Where do mosquitoes go in the winter? What about the dragonflies that hunt them? The turtles lying lazily on sunny logs just next to a lake's surface - where are they all winter long? Under snow, under ice, under water. Fish, the larvae of many flying insects and reptiles and amphibians like frogs and turtles slumber far below the white cold world in the darkness and relative warmth (about 4 degrees Celsius) of pond and lake bottoms in the winter. Try to imagine that transition - dazzling sunlight, wind, warm or cool oxygen-rich air and then for several long months a wet uniform darkness and stillness. Next imagine waking up, one eye at a time, slowly, paw by paw, feeling life return with tiny movements and then, feeling the sun's invitation come through the ice-free surface down to the gloomy depths to pull you upwards back into thin cold air to see a sky changing colours. I have to imagine that more than a re-awakening it's a rebirth, and a powerful example of the patient power of abiding.
I wrote Bit by Bit in March 2021 as a difficult winter was ending. I was walking, unhappily, when I looked up and saw the first intense flares of red on the high twigs of a Maple tree. It felt like a reward for just having made it to that day with eyes and a heart that could still see renewal above and sense happiness ahead.
When I was a kid there were only two serious career options in my mind - Marine Biologist or Astronaut. Maybe you grew up in a mid-sized city in the eighties and thought you had the same options. This song is about the two places I still haven't been but that still entice me into dreaming about new worlds and possibilities. I have seen and held a few starfish but I've never experienced a whale shark - the largest fish in the world. It's down there somewhere though, and that's exciting to picture - swimming from dark to light and back again, its giant tiny-toothed mouth slowly taking in the sea tonne by tonne. Despite that image, I would consider a trip under the sea in sunny shallow water but I know I'm never going to space. But, thinking about space, designing a rocket, scripting whimsical adventures? Sign me up! I'm uninterested in NASA's latest attempt to send big or small metal things outside the earth;s atmosphere, but if a kid from the neighbourhood knocks on my door with a plan to build a moon rocket, I'll be there with a fishbowl on my head. I'm a little big now, but I can still fit in a dishwasher box, plus i've seen all the Star Wars movies so I'm qualified for space travel.
4. It’s disappointing being eaten
One of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life is to make dinner for my family after I come home from work and before my wife does. And I’ve done it several times. I’d need both hands to work it out but I’m typing right now. I know what I like and my kids like but I do try to make it up to my wife’s healthy, whole-grain, lots of vegetables but don’t-forget-the-protein standard. We are a vegetarian family so I can’t cook any of the animals I used to eat when I was a kid. Because we’re vegetarians we usually think of meat like that - former animals - and this song is just the extension of that thought into the imaginary realm of how animals might feel about the whole situation.
Musically, I think Martin’s sax hits provide all the rhythm the song needs. They’re loosely modelled on the sax part in Tom Waits’ Down in the Hole from Frank’s Wild Years. I love pretending to be a serious, seen-it-all lifelong lounge-type piano player, but my chops are more Popular Songbook for Beginners so I keep it to four chords, then just play them for half as long for the second part of the verse. If any other beginning piano entertainers out there want to sound like beginners trying to sound experienced, send me an email and I’ll show you how it’s faked.
Oscar wants you to know that he has never eaten an oyster.
Now, for your edification and entertainment, and because there is sadly no Wiki for My Friend Christopher (yet) I present:
The References in the scat outro
Yabba Dabba Doo - The Flintstones
Do Wacka Do - Roger Miller (1965)
Wang Dang Doodle - Howlin’ Wolf (If you need a name for a kid, like, a third, or fourth one, check out the lyrics to that song)
We Gon’ Boogaloo - C.W. Stoneking
I love springtime and birds. I love music too, but there are times when I need to take a break from listening. In the summer of 2019 I was woken by insistent birdsong many days in a row, even late into the summer. One day while I was outside our house, I looked up and saw a Robin perched right above my bedroom window, singing like he didn’t care who was listening. This song came to me shortly afterwards. Once I got started it was easy to find parallels between that bird, Oscar’s whistling (his teacher had to ask him to save it for outside of school) and Willa’s commitment to playing Heart and Soul (written by Hoagy Carmichael) as fast as possible.
When it came time to record the final chorus for this one, I knew we needed a big sound so I invited the whole family and many friends to come to Pine St. Studio to sing it with me. It was the last thing recorded on the album and now it's my favourite way to end performances with kids and the audience all singing together.
Everyone performs their own stunts in this song with Oscar doing the whistling, Willa singing and playing Heart and Soul on piano and Ed Roth playing the accordion, piano, and bass - what a performer!
Family singing on the final chorus are:
Hans-Christian Eckart, Karin Eckart, Andrew Eckart, Martin Eckart, Margot Corbin, Eliza Eckart-Rogin, Felix Eckart-Rumney, Oscar Eckart-Corbin, Willa Eckart-Corbin, Pippa Eckart-Corbin
Friends singing on the final chorus are:
Izzy Henderson, Sarah Hodgson, Liz Jackson, Samantha Jackson-Braun, Luna Jackson-Braun
And now there are no more hyphens left for your kids, so please name them responsibly.
Picture of a place
Martin, Mike and I recorded this one live on April 14, 2019. You can hear the rain on the recording. Martin and I did the guitar, singing and clarinet live into one ribbon microphone, plus we were wearing suits so it wasn’t easy. The occasional taps you hear are my sleeve buttons hitting my guitar. The only dub was the Tuba by Jay Burr, but you wouldn’t have known that was the case if I didn’t tell you because he plays so naturally and responsively. Leon Redbone is a big inspiration to me and I hope you can hear his influence in the arrangement of this song.
Recording can be difficult because of the endless options to re-do the whole song or even a bar or a note, and also because of the infinite hardware and processing options. I find it overwhelming. Martin and I arranged vocal parts that meshed and we performed it well together so I didn’t want to record them separately, so we did it all at once. If any fidelity is lost or musicianship unimproved by tampering, so be it. It felt great to do a good take and know we were done without any further analysis or repair. Plus it’s old-timey and I’m nostalgic.
The events in the song were inspired by walking to the grocery store (about 1 km from our house) with Oscar on one of the many February snow days of 2019. Snow days are usually a source of joy for teachers and children but somehow I managed to be grumpy about it. Maybe because it was the fifth one and Oscar walks really, really slowly when there's so much snow to kick, pick up and eat. Oscar's got the ability to enjoy where you are and what's happening right now, especially when it's snowing, and maybe I've become a little less hurried and a little more thoughtful thanks to his slow-walking ways.
Sometimes I get ideas when I’m getting ready for work, then I play with them on the bike ride there. I remember tying my shoes before I left one day in October and thinking of the phrase Sophia Catalina. I repeated it for all 10 minutes of my ride to work, until it had a rhythm. I remember working out the parts and the changes on an old, but mostly in tune upright piano in a practice room in Sir John A. Macdonald school which closed in June of 2019. With its graffiti about teenage romance, fast food wrappers, dangerous carpet and individual smell, working on a piano in that tiny room made me feel like Tom Waits living at the Tropicana Hotel. It also saved my family from hearing me play the same thing over, and over, and over again. Russ the drummer told me this song reminded him of Professor Longhair's Big Chief so of course I had to learn that. It's amazing New Orleans piano blues, but a little repetitive. I get yelled at to stop playing that one if I do it at home. Sadly, Sir John. A. and the piano room are gone. Well, actually, they're still right where I left them, but I'm gone from them. I imagine that piano is standing still, with that little plaque that says you need the principal's permission to move it, and a crooked letter in black marker on middle C.
As for the production, Michael Birthelmer's old friend Ed Roth plays the bassline in this song with his magical synthesizer. My Brother Martin is a great musician and saxophonist, which you can hear on this track. The instant I wrote the melody in the break, I knew it needed saxophone. Bless him for not making me write music because he can just play what I sing. I knew this song needed drums, and after jamming once with Good Old Russ Ohrt, I knew he could do the song justice with his deep musical knowledge and retro German drum kit.
Sophia’s real name is Catrick and wouldn’t you know he actually likes to hang out when I’m practicing and writing? He’s a great listener. Except when he stays out all night.