BACKSTORIES: DISC 1, FROM THE MOON
BACKSTORIES: DISC 2, TO THE EARTH
|BACKSTORIES: THE SONGS OF FROM THE MOON TO THE EARTH
Following are backstories from J S Kingfisher for each track on From the Moon to the Earth. Clicking a title in the index at left takes you right to it.
FROM THE MOON
From the Moon is the oldest track, composition-wise, on the record: I wrote it while living in San Francisco in 2004. The “hey-dey-yay” riff was written much later, however, and the lyrics were being tweaked up to a few days before Maiya Sykes tracked her vocal.
I met Maiya through vocalist Katrin Kern (who sings Changeling on the project). When Maiya came to the studio for the first time, we discovered we’d had a mutual friend in the late Jeffery Smith (who sang North). From the Moon also marked my first meeting with trumpeter Jeff Bunnell, who introduced me to saxophonist Jay Mason and trombonist Charlie Morillas; all three became the horn section on the rest of the project.
Initially, I had my own vocals on From the Moon, recorded in the mid-aughts. I didn’t yet have my voice back when I began the final production, however, and decided to hire a female vocalist, which required putting it in a faraway key and reworking many of the background lines. I’m glad I did.
The “crashed in a tranquil sea, a girl barely alive” lyric was originally “a boy barely alive.”
Nosferatu was begun sometime in the early aughts in Sacramento; the lyrics, final form, and arrangement, however, didn’t fall into place until the month of its final production.
Nosferatu was my first opportunity to work with saxophonist Jay Mason, who ended up doing a lot of solo work on the album. It was also my first meeting with Charlie Morillas, and the first time I recorded a horn section in my small studio. Brad Dutz added a great deal of energy to the track with his bongos, and we had a great time with the cuica and whistles at the end.
Dalibor Banovic shot and edited the Nosferatu video after the final single from the project was released on September 27, 2015, while the discs were in manufacture — just in time for Halloween.
The opening section of The Weave had been floating around my studio for years; the verses and choruses that came after were written in the late aughts. The instrumental break and the outro were written just a couple of weeks before the track’s release.
The Weave marked my first meeting with violinist Peter Kent, and my second meeting with Maiya Sykes, who came in with her friend and colleague Nicki Gonzalez for backing vocals. Tony Blöndal, Brad Dutz, and I — guitar, vibes, and piano, respectively — had great fun with the bent harmonies in the piece, and Dave Stone really took a bite with his bass, especially in the instrumental sections. Those same sections allowed me to sing some scat for the first time on record.
EVERYONE’S GONE TO THE MOON
I had forgotten about Jonathan King’s 1965 hit Everyone’s Gone to the Moon until I heard Nina Simone’s cover of it in the mid-seventies. The song had struck me lyrically since I first came upon Gurdjieff’s cosmology — it was a natural for the album.
It wasn’t until after the single had been released that I heard of the controversy surrounding songwriter-turned-pop-mogul Jonathan King— apparently he’s a bit overfond of teenage boys, or was in the seventies and eighties. His trial was a tabloid extravaganza, and though he was convicted of pedophilia still maintains his innocence (the young men in question were above the age of consent by today’s laws, but not under the laws of the time.) King has since written musical about the whole affair called “Vile Pervert.”
The music of the opening chorus and verse of Flying Machines were written in 2007; I only had the lyrics for the chorus. The rest of the music and lyrics were written in the month before its release.
LaVance Colley was another vocalist I met through LA Craigslist. I saw some of his videos on YouTube, and was impressed with his dazzling range and chops. Still, I had planned on a long vocal session: the song is very chromatic and tricky, as well as rangy. I had no reason to worry — he nailed it in a couple of takes. Then he said he had “a couple of ideas” for background parts, and proceeded to lay down all the lush, complex harmonies you hear — by ear, and in short order. It was a great day.
DANCING ON THE MOON
I’ve always loved classic Latin rhythms and the dances that accompany them: mambos, rhumbas, beguines… I was intrigued with the idea of making up a new one. My attempt at doing so was how Dancing on the Moon came about. (I’m still waiting on the choreography.) The whole thing came together tip to toe a couple of weeks before its release.
THE MAN IN THE MOON
Some of my very earliest gigs as a teenager were playing cabaret piano for vocalist Dan Evans. One of the songs we did together was The Man in the Moon, from the Broadway musical Mame by Jerry Herman.
Dan and I have remained good friends since then, and when it came time to record it for the album — it had to be done, it fit right in conceptually and brought some needed levity to the project — I called him straight away. I enjoyed adding a bit more “in-your-end-o” to the lyric, and Dan sang it with relish — it was great fun.
Blue Earth began as a piano piece entitled “Joplinesque,” for obvious reasons; I’d had it around for quite some time. It was rattling around in my head when the lyric and the blues that go with it came to me, a couple of weeks before the full Moon when the track was due.
I met guitarist Joe DiBlasi through pianist Ron Feuer. Joe has an amazing list of credits from major motion pictures and television to Pink Floyd, and he brought just the sort of half Spanish, half Django-esque feeling I was imagining to the track. Brad Dutz’ congas, vibes, and guiro give things a nice, laid back feel — I could play that outro riff all day.
From the Moon and To the Earth, two halves bridged by a single piece, Tellurian Passage: that was the planned structure for the project since its inception. Tellurian Passage was conceived as an orchestral piece; a sketch of it was one of the first things I had in place. Its release date was to be on the eleventh Full Moon in the schedule — the center point of the twenty-one moons in the project — and the moon just before the Winter Solstice.
As I began work on the final orchestrations in the month preceding its release, it became clear that the orchestral piece I’d envisioned was the wrong call. It was lovely and lush and dramatic — and didn’t fit. (This sort of thing often happens within a project, and even within a single song: once things are underway, the work itself begins to dictate what’s next, and it becomes my job to listen and respond rather than force preconceived ideas.)
The new piece I wrote instead came together entirely in a couple of days. The piano came first, then the first verse lyric, then piano, then lyric... it’s a bridge piece built like a bridge. The bass flute was in my head from the start — I’d been haunted by its sound and compelled to use it since Sara Andon played for me after our Night Bird session a few months earlier.
Dalibor Banovic shot the video in my studio a few days before the project’s release.
The Stranger, originally titled “The Stranger Within,” was written in my early days with the Gurdjieff work. It was a working title for the album before the From the Moon to the Earth concept fell into place. Before I recovered a voice and started singing again, I considered pitching it to Marianne Faithfull.
North, along with From the Moon, was one of the two tracks that I began serious production on before the project had a name.
I moved back to Los Angeles from my home in the northern Sierra Nevada in February of 2012, and began work on North in a small space I had rented in Hollywood. At that point I still didn’t know if I’d ever sing again — my voice was still weak from prolonged illness, my confidence and energy were frail, and I was pretty much resigned to hiring other singers.
Jeffery Smith and I had been good friends and occasional colleagues since 1982. I’d always loved his voice, and sent him a demo of North, hoping he’d be interested. He was, and drove up from San Diego in his giant Lincoln — Miss Daisy — for a few days of recording and hijinks. That was near the end of June, 2012. July 5th or 6th we got the call: he’d passed away in his apartment on July 4th.
North is song about transition: what sort of transition changed over the course of the years during which it was penned. Mount Shasta has always been a spiritual home for me: it houses the headwaters of the Sacramento River, which feeds the valley in which I was born, and I think of the mountain as a kind of ancestor. At first, the song was about moving back to Northern from Southern California. Later, it became about retreating to a place of healing at the end of a long relationship. Later still, when Jeffery sang it, he made it his own, and it became his story. When he left us just afterward, it became something else entirely.
North was the first recording in which I made extensive use of the harpejji, a 24-string tap instrument that has since become a close ally. John Magnussen played vibes; the french horns were provided anonymously (as not to raise the ire of the union <sigh>.) Brad Dutz came in just before mix and added conga and hand percussion.
The video for North was shot at Mount Shasta and all along the Sacramento River by Dalibor Banovic. I wander through it as a sort of silent witness.
Beloved was inspired by the longing for the Beloved, the intimacy with the ineffable, found in the poetry of Rumi. It was originally conceived as a bossa nova.
I had only recently discovered Jacob Collier’s work online when I began putting together the arrangement for Beloved. I had found his now famous split-screen videos, and from the moment I came up with the opening vocal riff imagined his voice and his singing head floating about in bubbles on the screen. I knew he was based in London, but I figured what the hey, and I sent him an e asking if he might be interested in doing some vocals on the track remotely. To my surprise and delight he was, and I sent him charts and the track. He recorded his parts at his place and sent them back over (sans bubbles) and bada bing —there you have it. It was a great pleasure working with him, and I’m thrilled to see him enjoying such success — his is a dazzling talent.
There’s quite an array of marimbas on the track, some synthesized and some authentic. It was the first time I’d worked with Brad Dutz, and we had a good time making it all happen. One thing we recorded that didn’t make it to the track was bass marimba. I had rented one, thinking it would play that big-as-a-house bass line, and actually, it was too big — it was so boomy and resonant I couldn’t get it to sit in the track. It was a great sound, just not the right one. It took up half the studio for 3 days, but I didn’t mind — it was so much fun to bang on I was sorry to see it go.
Before I began singing regularly on the project, I was always on the lookout for new singers. I’d gone through the usual channels seeking session singers, but what I was really looking for was voices of unique character. One of the places I hit pay dirt was, surprisingly, LA Craigslist — there was a lot to weed through, but I heard back from some really talented people. One of them was Katrin Kern.
Katrin has done a lot of film and commercial work, and has a very ethereal voice — just the right call for the otherworldly Changeling. Katrin also turned me on to her friend Maiya Sykes, who ended up singing on two other tracks on the project, including the title track.
Changeling also marked my first opportunity to work with cellist Stefanie Fife. She’s a wonderfully sensitive and expressive player, and appears on several tracks throughout the project. Guitarist Tony Blondal lends his gentle acoustic here as well.
Night Bird was written in the spring of 2008 in Studio City, California. It was during the beginning of a series of illnesses that would almost claim my life a few years later, and I was drifting often between worlds, especially at night. That one night’s adventures were accompanied by a particularly pestilential mockingbird — an experience to which anyone who’s lived in LA can probably relate. (One time I got out of bed and chucked a wet towel at one in a tree, but that’s another story.)
Night Bird marked my first chance to work with harpist Gayle Levant since 1998’s Vesica Piscis, and she created a seamless, airy, and utterly lovely track. It was also my first time ever working with flautist Sara Andon, which was a delight. (When we were done recording, Sara brought out her alto and bass flutes and pretty much sent me to another planet—and greatly inspired “Tellurian Passage,” which I recorded with her not much later.)
Brad Dutz came in last and added his vibes magic, along with a bit of glockenspiel. I had great fun adding in all the bird and bug samples and loops — they make up much of the percussion bed.
"Sabbatum Sanctum” means “Holy Saturday,” which is the day before Easter; that was the day of this Full Moon release. (It was also the first day of Passover, and there was a lunar eclipse.) The spring festivals that celebrate rebirth have always marked an inspirational time for me.
The initial melodic idea for Sabbatum Sanctum grew out of a piano/organ jam between myself and pianist John Steiner in 2009; I developed it into a song — a meditation, really — shortly thereafter. The lyric, however, wasn’t entirely complete until a couple of weeks before its release. In earlier incarnations, the track had gotten quite large; in the end, I pulled everything out but the bare minimum.
Sabbatum Sanctum marked the first time I’d written for and recorded bansuri flute; Neelamjit Dhillon is a very fine and sensitive player, and took the track to unexpected places. I hadn’t worked with oboist John Yoakum since 1998’s Vesica Piscis; he brought his own sensitivity to the track as well, and blended perfectly with Neel. Brad Dutz came in last and added a tabla/udu track, as well as some magic sparkle using a twisty little metal thing he found or made.
In addition to piano, I play quartz crystal bowls on the track — I have a full chromatic set.
THE RHYTHM LINE
The Rhythm Line was penned a couple of weeks before its release. Since recording Do I Love Well? a few months earlier, I was hot to get back into the studio and record a live track again. I did it this time with a rhythm section plus horns, again at Big City. A couple days later I went over to Ron Feuer’s studio and tracked him on his Hammond B3. Sizzlin’!
In 2008, I released an intuitive/compositional tool called Muzoracle, a kind of musical cross between the Tarot and I Ching. One of the many concepts I explored in its mythos was one I dubbed “the rhythm line.” In brief, it goes like this: Our experience of pitch is not time-based. Pitches do occur in time, of course, as we inevitably begin and end them at some point, but our experience of them while they’re happening is more as if they are living objects. If we, however, lower a pitch in frequency beyond a certain point, we begin to experience its vibration as a series of beats, of events, and time — for us, experientially — enters the picture: it crosses the rhythm line.
SOUS LA BELLE LUNE BLEUE (Under the Beautiful Blue Moon)
Sous la Belle Lune Bleue was released under the only Blue Moon during the project (a Blue Moon is a second full moon in one month). I met my husband under a Blue Moon, so this was an opportunity for me to record a love song — something I rarely do. The romantic imagery in the song is drawn from things as they actually happened.
Sous la Belle Lune Bleue was written, arranged, recorded, and mixed in four days. I had originally planned on recording a cover of Blue Moon, by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart — I had a very dreamy, Satie-like version arranged and a recording date set at Big City for a rhythm section. Two days before the session, however, I decided to bail on it— I loved the arrangement, but just couldn’t get behind the lyric. Lorenz Hart was an amazing lyricist, but the song was written in 1938 as an upbeat ditty; the music lent itself to a sensitive, gentle treatment, but the lyric didn’t. (I just couldn’t sing “I heard somebody whisper, ‘Adore me!’” with a straight face — if someone whispered that to me I’d run like hell!)
I’d had the musical beginnings of Sous la Belle Lune Bleue floating around for a few weeks. I’d been playing it as a straight waltz, not a swinging one, and imagined it as an oompah/calliope sort of thing — I thought it might work in a film somewhere. But when the time crunch hit, it was there, so I started monkeying with it. I tried swinging it, which grew on me, and got busy with the lyric. The French seemed a natural choice — to me the song had a bit of a 60s Michel LeGrand sort of vibe.
DO I LOVE WELL?
“Did I Love Well?” was a question I came across reading Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield’s A Path with Heart in the mid-nineties — I never forgot it. I wrote Do I Love Well? on a wet morning in LA a few weeks before the track’s release.
I had met Ron Feuer, Sr. several times — I went to music school with his son, Ron Jr., and he and his wife are close with my good friend and colleague, guitarist Tony Blöndal; and he had worked quite a bit with my good friend Jeffery Smith, who also sang on this project. Ron is an amazing keyboardist, and has a great affinity with singers; I knew he would be just the right call for this trio I was imagining if I could get him. To my delight, he was available and enthusiastic, and actually put the trio and the studio together for me. Chris Colangelo played some very fine bass and Paul Tavenner, who owned the studio, played drums just right and ran the session from the drum booth. I sang live with the band — what’s on the record is the first take.
I ended up doing another three tracks on the project with Ron, recording them all at Paul’s studio — and Paul ended up mastering the project. This session also marked the beginning of the end of my love affair with holing up in the studio and stacking overdubs — the more live, the better. Old school is best.
TO THE EARTH
The music of To the Earth was written in December of 2014; it was under my fingers alternately with Tellurian Passage, which I was in the process of recording at the time. I had considered lyrics for it, and it was to be the closing piece of the project; neither of those things came to pass. As much as I love penning lyrics, sometimes melodies say more without them. The last three songs on the project — this, Moon in the Mirror, and Harvest Moon — all have a closer quality. I just had to pick which one went where; this one ended up the first of the three.
To the Earth was the last piece I recorded with the full band at Big City; the last piece I recorded at all but for a final overdub on Moon in the Mirror, and Harvest Moon, which I performed and recorded entirely on my own. It was bittersweet, as farewell sorts of things can be — but mostly sweet. I love all the performances on this track — Jay Mason’s shimmering alto especially stands out. It was also a chance for me to contribute an improvised vocal solo, which was great fun.
MOON IN THE MIRROR
True story, cinematic though it is: One summer evening in the late aughts, I was driving down Route 395 through the high desert east of the Sierras, and noticed the full moon rising over the hills to the east. As the road curved, the moon appeared in the rear view mirror. The idea for the song came to me, and I pulled over and switched places with my partner and let him drive. I grabbed my usb keyboard, laptop, and phones from the back seat, and wrote the whole thing in the passenger seat before we got back to LA.
When Moon in the Mirror was released as a single, it was just piano and vocals. Listening down to the final album masters, however, I felt the track was shy of something. The last recording session of the project was with Stefanie Fife, who came in while Paul Tavenner and I were mastering the album and laid down the lovely cello you hear.
I spent the last few months of the project mostly in Sacramento — my mom had broken her leg and was unable to drive, and my husband and I were up lending her and my father a hand. I had brought all of my recording essentials up from LA in a U-Haul truck, and set up camp in their game room — it was there a lot of final touches on the project, and the final auditing of the masters, took place. Harvest Moon was recorded and mixed in its entirety there.
Harvest Moon began as an instrumental piece. I had a few different songs in the running for the final track, but I kept returning to this one. It wanted lyrics, though, and I was having a hard time getting started. On one of my whirlwind trips back and forth to LA, I decided to take the coast route up to Sacramento and see what I could shake out; the piece had always evoked the coastal hills for me, and the time of year was right. I stopped in many places along the way, jotting down the phrases that eventually became the lyric. The light, I remember, was extraordinary.
The Full Moon of September 27th was an ideal one on which to close the project. It addition to being a Supermoon and an eclipse, it was the Harvest Moon (the full moon after Autumnal Equinox) and the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, a harvest festival that also commemorates 40 years of wandering in the desert after the Exodus. Though we weren't able to make a sukkah (a shelter of organic materials with a palm roof traditionally built for the week of Sukkot) we did manage a magical viewing of the Blood Moon Eclipse (we filmed it - it's in the Nosferatu video) and a healthy dose of chamgagne.
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