Find Yourself In Your Idols

Hang On Mike

The world of music appreciation is full of misappropriated quotes and 20th-hand stories about the greats and their paths to success, and since I’m much more motivated to write than investigate at this very moment, so I’ll leave it to better humans than me to accurately attribute the following anecdote:

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band started off playing sets of covers, secretly working on their own material in rehearsals without performing them for an audience. When they thought a song was ready, they would unceremoniously sneak it into their set of covers. If the audience stayed engaged and enthralled, the song could stay in the set. If they lost the crowd, the song got sent back to the drawing board.

I think that’s a test that most songwriters want so badly to pass. They want to hear their songs next to those of the titans and feel the same shapes and qualities at work and know that they are the real deal. I know I do.

If I don’t work on music everyday, then it’s very easy for me to not work on music at all, and that is something akin to a small death for me. But I’m also not the type of writer who keeps regular working hours, seated at a desk with my guitar in hand or my fingers on a piano’s keys. While I have regularly and earnestly wished to be the kind of songwriter who can create on command, 15 + years of experience has shown me that that is a method that rarely works for me. In my life,  a song begins while I absentmindedly fart around on an instrument and, if the forces that govern this world allow, a few vital lines of verse fall from my mouth like hale from the sky.

Fiona WTF

But how does a moment-dependent songwriter make themselves work everyday if by nature they can not work every day, particularly in light of the fact that virtually all writers and resources for writers consistently extol not only the virtue but in fact the necessity of writing every day? In her WTF interview, Fiona Apple readily admits that she only writes when she really wants to, and instead spends the rest of her time just living her life. That’s all nice and fine (and in fact encouraging) for an established songwriter like Apple, but what about us Hopefuls and Might-Be’s?

The times when I have been able to work on music consistently and over a long period of time, that daily work has manifested itself in rehearsal, research, and critical analysis.

Anyone who has been paying attention to my social media presence for the past week or so already knows that I’ve been obsessing over The Candy Butchers’ “What To Do With Michael”. I mean this song has really got a hold on me. Over breakfast this morning I played that song over and over in my head and I came to the conclusion that I would never write a song like that. Not a song with those kinds of changes, that kind of propulsive beat, and that kind of relatively cheese-free execution of concept. What a seriously discouraging thing to tell yourself! The narrative we tell ourselves about ourselves really matter, so needless to say I started off a little discouraged today.

But I set to work regardless, and today, because I didn’t feel particularly inspired, that work involved a lot of music industry research and an activity that I don’t participate in often enough; learning someone else’s song. The obvious choice was “What To Do With Michael”, and what I learned was so remarkably affirming that I had to write about it.

There are two main chord progressions to “What To Do With Michael”: Am-Am/G-D-F-G-C and Dm-C-E. The D in the first progression lends itself to a D/F# voicing, completely the descending line of A-G-F# and providing a nice bit of chromatic color. When I sussed out the harmonic movement at work in this song I almost couldn’t believe it, because despite how perfect and unattainable the song had seemed to me just this morning, it was also almost identical to a song I wrote in July of 2013. Original titled, “Not Surprised” and later shoehorned into the title “It’s Hard” so as to fit into a mini-concept record I’ve been working on, the song in question has a few more chord progressions at the heart of it than “Michael” (because most of the time I just can’t stop myself), but it essentially boils down to something like: C-E-Am-D/F#-F-C. Later the F-G-C figure pops up too. (NOTE: If “It’s Hard” weren’t being currently in mix/master mode, I’d provide it hear for your judgement  appreciation.) Obviously there are a million other factors that determine whether a song is just good or truly great beside similar harmonic movements and residing in the same key, but just hours before I assumed that I’d never write anything that would touch “Michael”, when in fact it turned out that  I’d done just that more than a year ago.

The object is inherently incapable of assessing itself, so recognizing your work as the valid thing that it is beyond the initial rush that accompanies its creation is one of the most difficult things a creative can do. But it also takes a tremendous amount of courage and confidence (which are actions, i.e. things that require real-world work) to wake up every morning and invest your sweat and blood into a speculative enterprise like a career in music.

That said, maybe we could all make it a little easier on ourselves if we work a bit harder to see our own accomplishments for the precious and moving things that they are. 

 

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EPIPHANY SCHOOL

EPIPHANY SCHOOL 3

I’ve kept this Young Mothers recording a bit of a secret for a long while now, and it just felt right to release it into the world today. Give it a listen.

EPIPHANY SCHOOL happened very naturally, very easily, and very quickly. I was out of work and living off savings, watching a lot of Battlestar Galactica and drinking a lot of Evan Williams. I’d just spent more money than I should have making a big, fancy record and moving to the city, only to find myself several months later, letting that record linger on the shelf, not working, not going out, hardly speaking to other people. It was ugly. I had five days left in town before going back to Arizona for the holidays, and I didn’t want to show up as low as I felt then. I’d written five songs since I’d moved, and the mission, or at least the opportunity for a mission, seemed clear. Five days, five songs. I’d wake up in the morning and apply for as many jobs as I could, then spend each night recording each song. That was good.

Let me tell you a little about the songs. Continue reading

Happy Birthday, Harry Nilsson

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J.P. Woodbury reminded me that today is Harry Nilsson’s birthday, which got me searching for a video of one of my favorite, deep-cut Nilsson recordings, the stark and haunting “Campo de Encino”. It’s the second to last track on the Rhino reissue of Son of Schmilsson, and, much to my surprise, a Jimmy Webb composition. That makes sense, of course- the two were great friends. Webb’s remembrances of a few of Harry’s wilder antics (a qualifier that really says something) are the highlights of the bonus features on the Who Is Harry Nilsson and Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him? DVD. Nonetheless, it was a shock to me when I youtubed “harry nilsson campo  de encino” and found only Jimmy Webb and Judy Collins videos. If the description of the Jimmy Webb video below can be believed (???), Webb wrote the song after Nilsson teased him for having never written anything funny. I know Webb and his song must have made Nilsson laugh, but the little part of me that really feels like I know Harry Nilsson would put a $100 on him getting a bigger laugh out of just how unfunny he managed to make Webb’s song.

And that’s why we miss him.

On The Making of Van Morrison’s Tupelo Honey

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From Wikipedia:
‘The vocals on the album were always live after rehearsing each song five or six times, according to saxophonist and flautist “Boots” Houston, who further commented that when Morrison and the band went into the studio: ‘we would then just play a whole set straight through without repeating anything. We would have played maybe twenty songs and Van would go back and cut out the songs he didn’t want. The only time we’d go back would be to overdub backing vocals or horns.’ Ted Templeman remarked that he had to go through three engineers during the recording of the album, due to Morrison’s “ability as a musician, arranger and producer”: ‘When he’s got something together, he wants to put it down right away with no overdubbing … I’ve had to change engineers who couldn’t keep up with him.’

Holy shit. Watching a bunch of Yacht Rock episodes made me want to investigate Ted Templeman, a man who produced artists including The Doobie Brothers, Little Feat, Van Halen, Michael McDonald… and Van Morrison. Here’s a particularly compelling live version of track one, side one of Tupelo Honey.

Just a first-take kinda guy… otherwise known as an inspiration.

The End of the Roadie

“Live music was once so unregulated, he says, that roadies coming home from 1970s American tours “would stuff dollars into [speaker] cabinets so they didn’t have to declare them”. Now, techs are tax-registered sole traders whose jobs have been transformed by technology. “It’s not just stringing guitars now. It’s all about programming and knowing how to …” He mimes tapping at a computer keyboard. Moreover, the younger techs are more health conscious – “They go running and swimming,” Nowell says bemusedly – and some are even women.”

The Guardian ran a kind of interesting piece about the modern touring production industry. Read the full thing here.

A Song For Me

I felt a little ignorant for neglecting Gram Parsons’ work until recently, but I was promptly rewarded when I finally sat down with his solo catalogue. “A Song For You” is clearly a standout. Take a listen.

I think it’s kind of crazy that I listened to this song for weeks on end and never realized that it’s one chord progression the entire, and one I’m particularly fixated on at that. This song’s essentially I- ii- IV-I, with the little IV-V-IV tag at the end. Of all the progressions I adore, this is probably the one I’ve “written” the most times, all of them in A major. I think (at least today) that the best of those tunes is a currently “unreleased” track called “Gravity”. This is it’s world premier.

One of the biggest lessons I’ve taken from working with The Shondes is that I have a lot to learn about vocal harmonies. I’ve had some extra time on my hands lately, so I decided to live out my passion for this song, this progression, and all harmony by recording a cover of “A Song For You”. I’m a little proud of it, so I’d like to share it here. If you can bare a little more A-major in your life…

I’m Tracking Maude


I’m an A/V assistant  with Music First Productions, and this Friday I’ll be recording one of my coworker’s bands, Maude. Fingers crossed we’ll get to borrow some MFP mics for the sessions.

We’re packing up some of my gear, some of my buddy’s gear, and talking it over to their rehearsal space to track three songs as live as possible, excluding vocals. I’d say “of course”, but my understanding is that, in the early Elvis Costello recordings, Nick Lowe insisted on Declan performing his vocal live with the band, P.A./monitors and all, so there’s always a higher standard.

I’m very excited for the session, particularly because lately I’ve been feeling chafed by my inability to track live drums and amplified electric instruments whenever the hell I want, a luxury I enjoyed for the past decade in Arizona.

It’s been particularly bothersome recently because I fear I might have fallen into a deep, dark hole that I may not be able to dig myself out of. I started demoing a song a few weeks ago, and the programmed drums are starting to grow on me.  I pulled up an a sample of an acoustic kit from Native Instruments and performed the part with a few digits on my Akai midi keyboard, and now I’m starting to really feel like they might be realistic enough to carry the recording, which is a seriously confusing emotional-acoustic experience for a guy addicted to the sound of natural tape compression and distortion. Anyway, I’ll be tracking some live music by the end of the week, and that’s enough for me.

Here’s a pretty rough demo of that tune, complete with the programmed drums that are vexing/exciting me so. Generous ears are appreciated.