Photo Credit: Maryanne Drury
The same love felt in Billy Strayhorn’s ode to the of the rails of New York City in the jazz standard “Take the ‘A’ Train” is still alive and well today a few hundred miles south here in Washington. While the Duke Ellington orchestra is no longer around to send their musical echoes into the night, recent Tampa transplant and current Alexandria resident Jason Mendelson aims to commemorate DC’s own transportation network with his very own collection of songs for each (and eventually) every Metro station.
Embarking last November on his epic Metro musical mission, Mendelson has already released the first volume of Metro songs with the second already in the works, which you can listen to here. While the flashing red lights along the edge of the Metro platform will likely never double for footlights, WeLoveDC had a chance to recently talk to the man behind the music himself.
WeLoveDC: What was the inspiration behind commemorating all of our Metro stations musically?
Jason Mendelson: I wrote National first, because I thought it was a really interesting story – the whole controversy over the expensive and ridiculous renaming that that Georgia Congressman Bob Barr demanded. After that, it occurred to me that all the stations probably have an interesting story worth writing about if you look hard enough. So what started as a gimmick has turned out to be a great educational experience for me as a relatively new resident.
WLDC: So far your songs are fairly diverse in genre, what is the key for picking the right style for each station?
JM: I often try to capture the feel of the place. When I started writing about the U.S. Botanic Garden for “Federal Center SW,” I thought of the Simon & Garfunkel song where they list a bunch of spices or plants, and tried to write something that sounded like that melody. The Van Dorn Street Station is right next to a parcel delivery hub, so I imagined a tired driver at the end of the day, and went right for the blues, which strikes me as a real working man’s music. The history of the “Bonus March at Federal Triangle” was begging for a more aggressive approach, hence the gated snare hits and distorted guitar.
Sometimes it’s just random to the point of being nonsensical, though, like the country sound on “Braddock Road,” or the old swing of “L’Enfant Plaza.” An even bigger source of inspiration is my vast pool of musical influences. “Pentagon” is a tip of the hat to Stereolab, who also uses vibraphones and 5/4 time. On “East Falls Church,” Robinson Lee Earle and I decided from the start to go for a sound like Belle & Sebastian’s, given the topic of pretentious teenagers in love who aren’t quite sure how to proceed with their first roll in the hay after riding the Metro back from their date in D.C. “Ice Skating at the Archives” is a jazz waltz featuring area musicians Seth Kibel (flute) and Oren Levine (piano), which made it one of the most fun to record.
WLDC: Have you had the chance to do a Metro “tour” and perform your songs at their respective stations?
JM: Since playing a radio or instrument without headphones is against the Metro rules, I don’t dare try that. Unfortunately, the MetroPerforms program seems to be on indefinite hiatus. I think it would be really fun, so I hope they bring it back, but I understand they have bigger fish to fry at the moment.
WLDC: There are 86 stations throughout the system, have you ridden the rails and visited every one?
JM: I’ve been to a lot of the stations, but probably not quite half. So, eventually, I’ll run out of material and have to take a field trip. I’m actually looking forward to that. I’ve already started reaching out to community groups and gathering anecdotal research via emails, namely Edgewood and Silver Spring. My wife and I met up with Emily Haha (www.emilyhaha.com), who has a very similar project and goal, to visit all of the stations and blog about them.
WLDC: While you moonlight as a musician, your day job is as a tax analyst…ever break out the guitar at work?
JM: Not often. Tax people aren’t typically into things that are, you know, fun, but I am lucky to work with a pretty cool group. In fact, there is an unusually high number of musicians in our department, so about once every few months we have “Six String Lunch,” where several of us book a conference room, bring a guitar and our lunch, and swap songs and stories.
WLDC: Of course, I have to ask what your favorite Metro station is?
JM: That’s like asking a parent to pick a favorite child – I have one, but I won’t tell!
If you are interested in picking up Jason’s ode to Metro, visit Action Music in Falls Church, VA or email Jason directly at firstname.lastname@example.org