Songwriters in Seattle had a really cool and unexpected bit of national media attention Monday with our song, “A Black Market For Mooncakes” being part of a segment on NPR’s Marketplace. I’ve been asked a lot about how it happened, all the way back to the origin story of the song, so I thought I’d give you the lowdown on how it went down. First, here are the links to the NPR piece itself, as they have the text of what was read on air along with the whole song posted here:
You can hear the entire audio of the Marketplace segment on their posted podcast here (our “Final Word” bit starts around 25:15):
So what’s the connection to Marketplace in the first place? Back in Sept. of 2010 my friend Skye Hansen posted a link to a Marketplace article by NPR Marketplace China correspondent Rob Schmitz called “A Black Market For Mooncakes” on her Facebook wall. I had only seen the headline come across my screen and it struck me as unique and poetic – so off the cuff I immediately commented on the post, “Sounds like a song title…” (completely in jest, of course). What Skye commented back was magical:
“There’s a black market for mooncakes
That appears in the dead of night
It’s right next to that store with the fallingstar jam
And other unearthly delights!”
As I was at once surprised and blown away, I definitely wanted to make this into a real song. So I did try in vain for a few weeks to see if I could do anything with it, to no avail. Thus the Songwriters in Seattle “mashup” event where I brought what I thought could be a decent seed for a group collaboration. After some discussion about Rob’s article and the potential themes of China’s repression, underground rebellion, people coming together despite restriction to celebrate their passions, and the poetic symbol of the cosmic eatery, it was agreed that we’d give it a shot. (Note: Rob’s article wasn’t really about any of those things – it was more what we were inspired to think about based on the seed idea). With the throwing out of my portion of the attempted lyrics and some tweeking of Skye’s original chorus, we went to work.
As you can imagine, 10 songwriters in a room trying to write the same song was…challenging. Lyrics and associated chords were written (and crossed out) with big black markers on large sheets of paper and stuck to the walls. There was much chaotic guitar playing and random singing. Some were frustrated, some thought it was going nowhere – or at least nowhere worthwhile. But after 3 hours or so, we had something – it wasn’t much, but we had something and it was actually pretty good. With me standing up at the sheets on the wall and trying to direct everyone to verses and choruses that would make a reasonable finished structure with what we had (only one verse of lyrics in addition to what we started with plus the chords to the two sections), we hit record on Jessica Lynne’s iPhone and ran through it best we could:
(Warning – this is super rough, with beer bottles clanking as they fall over, yelling directions, and other such fumbling to get through)
Now fast forward a few months…based on that recording I obviously had some work to do to make the song into a listenable finished piece, but it finally came together. Recording was fun as this is not anywhere near a typical style for me. Breaking out the nylon string guitar for a flamenco solo and faking castanets with spoons from the kid’s toy percussion set were especially unusual. And then singing along with Jessica Lynne and David Rix to make us sound like a much larger group was a real kick. Overall, I am very happy with how the song and recording turned out. I feel it represents the collaborative talents and aspirations of Songwriters in Seattle very well.
Many thanks again to David whose great idea and, more importantly, his action it was to send the recording to the original author of the Marketplace article which inspired the song, Rob Schmitz, and got the next part of the story started. Rob’s response:
“All I can say is: Wow. I knew I had hit upon something when I reported the
mooncakes story, but I never in my wildest dreams thought it was worthy of
moving a group of musicians to song. Well done. I¹m honored my bizarre
little story inspired your group to write and perform this piece.”
Rob forwarded it to his producers in LA and next thing you know, David and I are working out the details with Marketplace Producer Fiona Ng to get the song on the air and linked on their website. Some vague details about what we should expect and when…then a few days later…boom! “I thought it was kinda catchy…” – Marketplace host, Kai Ryssdal. How cool is that? Thanks to Rob and Fiona for making it all happen.
There you have it! This is yet another great example of the amazing things that can happen when we work together!