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Phoenicia

Jeju May morning, and the rain drags across the island catching on the newly green leaves and blossoms. They shrug it off from time to time, letting loose big drops that splatter with a satisfying crystalline plops. Multiplied by hundreds.

Billy, an old NYC band member from The Red Rogue got in touch the other day, added us all on an email thread. He suggested we collaborate on a song, if I could send something along. I was invigorated by the idea, the guitar on its stand next to my couch winked at me with possibility.

But when I sat down to write, nothing took shape. In this compounded world, it’s feeling hard to find creative rays. But in reality, it’s been tough to write songs for years. The carefree 19-year-old days when a song could just pour out seem long gone. I strummed the guitar. Found a few good chords. Tried to think of words, hit a roadblock, gave up.

The Red Rogue played our first gigs in seedy lower Manhattan bars, then a little farther up at the Sidewalk Cafe, and then expanded our radius to Brooklyn and upstate. We’d break out our instruments on the Staten Island ferry on the way back home, Carolyn smiling over her accordion, Evan hunched over his mandolin, Billy tapping out a beat with a goofy grin.

An hour with a guitar and a notepad could produce a song then. The band would throw down parts and we were running with it. There was an audacity to our approach, and we were grabbing any music that we could get our hands on. Some influences that come to mind now are: The Band, The Pogues, The Replacements, Leonard Cohen, Patsy Cline.

But the world complicates. As leaves grow and fall and grow again, the branches and roots lengthen. We kept the band going for a bit after college, then eventually I needed to get out of NYC. The city had become overwhelming, constant worry about money, sacrifices of time and commute and living situation for what? The future was slowly starting to set in.

We got together for about a week in an upstate New York cabin a few years after that to record again. The town was called Phoenicia. It took engineering our lives, making arrangements, lots of e-mails. But we made it happen, deliberately setting aside the distracting world.

The NYC contingent of the band rented a van for equipment and made their way up from the city. Colby, who was producing the album, and I drove down from Maine. He was blaring old gospel tunes on his tinny Jetta speakers–songs from Hank William’s alter ego Luke the Drifter. We met up with the others in an empty church parking lot, the peeling white paint on the steeple, and made our way to the cabin.

There was a tree down across the driveway. It had taken out the power line. Shit. Calls to the AirBnB owner as we got it sorted. We went into town to a gem of a restaurant called Mama’s Boy for hamburgers and coffee, our unofficial home base for the week. The power was restored, and we claimed our beds for the week.

And then we hammered out the album. Wires ran to every room in the cabin from the central brain of Colby’s mixing console. We recorded onto tape, we wanted to capture this authentically. And in our free time we swam in the stream on the property and laughed and drank. And then we scattered back to our lives, me to Jeju, a few to New York, Colby to Maine. For just a little while, everything peeled back.

There’s so much in the world engineered to derail your creative momentum. When I really think back, the songs didn’t come easy then either. They were a suspension of the world, a deliberate setting aside. You need to open up a space big enough to get a few clear ideas in before the clouds crowd in again. I’ll keep trying to hold it back long enough to get song down. And sometimes it starts with something as simple as listening to the rain.

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