The Undertow – A Concept Album
I know I’m surely not the first New England Songwriter to record a concept album. Actually the thought never crossed my mind. That being said I unknowingly started building this collection of ocean theme songs nearly 25 years ago. It started by writing the song “The Undertow” which I had planned to pitch, hoping to get recorded. Next came “Massachusetts Turnpike”, written about the son of a fisherman, the setting taking place in the fishing village of Gloucester MA. After that I would just add one here and there over a period of time. I drew ideas for the songs from all the places I frequented in my years along the Maine, NH, and Mass coastline. Also drew from life’s experience… either my own, family or friends. Then one day, looking over my growing song catalog, I realized I had created an interesting collection of tunes that had some connection to the sea. That was back in 2006. I then started adding to the collection, writing about themes and story lines I hadn’t covered yet, all of which had ocean themes. I ended up with about thirty tunes in all. I became clear to me that I needed to record a dozen or so of these songs as a concept album. My hope was that the story lines would resonate with others as well, especially folks who were familiar with the New England seacoast.
Album Planning and The Recording Process
Engineer and producer Bob Dick and I started planning to record this collection of songs back in 2011. All of the tracks were recorded at Bob’s Appleland Studio in Northbridge MA.
It’s taken six years in all from start to finish. Many reasons for that include the fact that we all have day jobs, careers outside of music. Bob had other recording projects in the works back then, that needed to be completed, and also was in the process of updating the recording equipment in his studio. We wisely decided not to rush, but rather wait until everything was in place. The extra time came in handy as it allowed us the luxury of coming up with fresh arrangement ideas, re-defining the instrumentation and vocal parts. There are actually 18 of us performing on The Undertow, and as we all live in different parts of New England, it took time to get everyone’s parts recorded based on logistics and the performer’s schedules.
I also took advantage of the opportunity to re-work and fine tune some of the songs. In one case “The Rising Tide”, the version we recorded was a total re-write, bearing no semblance to the original version. This one is much better!
CD Cover Image
The amazing CD cover image for The Undertow recording was taken by photographer Andy Cook, Rocky Mountain Reflections Colorado Springs CO. Andy travels all over the country, capturing some of our lands breathtaking natural beauty. This image is of The Nubble Lighthouse in York Maine, taken at sunrise. Ironically this is a scene mentioned in one of my songs on the album.
Places In The Songs
The Nubble Lighthouse is located on the York, Maine coast. It has become a popular tourist attraction over time, as the setting and surroundings are breathtaking. The lighthouse was actually built in 1879. It was called Nubble because it was built in a tiny nub of land surrounded by water. The keepers house is two stories, and there is a covered walkway connecting the keepers house to the tower. In its early years the lighthouse once had a fog bell housed in the bell tower.
I included this particular lighthouse in one of the songs as Nubble was one of the most prominent lighthouses in our area. For well over a century it’s light would guide ships at sea safely to port, through storms at sea, fog, and the dark of night.
Just had to include this song on the album. Located in Ogunquit Maine, the Marginal Way is a footpath beginning in a corner of Oarweed Cove meandering along the coastline for about a mile to Perkins Cove.
The land the path is on was donated to the town in 1925 by Josiah Chase. For nearly a century people would come from all over New England, and beyond, to take in the panoramic views of the ocean along the steep rock cliffs, stopping along the way to rest and relax in one of the many benches along the route. My wife and I have a long standing tradition of waking the Marginal Way every year around the time of our anniversary.
I have been visiting this beautiful part of the NH coastline since childhood. Though not very big in size, Rye Harbour captures the essence of that classic New England ocean setting so very pleasing to the eye. The Harbour sweeps in from the sea, winding its way almost to the coastal roadway. At high tide the Harbour is filled with boats of all shapes and sizes, ready to set sail. There is a jetty adjacent to the Harbour that extends almost three hundred feet out into the ocean. When you make your way out there on the large boulders, you feel the wind in your hair, hear the waves crashing on the Rocky shore, and can smell the cool salty air. There is nothing like it!
Isles Of Shoals
The Isles Of Shoals consist of nine tiny Islands about six miles off the Maine & NH Coastline, Star Island bring the largest. On a clear day you can see several of them from the mainland. Early explorers noted that it’s natural harbor and the deep waters that surround it made the Isles an ideal location for fishing. The Isles Of Shoals were permanently colonized in the early 1600s, primarily by fishermen.
Over time, the demise of the fishing industry came, followed by the advent of tourism in the region. Businessman Thomas B. Leighton acquired several of the Islands, and built a large tourist hotel he called Appledore House. The Isles Of a Shoals became a favorite summer resort for many of the most revered authors, artists and musicians of the time.
I’ve visited the Isles on occasion during the summers since I was in my 20s. It’s very peaceful and relaxing out there, a great place to do some creative writing.
With the exception of The Undertow CD cover image, my daughter Heather took all the ocean photos. We set up two photo shoots in the fall of 2017, attempting to capture all the scenes and images that weave in and out of the songs on The Undertow album. A few were used on the CD jacket behind the text, and several in the photo collage that appears under the CD Disc.
There you will see photos of :
The Nubble Lighthouse
Ship painting that belonged to my grandparents George and Mary Lang
A book “Gifts From The Sea” that my mom handed down to me
Marginal Way sign where the footpath starts
Waves crashing on the Rocky NH coast
Photo of a book “Keep The Light Burning Abbie”…..the children’s book Ted DeMille and I based our song on for the album.
Partial lyrics to the song “Keep The Light Burning Abby.
Rye Harbour sign at the entrance to the Seaside State Park
Boats anchored in Rye Harbour at high tide
Photo of a fisherman that appeared on placemats at Hudons Restaraunt at Hampton Beach NH (owned and operated by our Aunt Girtrude and Uncle Paul Hudon)
Isles Of Shoals Information Sign.
A photo of our footprints in the sand.
The Undertow Performers
The cast of performers in The Undertow includes 17 area musicians and vocalists that I have performed with, recorded with, or written with over the course of the last 30 years. It was important to me personally to record at least one project with all my long time area music buddies. All are from the New England region and have a familiarity with the ocean. That was essential, as everyone had a good understanding of where we wanted to take the songs. The album needed to have an overall ocean feel and sound authentic.
Karen Lincoln Wilber