There are times in your life when you hear a song and it impacts you immediately. That is what happened to me a few years ago when my husband, Tilden invited me to come downstairs to our music room to introduce me to a song that he had come across. Usually when that happens I know it's going to be special because: a) he has great taste in music and b) he has known me (and my musical sensibilities) for a very long time. So unsurprisingly, when he put the song on, it immediately shot into my heart like a bullet. The tears welled up in my eyes. I recognized the voice right away. I knew it well - Peter Gabriel, one of my all-time favourites. (For those of you who are unfamiliar with Peter's work, he is a megastar from the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s - most known for his early work with Genesis, his MTV hits in the ‘80s and his epic, theatrical concert design).
Peter is the epitome of a complete artist with a great eye and ear for design, spectacle, poetry, rhythm and melody. This track was from his project called Scratch My Back where he covered songs written by other gifted songwriters such as David Bowie, Paul Simon and Randy Newman. The track my husband played for me that day was called “The Book of Love,” written by Stephin Merritt from the indie-pop band the Magnetic Fields based in Brooklyn, New York. Peter's version of the song starts with an earthy string ensemble (and there is nothing like a beautiful string section to warm up a song - just think “Eleanor Rigby”) and then Peter's voice enters with the words: "The book of love is long and boring. No one can lift the damn thing." That was it. I was hooked. Have a listen. After hearing Peter's version of the song, I went on to investigate the Magnetic Fields version, which was also so compelling. Stephin's voice is low and mellow. He has a slightly sarcastic tinge to his delivery and yet it still feels like he is whispering in your ear with a combination of tenderness, wit and wisdom.
Listen here to Stephin’s version. I have always felt like the lyrics were telling the story of my little family: music, books, love, mystery and the awe of it all. I started to spend time playing the song over and over again at the piano. The words and melody were fun to sing. The chord progression was simple and satisfying but, with typical, playful arranger/jazz-musician sensibilities, I started improvising around the harmony, the melodic rhythm and the form. I always have my trusty phone (aka. idea basket) with me and started to record my ideas using the voice recorder and GarageBand. I found an interesting, syncopated ostinato over a pedal that seemed to work behind the melody (and somewhat referenced both the Gabriel and Merritt versions). Then I found a straight 8th drum cymbal pattern. I recorded my bass and the piano part and then had it on repeat in the car to sing along to. At the time, I didn't have a plan for the arrangement - I just knew that I really loved the song, that the words felt meaningful to me and that I really enjoyed making something slightly new out of an already well-crafted song. When the Sun Songs Project started to take shape, I realized that this arrangement I had kicking around would be a perfect to tie all of the songs together - each original song is a chapter in my "Book of Love" - a book that is full of deep sorrow, expansive joy, emotional turmoil, tranquillity, inner chaos, prayerful serenity, tenderness, tears, breakdowns and breakthroughs (in no particular order). The song speaks to the notion that our lives are an ever-evolving story and we, the co-authors, create new chapters every day. Our lives are ongoing pieces of performance art. Our bodies are living, breathing sculptures. To me, the Book of Love speaks to this truth. Now, when we stop to take a breath and actually notice these stories in our book of love as they unfold - the good, bad, and the really ugly - we realize that the whole mess is actually quite beautiful and full of grace. It is great fuel for our art. As Victor Frankl wrote in Man's Search for Meaning, “What is to give light must endure burning.”
Or, as my Mom used to say, “There's always a pony in the big pile of crap.” So, at the end of the day we are all just authoring our very own messy, wonder/full, book of love. Click here to receive a free download of "The Book of Love" off my new album Sun Songs.