Feb 24, 2015

Song Travels: Follow Me

Read the Introduction to this series, "Song Travels" here

The Lyrics
Listen to “Follow Me” (Track 5, Stories Go 2015 version)

I originally wrote “Follow Me” in 2009.

It began as raw emotions expressing my failing to garner any notice from a young woman I was attracted to. This discouragement is what fueled the questions presented in the opening stanza below.

If I come hoping for you
What will I find?
Even see me, could you love me?
Tell me the truth.
Even see us, could you love us?

Phrases like “Even see me” and “Even see us” demonstrate the gnawing question of whether I was invisible to her, whether there was any potential for attraction. It is about whether she could even imagine us together—whether she could love me as well as love the idea of us as a couple. In short, it is a stanza that suggests a heart already weary from unrequited romantic pursuit. The words express a heart that wishes to see the future, to know whether the effort of pursuit is worthwhile. They are words of longing for honesty—for an answer, really—from the start (e.g. “Tell me the truth”).

Of course, that is not possible, so I was left wondering what it would take for me to be noticed—to be known by her. Thus the thoughts and emotions drift to the next stanza:

If I die, surrender for you,
Would you believe
That I care for, that I dare for
Your heart to change?
That I care more, that I dare more.

Will you follow, follow me through?
Can you keep your faith, can you find the strength for me?

Copyright Myshkin (Joshua D. Grubb)
The death referred to at the start is not so much about physical death, but about sacrifice—the death of self. I believe that the ultimate vision for intimate love is that of two people serving one another: surrendered foremost to God, and secondarily to each other. I have written extensively on this subject—“Why marry someone?”—so will not delve deeply into it here.

The real question remains whether my actions can change someone’s heart for me? I am not sure. Sometimes, yes. Mostly, no. There can be influence, but real change seems to be in the realm of God alone, with a bit of independent human will in the mix. Regardless, an essential question that love asks is whether the other will share in the journey (“follow me through”), trust, and be resilient enough (“find the strength”) to love through the peaks and valleys, ascents and descents of life.

As the song continued to take shape, I began to realize that my questions were fundamentally or ultimately not my own. I remembered that Jesus Christ—who I love, follow, and worship as friend, teacher, and lord—asks me these same questions every day. The voice in the song, therefore, began to shift from being my heartfelt words to a woman to being what I perceive are the words of Jesus Christ to me. His heart yearns for me to know him more. He asks, “Do you ‘see me’? Do you ‘love me?’”

A deep cave: darkest Hades
I have gone through
It was for you, key to free you
From narrow worlds.
Endless promise, endless kingdom

All is done; offered to you
Will you receive?
I am with you, always love you
Past your last breath.
Spirit in you, never leave you:

Jesus surrendered to God on our behalf. He suffered on a cross, died, and descended into hell because of that deep love. It not only transforms my relationship with God, but all of humanity’s connection with God here and now by his Holy Spirit. Jesus cared more and dared more than any other human being in history. The question remains: Will I follow—follow him through every hardship, every joy, every failure, every triumph? Will I trust him? Will that faith strengthen me? Will it move me to act courageously?

Will you follow, follow me through?
Can you keep your faith, can you find the strength for me?

The Composition
This song has been one of the more frustrating in terms of musical composition. Until recently, I have generally not liked it, ignored it, and even considered leaving it buried in the annals of my musical sketchbooks. That is not uncommon. Sometimes songs just do not work. I am not entirely decided about this one yet, but my connection to the lyrics compels me to not give up on it quite yet.

Musically, the song began as an attempt to use spaces of silence effectively. My friend and fellow musician, Elliott Irby, who plays keys and produced the original Redwood recording, had encouraged me to explore that more.

Listen to “Follow Me” (Track 9, There was Music 2011 version)

Copyright Joshua D. Grubb
Originally, the djembe adds a steady heartbeat to the song that I still do like. The disconnection for me is rooted in the long redundancy of it. I simply find it tiring and rather boring to play the verses. Furthermore, the E/C#m chord often sounds a bit too dissonant. Tyler Griffith’s stirring fiddle and Elliott’s more subtle organ padding is what redeems the original recording for me, especially the instrumental outro of the song. That alone makes the original sketch valuable to me.

A technical challenge to the original composition was that I really struggled to keep the rhythm perfectly—I still do. Elliott had me use a click track for the original recording, just to keep me in line. Aside from that instance, I have never used a metronome. I absolutely recognize that I need to improve my musical timing, however relying on a device to do so just feels too mechanical. I prefer leaning toward the more flawed, but more organic nature of allowing the song to find its rhythm. There is a necessary balance, of course. The recording process is helping to reveal such weaknesses. I am attentive to them.

With a desire to re-examine the song for my re-release of Stories Go, I wrestled a few hours with this same problem again. It was exhausting. I initially tried using the exact same approach as the 2011 version. Only this time, thinking to add a degree of resonant padding with the guitar, I sought to incorporate a guitar tapping technique instead of the single strumming technique used in There was Music. In the end, I just could not get the timing right. I tried recording the guitar track first as well as the djembe track, but neither to any avail.

It was time to take a dinner break, to step away for a while. That is absolutely necessary in art sometimes. Not to mention that mounting hunger seldom aids mental productivity.

Like in relationships, sometimes it is by realizing what does not work in a song that one understands what will work. Days earlier, trying to renew a musical vision for the song, I played it with the mandolin instead. This gave the song a very different feeling, while at the same time retaining its original heart. In fact, I felt more compelled by where the mandolin was leading. It changed the vocal style during the chorus somewhat, but felt more united with the rest of the song. While I love the A chord of the original version, the leading E/C#m chord continued to feel and sound problematic.

After dinner, recording the mandolin as the base track—the track from which I record other tracks and build the song—I felt reinvigorated. Some elements from the original version had to be abandoned because they did not fit with the new approach, but the subtle verse harmonics and chorus melody of the acoustic guitar, spiced by the djembe and tambourine, yielded a very satisfying result. Unintentionally, it almost sounds eastern in genre, or reminiscent of early Sufjan Stevens.

I have always felt that my vocals are the weakest element in my music. While I ultimately imagine my music lead by a female voice like Colbie Callait; to preserve the vocal idea in the meantime, I found it interesting to adopt of more classical vocal style with this song. I am not vocally trained, mind, but it sounded more choral in nature—tenor perhaps. This actually influenced the direction of this song sketch as well. I played with some post-production effects on the voice, such as mild reverb, but nothing seemed to fit what the song seems to be asking for. What began in 2011 as a grand vision, a swelling crescendo of passion and longing, has now reached a quieter, more intimate dialogue. The passion has not changed, however. It is just more fragile. It has just found a deeper, subtler soil to continue taking root in.

Thus it remains for now: raw, still marked by questions, and yet a willingness to serve and sacrifice in love stronger than ever before.

Read about "Ainulindalë".

Song Travels: Introduction

Song travels.

It is a living, growing, wild thing.

It travels through the soul: the wondrous architecture of the mind and the restless backcountry of the heart. As our personal stories go, so lives a song. Parts of it may stay the same, but other aspects inevitably change. To the artist, the creative starting point—the spark: the memory or emotion that conceived the work—may never really change. It is the foundation. Yet if the song aims to engage real life, it will and must grow. For growth is the mark of life. Such transformation is what I believe defines great art.

Copyright Joshua D. Grubb
For the best of songs, like the healthiest of relationships, new layers of meaning will be added along the way. Inspiration matures into revelation. Revelation guides toward vision—toward action. Action may return to the starting point with new eyes. Wisdom will hopefully result. The cycle continues. As life unravels its choice mysteries to the adventurous and attentive, great art can offer a widening lens of understanding. This can be true for the artist and patron alike. While it certainly does not happen with a majority of songs, it is certainly possible.

To me, the music of Andrew Bird is an example of this beautiful evolution—this shared journey between artist and patron.

Granted, it is a very subjective relationship. One song will resonate with someone, but not another. One person will cherish the song as a gift while another will treat it as a commodity. The artist cannot really control the outcome, but he can offer the gift. Like a personal journal entry, a song’s history alone will sustain some level of meaning, even if only for the creator. But ultimately, it needs the movement—the fresh, vibrant air—of people to continue living and cultivating it as a gift in the life of community.

That, at least, is my aim in writing this series. I wish to expound on why certain songs—songs that I have written and composed—seek to be gifts from me to you by revealing their history: past, present, and possibly future. I will offer you a glimpse into each song’s story, in other words. For, to me, a song is meant to welcome others into a movement. Its journey is richest when tracing the intersecting pathways of human life. I invite you to share in that with me.

Song travels. It connotes both movement and a narrative larger than any one song—a chapter into the soul: mine and yours.

Will you follow?

Read about “Follow Me”, the first song examined in this series.