I'm thinking today about the song 'Solipsist' from my 2006 album 'Choreography', and what a long evolution it had to become what it is on the album. I wrote it in the first year that I was studying dance at VCU (2001), on guitar, in my boyfriend's charmingly funky room in a shared apartment. He was an aspiring musician but also a perfectionist; he had such high expectations for how awesome his music was going to be that he never actually finished anything. It would drive him nuts when I'd be like "oh hey wanna hear this song I wrote today?"
I have always written very fast. Once a song starts to emerge, I will usually finish it that day, often in just an hour or two.
But this one was a little different. The intro was written around a guitar riff that has long since been left behind. It was the kind of riff where one chord shape moves up and down the fret board (I have used a similar 'trick' in "Build A Home", "Lolita", and the not-yet-recorded "Shake Me / Monster"). So I had that bit, but no lyrics. Then on another day I wrote the 'chorus' part ("You burn through the film..."). Then finally I realized the two bits could go together and I finished the lyrics and sewed it all up into one song.
That boyfriend was a philosophy major and we would have lots of discussions about different philosophical theories, so a lot of the lyrics came from that. We also had this romantic idea about lovers reflecting the energy of the other, like a moon to a sun. How we are lit up by that energy ("I am the moon, ablaze in the first light").
After he and I broke up, and after I quit dancing school to get back to music, I was back in Charlottesville and gathered a band around me called The Lilas (2003?). In Hebrew, the word for 'night' is 'lila' ("lie-la"), so that's where I got the name from. Karmen Buttler sang and played acoustic guitar, Stuart Gunter played drums, and Jay Kotowski was on bass, I brought the songs and sang and played electric guitar. Together we concocted the first arrangement of 'Solipsist' and released it on a DIY EP we sold at shows. The original guitar riff was in there, plus some disjointed attempts from me to make it 'heavy', and pretty vocal harmonies from Karmen. For some reason we put a disco beat in the chorus, and after sitting with that for a bit I realized it didn't really work.
"Solipsist" was about to go in the pile of songs with cool ideas but missing some je-ne-sais-quoi that would keep it from ever being released.
Flash forward. The Lilas had broken up and I had moved to New York (2004?). I was playing soul-crushing solo shows at all the little downtown venues like Pianos and The Living Room. I was regrouping.
Finally, at some point I knew I was ready to make another record. It was time. I tried working with a producer in NYC, Ron Shaffer. We worked on "Broken" and it came out great - that's the version that is on "Choreography" that people love on Pandora. But everything else we tried wasn't clicking, so in the end I wound up commuting to Richmond to record the rest of the album at Sound of Music Studios with John Morand. That's where 'Solipsist' got it's makeover.
It turned out to be one of my favorite songs to work on on that album.
First of all, we abandoned my guitar riff and moved it up a couple keys. The studio was crawling with great musicians and they all contributed to the song; we didn't have a clear vision for the end product, each layer kept revealing itself as we went along. That's The Flow, and it's so delicious and addictive. Miguel A Rodriguez-Urbiztondo played two different drum tracks: One of them got squeezed into that little teeny envelope-filter sound at the beginning, the other comes in at the second verse and rocks in full resolution. Cam DiNunzio (Denali) played all the guitars and came up with that cool lead part in the chorus. David Lowery stopped by and wound up killin it on the bass. Alan Weatherhead (engineer, mixer, and multi-instrumentalist on "Choreography") and I played around with keyboard and ambient sounds to fill it out. The final product was such a cool reveal, the song becoming what it wanted to be. It's still one of my favorite recordings I've ever released.