We’ve spent the last several months recording and producing a new record that we are tremendously excited to release into the world. This album, “Pretty Little Secrets,” is the record we’ve always wanted to make. For those of you following us from the beginning, this will serve as a delightful follow-up to our first release in 2010, when everything was energy and frantic fire. We’ve explored a lot, musically and personally, in this last almost-decade, and we’re coming to this release feeling very sure-footed, equipped with sharper tools and a better perspective, ready to do these songs justice. And we are insanely grateful to each and every one of you who have supported us along the way, given us a place to play, given us a place to sleep, called or texted or emailed or given us hugs of support, and helped us on our way through all parts of this journey.
We’ll release “Pretty Little Secrets” this November. In the meantime, over the next few months, we’ll tell you the backstory behind it all--the songs, the recording process, the album art, everything that went into the creation of this once-in-a-lifetime effort.
This month we’re talking about the songs themselves--which songs will be on the album, what they’re about, what inspired them. We hope you enjoy this inside look at how it’s all come together.
This is a bit more backstory on some of these creations than we’ve typically shared, so get yourself a glass of something and enjoy this behind-the-scenes peek at the 15 tracks we’ll soon be sending out into the world.
(This will likely be the opening track to the album, though the rest of the tracklist is still settling out.)
Choruses--or pieces thereof--are frequently the first parts of new songs to find their way out. They’re the raw feeling of the whole thing; they come out like a punch to the gut. But then comes the long road of telling the story, and properly honoring that emotion. The opening line of the chorus on “Running Out” was inspired by the news coverage immediately following the Parkland school shootings in 2018 (“Most folks today think no one’s the wiser / We’ll load our guns and do it all over again”). This got us started on a long discussion of the factors that contribute to mass shootings, this American story that has so long repeated itself.
The song isn’t directly about mass shootings, but it captures the helplessness/hopelessness of watching various influences (divisiveness, stubborn clinging to outdated institutions, unwillingness to grow and compromise) continually contribute to tragic outcomes. There’s no solution offered here, but there is definitely an opportunity for examination, introspection, and conversation.
Inspired by the true story of the first truck John owned, a 1977 Ford F-150 with no air conditioning, "2-55" is a song about the freedom and invincibility of youth. It's about drinking, being broke, and having the time of your life. John grew up in South Texas, where Summer lasts for nine months and not having air conditioning in your 1977 F-150 is a bit of a problem. The title of the song came from a conversation that an 18 year-old John had with his dad about this situation. His dad pointed out that the AC could be easily fixed, immediately and for free. Turns out, the truck was equipped with a “2-55” air conditioning system. Apparently, all you have to do is open those two side windows, and go 55 miles per hour. Problem solved. Thanks dad…
But wouldn’t you know, it worked well enough to get the truck through many misadventures, which is about all there is to do in South Texas. One of our favorite lines/soon-to-be bumper sticker came out in this song, looking back at a time when nothing made you feel more alive than driving too fast down dark country roads: “When you’re riding with me, you’re right at the shrine / Give your heart to Jesus cuz your ass is mine”. And that line rings true every time we see someone shake theirs when they hear that rockabilly guitar.
Our writing processes are pretty consistent--Rebecca usually begins with a melody, and lets the lyrics emerge, then the instrumentation is built around it. John usually starts with an instrumental idea and a lyrical concept, and then the lyrics and arrangement are refined. This song started out as a poem, a rhythmic exercise Rebecca started in an effort to kick loose some writer’s block. But the words started taking on a voice that wouldn’t go away, and themes started showing up that felt provocative and compelling.
Lyrically, the song explores being crippled by indecision, knowing that the things that make you who you are, are not necessarily in line with what people expect of you. Following that path may let a lot of people down. But denying it will kill who you are. It became a very exposed and vulnerable piece. And it felt too important to just shove in a notebook and forget. There was more story to tell.
But it threw the normal writing process on its head. The water-tight rhythm of the lyrics without an initial melody started a long process of frustration. What followed was week after week of trying different melodic ideas, different rhythmic ideas, but the song remained elusive. Going out on a limb, we decided to just record it anyway, and it was then that the song found itself. The magic wand turned out to be a handmade gourd banjo (courtesy of Drew Nelson) that Rebecca gave John as a wedding gift years ago. John put the instrument in a unique open tuning, and found a haunting drone and a deep backbeat, inspired in no small part by the band Alabama Shakes, and it was home. It not only made it on the album, it’s become a frontrunner for favorite.
“The music man told me once that his notes run sharp / But it sure beats running out of time.”
Hell & High Water
This one came out over a series of rainy afternoons amidst an under-slab pipe replacement job, following a couple of minor plumbing disasters that occurred shortly after we moved into our house. This was inspired by some of our closest friends who had lost their home in a flood, and the rebuilding of life that followed. The song focuses on adjusting to a “new normal” after sudden, unexpected, and traumatic change (“Trouble turns up on two nickels / and hell and high water rush in”), and rebuilding amidst the rubble, finding that we’re strong, and stronger for it, though we may not know where that strength comes from.
The song started out as a simple but powerful ukulele tune--a rare instance when Rebecca took over the instrumental composition aspect as well as the vocal components. John would come in later to write the harmony vocal, but the original composition remained true to the original form. It needed a little more support to hold its own against the other tracks on this record, so Rebecca issued John the challenge of making this ukulele tune “sound like the band, Drive By Truckers”. It might be the closest we get to sounding like Southern rock, but damn if it doesn’t do the story proud.
We’ve done a lot of volunteer work in homeless outreach in Houston. Homelessness is a unique and difficult problem in a community, and we do our best to contribute in a positive way, to help where we can. This song is a true story of a homeless man named Sarge (that’s the only name he’ll give you), who lives under an I-45 overpass north of the 610 Loop. Sarge is a veteran who served in the Gulf War in the 1990s. One night, his unit captured a POW--a young boy who refused to talk during interrogation. The commanding officer determined that the boy was of no use, and decided to kill him. Sarge disagreed with the decision and, acting in defense of the defenseless, he severely beat his commanding officer. This set off a chain of events that led to Sarge living on the streets for over 20 years.
This song is a first-person account of his story, and explores the irony that making a “right” decision and being a “good” person doesn't guarantee you anything, and in fact, can permanently change your life for the worse. But as you travel through disillusionment, and if you survive that journey, you may find peace where you end up.
“Their walls couldn’t hold me / My angel she told me / I’m free to reap the seeds I will sow”.
Last Leaf Has Fallen
This song came to life in the winter season, as the trappings of holidays and family visits concluded for another year. This song speaks to the sorrow of seeing someone you care deeply about choose a challenging, self-destructive path, and reconciling that with touching moments. The backdrop of this story is the subtext of why this may happen, and the hard decisions that lead us to where we are in our lives (things left unsaid, deaths in the family, guilt). Most importantly, this song touches on why we love each other anyway. We used images from our volunteer work in homeless outreach to paint this picture.
“On a cardboard sign, I painted a rhyme / On a brand new, ordinary day”.
The first verse of this song came quickly, on a rainy Sunday in December, the day after our last show in 2017. It had been a formidable year, and we were realizing that we had pretty much reached the limit of what we could juggle, regarding time, schedule, relationships, and emotional health. We had decided to make a change in our lives--ratchet down the number of shows we did, more clearly define the types of shows we would take, really hone in on our style and voice, and take a hard look at what we wanted to do. We were beginning to feel the early effects of that change, to see what it meant to say “no” when we had worked so hard for so many years to get a few “yesses”. It all felt so delicate.
After the first verse, the rest of the song remained silent for awhile. Shortly after, one of our dear friends lost a loved one that she had cared for for many years. This friend is a uniquely special person with one of the greatest capacities for giving to others that we've known. We hadn't met the person she lost, but we didn't need to. Thinking of her grieving, of a heart that gives so much to so many being broken--eventually showed us the rest of this song. The other verses soon followed. Singing the song feels like treading on hallowed ground, formed on delicate respect and acknowledgement that we will all lose something or someone, that everything will change, that in death and in loss, there is love and beauty.
“You blink and then you miss it / The chance to be alive”.
Sweeter with Wine
This one first found life about nine years ago, and took a little time to find its place. At its core, this little bluesy number is about plotting rights to wrongs, taking matters into your own hands, coming up with all kinds of schemes and plans and promises that will fix all the wrongs in your life...at 2am, after you’ve had a few. The real premise is having a good time in the face of a less than ideal situation.
“Get by, love it in the meantime / Stale bread tastes sweeter with wine / Take yours, baby I’ll make mine / Broke down but feeling fine”.
Never Again (Again)
Another one of the older songs on this album, this song has taken many forms over the years. It finally found its true voice on this album, once we put down the acoustic guitars and found the volume knobs on our amps.
What came to be is a jaunty little rock number where the verse sounds like a chorus and the chorus sounds like a verse, and it all sounds like a party. The lyric came as we examined the darker sides of human nature that allow us to lie to people we love and make bad decisions, and that, on the receiving end, should be obvious, but still take us by surprise. But it also takes the approach of not blowing things out of proportion, because dammit, nobody’s perfect and we love them anyway. A bit of a universal theme in applying these truths to ourselves, because you know deep down there are things about you that just ain’t right either. So pour another round and hold on; it’s gonna be a crazy ride.
“I know your lies like the back of my hand / Another night of ‘never again’ again”.
The first verse of this song was written with a very different intention than how it ended up. This verse, which seemed like the beginning of a poignant, sad song, sat as a loose scrap in Rebecca's notebook for a couple of years. But one night we were thumbing through our notes and John started playing with some upbeat rhythmic ideas. Rebecca had been on a listening kick with The Devil Makes Three, so an old-school jug-band party vibe was quickly emerging. But we still couldn’t figure out the point of the thing.
Around the Fall of 2016, we saw several relationships fracture over political disagreements, where players on all sides dug in and cut ties. Social media and communication on that electronic medium directly amplified this, as squabbles between people with different opinions were laid out center stage, and relationships were damaged over the latest crisis du jour. While the emotions involved and the circumstances that led us here are important, what’s more important is that we’re all on the bottom together--and no matter what side you’re on, the system is falling in on itself, and a lot of opinions might be more productive pointed elsewhere.
We decided to make a party of it. It’s something of a drinking song, featuring a wicked kazoo solo that started out as a joke but ended up being too good to leave at home. Cheers, friends. Keep perspective, and don’t sweat the petty stuff.
“Let em be, we’re gonna make our own way / There’s a whole lot more to life than keepin score / The gig is up and life will set in someday / And all this shit won’t matter anymore”.
We get to see a lot of interesting places and hear a lot of fascinating stories when we travel. After awhile, a few patterns start to emerge. Behind every traditional, high-mannered, well-heeled facade, there lies a deeper story, hidden from view by a dusty velvet curtain. And sometimes, after catching a glimpse, the songs write themselves.
This song pulls in parts of stories that were told to us while we were staying in one such town several years ago. We took our time finishing this one, pulling pieces here and there, reveling in the history and folklore. How much is true, and how much is embellished may depend on which innkeeper or bartender or matriarch you talk to, the time of day, and how much they’ve been drinking. But there are plenty of hard and fast documented mile markers that you can fill in the details around.
The old gambling rings, the unmarked graves of CSA soldiers and children, the sanitarium-turned-honeymoon suite, the crumbling shrines to legacy and status…hands clinging desperately to a sinking ship. They’re all there, waiting for you to draw your own conclusions. And we just love it to pieces.
“Cross the tracks and take a stroll / Divided by the cotton boll / We’ll tell you of the carousel / insanity, the road to hell”.
When the Deed is Done
Some songs are inspired by an immediate emotional response. Some mull around for years, deep beneath the consciousness, forming quietly, ready to be found when the emotion has been fully processed. Inspiration for this song occurred over many years, going something of a distillation before making its way to the surface. Sometimes it seems like they wait until you’re ready.
This song does not focus on one event in particular, but it pays homage to some challenging times, the kind that change you, the kind that you look back at and can clearly see the “before times” and the “after times” on opposite sides. It addresses the mindset of someone who finally finds the confidence and inner peace required to fully discard someone or something that is destroying him. Understanding what it truly means to finish the job, knowing that you may pay, but in the long view, you'll come out clean.
“So walk with me in the desert sun / I’ll leave you here when the deed is done”.
We were driving home late one night on I-45 Southbound, headed out of Houston. We were intermittently surrounded by "crotch rockets", small but incredibly fast motorcycles that were weaving in and out of traffic at very high speeds. We had known about the "20 Minute Club" for some time, and its penchant for attracting youth that take incredible risks both to themselves, and to others around them. As we watched these bikes fly around cars that were "only" going 70 mph, we thought about the mind of someone who can't help but self-destruct. These riders became a metaphor for so many of us that are drawn to self-destruction in other ways, no matter the consequences to themselves or others.
This dance with the bikes went on for awhile, and then traffic suddenly slowed down and stopped. Eventually, we saw a bike down in middle of the freeway, the lights of the car behind it illuminating the dust rising from its wrecked form. Quiet chaos before even the sirens arrived. No sign of the rider. We never were able to find an accident report, or find out if he was okay.
“Well the time feels right to seize the night, throw caution to the wind / No holds barred underneath the scars of roadburn on my skin”.
Left Right Left
You’ve gotta love the parallels between the daily 8-to-5 and the cadence of a military march. Both require a strict, orderly path, keeping to a straight line, and a predictable, scripted call and response. And if you let it, it will take everything you are willing to give, under the guise that money is compensation for your time, your family, your health, your life. But the perks and status come with a price, and it will all disappear the minute you fall out of line. And what can you do? The power is all positioned much higher up. But the real power is in finding that balance when you can turn away from the trappings of the more/bigger/faster/newer pill that’s being sold. (“You try to keep it quiet but it’s just no use / There ain’t no way to shake it, gotta cut em loose”).
This is probably the most rapid-fire machine gun lyric we’ve ever composed; when we finished writing it, we spent a few weeks wondering how we were going to actually sing it. When we recorded it, we actually had to track the verses in alternate lines (lines 1 and 3 first, then go back and track lines 2 and 4) to keep the recording feeling more natural. (More on the recording process in a later post!)
Deep breaths for this one, friends. And a little core work doesn’t hurt either.
Somewhere to Go
The more things change, the more they stay the same. We actually wrote this song about five or six years ago, but it just didn’t have a place at the time. It was a 6/8 tune with some well-placed colorful language, and we just weren’t sure what to do with it. (“It’s the very same shit / With a different name”.) So we recorded a scratch version one night, and promptly forgot about it. Fast-forward to late 2018. We were beginning the very preliminary prep on this record, and started going down a rabbit hole of old recordings. Amid a handful of unfinished scraps, we found this little gem. It made us laugh, and what really struck us was that the lyrical content hadn’t aged a bit--the song was more relevant than ever.
The song is a fun little jab at social media and a sideswipe at traditional media. And through it all, we’re given our own personal platform to broadcast our opinions into an echo chamber with complete autonomy. These talking heads take many forms. Here, we become our own talking heads, bound not to facts, not to Standards & Practices, not even to the common decency that we are certain would exist were these conversations happening face-to-face. It seems like there used to be a better way, but really, who can remember?