On his website, Oen Kennedy describes himself as a singer-songwriter-naturalist. He’s performed all over the country, written scores of songs, including “Annapurna” which won WUMB’s Boston Folk Festival songwriting contest in 2008, and he’s an avid birdwatcher and expert bird caller. I suppose we should expect nothing less from the man who wrote “Loon,” a contemplation of the natural world and the narrator’s place in it.
At first listening, I thought the song “Loon” was about birds, but after carefully reading over the lyrics, I understood the song to be about music and creativity, and uses the bird as a metaphor for a kind of creative flow or artistic muse. Oen came over to talk about "Loon" but he wouldn't pin down a single meaning for a song that he says arrived almost fully formed. He did tell me the story of how he came to write the song. (This Q & A has been condensed and edited for clarity.)
A loon and its chick
I was camping out in Lubec, Maine, which is as far east as you can go in the United States. This was in 1998 -- 1999 -- 2000 around the summer solstice.
Lubec is an anagram for Clube
I woke up to the sound of a loon. It was the middle of the night. The stars were incredibly bright. I got out of my tent, naked, and walked down the pine needle-y path down to the water. I climbed down to the water's edge. The water was perfectly smooth and calm. I could see all the stars reflected in the water, and I realized that that particular moment, the tide had just crested to its absolute maximum. I could feel it, this plump thing, right up against my toes, my feet in this very cold water. And I was just taking in the silence that was the aftermath of this echoing loon cry. I stood out there for a little while, and then went back to sleep.
I got up a few hours later. I had breakfast and then walked out on some islands. It was low tide at the time. I went from one island to another, out into the bay. I found a nice place to sit in the shade, overlooking Passamaquoddy Bay -- the second highest tides in the world are there. And there's a gyre, a giant gyre swirling in the water. And then suddenly, I see some movement about 80-100 feet from where I was sitting.
Two loons came up. The loons started circling around one another, with their bills pointed toward each other. They were circling and then they would dive under water and come up with their bills still pointed at one another and they kept getting closer. It was really beautiful. I had never seen a loon's dance. They were obviously a mated pair, they were making these little clucking noises and making this beautiful spiraling dance.
Then I saw something out of the corner of my eye. It was a fish that had jumped out of the water and was right by the water's edge. I walked down thinking "oh wow, there's a fish, right in the rocks." I went down and I collected the fish. It was a mackerel. It had jumped out of the water.
I just held him for a minute and looked at his rainbow colored iridescence. I put him back in the water and when I looked up, the loons were gone.
They had been only about 40 feet off shore. As far as I can see, over this giant bay, there wasn't a sign of them. I waited a minute -- a whole minute -- and still nothing. I didn’t know what to think. Maybe I was distracted longer than I thought. Then, in the exact spot where they had been, a seal popped up. Looking right at me with big dark brown eyes.
We're never gonna survive unless we get a little crazy
I didn't know what to make of the situation. It seemed like the loons spun around, and spun around and turned into a seal. It was the only "logical" explanation!
I hiked back. By this time, the tide had come in and I had to throw my boots across to the next island and swim the channel to get back to where I was. I got back, had a snack, took out my guitar and the song just came out, in a very short period of time. It was done in twenty minutes or something like that, done to the point that the verses and chorus were finished, and just needed a little tidying up.
I was infused with loon, from the call in the middle of the night to the dancing loons in the morning. All of these things were filtering down and by the time I got back to my camp, it came bubbling back up. Not just from this day but from a whole lifetime of interactions with loons.
I think I was just deeply inspired in that moment and my inspiration was through the lens of loon. So I wanted the song to have that beauty of what I'd experienced. so that’s where the line came, “Let this song be a loon.”
[Not embedding! Please click through to see Oen performing "Loon" at a house party]
You are amazing at doing bird calls, and I know from your website that you are an avid bird watcher. Have you written other songs about birds?
Oen Kennedy's first cd, Aluminum Green, named for an individual bird
My first record is called Aluminum Green. The title track is about a particular, individual dusky seaside sparrow who was named Aluminum Green by Fish and Wildlife. They had banded him as a baby, then captured him, when he was one of the last of the dusky seaside sparrows and attempted to breed him to try to keep the species from going extinct. At that time it was considered to be a subspecies but now it's been recognized that was a species. [The last dusky seaside sparrow was seen in 1987.]
So yes, I have bunches of songs that have birds in them. I only have 2 songs that have actual bird whistles in them. One song that has some woodpecker drumming.
On your live album, “Loon” sounds like it was performed in the key of E (correct me if I’m wrong). Chris Eastburn's arrangement steps it down to D to accommodate the low and high ranges of choral parts. How important is key when you are writing?
It’s in the key of E, I wrote it in E. Chris put in D because he thought it would work better for the Family Folk Chorale, or maybe he's more comfortable in D, I don't know.
[Family Folk Chorale performing "Loon" with Oen in the key of D]
Is that a different song (in D)?
Yes. It is. But it's different anyway with the whole choir doing it, but I'm fine with it. It really did feel weird initially, I was really taken aback, but that just lasted a minute and then, “okay we're in D now.” Because I have pretty strong key feelings.
D has a feeling and E has a different feeling and D minor and all of them have a different feeling. When I hear D minor, I really get a strong olive green thing. I have at different times had distinct synaesthesia experiences. Because I have something called temporal lobe epilepsy, and when the seizures get going, the boundary between sound and sight and smell and touch becomes very amorphous.
The the other big change in the song is lyrically, from the individual to the group. “Loon” tells a story of an individual's relationship to music and nature, like David Henry Thoreau in Walden. Chris Eastburn’s arrangement for chorus makes it more anthemic as many voices join together to affirm, “Gonna keep my heart open!” What do you think of that change from solo voice to group singing?
It’s fine. I’ve performed with them (the Family Folk Chorale). Being there in the midst of that is really nice. It’s a great sensation, there’s a lot of joy. I could hear people's love for the music all around me and going through my body. I’m glad that the song has inspired anyone to do something fun like that. It makes me happy.
I’m often writing songs that come directly from my love of nature, from my love of planet and species, so it’s a direct thing. Someone else who’s interested in that, who feels the way I do, is going to pick up on that. And I think that Chris is in that category. And many of the other people in the Family Folk Chorale are, too, I mean look at the types of lives that people are attempting to live: trying not to be harmful to the earth, being conscious about what they do and what they use, and how they live...
Building a community...
Building a community! to engender more of that and amplify that and carry the joy forward. It’s really great. And I do believe that the type of community building that’s going on with you and Chris and people like you, that's the answer to our ills.
I asked my kids if they had any questions for you. My son wants to know how the fast part came about?
You mean, [sings] "When it comes to me in the midnight hour..."?
I don’t even know why really, I just know I was really happy right then, and that’s what came out. I was just joyous right then, joyously experiencing that whole thing. I was in the sunlight in Lubec, ME, one my favorite places in the whole world, and it was beautiful and quiet and there were loons and birds and trees and it sounds great and it smells great and it looks great and it feels great and I was in the middle of writing a song and I was in my element and I felt the overflowing joy and that's what came out of that.
My daughter asks, Do you have a favorite song that you wrote? Any recommendations for listeners who love "Loon"?
That's a hard one, I have so many songs. I have 5 CDs, plus a children’s cd that I did collaboratively. Every one of those cds has my love of nature in it, has deep inspiration in it. I think the Oook cd -- that has "Wings" on it, has "Home and has Million Legged," has "Big Dark Eyes" -- that cd is a really joyous cd. Generally speaking it’s a funky, happy, alive cd. Each song is one take only. I went into the studio, did one take, did the next song, did all the songs almost in a row.
Then me and my friend Bill put bass and electric guitar and backup guitars and percussion and voices and some natural sounds over the voice and acoustic guitar track.
At the end of "Big Dark Eyes," there’s one of my all time favorite moments from any of my songs because of what we did with it. You should listen to "Big Dark Eyes" in a quiet place, listening to it in stereo. I play a nylon string guitar solo on the outro there, and that’s one of my favorite things I’ve done musically. And then, things start to happen...
I’ll also check out Aluminum Green.
Don’t download the MP3s, get the actual cd because the insert material has artwork from my sister and has all the lyrics written down and has the story of Aluminum Green written on the inside cover.
Do you have a preference for where fans buy your music?
If you’re coming to my shows, that’s the best, to buy it directly from me. But you can also go to my website and go through to Nimbit.com. The least corporate way to do it is to buy them off me, but Nimbit is a local company so I would buy it off my website, as opposed to iTunes or Amazon.
Thanks, Oen, for taking the time to talk about a great song and giving us a peak into the creative mind of a naturalist/songwriter! You can find more about Oen, including upcoming shows, at his website, oenkennedy.com.
First off, I have to protest the egregious punctuation in the song’s title. “Octopus’ Garden,” please!
Okay, now that I’m off that soapbox, what’s to say about this song?
The song is credited to Richard Starkey (aka Ringo Starr), and according to George Harrison this was only the second song Ringo ever wrote! In 1981, Ringo talked about writing the song:
Why did Ringo want to be “under the sea, too”? Well, he took the trip in the midst of the recording of the White Album, as he felt he needed a break from the fractious nature of the Beatles at the time. So bad feelings led to the a joyous experience and song. There’s probably a parable or koan in there.
In the film Let It Be, there is a scene where George is helping Ringo work out some chord changes, but Ringo is given full writing credit. George was one of Ringo’s biggest boosters, perhaps because they could relate to the long shadow cast by their band’s primary songwriters.
Back in 1969, George had this to say about his bandmate and his song:
Do octopi really make gardens? I’ve heard that they do, but I’ve never seen one. Apparently their homes are not decorated with shiny stones, but rather littered with the detritus of the mollusks that served as meals.
Don’t know anything else about the song but I have heard some amazing stories about octopi.
Here is a fascinating magazine story about establishing a relationship with an octopus at the New England Aquarium from Orion Magazine.
A volunteer at the NE Aquarium told us how smart the octopus is. At one point, the Aquarium was missing fish from its tanks and suspecting a thief, installed a nighttime videocamera. What the camera found was the octopus getting out of its own tank, and attacking and eating fish from other tanks before returning home!
The animals are so smart that to stimulate them, they encase their meals in multiple locked boxes, forcing the octopi to solve puzzles to get to their food. (There’s more about this in that Orion article.)
The most amazing video (well, besides the octopus on land [love the Minnesotan accent at 1:19]) is the octopus vs. shark:
Any guesses as to what happens when a sea lion meets an octopus?
Wait, this is supposed to be a music blog. Sorry. Back to “Octopus’s Garden”:
Not the most effective mashup ever, but since we mentioned Blondie (back here), I thought I’d link to “Glass Octopus” (Heart of… , … Garden). The backing vocals at 1:38 are nice.
And here’s a link to a parody video with lyrics about Ringo wanting to contribute more to the band.
Jack Cheng directs the Clemente Course in Dorchester, excavates in the Middle East, and writes in Waban, MA.