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sallie mae

This is a good one. I'm looking forward to telling you about how this song was written.

I rarely collaborate on songs. I have a quick turnaround time and besides -- well, I just know how the song is supposed to go. But then again, I have this crazy song-a-month challenge going and I'm always looking for song ideas.

Last fall, my Facebook friend Joe O'Neill posted an angry rant about a friend who, like him and a lot of people his age, is struggling with student loan debts and feeling victimized by the ridiculously stringent and expensive rules of Sallie Mae. His rant was poetic and conveyed his rage so perfectly that it really stuck with me. My mind kept rolling over his poem. I heard a tune along with the first four words immediately.

So I wrote to Joe and asked if he'd mind if I stole his poem and did some major surgery on it to make it song-worthy. He said OK.

I downloaded the text and started jiggering with it. Every few weeks I'd open up the file, move things around, write a line or two, rewrite another line or two, save it and close. Slowly, over the course of months, the words began taking shape.

I still wasn't sure it could be a real song. There was little meter and almost no rhyme and was going to take some serious reworking. I wasn't sure which of Joe's words would be the chorus or the hook, so the whole project lingered menacingly in the back of my mind as time went by.

One Saturday morning I was walking my dog through the lovely Hollywood neighborhood of Northeast Portland when all of a sudden I noticed there was a tune in my mind. It came out of nowhere and i wasn't even thinking about Joe's song (or so I thought), but the melody in my mind went like this: "Owing all she owns, owing more than all she owns ..." As soon as I was conscious of this turn of phrase I added, "she'll never get away from Sallie Mae," and I knew I had my hook.

Time continued to march on while this song remained unwritten. Meanwhile, the song for May, "Beautiful Mind," finally got animated and uploaded, and I celebrated this achievement for about two hours before I started thinking about what I might be able to do for June's song. And I immediately thought about Joe's poem. I opened the file and started moving things around, and with the easy acceptance of a desperate person I thought, "This is ready to be a song!" By the end of the day I had the first verse. The second verse was a matter of filling in the blanks with Joe's phrases and telling the story in the same meter as the first verse.

The bridge ("Running, running ...") jumped into my brain in one piece. That's one of those moments when the writing was so easy I have absolutely no memory of it. It was a simple matter of, "Here's the bridge and it's exactly right the way it is." The third verse came together pretty easily, so after months of very little action, the song came into being in two days.


sallie mae
janice leber / joe o'neill 2014

The girl can't breathe. So young, so creative
talents squandered on the tables she's waiting
for minimum wage monotony
she should be writing poetry
her masterpiece will never be
it's crushing her, it's killing me
'cause Sallie Mae won't leave her alone
Sallie Mae says she must atone
Sallie Mae has made her an indentured servant
working herself to the bone
and owing all she owns, owing more than all she owns
she'll never get away from Sallie Mae.

Bless her soul, Grandma's heart is still strong
but by now Grandma's mind is gone
indifferent uncles, power plays she can't see
erased from Grandma's memory
they locked her out but she found a way
a helping hand from Sallie Mae
but Sallie Mae won't let her create
Sallie Mae cannot relate
Sallie Mae has left her in a world of hurt, but
cryin' don't put food on the plate
owing all she owns, owing more than all she owns
she'll never get away from Sallie Mae,

Running running, running just as fast as she can
running running, trying hard to stay in the same place
Desperation's part of the plan
running behind before she even gets into the race

I get so angry when I think about her desperation
and so many of us in the same situation
'cause Sallie Mae has her claws in me too
also my brother, and possibly you
they pounce upon us like we're sitting ducks
and make a fortune off of our bad luck
and Sallie Mae won't leave us alone
Sallie Mae says we must atone
We're a generation of indentured servants
working ourselves to the bone
and owing all we own, everything we'll ever own,
we'll never get away, how can we get away?
We'll never get away from Sallie Mae

Running running, running running
running running, running behind ...

recording the song
In my mind's ear -- I guess that's not a phrase but don't you think it should be? -- I heard this song as an angry rock anthem. I heard the beats, the bass, the guitar, I heard it all. But when I sat down to the ipad, I could not achieve the sound that I heard in my mind. (I need a band!) I hopped onto all kinds of instruments and riffs and beats and tempos and it just refused to come together. But when I heard the tinkly acoustic guitar, it sounded banjo-like, but oddly right. It was not at all what I expected.

The song started out in the key of C. I recorded it in C and thought I was done but when I listened to the playback my voice sounded kinda screechy. I don't want to sound screechy. Preachy, maybe. Screechy, no thank you. So I decided to knock it all the way down to A and my voice sounded much richer in the lower key. Unfortunately when I transposed it on the ipad, it took the guitar part UP nine semitones instead of DOWN three. So all of a sudden the tinkly guitar was SUPER tinkly and I didn't see any option for taking it down an octave. A few listens convinced me that it was OK up high.

after the song
First of all, I gotta tell ya I love this song. Joe's passion and anger were so evident in his poem that I feared the tinkly guitar and calmer tone would water it down. Joe says the quietness of the song does not diminish the anger, and I hope that's true. I feel awful for the people burdened with these godawful student loans they can never get away from -- and that includes my friend Joe.

Joe and I met in 2012 (at the Disco Trike trial, if you know what that's about), and we hit it off right away but I feel super close to him after the experience of writing this song. Since I wrote it I've seen a number of Facebook posts about how Sallie Mae is making people indentured servants -- they're stealing Joe's line! I think to myself, "This song's time has come." Whether people hear it or not, I love this song and I think it strikes an important note in these times.

If I was trying to be all political I'd put links right here so you could learn more about Sallie Mae for yourself. But I'm just a songwriter. I don't know nothin' about political stuff. I don't bother my pretty little head about such things.