Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

Hear the sweet music of the D.C. Metro's own Sufjan Stevens

July 27, 2011 - 03:02 PM
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Sing it for the trains. (Photo: Courtesy of Metrosongs)

Tax man by day, musician by night, 32-year-old Jason Mendelson is composing a song for every Metro station, an album for every line. The Alexandria resident apparently finds the roaring Metro trains and the stations creatively riveting — the transit rock star has compiled a full album of 12 songs entitled Volume One: Mostly Blue, that chronicles various stations along the WMATA Blue Line. Now he's partway through his second volume of music, Party Train, which will tackle the Red Line. The Tampa native refers to the project by the forthright label "MetroSongs," and although unsigned, he's just recently found a retailer to sell Mostly Blue. His song titles include "Ice Skating at the Archives," "New York Avenue Invasion," and "Electric Takoma."

The wildest fact might be that Mendelson's lived in D.C. less than a year. When hearing about Mendelson's project, I thought of the musician Sufjan Stevens, who initially made many claims about wanting to make an album dedicated to each of the 50 states. I became curious about what motivates Mendelson's DIY project about the D.C. trains and conducted a Q&A to highlight the transportation ballads he's been producing.

Chocolate strawberries
(Photo: MetroSongs)

TBD On Foot: What about Metro stations inspires you?

Jason Mendelson: The main goal is to increase awareness and appreciation for rapid transit. I would love to see this country really embrace green energy concepts. With that in mind, taking the Metro sure beats the heck out of all those riders driving their own cars. I suppose when you boil it down, you might even say it's really a thinly disguised environmental effort. But despite owning a Prius, I have to say I'm probably a lousy treehugger.

On Foot: Is it really so much about the stations or about the surrounding neighborhoods? In D.C., I don’t always notice huge differences between the stations themselves.

Mendelson: It's usually the locations and neighborhoods. Sometimes there are unique properties to the stations that help. For example, the canopy above King Street's platform was deliberately constructed in two split parts, to preserve the fabulous view of the Washington Masonic Monument from Old Town. My wife and I recently met up with Emily Haha, who writes a Metro-related blog, www.emilyhaha.com, at the Wheaton station, to share stories and combine research. As a result of our meeting, we all learned the station in Wheaton has the longest escalator in the Western hemisphere. That certainly deserves to be in the lyrics, and may even influence the way I write the music, too.


On Foot: Tell me what your songwriting process is like with each station? Are some stations easier to conjure songs for than others?

Mendelson: Sometimes the music comes first, like on "Van Dorn Street." Sometimes the lyrics are first, as is the case with places like Federal Triangle and Eastern Market, that were super easy to write, and are basically just history lessons set to music. Rosslyn and Pentagon allowed me to stretch out and take a more impressionist type of approach. Rosslyn is a totally fictional story, but the concept is quite moving to me — lamenting the death of a lover, and regretting not appreciating her more when she was around, possibly to the point of madness, when at the end it is revealed that the guy has actually been imagining she still calls him on the phone. Pentagon, for some reason, seemed to be begging for whimsy. The initial obvious idea was to write it in 5/8 time, an unusual rhythmic meter for rock music, and that seemed to work out well. The idea of the Pentagon having a secret underground disco for top brass is hilarious to me.

On Foot: And I hear you’ve got a retailer now for Volume One: Mostly Blue?

Mendelson: I'm very pleased to say Action Music in Falls Church, Virginia is selling CDs for me. I buy guitars and strings there. The owner and staff are super friendly, and they have lots of cool instruments to drool over. I'm really thankful they were willing to help out.

On Foot: How’s Volume Two coming along? Easier than the first? You call "Crawling Out of Crystal City" your most ambitious song so far and I’d love to hear more about why.

Mendelson: Volume Two is a little more difficult, but only because I'm busier now than I was when first moved here last October. With "Crystal City," I decided to try to write and record a song that sounded like Steely Dan. Their music is some of the most complicated you'll find in pop music, so I wanted a challenge like that. I spent several weeks listening to lots of my old Dan vinyl, reading analyses on the Internet, and carefully penning the parts to capture the sound of such a professional arrangement and production. I spent a lot more time with the drum machine than usual, adding lots of fills and keeping the bass part in mind. I added four guitar tracks, some synths, electric piano, five or six tracks of auxiliary percussion, and four-part vocal harmony. I also found that most Dan songs' lyrics cover the following themes and elements — drugs, sex, the name of some specific alcoholic drink, and a perverted twist — so I tried to include all those things.

On Foot: Of course that leads to the real question … is there a Volume 3 in mind?

Mendelson: Absolutely! I'm gonna rock until I've covered all the stations. I might even get into the Silver Line if I'm feeling nutty.

On Foot: How’s the reaction to all this been?

Mendelson: Surprisingly positive. I've discovered that despite being a relatively transient area, D.C. really treasures its identity and appreciates people who are more interested in the local scene than the national one.

On Foot: Give me a sense of how you balance your day job and the music.

Mendelson: It's pretty tricky. I work in tax, so I have busy times and slow times, which turns out to help more than it hurts. Don't expect me to be playing any concerts the first two weeks of April, though!

On Foot: And can people see you playing music live anywhere?

Mendelson: I have performed MetroSongs at the Electric Maid and at Eastern Market for the Cherry Blossom Festival. I'd really love to play my MetroSongs at the Kennedy Center Millenium Stage. In addition to writing and recording MetroSongs, I play in Down Wilson, an Arlington-based party band. We play mostly modern hits, and some '80s and '90s stuff. I also play bass for DC singer/songwriter Adrian Krygowski.

Order Mendelson's first album Volume One: Mostly Blue for $5 or get the MP3s for $2.50 over at his MetroSongs website. Also consider following the project on Facebook.

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