I did February Album Writing Month (FAWM) again this year. FAWM, for those who don’t know, is a self-challenge to write 14 songs in the month of February. Despite getting a late start and having a few weeks of feeling bad due to illness, I even finished a few days early thanks to some collaboration with my friend Mosno. Some of the highlight tracks are at the bottom of this post.
Since I went about the process a little differently this year, I thought it would be worth writing a writing a single wrap-up and comparing this year’s experience to last year’s.
Last year, I condensed into a month my usual process of “wait for inspiration and then get a song out.” Halfway through the month I started becoming a lot more deliberate, because it turns out that lightning doesn’t strike 14 times in a month, but I also started to become a little more desperate and some of the writing became overly forced.
This year, from the start I decided to be more deliberate about the process. I chose two words to be “touchstone” words for the entire month, which resulted in something kind of like a concept album. The words I picked, somewhat at random, were “siege” and “fantasy.” I also tried writing more bridges, which is something I’m still pretty much rubbish at. (I’m better at writing tangents, or something like a bridge that goes near the end of the song but doesn’t lead back around into the chorus.) But overall I was much more relaxed about the whole process, and I think that shows in the writing, arrangements, and performances.
Last year, I came away with a few songs that I thought were “really” good, as good as almost anything I’ve written, that got me very excited. That was a great feeling. This year … well, I had a few good songs, one “really” good song, and a lot of stuff that’s acceptable and might be worth playing with a bit of work, if it grows on me, but I don’t feel passionate about most of them. Last year, I had a couple songs that I thought were bad enough that I hid the YouTube video so they won’t ever impose themselves on others in the future. This year, I didn’t think any song I wrote was a total failure, though one of the recordings (#9) isn’t good, in part because my vocals simply weren’t up to the task of singing it.
In other words:
There were some other things that were different. Last year, everything I wrote was going into a camera recording and being posted on YouTube. On the one hand, this forced me to think a little harder about writing a song that could stand on its own as (typically) only an acoustic guitar and vocal and think a bit more deeply about the song before hitting “record.” But it limited what I was able to do musically. I could use a loop pedal a bit for a second guitar when I absolutely needed it. But it still had to be done in a single take. The stress of getting a good (or even adequate) performance in a single take certainly added to the general frustration of knowing that you have to finish all this in a single month.
This year, I had a new recording setup and was able to do all sorts of stuff that I couldn’t manage the year before: overdubs, backing vocals, percussion, and generally just fixing stuff to get better and cleaner performances. And I can even use most of the recordings as scratch tracks if I want to get a better recording (except, ironically, what I thought was the best song of the batch, which wasn’t played to a click track). Just knowing that you can add layers and other instruments can completely change the songwriting process, and often in a good way. For instance, sometimes you want the backing vocals to say something, not the lead vocals — that can happen now!
I still don’t think I’m happy with the process of writing large numbers of songs at once. I know that I feel better when I write a small number of songs I love than when I write a large number of songs that are just okay. But I suppose it helps to know that I can at least go about this in a more workmanlike manner. Ideally, I’d have enough time to write so often that, when true inspiration does strike, I have the tools to create a finished song more … efficiently.
But I like doing too many things. I like building and designing guitar effects, but I just barely had enough time to finish a Bearhug build for a friend, which is not a time-consuming project at all. I have to practice playing guitar, singing, and playing other instruments beyond just writing, and while recording is good practice, it’s not the only practice. I like playing games with friends—I’m running a Pathfinder RPG session every other Monday, but it would be very difficult to keep up with the planning for that if I was writing and recording at this pace all the time. I like to play out, even if it’s just open mics, once in a while, so that eats up evenings, but during February I didn’t have many evenings free because I needed to get the demos done. Heck, I even have a day job! I’m sure there’s a balance somewhere, and I should strive to find it throughout the rest of this year.
And what happens when I spend too much energy on one thing? It loses its luster. Recording was nice and shiny in January. Then Midway Fair went in the studio several times over a few weeks, I recorded mandolin tracks for my friend Matt Pless’s new EP, and I recorded 15 songs on my home computer. I spent more time with headphones on than off. For my last two recordings, I turned off the click track, set up a single microphone, and just recorded me playing the song. No overdubs, no punch ins, leave the mistakes where they lie. It was liberating, and the opposite of what I was excited about a few weeks ago.
There are a few tracks I think stood out for one reason or another.
Here’s the full playlist:
Won’t Grow Here (song #2)
This is the definite highlight of the whole set for me, mainly because it has everything I think of as being a good Midway Fair song: there’s a bit of a fantastic quality to it, it’s got strong roots in folk music but enough rock to make it interesting. It also has a pretty strong soul vibe going. It was fun to sing and the melodies took backing vocals naturally. Strong candidate for a new band song.
What I wrote about it at the time:
Paired with #1 for a larger story. (My touchstone words for this FAWM are “siege” and “fantasy.”) This was a slightly less direct reading of the two words, where it could be taken literally as being about someone who is drawn into fighting a war or just a metaphor for a failing relationship. Interesting thing is that I first wrote it using the mother character from #1, but I wanted a more up tempo song and decided that she was a little too “static” for that.
If I get nothing else out of this FAWM, the guitar part in the chorus of this one does it for me …
David and Jane (Song #15)
This was the capstone song. I worked on it a little longer than the others, and consequently was able to think much more about its story than the other songs. I didn’t mark it as a favorite at first, but I think of the ones that would never be a Midway Fair song, this is in the end my favorite, simply because of the depth.
What I wrote about it at the time:
This is a modernized rewrite of Child Ballad no. 17, “Hind Horn” (www.sacred-texts.com/neu/eng/child/ch017.htm), ported to suburban America in the 1990s. The original ballad is a condensed version of the much longer story of King Horn. In the original, the king’s daughter gives Hind Horn a diamond ring that glows, and tells him that when it fades she’ll have lost her love for him. He goes off and does a bunch of stuff, and one day notices that it’s faded. He rushes back home and shows up to her wedding disguised as a beggar, and asks for a glass of wine. He puts the ring in the wine and gives it to her, and she sees it and asks where he got it. He reveals who she is, and she says that she’ll give up her marriage and go begging with him, but then he tells her that he’s not actually a beggar, and everyone (except the groom, presumably) lives happy ever after.
I decided to simply change centuries but keep as much of the story as possible and work out what sort of characters they would have to be to get there.
I have enough to say about the story in this one that it should probably be a blog post, but the long and short of it is that simply changing the century of this song *greatly* changes the nature of the characters and makes the story less heroic and a little more tragic. In fact, I almost worried at the end of it that the story is simply cruel to her throughout — even though it sounds like it has a happy ending because she marries her childhood sweetheart, there’s still that line at the end of the third verse that adds a bit of bitterness.
Ringing His Bell (song #6)
Despite a few rough vocal spots, and despite the OMGOBVIOUS Van Morrison-ness of the song, this one makes me happy. This is another that I didn’t mark as a favorite, but it grew on me and bits of it still pop into my head every once in a while. It was done for the week 2 challenge, which was nonsense lyrics, but also could have fit with week 3’s “childhood” (and is probably a better fit for that than the one I actually wrote for week 3, which is #9). I think the bridge could use a little work (it sounds forced or technical lyrically at the moment), and I need to practice the “da da da” part, but I think there’s some good potential here.
Also, the entire time I was writing it, I was able to visualize every scene extremely vividly. It takes place in a fantasized version of my home neighborhood and it’s fiction, but it really felt real while I was writing it. I can also say that while writing it I had a lot of the same feeling as when I wrote “At the Dawn of the Day,” a song which happened shortly after hearing Astral Weeks for the first time, an act which also happened shortly before I wrote this. That album is pure, distilled inspiration … heck, it was even a [the?] major influence on my favorite Bruce Springsteen album, The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle, which also gives me that same “feeling.” I have no idea what exactly that feeling is; it’s something like a desire to be able to go back and do it all over again properly but with more joy.
Entreaty (Song #14)
As usual, collaboration was a high point for me. This time it was with my friend Mosno, a wonderful singer and songwriter originally from Sudan. Our styles are extremely different, with everything from different rhythmic focuses to different ways of understanding lyrics and words themselves.
Consequently, he’s an absolute blast to work with. It helps that he’s extremely passionate about music in general and one of the most open and positive people I’ve ever met.
He had a song with a couple verses and a chorus, but didn’t feel like his song was complete. We came up with a slightly new arrangement, and I rewrote a couple lines and added a bridge, but this was still mostly Mosno. He recorded his guitar and vocals, and then we went through a few options for the guitar. At first it was a “trumpet” part (courtesy of some bias shenanigans on a fuzz), but Mosno wanted a straight ambient part, so we used that one.
Overall this came out sounding very good, and I’m pretty pleased about the mix.
The other collaborations also came out well. Mosno really liked the silly song we wrote about a parrot (narrated by someone who just doesn’t understand the concept of parrots). We also wrote a weird ambient instrumental.
Hold Tight (Somewhere out in the Desert) (Song #8)
This could have been a Midway Fair song in 2009, but now it would probably be out of place. There are a couple lines that need a tweak or two, but overall I think it’s strong, especially for how few words I used. It’s about a drug deal gone wrong, and the older brother is rushing his younger brother to the hospital, but they’re out in the middle of nowhere.
Time Machine (It’s Happening All Over Again) (Song #7)
One of the best parts of my 2013 FAWM was that I had a few good, detailed, sprawling stories, but they just weren’t coming out this year. I spent a few days brainstorming story ideas with the idea of being “trapped” in some way (again, one of the words was “siege”), and eventually hit on a pretty cool idea: A couple builds a time machine together, and they end up causing microfractures in the time continuum and bringing about the end of the world.
This track would have been a highlight — and I do think it’s quite good — but even at the time I felt like it was a lot like last year’s “Black Breast of the Beast,” which is the better song (and in fact one of my favorite things I’ve written). Since they sound similar overall, it seems to me that if I were putting together a set list and had to pick one, this would lose out almost every time. Consequently, I have to decide if there’s a different way to arrange it, or give it some time and see if i think they complement each other (or simply aren’t too similar to fret about).
There are some Easter eggs in the lyrics.
You’re Still Here (Song #3)
I picked this as an honorable mention more because I thought it was my best overall job capturing a particular “sound” in the set. The song itself is decent, but the electric guitar had this particularly massive clean sound that really pulled the track together and managed to be creepy, sexy, and classic all at once.
If you’ve made it this far, thank you so much for reading. And because all songs can be a work in progress, if anyone has any thoughts about improving a particular song, please let me know in the comments.