Tiny Desk Music


I am excited to share the entry for NPR’s 2016 Tiny Desk Contest that I made with my friend Libby. I wrote this song 9 years ago (!) while I was living in Thailand.

The most fun part of making this video was watching the other entries on Youtube for ideas about how to go about this one. There are so many tremendous musicians, so many fun ways to record music.1599354_10201366556065653_350168024_o

My husband, Jeremy, recorded this one and my friend Libby O’Neill is on the violin.

You can listen to her music here.

Sondheim Wisdom for All of Us

I’m about halfway through this HBO documentary about Stephen Sondheim. If you’re unfamiliar with his work, he is the composer and lyricist for many of Broadway’s darkest, most thought provoking and beautiful musicals.  For example, Into the Woods and Sweeney Todd (my two favorites).

I am pretty hard on musicals, to tell the truth.  I judge them according to three things:

1) Story (I’m a fiction writer, so duh)

2) Lyrics

3) Music

I think most musical lovers put music first, but to me it’s about how well the words convey the story. Many musicians and actors don’t necessarily love Sondheim because, while many of the songs are pretty, many others kind of aren’t.  And they are tremendously hard to sing most of the time. Nonetheless, Stephen Sondheim is probably the reason I have this hierarchy of concerns, and watching this documentary confirmed this — he describes his process as starting with the script (or book) on the piano and letting the music come from the rhythm of the character’s lines. Come to think of it, I attribute much of my love for story and writing to Sondheim. The first I remember of paying attention to storytelling as part of an actor’s job was when I played Cinderella in Into the Woods. I was in high school — I guess 15?

I think any writer or artist has a lot to gain from watching this documentary, which is full of just great thoughts about the creative process.  Here is a quote that I will carry with me today:

A song should be like a play. It should have a beginning, middle and end. It should have an idea—state the idea and then build the idea and finish. At the end you should be at a place different than where you began.

Sounds like a story, right?

That quote and this one came from an interview about Oscar Hammerstein, who mentored him.  This quote is the reason I decided to blog today:

One of the things [Hammerstein] told me was never to imitate him. If you write what you feel, it will come out true. If you write what I feel, it will come out false.


Meet Khary Jackson (and his book of poetry)

One of my intentions for creating this website was to have a space for promoting my friends’ work.  I have a lot of friends with new books, or with books coming out soon, so I’m here to get that ball rolling with one of my oldest and favorite friends, Khary Jackson.

Khary and I both attended the Detroit High School for the Fine and Performing Arts (he graduated a year before me), and he was always a little weird and a lot talented. Usually those qualities come hand in hand (for example, Khary Jackson). One of my favorite memories of him is when I came into our drama teacher’s office and he was standing in front of the television, conducting all of the symphonies along with Tom Hulce in the film version of Amadeus.   Khary and I both majored in theater/drama and we competed together on our school’s state champion forensics team.  We competed in a dead people competition.  Not really.  Forensics, in that context, means speech and drama.  Khary was one of the most stand out, uninhibited performers on the team, so it’s no surprise that he continues to write and perform his poetry in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he now lives.  Few things make me happier than talking to him on the phone, not only because he has a marvelous speaking voice, but because when I’m listening closely, I can catch snippets of the Minnesota accent he’s picked up over the last decade.  It’s adorable, though adorable is not a word I’d use to describe his work.  His words are imaginative, memorable, and usually pretty heart-wrenching but also pretty funny at times.  His poems, like his performances, are uninhibited.  There is no fear or hesitancy in Khary’s work, which makes it a blast to read.

This week I finally got around to ordering and reading his first poetry collection, Any Psalm You Want, which came out last spring from Write Bloody Poetry.  The book is as marvelous as its title. It’s also got a great cover:

There’s a lot of themes going on in this book: music, Detroit, the African American experience, grieving and suffering, living life to its full capacity.  Of course, if you know me at all, it was the Detroit aspect of this book that captured my interest the most. In a poem called “Frida in Detroit,” he details the miscarriage she had at a hospital named after Henry Ford:

Frida./This is my city before Motown. It is a body/that walks with no rhythm in its limp./There is no music here but what you scrape from the concrete,/what you break from your back in the liver of a factory.

Many of the music poems are conversations:  George Gershwin tells Janis Joplin what he thinks of her version of “Summertime.”  Leadbelly makes sure Kurt Cobain knows what he’s really singing about. In another poem, Khary ponders June’s reaction to Johnny Cash’s version of Hurt.  You know, things you wish you’d thought about before and are grateful to be able to think about from this point on.

Reading Khary’s poems excites me because he presents poetry as a medium of infinite possibilities*, especially when it comes to subject matter.   Aaliyah Haughton’s brother apparently re-dubbed some of her lines in her last film shortly after she died in a plane crash.  Khary hears about this and says, “Really? I have to write a poem about that.”

You can order his book here.

*This phrase is an inside joke that I’d be happy to explain in person because it’s pretty hilarious.


We’ve made it. It’s the end of June.  Hopefully you know how to play more songs than you did in May.  Maybe you’ve got some originals to work on, too.

Why not learn one more cover?  You choose which one.  Let it be another song that you’ve liked for a long time.  Or maybe it will be the first song you ever said, “This might be my favorite song” about.

TODAY’S SUPER-PROMPT:  Look over the songs you know (maybe from this month!) and put together a 30 minute set.  Play it.

SONG OF THE DAY: Folsom Prison

The whole album. Because I am obsessed with it.

SONGWRITING MONTH DAY 29: A different tone

PROMPT: Write a song in a different tone (emotion) than you’re used to writing in.

This prompt comes from the fact that when I look over my songs, almost all of them have Am and E in them.  In other words, they are usually sad, slow, and dark. Not always, but usually.  Today, the goal is to try your hand at a different sort of song than you’re used to writing.  Try learning a new chord and then work out a new chord progression with it into a song.

SONG OF THE DAY: Ghost on the Shore


Lord Huron is a band I discovered around December and they are pretty fabulous.  This album, Lonesome Dreams, made a lot of best of 2012 lists.

Their music is what I like to describe as what would happen if Peter Gabriel and Paul Simon had a love child. In the West.  This song is the one of theirs I like the most at the moment.

(For some reason, Youtube isn’t giving me the Share option at the moment, so follow the link.)


TODAY’S PROMPT: Learn a song you liked when you were in middle school.

Admittedly, I am having a hard time coming up with prompts in these last days, but I have been reading a bunch of student essays and so many of them focus on middle school that I have started to think about it a lot.

Middle school is the most complicated and horrible stage of life for most US-Americans. It’s just awkward.  It is fun, though, to think about the kinds of music that inspired us at the time. There should be a writing rule: if you have nothing to write about, write about middle school. Instant tension! Instant darkness! Instant humor!

If you’re wondering what I’m talking about, check out this episode of This American Life.


I loved this song so much when I was in 7th & 8th grade(s).  So much. If you are going to be a one hit wonder, let it be a hit as wonderful as this song.  (Obviously, I still like it.  Maybe I’ll karaoke it next week or something…)

TODAY’S PROMPT: Write a song inspired by middle school.


TODAY’S SONG: We’re Going To Be Friends.

I’m pretty sure that this song is about middle school.  It definitely reminds me of the time.  And it’s so pretty.


Romulus, Michigan

TODAY’S PROMPT: Write a song somehow inspired by a place.

This is inspired by Sufjan Stevens’s notion to try and make an album for every state in the union.  I’m not sure if he got past two, but one of the states he wrote about is Michigan and Michigan is my home state (and his home state. Whoo!);  I love that album because it’s full of songs about a bunch of places I recognize.

What makes his songs compelling, in my view, is that they are really about people. He names a place in the album title and many of the song titles but his albums or songs are really about people living there. Sometimes he directs them to a person living there.


Romulus is a suburb of Detroit–the city that holds the airport.  Who knows? Maybe it has a pretty downtown somewhere. If so, I haven’t seen it. If so, most people don’t know about it.  From my understanding, it’s pretty much an airport, a field, a bunch of gas stations and car rentals.

I tend to like sad, slow Sufjan over happy quick Sufjan, and when it comes to sad, well, Romulus just nails it.   It captures Romulus as a weary place, its people sorting through debris left by the car industry’s whirlwind tour through Southeast Michigan (and the United States).  I mean, this song would be great even if I knew nothing about Romulus, but because I do, because I’ve been there, it just means so much more. To me, this song IS Southeast Michigan.

Or part of it.  There is another part of Southeast Michigan that he doesn’t capture in this song, a part that might be better captured in a song called “Downtown While There’s a Tigers Game Going On,”  but for when there isn’t a Tigers game going on, this song really captures my impression of the region where I grew up.


PROMPT: Take a super famous song and do something totally wacky with it—like make it a waltz. Change the genre.  What would Britney Spears sound like if you made her song sound old timey? Is it possible? It’s up to you to find out.

SONG OF THE DAY:With a Little Help From My Friends

I like to have conversations about “what’s the best?” with my dad and my friends.  Especially my dad. “What’s the best Hitchcock movie?”  “What’s the best Beatles album?”  It’s fun to pretend to be objective about it.  Of course, we are expressing opinions, but it’s still fun to argue opinions and take them seriously for five minutes.

During the rest of the minutes, I don’t really take taste-driven opinions that seriously.  I mean, of COURSE I have the best taste in music than anyone else.  Of course. Along with the best taste in food, movies, beer, dogs especially…

One of my favorite topics for one such conversation is “What’s the best cover of a song ever?”  I always propose this Joe Cocker version of the, cough cough, dorky second track on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club band.

Now I love the Beatles, really I do.  I love Sgt Pepper’s! But their version of this song, in my humble-not-even-trying-to-be-objective-here opinion, is downright terrible.  But then Joe Cocker comes along and transforms it into a gospel song.

It was so good, it became the theme Wonder Years.

(By the way, I try to use the Wonder Years as an example when I’m talking to my students and they have no idea what I’m talking about.  Youngins! They have no idea who Kevin Arnold even is! They don’t even remember the episode when Winnie Cooper comes in to a sick Kevin’s room all mad at him, punishing him by jumping on his bed and screaming if he wants coleslaw.)

Back to this song. I love the fact that Julie Taymor presents both versions in Across the Universe:


SONGWRITING MONTH DAY 21: Contrast Love Song

PROMPT: Write a song about how much you love something, but write it in a minor key. Let the words contrast the tune, so the words aren’t said, necessarily, but the tune is.


Write a song with really sad words but with a happy tune.


My favorite love song by one of my favorite bands, Over the Rhine.  The album this song comes from, “Drunkard’s Prayer” is incredible.  It tells the story, as this song does, of a couple who revives a troubled marriage.  It has some of the saddest, most beautiful songs on it I’ve ever heard–so sad and beautiful that I cannot listen to this album at all if I am in anyway broken-hearted.  But I’m not today, and hopefully you’re not either, so check this album out.  I suggest listening to it tonight while you make dinner.


PROMPT: Learn a pop song.

I wrote this prompt in April (as that is when I brainstormed for these) and as I wrote it down today in this here blog template, I realized that I wasn’t exactly sure what officially makes a song a pop song. So I went to Wikipedia, of course.

It derives from Rock and Roll.  It’s from the 1950s. I guess it has to have a catchy hook to be a pop song; it has to have a verse chorus structure.  It’s aimed at the youth market. Maybe everyone knows this already, but because I’m really out of the pop culture loop, I had to look it up.

Part of the reason I want to learn a pop song is because I am amused at the challenge of taking, say, a Madonna song and making it work on the guitar.  Or maybe a Michael Jackson song. Yes. A folky version of a Michael Jackson song sounds like a good project for today.

SONG OF THE DAY: Billie Jean

I had a fun time looking up people’s acoustic versions of MJ songs on Youtube.  This one impressed and amused me. PS: I have no idea who this dude is.