I wrote this one with Chet Baker in mind believe it or not. I had just watched a documentary about Chet called "Let's Get Lost" and was really into him for a period in the mid '90s. I love the way he sang so straight ahead and let the melody do the talking. I love all those old songs in general like "I Get Along Without You Very Well" and "Time After TIme" (not the Cyndi Lauper one) to name a few.
Ever since "Secret Heart" I guess, I'd been trying to write songs that were more conversational and would incorporate common expressions the way the old standards used to, while hopefully bringing my own thing to the table. With "Thinking Out Loud," I knew right away when I wrote it, that it would be the first song on whatever my next record was going to be. I always like to ease in to an album with a song that will set the tone for what is to follow.
Lyrically, I think the cracks in my home life were beginning to show but it's not without hope. Before I went on to record "Other Songs" with MItchell Froom, I had gone down to Nashville in early '96 and demoed "Thinking Out Loud" (along with about 24 other tunes) with producer Joe Baldridge. The main reason for it was to show the people at Interscope that I had more than enough tunes and was ready to make my follow up album. Initially, I had talked to Daniel Lanois about producing it and in fact, we even recorded an early version of "While You're Waiting" that is probably collecting dust somewhere as I write this. At any rate, Daniel eventually turned me down to go and make the "Slingblade" soundtrack for Billy Bob Thornton and I went running back to Mitchell and Tchad which I believe was the right decision ultimately.
It's still one of my favorite songs to perform live.
I used to get a lot of ideas for songs at the playground when my kids were small. On this particular day, my son was playing with a little red-haired girl who was a classic tomboy like Peppermint Patty from Peanuts?? I started talking to this lady who was there watching her and she explained that she was the girl's grandmother and was just taking care of her for a few weeks while the mother was in rehab. (It was a lot of information to give a total stranger.)
Anyway, it struck me that from watching her play, there was no trace of sadness or that anything was difficult in her home life. And it got me thinking about how open and resilient children are in general. It also got me thinking about some sisters I knew from Galbraith Street who had lost their mother one morning from what I think was an overdose and that made me think of another girl I knew who got pregnant when she was just a teenager and so before long I had a song in the works.
Around that time, I had been getting into the music of Tim Hardin, especially a song called "Black Sheep Boy" which I loved for its sparse but impressionistic lyrics. I got the title "Strawberry Blonde" and the first line almost instantly, but it would be another two years before I would finish it in time for the Nashville demos I mentioned earlier. For whatever reason, people really connected to it and It has become one of my most requested songs. Although I'm very proud of it, I always felt that it was a a bit of a failure because I had intended to write it in two verses like the song "Black Sheep Boy" but I just couldn't find a way to do it and so it became more of a short "Dickensian" type story and I've made peace with that.
Mitchell Froom wrote a lovely clarinet (or was it oboe?) arrangement that gave it a sort of Parisian vibe and a groove that reminded me of a girl skipping down the sidewalk. I remember one time a man came up to me in France and asked me where Amanda was today and that he wanted to meet her and help her somehow. I had to break it to him that she was just a fictional character and I think he was a little heart broken about it... kinda how I felt when I found out Sherlock Holmes was a work of fiction too.
I was in Nashville in '95, I think I may have been on tour with Sarah McLachlin but I can't quite recall. Anyway, I remember feeling a little discouraged that my debut album was out in the USA but nobody knew about it and I could never find it in any of the record stores I walked into. I was walking down Broadway (the touristic street in Nashville) looking in store windows and feeling sorry for myself when I saw a tour bus coming my way. Like most people I was curious to know which super star was riding on it but as it got closer to me I noticed that the sign in the front window said "Nobody You Would Know" which made me laugh and as well, it seemed to express exactly what I was feeling as I skulked around.
Around the same time I had gone to NYC for some press and, as I arrived at Penn Station, a nice man offered to help me with my luggage and said he worked for the Taxi company. Being naive and a little tired, I let him take my bag and I followed him to a waiting cab. After he put my bags in the trunk, he asked if I had change for a hundred dollar bill for the taxi driver. Confused, I pulled out a wad of 20's and asked is this ok? At that point he took the cash and proceeded to run away down the street with all the money I had in my pocket. As you've probably gathered, the taxi driver didn't know this man at all and I started to feel like an "All Day Sucker".
When I finally got into my hotel room, I sat down and wrote this song originally in a Country and Western style. It was one of the last tunes I wrote for "Other Songs" and MItchell heard it going an entirely different way. He had this idea of approaching it more like Brian Wilson as opposed to Hank Williams, (which is sort of what it sounded like originally). So we worked up an arrangement for it with that in mind and I remember hearing it back through the speakers and saying, "Wow, it kinda sounds like a hit" to me which Mitchell replied "yea, but what year is this?" As usual it was too out of step with the times to be a radio hit but I think it's a fun track.
THINLY VEILED DISGUISE
This was the first song we recorded for "Other Songs." It always seemed like an Irish folk song to me or at least it was reminiscent of one. The lyrics had given me some grief right up until the tape was rolling. At the last minute I scrapped the third verse and decided to just re-sing the opening lines (though I did keep the last few lines of original third verse). The sessions for Other Songs were happy ones for me. Mitchell and I were pleased to have another shot at making a record together and felt vindicated by the critical success of the first one. I think we were just elaborating on the sound we had already created on the debut disc but with more confidence this time around. We worked at the Magic Shop in NYC in December of 1996 and it was exciting to be there and have the nights free for going out on the town. Mitchell always liked to work sane hours, usually we'd go from 12 noon until about 7 at night (with a lunch break in the middle) which is still how I like to do it.
Lyrically, it was just about the idea that sometimes good things come from bad experiences - at least that's what I"ve found. Tchad Blake told me that this song meant a lot to him and that Other Songs in general was one his favorites to work on.
I wrote this one while out touring my first record. We used to play it during our show and it always went over well. I remember thinking that it might even be a "hit song" and so I couldn't wait to record it. I have found with almost every record that there is a song that you get snagged on. With the Ron Sexsmith album it was "Several Miles." With Other Songs it was "Nothing Good." It's typical that the song I thought would be the easiest to record turned out to be the hardest one. Like "Several Miles" we spent the whole day trying to get a decent take of it but went to bed defeated. Jerry Marotta who is an incredible drummer, was great at playing unusual grooves but for some reason a straight ahead pop song was not necessarily his forte. We just couldn't figure out what the kick drum should be doing and on top of that, the arrangement that Mitchell and I had worked up, wasn't working at all.
The next morning he came in though with an idea for a completely new arrangement that he had apparently lost sleep over and after a few takes we finally got it (more or less). I was always slightly disappointed with how this one came off to be honest. We had a great live version of it that just didn't translate in the studio unfortunately. I think it's ok though. I like the harpsichord on it and the Byrds-inspired guitars but it could've been better somehow and it certainly never became the hit I thought It might be. We even brought Don Kerr to LA to add snare and high hat to the existing drum track to try and make it sound more like the Faces but that didn't really work either.
I figure lyrically it was probably too downbeat to be a hit anyway. I was singing about the the bad behaviour that was starting to take place on the road and feeling guilty about all the fun I was having - it was probably cursed. A few years later I had to sing this at the Juno awards in Vancouver. I was in the audience enjoying the show when a woman from backstage ran up to me and said we need you to fill in for Our Lady Peace who had to cancel at the last minute. They threw me up there cold with somebody else's guitar and a quick sound check, It was all quite nerve-wracking and I don't think performed very well. I remember Robbie Robertson just sort of glared at me as I came offstage (although Shania Twain said "That was terrific!"). Later on at the after party I was drinking with Lisa Loeb of all people and feeling a little blue, when none other than Long John Baldry came up to me and said I was the most real thing on the show! As you can imagine, my mood improved instantly. I saw Long John Baldry at the Edmonton Folk Fest not long before he died and thanked him for his kind words that night at the Junos...he was a class act!
PRETTY LITTLE CEMETERY
When I moved to Toronto in November of '87, my family and I found ourselves in a nasty drywall dungeon of an apartment. across the street from a cemetery. My son Christopher was 2 years old and had to follow me around as I pounded the pavement looking for work. Sometimes we'd take a walk through the cemetery which unlike the song was actually a huge cemetery. Christopher naturally had loads of questions about this whole life and death business and I tried to answer them as best I could. One day on our walk we came up on a headstone for a little boy who died in 1943. It was a beautiful headstone with a little lamb engraving on it. Up until then I think my son was under the impression that only old people died and so he was quite intrigued by this particular grave. I was struck at how grief from such a long time ago still seemed to be lingering around and I started writing the song in my head, beginning with the 2nd verse.
About a year later, I was on the bus with Chrstopher and we passed an entirely different cemetery. He turned to an old couple who were sitting across from us and made the declaration that I put in the song (although it wasn't verbatim). I believe what he actually said was "My Papa says when we die, we go there" to which the man laughed and said "Yes I know." Anyway, it occurred to me that I now had a bridge for the song, and I think I finished it later that day, years before it ever made it on Other Songs.
When Mitchell and I were working on an arrangement for it, he initially wanted to scrap the bridge. He felt it was a distraction from the over all rhythm of the song but thankfully I had the good sense to fight for it and I think even MItchell is happy about that now. Larry Campbell came in and played some beautiful pedal steel.
IT NEVER FAILS
Like "Average Joe" and "April After All" this song was one of the last tunes I wrote for Other Songs and I was still deciding on the third verse right up until the day we recorded it. (I had about 3 other options.) Mitchell felt it sounded like a Christmas song and used to joke around with me by singing "It never fails, this time of year, I think of all that Christmas cheer" etc.
When I hear it now, I can detect an influence from Pet Sounds, especially "Caroline No." The diminshed chord on the bridge is a chord I've used many times since, but this was my first time using it. (I had probably just learned it and couldn't wait to put it in a song.) Like "Secret Heart" it deals with my difficulties expressing myself in relationships, as well as the usual dosage of guilt and regret, which were now becoming more apparent which each record.
It's a song that we haven't played in years and doesn't get requested very often so I'm assuming it's not a very popular one, but then I have so many ballads. The thing that I like to listen for on this one is my little guitar solo which at the time was a big deal for me. I think it took numerous takes to get one that everybody liked and I felt like such an amateur. If I was recording it today I could put a solo down quite easily but back then I was still figuring it out.... it was all very innocent. And like the Joni Mitchell line, "Something's lost and something's gained."
CLOWN IN BROAD DAYLIGHT
My daughter Evelyne and I were riding a Greyhound bus to my Mom's house in St Catharines and we saw a clown standing in front of a car wash with a bunch of balloons and a sign that said "Grand Opening." Evelyne (like a lot of little girls) had been terrified of clowns ever since one came up to her at a "Family Fun Picnic" we attended. On another occasion a car load of clowns pulled up in front of our house which I'm sure gave her nightmares for years to come! Anyway, because we were safely on a bus, she was able to look at it from a distance and didn't seem afraid anymore.
Being a songwriter, the idea came to me right then and there, I thought "Clown In Broad Daylight" had a nice ring to it and it's always fun to write an observational song whenever possible. The lyrics were just about how injecting a clown into everyday life would draw various reactions and emotions from people ranging from the humorous to the traumatic... and even sympathetic.
As you can probably tell by listening, we had a real good time recording it. It was a big carnival sound with trombones, flutes and a marx-O-phone played by Mitchell. I remember Elvis Costello stopping by on the day we recorded this. He was the first person to hear it in fact. "Fantastic!" said Elvis. I haven't thought about that in years.
AT DIFFERENT TIMES
I came up with this song while I was in LA mixing my first record. The label had rented me an apartment on Hollywood Blvd. but I didn't know anybody and so when I wasn't in the studio I was lonely and homesick most of the time. This was before I had internet or even a computer, so these were real prehistoric times. I was watching the sun go down from my balcony and missing my family and Jocelyne. I was wondering if they were thinking of me as the sun went down for them 3 hours earlier. It may sound sad but sometimes I don't even recognize the person who wrote this song. There was an innocence back then that got all bent out of shape by the record industry, touring and the world wide web.
This was Mitchell's favorite song on the record and I'm quite proud of it as well. Musically it was very much inspired by the music of Gordon Lightfoot and it has a picking style in it that I've gotten quite good at over the years. I remember we had a fellow (who's name escapes me) come in and play tuba on it. He was asked to play pretty much the same pattern for the entire song, with a few variations. He must have thought we were a bunch of weirdos. The other thing I remember about this song was when MItchell played it for Tom Whalley (who was the president of Interscope then) and said he thought it was a potential single. I don't know much about anything but even I knew that it wasn't a single!
I used to think the actress Dana Plato from that awful series "Different Strokes" was kinda cute. Years later, I started seeing her life unravel in tabloids and on those news magazine shows. She even got arrested once for trying to hold up a video store. (I think it was a video store.) Anyway, it got me thinking about child stars in general and how cruel Hollywood can be or maybe I should say how fleeting fame can be. I remember hearing about Alfalfa from "Little Rascals" and how he struggled to find work after the show ended and was eventually killed over $50 and a hunting dog.
I thought about Michael Jackson too who didn't had a normal childhood but the world was somehow better for it. I even thought of myself a little bit because I used to play this place, the Lions Tavern in Port Dalhousie back in the early '80s. For a few years I was a local hit, packing them in on the weekends but after a while I sort of wore out my welcome there and was passed over. Around the time I wrote this song, my friend Kyp Harness had written one called "Thumbalena Farewell" which I found strangely moving. I don't honestly remember whose song came first but I was already influenced by Kyp's music and I was working harder on my lyrics as a result. I loved all the dark corners that his songs would explore and I was starting to explore them myself. Years later I ended up recording "Thumbalena Farewell" for my Blue Boy disc but more on that later.
When Other Songs came out there was a lot of division over this song. With some people absolutely hating it while other folks said it was the best song on the record. Elvis told me that I should've named the whole album "Child Star." For me the thing I was most proud of though was going from E minor to E major on the bridge. Doesn't seem like much now but at the time I thought it was pretty cool.
AN HONEST MISTAKE
This one was sort of the throw away song on the record. It needed the most work in terms of the arrangement but we finally sorted out the structure and it helped lift the 2nd half of the disc which is mostly down beat. The lyrics are pretty straight ahead and I thought perhaps too simplistic but they were the best I could come up with at that time.
The things that I like about the recording of it are mainly Jerry Marotta's galloping performance and Sheryl Crow's accordion cameo. (I remember thinking the accordion was bigger than her.) She was hanging around the studio a fair bit in LA where we were mixing and doing over dubs as she was about to work with Mitchell on her 2nd record and they were getting acquainted. I also remember her telling us a real funny joke about the Lone Ranger!
Anyway, this song was sort of a non-event for me although I think it's a compact little song that says a few important things and is relatively fun to play live. We trot it out from time to time.
Back in grade 5, Valleywood Public school was having an "Activity Day" out on the soccer field. There were potato sack races and bean bag tosses to name a few activities. Every one in my class was teamed up with someone from a younger grade and I got partnered with little Nancy Inkle who was the sister of my classmate Sheldon Inkle. Nancy was a sweet, shy girl with curly hair that reminded me of Lil Orphan Annie. Anyway I don't remember if we won any of the activities but we had a beautiful day and I felt like I made a new friend.
Not long after, I was told that Nancy had passed away and in fact, it was a wig she was wearing. It was my first encounter with death and it left a huge impression on me. In fact to this day I've never stopped thinking about her.
Years later I was at the playground with my kids. I was on the swings keeping an eye on my daughter who was in the sand box. I started thinking about Nancy and I wrote this song almost in its entirety on the swings! It's a song I don't play very often but it's one that I find almost mystical now and the guitar figure at the beginning reminds me of something Neil Young might've written. I'm very proud of this song and I always send it out to Nancy in my mind when I play it.
WHILE YOU"RE WAITING
"While You're Waiting" was almost left off the record just to shorten it but Tchad Blake insisted that we keep it on. Like "Thinking Out Loud," it was inspired by Chet Baker and I still think it's one of the best lyrics I've ever written.
Musically there was something about it that reminded me of one of my favorite Canadian bands, Max Webster. They were a great rock band but they also did some cool ballads and this reminds me slightly of one of theirs. I'm really glad we left it on because I think the fade out segues nicely into the final song (which I'll talk about soon). This is one of those tunes that seldom gets requested leading me to think that it's not very popular which is fine with me. After Other Songs came out, Edie Brickell wrote me and said that she and Paul (Simon) we're enjoying my record especially "While You're Waiting" so at least they liked it.
APRIL AFTER ALL
Most people who have followed my career know that Im a huge Bing Crosby fan. It was around this time that I got into his music in a big way. I always liked him as a kid but I hadn't listened to him in years.
It was actually while I was opening for Sarah McLachlin in '95 that my traveling companion BJ Cole (British pedal steel player who played on "Tiny Dancer" by Elton John) told me that Bing was his favorite singer. I told him that my Grandma always loved Bing and so when I got home I made a point of picking up some Bing recordings and I was absolutely hooked. My favorite Bing songs are the depression era ballads like "Pennies From Heaven" and "Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams" and that's what I was trying to do with "April After All."
It's a comforting message and Mitchell helped me a great deal with the arrangement. My only regret is that it was the last song we recorded for the album and my voice was shot. So I"m not really happy with my vocal performance on it but I tried to do it like Bing in a croaky sort of way. I've sung it better on the road and there's probably a better version of it somewhere but this rendition is just how it went down on that day in NYC.