THE STORY BEHIND "HUMAN"
I'm excited to tell the story behind this song because the past two months' singles had much different inceptions than this release. Instead of writing to someone else's target given for a pitch opportunity and having to crank it out in a couple of days, this song came to be through the more artistic and organically inspired path. I simply wrote it because I wanted to. It was something on my heart, the melody just "came to me" as the muse whispered it in my ear, and I documented what was forming in my head as I went about my days. I'm going to break it down into the various facets and talk about the reasons and creative process.
First of all, I want to dedicate this song to Nichole Nordeman. If you're not familiar with her lyric writing, you need to find her songs and buy them. There may be other people who are as good at lyric writing as she is, but you'd be hard pressed to find someone who is BETTER. She's so good, Prince even recently covered a song of hers, and it's a Christian song! Seriously, Nichole, if you ever read this, I want you to know that you set the bar for me as a lyricist. You prove that there can be "no wasted space" time and time again. I use your lyrics to "Every Season" as an example of lyrical excellence when I teach my students. You make me want to keep getting better and better. Thank you for being awesome at what you do. [P.S. We hung out once but you probably don't remember. It was in the late 90s at my friend Jeff S's house. And Kurt recorded you in our tiny apartment when you sang on the duet with Jeff, but I wasn't there that day.]
Lyrically, I put this song in the "dark" category along with Come to Me, The Legend of the Fall, and Glitter & Bliss. Our next release Make Me Free doesn't come across as dark, and yet it's also kind of in the same camp. I would put these songs on the same EP. All but The Legend of the Fall are spiritual in nature. Until I Have You is also spiritual, but it doesn't seem quite as dark in my opinion, that one just seems more swanky. But these are all lyrics that aren't so concerned with being crystal clear and straightforward, I didn't mind of not everyone completely understood exactly what they meant. I knew exactly what they meant. I think sometimes that's more interesting.
I honestly don't have a clear memory of when I first got the inspiration for this song, but I'm quite certain I felt the need to write it after reading one too many news headlines and the "oh the humanity" despair inside of my soul was too much to bear. I wanted to write a song about how all of humanity is connected, and even though we are so different, we are the same. I wanted to put a call to action for us to stop the fighting and start being more careful with one another. The first draft of the lyric and melody came to be at the same time, and later I modified the melody and fine tuned the lyric to make it more compelling.
I'll put in the entire lyric, and then I'll break it down into phrases to explain the meaning in case it isn't clear. Get ready to go to church…
A generation slumbers through the war
We all celebrate the castles
built on crumbling shores
And we deny the damage done
Take another dose to keep us numb
What has chased our purpose from our minds?
Our arms were meant to gather up
sacred treasures that we find
And yet we trade our love for stones
As we limp with shattered bones
We are human
We are human
A billion mustard seeds pervade the winds
Blown away, lost and forgotten,
before their life begins
and yet we harvest barren land
The fruitless toil of busy hands
We try to drive our tanks through sapphire walls
Try to bring down the paradise
destined for us all
We are human
We are human
Let’s all meet upon the mountain top
With empty hands and open hearts
Let’s all come
And simply be made one
OK, so I'm sure a lot of people are picking up on the metaphors, but I'll go a little bit at a time to make things clear...
"A generation slumbers through the war" is a reference to the fact that so many people are oblivious to the spiritual warfare that wages all around us every moment of every day. We stay distracted more than any generation before us it seems.
"We all celebrate the castles built on crumbling shores, And we deny the damage done…" We as a society and culture are glorifying the things that are not essential and ignoring the shaky foundation upon which we have built our misguided priorities.
"Take another dose to keep us numb…" We all stay so distracted with the meaningless things, we miss the REAL issues. I kept putting in different words like "pill" or "drink" or "hit", but in the end I went with "dose" because it's more universal to whatever vice might be occupying someone and keeping them away from what matters.
"What has chased our purpose from our minds?
Our arms were meant to gather up
sacred treasures that we find
And yet we trade our love for stones
As we limp with shattered bones"
We have forgotten our purpose as children of the living God. We are meant to minister to one another, lift each other up in love, and yet we so willingly judge and hurt one another, as we are also hurting inside.
We are human
We are human
This is a statement both in reference to our flawed natures, our vulnerabilities and imperfect tendencies, and at the same time the statement is referring to all humanity, saying that we are all connected as children of God.
"A billion mustard seeds pervade the winds, blown away, lost and forgotten,
before their life begins and yet we harvest barren land.
The fruitless toil of busy hands" is referring to the Biblical comparison of mustard seeds as both the kingdom of Heaven and faith. The imagery here is that so many opportunities are lost for sharing the truth in love, and yet we work and work toward things that will all burn up in the end. We are pursuing wealth, fame, comfort, convenience, entertainment, sex, material possessions, and self glorification instead of investing time and energy in the lost souls around us who need to be loved, feeding the hungry, caring for the orphans and widows etc.
"We try to drive our tanks through sapphire walls, Try to bring down the paradise destined for us all. We despise the sacrifice." This is a loose reference to the new Jerusalem described in Revelation 21 where the streets are paved with gold. The basic message here is that we are at war with one another which robs us of the blessing that was meant for us. Our lack of love and compassion for one another is an insult to the work of Christ on the cross, the sacrifice he made as an atonement for our sins. As a parallel metaphor, this can also mean that in a patriotic sense, we have as a nation weakened the fabric of our culture and insulted the sacrifice of those who have fought to defend preserve our freedom. [ I'll take either answer as correct when you see this on the quiz. ]
In terms of just basic lyrical structure, in that last stanza, I had originally come up with lines that had the exact same syllabic pattern as the previous stanzas, but it was beginning to be too repetitive, so I eliminated several syllables and altered the melody to keep it fresh.
"Let’s all meet upon the mountain top with empty hands and open hearts. Let’s all come and simply be made one." I can think of a few scriptural references where a mountain was a sacred place, several pivotal events occurred on mountains. The burning bush, the ten commandments, and the transfiguration, to name a few. The message is clear, let's come without weapons or agendas and simply accept one another. Let's be "one in spirit and purpose" so that our hearts are at peace and we care for one another's best interest.
In other words… "can't we all just get along?" I know, it's an annoying thing to say, but really… can't we? Let's all love one another.
[If you don't know music theory, feel free to skip to the next section.] The chorus is as it was when my inner muse whispered it into my heart, but the verse was much less "open" tonally. At first the phrases "deny the damage done" and "dose to keep us numb" simply went between the 5 and 1 scale degrees, so after it went from the 5 down to the 1, it just went back up to the 5. I realized after I had flowed out my first draft that that wasn't very effective and it made that section tonally closed, so it didn't lead into the chorus very well. So I changed it to go from the 1 up to the b3 and then 4 on "deny the damage done" and then the b3 to the 2 on "keep us numb". Both of these tones aren't settled, they feel like they need to resolve, so that left it "open". It says at the end of the verse "we're not done yet… keep listening." If I hadn't done that, there would not be one section of this song that stayed tonally open at the end and it would seem a bit stagnant and uninteresting.
Looking back, one thing I do wonder about is the break down verse after the instrumental section that starts with "Let's all meet upon the mountain top". It's the same basic melody as the earlier verses and it might seem too repetitive, but at the same time, there is a major change in the track at that point for contrast, and also the lyrics shine through more, since it's familiar. I believe if I'd put a bridge right there with completely new music, it would have possibly been a distraction from the lyric. Maybe. I don't know. These are the times I think "what would I tell my students?" I do wonder if maybe I should have tried a couple of bridge ideas out. But this was in the works for so long as it is, we just needed to "get her done", so for better or worse, that's another half of a verse with a varied syllabic pattern.
Our songs usually get produced in 1 of 2 ways anymore, now that I don't have my own gear like I did before I had a baby and can't do much programming of my own. One way is that Kurt programs a rough version of the track, I write lyrics and melody over it, which is called "top lining", and then we put our heads together from that point on. The other way is that I write the song on my own, lyrics, chords, and melody all together, then I make a rough demo of my piano vocal version for Kurt and he produces the track based on whatever small bit of direction I give and what he envisions for the track. This second way is always more awkward for me, and often ends up needing a lot more tweaking. The reason being that Kurt is not telepathic. If only he were, he could hear the fully produced song as I have it in my head. But, strangely he's not… so he finds drum loops and synth sounds and plays in guitar parts and bass lines, and then I listen and mute what I don't like, and might play in a part or two or slide things around, and little by little it comes together. Sometimes he comes at it from a completely different direction than what I imagined and it's fantastically unexpected. And sometimes I hear what he did and then have to break it to him that he is WAAAAAY off… Those are the times when it behooves me that Kurt is not prone to violence. The honest truth is, sometimes he just wants to get it done, and I'm the one who insists on changes because the song may have been living in my head for a couple of years by that point and I know how I want it to be. Thankfully, he is usually pretty flexible because, as he puts it, "it's not worth fighting over."
Now that I'm telling the story, I recall that the first version of the track was thrown together rather quickly before we went home for Christmas. I had asked if we could bring our computer and microphone when we went to see my family at Christmas because I wanted to record my family singing the chorus on the ending of the song. I knew I wanted it to sound like a large group of people, and I thought it would be fun to have a song that used my family in the chorus.
You know how it is when you go home for the holidays, you just stay busy with who knows what and at the end of the trip, you don't even know what you did. That's how it went and it wasn't until our very last night in town that we decided we were going to just go for it. We set the mic up in my parents' basement using the exposed pink insulation in their walls for sound absorption, and the garage sale plastic playskool desk as our work surface. One by one my family members came down, most of whom had never put on headphones and sung into a mic before, and they did their very best to try to get the melody right and sing along. Thanks to the miracle of digital editing, we were able to select the best portions of their performances and piece them together as what you hear in the final version. I'm so very happy that my family is included in this song. It means a lot to me to have them be a part of it. I only wish ALL of them could have been a part of it, but we just had to go with who was within a few miles.
It was about a year later that we finally got around to replacing my scratch vocal with what you hear as my final performance. The days that Kurt and I can work alone on my vocals are quite rare now that there's a child and super needy dog in the mix. I've usually got a couple of days at the end of my semester where my son still has his home school tutorial and I don't have any more classes to teach at the university, and so it's a marathon for the 5 hours I get of uninterrupted glorious work time. That day we were slated to record Human and Supermodel Astronaut. And since my voice is prone to being quite temperamental, of course that day the phlegm was off the charts and I was really struggling. [I often wonder if this is because I was born with a cleft palate.] As we were doing the verses for Human, I was having a very difficult time just maintaining pitch and being able to hold out the notes of the long "ohs". I knew that if I didn't do something as an intervention, I would never be able to manage the ad libs on the outro or Supermodel Astronaut. So I went to the kitchen and steeped some throat coat tea and ate chips and salsa. BAM. Problem solved. Why didn't I think of that sooner!? After that I was able to do the high belting you hear on the outro and all of the pop stuff on Supermodel Astronaut without any trouble. Unfortunately, that trick doesn't work every single time, but it sure did that day and I'm extremely grateful.
Once we had the vocals in place, we went back and did major changes to the production of the track, completely replacing the main synth we had used for the backbone of it, and added the epic strings on the end. I played in the main high string line based on what I had in my head from the beginning of writing the song, and then Kurt played in the busier lower string parts for drama. We got the sounds from a sample library, which is never as good as real people, but it's faster and cheaper than hiring players. Then one night at dinner, Kurt informed me that he'd be working late the next night because he was going to be tracking strings on a piece he was producing for a client, and I threw out the idea of "while you're at it" why not track some live strings over the samples we've got? That was about the 3rd week of May and this was our May release. Yeah… we really should have been mixing by then, but I just couldn't pass up that opportunity, I knew it would make a big difference. So he added that song to the session and it was beautiful.
Given ALL of the various tracks we had going on in the mix with the synths and drums and vocals and strings and everything, Kurt decided for the first time ever to outsource the mix on this song. Now, for years almost everything Kurt has composed and programmed for clients, he has mixed himself. And for all of our own releases, Kurt has always mixed the tracks. So this was kind of unprecedented. But he felt like he was in over his head and he wanted to make sure there was balance. We got the files to the mixing engineer around May 23rd, and met with him on the 25th to give feedback. He made changes and we lived with it, and requested a few more adjustments. Kurt really wanted his inner string lines to come through, but they were fighting the vocals, so it was kind of an up and down volume tweaking thing.
Then AFTER THAT, we had to get the stereo mix to the mastering engineer and go back and forth with HIM. I think he got the files on the 27th maybe. By Friday the 29th, I finally had the master of the full version of the song to upload and send through social media. But I was still struggling with the fact that as I'd listen to the song, I kept having to ride the volume of it. It got way too loud at the end, which wasn't a shock since there were so very many more elements in the mix by that point compared to the beginning. But still, people will find it annoying if they ALWAYS have to turn the song down half way through. So Kurt and I went back and forth making those adjustments as the month of May was coming to a close, and in the end it was like Indiana Jones reaching back for his hat before the wall comes down… OK, not really, but you get the point.
I realize to many people, the significance of this song will not register, and they might skip it, since, as one online critique mentioned, "I can't run to it." But as an artist, a songwriter, a lyricist… this song fed my soul. I needed to write this, and I needed to be the voice on this. I always love hiring other singers who are far more fantastic than I am vocally, but in this case, I needed to sing this song. There was a time in the past when I heard some Coldplay music and thought "man… what a buzz kill" and turned it off. But other times, I've found the melancholy of some of their tunes to be exactly what my aching soul needed to process life in this crazy world. I think this song is one that helps the aching souls process the heaviness of what we often carry. This isn't for the party playlist. This is for sitting alone in your parked car and pondering. And even if no one else ever does that, it's been good for me to create this. So… success.