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 where every plane ride has had some sort of problem. You’re tired, you’re particularly agitated with air travel at the moment, and you just want to get home, but then the captain comes over the loud speaker to say this - 

“Hey guys. Sooooo 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 me and my dad, and was the direct lyrical inspiration for “Tell Me.”

Every single lyric in that song is a 100% true account of things that were said, done and thought. After the captain made that announcement, all hell broke loose on the plane and, just as I wrote, people were taking hands and praying in the aisles, freaking out and it was at that moment that maybe the most humanizing experience I had ever had with my father took place, made reference in the second verse. 

I don’t know if everyone feels this way, maybe it’s just me and I was blessed to have the greatest 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, you knew that they just generally had everything under control at all times. So once panic had completely taken hold of the cabin, I looked to my dad and very bluntly asked, “Are we about to die?” And just as I wrote, in an act of total humanization, he looked me right in the eye and said, “I don’t know.” 

At that moment, my short little life completely 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 and all the things I wanted to do in life and everything it seemed like would never happen all because of some faulty breaks. Now, obviously, I’m here writing this, so we made it out alive (though not without an incredibly rough landing). But as that plane went down, we were all pretty sure that that was all she wrote. It’s 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 totally an exercise in why I feel songwriters should NEVER EVER EVER permanently delete an idea. You can have a “Discards” folder on your computer, but NEVER delete anything, because maybe that idea didn’t strike you on that particular day but if the moment is right, it could turn into greatness. It doesn’t always happen - sometimes ideas really do suck - but sometimes you get lucky.

I am an insane U2 fan and one day in 2009, I had an idea come to me where I wanted to have a piece of music that sounded like the keys and vibe of the intro to “Walk On,” mixed with the main guitar riff of “One.” What would that sound like if I was the one playing it? Enter, the music of the intro verse in “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 was combing through my Discards folder and stumbled upon “Walk On idea.” I heard it and was like, “Holy shit - 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 take inspiration from. I wanted something with a real groove. I ended up having to re-write the music of the chorus because I ended up completely ripping off “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 at the time and this greatly excited me. I didn’t know what I was going to do with it, but I had it lying around in my back pocket for a while.

Winter 2012/2013 - can’t remember the exact time, I just remember being with Jack in my first New York City apartment and it was cold. We had decided we were stylistically changing courses and some 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 emerged from me were the melodies for what became the “Never gonna stop believing that we’ll get out” sections, and all Jack could come up with was what became, “We’re going down.”

Fast forward to September 2013 and we’re in Brooklyn at Virtue & Vice Studios with the amazing Anthony “Rocky” Gallo recording the first batch of songs for what became The Code Duello - “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 said, you can’t force it and inspiration works on its own schedule. Sometimes it just takes a little longer than you want. I was listening to a song I LOVE called “Control” by Garbage and the way Shirley Manson sang the intro lyrics over this dreamy keyboard line just hit me like a ton of bricks. “THIS is how that song needs to be!”, I thought. And the first line of that song, “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’m 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. Revising, to me, is trying to manufacture a moment and attempting to force your brain back to how it was when that defining moment happened. Especially with a song like this where the lyrics are coming from such a powerful and true place, I think I maybe only changed one lyric while I was in the vocal booth (if memory serves, I believe Rocky and Jack encouraged a change from “We’re never gonna stop thinking that we’ll get out” to “Never gonna stop believing that we’ll get out”).

“Tell Me” is one of the most important songs on the album to me. 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), its music (check that mellotron Jack played that gives the track its “Rocky” - the movie - vibes) and it’s because of these elements that we thought it would be the perfect song to announce the album. More tales to come…