The Story of "Tell Me"

IMAGINE IF YOU WILL...

You are 18 years old, you’ve just come back from a whirlwind weekend of college visits and every plane experience has had some sort of issue. You’re tired, you’re particularly agitated with air travel, you just want to get home, but then the captain comes over the loud speaker and says this:

“Hey guys. So you may be wondering why we’ve been circling the Richmond airport for the last 45 minutes. There are three sets of breaks required to land a plane. Two of ours are out. We are going to try and land the plane but honestly, we don’t know what’s going to happen. The crew will now come through the cabin to teach you the brace position.”

This actually happened to my dad and me, and was the direct lyrical inspiration for “Tell Me.”

Every single lyric in the song is a 100% true account of things that were said, done and thought. After the captain made that announcement, all hell broke loose and, just as I wrote, people were taking hands, panicking and praying in the aisles. At that moment, I experienced maybe the most humanizing conversation I had ever had with my father, made reference in the second verse. 

I don’t know if everyone feels this way - maybe I was just blessed to have incredible parents - but when I was growing up, parents were superhuman. Untouchable. They had all the answers for every single thing about life. Nothing could phase them and you knew that they had everything under control at all times. So once hysteria had completely taken hold of the cabin, I looked to my dad and, very bluntly, asked, “Are we about to die?” Just as I wrote in the song, he looked me right in the eye and said, “I don’t know.” This was earth-shattering.

In that instance, my short life flashed before my eyes. “I couldn’t tell the wife I never had goodbye.” I began to think of all the things I hadn’t done, all the things I wanted to do and everything it seemed like would never happen - all because of some faulty breaks. Now, obviously, I am here writing this blog post, so we made it out alive - though not without an incredibly rough landing - but as that plane went down, we were all certain that was all she wrote. It is certainly one of the most powerful experiences of my life and yet it never occurred to me to write about it. Well, you can’t force it in great songwriting, so I had to wait until the inspiration came to me….

 

Musically, “Tell Me” is the oldest song on the album, with its origins tracing all the way back to November of 2009. It was a complete exercise in why I feel songwriters should NEVER permanently delete an idea. I believe you can have a “Discards” folder, but NEVER delete anything because, while that idea may not have have struck you on that particular day, if the moment is right, it could turn into greatness. It doesn’t always happen - sometimes ideas really are terrible - but sometimes you get lucky.

I am an avid U2 fan and one day in 2009, I had an idea where I wanted to have a piece of music that sounded like the keys in the intro to “Walk On,” mixed with the main guitar riff of “One.” What would that sound like if I played it? Enter, the music of “Tell Me.” That’s all I had. Those keys and that guitar. I wrote it, demo’d it, decided it wasn’t an idea worth pursuing, and put it away. Fast-forward almost two years to Summer 2011. I am combing through my Discards folder and stumble upon something called “Walk On idea.” I heard it and thought, “Oh my God - THIS is in my Discards folder?!” Immediately, I began to write.

I wanted to write something that felt like “Feel” by Robbie Williams. Not exactly a song that sounds like what the band became, but, being one of my all time favorite songs, it was a song I was curious to try and emulate. I wanted something with a real groove. I ended up having to re-write some of it after inadvertently mimicking certain sections of “Feel” - never imitate your idols, kids, only take inspiration - but the U2/Robbie vibe was fully in place and the music just poured out of me. It was completely unlike the acoustic pop/rock I had been playing for years and this was tremendously exciting. I didn’t know what I was going to do with it, but I had it in my back pocket for a while...

Winter 2013 - I am with Jack in my first New York City apartment and we are working on music. Having decided we were going to stylistically change course, some progressive early writing had emerged (A fully formed “Heartbreakers” and the music of “Lay Me Down” were also included in my initial batch of songs). “Tell Me” was a top contender but was a difficult nut to crack. I had this cool music but was completely stumped on melodies and lyrics. We both sat in my apartment freestyling melodies for a while, but all that I could muster were the melodies for what became the, “Never gonna stop believing that we’ll get out,” sections. All Jack could come up with was what became, “We’re going down.”

By September 2013, we are recording the first batch of songs for what became The Code Duello with Rocky Gallo at Brooklyn's Virtue & Vice Studios - “Heartbreakers,” “Lay Me Down,” “Masquerade” and “Tell Me” - and the songs are SLAMMING. Only problem - I had no lyrics or melodies for “Tell Me.” Nothing. I had known about these sessions for weeks, but I still couldn’t come up with anything. Time was ticking away and I was beginning to panic. But, as I previously said, inspiration works on its own schedule and sometimes takes a little longer than you want. I was listening to a song called “Control” by Garbage and the way Shirley Manson sang the first few lyrics over this dreamy keyboard line hit me like a ton of bricks. I thought, “THIS is how my song needs to be!" Her first line, “The world might end / the night might fall / rain on down and cover us all,” triggered that powerful memory about almost dying in a plane crash and I knew that this was the song I had been meaning to write since that fateful night in 2006. 

I had the whole song’s lyrics and melodies in 30 minutes. These are my favorite moments about songwriting. The times where, as the great Noel Gallagher once said, paraphrased, these songs just fall out of the sky and I happen to be the guy to catch them. 

I am going to tell the story of every song on the album and something I’ll talk about a lot is the idea that I, unlike many songwriters, do not like to revise my lyrics. To me, songwriting is about that initial spark of inspiration because that, to me, is the truth. In my eyes, lyrical revision is the act of trying to manufacture a moment and force your brain back to how it was when that initial moment happened. Especially with a song like "Tell Me," where the lyrics are coming from such a raw, true place, I think I only changed one lyric while I was in the vocal booth.

“Tell Me” is one of the most important songs on the album. I love its immediacy, its groove, its lyrics, its guitar solo (played by our friend and former bandmate - and Jack’s current Burn The Ballroom bandmate - Sterling Pearson) and it’s because of these elements that we thought it would be the perfect song to announce the album. More tales to come…