A Little Bit About "Lower Tiers"

It was 2013. I played a crummy show in Lakewood, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland. Six songwriters were on the bill. That's, of course, too many songwriters on a bill for a Wednesday night. We all agreed upon 25-30 minute sets. The first guy play for almost an hour. We cast lots and I, one of two out-of-town acts, took one for the team and it fell to me to play last. The girl who played before me in the lineup wore a fake mustache, skyped with her boyfriend during her set, got way too drunk and told everyone at the end of her too-long, sloppy set to have a good night and drive home safe. Everyone except the bartender left before I started my set. I played three songs and he gave me a sympathy $5 bill from his tip jar for one of my cd's. It was the end of a tour and I had a five and a half hour drive to get home. I got in my car at about midnight, slammed the door shut, sat quietly for about a minute with my hands on the steering wheel, then proceeded to laugh like a maniac for up to 5 minutes. It was either that or weep. How long was I going to have to keep doing these Wednesday night gigs in Lakewood before something "clicked"? Of course, I'm not a victim. I put myself in those situations constantly. It would be a little while before I figured this out, gained some self-knowledge, discovered some of what I was avoiding, and finally started getting my shit together. 

My sister Maria and I used to have these marathon conversations about the differences and similarities of our individual jobs we were struggling to make for ourselves in the arts. She spent some time as a professional photographer, I in music. We'd lift up all the rocks and examine what was under them. Great conversations. It was a constant puzzle to figure out the next step and get up to that next level of success and personal satisfaction with the work we were doing and how to keep that momentum going. 

Back at home I started pushing some personal boundaries. I read a book about the logic of love. How love must be conditional.  How to stay present in conversations and bring raw honesty into your relationships. It was a game changer for me. It catapulted me unexpectedly into a new frame of mind. I had to readjust my priorities. It caused some needed conflict. Some of it had positive results, some of that conflict had painful results. I pushed full steam ahead. In the pressure cooker of a radical shift in mindset and values, I began playing guitar with a different fervor than I ever had. It looks weird to me written on this page, but I think that's what was going on with the song that ended up being "Lower Tiers". I found a song that utilized every note in the chromatic scale, almost as if my identity had totally fallen apart and all the notes were all the pieces that I had to pick up, dust off, and put back together again in a different configuration. Maybe that's pretentious, but I don't care. That's how it felt. 

I first played this song for an audience in Milwaukee at an art gallery. I had to rent a car (my old one had just finally died), take some time off work, and drive up to Wisconsin in a blizzard. The roads were really bad, but I made it finally and it ended up being  a great experience. Not like Lakewood. I enjoyed every other band that played, made some great new friends, and got maybe a little too high before I played (I'd never done that before). It could've ended up being a disaster, but fortunately, the vibes in the room were so good that night and everyone was so keyed in that almost nothing could've derailed the set. I played this song and it felt right and fitting at that moment in my redevelopment that I would have a successful show and also be able to express this new phase of my life with this song. It was a distinct turning point. 

I think you can hear some of that uncertainty, wistfulness, and anticipation of a brighter future in this song. I also view it as the older sister of the song "L'Anse" that I released last month. It's related in structure and precedes it in theme and narrative, but is different in temperament as siblings often are.  

On this recording, I think Bud Clowers really tapped into some of that angst, I guess you could say, and plays the hell out of the drums in just the way I felt when I wrote the song. It's all possibility, but there's this restraint and sometimes hesitation there because of the unknown (we struggled with the arrangements of this song for some time and threw away a lot of ideas). It worked. It has the impact of the first time I played the song alone in Milwaukee. It's a struggle song, a protest song, a paying-your-dues song, and a this-is-all-going-to-be-worth-it-one-day song. I hope it helps. 

-John