Beneath the Surface of ‘Lost At Sea’

by Danny M. Cohen of They Won’t Win

Beneath the Surface of ‘Lost At Sea’
My name is Danny M. Cohen, and I’m one half of the Chicago-based gay folk-rock duo They Won’t Win. My “music husband” is Greg Lanier and we wrote and co-produced our debut album over a few years of life’s ups and downs. For me, parts of ‘Lost At Sea’ reflect what it was like to witness a dear friend fall into a dark, frightening place, but, ultimately, our album is about finding your way out.

Listen to the album while reading the text.

Summer Black

Who knew we’d kick off our debut album with an a cappella solo!

Admittedly, we start the album by painting a dark picture. The first track, Summer Black, begins with a sinking memory: After midnight, your best friend reaches out, and you grab your keys and rush over to help.

By the first chorus, Greg’s vocals join mine, and the song’s quiet beginning gives way to a burst of guitars and drums. Greg and I dive into the second verse—“You are not to blame”—facing reality, together, harmonies locked. The moment our lead vocals switch between us is the moment your friend makes a promise.

This can’t go on, he says, before our voices fade and the cellos wash over us, and we know it’s all gonna be okay.

Everything

Greg had this genius idea to schedule a series of studio discovery sessions. We’d been recording for a good few months, but we hadn’t figured out our sound, yet. The free, informal exploration, lasting four or five hours at a time, without the pressure to finish or finalize a track, felt really good.

Halfway through one discovery session, standing next to the control desk, Greg and I looked at each other in almost-disbelief as the electric guitar came in with a gentle whale cry. We’d found our sound! Everything is about finding your way in dark times, picking up and keeping all your broken pieces, and making it through.

Rather than stacked harmonies throughout, my vocals echo and move around Greg’s lead vocals. I become the protagonist’s inner-voice of assurance, keeping self-doubt at bay. By the song’s bridge, lifted by a simple climbing cello line, you come to see that “you’ve won” and “walked right up that hill.”

Never

This song is my morning coffee! It’s what I play when I need a proper pick-me-up. It also happens to be the first track on the album on which we use male pronouns (our album is unapologetically gay). But while the bright piano and upbeat swells make it our catchiest, happiest, pop-iest tune, there’s some hidden darkness just beneath the surface. (It wouldn’t be a They Won’t Win song without that hidden darkness.)

We kick off by “soaring over treetops,” but when the big chorus hits—“Noone should live like that”—it’s clear there’s something bad in the past, and we damn well refuse to return. It’s an ever-present history that’s reflected in the reversed guitar wails, especially over Never’s almost slow-motion bridge: “Shadows fell / Shadows fading / Fading into time / Into rage / Into life on some new page.” The track closes with an upbeat false ending as if you tripped up for a moment before landing on your path again.

In a way, the album’s first three tracks tell a story that becomes a recurring theme of the album: If we ever get dragged through shit, we need to tell ourselves to keep going, and when we find the right path, we don’t have to forget the darkness, we can use our painful experiences to inform each choice and mindset in the here and now.

Leaving London

Greg and I co-wrote, from scratch, seven of the songs on the album. The remaining three tunes existed in some form before we even met and, once we shared them with each other, became rewritten and/or reimagined.

We joke that Leaving London turned into our version of a ‘Bond song.’ “What are you frightened of? / Everyone you’ve loved?” I originally wrote the song about a friend who, I believed, was leaving home for all the wrong reasons (I’m from London, and Greg is from Hudson, Wisconsin). While reworking the song, we discovered a hidden ‘London’ melody with Greg’s vocals playing the role of the city as a backdrop to the central ‘Leaving’ story. “Every cobbled street / Every barren tree.”

The track also represents an outlier in our song production process. The story of the song isn’t linear, so we had the opportunity to play with its structure. We recorded different cello and bass and guitar lines without quite knowing where they’d end up, and we gave our co-producer, Julian Stacey of Gravity Studios, permission to cut and splice and sample. The song became our chillout, lush lounge track.

War

Leading us back to our coffee-shop roots, War is our most stripped-down track: just vocals, acoustic guitar, simple piano, and cello. When Greg played me a first draft, I knew he was speaking his truth. “And, please / You’ve seen enough of my face / Just say what you want to say / Then go.”

For the verses and choruses, it felt right to double-track and stack the harmonies. In the studio, I was struggling with my vocals. Then Greg went out to grab a coffee, and it hit me that I needed to almost mimic Greg’s singing style.

But something shifts at the bridge. As we wrote the bridge melody and lyrics together, I tapped into what I’d witnessed Greg go through, years earlier. In the final mix, this is where our vocals separate, my voice becomes my own again, and my harmonies echo and then anticipate Greg’s story, perhaps turning his personal experiences into something that belongs to all of us. “You always said / I would become nothing / I am made of nothing / But I am made of love.”

If the World Were Mine

We saw the beginning of Side B as a fresh start, and we kick it off with an articulated organ solo (played by the exceptional Ben Walter) before our signature stacked vocals come in. “All this doubt / All this fear.” If the World Were Mine is our take on an epic rock song, and it was one of the very first songs Greg shared with me when we first met, ten years ago. It’s a retelling of a Shakespeare classic, and our stacked harmonies begin to fall and rise and weave around each other.

The cooking up of a magical love potion is one of my favorite parts of the album. “It’s one part reason / Two parts rain / One part longing / Two parts shame / It’s one part heaven / One part hell / Mix together / Stir it well.” In this bridge, we found an unexpected—you could even say weird—call-and-response cello melody. Throughout the two-year recording process, we came to see the cello as a third voice (we wrote all the cello melodies with a crude keyboard in Greg’s apartment before handing them over to the brilliant Chai Wolfman).

The spells and sorcery of the story never fade, and we arranged the song’s whirling ending by stirring everything together as if to convey a sense of out-of-control magic.

Dungeons & Dragons

The magic and epicness continue into our next track. We’d already been working in the studio for many months and, although we weren’t looking for more songs, Greg had this idea for a new melody. He texted me to challenge him with a title. He would write lyrics around whatever song title I gave him. Half-serious, half-joking, and knowing Greg would completely geek out, I replied with “Dungeons & Dragons.”

His melody turned into a song inspired by Greg’s childhood friend who died unexpectedly, many years ago. “It was on the day that you died / That we would finally feel / Magic is real.” Around the time we were writing the song, a childhood friend of mine passed away, too.

We filled the song’s chorus and especially the lyric-less bridge with layers and layers of overlapping vocal padding along with keyboard chimes and synths, hinting at memories and sounds from our separate 1980s childhoods and evoking images and emotions from the magical quest movies we grew up on, like Labyrinth and The Goonies and The Neverending Story.

Frozen River

Through lush synths, a pulsing bassline, and plenty of reverb on our double-tracked vocals, our next song tells a story that’s all too common in our community. Greg and I both happen to work in the social justice world.

Back in London, I was a youth worker, and, during my first couple of years in the United States, I conducted research at a center in Chicago for youth facing homelessness. I was astonished to learn that, in major cities across the country, some 40% of young people facing homelessness also identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. So many of these young people are rejected by their families and are either kicked out of their homes or run away. Many find themselves working in the sex trade.

Greg and I are both so lucky that our parents were extremely supportive when we each came out as gay, but some members of our families still don’t talk to us, and we have too many people in our lives who’ve experienced homophobia and transphobia from their immediate families. Frozen River combines these stories.

We made the careful choice to turn our collective experiences of marginalization into a message of hope, punctuated by vocal padding that leads into our ultimately hopeful bridge and final alt chorus. “You have a song / And it goes on and on and on.”

Who’s with Him?

Greg takes the lead in this song about a friend who struggles to find happiness with what he has in front of him. “And this is not a game you’re going to win / When all that you keep asking / Who’s with him?”

The seemingly simple instrumentation leads us back to our stripped-down, coffee-shop sound, but subtle processing in the distance, and a wall of sound that hits immediately after the first chorus reminds us of everything that’s come before and, more generally, points to the ridiculous messiness of life. The whirring backdrop also foreshadows the song’s plot twist.

A memorable moment in the Who’s with Him? writing process was when I challenged Greg to turn the meaning of the song’s ending upside down. We landed on a simple lyric change, from third person to first person: “And this is not a game I’m going to win / When all that I keep asking / Who’s with him?”

Lost at Sea

Close to when we went into the studio for the first time, Greg sent me a phone recording of a tune and chord progression he couldn’t get out of his head. It would be our torch song, he said, and he asked me if I’d take a stab at creating lyrics around the melody.

A trip to California and a whale watching tour (with my headphones on and Greg’s humming and strumming in my ear) stirred an image in my mind of a lost love calling out his promises across a cloud-cloaked ocean. I shared a rough sketch of the lyrics with Greg, and he pushed us deeper to find old magical stories of quests and sea monsters and starry-eyed sacrifice. “Careful what you believe.”

In the arrangement for Lost At Sea, our vocals tell two sides of the story. The verses, which I sing (unusually) without Greg, tell the tale of longing for that lost dream while, in the chorus, Greg takes the lead and becomes the “him,” never forgotten. “Keep it together / Oceans forever / He promised me / Never return / All bridges burn / Just you and me / Lost at sea.”

P.S.

Remember when albums had hidden tracks? Well, we don’t have one in the classic sense, but, with the extended instrumental at the end of Lost At Sea, we had the idea to pull in different parts of the album into the background of the final song’s ending. Our incredible producer, Julian Stacey, kept things simple and surprised us by sampling part of the bridge from Everything. And so, in the album’s final moments, we come full circle: When we’re lost, if we listen to that inner voice, we’ll find our path. “Say you’ve won.”

They Won’t Win

They Won’t Win, Category: Artist, Albums: Lost at Sea, Singles: Crosswords, Top Tracks: Everything, War, Summer Black, Never, Dungeons & Dragons, Biography: They Won’t Win is a folk-rock duo consisting of singer-songwriters Danny M. Cohen and Greg Lanier.

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Chicago, Illinois
Folk, Alternative Folk, Folk Pop, Folk Rock, Singer-Songwriter
harmonies, love, loss, heartache, greatfulness, friendship, loneliness, failure, triumph, abuse, depression, hope

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