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Spotlight on SSG – August 2011

Hello and welcome to the August edition of the Spotlight On SSG! This month, we’re featuring a song from the very first year of the Sunday Songwriters’ Group. It’s a great song (in the opinion of a lot of Guitar Noise members) and possibly one of the earliest collaborations between SSG writers. Putting together up the haunting lyrics of Nick Torres with the music of David Hodge has not only led to a lifelong friendship between the two co-writers, but the song itself has almost taken on a life of its own. It’s been played by a lot of people over the last few years….more of that later…and I’m going to ask Mr. Hodge a few questions about the song. This might be a longer Q&A session than you’re used to – but trust me, this is a really great song, as you can hear by clicking on the “Play Button” just below.

Vic: David, how did the song originate – it IS an SSG original, isn’t it? From year one?

David: “One By One” was originally an SSG assignment and I’m quite certain it would have been from the first year, probably in the first half of the first year for reasons that will hopefully be obvious in a moment or two. However, I’m embarrassed to say I don’t know for certain what the original assignment was or who assigned it. During Year 1, assignments could come from either Nick (mostly) or Ryan or, sometimes, even myself. Looking through the first year’s assignments (and you can find those, believe it or not, in the newsletter archives! During SSG Year 1 almost all the assignments got posted in the newsletter, which was done on a weekly basis at that time), I’m thinking that it came from my assignment for Week 15:

SSG – Week 15
This week you can write about anything you want. Any topic, any style, any form.
There is, of course, one stipulation – we’d like you to use a number in the title.
It can be the whole title (as in “One” or “409”³) or be part of the title (“96
Tears,” “A Murder of One”). Fractions will count, no pun intended.Good luck and,
as Nick says, write well.

But, as mentioned, please don’t take my word for it. Going through all the first year’s assignments I could find, this one makes the most sense in terms of timing with the rest of the song’s history.

Vic: We’d like to know how you came to collaborate with Nick, with a side helping of how you came to meet. Did you work on it together, or did you send files back and forth over the Internet?

David: Back in those ancient days, it was pretty rare to post music for SSG assignments as there weren’t that many free song sharing sites, such as Soundclick, Soundcloud and the like, readily available. Doesn’t that make it sound like the Stone Age or something, even though it was less than ten years ago? Even our song lessons at Guitar Noise, for the most part, had no sound files. I had at that time been working on using the music notation software we used (MusEdit) to create MIDI files of the lessons, sometimes getting very unintentionally humorous results.

Anyway, the point of bringing that up was that in late 2002, and I’m thinking it was November or December, in other words, shortly after the SSG had started up, I made a big step of buying a digital recorder so that I could make recordings of the song lesson examples that we’d put up on Guitar Noise. This was incredibly ambitious on my part because (as anyone who knows me can tell you) I’m close to hopeless when it comes to technology. But I worked at it and managed to get things going. I think our lesson on “Losing My Religion” (which went online in December 2002) was one of the first with MP3s.

The bonus to all this was that I now also had a way to record my own songs. Or to record music for other people’s songs, as turned out to be the case here. Nick posted his lyrics to the assignment, which were met with deserved universal acclaim and praise. But one of the comments that he made was something along the lines of “this is a song that I’ll never sing” and that struck me as incredibly sad because the lyrics were too heartfelt and resonant to become one of those songs that never get played or sung by or for anyone.

Of course, part of that was also the fact that it was Nick saying this. I first “met” Nick online through Guitar Noise. He had come across the website by accident – as many did (and still do), liked what he saw and decided to join the community. He also wanted very much to contribute so he emailed me about writing some articles, initially on singing as that was his forte. I gave him the opportunity and was immediately glad of doing so. He displayed a wonderful sense of humor and a gift for making difficult ideas and techniques easier to comprehend and attempt. He was a perfect fit for Guitar Noise. Nick and I had numerous email correspondences on various topics and articles and when he and Ryan Spencer (who was at that time pretty much the only moderator we had on the Guitar Noise Forum) approached me with the idea of the Sunday Songwriters’ Group, I enthusiastically gave them the green light.

So the idea of these beautiful lyrics never being sung and, worse, that these were Nick’s and he’d never sing them truly nagged at me to the point where I decided to write a melody and accompaniment for them. I sat down with my digital studio and started to work on the musical side of the song. I’ve been very lucky in that coming up with music is usually something I can do fairly well and quickly (although not always!). It’s the lyrical aspect of songs that tends to give me fits.

First I memorized Nick’s lyrics so that I could recite them as I took walks in my neighborhood (I lived in Chicago at the time). Being able to create a steady rhythm while walking lets me try out different ways of phrasing melodies – to hear what words or syllables fall where on the beats and which ones can be stretched out or stressed. I spent a morning pretty much just singing lines to myself but nothing really stuck out or gave me a starting place.

Then I sat down with my guitar and tried out a few chord progressions. I was very much taken with using Em to D to C to Em, especially when I added the D note (third fret of the B string) to create a little single note D – E – D motif that carried over from chord to chord. This served as the progression for each of the verses. For the chorus, I modulated briefly from Em to G major (going from C to G) in order to make the song a little brighter during the “I remember all your names” part because that felt like a hopeful and happy line to me, even though it quickly returned to Em by the time the line finished with “and all the dumb things we would say.”

I recorded the acoustic guitar and then the main vocal and then added a harmony vocal to it as well, mostly because I love harmonies but also thought that they gave the chorus a little more depth and emotion. I also added a harmony part to the last line of the second verse to give it a dramatic push into the second chorus.

Now this is where things become a little murky in my memory. I can’t remember at this point whether or not I sent what I had as a working copy off to Nick or whether I went on and finished adding instruments. I suspect that I just sent him what I had. It was totally unasked for and I was simply hoping that he’d like it well enough to consider singing it.

He was apparently both shocked and pleased and that was more than enough for me. But the song was really getting a lot of play at my home and in my head. I decided to make a better, fuller version of the song and rerecorded both the acoustic guitar and vocal parts. Additionally I recorded a few more instruments for depth and interest. A friend of mine had given me a dayan (the smaller, wooden drum of a set of tablas) and that provided just the right tone for a steady but subtle percussion beat throughout the song. I also added an electric guitar (hollow body jazz guitar), starting at the end of the first chorus, to punch in some long ringing chords to counterbalance the constant arpeggios and strumming of the acoustic guitar.

I then added a slide guitar part for a completely different voice that could be used as a soloing instrument. This was pretty ambitious on my part as I’d only dabbled at slide up to that point. But keeping things (very) simple and staying within my abilities I was able to come up with a part that sounded like an organic part of the song. That was very important to me. Leads and solos are not my forte, but I’m comfortable with fills, so treating the slide part as a series of fills made things a lot easier. I played the slide part on the same acoustic that I used earlier, but since the song was in Em I tuned it to Drop D so I would be able to slide up to the low E note on the sixth string.

Finally, I added a bass part. Around the same time I’d gotten the recorder, I had read an interview with Sir George Martin who talked about how Paul McCartney usually recorded his bass parts last on the Beatles’ songs in order to hear how all the song’s voices were spaced and then come up with the brilliant bass lines he so often did. More often than not I try the same approach and while my bass lines certainly aren’t as elegant as Sir Paul’s the ones I record last in the recording process usually turn out much more interesting than the ones I start out with.

When I had gotten it all to the point where I thought it was close enough to done to leave things alone, I sent off the new version to Nick. And as much as he liked the original, he seemed to really like the new version even more.

Strangely, the last thing I expected was for him to go and post about it on the SSG. To me the song was just a gift for a friend. Fortunately it then became a gift to everyone. And that’s kind of how it’s supposed to work.

Vic: Sadly, the original SSG post has been lost – how many changes (lyrically and musically) did the song go through before you were satisfied with it?

David: Actually, very little about the song changed. I may have tweaked a few words while singing, using “as” instead of “while” in the chorus, for instance. And Nick and I still sing it differently sometimes when we’re performing! The biggest obstacle with the “One By One” is that I wrote it in Em, which fits my voice well but is pretty high for Nick. We’ve tried it in Am, which works great for him but makes the song sound very different in terms of the voices of the instruments. At some point we should probably experiment with playing it in either Dm or Cm (with downtuned guitars or even a baritone guitar). I’m thinking that may be the best solution but we won’t know until we try!

Vic: It’s probably the best known – or at least, most widely heard! – SSG collaboration. Where did you first play it together? How many times has it been played live by you and/or Nick since? Who played it live first? How many GN members have played “One By One,” either at RSJs or solo gigs? (I know Kath played it at her first solo gig, for instance…)

David: I’ve been doing “One By One” as a solo number at open mics and shows pretty much since I wrote the music for it. It always gets a great reception from the audience and people often ask me about it after a performance. Kathy Reichert did indeed play it at her first solo gig, and possibly at others as well.

In August 2003, I invited Nick to come and be a part of our annual Riverside Jam. That was the first time we met each other in person – by one of the luggage carousels in the American Airlines terminal. We got to perform “One By One” together in public at the Sunday afternoon session, which was held at the Irish Heritage Center in Chicago.

Since then the song has been performed a lot, not only at the various Riverside Jams but also at other shows that Nick and I have done together, such as at numerous shows at the Monterey General Store or Dewey Hall here in the Berkshires, plus at any of our own solo performances.

And as a song it’s fairly easy to teach in group get-togethers or jams. That means a lot of people, both Guitar Noise folks and others, have gotten the chance to play it, too. Among the Guitar Noise folks would be Kathy Reichert, Greg Nease, Dan and Laura Lasley and John (“the Celt”) Roche. I can’t remember if we’ve ever done it with Wes Inman or not. Chances are likely that we may have at one of the gigs at the Silverbrook Café.

And I’ve also used “One By One” as a song lesson in my group adult classes at Berkshire Community College!________________________________________________________________________________________

I asked Greg (Gnease on the GN forums) Nease about “One By One” as well….

Greg: It’s been a while since the initial work and first performances of One by One. From memory – others may have more accurate dates: David sent me a vocal and rhythm guitar recording of OBO sometime in 2003. (Originally I thought this was in 2006, but my session files tell me it was three years earlier!) I did some processing on David’s voice and guitar (Cool Edit Pro 2), also adding bass, electric rhythm, ring modular guitar and lead guitar. In parallel, David worked on his own remix and enhancement to the same original, adding a slide resonator guitar part. So from the same scratch vocal and guitar we created two, very distinct “studio” versions of the tune. I believe David’s is on his website or Soundclick site.

A number of us have performed “One by One” live several times. I recall playing it with Nick, David and others at the (now-defunct) Monterey General Store, as well as at the 2007 Riverside Jam Originals Night at Uncommon Grounds in Great Barrington. There is a video of the Uncommon Grounds performance, shot by John (“the Celt”) Roche and his wife, Karen.

Players in that performance were Nick (vocal, guitar), David (guitar), Joel Schick (harmonica) Jeff Brownstein (guitar), Helena Bouchez (bass), Anne O’Neil (percussion), Karen Berger (piano) and me (yet another guitar).

________________________________________________________________________________________

I also asked Kathy (Katreich on the GN forums) Reichert about the song ….

Kathy: Not much to add. When I play this solo I usually capo at the second fret just to accomodate my vocal range a little better. I also probably phrase a little different that Nick does, but not so much that you wouldn’t recognize the song. I have sung harmonies on the chorus at RSJ with David and Nick. Unfortunately – or fortunately, depending on your point of view, no video evidence exists!

David: Actually, I’m pretty sure that you’re on video from Riverside Jam 2010, but that’s not gotten into circulation yet. Maybe one day! And, by the bye, in case anyone is interested in Nick’s lyrics (especially since they started the whole process in the first place!) here they are!

One By One
– Torres / Hodge

Put the tape in and push play
Sit back and watch what used to be
Hit the remote rewind the times
To friends that now are memories
Kodak moments stuck in books
A shutter snaps to catch the light
Formaldehyde for those who pass
And fade away without a fight

I remember all your names
And all the dumb things we would say
Under the lights on any stage
While one by one you fade away

And even though I’m not like you
We all were brothers of the stage
Sharing the laughs applause and tears
As one by one you died of AIDS
And as this show comes to its end
I don’t try to wipe my eyes
I just rewind the tape again
‘Cause I refuse to say goodbye

I remember all your names
And all the dumb things we would say
Under the lights on any stage
While one by one you fade away

I remember all your names
And all the dumb things we would say
Under the lights on any stage

2 Comments

  1. jamestoffee
    August 1st, 2011 @ 11:12 pm

    Very nice!

    Thanks for sharing.

  2. Vic Lewis
    August 1st, 2011 @ 3:49 pm

    Probably the finest song to ever come out of the SSG! There have been a lot of good songs, a few great songs, but ths is the song that sets the standard to which we all aspire. All hail the SSG!