). I remember Gord Downie from the Tragically Hip stopping by on the day we recorded this. I used to see him quite a bit back then, I had done their "Another Roadside Attraction Tour" and I even rode in the Limo to Madison Square Garden with him when they opened for Page And Plant. He's pretty busy I guess.
Lyrically, it was a song about trying to pinpoint the cause of my depressed mental state. It would probably make for a good Broadway show tune now that I think about it.
I was getting pretty good at writing these sort of confessional songs. But lyrically, this one had no trace of hope in it. I couldn't even pretend anymore.
Amazingly, we used to open our shows with "Doomed" on the Whereabouts tour. What was I thinking?
It's a well written song though and a pretty good vocal for a change but soooooo sad. There were a whole bunch of sad songs actually that got left off the disc because I had far too many of them. One of the songs "Tears Behind The Shades" was, in my opinion, the best thing we recorded during those sessions and typically, it got left off the album. It's funny with Whereabouts because as you can see, I have some issues with it, but a lot of people have told me it's their favourite one (including actor John C. Reilly). Even Rolling Stone magazine gave it 4 out of 5 stars and called it a "near perfect gem."
It's a bit mystifying to me but I'm probably too close to it. I am proud of it though. I just wish I could go back in time and fix it.
EVERY PASSING DAY
A catchy little number with a cool penny whistle intro played by Mitchell. It reminds me a little bit of "Summer Blowin' Town" but not as good.
Definitely the happiest song on the record, at least on the surface. I don't remember too much about writing it or recording it, and we rarely play it live but I it was all about the words anyway, and they mean more to me now than then. Can't think of too much else to say about it except to say I think it came off pretty well and that Pete Thomas plays really great on this track.
SEEM TO RECALL
The song that almost didn't make it on the record would end up being one my most favourite recordings and in a way, it kind of saved the whole album for me.
Mitchell never really got the song or at least didn't get why I liked it so much. The last thing I wanted to do was force a song on him that he wasn't into. Instead, he felt that the song "Blade Of Grass" was much better to end the record with and so I sort of gave up on "Seem To Recall" and put it on the back burner. For some reason on one of last days of our New York sessions, perhaps knowing that the song meant something to me, he asked me if I wanted to give it a go.
I was so happy to get a chance to try it finally and if my memory serves me well, we got it on the first or second take. I think everyone in the studio felt right away that it was a special song... even Mitchell. Later on that same day, Mark Eitzel from American Music Club dropped by and we played it for him. Mark is a great lyricist and I was feeling a bit self-conscious with him in the room, but he was very complimentary about it and later on I remember the two of us went to see Elliot Smith play a show at a small club somewhere in Manhattan.
Musically, the song has a sort of meandering pace but the lyrics have always meant a lot to me. I still get choked up sometimes singing it and I'm not sure why. I think it's about trying to regain something that's lost or about wanting to return to a time when I was happier and didn't ask for so much. When I play it these days it still serves as a reminder of all these things.
I wish we would've extended the fade out as we do live, because it has this trance-like mood that feels like it could go on forever.