Westinghouse - Original Home Demo
This week, my song Westinghouse was named a finalist in the International Songwriting Competition, which places it in the top 1% of 19,000 entries, where it will now be judged by a panel of celebrity judges including most notably (for me, anyway) Tom Waits. This is by far the coolest thing to happen to me since I released The Lost Decade last May. You can listen to the track in full over at Soundcloud.
About a month ago, I was interviewed by the music journalist Fernando Navarro for a piece in his blog, La Ruta Norteamericana. He asked where I was from, and I went on this tangent about my hometown:
"Though the area has gotten on, there was certainly a permanent loss when the last big steel mill closed. A lot of good jobs went away and really won’t ever come back.
Or maybe I’m just being cynical because I have a complicated relationship with my hometown – which is not a unique feeling, I’m sure. Perhaps no matter how much it grows or how much time moves on, it will still feel stagnant for me, because it wasn’t a place where I feel I could ever grow, personally.
Some of these feelings are addressed in the song Westinghouse, which is the only track on the album I didn’t write 100% - the lyrics are adapted from a poem my sister wrote, actually. She says I changed them enough to claim sole authorship, but the real soul of the material was created by her. There’s a lot more ground to cover there, in terms of musical inspiration, but I think every singer-songwriter needs to get that one song about their hometown out of the way early on.”
Fernando also asked about how the album came together:
"When I was 28 or so I had this idea that I wanted to go through everything I had ever written and find all the good songs once and for all, and maybe pull an album together. Luckily, the process of doing this opened up that creative part of my brain even wider and at that point I quickly wrote 8 of the 12 songs that would become The Lost Decade (the other 4 were the best of my earlier material), in addition to some others that didn’t make the cut."
In that mix was the song Westinghouse, which I wrote in a very short span of time in early 2009. When I was cultivating my material, I remembered a poem that my sister had written and I emailed her about it. Upon receipt, I was blown away by the language of the piece - it was simple and accessible, yet evocative and deep. I was immediately inspired. I sliced and diced the words into verses, a chorus, a bridge. A melody for the chorus came quickly. The bridge appropriated a previous idea that I remember was going through my head incessantly at the time. The melody for the verses came last. Within a week, I had completed the song (though of course it wouldn’t get recorded in its actual album form for another two plus years).
For your listening pleasure (and my cringing, a bit), I have attached the recording I made of the song the first ever night I played it through, start to finish. Obviously a few parts have been tweaked between then and now, but the soul of the material remains largely the same.
And for your reading pleasure, I have copied below the original poem (by my sister, remember!) that was the inspiration for the song. This song has brought me a special sort of joy, as not only have I created something that I am proud of, but I got to transform a piece of art created by my sister and watch her joy at seeing it come to a second life. To-date, this song remains my proudest musical accomplishment.
By Erin Nelson
No one in New York
Northwest of Pittsburgh,
southwest of Erie,
down the West Hill from Ohio,
where two railroads first met.
An uncle, usually refugee
in Belgium, California, anywhere
but here, won’t drive on State St.
at four o’clock, shift change.
He forgets the way
things are now, after
Both grandfathers worked there,
most uncles, cousins who quit
high school for double pay
on holidays. I didn’t know
this happened everywhere, then.
Whole chunks of corrugated metal
gone. The mill used to be
a solid mile long.
Driving past in late day,
light where light is not
supposed to be.
In the darkroom the double doors
develop, huge circled W rising
first from the tray, then reflections, then dust.
Look there, where no one goes
to work. Look at the character
of the sunlight, nobody
in its way. Grandfathers
underground at St. Rose’s.
Uncles selling software.
Cousins in night school.
Sharon, you’re a dot on the interstate,
a glance on the way to Youngstown, then Toledo,
Lansing, Ann Arbor, then another
country. Your best street is the one
between the stadium and the church.
Your voice was made from mourning doves.
I didn’t know their names,
then - didn’t even know
that what I heard were birds.
(Train whistles! Dusk!)
You carved summers
into hiding places for me.
Damp lawn, red garage,
I still can’t get inside you.