"Smell" (iTunes) is the seventh song (of twenty-five) in my Atlas: Year Two series. It's also one of five songs written for the Senses - a song for each of the five classical senses, in the order they develop inside the womb: Touch, Taste, Smell, Hearing & Sight. Writing a song for each of the senses has been incredibly fun, but not without challenge. At the start of writing each of these songs, there’s the same difficult question: What does [insert sense here] SOUND like? I’ve never asked myself what smell sounds like before. I decided that the best way to answer that question would be to learn more about the sense of smell. So, I read and watched everything I could find about smell, which eventually informed my interpretation of what smell sounds like in the form of a song.
I don’t have a particularly good sense of smell myself. Because of this, I wanted there to be some sort of limitation in the recording, so I decided to produce the song in mono. (if you’re not familiar: most songs you hear are in stereo - meaning that sound comes through 2 speakers, left and right. Mono is limited to one speaker.. so if you have headphones on, identical sounds will come out of the left and right.) "Smell" is the first song I've ever made in mono. It was a lot of fun to tie one arm behind my back like that. Because there is less sonic space to fill, it forced me to only record things that I felt added something really special to the song.
Our sense of smell and taste are obviously very different from one another, but of all of the 5 senses, they seem the most closely related. I wanted to honor that in the two songs, so I tried to make them carry a similar spirit as one another in the emotion of the song, but also be polar opposites in the recording and production. Where “Taste” sounds kind of big and layered, “Smell” is kind of small and concise. “Taste” is drums and electric guitars, “Smell” is no drums and acoustic guitars. These two songs are siblings, and like most siblings I know, they might share some DNA, but have VERY different personalities.
I learned a bunch of cool stuff about the sense of smell… things like; when we sleep, our sense of smell goes inactive. And smell is our most sensitive sense! And “phantosmia” is a thing where a person can’t get rid of a scent for weeks that no one else but them can smell. (like a phantom limb, but with smell)… but the thing that I found most interesting was that people can remember smells with 65% accuracy after a year, while visual recollection is only 50% after just 3 months. It’s a fairly well-known fact that our sense of smell is deeply linked to memory. Smells can trigger some of our most vivid memories, and is most linked to our emotional recollection. Which reminds me of that beautiful moment in Pixar’s Ratatouille, where the food critic is transported back to his childhood, with only a single bite of food. I decided this song should be about that. A story about memory.
If this was going to be a song about the vivid memories that can be brought on by our sense of smell, I knew I needed to try to be as clear as I could be in the storytelling. So the lyrics have a bit of a conversational feel to them. i.e.. the opening line:
“is this the part where the brain scan shows where memories reside, some ambiguous shape in me, suddenly producing light? triggered like a trip wire every time i breathe it in, isn’t it strange that a lilac tree is what unlocks where i’ve been.”
Typically, every song I write begins with a “clipboard” of sorts- a blank page where I toss any and every idea I have for a particular song. It’s usually an outline of a concept, or several single words that I feel have some sort of resonance with the music. Quite a while ago, the word “Lilac” was the first word I tossed into the “Smell” clipboard, and it sat there lonely as I tried to figure out what this song was about. Lilac is my very favorite smell. As the song finally found some shape, that single word ended up being the foundation for the story.
When I smell lilac, I am teleported to when I was about 13 years old and I’d come home after playing outside with my friends (translation: being terrible at sports with my friends), and catch the smell of the lilac trees in the front steps of my childhood home, as I went inside. That smell represents an amazing childhood, and home for me.
“it vanishes against my will, the light goes out, my heart goes still, and just like that, i believe in ghosts.”
That line is most obviously about letting go of memory, of history and having trouble moving forward. But it’s also a nod to that “phantosmia” I mentioned above.
“time and space are at my back performing disappearing acts, but now i can’t escape the smell of smoke.”
I wanted to introduce the element of smoke here, as it’s a mile marker for time having passed. Smoke proves a fire recently existed. Also, not sure about you, but of any word in the dictionary, when I read the word “smoke” I can almost smell it.
“the research says that the only way to keep memories in tact is to lock them away and to close the door until countless years have passed. i guess that explains why the strangest things can conjure up the past and forgotten time will find its long way back.”
A few years ago I heard an episode of one of my favorite podcasts, Radiolab about memory. One of the stories was about how memory is like a cassette tape, the more we replay it the more it wears out and the details fade. Our brains start to fill in the gaps with details that aren’t usually very accurate. This also speaks to when people have repressed memories, or blocked memories, often times that memory will find it’s way back, and when it does, it is shockingly well preserved (for better or worse.) All this to say, memory is pretty fascinating and complex.
"‘cause i feel like i’ve been sleeping through the better part of this, laying dormant through an endless winter that doesn’t even exist."
Sometimes, when I feel like I've lost control of some part of my life, I wear myself out trying to regain some sense of control to the point of shutting down. Almost like an unhealthy hibernation. So, this line serves as a gentle reminder to myself to wake up, to not allow myself to sleep through the better parts of my life.
Ironically, when the lyrics were finished and the song was ready for me to record my vocals, I caught a cold! Thankfully it didn’t hinder the recording, but I did find it funny to sing a song called "Smell", precisely when I could hardly smell a thing!
As I mentioned earlier, I don't have a great sense of smell, but I have a far less great memory. So I had a lot of fun writing this song with limitations in place. In addition to recording it mono, I made a rule that NO lyric in this song could repeat. Every line is essentially about faded memory, and trying to go back, so it felt appropriate to never repeat.
I invited my friend, Joanna Hui to be a guest on this song (she's an Atlas regular these days!) to play a ton of violins. Lately, we have a fun way of recording together: I think "this song should have strings." I invite Joanna over to play on a song. She kindly agrees. Without having even heard the song, she shows up with her violin and let's me boss her around for a few hours and record TONS of random ideas, and as we go, we dissect what's working, what's not working. Shortly after, I'll go back through the violin recordings and shape and layer them until they feel done. We've only recently begun recording in this way, and I just love it! It feels like pulling the lever of a slot machine, but instead of $$$, it always spits out beautiful strings! I'd call it luck, if Joanna wasn't so darn talented!
I recorded some guitar swells that represent breathing- it's meant to sound like inhaling, exhaling. (there’s also a track of some very quiet breathing throughout. Because I think it's interesting that the only way to smell is by breathing in!) For that same reason, I chose to record my voice very up front and close.
“it’s gravity in an hourglass responsible for the avalanche and the loudest silence that i’ve ever heard. a memory clear as a bell, a story i will try to tell but maybe this time, without words.”
The last couple lines of the song are about the reappearance of a long lost memory, and a commitment to preserve it, by replaying the cassette tapes less. These lines also introduce the idea and language of sound in this song ("loudest silence", "bell", "without words", etc.) as a way of being a bridge to the next song in the series, “Hearing,” which is an instrumental.
Thanks for reading about how this song came about.. writing can be a lonely endeavorer, so it means a lot to me to share the process with you! Love, Ryan