I’ve wondered a hundred times if I should try to explain myself. I’m certainly a fan of the “Its open to interpretation!” camp, which both excuses me from too much responsibility and simultaneously rejects any sense of authority over my art. Quite frankly, I fear that any venture of mine to expound upon my music’s meaning either renders it null and void or runs the risk of ruining it for somebody else.
And yet, here I am, three years later, still wondering.
There are many different layers to this concept album, but the mere fact that it is a concept album can still easily escape notice. And so here we are, (only the third paragraph in), where I get to divulge my first secret:
This album was written in chiastic structure. According to every college student’s holy grail (read: Wikipedia), “Chiastic structure, or chiastic pattern, is a literary technique in narrative motifs and other textual passages. An example of chiastic structure would be two ideas, A and B, together with variants A' and B', being presented as A,B,B’,A’.” Another example of this expanded structure could be explained like this: A always corresponds to A’, as does B to B’, and C to C’, (and so on and so forth) with themiddle point (D) driving home the main point that A, B, and C (and their variants) support. The structure of all that combined would look like this: A B C D C’ B’ A’
I first found this idea intriguing when my friend (M) mentioned to me that much of Scripture was actually written in chiastic structure. This literary technique allows the structure itself to lend more meaning to the text than the just the words themselves, adding an extra element of complexity and finesse.
I had already written a handful of songs which would come to be featured on this album before I encountered that idea - Mother Mary, 23, Haven’t Seen You in a While, and Old Man, to name a few. In fact, Mother Mary and 23 were written in the same week when I first encountered my friend M who was the first person to plant an idea in my head: "Perhaps all these people are part of a town or community?" The notion that these characters were somehow connected was intriguing, but truthfully, it would be another 2 years before any such thought again entered my mind.
Time passed, and I wrote handful of unrelated songs, and then one afternoon I wrote the lyrics to Peddler. Eloise, Eloise came only a few weeks after that. And one night, sitting alone on the piano bench at M's house and prepping these pieces for a mock-recording, I suddenly realized that the the woman in the grave in 23 - the lady with blue eyes whom our protagonist loved so much - was named…Eloise.
From this shocking revelation came the town of Riverside: a fictional neighborhood, much like Mr. Roger’s neighborhood in my mind, with five characters who lived, breathed, died (and sometimes returned to life) as they interacted with their pasts and with each other. (Hence the album’s lyrics insert being a map! Perhaps you may find the characters I sing about even on that map, going about their daily lives…?) Each song would have a sister track, displaying the “other side” of that particular character, albeit in a manner that would allow any listener to enjoy each song as an individual entity, too.
I do not know why this was so important to me. Perhaps it is because I was young when I wrote these songs - as young as 19 - and empathizing with those who were categorically “other” than me was still something bold and frightening. I come from a small town and a conservative upbringing; empathy was always a valued trait which was modeled for me by my parents and family, but I had not yet experienced a world big enough that there were people with whom I couldn’t really empathize. Writing this, I realize now: this was why I started writing character songs. It was an exercise in empathy.
And out of that exercise, came the album.
It seems to pedantic to say, and yet here I go: I wanted my music to encourage others to acknowledge and respect that every story and every person has another side to them, and a beautiful, valid, broken story behind why. Even Christ himself does, being both fully God and fully human, as Mother Mary calls attention to…
Each song has elements of this message tucked carefully in, although to say it was always purposeful would be a stretch. It all somehow magically came into place, designed by something I certainly couldn’t take credit for. I was simply happy to stumble across the idea, and spurred along with great help and inspiration from my friend M, the album as a complete and defined entity was born. It cannot be emphasized enough the impact that her insight had on me, my music, and my little town of Riverside.
You may be inclined now to connect the pieces, and may start to notice the overlapping musical motifs, instrumentation, and “hints” in each song as well. That was by far the most challenging and rewarding part of writing the remaining songs on the album, once I’d found my idée fixe! Now that you’re aware of its chiastic structure, I’m curious to see what you think as you look at the album’s order again:
The Other Side
Ruby Red Lipstick
Haven’t Seen You in a While
And so, there you have it! One day, I’d like to write a little entry on each song, reflecting on its motivations, metamorphosis, and lyrical nuances. But more than that, I want (perhaps foolishly) to explain myself in a medium not bound by 8-word stanzas and strict rhyming schemes lest some of my more “artistic” choices obfuscate my intentions and lend credibility to an ideology or persona I do not actually adhere to.
(That was a lot of words for me to say, “What I meant is…”)
For now, I hope you’ve enjoyed sharing this little secret with me. Maybe there’ll be more to come?