Every now and then I’ll be asked about certain songs and how they came to be. For a while now actually I’ve been contemplating taking a look at that topic for the Diaries. Just for certain songs obviously Can’t do it for every one of them. Because the truth is that most songs I write tend to come out of nowhere; it’s more of a listening thing. I hear them in the ether and just try to bring them into this world as cleanly and genuinely as possible. So in those cases it’s hard to say much about them… But some songs are more deliberate, with a real intention behind them.
“Summer Flowers” stems from a longstanding collaboration I’ve had going with another singer-songwriter, more of a poet, Tyler Bejoian. I’ve already written a lot about him and how that whole thing came into being. I met him when he was a kid. Literally. He was probably about 11 or 12. Just knocked on my door one day. I answered the door in my bathrobe, holding a bowl full of cereal. He introduced himself. Asked if I “wanted to hang out”. To which I answered, “Okay…. Sure. You want some Cocoa Puffs little dude?” He said yes. So I invited him in. From there I started teaching him about a lot of different things, especially music and literature and film. And in return, as he began to grow up, he taught me a lot of things.
Tyler quickly developed into a pretty astounding poet. His evolution wasn’t that different than any of ours is. I recognized the stages he was going through as both a rabid fan of the truly great and as an artist. The first song we ever collaborated on was probably “White House jihad”. He was probably about 14 maybe 15 years old at the time. He would do all these impersonations, and one day we’re just sitting around goofing off and he was imitating Dylan (which is always fun), and he just lets out this series of lines that starts with “Blood runs down Pennsylvania avenue/ And I find myself unfortunately hating you”. To which I reply, “Badass man. Which song is that?” And he said “I don’t know. I just made it up.” “What? That’s not Dylan? That’s yours?” He’s like “Yeah I think so. Why?” “Because it’s really good dude! Where’s Pennsylvania avenue?” He looked at me like there was something wrong with me of course. And I’d say from that point on, our relationship started to take on more of a reciprocal nature. He reminded me “It’s the White House man…? Duh?” We had a good laugh and then proceeded to sit there jotting down cool lines based on that opening line. He was on fire. We both were.
Once he left that day I started a new page in my current song notebook (I always keep what I call “a current one” lying around — meaning it still has blank pages to fill in it, along with a few older filled ones, where there are songs still in it that need to be completed. I work out of about 5 notebooks at a time, usually cycling through around a hundred songs or so) and I wrote down that line he spit out along with any of the others that I thought were good. That was the genesis of “White House jihad”. I’ll paste the link to the video below. But be forewarned. Some people consider the song “controversial”. I just consider it “art”. I do whatever I’m feeling in the moment, as a practice, living and breathing in a constant state of creating art as the foundational mission above all else. No matter what. No matter where. For richer or poorer. Usually the latter. But it works.
So just to cap off that important introductory note, Tyler and I have gone on to collaborate on hundreds of songs by now. The story I’m recalling was a good 12 years ago now. There are a lot of songs people know of mine that are actually taken straight from poems he sent me. At one point he was emailing me ten to twenty or more a songs a day. He’d go sit on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and just write for hours. I’d print them all out at the end of the day and place them on my music stand. Every day I sit down in front of it, pick up an instrument and just start playing, surfing on a groove. If my eyes catch a line or a phrase that fits what I’m playing, I’ll just start going with that poem of his. Songs like “New Orleans dreams”, “I walk alone”, and “Summer flowers” all started off as poems Tyler sent me.
Anyone who’s lived in New York City, or maybe anywhere in the north (?), can relate to this phenomenon about how during the winter everybody bundles up in a ton of clothes and walks around the city looking like a penguin of sorts. As guys, Tyler and I would always comment on how great it was once spring hit, and especially summer, because all the girls in the city start finally taking off all their heavy coats and scarves and hats and you can start seeing who they are and what they look like again. They also of course start walking around in sun-dresses and sandals and looking really pretty. As a young guy in his teens, this was something Tyler loved to talk about. Every summer. Winter in New York lasts a looooong time. So the arrival of spring and summer is just a heavenly experience. Every single year. No matter how long you’ve lived here. It’s always an invigorating event.
One day he sends me this poem called Summer Flowers. It was heady. All his poems are heady. He’s a serious intellectual. His standards are very high for himself. The poem was loosely based on our many conversations about the thrills of summer time in New York. Each paragraph was about a different character or set of characters. It was beautiful. Moving. So I deliberately really wanted to sit down and turn it into a killer song. To honor it.
In terms of the music, there’s this band from Miami called Humbert. Some may call them Indie rock. But they will often explore Power pop too. I love this band. I’ve known them forever. But that has nothing to do with it. I know plenty of musicians whose music I don’t love. But this band is special. They’re exciting and electric. They do whatever they want to. It always feels sincere and genuine. I’ve never actually talked about this publicly. I’m not even sure I’ve ever shared it with the guys in Transcendence. But when I first discovered those first few chords of what would eventually become the song “Summer Flowers”, it sounded to me like something the band Humbert would do. It had this driving immediacy to it. Keeps you on your toes sonically. You’re never sure what’s going to come next. Felt like good Power pop. So I went with that.
The thing about turning poems into songs is that oftentimes a poet won’t have a chorus in a poem. Just a long series of stanzas, one after the other. And “Summer Flowers” was no different. So I had to come up with chorus. Didn’t have to. But I wanted to. So I just chose the last line of one of the first stanzas. “Those summer flowers in her hair /I see those summer flowers everywhere….” And honestly I’m not even sure if that was even in the poem. To be fair to Tyler. I may have just come up with it myself. I can’t remember.
And yes, one of the hardest parts about this process is picking and choosing which lines to use in the song and which lines I’m going to leave out. It’s never easy to leave whole lines or paragraphs out. It feels unjust. On the song “Never let me go again” from the Ballad on Thid Avenue album, I refused to leave out any of the lines from the poem of Tyler’s that the song was based on. Which made the song run over 7 minutes. This infuriated the producers of the album. They thought the song was way too long. But I just couldn’t do it. That song is a poem. It’s a story. With a beginning and a middle and an end. And it’s one of the most beautiful and heartbreaking things I’ve ever been a part of. I was willing to sacrifice what is normally considered proper in song for the sake of honoring the poem. It felt important on that one.
With “Summer Flowers” it was different. I knew we were onto something that could be more “popular” with that one, as soon as I heard it. It sparkled. So I knew it was going to have to have a more standard format and a shorter length. In the end I cut out more lines than I used. In order to come in under 3’40”. And no that never feels “good”. But you do what you have to. Originally the choruses were much longer too. Not that anyone would notice it now, but those choruses actually had a kind of Joni Mitchell vibe before the song got edited in the mixing phase. The falsetto parts at the end of each chorus had this whole repeating Joni thing happening… And that was my favorite part of the song honestly. But in the mixing phase, the song was still coming in too long. So they ended up cutting all those parts out of the choruses. Sucks. But it’s a craft as well as an art sometimes.
I remember playing the song for Tyler a few months after I wrote it, and when I finished singing it, there was just silence. He didn’t say a thing. He was just sitting there with his head down. Truth be told, I wasn’t taken aback by his silence or worried about what he was thinking. I could pretend I was for dramatic effect. But I knew the song was special. You can tell sometimes. He finally looked up at me and said “Fuck dude. You’re such an asshole!” I was like “What? Why?” He jumped up and shouted “How do you DO that? You captured it perfectly! You’re such a dick!” By this time Tyler was a singer-songwriter in his own right. And in musician-speak, this meant the song was good. It’s a thing. The more you like something that one of your peers does, the more you hate them. It’s a good thing. Funny.
As an interesting side note, “Summer Flowers” almost didn’t make it past the trial stage in the studio. I had written the song in a really weird open tuning and was having to sing it all falsetto, because it just landed in a really weird key where I could either sing the song down really low or up really high in falsetto. Neither sounded good. I tried singing it up high in normal voice but it kept blowing my voice out. But we tracked it anyway. But due to the funky vocals, we never took the song seriously from there. It just kept getting tossed aside for other songs we thought were better. I mean, there were a good 25 songs ahead of this one in terms of which songs we thought were “the good ones”. We had it in the “scrapped” folder in the system.
At some point when Roger came to Seattle for a few weeks to help speed up the production process a bit, he went through all the songs we had recorded, there were over 40, and stayed up all night listening to them and taking notes. When I got to the studio the next day he told me “check this out”. He heard what the problem was and transposed the song to a key a few half steps down and had re-recorded all the bass and guitars on top of Bill’s original drum tracks, essentially starting the song out from scratch. Then he had me try singing it in that key and it was better. Still right in that space just between regular voice and falsetto. But doable. And cool sounding. The fact that the song ended up taking up such a prominent role after we started mixing all of them and turned out to be the first official single from over three albums worth of songs is just crazy. Because it wasn’t even in our top ten. But that’s how it goes. You just never know. You really don’t.