When I listen to "Martha Ann"—the best track from David Karsten Daniels' second record for Fat Cat, Fear of Flying, and one of 2008's most perfect pop songs—I never listen to it once. I double the playlist so that, as soon the first cycle through the song's 126 seconds ends, it begins again immediately. "Martha Ann," after all, is sheer motion, violins, vocals, horns and keyboards forming a carousel of exits and entrances beneath a syncopated guitar-bass-drum stomp. Just when the saxophones captivate, Daniels' voice, backed perfectly by John Ribo and Sara Morris, springs forward, an organ whirling a fancy figure just beneath. The horns flash into the gaps between the verses, girded by and dancing with Daniel Hart's dashes of strings. "Martha Ann" foregoes a chorus, too, limiting repetition, substituting endless refrains for terse verses with parallel melodic contours. Chances are, you'll be able to hum that shape after one listen.
The song's efficient structure reinforces its lyrical ambiguity: The narrator judges Martha Ann, but—over the course of two minutes—its his lack of empathy, not her plight, that seems most regrettable. She seems to be living her life. He seems unable to live his because he can't comprehend hers. Just when Daniels begins to cope with his own understanding and offer his bit of hope, a guitar solo stunts the self-reflection. Where you may be hoping for more answers after the break, you simply get the short skip to the next track. That's resolution of a sort.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: When the tour with Amiina got canceled after Sharp Teeth was released, you made much of Fear of Flying. But was this song already written?
DAVID KARSTEN DANIELS: I think I started writing this song right after I finished Sharp Teeth. It's easily the oldest song from the new record.
What came first, the lyrics or the idea or the melody?
It was one of the few songs where it was written really fast, and the lyrics and the chords all just came out at the same time. It was a really easy song to write. And that's, I find, a general indication that a song is working.
It's interesting that there's no chorus. You didn't say, "Well, yeah OK, I've got this but it isn't a song yet because I haven't written a chorus." Did you ever think, "Oh, well there is this part missing"?
Well, there's two ways I can tell this: One way is that I was really interested in doing kind of the traditional song structure, but I still wanted it to be a catchy song. So I thought, "Well, what if the song only has verses but the verses were essentially like real hooky—like choruses—and you wouldn't need a chorus. It's just like verses, and then the song's over." So that's one way to look at it. The other way is that I just got lazy and just started with something I liked and just didn't take it much further than that.
Which one would you tell your Lord?
[Laughs.] I'd say mostly the first one. But my wife always calls me out on being lazy about songwriting, like just getting a couple of lines that are real good and then going, "Eh, OK, that works." She says that I write songs that are too short or unnecessarily short. So that's it. It's a little bit of both, I suppose. It's like ,"I'm going to be sure that it's working" and then try to convince yourself that this is a good reason to keep it that way instead of developing it further.
One of the charms of this song, besides it being so catchy without a chorus, is that its brevity keeps the story very general, though the lyrical aphorisms give us enough substance that we can relate.
There are two things about that: One, I think the song is more about the narrator than it is about the subject. Let me think of a better way to say that: It's more about the narrator about this Martha Ann character or more about the salvation of the narrator than it is about the Martha Ann character. It's interesting that some people see the song as a condemnation of the Martha Ann character and other people see it as a kind of a subversion of the narrator. But you know it's some of both, and obviously there's room for people to see it however they want.
The other piece is that when I started writing the song, immediately, I thought that I wanted to write a bunch of songs around this thing. So I envisioned this song as part of a collection of songs that were related to one another. I think I just thought it's not necessary for this song in itself to have its whole story because the idea behind this record is to present different view points that are necessarily contradictory and don't allow you to kind of take a mission statement from any particular songs. This is what this record is about.
The obvious question: Who is Martha Ann?
I'd rather not say. I don't think it's real important. I'd rather not say.
Last week, you talked about trying to make this song sound effortless, even though things are constantly floating in and out of the mix. What was the biggest challenge in getting that right on the recording?
I think that there was this conflict between having the thing be really full, almost sounding like—I want to say a party, but sounding like a group of ... like that Scorsese documentary on The Band, you know, where they just have all those guests and a ton of people onstage playing. I can't remember the name of that.
The Last Waltz.
The Last Waltz. That's right, yeah. I just wanted it to sound like a bunch of people just playing music in a room and having fun. At the same time, when you have as many tracks as that song has—I mean, six horn parts, four violin parts, and three keyboard parts and two guitar parts, etc., etc, and three vocals, you do have to carve out a space for everything to live. For me, though, the most enjoyable part of recording is kind of just coming up with a part and then docking it and leaving it in there. This song is a lot of writing parts, playing parts that I really enjoy, but ultimately I had no space in the mix and eventually had to mix them out. So I think that was the challenge.
Essentially, making choices about what fits the song best..
Towards the end when the thing was really full, it started getting really micromanaged. Daniel Hart and I were sitting there doing the violins for it, and we were recording each little interjection in the second verse (I think it is) one piece at a time. Just [makes violin noise] or whatever it is, just super micromanaged. In the end you're doing that, spending hours and hours getting them exactly how you want them to sound, but, at the same time, it's like they still need to sound just kind of effortless. And that was a challenge.
Daniel played on Fear of Flying, but he just didn't participate as heavily this time around as on Sharp Teeth, right?
He just played on "Martha Ann." That was the only track he played on.
I've had a long-standing debate with some friends about whether or not this song reminds me more of The Band or The Grateful Dead. What are your thoughts on that divide?
Whether I think it's more like one or the other, or if it's a question of what I have love for more?
I was thinking a lot more about The Band. I don't think I was ever was thinking about The Dead when I was actually recording it. With that said, I think that "Box of Rain" is the perfect Grateful Dead recording. A couple of years ago, I think it was during the Prayers and Tears tour where me and Perry—I can't remember if Alex was into it or not—there were a couple of us in the car, just giving the Grateful Dead another try because I think we had all kind of written it off in high school. When I was in high school in Montgomery, Ala., everything in the Southeast was about, at the time, Widespread Panic and the Grateful Dead and I guess kind of the beginnings of Dave Matthews. But at that time, I was just really turned off by it because it felt like just a kind of a bandwagon to get on. It took me moving to Texas where no one gave a crap about The Dead to be like, "Oh, there's actually something here worth checking out."
Actually, I came really late to that party and, where obviously there's some really great Dead albums, I don't care for their albums as much. I'm more interested in the kind of more conventional studio records. What's always really intriguing to me about the Dead is that the harmonies are often mixed higher than the lead vocal. It's so strange. I mean, maybe someone knows the answer to this, and I've never looked into it as much, but this has to be some kind of drugged-out accident because why would you do that? My conventional thinking is like, "A harmony only makes sense relative to the lead vocal. It only exists to kind of polish the lead vocal in some way." A lot of Grateful Dead recordings, particularly "Box of Rain," just totally turn that on its side. It's like "Check out these harmony vocals. Forget about the lead vocal." The mixing on "Martha Ann" backup vocals never got to that point but...
But it approaches that, at least. John Ribo and Sara Morris are pretty high in the mix at points.
It does, yeah. I actually mixed it kind of a little bit lower. When it got mastered, John and Sara's vocals ended up appearing to be sounding a lot louder than I had mixed them. At first, it struck me as kind of strange because there aren't any other tracks [like that] on the rest of the record, and the same is true of Sharp Teeth, that the backing vocals are always way behind the lead vocal. On this track, it wasn't the case. But, in retrospect, after I kind of let go of my idea that it needs to sound "such and such," I'm quite happy with the way that it turned out.
David Karsten Daniels plays Local 506 Saturday, Jan. 24, at 10 p.m. Tickets are $7. The Prayers and Tears of Arthur Digby Sellers opens with Bright Young Things.