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Lorraine Feather: I Love You Guys

Carl L. Hager By

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But because he and Feather live at opposite corners of the continental U.S. (she on an island north of Washington state's Olympic Peninsula, almost in Canada, he in Miami and a boat ride from Cuba) the question for curious minds is: how do you write songs together?

"It is a marvel to Lorraine and me that our songwriting process goes very fast. We write two or three songs in one session of a few hours. I don't come in with musical ideas worked out in advance, because I don't want to become attached to an idea that doesn't resonate with Lorraine."

Feather commented similarly, that while working with Berg, he typically doesn't get involved in composing until "the end of the process, because I almost never see him. I always say this, but it blows my mind how close we are and how well and fast we work together, no matter how long it has been. As far as 'The Veil' goes, I had never intended to write the lyric, and when we were finally going to get together, toward the ending of the writing for the album, I had it in hand, so showed it to him and asked if he thought it could be a song. He said he thought so, but wasn't 100% sure. So 'The Veil' took a little longer. It had evolved in a way I hadn't heard yet, when we got to the session, and now it's one of my favorites of ours."

On the other hand, she says, "Because Gregg Field will be the drummer when Shelly and I do a group piece, I think of something that would be great to hear Gregg play, 'I Love You Guys' being a classic example, a fast swing with a lot of fills. Shelly practically wrote it before I'd finished reading him the words."

Berg says, "She often has rhythms in mind, and so I ask her to speak the lyrics to me using the rhythms she imagines. Sometimes we talk further at that point, but usually I dive into a chord progression or intro figure that expresses the vibe of the song. As musical form emerges, Lorraine will sometimes alter a lyric so it can fit into the form we are constructing. I think our songs have gotten more complex over the years, and are now becoming like miniature musical 'plays.'"

"I Love You Guys," a song he and Feather collaborated on for the Attachments CD, is just such a musical play. In fact, it is almost a play within a play, a heart-on-the-sleeve valentine and sweetly sardonic commentary on Life As A Musician In Our Times. The arrangement's musical twists and turns mirror Feather's lyrical layering of sarcastic tweaks, puns, inside musician jokes and gig cosmology, played at a breakneck pace maintained by an all-time killer rhythm section of Michael Valerio on bass, Gregg Field on drums, plus the ever-ebullient rolling thunder and lightning of Shelly Berg.

In commenting to Berg about the recording, I told him that after it opens with his totally out-of-the-box piano intro, "Gregg Field's drums and Michael Valerio's bass fly along comically, like one of those Keystone Cops car chases where the drivers are skidding around the corners and narrowly missing the pedestrians, while the escaping pianist knocks over a fruit stand and scatters a flock of freaked-out pigeons."

His response was, "I love your description of this song! Right from the beginning I had an idea, which Lorraine loved, and so we wrote to that concept. So often, musicians are overqualified, in terms of technique and sophistication, for the music they are playing. They play 'casual gigs' with watered-down standard songs, all the while chomping at the bit to bust out with their real chops. We decided to highlight that tension between the gig and the truer aspirations of the musicians. So we began the recording with the 'out of place' piano solo that would be either taboo, or pushing the envelope on most gigs. Throughout the song we return to a riff in the rhythm section that would be from a stock arrangement of a swing era song, and that riff is symbolic of the guys paying their dues on the bandstand. The tempo is another key element. On most gigs, this tempo wouldn't be used, because it can't be danced to. But jazz musicians love to be 'on the edge,' and we wanted to convey that feeling. I couldn't have had more fun with a song, and my tongue is still implanted in my cheek."

Commenting on the maturing and transformation he has seen in Feather, with whom he has been composing for several years, he said, "I think Lorraine's recordings have become even more personal to her. Even though almost none of her songs are autobiographical, they speak to the journey of her life. There seems to be more at stake each time we write together, in terms of the significance of what she wants to say. It is a real honor to be her collaborator.

"Lorraine has had two Grammy-nominated CDs in a row. This is no accident. She is one of the most profound and compelling musical storytellers of our time. I hope the elusive Grammy win occurs with this album. Attachments may be her most brilliant recording yet, although I say that each time! As my life gets more complex, I have less time to work with her, so my role diminishes. This may be fortunate for her, because the songs she is writing with Eddie Arkin, Russ Ferrante, and Dave Grusin are amazing."

Eddie Arkin

Eddie Arkin is Lorraine Feather's oldest friend and songwriting partner. A composer, guitarist, producer and arranger who has worked with a gamut of people that includes Stanley Clarke, Diane Schuur, Nnenna Freelon, Lee Ritenour, Barry Manilow, Nancy Wilson and David Benoit, he has been Feather's simpatico first-call collaborator since the beginning of her songwriting career.

One of Feather's songs can involve an interconnected series of lyrical adventures. Commenting on what this involves, she said: "Eddie is great for a writing process that has a long trajectory and a lot of sections. 'Attachments' was on the complicated side to write—it evolved slowly from just a 'list' song about someone's various lovers, to the other attachments in a person's life, and then at the end, what I had first conceived as someone talking to himself or herself, turned into an intimate conversation over drinks, and you realize that one has been saying these things to another. I came up with my talking lines at the end, "I don't know where you're going with this and I don't want to talk about it, " after the song was pretty much done, ran the idea by Eddie and he liked it. If I have several ideas for a word or phrase, he will always tell me right away which of them he would choose. He's especially discerning that way. I'm also more likely to bring him a lyric I'm unsure of, because if he doesn't think it would make a good song, he'll say so immediately."

Feather often begins writing a song by having her husband, drummer Tony Morales, work out a groove and record it. As a lyricist, her writing is so poetically conceived, with such precision meter and rhyming, that she can use what Morales records for her to build the lyrical architecture of the song. "On the Attachments album, he did this on four songs," Feather told me. "How it works is that either I ask Tony if he could play something in a certain vein, like a slow shuffle featuring the toms, as if I were singing 'Why Don't You Do Right?'—I requested this recently—or a samba or rhumba or whatever, or I hear him playing something and get excited about it and ask if he'd please record it. He'll loop it for a few minutes, and I'll listen to that when I'm writing the lyrics."

When I asked Arkin how he utilizes these rhythm patterns that Morales records, he said, "I'll start by saying Tony is a terrific drummer. What he develops are usually 2- or 4-bar loops that Lorraine writes her lyrics to. This affects the composition in two ways. The most obvious is that these grooves define and lock in the tempo. Secondly, depending on the style of these loops, whether they're Latin, jazz, hip-hop, swing, etc., they will help define how the arrangement will unfold as Lorraine and I work on the song.

"As our writing process begins, we almost always get together in person and Lorraine will often speak the lyric in rhythmic phrases, showing me how she hears the lyric against the groove. This is often our jumping-off point, and we usually play around with the rhythm as I come up with melodic ideas. What we always work out on our own, independent of these grooves, is the length of the musical phrases and the differing rhythmic patterns within these phrases.

"Interestingly, for all the sophistication in both the music and lyrics of Lorraine's and my songs together, the actual compositions, almost all the time, follow quite traditional songwriting forms. For example, 'Attachments' is written in an AABAC form. The verses are twelve bars long—very traditional, though not a blues—and the B and C sections are both eight bars long, again very traditional. So, we expand these traditions by playing with the rhythmic phrasing of the lyrics, and using sophisticated chordal harmony."

One of Feather's hallmarks is a unique ability to fearlessly attack the diction of a lyric. Slow, medium, fast or crazy fast, she can sing all the words and hit all the notes in her vocal range. I asked Arkin how this, a skill few singers possess, affects the way he composes.

He said, "As we jazz musicians like to say, Lorraine has 'big ears' [referring to the aural attribute rather than the physical attribute]. So this is an area where our collaborations can really take off. Along with her razor sharp diction, Lorraine also possesses the ability to hit intervals that are outside the normal diatonic or blues scale style of songwriting. Thus, we're free to come up with melodies that are quite chromatic in nature, plus she's really comfortable singing the upper extensions of chords. And with the versatility of her voice, I can write a melody in her lower register and all of a sudden jump as much as an octave, and continue in her upper register with a smoothness as if she were singing one continuous line. These elements allow us to create very dramatic colors and constantly changing emotions. At the same time, she sings with a softness that pulls the listener into her story. Her voice is especially well suited to the depth and personal characteristics of her lyrics."
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