The Process Behind An A Capella Ode Against Melancholy (With Help From Nina Simone)
Here's a story of how a sentiment, the kernel of a piece, can blossom when the right person comes along. The songwriter is Minneapolis-by-way-of-Wisconsin's J.E. Sunde, but the key transformer was Monica Martin, of the band Phox.
The tale of how "I Will Smile When I Think Of You," an Irish-style balla, evolved from its simple titular line — a mantra of sorts — into a completed piece of work also involved some divine inspiration from the goddess Nina Simone.
The song began as a fight against melancholy and ends up in a surpassing place — it also speaks to the notion knowing when a good idea has turned into a great one, a question an artist likely asks each day. Below, Sunde explains the process that formed the piece.
"I started writing the song three years ago and got about a verse in. And then it sat there. My intention was to write a 'happy' song, as I was in a rather melancholic place, not to mention that my tunes tend to lean towards the somber side of things anyway. So I got one line in, I will smile when I think of you, and then it snapped back into more emotionally complicated reflections on a relationship that had ended. So it goes. The line I will smile when I think of you spoke to the hope that even if it feels pretty terrible now, you will be able to look back with fondness, however bittersweet, on what you are currently mourning. It's kind of a mantra, a 'fake-it-until-you-make-it' sort of thing. A desire to will yourself into a better place. I'm of mixed minds on the effectiveness of this sort of strategy, but there seems to be, at least, something to it.
Anyway, I had this song partially done. About that time started listening to a lot of Nina Simone, especially her Pastel Blues record, which opens with the song "Be My Husband." I love Nina Simone, and that song just kills me. It's just her solo voice and percussion. At the time, 'I Will Smile' had a guitar part, but as I got inspired by Nina, the thought struck me that I could possibly do it with just solo voice. It was an exciting, scary possibility.
"I had two verses, then Monica and the Phox team invited me to open for them for a couple weeks. I had started doing this thing where, in the middle of my set, I would play three chunks of unfinished songs. Peopled seemed to like it and it was nice for me, because I'm generally really excited about new work and get impatient to perform it when it is taking a long time to resolve itself.
I thought it still needed another verse or bridge or something, but decided to perform it a capella with the two verses I had. I came to realize that the piece was, in fact, complete. Also, as the tour progressed, Monica and I worked up a duet version that made it that much more potent. At the end of the tour, I knew that when recording it I needed to have Monica sing the duet with me.
"This video is by Joshua Ford and was inspired by these beautiful photos from a fellow named Barry Phipps ... these photos of Iowa buildings. They feel very static and two-dimensional. They feel like paintings. Josh had an idea of basing the video concept on these photos. Keeping a consistent distance from the subject of each shot and keeping the shots static. No people. Very subtle, natural movement. I think it turned out beautifully and really resonates with the tone of the song."
J.E. Sunde's album Now I Feel Adored, which includes this duet with Monica Martin, was released March 3 on Cartouche Records.
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