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Lorraine Feather: I Love You Guys

Carl L. Hager By

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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."

"Hearing Things" is a quintessential Feather tune with the kind of lyrics few other songwriters would write, even if they could, and fewer yet would ever have the composure to sing convincingly. A song about that emotional echo chamber in which one wants so much to simply engage with another human being—but can't quite—it lights a candle in that dark place where one is unable to easily distinguish between what is plausible and what is possible, what is imagined or what is desired. The emotional miasm is an uncomfortable place, but as the song ends, it turns a completely unexpected corner as Feather's voice is overdubbed in an eerie, Felliniesque chorus that hovers and floats instead of fading, until it ends neatly and logically, like an exhalation. It is musical terra incognita, and similar to other compositions on this recording like "A Little Like This" or "The Veil," Feather's lyrics seem to have gone deeper and become more emotionally complex than ever before.

I asked Arkin, whose long collaboration with Feather has seen many changes of direction, if the experience of writing with her has changed.

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