Oral History: Challenging yourself
Here's an edited section on Challenging Yourself
Neil: This culture is very isolating. So here was a way for me to take care of myself. Challenge myself. To learn new things. Music just engages your whole brain.
Kim: You know, practicing the songs, during the week listening and singing and just always walking around with a song in my head -- sometimes two or three -- trying to master something… I think, especially as adults, we kind of get into a rut and routines and having the challenge of learning something new all the time that brings such joy... It's not like I'm learning physics or something. It's learning something that I'll have for the rest of my life. I think they say music is the last thing to go in people's memories.
Monique: I grew up putting myself in classes that were harder than I could do. That's just how I've always learned. That's how you push yourself, by singing with people who are better than you and trying to imitate them.
Andy: I like the rigor of singing [harmony] parts. That to me is hard, hard, hard, hard. Go and sing these tenor parts for whatever the song is, whether it's a song I knew and liked, or never heard before. Go in there every Sunday and reading the music and trying to sing the part is so hard. And, for me anyway, it's great exercise so it makes me a much better singer.
Kim: I love those moments when, when somebody comes up with the courage and, you know, goes for it. One of my favorite moments was watching Julie join the band. She's up there playing her guitar and she's been in this group, but it was just like she had such a cool vibe -- I’m going, “Oh my God, you look amazing.”
Emily: I love gospel which is something that I came into within the last six years. It's just fun to sing. Yeah that's slide-y stuff is fun to sing and it is just complicated.
Julie: Often the alto part is challenging and kind of strange musically, which doesn't make a whole lot of sense until we're in the whole group. And that can make it harder to do.
Jean: I really enjoy working with the choir because it uses so many different skills that are, you know, it's hard to find an activity that brings all that stuff together.
I just published a book! After hours of interviews with founding members of Newton Family Singers, I've compiled their story into How to Start a Singing Group: An Oral History of Newton Family Singers.
What kind of information is in there? Well, here's an edited section on Friendship:
Monique: Stephanie is the best friend I've ever had. And only because of NFS.
Stephanie: That makes me cry. It's true. It's true.
Monique: [First time I met her was] at that [original NFS] meeting. ...
Stephanie: Becoming friends through something that's hard, I think is unusual. It doesn't usually happen that way. But in this case it was just too important and obviously I think it was the best thing. The best thing. Yeah.
Julie: How often do I get to see my friends? But here I get to see these people that have become my friends and I get to see them every week and I don't have to organize anything or make any meals.
Jack: Julie and I have had conversations over the years about, who is your friend? Like, how do you define friends? Because it’s hard to make friends when you’re an adult. But with Newton Family Singers, I would say, now we have all these friends because we go to this thing every week.
Julie: When do people become friends? It's certainly not just singing next to people. That helps in terms of just getting to know people over time. Time definitely makes a difference. It takes me a while to feel like I fit in. I think what really helps is seeing people willing to be vulnerable.
Jack: Singing in public is very vulnerable. Even if I don't know someone that well, if I see like, Melissa come out and do this two line solo and you can tell she's nervous and she does a great job, my heart opens to her, you know.
Stephanie: I think it's really powerful. Exactly what you're saying, [in regular life] people aren't always vulnerable and even if someone isn't your favorite person in the world, you see them do something that you know is hard for them, or you see them really succeed... We feel connected. We feel close.
Julie: When people are willing to go up for solos or to sing with somebody and you support them when you see them taking a risk, and they support you when you're taking a risk, that's friendship.
If you are interested in how music is put together in a recording studio, you will love the podcast "Song Exploder." I have to admit that I find it so-so interesting when they explode a song that I never heard of, but I perk up when it's an artist I know, and I get obsessed (listening multiple times) when it's a song I know.
What does it mean to "explode" a song? Well they get the individual tracks from the artists' recording sessions, and demos. Like, just the isolated bass line. Or just the bongos.
So Liz Phair might share the home recording of "Divorce Song" that she recorded in her bedroom, quietly so as not to disturb her roommates. Then the engineer who added a bass line to the song will explain what he heard in her demo that made him want to play with a certain feel (should it be funky? Slinky? Minimal? Maximal?).
Another of my favorite episodes explodes the 2006 earworm "Young Folks" by Peter Bjorn and John (you know, the one with that whistle hook and the "idiot drumming"?). They drop lots of weird trivia: They didn't have a female singer in the band, so when they asked a guest to sing on their track, they had to change the key. One of the strings on their bass wouldn't stay in tune, so that dictated what string to play the bass line on.
See, I told you, you know the song. (BTW, while you're here, look at how close they hold the mics to their mouths.)
Of particular relevance to us is an episode featuring Lindsey Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac. He explains how he wrote the song "Go Your Own Way." Buckingham is a great guitarist but the bare bones of the song starts with a very plain, dare I say, uninteresting guitar pattern. But he sings the first phrase, "Loving you, isn't the right thing to do" and explains how the conversational tone of those words led him to pursue the idea farther.
Once the song is written, Buckingham presented it to his bandmates, and asked them for specific ways of playing. He tells Mick Fleetwood to play the drum pattern from a Rolling Stones record but Fleetwood can't quite do it without adding his own particular style. As for bassist John McVie, Buckingham explains why a certain part has to be very boring and the thing McVie hates the most. But then he lets him add a melodic line elsewhere.
And then there's the guitars. Buckingham explains how he creates a guitar sound by layering two instruments over one another. And then, as a finishing touch, he overlays that "uninteresting guitar pattern" with an acoustic strum that is really weird. It's sort of famously weird and he's told the story before about how a DJ on the radio said he couldn't figure out the beat of the song until the chorus came in. On Song Exploder, Buckingham retells the story but in a slightly different way.
One more thing: Buckingham is a great singer, but his isolated vocals are not anywhere "musically" perfect. They are full of emotion, though, and you realize that singing doesn't have to be perfect, but the best singers convey the emotional story of the tune.
Anyway, check out Song Exploder, especially the episode:
"Go Your Own Way" Lindsey Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac
(But really, look in the archives to see if there are other songs you know.)
(Also, if you're aware of the Universal Music Archive fire, you realize that one of the big issues will be fewer episodes of Song Exploder that deal with "classic rock".)
Tom Petty and Fleetwood Mac
Tom Petty and Fleetwood Mac have a history, that's for sure. A lot of it is based on the fact that Stevie Nicks is a Tom Petty superfan.
When Stevie Nicks decided to pursue a solo career, she decided to work with Jimmy Iovine, a music producer who had worked on the Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers album "Damn the Torpedoes." Nicks has gone on record saying that the Heartbreakers were the only band she would want to join (but wait, Stevie, what about Fleetwood Mac--?).
Petty, who considered Fleetwood Mac corporate rock at the time (he later admitted he was wrong and they were good artists), had one message for Nicks: "No girls allowed" in the Heartbreakers.
But Petty and Nicks were both working on albums at the same time, with the same producer, in the same building. She got into the studio with him.
Nicks ended up singing on a Tom Petty track, "Insider," and it might have been a track on her album but she saw how much Petty liked the song so she backed off and insisted he take it for his own.
That was probably a good idea, because "Insider" was fine but the song that she got instead was a HUGE hit.
"Stop Draggin' My Heart Around" (written by Petty and Mike Campbell) peaked at #3 on the Billboard Hot 100. Not a bad second choice. Apparently it wasn't written -- or recorded -- as a duet. Nicks just took the finished Petty song and sang the verses she wanted and sang a harmony over Petty's chorus melody because his parts were already recorded.
And Nicks got her wish to join the Heartbreakers, sort of -- the rest of the Heartbreakers ended up playing on a number of tracks on Bella Donna, Nicks' debut solo record.
Of course, Nicks is a great songwriter herself. At one point, Nicks asked Petty's first wife, Jane, how she met her husband. Jane, in her thick Southern accent, said they met at the "age of seventeen." Nicks misheard the phrase and ended up with a pretty good song title.
"Edge of Seventeen" is not about the Pettys, but the title came from Jane.
The reverse happened when Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics fell asleep at Stevie's house after a party. When he woke up, he heard Stevie in an argument with Joe Walsh of the Eagles, whom she had just broken up with.
Any guesses as to what Stevie said to Joe? Well, Stewart was producing Tom Petty's next album and he brought the line to Petty and they wrote a song together:
Stevie apparently also inspired the video for "Don't Come Around Here No More" because Stewart said he watched her trying on Victorian clothes, like something out of Alice in Wonderland.
And a cover of "Needles and Pins" (1985):
"Needles and Pins" wasn't written by Nicks, nor Petty but was co-written by Jack Nitzche, a Phil Spector protege, and... anyone? anyone? Bueller?... Sonny Bono!
Okay, one last story of Nicks and Petty (from Ultimate Classic Rock). Nicks had become friends with all the Heartbreakers including guitarist Mike Campbell, who collaborated with Petty on a lot of the songwriting. Apparently Campbell would jam in his home studio and make recordings that he passed along to Petty. If anything caught Petty's ear, he would work on it, add a melody and lyrics.
Nicks was satisfied with Petty's discards. Once, she took home a tape labeled "24 demos from Mike Campbell." She found a track she liked a wrote a song around it. She even started recording her song with Fleetwood Mac.
But it was a mistake -- that tape was still Petty's. He still had dibs on it, hadn't discarded it and, moreover, he had written a song using the same track. When Nicks proudly played her song to Tom over the phone, he was livid. She, in turn, was embarrassed and folded quickly (and had to go back to Fleetwood Mac to tell them that the song they recorded was not going to happen).
The coveted Campbell track became "Runaway Trains":
Nicks, for her part, kept the lyrics she wrote and eventually found a new tune to sing them over. Her song became "Ooh My Love":
Okay, we can't end on that. We need a happy ending.
The pair got over the issue of "Runaway Trains"/"Ooh My Love." Nicks even joined Petty and the Heartbreakers for part of their 2006 tour.
And in 2017, in London's Hyde Park, she joined them for a song or two.
Petty introduced her this way: "In 1978, we had just put out our second record, and I began to get calls from someone I never met before, but she was really nice. And over the years, we've become very close and she is the honorary girl in our band—Stevie!" (Ultimate Classic Rock)
So she did it. Stevie Nicks had finally joined Heartbreakers.
For a few years, Cameron Crowe was on top of the world. "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" and "Say Anything" were respectable teen comedies. Then "Singles," "Jerry Maguire," and "Almost Famous."
A particular skill Crowe had was in finding the right song for the right moment. Before the Eltonnaissance, in "Almost Famouse" Crowe pulled a great song for a quiet scene on a bus of touring rock musicians. This Led Zeppelin-like hard rock band had just crashed a suburban party. For all the hedonistic excitement, they also just seemed like a-holes. I didn't want to hang out with them any more. Did they even really like music? This scene on the tour bus wins back the audience and established that the relationships between the characters are all founded on a mutual love of music.
Similarly, there's a scene in "Jerry Maguire" where Tom Cruise's eponymous character finally scores his first victory, signing a high school football phenom. And then he's looking for a song on the radio. The lyrics don't really matter, what he needs is an anthem, something he can feel good belting out. He finds Tom Petty.
Who cares what the song is about? It's got that relaxed beat, the phrase that ends in a long ee sound and it's the perfect range for a tenor to belt. When I hear the chorus to "Free Fallin'" I think of this scene.
In this scene, Crowe is saying a lot about the character Jerry Maguire and his circumstances, but I feel like he also captures something about Tom Petty's songwriting. It's power is in a particular kind of accessibility. You don't need a crazy sense of rhythm, or an opera star's range. He's writing for an ordinary voice, but giving it an extraordinary place to go. At the risk of plagiarism and/or sounding overly lofty, Tom Petty's greatest hits could be called Fanfare for the Common Man.
Fleetwood Mac cast of characters
Fleetwood Mac is a crazy cast of characters and I tried to figure them out. Following the individual members is like a tour of 20th century rock. You could play the Kevin Bacon game with Fleetwood Mac and you wouldn’t need to go more than 2-3 degrees to anyone in popular music.
Jon Mayall. Jon Mayall is not, and has never been, a member of Fleetwood Mac. What he is, is the namesake of Jon Mayall & the Bluesbreakers, a seminal 1960s and 1970s English blues band. Mayall employed a number of musicians in his bands who went on to great acclaim, including Eric Clapton, Mick Taylor (of the Rolling Stones), Jack Bruce (of Cream), and others. At one point his band consisted of a guitarist named Peter Green and a rhythm section of Mick Fleetwood on drums and John McVie on bass.
Peter Green. Mayall gave Peter Green some studio recording time and Green brought McVie and Fleetwood with him to record a few songs. One of them was an instrumental named after the drummer and bass player, “Fleetwood Mac.” Soon after, Green and Fleetwood wanted to form their own band and named the band Fleetwood Mac in part to entice McVie to join them, which he eventually did. Green took a bit too much LSD and ended up in a sanitarium. Before he left the band, Peter Green wrote a little ditty called “Black Magic Woman” (you’re probably more familiar with the Santana version).
Mick Fleetwood. Mick Fleetwood is the drummer, original member and by all accounts, the glue that has held the band together. His first wife was Jenny Boyd (whose sister, Pattie, married two famous best friends: George Harrison and Eric Clapton and inspired the songs "Something," "Wonderful Tonight" and "Layla"). Fleetwood cheated on Jenny with Stevie Nicks.
John McVie. John McVie is a bassist, apparently relatively shy. He’s one of the founders of Fleetwood Mac. On early tours with Fleetwood Mac, they had opening act called Chicken Shack that featured a singer and keyboardist named Christine Perfect, whom he married.
Christine McVie. Christine McVie was a guest musician on the second Fleetwood Mac album, and then joined the band officially. She is one of the main songwriters and vocalists for the group. After divorcing John McVie, she had a relationship with Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys, and then married Eddy Quintela, a keyboardist which whom she wrote “Little Lies.” In 2017, she released an album with Lindsey Buckingham, which featured the Fleetwood Mac rhythm section; in other words, everyone but Stevie Nicks, who was on a solo tour.
Random musicians. For a while, after Peter Green left, Fleetwood Mac continued on with various guitarists and vocalists. At some point, the band’s manager even took the band's name and toured a completely different group as Fleetwood Mac (he told them Mick Fleetwood would join them on the tour). The real band’s touring manager hid the equipment from Alt Fleetwood and the tour was shortened and abandoned. Members of "the other" Fleetwood Mac ended up playing with Alan Parsons Project, a Deep Purple offshoot and Robert Plant.
Two of the members of Alt Fleetwood Mac ended up in a band called Stretch and wrote a song about their experience about the tour SNAFU:
Lindsey Buckingham. Lindsey Buckingham is a particular kind of guitar hero. He can shred, yes, but his skills are perhaps best realized in the recording studio with crazy layering of instruments. When Mick Fleetwood heard his playing, Buckingham was invited to join Fleetwood Mac as a singer-songwriter guitarist. Buckingham had one condition: they let his girlfriend, Stevie Nicks, join, too. If you listen to Buckingham talk about Stevie Nicks, and their eventual break-up, he’s a pretty sympathetic character. If you listen to the rest of the band talk about him mucking around in the studio without their input, he seems… less sympathetic. He released an album with Christine McVie that was pretty much a Nicks-less Fleetwood Mac album in 2017. On their most recent tour, Buckingham was fired from the band and replaced by Neil Finn and Mike Campbell (it says something about his contributions that it takes two guys to replace him).
Stevie Nicks. Stevie Nicks was the bonus that Fleetwood Mac got when they recruited American musicians to the previously British band. Her distinctive vocals, songwriting and fashion sense made her an instant standout. She broke up with Buckingham and they both wrote songs about it. She has had the most successful solo career of anyone associated with Fleetwood Mac and is cited by musicians like Courtney Love as an icon and role model. In the Tom Petty documentary “Running Down a Dream” Nicks says the only band she wanted to join was Petty's Heartbreakers.
Jimmy Iovine. Stevie Nicks recorded her first solo album with Jimmy Iovine who arranged for her to record the duet “Stop Dragging My Heart Around” with Petty. Iovine has worked in the studio with John Lennon, Bruce Springsteen, Meatloaf, U2, The Pretenders and Dire Straits. He’s also the founder of Interscope records and recorded hip hop stars like Tupac Shakur, 50 Cent and Eminem. Plus, he created Beats headphones with Dr Dre.
Neil Finn. Neil Finn is the main songwriter and leader of Crowded House. His brother Tim founded Split Enz which Neil co-led for a while before they broke up.
Mike Campbell. Mike Campbell was the lead guitarist of the Heartbreakers and co-wrote many of Tom Petty’s most memorable hits. The Heartbreakers were the backing band for a Bob Dylan world tour, and for Johnny Cash’s late albums. Campbell has also played with everyone from Bad Religion to Tracy Chapman to the Dandy Warhols to Warren Zevon.
I skipped a lot, including the breakups in the 1990s. Rolling Stone has their own Fleetwood Mac member breakdown.
Okay, wait. There are limits to what a blog post can accomplish. James Taylor is an amazing guitarist. As I'm trying to figure out how to play some of his songs, I thought I'd point out some tendencies he has as a performer and songwriter.
Taylor tunes his guitar better than we mere mortals do compensating for the even temperment of modern musical instruments and the tendencies of the thickness of strings to ring sharp (here's James Taylor's tuning method and here's a video where a guitarist plays both tunings for your comparison). Basically, he tunes each string a bit flat, allowing for the sharpness that happens when they are struck. To sum up by string:
If you listen to the comparison video, you'll probably notice very little, suggesting how much our ears will compensate. But, if you do notice anything, I felt like the Taylor tuning was a bit warmer, possibly because of more/better harmonics between strings.
Taylor loves his hammerings on and pulling off. He does a lot of it by forming his D and A shaped chords in a "backwards" (his word) way, allowing his index finger to manipulate the 3rd of the chord. He also apparently hates the open B string when playing his open G chord and barres the B and e strings with his fourth finger to play what's sometimes annotated as a G5. He explains his chord shapes about 44 seconds into this lesson on how to play "Carolina in My Mind."
I'm not actually sure that "movement chords" is a phrase, but what I mean is that he likes using odd chords that add a bit of tension that get resolved in the next chord. This is the province of diminished 7th chords (minor third stacked on minor third, stacked on minor third) which George Harrison did a lot. The dim7 chords are super interesting but also not something you want to stay on for too long, and used mostly as passing chords.
But the ultimate James Taylor chords is the 7th with suspended 4th, i.e. X7sus4. As a fingerpicking genius Taylor plays a lot of open chords and so his 7sus4 chords tend to be D7sus4, A7sus4 and E7sus4; sometimes capoed to another key, but those are the main shapes.
A7sus4 comes into play in "Shower the People" over the verse lyrics "broken heart" -- immediately followed by an Adim7 -- double passing chords! -- before resolving to the Bm D G that is pretty familiar from a more standard pop song. E7sus4 is the shape that hangs over the space before the chorus in "Everybody Has the Blues."
The D7sus4 chord is the one that sounds most "James Taylor-ish" to me. Just strum it (xx0213) a few times and you can't help singing the next line: "You just call out my name..."
Okay, just a few things to think about when trying to master these tunes. Have fun!
Two local institutions are working together to bring music — and food — to Newton residents.
On Sunday May 6, at Pine Manor College, the Newton Family Singers (NFS), a local chorus of 75 singers from kindergarten to retirement age will be performing In the Name of Love, a concert of music by the Irish rock band U2.
“Bono has one of the most distinctive voices in pop music, and our musical director Chris Eastburn has done a wonderful job arranging the songs in four part [vocal] harmony,” said Stephanie Cogen, co-founder of the group. “And of course we always encourage our audience to sing along with us.” A four piece rock band will accompany the singers.
In the spirit of U2, Newton Family Singers is supporting a local charity, the Newton Food Pantry. “We’re asking our audience members to bring non-perishable food items and other household goods to the concert,” says Emily Prenner, of NFS. Donated items can be exchanged for raffle tickets, and all the donations and any cash proceeds from the raffle will be given to the food pantry.
Newton Food Pantry Vice President Regina Wu said, “The Newton Food Pantry is grateful for the support, and for the opportunity to increase awareness in our neighborhood about food insecurity.” Residents who need food assistance, as well as donors and volunteers, can find more information on the Newton Food Pantry website, newtonfoodpantry.org.
This is not the first fundraiser Newton Family Singers has held. In 2017 they raised over $9,000 for Best Buddies. In 2014 they raised over $10,000 for two local organizations that support individuals with autism and their families.
More information and tickets can be found at newtonfamilysingers.org/events
I have a confession to make: I'm not a big U2 fan.
I mean, I like a lot of their songs, and they've been a constant in my life, but the only album I bought was Achtung Baby (and I think I bought at least two copies after one disappeared).
After playing and listening to their songs intensely for a few weeks, I've had time to think about why the band hadn't really appealed to me -- and why I've come to change my mind.
First, I'm generally not a huge fan of over-processed music. I like playing music, and I like hearing how things are played. The Edge's reliance on delays and other effects pedals (and the subsequent martial beat required of Larry Mullen to keep steady with the electronics) impressed me but never won me over because it was all hidden in a metaphoric black box.
After spending some time with our lead guitarist Chip and Gary Backstrom (formerly Jiggle the Handle, now of the Gary Backstrom Band and the Family Folk Chorale), they helped decipher some of the techniques and I've come to appreciate the simplicity of the playing under the barrage of notes. Lots of new ways to add a 4th to a chord or arpeggio! The chording that opens "Pride" is really clever.
And to be honest, even though I still don't totally understand it, I've always loved that crazy guitar sound that starts "Mysterious Ways," so maybe I was kidding myself about over-processed sounds.
Second, early on I dismissed Bono's lyrics as stridently political. And as much as I appreciated the power of politics, it wasn't something I wanted to sing about. Crowds chanting anthems always kind of freak me out, even when they are chanting something I believe in. That's why I love Achtung Baby -- I can get behind songs of love pretty easily.
I recently found this excellent fan site, atU2, that has a list of all their songs (including minor lyric alterations in recorded live shows) and a published quote from the band (mostly Bono) about what they were writing about. And it turns out Bono and I share the same opinion about some of these lyrics -- heavily emotional and hung on subjects somewhat haphazardly:
"'Pride' started out as an ecstatic rant. We looked for a subject big enough to demand this level of emotion that was coming out. ... There was a lot of emotion there, but to be honest with you, as a lyric it's daft. No, not daft. It's just not deft. It's a missed opportunity. I even get the time of Dr. King's assassination wrong. I said, 'Early morning-April four.' It was early evening." - Bono, Rolling Stone 2005
That site also pointed out to me that "One," which was I always thought was a break-up song, was written about a different kind of relationship: a gay man coming out to his father. That really turns my head around and I've come to appreciate the lyrics even more.
Third, U2 has at times seemed like Bono's band. That's sort of ridiculous since The Edge pretty much defines the sound, but Bono's strong personality and seeming ubiquity can make it seem like a one man show.
This is where Chris Eastburn changed my mind. As usual, Chris did a wonderful job choosing and arranging the songs we are singing, and in doing so he's transformed how I think about the songs. I truly believe that these are some of the best vocal arrangements our group has sung. It may be related to the open, arpeggiated musical backgrounds that they are laid over. It certainly has to do with the songs that hit that pop sweet spot: the balance between simplicity and repetition versus complexity and a sense of the new. Maybe it's because the chorus knows and loves these songs. In any case, hearing fifty voices harmonizing on "40" or "In God's Country" can sound like a church choir.
So, three reasons that kept me from embracing the band are now dismissed. Somehow these very particular songs from particular decades and from a specific European island have become universal sing alongs to me. They really are fun to sing along to and I hope lots of people come out to sing with us on May 6, 2018. Should be a good one.
We hope you enjoyed our Bob Marley show as much as we did. I know around my house the random whistling you hear is often the melody to One Love.
Well, for our next show, we're changing the melody but maybe not the lyrics.
Jack Cheng directs the Clemente Course in Dorchester, excavates in the Middle East, and writes in Waban, MA.