Inside Track 002: Need To Be

In 2018, my wife Cat costume designed the Amazon series Homecoming in Los Angeles, so we decamped Brooklyn for a 1930s cottage aerie perched halfway up Laurel Canyon. I couldn’t bring any guitars to LA, because when you pack for an 8-month trip, with no back-and-forths, hard decisions have to be made between fashion studio and music studio. So right around the end of week 1 out there, I bought a knock-around Seagull Entourage Rustic Concert Hall at All-In-One Guitars, now in La Cañada Flintridge, but at the time nestled in a perfect-scaled storefront in Koreatown.

As this guitar was to make its home in the Canyon, I christened her Joni, of course – a true “Lady of the Canyon.” With her sunburst cedar top, she fit right in in the Gould house’s wooden charms. At the end of our time in LA, we shipped Joni back to NYC with Cat’s wardrobe kit, and she’s now my workhorse compositional instrument.

We only had one car, which Cat drove (100% local roads via Studio City!) to and from Universal Studios, where Amazon had just built the largest soundstage on the lot to accommodate the show’s cinematographic vision.

The Homecoming stage was a stone’s throw from the Back To The Future clock tower. My parents joined us for a few days on either side of Mothers Day weekend. They visited the set one day, and we strolled the lot.

Alone to my own devices back up at the cottage whenever Cat was on set, I wandered Laurel Canyon’s roads and secret paths, to Wonderland and back. A brilliant running route elevated me from the cottage’s 550-foot altitude to 1100 feet of attitude above LA’s floor level. The ridge-line panorama offered insane vistas west to the Pacific and east to the San Bernardino Mountains, with DTLA and the Hollywood sign in the respective foregrounds.

I could always take a strategic Uber if needed to leave the Canyon, however, and Sunset Blvd was a 25 minute walk down the hill. So even though car-less, I wasn’t trapped. Most weekends found Cat & me hiking and exploring, desert to ocean, so Laurel Canyon was far from my sole experience of LA and SoCal. Most of my weekdays there, though, using the cottage as my base camp, I walked and ran the Canyon’s hills.

Laurel Canyon has a distinct walking culture, quite un-LA and 100%-LA all at once. As a pedestrian on the sidewalk-less roads, I became a “creature” in a Mr. Mojo Risin song, frequenting the Canyon Country Store at the base of Kirkwood Drive at Laurel Canyon Blvd to buy firewood, coffee, and sandwiches, and meeting scores of Canyon denizens from the Boulevard to the summit ridge.

Every walk up and down its hills, the Canyon’s character and characters revealed their worlds. The place offered story after story, living up to all its mythology, while grounded in the now, looking towards the future.

As the months unfolded, my adventures conjured a couple dozen songs about life in the Canyon, LA, and California. I recorded spare and acoustic in the cottage to click tracks, and carried a condenser mic around LA to capture field recordings of wildlife and wildlings. The plan was to flesh out an album called Paper Streets on returning to NYC at the end of the year.

Haha no plan survives first contact with the enemy. I came back to New York, life [accelerated]2, we all know some of the drill, and 4 years later, my Canyon tracks and another 40 or so new songs remain unrecorded. These include another cycle of songs written in 2021 while living in Lowell, MA. As I write, I’m the proud owner of 3 written-and-arranged-but-unrecorded records bottlenecked behind the same cork. Oof.

The demos I recorded in the Gould cottage remain the blueprint, and only evidence of the Paper Streets record. Fwiw, I put the most “finished demos” up at Bandcamp in a Nebraska-fueled moment right after I returned. Lol as long as it remains unrecorded, the album itself is a bit of a paper street.

My “Gentleman of the Canyon” adventure took me to a songwriter time zero, stripped down and raw, to that place where I just sat and thought and wrote and strummed. And listened. And learned.

On the day of a principal fitting with Homecoming’s Julia Roberts up in the Malibu hills at her home, Cat laughed as she grabbed the car keys to take Gould to Kirkwood to Laurel Canyon to the 101.

“Have to bring our own mirrors today,” she said. “There’s none there.”

“Wait, Julia Roberts lives in a house with no mirrors?” I processed. “That’s… a.. mazing.”

The idea of liberating oneself from one’s reflection transfixed me. Over the next day or so, Need To Be, the track at the center of this piece, materialized from the ether.

Need To Be‘s bridge, however, was always a bit of a placeholder, and the track always stayed just outside the cut for Paper Streets. It was never in a state to perform live, either, but I kept defaulting to it in practice sessions. Over the next few years, the song pleaded with me to coax the discovery of self-worth that I hadn’t captured in the original bridge:

some pain is not a window, but a wall
you build so no one can see you
and you can’t see out at all

Yes, my songs talk back. They plead. And bitch, and moan. But they also give me directions – helpful ones. Words become sentient on a page. Some of them never shut up.

Right around 3 years later in 2021, in Lowell, MA, on the afternoon of March 9th, this song interrupted another attempted broken bridge crossing.

“Stop, stop,” she implored. “Can I ask you one question?”

“Sure,” I said (not that there was any way to stop it from yapping).

“What does a mirror see?”

I turned the question over for a minute or so.

“The only thing it sees, I guess,” I said, “is you, staring at a wall.”

“Haha so true.”

“Ok, then. That’s… the way,” I said, and armed a vocal track in Cubase. “Why didn’t you ask me that 3 years ago, dingo?”

“Why are you wasting time?” she offed. “The bridge is just ahead.”

mirror mirror on the wall
can’t see inside you,
can’t see through you,
mirror mirror can’t see for you
it only sees you staring at a wall

All of a sudden done. As if overnight. As if no time.

Need To Be is timeless now for me – as if it always existed.

Timelessness, in the context of a person or place, isn’t about fashion. It’s about style.

Fashion’s what you see. Style’s what you are.

I re-discovered timelessness in Laurel Canyon. Southern Californians get a nasty rap for vanity, but the dirty secret, and what scares folks about the place, is that California lets you live as if no mirrors.

(As if no side-view mirrors on cars, too, but NYC drivers hold no high ground to criticize.)

Need To Be celebrates the you you are when you close your eyes. No need for mirrors there. That’s a state of pure grace, and the Canyon I found.

Where you only “need to be,” you just are.

You would solve half the world’s problems if all the world lived in a pure present. You’d still have the other half of problems, of course, but those are for another song.

Cheers, Julia. Thanks for the inspiration.



There’s no such thing as slowing down
speed is only how far
you feel you go in time

There’s no such thing as getting old
age is only how far
you feel you are in time

Picture a house with no mirrors,
where you never need to see
your self as a reflection,
you just need to be.

There’s no such thing as living alone
bonds are just as strong
you know we are in time

mirror mirror on the wall
can’t see inside you,
can’t see through you,
mirror mirror can’t see for you
it only sees you staring at a wall

There’s no such thing as giving up
life is just as long as
you don’t think in time

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