“Settled in the Unsettled” – Story Behind the Song

Published On February 22, 2024 
by Chase Tremaine
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[This article was originally published on January 15, 2023.]

“Settled in the Unsettled” is a special song, unlike anything else I’ve yet written. It has perhaps the highest bang-for-your-buck ratio within my discography, packing many memorable musical moments and interesting intellectual inquiries within less than three minutes. The composition leans into my classical and traditional influences, and it’s the first song I’ve released that sounds like it has already existed for many decades, as if it could’ve been released in the 1950’s. Like many older or traditionalist songs, the true hook comes at the tail-end of each verse stanza, rather than during the chorus, as I repeatedly ask the question: “Why do I try to get settled in the unsettled?” In other words, why do I keep attempting to find security, safety, or solidarity within things that are unfinished, untrustworthy, or temporary? It has an old school swagger and a rustic, country veneer that is bolstered by the guest appearance from Theo MacMillan (of the brother-sister bluegrass act Theo & Brenna), who provides southern-accented harmonies and a finger-scorching piano solo, elevating the song to a level that I never could’ve achieved on my own (considering that I play the rest of the instruments myself, and I’m not a good piano player). “Settled in the Unsettled” functions as the musical and lyrical centerpiece to the three-song EP titled My Heart Settled in the Middle, and the song will serve a similar function when it reappears on my upcoming third studio album, Accidental Days, due on March 10, 2023.

If I may take a winding tangent off of “Settled,” I would love to use this opportunity to discuss a larger related topic: the appearances of guest musicians in my music. Throughout my three albums, and more so than ever before with Accidental Days, I have been very careful and intentional with how and why guest singers and instrumentalists are involved. On Unfall, three additional musicians appeared out of necessity, when instruments that I can’t play (or can’t play well) were required to fulfill my vision for each song. This included percussionist Ray Vaca (“Cave”), trumpeter Brendan Dorman (“Programming the Soul”), and producer Zach Lardy (of the band Empty Isles, who provided multiple instruments, primarily piano, to multiple tracks).

The history with my second album, Development & Compromise, is slightly more complicated, considering that two versions of the album were released, the first of which included zero guest contributions. On that first version, when I had conceived of the project as a B-sides EP to Unfall, I was staunchly opposed to including anything that I didn’t personally play, sing, or program. However, what initially seemed like a cool do-it-yourself accomplishment transformed into a stubborn, closed-fist attitude that rejected ideas and contributions that could’ve made the album much better. This was one of the big revelations that I had before deciding to return to the studio to remake the album. Perhaps the biggest change to D&C (other than recording four additional songs) was bringing guest musicians and singers into the process. “Shock My Ears” received a massive makeover thanks to returning guest Brendan Dorman, who recorded massive layers of trumpets throughout the song, as well as adding trumpets to the ending of “Hello, Zunyko” (which was one of those “something’s missing here” moments that I wasn’t sure how to fix until Brendan came up with a horn part to play over the guitar riffs). “Hello, Zunyko” also received piano treatment thanks to multi-instrumentalist Daniel Thatcher, who wrote the parts out of his own volition and enjoyment, then he won me over when he showed me what the song sounded like with his piano parts playing over it.

With appearances on three songs across my first two albums, it kind of became a tradition to ask Brendan to play trumpet on each of my albums; but for a while, I didn’t really know which song on Accidental Days he should play on. The album has been through a few iterations, with the original plans being that the whole album would be acoustic and folksy; so as the album morphed increasingly into another rock album, it took a great deal of brainstorming to figure out where trumpets could fit in. It wouldn’t make sense to say more now, since the song hasn’t been released yet, but Brendan ended up recording trumpets for the album’s closing track. I can’t wait for you all to hear it!

Circling back to D&C, the fifteen-track version of the album ends with the piano ballad “The Things We Can’t Plan,” which was originally released as a standalone single in July 2021, so that my wife Paige and I could use it as the “first dance” song at our wedding. For the new version of the song, we took the original piano ballad and recorded three new elements atop it: drums, bass guitar, and Paige’s vocals. These changes completely revamped the song, and after exactly two years of knowing each other, it was wonderful to finally release a song with the two of us singing together. [D&C 2.0 released on November 18, 2021, while Paige and I met on November 18, 2019. I continued the trend of honoring our meet-iversary by releasing my live acoustic album Questions at Thirty on November 18, 2022.] Following this experience, it was tempting to start bringing Paige into my recordings more frequently. She’s my favorite singer, and I would love to hear her voice instead of only mine — and I bet some of you agree! However, as I reflected upon Paige’s appearance on D&C, I realized that we established a precedent: she was singing a song about us, written about her and for her. And no such songs exist on Accidental Days; in fact, the original versions of all ten AD songs were written in 2019 or earlier, before Paige and I met. So Paige will sadly not appear on the new album, as there wasn’t an opportunity that was thematically fitting or appropriate; and especially as it pertains to the half of AD‘s songs that are romantically-leaning, I didn’t want to give listeners the false notion that those songs were written about Paige. (But don’t worry, Paige and I have other projects in the works, and she’s also a fantastic songwriter in her own right, so hopefully we’ll be seeing some of her originals get recorded and released in 2023.)

On another Accidental Days song that hasn’t yet been released, titled “Gloriously Mundane,” there’s a new guest who has entered the stable of collaborators: the up-and-coming singer-songwriter Nick Schrader, who has released singles in 2021 and 2022 that sound like the perfect mix of Rich Mullins and Elton John. He recently moved to Nashville, and I was stoked that he agreed to provide guest vocals and piano to one of my songs; he absolutely elevates “Gloriously Mundane” with his appearance, and earlier listeners of Accidental Days have called out his piano solo as one of their favorite moments across the whole album.

But also, I’m lying; Nick Schrader isn’t a “new” collaborator of mine at all. In fact, as far as people with whom I’ve recorded music over the years, he’s about as old as they come. Back in 2014, long before I was releasing music as “Chase Tremaine” or my good college friend Nicholas was releasing music as “Nick Schrader,” I was putting together a collaborative project called Ours By Accident that featured a huge load of my friends: producing, playing instructions, doing spoken word and acting bits, singing. I released one mini-album of sorts under the Ours By Accident moniker, and Mr. Schrader and his brother Stephen provided some amazing background vocals to a track titled “Place Of No Return.” It would be too much of a detour to get into right now, but there are many ways in which Accidental Days feels like the ultimate form of that mini-album, or like the culmination of what I was going for back in 2014. Having Nick on one of the songs once more only heightens the amazing “full-circle” sensation that I get when I think about the musical journey I’ve taken to get from there to here over the past decade. And since the topic of Ours By Accident came up, I might as well give a call-out and thank you to all of my amazing friends who helped make that project happen: alongside Nicholas and Stephen, there was Emily, Jon, Kory, my brother Taylor, and especially Paul Demer, who produced the whole album alongside appearing on one of the songs. Paul is still putting out amazing music, which I would heartily recommend to anyone reading this.

As a brief aside, I would be remiss not to mention the producers of D&C and Accidental Days, Sean Power and Brendan St. Gelais (respectively). While they haven’t received any songwriting or “featured artists” credits, their fingerprints are all over their albums, adding sounds and instruments and ideas that helped bring my songs to life, while also contributing advice during the recording process that helped improve the songs. Additionally, while they physically appear on either album, my brother Taylor Tremaine and my friend David Bartek each have writing credits on both albums, and I’m terribly thankful for the songs that wouldn’t exist without the writing sessions I had with them. (Taylor also assisted with arranging the harmonies and background vocals for both albums.)

This brings us around to the final guest on D&C, that being the same guest who appears on “Settled in the Unsettled”: Theo MacMillan, the singer-songwriter whose main project, the brother-sister bluegrass duo Theo & Brenna, ironically released their record label debut, Dreams for Sale, on the same day that “Settled” released into the world (October 28, 2022). Theo and I have been close friends since 2017 (the picture of the two of us above was taken in 2019, shortly after I wrote “Settled”; the picture below was taken in 2021, while Theo was recording vocals for D&C). Ironically, though, our friendship was not an explicitly musical one for the first few years, outside of showing each other new demos, us discussing all things Relient K, Switchfoot, and Falling Up, or me attending Theo & Brenna concerts. This switch didn’t happen until I began the process of making Unfall, where Theo quietly became one of the most influential voices behind the scenes of my albums.

I’ve written about it in detail elsewhere, but in the process of selecting and rewriting the songs that would appear on Unfall, I formed an “Album Focus Group” that provided generous amounts of feedback that helped me to narrow down which songs should make the cut for the album, as well as which songs needed more work in the realm of edits and revisions. Theo was one of approximately one dozen members of the focus group who gave me extremely detailed and thoughtful per-song feedback, ranging from wide-ranging ideas about reworking songs down to small bits of advice, such as changing a word so that the accents of the syllables would better fit the meter of the melody. Theo’s assistance even slightly predates the focus group, as he was one of the key figures encouraging me in early 2019 to take the dive on turning the 3-song EP I had recently recorded (comprising “Matter,” “Worth the Wait,” and “Lonely Saints”) into a full-length project.

The album focus group forever changed me as a songwriter, teaching me priceless lessons about song craft and giving me a massive appreciation for the feedback and opinions of friends. At the same time, the album focus group was a large burden (or, at the very least, a significant time commitment) to place upon people, since it involved requesting detailed commentary about fifteen demos. I also recognize that my friends make up a significant demographic of my music’s audience; therefore, I would not want to consistently steal from them the opportunity to hear the final version of an album with its finished songs, by consistently asking them to analyze and critique the early demos. So with those reasons in mind, (not to mention the do-it-yourself attitude that permeated those original studio sessions for D&C), I prepared to record my sophomore album without a focus group. But the one exception was Theo.

The night before I entered the studio to begin tracking D&C, I visited Theo’s house and performed the entire set of eleven songs for him acoustically, taking a break after each song to receive his off-the-cuff responses and reactions. This evening and his assistance led to some big changes and breakthroughs on a handful of the songs. Two songs standout in my memory, in particular: “Shock My Ears,” where Theo concocted a simplification of the chorus hook (which was fitting, since I wasn’t very good at nailing the more complex version of the melody); and “Hello, Zunyko,” where Theo called me out on the lazy, nondescript lines and helped me brainstorm updates, which turned into some of my favorite lyrics in the whole song.

I repeated this whole process ahead of making Accidental Days, where I went over to Theo’s to play him each song and get his thoughts. During this session, he pointed out some melodic issues with a not-yet-released song titled “One Day,” and these critiques encouraged me to rewrite the bridge of the song, which the album’s producer later told me was his favorite bridge on the album. (“One Day” will be the opening track of Accidental Days when the record releases on March 10, and I’m terribly excited for people to hear it.) I believe it was on this night where I had the idea of asking Theo to play on “Settled in the Unsettled,” too. While playing the song for him, I remembered that he had inspired me to write the song back in 2019. The song begins with an old-fashioned song structure that Theo is a big proponent of, and it also utilizes a far more standard, common chord progression than I would normally use in my songs, which also came as a recommendation from Theo — that I shouldn’t concern myself with the supposed originality (or lack thereof) of my chord choices. For those reasons, having Theo play on “Settled” was a perfect fit, honoring the origins of the song and providing him with a song that matches his style well.

Looking back on these past few years of making solo one-man-band music, one of the silliest decisions I ever made was taking the “one-man-band” concept too far and trying to record my sophomore album without the involvement of anyone else. My music has always been and will always be elevated by the collaborators and friends whom I’m so blessed to work with. Music is inherently communal, and my favorite in-studio memories revolve around the joys of getting to make music with my friends. I can’t wait to see how collaborations turn out in the future, and I already have a few collaborative songs in the works that I hope will be released in the near future. (And if you’re interested in me collaborating with you on a project that you’re working on, please feel free to reach out!)

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