Between the Lines: A Friend from Argentina
from his new album
These were the first words I wrote for my new album:
You live in this bar
that might imply
that you are lonely
but it’s not true
These lines felt like a door to somewhere new, and that’s actually what they turned out to be. I had written every song on my previous album in the first person. Sometimes from the perspective of 'you and 'I,' but always including an 'I.' Here was a perspective with a ‘you,’ but no ‘I.’
Because you are a king while you're in this room
you are the spring that conversation flows from
you have the thing most beautiful people desire -
At the time I was living in a mouldy second storey room of a Grey Lynn flat and working in a famously busy Ponsonby bar in the evenings. On free mornings I’d fold up my futon, set up my keyboard and guitar, and turn off the internet on my ancient G4 laptop to create the conditions I needed to write. I’d type, play, and pace the room, trying to generate the sort of flow that would propel me past my usual mental blocks.
Some days I couldn’t generate that flow - I’d get stuck on a first verse, playing it over and over, unable to put another word down for the next section. On this day, everything was working, and by the time my evening shift began I had a basic shape for the song and the narrative.
a line of the drug that they do in the movies
in this far flung city it's so hard to find
but you found it
in a friend from Argentina
I had some dislikeable characters stewing in my head at the time, and I was thinking about the master of dislikeable characters, Randy Newman. Songwriters talk about Newman, not for Disney movies, but for cult 1970s songs like ‘Rednecks.’ In this song Newman sings from the perspective of a despicable narrator, damning him with his own words in the first verse. But by the last verse, he damns us for our smug laughter in the first.
By creating a narrative in the second person, I discovered a similar tactic, but one that felt more direct. Rather than embody a character myself, I could make the listener do it instead - You live in this bar, You have the thing most beautiful people desire. It reminded me of pick-a-path novels, which R.L Stine flirted with at the height of the Goosebumps series I loved as a tween. Readers are told where they're going and where they have gone, only here - in this song - they don't get a choice.
Now one might presume
that your home life is relatively awful
but one should never presume
This line - but one should never presume - is a mission statement. I also wanted to create a character with complexity, and dodge a morality-driven plot.
well you gave her the house and you
moved into the rental
close to this bar and the firm you are a partner in, now
you mellowed out after the separation
yes, you know the kids
much better than she does
You are a casual drug dealer enjoying the low-hanging fruit of your Ponsonby connections, but does that make you a bad parent? Does it make you unhappy? Making those kind of conclusions seemed like an unfair representation of the people I encountered in the bar, many of whom came in with their kids on on Sunday afternoons.
You know that Josh wants to be a sports commentator
And he's got your gift for the gab
Sarah wants to start her fashion label
and you've got the friends who can make it happen
Now here’s where Lou Reed's baroque, un-ironic, bordering-on-comedic-but-one-of-my-top-albums-nonetheless, Berlin, comes in. Specifically, the song 'Caroline Says, Part II.'
Reed was trying to make a rock opera, and in this song he’s constantly advancing the action, even in sections where we might expect a step back to sum up the emotions. He uses the chorus to describe Caroline taking speed, and in the bridge he starts a new action in the narrative - She put her fist / through the window pane. I showed this to Jonathan Pearce, who recorded this album, and we started referring to it as an 'action bridge.' Here's my version:
Everyone lined up in the courtyard
Just after last call
to see you do your back-flip trick on the bar
but this time you missed and you
fell on your ass
and when you tried it again you got
half a bottle lodged in your hand
What I love about words like 'when' and 'remember,' is that they offer an opening to insert flashbacks, and ask the listener to do the work of imagining them.
and it made you remember
when you lived in London
and you were no one
no door would open
to a man from the colonies
of no money or standing
and we return to our title character:
there was only the shoulder
of a guy from Argentina
Advancing the action had become important to me since I'd begun reading 'The Reporter At Large' in The New Yorker. I wanted to re-create those detailed, narrative pieces that could draw you along one path before throwing you down another, like this piece on Guatemalan politics, first recommended to me by Joe Nunweek on this site. I had the idea of transposing an article like this into song form, and when I wrote this song in 2012, I had read this brilliant piece in Metro by Donna Chisholm. Combined with my experience in a (much tamer) bar, I found myself with a glut of material to adapt to the song.
But now the girl that he sent from
had a heart attack on the plane
because the package dissolved
when it got inside her stomach
now there's nothing left to sell
in the hottest week of summer
and you've got an infection in your hand
This is about where I got up to on that first day. I'd spend the next six months making the structure work with the music, slowly picking out and replacing the naff lines. But the odd perspective spurred a series of songs like this, with lines like: “when you ran for council / they called you a frustrated librarian” or” “sugar in the petrol tank / there wasn’t a lot that could be done for your Land Rover.” The perspective was one of the main stylistic drivers that moved me towards working under my own name last year.
So you're not immune to problems
but your kids are doing well
and you can pay more attention to the firm for a while
still you can tell some people infer
that your drinking in this bar
isn't just to do with your passion for life
I started testing 'A Friend From Argentina' at shows, long before it was finished, which I still find the best way to help the final edits along. The heart attack on the plane is the real dilemma for the character, and it was usually at this point that I’d notice some of the audience stop laughing, and I’d feel a sense of confusion and moral calculation set in. Because if it works, and you do imagine you’re the character for five minutes, How do you think you're supposed to feel about this? How do you actually feel about this?
But they're the same kinds of people
people who would assume
that you don't have a conscience left
when really you do.
this Saturday at the Old Folks Ass.
Tickets available from Under the Radar
Between the Lines is a series where songwriters take us into the writing room
Read (and listen) to the rest of the series here