“In the place of judgment— wickedness was there,
in the place of justice— wickedness was there…
I saw the tears of the oppressed— and they have no comforter;
power was on the side of their oppressors—
and they have no comforter…
all labor and all achievement spring from man’s envy of his neighbor.
This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.” – Ecclesiastes 3:16; 4:1; 4:4
The journey in creating “A Road Most Traveled” began with the writing of “Life is Meaningless”. I had just spent a few months wrestling through the words found in the book of Ecclesiastes. Within Solomon’s prose and poetry, I saw humanity’s struggle for meaning and purpose. I saw an honesty towards desperation that I had experienced within my own life, and I wanted to expresses it through music, the same way Solomon expressed it through his medium. I realized quickly that I could not encapsulate into one song all that Solomon was addressing, all the areas where I personally felt empty, all the injustice our world was currently witnessing, all the hopelessness certain friends were sharing with me, all the ways in which the day to day of our lives seemed futile…
Nevertheless, I sat down one night and started with these words:
“Unending, beginning, and I can’t break this on my own…
Dead cycle, recycled, fast approaching no one home…and I do this all alone”.
I knew even as I penned the words, I was taking on something much larger than a simple song, or even one album, could contain:
“Work and toil, or let it spoil, it all seems to be the same…
Do it right, do it wrong, we all seem to play this game…good old fortune and fame”
I knew that I had to write from my own experience; from my own heart, yet even as I wrote I felt a need to voice the confusion, the uncertainty, expressed not only within the book but also from individuals and communities that I had interacted with over the previous few years.
“Meaningless, when I awoke this morning…there’s a shadow in my heart…
Purposeless, stuck in the dull machine of life…is there nowhere we can go?”
As I wrote, I felt uneasy. I didn’t want to write a hopeless song when there was so much within our world that seemed hopeful. I didn’t want to package meaninglessness as the only answer to “why am I here?” However, I didn’t want to wrap the song up in a bow, selling a happy ending as fake as our airbrushed lives on social media. I didn’t want to resolve the journey by telling people I had their answer to happiness; because...well, that’s not reality. And that’s not how Ecclesiastes ends. How do I give an honest voice to desperation and doubt, and how do I give space for them within our current liturgy of buying contentment and hacking ours lives towards happiness?
I knew as many of us do, that the rhythms we engage in daily actually sap life out of us. Yet we continue to engage in them as if they will eventually lead to a more fulfilled life.
What is the better story? Is there one? What if this is the only narrative?
“I’m drowning, slogans pounding, making what’s left of me feel numb…
If it’s progress, I still regress, all for the benefit of some…No I cannot hold my tongue...
Caught in a snare, trapped in a net…No way out of evil times…
We are oppressed, yet we still oppress…all with envy we live this lie! There’s no reason and no rhyme!!”
As I wrote, I knew that I had to engage deeper in these questions, and as I engaged I would continue to write. That first night, five years ago now, launched a vision that far surpassed one song, one album, or one individual.
Is there a narrative that gives room for, and a resolve to, the refrain:
“Meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless…
Meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless
In the place of judgment…Wickedness!
In the place of justice…Wickedness!!”
EVOLUTION OF A SONG
In the period I wrote the lyrics to “Life Is Meaningless” I was listening to a lot of gypsy jazz (i.e. Django Reinhardt). I had taken a guitar lesson from Paul “Pazzo” Mehling, leader of The Hot Club of San Francisco, and started experimenting with combining my own influences with a touch of gypsy jazz. Fortunately, “Life is Meaningless” was my first attempt…unfortunately; “Life is Meaningless” was my first attempt…I definitely have learned much since then, but I am thankful for what did come out in the recording.
During the infant stage of “Life is Meaningless”, Ken Whitney (co-writer and co-producer) came on board and began to help clarify vision for both the song and the album. From this point forward, all lyrics we wrote with a “storyboard” approach, which gave the album a visual aspect, not only helping our writing process, but may still come in handy if we ever do translate the album to stage.
Below is a spliced together audio track, in order to see the progression of the song:
- My first little recording done in Garageband in order to get the concept down. Most of my personal recordings are done after Cathy and I put our boys down, hence the whisper of my voice.
- The second take was done while hanging out with a few friends on a very hot July night in 2010. Ken is pounding away on djembe. This was the first time we used percussion as well as additional vocals.
- The third take is of me messing with guitar solos. Originally, I wanted to whole song to maintain an acoustic feel with a very gypsy jazz-like arrangement. However, as the album progressed we decided to take another route. Tyler Gomez’s final decision (see “Final Edit”) could not have been better!
- This take was the first time the whole band played the song together. We added in the piano, and greatly changed the dynamic and arrangement of the song during this first rehearsal.
- The last take is also shown in the video below. When advertising for our Kickstarter launch concert, we arranged a short version of the song for social media. By this time, the arrangement was for a full band, but for the video, I thought we could return to the songs gypsy jazz roots. I had Sarah play banjo, and we brought Eric Golub in for the very first time. What resulted is one of my favorite versions of the song, and subsequently what brought Eric and the banjo in as permanent players in both the song and the band.
The final version of the song you will see below. We chose to start the album with "Life is Meaningless", as a sort of anthem for the narrative the listener would be entering into. We also decided to be intentional with Sarah's vocals for the album. Just as the voice of wisdom is calling the reader back home in Ecclesiastes, we chose to cast Sarah as the voice of wisdom throughout the entire album. As the album starts out, and the listener ("everyman") enters into the metaphorical city (or rhythm), the voice of wisdom is present. However, as the song progresses, and as the listener spends more time in the "city" the voice of wisdom fades (as you'll hear Sarah's voice fade). Sarah's voice does not return until the 6th song on the album "The Water's Edge".
For your listening pleasure the final edit to "Life is Meaningless" off our first album "A Road Most Traveled":