Story Behind the Song: “Undertow”

The story behind my latest single, “Undertow”, starts back in early November of 2003. I’d emailed a relatively new co-writer, Mary Lou Sudkamp, about some potential opportunities with our first co-write, “I Didn’t Think”. She attached a new lyric, “Undertow”, to her reply, asking about my interest in writing music to it. I was pretty involved in something or other at the time, but I had a quick read through the lyric and replied that the lyric intrigued me enough to want to consider it more closely when I had a bit more time.

Looking back at that first draft with almost fifteen years of hindsight, I can see it was, in many ways, very similar to what, some months later, would end up being the final lyric, at least insofar as the basic structure and many of the images in the song went. It wasn’t quite sitting right with me as it stood, but I felt there was some good potential.

A few days later I replied, “might be a few needs for minor tweaks on the lyric, but I think it is pretty close. The main possible one I’m thinking about at the moment is getting it out of addressing a plural ‘you’ and just let it be a more generic ‘you’ which could be a guy warning his buddy or a woman warning her girlfriend — or perhaps could equally be someone standing up at a ‘lovers anonymous’ meeting.”

In fact, it was that last part — i.e. the AA-like standing up and telling one’s story — that most intrigued me. While, at the time, I was mainly focusing on writing songs for other people to sing, when I consider songs to sing myself, I like to think of the song as an actor might think of a script. For example, “who is the character, and what is the situation?” In this case, I was envisioning someone standing up at an addiction counseling meeting and warning others about the dangers of letting oneself fall in love.

Mary Lou’s lyrics contained the right sort of raw materials, but the perspective seemed more about telling the singer’s story, as opposed to warning others of the danger. If I were to use an AA meeting analogy, it was more like, “I started with a sip, then ended up drunk, and then got put in the slammer,” as opposed to, “you might think you can just take a sip, but that sip will lead to drinking the whole bottle and a DUI.”

I’d put some initial music to a subsequent draft of the lyric around mid-December, then Mary Lou and I went back and forth with various rounds of rewrites and comments for a few more months, with some lag time in between. Draft #14, at least by my counting, came in late March of 2004 and ended up being the final version.

On the recording front, some aspects of what would ultimately become the final recording earlier this year (i.e. 2018) started with that first work demo, while other parts evolved about a month after the lyric was finalized. The basic drums were there from the start. Most of the rest of the basic arrangement had already developed by a bit over a month after the lyric was finalized.

One particularly interesting part of the production came when I was reviewing some Vocaloid software, from Yamaha and Zero-G, for the now-defunct CakewalkNet.com e-zine. I’d initially been sent the Vocaloid LOLA software from Zero-G, which was billed as a virtual soul vocalist. The idea was that you’d enter the lyrics and melody, and some inflections, and the software would sing the parts. That early software was rougher than the Vocaloid MIRIAM software I ultimately reviewed later in 2004. In particular, I couldn’t get any convincing lead vocals from it. However, using it for background vocals, which I doubled with my own vocal harmonies, seemed to add an extra dimension, so LOLA made it to that late April 2004 iteration of the recording and has continued to be a part of the later recordings of the song.

The next step in the evolution of the recording came in late 2007. While the arrangement didn’t change significantly from the 2004 recording, I thought I could get better production quality by remixing it. That was “the” version of the song until earlier this year. While the song got pitched a bit here and there over the years, it mostly sat on the shelf.

Earlier this year I got thinking about the possibility of putting together a rock album, collecting some of the rock-flavored singles I’ve put out over the past few years alongside some additional songs I had at some stage of production. “Undertow” came immediately to mind, but my production skills and facilities have evolved a fair bit over the last decade, so I thought it was time to attempt another remix. (That rock album isn’t likely to come out in the near-to-medium term, but it is likely that songs I’d have included on it will come out as singles over the next few months.)

A decade is a long time in the software world, and some of the software instruments I’d used way back in 2007 no longer ran on my current system. LOLA was one of those, but, luckily, I’d rendered a submix of just LOLA’s background vocals, and that let me keep “her” in this year’s mix. Some of the other software synthesizers needed to get replaced, and some instruments simply benefited from being “upgraded” to more modern software. The net is a much better mix than either the 2004 or 2007 versions, but one whose raw elements mostly date back to the initial 2004 demo.

This song has taken almost a decade and a half to go from its initial writing to the new release, but it is finally out there. You can read the final lyric and hear a clip of the recording on the lyrics page and find links to various places to stream or purchase the recording on the single page.