February is a special month for many songwriters. The season of blizzards and valentines is also Album Writing Month, otherwise known as FAWM, an annual songwriting challenge launched by Madison expat Burr Settles. It has spread beyond Wisconsin's borders and inspired many great tunes, including "The Boy and the Nettles," a selection from February Fables, a new album by Stoughton-based songwriter Paul Otteson.
The challenge involves writing 14 songs in 28 days, and that's just what Otteson did. "The Boy" was the final entry of his 2009 effort. "I wrote that song exhausted -- and sick on caffeine -- on the last day of February that year," Otteson explains.
While you can sense some weariness in his voice, it certainly seems to work in the song's favor as he sings, "Though I'm lazy, I'm possibly crazy / I'm gonna get my ass out of bed before the break of dawn."
Sung in a unique falsetto that recalls Justin Vernon's wintry vocals, as well as the emotive stylings of Norah Jones and Heartless Bastards vocalist Erika Wennerstrom, Otteson's timbre and ardor draw you into his tale instantly. If you're especially savvy about stories, you'll notice the tune is inspired by a very old yarn of the same name, Aesop's "The Boy and the Nettles."
In this fable, a boy stung by a nettle runs home to his mother, claiming that he barely touched the prickly plant and wondering how it could cause him so much pain. "The next time you touch a nettle, grasp it boldly, and it will be soft as silk to your hand and not in the least hurt you," she tells him.
February Fables was Otteson's first attempt to apply a fable theme to FAWM, but you'd hardly guess it when listening to "The Boy," which seems to spring from Otteson's core. "It's the most autobiographical of the month's tunes, because the moral described the [fable's] experience so perfectly: 'Whatever you do, do it with all your might,'" he says.
With a bouncy shuffle, a touch of the blues and some fiddle in the middle, the track has an old-timey folk feel to it as well, an ideal accompaniment to an old-fashioned moral story. A gentle Hawaiian breeze even floats into the guitar lines at times, hinting that February will soon give way to March and the beginnings of spring.
Listen to an MP3 of "The Boy and the Nettles" in the related files at right. More music by Paul Otteson are available on MySpace, and musings about his music can be found on his blog. Otteson will host a release party for February Fables, performing with a backing band composed of Asumaya's Luke Bassuener on drums and Jeremiah Nelson on guitar at Kiki's House of Righteous Music on Friday, February 4.
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