I was thinking about the making of Swamp Ophelia. Once again, the first things that come to mind are the guests who contributed, a kind of kitchen sink of brilliance and quirkiness. I was also thinking about the songs I wrote for Swamp, and how clearly I remember writing them and what they were about. So, I’m going to do a little ping ponging between the writing of the songs and the recording of them.
“Least Complicated” was written upstairs, literally “two stories above the street,” in my house in Atlanta, as I looked out the window and saw a boy and a girl holding hands, and walking on the sidewalk below. Now, of course, the window framed the metaphor-in-motion for the cynicism I had mustered up to that time when it came to thinking about love. I saw them as idyllic schoolyard lovebirds, and so I began to write about love as if it were a school lesson. Hence the crux, “the hardest to learn was the least complicated.” It’s funny to think that I had it all figured out at the ripe old age of 30, and there is an inherent playfulness in the audacity of that.
When it came time to record “Least Complicated,” the elements that went into the music emulated that playfulness. Lisa Germano wasn’t all that interested in playing violin by the time she joined us second time around (Rites of Passage was the first), which I remember thinking was nuts, because she was so good at violin. But she also had a very quirky side, and could pick up an instrument and come up with something inventive and cool, like the signature mandolin line that sounded to me like a snake and a snake charmer. It was Peter’s (Collins, producer) idea to do the very pop-y ”na na na na na na na’s,” and Jerry Marotta’s drum fill into the second verse that kicks in the beat is my favorite drum fill of any on all of our recorded material. Jerry also played the bongo outro that we used the sans amp on for a somewhat distorted effect. All very playful and upbeat brushstrokes on that song.
“Language or the Kiss” was written as a lament for the life I missed out on while I was I away from home touring or doing other IG things. The “kiss” is the home life, the relationship(s). The “language” is the process of learning, creating, and growing that can only be fostered by the art and where it has to lead you. It’s a melancholy song about what I gave up to gain what I had. Amy and I were HUGE Jane Siberry fans, and I just thought it would be incredible for her to be on Swamp in any capacity. I was surprised and delighted when she accepted our invitation. In the studio, we just ran the song and asked her to sing, ad-lib, or whatever she wanted to express wherever she wanted to, and that’s what she did. There’s never anything ordinary about what Jane does. I think her vocalizing is very spooky and affecting on ‘Language or the Kiss’. While she took a few passes, and we sat at the board and listened, I couldn’t conceive of how her parts pieced together would materialize. But I knew that the thrill of her voice, and the depth of her sensibility were giving the song just what it was asking for. The other magic in that track was Chuck Leavell’s piano playing. It’s overwhelming to hear a master take your song that started simply with one guitar, and turn it into a more enriched thing of beauty through his instrument.
“Power of Two” was written so quickly, it felt like it wrote itself. The most memorable thing about recording it was that I met a guy in Nashville, standing outside of the Bluebird Café, and after hearing him sing a bit, I invited him to sing on our record, spur of the moment. His name was Sam ‘Shake’ Anderson. He came to the studio and, again, I asked him to just ad-lib what he felt and heard. He sang all over the track, and I wanted to keep all his parts, but Peter wanted to rein it in, so what you hear on “Power of Two” is what remained of his vocals, after Peter reigned it in. Otherwise it would’ve been a Sam Anderson track!
“Woodsong” has always felt like my Philosophy 101 song. It’s basically, if you don’t get the storm, you don’t get to feel what it feels like to make it through the storm. I can clearly remember wanting to express my belief in God but feeling like maybe I should cloak it a bit. So, I wrote, “no way construction of this tricky plan/was built by other than a greater hand/with a love that passes all our understanding…” Obviously, it’s not THAT cloaked, as the last part is a direct lift from Philippians 4:7, but I definitely felt trepidation about coming straight out and saying, “I believe in God, and God watches over the journey.” The thing that stands out particularly in my mind about recording it was that I absolutely loved the violin intro, and I still do.
“Mystery” is about the strange pull between two people who are polar opposites. It’s also about forces being heard but not seen. I started it at the end of an Atlanta summer on a night when I could hear the neighborhood dogs barking distantly, a sound that I always found haunting. In the end, I realize that there is no explanation for a love that seems to make no sense; it just meets in the middle of impossibility. It was the perfect track for Jane Siberry to vocalize on. Her note choices, the vowel sounds, the downright ethereal nature of her artistry brought “mystery” to life for me on that song.
“Fare Thee Well” was simply a fictional song about someone whose life was cut short, but it was a life that burned ferociously while it lived. I wrote this song in the tuning that Mary Chapin Carpenter taught me, my favorite tuning of all time, DADGBC. I honestly don’t recall anything about the recording of this song. Sometime after Swamp Ophelia was released, however, I sang it at the funeral of an activist friend and mentor whose brilliant life was ended abruptly. Thereafter, I only think of her when I think of the song. R.I.P, MBW.
There are two other things that stand out to me about the making of Swamp Ophelia. Our friends, Mrs. Fun (Connie Grauer and Kim Zick), joined us on “Deadman’s Hill.” Connie played the melodica, that quirky little hand held keyboard that set the tone for the song. And, best of all, Dr. Larry Ray, Sr, Amy’s dad, sang background vocals on the song. It was a momentous event! And now he is with us always, on record, and in our hearts.