"I Left My Baby Grand in New Orleans" might be the cheeriest and most flippant song on an album that contains a fair dose of seriousness. Here's a little taste of what my writing process was like with this one:
I've always had a thing for places that are a bit rough around the edges. Bangkok is one that springs to mind; New Orleans is another. It might be that, having grown up in the gentle and nurturing clutch of a polite scene like Montreal, my heart sometimes aches for the places that are altogether too humid and boisterous and prone to fits of seedy bacchanalia.
In 2015, having recently returned from a southern voyage, and toes still tapping to some upbeat ragtime rhythm (as my hands struggled in vain to compose something more ballad-like), I tore up the aimless tune that I had been laboring on and started fresh. That infectious NOLA blues had gotten into my capillaries, and so I wrote down what seemed to me a simple and apt metaphor: I left my baby grand in New Orleans.
Hunched over by the piano with a pen and a notepad, I decided to start the song off with the tag line, something direct and declarative: "I left my baby grand down in New Orleans, outside a bloody battle on Frenchmen Street, where the jazz angels sit up long into the night." I've written a lot of shit in my life, but once in while, you somehow get started on the right foot, and this felt like that.
Then, an image of the setting: "The red-light girls and the trumpeteers, the stink of the swamp and the empty beers: blues, but not a tear to be shed in sight." It seemed fitting to depict New Orleans as a kind of meeting place of the comic and the tragic. One did not need to probe very far back in history to see it: I had witnessed for myself some of the infrastructure that had still not been fully rebuilt in the wake of Katrina.
Then, back to the premise: "Seven long years my baby stayed. She came back wet and whiskey-stained; tameless and untouchable and mean. When I left my baby grand in New Orleans." All right, great, that's what this song would be: wet and whiskey-stained and mean. Cue the horn section and honky-tonk piano, the whistling and the shouting.
It was one of the quickest verse/choruses I've ever written in my life. The remainder of the song took a couple of months and some careful rewriting to flesh out, but the melody and structure of that first section were enough to make me confident that this was a keeper. Lyrically, the rest of the song follows in the same vain, digging as deeply and as seriously as possible into what is, at its foundation, a pretty shallow metaphor.
But, once you've taken a shallow metaphor, stretched it out, and beaten it to death atop a hook-y chorus teeming with the word "baby", you know that, at long last, you've written a decent rock n roll song.