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Anne Ruthmann

Alan Williams
Writing The 2-Hour Song!
Songwriter’s Monthly - Feb. ’11, #133
Bob Hannan
Imagine, if you will, a remarkable Songwriter’s Monthly: This is a big
convergence of lush, patient music and project!
intriguing poeticism performed with
conviction and grace. Now, picture this Alan Williams: (Laughing) You didn’t
exquisite magnum opus bound in strain anything lifting it, did you?
artwork so fitting that it gently radiates
the same tender glory as the music. SM: When did you know it was going to
Stop fantasizing and indulge be a boxed set, that wasn’t the original
because . . . it’s real! intention, was it?

Annals of My Glass House is the AW: Actually it was . . . which is a little

astounding 25-song, 4-CD boxed set bit odd. We came about the strategy
release from Birdsong At Morning that after a very long dry spell of not
mastermind, Alan Williams, has making music or writing at all. We
referred to as a “2-hour song.” In an formed this group and then this whole
age when art is virtual and temporary, chunk of material started to come
Williams has created a tangible forward, so we tried to wrap our heads
masterpiece that can not only be around how we wanted to make it
displayed on a coffee table, but should available to the public. This is all
be treasured like a Boticelli original. happening, of course, as the record
industry is collapsing and reconfiguring
Alan was gracious enough to talk in and internet delivered music is taking
depth about the conceptualization and hold. I talked a lot with Darleen
execution of this precious work that [Wilson] and Greg [Porter] about
encompassed several years of his life. whether anybody would be even
We also mulled over a few more remotely interested in any of this music
philosophical aspects of music and and, if they were, how would they want
songwriting. to access it?
Songwriter’s Monthly - Feb. ’11, #133
One of the options we discussed was, we got closer to each recording
“What if we took this chunk of material completion date. When I look back at
and broke it down into smaller portions the writing of it, the most recent
and released it as EPs?” We could let material tends to have a little more
people get it in those smaller portions confidence in it — not feeling like I
that way and we could group the needed to wrap up every loose end air-
material together so that each EP had a tight so that no one could accuse me of
kind of a vibe to it or a theme behind it. being a lame songwriter. The delivery of
Then, if we put out these little EPs and those songs allowed for communicating
grouped them a little more nuance
together in a box, we
could present it as a “There’s in interpretation in a
way that maybe the
single body of work.
something first batch didn’t.

SM: I noticed there is

a kind of dynamic arc about that It was also clear to
us — as with many
that starts with disc 1
[Bound] and ends moment in your more lighter, upbeat
writers — that the

with disc
[Lumens]. For
life when you soverwhelmed
tuff is often
by the
example, the opening
track on disc 4, are forming who m o r o s e s t u f f
amount of more

“Velvet Indigo,” has a

bit more of an you are . . .” (laughing), so we did
figure, “Let’s end on
aggressive edge to it a more positive
than the songs on the other three EPs. note.” The first EP starts off with an
opening song that’s very warm and
AW: It does, which is kind of romantic and everything is good. It’s
interesting since all of the drum tracks talking about how we’ve come so far,
— the ones with Ben Wittman anyway it’s wonderful! But then it quickly
— were done in the first day and a half digresses into darker stuff. The third EP
way back when [Aug. 2008]. is the darkest/slowest of the batch. We
sort of spec’ed that out, as well, so that
SM: Was that dynamic arc created with we could take a listener around the
conscious effort or did it just happen? world, maybe get a little bit dark, but
make sure that we give him some
AW: There’s probably a tiny little bit sunlight at the end.
that’s conscious, but most of it’s
probably unconscious. It’s probably the SM: Even though the songs vary from
result of gaining confidence and clarity track to track, each EP manages to
as we progressed. Most of the material maintain it’s own individual flavor. It
was in some form of completion all at really helps hold them together as
the same time at the outset, but separate but individually unified
finishing the tracks didn’t happen until chapters.
Songwriter’s Monthly - Feb. ’11, #133
in them, so

Anne Ruthmann
hopefully the
fluctuation is
there, but in a
pleasant way.

SM: Each EP
contains one
cover tune,
how did that
come about?

AW: I’ve
always been
intrigued by
cover versions,
especially when
they have some
AW: I love records where I can hit the that lets me hear the song in a different
start button and kind of sustain a mood way. In fact, when I was in my
all the way through rather than having undergraduate days at a conservatory,
a jarring sort of juxtaposition. I love we had to do this big senior recital and
being able to hit play on ASTRAL WEEKS what I did was I tried to condense the
[Van Morrison] and just know I’m in history of popular music — not the
that groove from the beginning till the Richard Thompson version, but the
end. There is supposed to be a little bit post-rock history of popular music — to
of fluctuation within each chapter, but it tell a story about a relationship that
needs to be a fluctuation that adheres had gone bad. I didn’t do any original
to the internal logic of each chapter. It’s compositions, but I radically rethought
a weird thing . . . there’s a Kate Bush most of the material that we did. I did
record, H OUNDS OF L OVE , and the lots of Ives-esque mash-ups . . . and
second side is this long, tied-together this was in the days before the “mash
suite that ends on this upbeat note of up!” So, covers have always been a
the sun coming up. That song was part of my musical world.
always so musically jarring for me that
I didn’t want to hear the track, I would The first cover we did [for the project]
almost run over and hit stop before it was “Dreaming.” That came about from
got there. I know she wanted to end on just noodling on the guitar and
an upbeat note, the long dream/ stumbling on the little opening riff and
nightmare is over and here we are, but realizing it was a Blondie song. I
I was content to stay in the dream/ started playing through the chords and
nightmare. I wanted to have our singing it and I thought, “Wait a minute
records not have that jarring moment this works, this really works!”
Songwriter’s Monthly - Feb. ’11, #133
Covers are also a way of trying to they represent me as much as anything
define yourself as an artist. You can talk I would write, myself.
a lot about how important musical taste
is and how we use music to identify SM: Non-musicians do that, too. They
find songs that resonates within them
and those songs become the
“Most of us are soundtrack that they carry with them
throughout their lives. I know a lot of
really reluctant to people who secretly enjoy a certain
style or genre of music from when they
expose our true were younger, but they are afraid to
admit it, they feel a need to represent
feelings about themselves through “serious” music.

music.” AW: We don’t have to defend our taste,

it’s always valid no matter what.
ourselves, but most of us are really
reluctant to expose our true feelings SM: Is there any part of this project
about music. A band that makes that came out better than you
specific choices about the covers that expected?
they want to do risks revealing all sorts
of biases and pigeonholes. AW: Hmm, that’s an excellent question.
My marker tends to be more about
I was talking to Greg about this and we problems that I’ve been grappling with
realized that all of
the songs that we
covered came from
this little window
from when I was in
high school; either
it ’s music that
came out while I
was in high school,
or it was a record
that was new for
me at the same
Bob Hannan

time all this other

stuff was on the
radio. There’s
something about
that moment in
your life when you are forming who you or things that, as a musician or a writer,
are as an individual and these songs are hard for me. If I can overcome
have a fairly deep resonance within me; them, break through a little bit, then

Songwriter’s Monthly - Feb. ’11, #133

Bob Hannan
for me that would be what was both that track and throughout that EP,
important. “Those Beautiful Words” what kind of science background does
would be one because it was one of the everyone have?
first songs that sort of came in a burst
and was fairly fully formed. The bulk of AW: The answer is . . . none! Once we
that song wrote itself in about 20 had started talking about a boxed set
minutes and that has rarely ever and started thinking about what kind of
happened to me. That kind of signaled visual images we wanted to use, I said,
that maybe something was happening “ We l l t h e r e ’s t h i s w o m a n [ J u l i a
musically for me and necessitated Margaret Cameron] whose photography
continuing to write, forming a band and I really love . . .” So we began pouring
going out and doing it. through her images until we realized,
“Wow, we’ve got a cool album cover,
Another one was a song on the second now we gotta write a bunch of songs
record called “Light In The Window.” that fit that image!” In the case of that
Lyrically, I was able to do two things at second EP [HEAVENS], the album cover
once: convey this feeling of emotional is a photograph of an astronomer. The
distance and work in the metaphor of song, “Astronomy,” was written because
astronomy, the heavens and the planets I knew we had that theme. You know a
in a way that didn’t feel labored over. lot of songwriters, me included, tend to
I’m really proud of that song. I don’t phoneticise a melody. The tune of the
know if it’s a song that everybody else chorus went something like “Uh-lah-
responds to, but for me, that was a dah-dee.” “Astronomy” fit. It had the
really good one to get done because it right rhythm and the right sound. It’s
gave me a lot more confidence as a great to be able to work within
writer. structures.

SM: You use a lot of science words in SM: Concerning the titles of the EPs, I

Songwriter’s Monthly - Feb. ’11, #133

noticed they might not actually mean have multiple meanings. LUMENS, which
what you initially think they mean. For is the last one, is again multi-layered.
instance, the first EP is entitled BOUND Theoretically “light” is the theme of that
and that word has two very different record, but we don’t want to call it
meanings. “Light,” so we call it LUMENS which is a
measurement of light. But light
AW: Exactly! meaning what? Does it mean light as in
sunlight or is it light in terms of weight?
SM: But I didn’t realize that I might It’s trying to be both those things at the
have misinterpreted the title until I same time. I started writing the lyrics
listened to “Velvet Indigo” which is on knowing each one of these songs would
the 4th EP. have light as a word or a theme in
them. I also wanted to have some
AW: Exactly! I purposely put multi-level interpretation in each. That’s
“bounding” in the lyric because we’d the benefit of having the structure in
already put out that first EP [BOUND]. It place while you’re still finishing off the
was a way of saying, let’s make this material.
clear that we are bound together and
we are headed somewhere; it’s both! SM: While researching, I discovered
The nice thing about a boxed set of that “lumen” is also the hollow or open
material, this large chunk of work, is part of a cell or organ, like say, a blood
you can start making internal vessel. I was wondering if “hollow” was
references that tie things more together another intended meaning behind the
or illuminate little corners that you feel final chapter, as well?
might be getting overlooked. The titles
of each EP are meant to reflect what’s AW: Wow, that’s good. No, I didn’t
in there, but indirectly so that we can know that.

Bob Hannan

Songwriter’s Monthly - Feb. ’11, #133

world. You can inhabit different pockets
“We don’t have and corners of it at will, but everything
is relatively familiar. I like that we did
to defend our that because it takes the weight off of
any one song to somehow be the
taste, it’s singular thing you are trying to
communicate. Taken as a whole, it
always valid no communicates way more than any one
element could . . . that’s the hope
matter what.” anyway.

SM: Is there anything you wanted to Annals of My Glass House is a

bring up or point out? Anything we cornucopia of communication. You could
might have neglected? spend countless hours searching for
Alan’s clues, following conceptual
AW: I’m not sure that we talked a threads and riffling through multi-
whole lot about songwriting, per se, but layered tapestries of meaning and just
maybe we did sort of elliptically? when you think you’ve got it all figured
out, you discover some tiny aspect that
SM: It seemed to me, as we were somehow manages to change
talking, the important part of this everything. A fabulous work that
project was the creation of the whole, unfolds a little more with every single
more than the individual parts. listen. For more information, visit:

AW: Yeah, I think that’s probably right.

There’s the ambition of trying to write a
two-hour song that we kind of got
around by breaking it up into little bits.
There are some writers who are kind of
writing the same song all of the time,
not in the repetitive we’ve-heard-this-
before-from-you way, but more in the
sense that there’s a voice that they
write in and it’s always going to be like
that. I think, for better or for worse,
that’s where I am. The next batch of
songs will be different from this
grouping, but at the same time, they
are not going to be radically different.
It’s “art” as long as you put a frame
around it, you know, so when you wrap
a particular grouping of songs together h t t p : / / c l i c k . l i n k s y n e rg y. c o m / f s - b i n / s t a t ?

in a cardboard box, you do allow for the


illusion that you’ve created a little

Songwriter’s Monthly - Feb. ’11, #133