Write & Record A Song Date

—Saturday, October 8, 2011—

I spent most of the morning cleaning my apartment because Cara would be spending a good chunk of time there that day and I wanted it to look like I was both sane and somewhat orderly. I also needed to set up and test my recording equipment, which I hadn’t touched since I had moved in months earlier. Lastly, I needed to take a shower and do all that person hygiene stuff.

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If I could only figure out what to wear. I wanted to look good, but also appear edgy enough to be a musician. Something in the world of a tight t-shirt and tight pants combination, rounded out by a pair of Chuck Taylors, did the trick.

This date was different from any other date I’d been on because Cara and I would actually have to produce something. We had to collaboratively write and record a song. It wasn’t just a matter of getting to know each other and flirting shamelessly — this date was going to take some serious work! Also, I really didn’t want our song to be terrible.

Cara came into my life via OkCupid and was immediately one of my favorite finds. She loved (and played) much of the same music that I loved (and tried to play), looked (super) cute and seemed (seemed) very fun. I finally got up the courage to message her and tell her those things.

Record a Song Date 2

Cara’s response:

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I was excited, but I knew that telling her about OHD was still a huge hurdle to clear. When I told her, she eased my worries:

Record a Song Date 4

Success! I would gladly accept “not creepy or boring or too hipster-y” as a compliment!

Write & Record A Song Date seemed perfect given our mutual interests and we settled on it quickly, even making each other Grooveshark mixes in the weeks leading up to our date so that we could listen to each other’s favorite songs. There was a great deal of overlap, and it was all good stuff, which was encouraging. Everything had played out so well leading up to that afternoon, that I was quite excited by the time Cara texted me that she was above ground in Queens.

Cara arrived in Astoria just before 4 p.m. and I walked down to the station to meet her. She was sitting on a railing, strumming her ukulele, as I approached. The fabric flower in her hair was the perfect accent to an already adorable look. I greeted her and apologized for making her wait. Cara stopped strumming and jumped down from the rail to introduce herself and I thanked her for coming all the way out to Astoria from Washington Heights.

Before we got to the masterpiece that surely awaited us, we needed to fill our empty stomachs. I was hoping to eat at this little place where I’d had coffee earlier in the day, but they were closing down and no longer serving food. Damn. We’d have to go to Sparrow up on the corner. I actually liked the place quite a bit, but I’d already taken a date there, and I was trying not to repeat. Not much I could do about it though, as it was one of only a few places in my neighborhood to sit down and eat.

We sat down at roughly a quarter to four and I noticed that they stopped serving breakfast at the end of the hour. I was thankful that we’d made it in under the wire because I really wanted some French toast. Between drink orders, taking time to decide on food and a vanishing waitress, I was getting nervous. Sure enough, as we put in our order right at four o’clock, the kitchen was no longer serving breakfast.

All right. Reset. Lunch menus, please. Cara was very indecisive about what she wanted to eat. She was hungry, so she didn’t want only a salad, but she also didn’t feel like eating a burger, which was her next best option. In the end, she was driven by sustenance and went for the burger, while I got a plate of pulled pork and mashed potatoes.

As we waited for our dishes to arrive, we talked about food, especially all the good food from the South (where she was from), and Jamaica (where her parents were from). Since I’d been to Jamaica, I actually had something to contribute to the conversation in the form of poorly pronounced Jamaican dishes.

She told me about how her family had ended up outside of Nashville, TN and about growing up there in a fairly wealthy suburb. It didn’t sound unlike Winchester, the wealthy, Boston-area town in which I was raised. It sounded particularly familiar when she told me that her’s was one of the few black families in town and that her neighbors never quite seemed to trust them.

Yup. Sounded like Winchester.

The proximity of Nashville made it sound like the area was a hotbed for musicians and so it was not too surprising that, despite her Jamaican roots, Cara loved bluegrass, rock, country and most other types of other music that kids grew up with in Tennessee. We definitely had a mutual admiration for much of the same music, far more than probably any of my other dates, and I really enjoyed talking tunes with her.

She told me all about the girls rock camp she used to work at and how it had been such a formative part of not only her musical development, but also her life. If she could make money working some place like that, she would probably do it for the rest of her life.

Her relatively new job hadn’t quite proven itself as the best choice and neither had her burger. She realized very quickly that it was not really what she wanted and what she really wanted was, in fact, a salad. She felt bad not eating her meal, but I encouraged her to ask for a salad just the same. Better that she be fed and guilt-ridden than hungry and grumpy.

So yeah, she was not sure she’d made the best move in terms of career (needed money and benefits) but then again, she was in her mid-20’s, so she sounded like the rest of us. Cara was a graphic designer by schooling and talent, and she was working within that field, but not in a particularly creative role. At least she freelanced on the side, but that brought its own set of challenges. I had friends who did the same, so I had some understanding of that world. Emphasis on “some.”

I tried my best to make her feel okay about the whole food re-ordering thing, as I knew any kind of “I look stupid” moment makes most people feel like a total ass on a first date. The truth was that it really didn’t matter though. Why should I have cared if she changed her mind about her food, right? I reassured her that our lunch was going just fine, no matter the hiccups.

We exited Sparrow and walked down the street on what was an absolutely gorgeous October day. I mean, I could have worn shorts and a tank top that day. Come to think of it, why wasn’t I?! It was definitely some kind of heat wave and it was too bad we were sticking ourselves indoors for the majority of it.

Back at my apartment, I showed her the toys (instruments) that I had and the recording equipment we had at our disposal. I had my accordion keyboard, acoustic guitar, two electric guitars, an electric bass, harmonicas and a mandolin. Add Cara’s ukulele to the mix and we had a good setup to make some music.

I was not entirely sure how to start the process though, and neither was Cara. In every band I’d ever been in, the songs were largely written by one person and then brought to the rest of the group. Rarely was the songwriting truly collaborative. So, we started by playing songs we already knew which might be in the style of a song we might want to write. Actually, Cara was doing the majority of the playing. It also seemed like she was not afraid to sing — something I feared deeply.

She knew so many songs and clearly played music more than I did. I had nothing on her. She was a walking, talking songbook compared to the scribbled notes of phrases and words long forgotten in my brain.

My only hang up was that she appeared very scatter-brained about it all. One minute of one song, 30 seconds of another, two minutes to figure out the chords to that pop song she could play on ukulele — no wait — on guitar. With breaks in between all the material to talk about the significance of the songs and what we liked about them, we were not getting much of anywhere.

I knew this beforehand, but I was not a good task master. I hated being demanding unless everyone had agreed to listen to me for some reason. In the present context, the context in which Cara was a person who I was trying to please and have fun with, the last thing I wanted to do was look like I was a heartless disciplinarian.

Finally, I suggested we get something down, even if we wanted to change it later.

Cara came up with a sequence of chords that we toyed with a bit until we liked how it sounded. It took us a while but we fleshed out a verse, chorus and even decided on an intro.

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Great. Yes! We were finally rolling. It was slow going, but we were doing the thing. I approached the computer to set it up for recording. I wanted to get the basic guitar track down.

“But shouldn’t we figure out the melody first?” asked Cara.

Damn. Yeah. She was right. I was clearly rushing.

We sat down again and played with melody until we found something we liked, but I won’t lie, it was frustrating. I’m the kind of person who likes to get things like this done. Whenever I’ve worked in a studio, or rehearsed for a play, I just want to do the work and get it done. Cara had always had more fun with such pursuits and the work of songwriting was always a longer process for her.

It was clear that we were not going to be Lennon & McCartney.

We weren’t even going to be Hall & Oates.

The thought had been in the back of my head for half an hour and I decided that in the end, it was a date first and the date needed to be more important than the objective of getting a song written and recorded. At that point, I wanted more to be on a date with Cara than to force her to work on something we were not particularly invested in.

This was a big part of why the date made the list though: What would happen when you brought two strangers together for a date, in which they were trying to get to know one another, and required that they also work together to produce something?

My conclusion is that it’s really fucking hard. Both parties want to be polite to one another, which almost always inhibits the creative process.

“Let’s bail,” I told her. “Let’s go get some dinner and we’ll finish this another time.”

She looked relieved when I said this and agreed to take a break from songwriting.

We put away the instruments and left the apartment to wander around Astoria looking for a place to eat. Unsurprisingly, we found a Greek restaurant. Crazy, right? A Greek restaurant in Astoria. Who would have thought? (Astoria is crazy Greek, non-New Yorkers.)

Dinner was finally a chance to move beyond the surface questions of our date and dig into some deeper issues. Cara told me more about growing up in suburban Tennessee, going to college nearby and how it was tiring to always be the “black friend” to so many white kids throughout her life. Her parents asked why she didn’t have more black friends and she would try to point out that she was a product of her environment. The area she grew up in, and the things she loved to do, were inhabited by a predominantly white demographic.

As she told me this, I had an odd wave of guilt wash over me. I was a white suburban kid who liked white suburban things, and Cara was the first black woman I had ever dated. It was something I’d been acutely aware of ever since seeing her profile online.

I grew up in a very white town. I went to a very white college. I’d even lived in very white neighborhoods as an adult. My life was whitewashed.

And while I did my absolute best to treat everyone the same, regardless of race, it didn’t mean I was blind to it. It didn’t mean I didn’t think about it. Why was it that I felt guilty for thinking about it though? When people have different experiences from our own, it’s natural to recognize that and be curious about it. But! Is it wrong to assume that because you come from different backgrounds, that your experiences are inherently different? I’m just not sure.

What it boiled down to, was that Cara was a sum of all of her parts. She was black, yes, but she was also Southern, first generation American, an artist, a sister and a woman. There were so many things that made her life and her story different from mine that the color of her skin was just another line item, albeit a significant one. It was worth recognizing, but worthless for me to dwell on.

I was feeling more comfortable with Cara by this point and so I dropped a tiny bomb on our date.

The day before, my dad had called to tell me that a small tumor which had been removed from his groin several weeks prior was found to be malignant. It had tested positive for lymphoma. I had only told one or two people the news and it was been eating away at me. So I told Cara, because I needed to say it aloud to someone.

It was times like these, during the project, that I felt like an island. This was why I typically had a girlfriend. I wasn’t prone to calling my brother when I was worried. I rarely leaned on my friends for support. I was used to having that one other person there who heard these things and helped me deal with them.

But no, I was going on 100 dates in 1 year. I had forfeited that luxury.

So, I was telling this near-stranger across from me that my dad had cancer.

This is what my life, on this project, had become.

It could have all been avoided though, had I not walked away from Alana, the woman I’d been dating just before starting the project. In fact, two days later, I texted her to tell her about my father. She was about to run the New York City Marathon in support of leukemia and lymphoma research, so I figured she would like to know about someone she’d be helping. But also, I was seeking comfort. I reached out to her because I knew that, although she was not happy with me, she would understand the gravity of the situation as it pertained to my life and possibly give me a break. She did. She let me know she was there for me and it made me feel better.

To no fault of her own, Cara just couldn’t do that. She didn’t know me well enough. She didn’t know what my family was like. She was kind though, and that was all that mattered that night.

We got our leftovers to go and walked back towards my apartment. We somehow ended up on the topic of one of our favorites movies, Scott Pilgrim vs The World, which we talked about very excitedly. Since I owned it, I asked Cara if she wanted to stick around for a bit and watch it.

She did, and so, we landed back on my couch watching it on my laptop.

I love that movie, and I love that that was how we decided to end our date. It’s so fun and cute and the music kicks ass. Sharing the viewing experience with someone who was just as enthusiastic about it was a treat.

And before the movie completely ended, I got my first kiss from a woman with a flower in her hair.

Some time about 9 months after our date, we attempted to write some words and record again, but we only got as far as a rough demo. Here it is, for the world to hear, warts and all.