When I hear a song for the first time my brain does something special.
It’s like the song is made of sand and my mind is a special sort of sifting pan. With each passing second I am sifting through the writing, the performance, and production to find something hidden inside.
Sometimes I don’t even realizing it’s happening until my brain starts spitting out information, readouts printed on mental ticker tape. I think this only works the first time I listen to a song because afterwards I’m hearing it more as a single, gestalt creation. I might still be able to identify its influences, but it’s something deliberate I’m doing with my conscious mind.
Listening for the first time is different. I’m trying to make sense of the whole of the song out of its parts, and it’s easier to sift out an obvious pinch of another song. A certain melody. A vocal tone. And, just like the mental sand I sifted them from, if I don’t jot them down right way they’re lost forever. The next time I hear the song, I’ll just hear the song.
Last week I was setting up my weights at the gym before a workout when the little ticker tape printer in my brain started working overtime. My mind buzzed non-stop, spitting out the names of other songs and performers.
Weirdly – because this never, ever happens – one of the names it spit out was mine. And then, just as unconsciously, I started singing along with the song as I was hearing it – first with the melody, and then the high floating harmony on the chorus.
The cause of all that buzzing was Andy Grammer’s late-2016 single, “Fresh Eyes.”
Now, I’m not saying Andy Grammer was influenced by me or nicked one of my songs. I heard so many hints of other artists in this song.
One that stuck out is The Police. It’s not just Grammer’s raspy vocal tone suggesting Sting, but how the simple single notes of guitar melody are syncopated, always popping up on the eight note “and” of the beat.
Simultaneously, there was something about his vocal cadence that screamed Adam Levine from Maroon 5’s Songs About Jane. It’s something to do with those little stepwise runs up and down, and how they end with breath rather than support. Also, one distinct moment of Paul Simon, nicked directly off of some song on Graceland I can’t quite identify.
But the chorus – which is magnificently simple – pinged me with my own song, “Something Real.” I was so confused when it happened, which is maybe why I started singing along? It was like I knew “Fresh Eyes” already – the melody, at least – and was remembering the words instead of learning them for the first time.
I think my brain slung the reference to my own song at me as a sort of densely-encoded honeycomb of references and influences, some of which I don’t even recall because now that song is its own gestalt for me and I cannot hear all the distinctive parts anymore. I remember exactly when it came to me, walking home from seeing Alexandra Day at the Tin Angel, and it’s little Sam Cooke convention of dipping to a low note in the chorus before rising to the next highest one.
To make sure I wasn’t being delusional, I asked E to have a deliberate listen to the song, and to yell out influences she heard as it played. After she mentioned a few we hit the chorus, and she said, “Well, not an influence, but – you. Obviously.”
A little anecdote as a footnote to this story:
When I played it for Lindsay last Thursday after dinner, 11-year-old J_____ chimed in, “Oh, yeah, that was really popular a few weeks ago.”
We had a good laugh over that – how we’re the olds now discovering music at the gym that the young kids have already heard.
I haven’t been able to divine why she would have been listening to it a few weeks ago when it was out for months, other than that a pair of remixes were recently released – “Ryan Riback Remix” and “Grey Remix.” What’s funny is that both of those would make a lot more sense to be playing at the gym, both from a rhythm standpoint, but I’m quite certain it was the original that was playing.