A Songwriter’s Story: A City on a Lake, “Always Something Better”

Written by A Songwriter's Story, Music

One morning, during a break from a writing session, my friend Paul Freeman and I went to get a bagel down the street from my studio. We were talking about a friend who had just been dumped by a girl who seemed to be “upgrading” to another dude. I said something along the lines of “I guess there’s always something better out there.” We immediately shot each other that, “hey that’s not a bad line…” look, wrote it down, and went about our day.

That night we came back to my studio after a few drinks. I sat down at the piano and started playing the melody that became the opening to this song. We decided to write a song about the girl we were talking about earlier around the line “there’s always something better.” We wrote the chorus in about 15 minutes, and started mumbling some ideas for verses based on the girl. But as the drunken writing session progressed and I thought more about the lines we were writing, I slowly came to the realization that the character being dissected in the song actually sounded a lot more like… me.

The song tries to address the idea that as children, we are often sold the idea that we are all special and unique flowers, that we all deserve to be movie stars and date supermodels and athletes and we aren’t supposed to settle for anything less… the promise that someone richer/hotter/smarter than the one you’re with now could be waiting at the very next bar/ the next subway train. It can simply be too seductive a chance to ignore, but it just seems to keep a bunch of lonely, unhappy people wandering around the streets of New York (and other places), perpetually looking for that perfect mate/career/life, failing to notice beauty right in front of them. And it dawned on me that I might be one of those people. And I didn’t want to be one of those people.

The song was fairly easy to write but the most difficult one to produce on my entire album. It took an incredible amount of searching just to find the right production that resonated with the lyrics. I started referencing a lot of my favorite British bands from the ’90s…bands like the Verve and the Cure who would build these two-minute-long intros for their songs, which I loved as they served to set the listener in exactly the right headspace to receive the first lines. I also loved how they created such a powerful vibe by changing and building slowly over time.

I felt if I got overly clever with chord progression or arrangement, the lyric would fall flat. It took a full day just to get the drum part down for this song… and then I came back the next morning and scrapped it completely and started over. I had always imagined a trombone part for the main hook of the song, but once we tracked it it was taking the song into the wrong emotional territory so I scrapped it as well. Tracking the vocals was the most difficult part of all… I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to deliver the emotion needed to sell the song, so I had my friend (and one of my favorite vocalists) sing the high harmonies, but still the vibe wasn’t quite right. There was no way around it, I was going to have to sing everything myself in order to sell this song, and it was going to take forever. It was as if the song was saying to me the whole time, “Oh, you want to change your ways? You want to grow up? Well, you’re gonna work for it, buddy.”

A City on a Lake’s self-titled debut album is out now. Read and hear more at the band’s site, and check out a live performance of “Always Something Better” below:

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