Body Stuff

Jonathan Mann has been writing a song a day for 10 years, and he released this album on his 10 year anniversary of starting the project.

 

The Story

Part of the idea behind Song A Day has always been that over time, I would dig through all the songs to find the good ones worthy of reworking for a proper release.

The problem, of course, is that when there are thousands of tunes, its difficult to figure out which songs to come back to.

Over the years, I’ve dealt with this in a number of ways. I’ve put out albums grouped by topic and albums that fit together stylistically. While I’m proud of what I’ve put out in this way, at some point I realized that I was relying on this “grouping” mechanism because of an underlying fear:

I shouldn’t actually take the time to rework my very best songs, because if I did that, and it was a failure, I’d have “wasted” all my best songs.

There’s a quote, attributed to Hemingway (he probably didn’t actually say it):

 
 
 
 

Song A Day is all about writing drunk. It’s creating with abandon. Using this method, I’ve written some great songs. The downside is that I’ve spent all my time working on that “writing drunk” muscle, and almost no time on my “editing sober” muscle. I’ve never quite felt that I could do the really good songs justice.

I spent many hours shuffling through a huge playlist on Spotify where I’ve parked all 3000+ songs. When I heard a song I liked, I’d add it to another, smaller playlist. In this way, I got it down to a group of 100 or so.

From there, I started experimenting in my home studio, taking different songs in one direction or another. I managed to whittled it down to just 10. I don’t know if these are my “best” songs. But they’re the ones that both had a spark that excited me and that I was able to wrangle and grow into something beautiful, something I could really be proud of.

Here I present both the original Song A Day demo, alongside the finished product and a short explanation of how I got from here to there.

 

 

TRACK ONE: I Used To Love My Body

#3612. November 21st, 2018

I Used To Love My Body

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#3167. September 1st, 2017

Please Beeping Thing Out My Window, Stop Beeping

 
 
 
 

The first song on the album is actually two separate (and recent) songs smashed together.

The original version of I Used To Love My Body was written over Thanksgiving break 2018. It’s an example of a song where I sat down with literally zero ideas, but as soon as I started writing, it became clear what was on my mind.

I’m struggling with body image issues for the first time in my life, and it’s disorienting. At the same time, I’m 100% on board with the body positivity movement… in theory. In practice, I think until I can love my own body, it’s impossible to love everyone else’s. I really want to, though.


Please Beeping Thing Out My Window has a funny origin. Sarah Larson is the podcast reviewer for the New Yorker. I turned one of her tweets into a song, and then tagged her on Twitter:

 
 
 
 

I always really liked the song that came out of this random exercise.

When I listened back to the original version of “Body”, I liked the feeling and the melody of the chorus, but the verse was flat and boring. So I made “Beeping” take over the verse, while keeping the chorus the same.

TRACK TWO: Smog Gets Thicker

#148. May 28th, 2009
The Smog Gets Thicker

 
 
 
 

The Smog Gets Thicker is probably the first Song A Day song I can remember thinking at the time, “Hey, this is a good song.” It’s another one that simply tumbled out of me. I didn’t set out to write it, I just sat down and started writing.


Here’s some of what I reference in the song:

  • Marc Summers, the host of Nickelodeon’s Double Dare had OCD.

  • “Korgano the moon” refers to the totally bonkers episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where an ancient civilization transforms the Enterprise into an archeological site - Data becomes (among other characters) “Masaka”, the sun god, and Picard has to put on the “Korgano” mask to convince Data/Masaka to put the ship back together.

  • 802 is the area code of Vermont where I grew up.

  • I was visiting LA at the time of writing the song, and so that’s why I wrote “Funny how the sunsets are pretty when the smog gets thicker.”

All this stuff must have just been rattling around in my brain.

I’ve taken this song through many iterations over the years, but I could never quite find the direction that felt completely right. Finally I settled into this guitar rhythm, mixed with the bom bom bombombom in the drums (which are directly inspired by the main theme to Terminator 2) and everything else just fell into place.

TRACK 3: Before It All Comes Crashing Down

#3527. August 8th, 2018

It All Comes Crashing Down

 
 

I wrote this song after spending the entire day covering this awesome song from a fantastic Brooklyn band called Caged Animals. I think spending all day on someone else’s chord changes and melodies definitely had an effect on how this song sounds.

TRACK FOUR: Is Sorry Enough?

#2770. August 1st, 2016

I Just Want To Understand

 
 

TW: Sexual assault

OK, so, this is the one I’m really quite anxious and scared to write about.

The inspiration for this song came from an essay by Kelly Kend. What really caught my attention was this idea:

A sexual encounter that one or both parties had at one point considered simply “awkward” or “bad sex” could actually be, upon reflection, sexual assault.

Looking at my early sexual life through this “was it really just awkward?” lens, I confronted a painful realization: I had almost certainly crossed some lines. This was disorienting. Like putting on the glasses in “They Live”. I had spent 10, 15 even 20 years with my memories framed one way. Suddenly they looked completely different. There was no way to know for sure if what I feared about these encounters was true without reaching out directly to the people involved. So I did, with an unequivocal apology and no expectation to hear anything back.

This is the only thing I can think of to do, aside from raising my son and daughter to be more aware of this stuff than I was.

I wrestled with whether or not to put this song out, or write about how it came about. I felt, and still feel, embarrassed and ashamed

Is it enough? I don’t know.

I want to note that the “story” in the song is fictional, but it is made up of small moments that reflect my late teens/early 20s reality.

TRACK FIVE: Everything Is Limited

#2203. January 12th, 2015

Everything Is Limited

This is one of two songs on the album that’s a pretty straight interpretation of the original. I was thinking a lot about the idea of a “limited” mindset vs. a “growth” mindset. I definitely spend most of my time in the latter.

TRACK SIX: Today’s Task

#2670. April 23rd, 2016

Today’s Task

In the throes of Song A Day, it’s very common for me to use midi stand-ins for everything: Bass, Drums, Piano, etc. It’s just faster, which makes things easier on busy days.

One of my biggest goals on this record was to try to use as many “real” instruments as possible. I even went so far as to buy a drum kit and play the drums myself, even though I really can’t play.

This song changed quite a bit in that process, but once I had the basic backing track laid down with real instruments, I kept the original lyrics, which are more about my day-to-day struggle with motivation. At a certain point, listening back, I felt like the song could be much stronger with a more coherent theme and message. The rewrite started with the first line, “Times Square was built on a swamp”, which isn’t technically true, though if I understand correctly, it was built on a convergence of 3 large streams, and is prone to flooding as a result.

Anyway, with that line, the song became the only overtly political song on the record.

TRACK 7: Nobody Knows What The F They’re Doing

#2143. November 13th 2014

Nobody Knows What The F They’re Doing

I have this piece of paper stuck to the wall of my studio. It’s called An Eschatological Laundry List and it was written by a psychologist called Sheldon Kopp in his book, If You Meet Buddha In The Road, Kill Him!

My grandmother, who knew Sheldon, gave me the list. It’s really fantastic. It pairs well with this song. The line “If you have a hero look again/You have diminished yourself in some way” is number 18 on the list.

It’s strange to get older. All of my friends are still doing what they’ve always done. Some have become wildly successful, others are plugging away, but none of us know what we’re doing.

TRACK EIGHT: Pop Corn

#270. September 27th, 2009

Popcorn

Along with The Smog Gets Thicker, this is another song from year one of Song A Day.

TRACK NINE: With No Bullshit

#2215. January 24th, 2015

With No Bullshit

I don’t want to go full Jack Dorsey here, but this song is one of many that came out of an experience doing a week long silent meditation retreat. I know, I know. But I can’t help it. It was a difficult, transformative experience.

TRACK TEN: Time Only Moves In One Direction

#2454. September 20th, 2015

Time Only Moves In One Direction

This song began as an improvisation while putting my son to sleep. It’s really cute, you can watch him struggle and finally give in to sleepy time in the video above.

I am continually fascinated and amazed by the fact that scientists don’t have a good answer for why time moves forward and not back. Why we can remember the past but not the future. Time is really, really weird.