May Newsletter: Вертишейка — Wryneck

Happy May!

This month, instead of sharing a demo of a song I’m working on orchestrating, I’m sharing a demo of a song I just finished writing. This brand new baby song is called “Вертишейка” (Vertisheika, or “Wryneck” in English). A wryneck is an absurd little bird in the woodpecker family.

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When I was on tour in December 2017, I played two shows in Russia — one in Kaliningrad and another in Saint Petersburg. Ever since, I’ve been especially eager to return to Kaliningrad, where I met many wonderful people whose creative energy impacted me profoundly.

Now I’m finally going back! In June (next month!! yikes), I’ll be visiting and playing a show in Kaliningrad! I’ll also be playing shows in London, Frome, and New York. (The next Portland show, while we’re at it, is July 5th at Artichoke Music. And I’m playing a Sofar Sounds show in Boston on September 28th! Stay tuned, dates keep being added.)

For this new song, Вертишейка, I wanted to try and write something that would on some level convey in Russian what my English songs are like. Not that I began writing with a mission statement in mind, but as I wrote it occurred to me what I was doing.

The key lyrical elements of a Stephan Nance song, it turns out:

Signs of queer life in Kaliningrad

Signs of queer life in Kaliningrad

  • Birds (specific birds)

  • Trees (specific trees)

  • Queer undertones

  • A touch of magical realism

  • A vague reference to the cartoon Steven Universe

At the beginning of this song, we find our protagonist at dawn, at the end of summer, in a persimmon orchard. (Kaliningrad is where I ate my first ever persimmon.) A lichen falls from a tree and startles some Bee-eaters. (Possibly these are actual European Bee-eaters, but they may represent the protagonist and some companion of the protagonist. Maybe they are bee-eaters in some symbolic way — always eating society’s stingers, or something along those lines. I’ll let you decide.) This lichen was evidently disturbed by a snake-like bird with a backwards head — a Wryneck! (Wrynecks are famous for imitating snakes and twisting their heads 180 degrees.)

The protagonist implores the Wryneck to stop looking at them, but evidently the Wryneck won’t be dissuaded. On the protagonist’s stroll out of the orchard, the Wryneck — that sneaky little busybody — lurks nearby, obsessively monitoring the protagonist’s every move and word.

Now, thanks to that Wryneck, the protagonist finds themself the subject of gossip. Everyone knows they’re “not normal” (which in Russian can be interpreted to mean not straight). Fine! They admit it! They’re not normal! But not-normal people can’t be normalized.

So, the protagonist declares, that Wryneck — and everybody else, no doubt — can say what they will and think what they want. The protagonist is over it. They don’t need your respect; they already have their own.

These last lines, about respect, allude to the Steven Universe song “Change Your Mind”. Steven Universe has been censored in Russia to remove the show’s groundbreaking queer representation. Far be it from me to not include a Steven Universe reference in my first all-Russian song.

I will say outright that my Russian lyrics are not without flaws. I have a BA in Russian, but I’m not a native speaker, and my level of fluency fluctuates wildly from year to year and even minute to minute. I’m fine with the lyrics reflecting that reality. Finished is better than perfect! And I’ve got a lot of irons in the fire right now, so time for songwriting is somewhat scarce.

More on some of those other irons soon…

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PS Do you want me to come to your city? Tell me and I’ll try to make it happen! (I don’t always know where people want me to go…) Also, if you’re curious about hosting a concert, it’s easier than you might think!