Behind The Song: “Mockingbirds” by Grant Lee Buffalo

They were one of the hardest 90s bands to pin down to a specific genre. One reviewer would call them psychedelic and the next would call them rootsy. Perhaps it’s somehow fitting then that “Mockingbirds,” the song that can probably be considered the most memorable of Grant Lee Buffalo’s career, is a sui generis chamber-pop piece.

As Grant Lee Phillips, the band’s lead singer and songwriter, recently told American Songwriter, the song was a last-minute addition to the band’s second album, 1994’s Mighty Joe Moon. “By the time we got to the second album, we had been on the road almost every day the previous year,” Phillips explains. “We sort of looked at each other and said, ‘It feels like it’s time to make a record. What are you doing next week?’ And we dove into it. That being the case, there were songs that were still coming along, songs that I had written, some out on the road, some on the odd day off.” 

“But ‘Mockingbirds’ wasn’t one of those songs. I began to introduce all the new material. And we had gotten through most of the recording process when a massive earthquake struck Los Angeles. This was the Northridge earthquake. And it was out of that that I wrote ‘Mockingbirds,’ when the record was almost basically done. I said, ‘Whoops, I got one more here that we might want to consider.’”

Phillips lost his home in the earthquake. “My wife and I lived up in the high desert, maybe a 15-minute drive from the epicenter of Northridge, so we felt it really strong,” he recalls. “We spent the next number of weeks at my parents’ house, then managed to fly back into LA and slept on a friend’s floor for several weeks as Grant Lee Buffalo worked on the final stages of the album. I didn’t have much with me. My wife and I had our cat, and I had my guitar and my banjo. I was sitting on the floor as the aftershocks rolled and I began to write ‘Mockingbirds’ on the banjo.”

If you’re looking for a play-by-play of Richter scale readings and people diving for cover, look elsewhere. Phillips took a metaphorical approach, which made the song feel universal, even as it stayed true to a very personal experience. “The sentiment of the lyrics is that I’ve done everything I can possibly do to stay on the straight and narrow,” Phillips explains. “I tried to toe the line and yet life has caught up to me anyhow. And I suppose that’s a feeling that all of us can relate to regardless. Pick the cataclysm of your choice. That’s where it’s coming from. Although, when you stop and consider lyrics like ‘Devastation, at last, finally we meet,’ that is indeed very much the feeling one had as they walked out into the rubble of what was their home.”

By personifying this disaster, Phillips created a mindful and vindictive force that harries the narrator throughout the song. He rendered the anguish unflinchingly: “Woke from a dream where I was in a terrible realm/All my sails were ablaze, I was chained to the helm/Now I’m overwhelmed.”

The music, which includes an ingenious downward key change into the final verse and somber cello played by Greg Adamson, adds to the mournful feel. So too does Phillips’ falsetto in the chorus, which makes the narrator seem even more vulnerable to terrible fortune. “I’m known to go into the falsetto when it comes naturally,” he says of the technique. “I think it’s a case of growing up in the 60s and 70s when all of the singers would launch into falsetto at some point.”

Phillips initially had to convince his bandmates of the song’s worth. “To tell you the truth, that song very nearly didn’t make the record,” he says. “I brought that song in and I was told, ‘We’ve already got 13 songs and a few of them aren’t going to make the record because it’s going to be too long. Do we really have to bother with recording one more?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, we do. I feel really strongly about this one.’ I had made a 4-track recording of it at that point in time. I pushed for it.”

Once they did lay down “Mockingbirds,” the entirety of the band loved the idea of releasing it as a single, even as it bucked the grungy musical trends of the times. “I think we recognized that it was unique,” Phillips remembers. “Even though this was only two records in, we had encountered so many situations where it seemed as though the most obvious song to us in terms of being artful and interesting would be relegated to the backburner in favor of something that was quote-unquote more up tempo, more catchy, more memorable. All of those hallmarks that robots can achieve at this point in time.” 

“We were always up against that wall. How do we fit into this world that demands something instantaneous, a song that achieves its goal within the first minute, that hits the chorus, and all of that stuff that we were less interested in? I was less interested in that stuff as a writer. And we were just trying to make albums that excited us, stuff that was like the weird records that we grew up with.”

In this case, not following the obvious fads paid off in the timelessness of this particular song, even if that tendency kept Grant Lee Buffalo somewhat uncategorizable and may have damaged their commercial prospects in their relatively brief time together. Grant Lee Phillips has continued on from the dissolution of the band to become one of the most intriguing and affecting singer-songwriters on the scene; look for a new album from him later this year. Meanwhile, he continues to be humbled by the demand for “Mockingbirds.”

“It amazes me that I still get so many requests for it,” he says. “I would have thought that even among our fans, who are so loyal and wonderful, that they would have tired of it by now. But there are always a few more that haven’t heard it or long to hear it. And I must say it’s a satisfying song to play.”

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