It was the second set of our show. The pianist shot me a malevolent glare, then proceeded to butcher the opening chords of the song I was about to sing, obfuscating the key so I couldn’t tell what note to start with. He finished the intro; silence lingered as the band waited for me to begin. “Give me an A minor triad please?” I asked him. He did, and I began the song, resolving to punch him in the face as soon as we got off stage.

Only moments before there’d been a brief surge of promise, followed by an argument. We’d been sitting in the green room, which has absorbed generations of reefer smoke into its carved wood walls. I was reclining on the couch. He sat at the piano and began to play something intriguing. “Hey, have you started on the arrangement to The Names of the Winds?” I asked him, sitting upright. “Yes, this is it. Wanna hear it?” I skipped over to the piano and he spread out some cream-colored manuscript paper with penciled melody lines and chord symbols. Next to that he placed a lyric sheet. “I went through your lyrics and counted the syllables,” he said. I spied the numbers. “Uh… OK, can you play it for me?” Over the phone, when I gave him the arranging job, I had told him I wasn’t particularly happy with my melody, but that a better chord structure might inspire me to improve it.

He began to play something sinewy, exotic and jazzy. Nice. He played the melody in his right hand. “OK, that’s not my melody, but… interesting. So how does the chorus sound?” I asked. He came to the chorus and began playing something, that, like the first part, did not resemble the song I’d sent him. My pulse quickened. “Did you listen to the version I sent you?” I asked him. “No, no — I didn’t want to have any influences,” he replied. “Yes, but I asked you to arrange the song, not write it. Here’s how the melody of the chorus goes–” “Oh, I already know how you write your melodies. I’ve heard that from you before.”

Fighting words! I was livid. He was too. A voice in my head said, “It’s a match of big egos. Put yours aside, Alexa — perhaps you’ll get a better song out of it.”

Fighting words! I was livid. He was too. A voice in my head said, “It’s a match of big egos. Put yours aside, Alexa — perhaps you’ll get a better song out of it.” Alas, a collaboration was not in the cards for us. I can’t remember how the conversation continued to devolve, but it did. Ultimately I told him not to work on the song anymore. It occurred to me that I should be very clear about this — I didn’t want him going around later saying he had anything to do with what I came up with.

After the show, I seethed about the situation for a few days, and shared it with my co-producer, who agreed that the behavior was egregious. I told another pianist about it and he said that if I wanted he could write a few melodies and I could choose the one I liked best. “No, that’s not the point! I wrote the song, I just want it to be better and I know the melody I have now isn’t quite there, but I want better chordal ideas, not a cowriter.” He nodded. “The whole point of the album is that it’s all original.” I knew my lyrics, inspired by the Master and Commander series by Patrick O’Brien, were some of the best work I’d ever done. I could see he totally understood that hunger to compose a great song to match them. “You can do it yourself,” he said. “You’ve got it.”

So I began to pound away at the song, in a way I’ve never done before. After sitting for hours at the piano and playing it, reshaping some of the lines and considering how composers I admire set their melodies (Satie, Joplin, Chopin, Gounod, Bach, Guinga), I took a few good motifs and switched to composing it exclusively on the computer in Sibelius (music notation software by Avid). I spent days on it, locked in my room. My boys left me alone. “Where’s Mommy?” I heard one ask behind the door. “She’s still working on her song,” the other replied.

I discovered that it was interesting to write orchestral string lines in Sibelius and see how they interacted — even though the piece would be recorded with just piano and bass. When I wrote the song back in the mid-2000s, it had a key change in the song from verse to bridge/chorus. I kept that. A new development was a time signature change that occurs at the end of each chorus. I was especially proud of this. The song goes from lilting waltz as I sing “Tell me all the names of the winds, whisper all the ways I’ll never know,” to inexorable 4/4 with eight-note arpeggios under the sad lyric, “Which one will blow me to my love?”

A sleepless week passed, and I emerged from my home office, triumphant — or at least, “done.” We were about to rehearse the whole band the day before our two days in the recording studio. My co-producer, Sam Bevan, still hadn’t seen the song. No one had. Was it any good? After rehearsal, he and I sat down and he played it on the piano. I could see he liked it. “Where did you get these voicings?” he asked nonchalantly. Victory! The next day, Jonathan Alford, my pianist on the album, played it in the recording studio and loved it. “Is it better than the original demo?” I asked. “Did you listen to it?” “Yep, kiddo, this is much better. Those descending lines in the chorus are great.” Another jolt of artistic pride — I explained they’d come from my playing with string lines in Sibelius.

“Where did you get these voicings?” he asked nonchalantly. Victory!

Sam tweaked the chart a bit, adding chord symbols (I’d gotten so absorbed in the notes and voicings that I wasn’t always even sure what the best chord symbol would be), improving the pianistic lay of the 4/4 arpeggios and adding bowed-bass to the introduction (I love bowed bass, so this too is reminiscent of my Sibelius synth string experiments). We took the chart into the studio, Jonathan read through it for the first time, and we recorded it at the end of a long day in one magical take — the kind where you can’t wait to burst the bubble of silence after the last note to yell and applaud. I was able to use my scratch vocal from that take on the finished album. And that’s the story of a song that finally came to fruition — and in the process became the first piece I fully arranged in Sibelius!