12 December 2015

Custom Songs

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As part of my Kickstarter campaign in June 2015, I offered to write customized songs.

$500 seemed like a “priced to sell” contribution level, if you consider that I only wished to “sell” ten songs. And, in fact, I sold all ten, if you include the guy who missed the official Kickstarter deadline but came through later.

I put this offer out there confidently, but not without trepidation. I mean, I’ve written these kinds of songs before – for my father-in-law (Arthur Rogers, Attorney At Law), for a deserving boss (Nicholas Meyer Has Big Ears), etc. – but never upon request. Usually, it’s a surprise, and there are no expectations. Now, however, I’m in a “satisfaction guaranteed” situation, which ratchets up the pressure.

With this in mind, I tackled an easy one first. I say “easy” because I have known the subject for more than twenty-five years, starting in the late 80s/early 90s when her son Dave and I competed together in NCAA Men’s Volleyball. Dave and his sister Virginia – also a standout volleyball player, in case you’re wondering – wanted a song for their mother, on the occasion of a milestone birthday (her 29th, if I am not mistaken).

Upon consideration, this assignment was not actually all that easy, given the history. It’s better to have first-hand experience with something you’re writing about, obviously, but we’re talking about a person who welcomed me into her home for days at a time, fed me, etc. We even spent Christmas 1992 together in Japan, where we caroled on the bullet-train platform. She essentially saw me grow up, and I hold her in the highest possible regard. In short, I didn’t want to screw this one up.

To that end, I asked Dave and Virginia what they had in mind in terms of a “net takeaway,” and put out a call for details. In particular, I was interested in stories that illustrated her best qualities. They sent a bunch of great information, which got the juices flowing. After a few days of earnest reflection, I came up with an angle during a short walk from Point A to Point B, which is where I get many of my ideas.

In this case, it was a single line on the walk from my car to the Glen Park BART station: “Her kindness is what stands out for me.” I liked the plain language, which gets right to the point, and I could hear a certain musicality. More importantly, the line suggested a way to fill out the verses, which was to gather examples of her kindness.

So began an entertaining back-and-forth between Virginia – who emerged as the point person on this project – and me about individual proclivities, family history, etc. I asked loads of highly specific follow-up questions, many of which could only have inspired “out of left field” double-takes. For example: “Tell me more about those sweaters.” In the end, I used new  information in the verses, and anecdotes from my own personal experience in the bridge.

Here are the words:

Her Kindness (Song for Norris)

Sister, daughter
Mother, wife
Independent thinker
Lover of life
You may have observed this or that quality
But, her kindness is what stands out for me

Subway crisis
Ninety blocks
Back to the hotel
A delightful walk
How optimistic can one person be?
Still, her kindness is what stands out for me

None of us is perfect
For example: style
Fuzzy sequined sweaters
Have been out for a while
At David’s graduation—
The answer to a prayer—
She tied one on: sake bombs
Standing on a chair

Perfect strangers
On Christmas Eve
“You are not alone,” she
Says and believes
Blessed are we for the good company
Her kindness is what stands out for me

And, here is the whole package:

They unveiled the song on the night before Thanksgiving, when the stage was set with the entire extended family. Here is her reaction, including a nice moment at :30:

It occurred to me, on viewing the above, that all songs should be written this way: for an audience that really, really cares. What a great shortcut to connection, right? Of course, it can’t possibly work that way. We can, however, do our best to write “universal” songs, the kind of songs that people connect with even when they’re not specifically about them.

There’s another of these songs in the can – Gypsy in Another Life (Song for JHR) – and I’m ruminating on one about a cat, which may require extra creativity. After that, only seven more! All I can say is, if the rest of these “Kickstarter songs” is half as rewarding as the first one, it will all have been worth it.

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