Ep. 42: Song “Scarlet Letter” (Influenced by Radiohead)

This week’s song is called “Scarlet Letter,” which was released by my band Declaration on our 2006 album, Panic Button.

This was originally written during my senior year of high school for a class project. We were reading the book, “The Scarlet Letter,” and tasked with doing something creative to depict certain aspects of the story. Most people made posters or collages but I decided to write a song and perform it for the class. This is one of the few times I’ve actually sat down and started writing a song with a topic in mind beforehand.

To give you a little background about the story, it takes place in Puritan times. The main character, Hester Prynne, whose husband was presumed lost at sea, has committed adultery and forced to wear a scarlet colored “A” on her chest so that everyone in the town would know what she had done. As it turns out, the person she committed adultery with was the town’s priest, Arthur Dimmesdale, who is put in a position where he feels forced to condemn her publicly but secretly is racked with the guilt and torment of what he had done and of knowing what a hypocrite he actually is. Eventually, he confesses his sin to the town and opens his shirt to reveal scars from the letter “A” he carved on his own chest, signifying that while Hester openly carries the burden of sin, his was carried in secret until now.

So, the lyrics are written from the priest’s perspective and speak of his torment as well as the need he felt to come clean and live a repentant, virtuous life.

The mood and tone I was going for was something along the lines of Radiohead’s song, Exit Music (For A Film) from their album OK Computer.

So, fast forward about a year. I had just finished my first year at BYU and was about the leave on a mission. I had a friend who was studying sound recording and needed someone to record for his project. I came in BYU’s studio and laid down piano, vocals, drums and bass. Here’s what the first demo version sounds like.

During my mission, it would occasionally come up that I was a songwriter and people would want to hear one of my songs. This was usually the song I would play to them if they had a piano in their house. Plus, it also has a spiritual component to it so it made sense to play it as a missionary, I think.

After I returned home from my mission, I reformed my band, Declaration and we set out to record an album. Originally, we tried to recreate the version of the song I recorded I few years before. It felt a little vanilla so we decided to experiment with some different sounds.

The first of those was a wurlitzer electric piano. One of my friends was storing it in my studio so we gave it a try. We ran it through a guitar amp for the recording. It has a really cool, smooth sound quite different from a regular piano and we felt like it really added something interesting to the song so we went with it.

After the wurlitzer was recorded, we laid down the drums. I think we got a really good tone with the recording. We added a small room reverb effect and a light delay or echo effect to help it sound a little fuller and give it additional texture.

There are three electric guitar tracks on this song. The first is played clean, lightly strumming the chords with a thin, washy tone. The next guitar plucks the chords in an arpeggiated pattern with a light delay effect. The third guitar has a stronger delay effect and heavy reverb. We were going for a spacey, cosmic sound here. The notes are played in a tremelo strumming style much like on Radiohead’s song.

Halfway through the song, the drums cut out for the third verse. I thought the song could use a shift in texture at this point so we added a church organ. When the drums come back in for the chorus, we wanted a big, epic moment so I recorded three tracks of ohs and ahs, layered with a lot of reverb to give the impression of a choir singing in a cathedral.

I think all these elements came together nicely to make for an interesting production. Here’s the final version of the song. I hope you like it.

It’s too hard to let myself go
And so I’m so far away from what I was

Never awake, I would rather choke
I spoke to get rid of life as a lie

I’ll tell you a story
While I feel the pain
The guilt is deceiving
I speak before it’s too late

Admit my sin, I hope you’ll forgive my crime,
And push is aside and stand beside my new way of life

I’ll tell you a story
While I feel the pain
The guilt is deceiving
I speak before it’s too late

I’m taking a journey
I know I’m too blame
The guilt is deceiving
I speak before it’s too late

Before it’s too late

Download “Scarlet Letter” on Bandcamp

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