Making this record had much to do with being a regular at Largo, which is now Largo at the Coronet. The legendary nightclub has now moved to fancier new digs on La Cienega, but I have a soft spot for the old place on Fairfax. I started going sometime in the early 90s, first to perform at their comedy night, which was Mondays, where the guy who would book the acts would tell everyone that he was dating me, Laura Kightlinger and Janeane Garofalo simultaneously – something that I was secretly proud of, not to be thought of as in any vague way sexually related to him, but because those are two girls with whom I would love to be in the same league.
All the comics started to venture out to other shows at Largo during the week, and there was much talk about the amazing Jon Brion who would perform on Friday nights. The night I went to see Jon the first time, a small fire had started in a garbage can outside the club. The flames blazed up quickly and I punched them out with my fist before going inside. I was a much rougher girl then and was the type to wear steel toe boots and men’s pants from Salvation Army and drove quite drunk and even at times picked fights with gang bangers. Neither a Blood or a Crip, I was still welcome in low slung vehicles all across the Southland. I think coming to Largo made me become a lady. I started wearing underwear and stopped wearing the union jack. I was a woman now, going to an Irish nightclub alone to listen to proper music.
The first thing I loved about Jon was his voice, which felt like an arrow piercing my heart. It was intensely emotional and intimate, especially within the soft walls of Largo, which cradled sound like it was a sleeping infant. His inventiveness as a musician and a performer inspired me to no end. When he lined up audience members and gave them each a bell and touched them each on the shoulder to prompt them to ring the bell, creating a kind of impromptu ‘people piano,’ I thought, “I want to make a record. I want to do this.”
It took a long time, but I did it, and with a lot of help from Jon. I wrote my first real song with him. I brought two sets of lyrics to his impressive loft filled with incredible and rare pianos and guitars and drum sets belonging to people like Gillian Welch – vintage, one of a kind Rock and Roll Hall of Fame-style instruments strewn about like cast off toys in an old fashioned nursery, paint slightly peeling but the decay enhancing the beauty and the value of the thing. I had been writing furiously for days preparing for this session. I have loved Jon Brion forever, and it was one of those open secrets that everyone knows about and nobody cares to keep. When I go to music stores, the clerks ask me what he is doing and where he is living. Guitar teachers ask me how his birthday was, if he is still at that Holiday Inn. I never know any of these things, but I like that they think I know.
The first set of lyrics I abandoned as I sat down – they felt too jokey to me in such a serious environment, as they were all about semen. I put that page of words on the bottom and the other lyrics on top, shamed by my own crass sense of humor and still so rough edges. Interestingly enough, later, they became part of another song I wrote with Garrison Starr and Meghan Toohey called “Gimme Your Seed.” Part of the alchemy of songwriting -nothing is wasted. No thought is ever too low or too high. Everything works somewhere. The lyrics on top were ones I had written the day before, along with lyrics for another song which would become “Eat Shit and Die,” both about an errant lover who had neglected to contact me on my birthday, something which stung so deeply that only writing poetry could help me recover. Jon made coffee and laid the words out in front of him and pulled out a pen. He asked me what chords I knew, and I dutifully made them. G, A, Em, slight struggle, then -D. And then as an afterthought, C. He showed me how to make a B7 chord and I drew the finger positions on my chord paper. He laughed at the chord paper. “I haven’t seen something like that in a long, long time.” We didn’t use the B7 in the song, but I showed Grant Lee Phillips later that I could make the chord and we used it in “Eat Shit and Die.” Learning these chords were like growing branches on a tree that I would eventually climb, and every time I pick up the guitar I am still amazed at the view.
Photo by Lindsey Byrnes
Jon made some marks on the lyric sheet, crossed out words here and there, apologized for crossing out the words, then tapped his foot and played his guitar and they were all chords I knew. He then sang the words and suddenly like magic my words were now a song! I pulled out my digital recorder and we made a demo. We played the song through two times and I lagged behind, trying to keep up the finger positions of the chords on my guitar. Sometimes my iPod Shuffle will unearth the demo and serve it to me cold in the car as I am driving and I am instantly embarrassed by Jon’s soft voice singing my words about being mad at some dude, my inability to play guitar with my fingers twisting up on themselves, my own shaky, insecure voice trying to keep up and the overall disbelief in the air that I was actually singing and playing with someone I had idolized for so long – so strong and palpable you can hear it via mp3. we performed the song at Largo that night, for Ian Harvie’s No on Prop 8 benefit, and we had to stop and start the song over because I forgot how the beginning went and I was so frazzled from nerves and excitement.
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