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Headlights Chapter Five: Desert Lullabies

Every graduate of WestConn has their “Capstone Project”. It is to represent the skills they’ve honed and where the student has been in their time in the program. That was on the horizon my senior year. In my four years of college, I had been all over: I had been taking classical vocal lessons my first two years. The crowd I hung out with and absorbed a lot from pursued studies in jazz and education. Within my circle, a smaller hemisphere that loved video game and alternative music. I was a radio host at my campus’ station which played a lot of indie and more obscure music. And under all of that, I had my original vision about making my music, more 90s rock-oriented with all the subgenres, still in my heart.

It was my most stable year of college emotionally. I lived with friends in the nicest dorm on campus. I quit smoking. I practiced on my dorm’s balcony a lot with my acoustic and continued making instrumental pieces. One demo was "Sunshine", a rhodes key that echoes between the left and right speaker in a sort of kaleidoscopic effect. Slowly, I was re-entering "project mode". In the background, I was listening to Jawbox’s For Your Own Special Sweetheart and Alfa Mist. I also listened to Pearl Jam’s Ten redux; a newer mix done by one of my favorite engineers, Brendan O’Brien. The new mix sounded vastly superior to the original, reverb drenched songs. I never was a massive Pearl Jam fan but that mix made me love those songs for a minute. Out of all of that, Songs for the Millennium was born.

Draft tracklist for Songs for the Millennium, then titled "Millennia: Songs for the Radio". Estimated date, late 2018

I remember thinking about the project being a “trio” sound, but once I got to recording all the over dubs it ended up just like a typical four piece rock band sound. Everything was very of the moment. I would record with a drummer and do a scratch guitar at the same time. I worked with two drummers, Nick (plays on tracks 1, 2 and 3) and Declan (plays on tracks 4 and 5) who were roommates of mine at the time. I layered in everything myself afterward. The only thing I didn't do were the brass parts. I originally wanted trumpet to peek in on some of the songs. But didn't know any trumpet players who would get what I was doing or would want to play on what I was trying to do. I sat down with my other roommate Dave, who played saxophone, for a session. I explained how I wanted the parts to sit on top. He was super talented, I wish my direction had better serviced that.

The lyrics were written outside the music. I like lyrics that aren’t specifically about one thing or anything really. Avoiding the "verse chorus verse” structure was one of the major goals. I remember plotting out the songs on paper by drawing “road maps” that consisted of shapes and arrows. Though the idea of avoiding conventional structures was good, it was a mindless tactic I implemented, honestly. The songs are long. On average, they start with long verses and choruses for the first four minutes, before turning and going somewhere more uncharted in the last four. However, it almost feels like they get lost wandering down a hallway and just wither out.

The melodies aim to be very structured. "Stranger's Song" and "Colossus" have verses that have very distinct, winding melodies. Unfortunately, the structures still follow a typical verse-chorus flow, leaving these melodies feeling very out of place (in verses that are long, and exhausting to listen to). These songs keep tugging between conventional structures and wanting something else, avoiding the usual fuel verses and choruses run on usually but not straying from the segmenting of said structure. As a result, they just feel like weak attempts at verses and choruses. The verses on “Stranger’s Song” and “Colossus” were the closest I came to establishing a different feel. I always loved "Stranger's Song", and "Colossus" was usually right behind it. But I didn't know how to thread the ideas I had on song structure yet.

“Napalm” was an attempt to capture my love for desert rock riffs a la Kyuss, Fu Manchu and early Queens of the Stone Age. I do enjoy the riff. The rhythm during the verse is cool, and was a part I had kicked around since my freshman year. “Desert Lullaby” almost earns its length. The intro and outro is noisy. It blows into a head on chorus. The "alternative chord" it lands on in the chorus, which in theoretical terms is a Major 6 chord, is a very common feel that alternative rock wields in its choruses. It's very moody, very pretty. That's how the chorus on "Select" and "Sharp" worked, too.

I love Songs for the Millennium because it really tried to disassemble the pillars of the music I loved. I was trying to challenge what my influences did. The verses don’t feel like verses, the choruses don’t quite feel like choruses; these were things I was tired of hearing in the music, but I simultaneously still enjoyed the accessibility that the delivery envelops. The problem is, I didn’t know quite where to take the music outside of those established parameters.

The best part of making those songs were the friends I played with; they were very talented and were fun to play with. I want to say a special thanks to Dave Merola, Nick Morcaldi, Declan McBride and Jake Falce for their musical chops and all the support they gave me in those days. In college, we were allotted three hour slots to work in the main studio. Some people were no shows in their slots, and the person after me would usually not show up so I’d get an extra slot to stay and work. I’d spend 6-7 hours in the studio working on mixing and overdubs. I felt strange making those songs. The time I spent with my friends at the dorm sort of blur. Everything in college sort of blurs thinking back. I tried to embrace that I wasn’t all over the place emotionally in that time. But there were moments I would get this empty feeling in my gut. I ignored it. I presented Songs for the Millennium to a positive panel of professors, playing them "Desert Lullaby". I released the EP publicly, the first time I had publicly shared music since Nurovia in 2015. I graduated college in May of 2019. When I walked, it was sunny out. College was over.

One morning that September, I sat down to listen to Songs for the Millennium for the first time in a long time. I was in my parent’s house and was off from my internship at the time. My heart slowly broke as I listened to the sound of me losing the plot in those years. And that was what I chose to make my first impression to everyone coming out of college. I could barely feel myself in these songs. It does matter what I was trying to do in the music: I was experimenting, trying to avoid things. But at the same time, the creative place they came from wasn't good. Music is a feeling and song ideas come from that emotional space. I can feel and hear how numb of a person I was in those days, in a bit of a decayed state. Those songs just don’t feel good and I hear a hollow shell of myself in those recordings. Music either feels good or it doesn't, and it should explain itself. Those songs didn't do that different thing I wanted yet, and definitely didn't explain what it was going for.

I need music to be real. I need life to be real, as silly as it sounds. It's important. I can't handle anything disingenuous. I don't like playing games and feeling people hold arms behind their backs. I don't want to hold an arm behind my back. It's full of shit. I value transparency. At the time, I wanted to own how I felt about Songs for the Millennium publicly. To sort of say "I think those songs aren't very good, I don't like where I am with all this and I'm moving on to figure it out". Because that was the real thing to do. And so I did. It was the only way I felt I could move forward.

But I was still in a state of shock. In the back of my mind, I remembered The Thing and Fahrenheit. I acknowledged that I felt I wrote better songs as a teenager. There was a wide array of conflicting emotions that began to arise in me that I didn't know how to sort through. I remember feeling like I had a decision to make: I told myself if I was going to continue making music, I’d have to tear everything down. I’d forget almost everything up to that point. Start from scratch. Completely change direction and come back completely unrecognizable. It was the only way I saw to make the music work and find what I was looking for. Or, I would just walk away from music. Though I felt like I had a decision to make, there was never really any hesitation: I can't walk away from music. I had that idea to find, still. That's what it was all about.

And if I remember correctly, it was early 2020 when I stared at a blank page in my journal, pen in my hand, trying to ask myself a question. It was the fourth journal I was working through. The other three were torn up and sitting in a drawer somewhere filled with Fahrenheit and Insomniac and all the other things I did. I was nearing the end of this one, and at this point I’ve torn out the final pages because they’re so worn out.

I looked at the page and finally formulated the question: “What does Alex D’Ambrosio’s music sound like?” I wanted a clean slate. To go back to the drawing board. It was about starting over, but it was also about remembering what I had done properly. I wanted no connection to any music I’d ever done. It was doing things differently, but also really getting to the root of what I had been trying to do for years.

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