I was thinking, fairly randomly, about my time in the military this week

and the moment I realized that I really didn’t belong in the army. It wasn’t all the times all those people asked me, incredulously, “What are you doing in the army” whether because of my general attitude toward military things or because they thought I had other talents (not bragging, just saying). It was the moment the Iraq war looked inevitable. We were, of course, already in a war with Afghanistan, but my reaction was “Jeez, not again,” while all the people around me were actually excited.

All the people in my unit didn’t seem too worried about it, and some even saw it as something positive in some way. One person asked me why I wasn’t keen to use the skills I’d been taught.

I got this weird vision that the chicken salad he was calmly eating was actually made of human babies. So I said, “How can you possibly want to use the skills you’d been learned? Do you realize what that even means?”

Servicemembers should be the last people willing to go to war, not the first or second. I was the only person around me that felt this way.

I mean, not that I was going to reenlist anyway, but sheesh.

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My FAWM 2014 wrap-up

No, not that kind of wrap-up.

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:

Last year.

Vs.

This year.

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.

Highlights

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.

Collaboration

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.

Honorable Mentions

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.

New toy — a recording interface!

Scarlett 18i8

It’s twice as big as the mini mac!

I recently got a FocusRite Scarlett 18i8 — a little USB-based digital recording interface.

It’s been a long time since I did home recording, unless you count my YouTube videos done with the handheld camera my dad gave me. My last set-up was a 4-track Tascam cassette recorder. I still have it, but I haven’t used it years, because I don’t even have another cassette tape player, much less a way to convert the recordings to digital.

Back when I got that, it was a few hundred dollars, and anything resembling a studio microphone to go along with it was hundreds of dollars, with very few options below $1,000, so of course I just used dynamic mics. It was barely useful for demo recordings. Digital options were just coming out at the time and ran in the thousands of dollars for anything that was as functional or as good sounding, so I didn’t even bother looking until much more recently — when I discovered that things like this existed for less than I had paid for the Tascam.

I’m using Joe Scala’s old mini mac with it, and did some things in GarageBand just to get used to everything. All the recordings I’ve done so far are just plugging the guitar (with or without my pedalboard) into the interface. The preamps in the interface are very good, so I’ve been impressed with that so far.

I set up a Soundcloud page to host the recordings. Here’s a couple of the ones I made in GarageBand:

A Mark Knopfler instrumental piece from some of his soundtrack work I’ve always loved:

An instrumental cover of Gillian Welch’s “Hard Times”:

Then this week I picked up LogicPro, a digital audio workstation program that GarageBand is based on. It’s a professional-level DAW for a ridiculously good price, and I immediately liked it as much as Protools. It’s very easy to use and intuitive, even if things are in a different place (or called something different) than what I’m used to. To learn overdubbing and punching in, and to get used to the plugins and amp models, I recorded a little bit of rock and roll:

There are a couple things that immediately struck me: First, the signal:noise ratio is much better than GarageBand, with much less hiss. Everything just sounds a little clearer. Second, punching in (that is, recording at a specific place in the track to correct a mistake or pick up where you left off) is a breeze, with a “count in” setting to automatically play a few bars before the recording starts. It also seems to automatically crossfade overdubs (blend them together so you can’t tell that they were different takes), and a bunch of other super helpful stuff. The plugins (effects — like compressor/limiters, reverb, etc.) also seem very good. Finally, the amp models are excellent. Garageband was good for clean stuff, but the second distortion, whether from a pedal or its own modelers, became involved, quality really degraded. It sounds more natural in LogicPro, and there are some really cool things you can do like changing the “microphone” model or even moving it to a different place on the “speaker,” which I thought was a pretty insane detail to include.

I picked up a couple budget Audio Technica studio mics that got good reviews, and I’ll be using them as soon as I’m set up somewhere in the house appropriate for singing or micing a guitar. Unfortunately, the basement practice room has a leak in the wall that lets in water when it rains, so I need to get that sorted out before I can use the room regularly.

All of the above tracks were done with the Don Quixotecaster. I did use the mandolin on something I didn’t post to Soundcloud, and it worked fine through the pedal board.

I’m really looking forward to doing lots of recording now. I sort of forgot what a good practice tool it was, but also this lets me do one of the things I really love about music all the time — some people like playing live best, but I’ve always enjoyed the time in the studio, where you really get to play around and make mistakes and discoveries (sometimes both at the same time!), more.

Gitboxes, giftboxes, and other stuff from my end-of-year vaction

I had off work for a whole week this week, which hasn’t happened in a while. It was nice. I played a bunch of music with friends — Teavolve and Ledbetters open mics on Monday, Jen on Friday afternoon, and Dave Huber today and lots in my living room.

DT Huber and band (including yours truly on the left) playing at the Baltimore Folk Festival.

Dave Huber had some exciting news: His release, Scorched Earth, was named one of City Paper’s Top 10 for 2013. Pretty cool! And I see some names on the list I can really recommend to folk music lovers, too, like June Star, the Kolodners (Brad runs the old time jam in Baltimore), and Her Fantastic Cats. I played mandolin on Scorched Earth, and Dave has really been a pleasure to work with over the past year.

Cigarbox guitar

Weeeooooh! I’m a guitar!

I’ve also been designing a new circuit for a friend as part of the secret santa “PIFmas” (PIF = pay it forward) thing on the Build Your Own Clone. The present I got from someone else was seriously cool: A cigar box guitar!

I haven’t actually taken a “vacation” in the past couple years. Most of the time the only reason I take time off work is to record. This year I took two: Lexa and I went to San Francisco in October, and this week was a staycation. Traveling was kind of stressful, but staying at home was pretty nice.

So, onward, I guess. I have a couple projects to finish, and I’m hoping to make some more time for writing soon. February’s just around the corner, and this year’s February project will be extra fun.

Song Sources: “26th Street Underpass”

This is part of a series I’m doing on the tracks on the new EP, Baltimericana. To read the other parts of this series, simply click on the tag “Song Sources” above.

apartment 2

Gets so hot in the summer …

My first apartment in Baltimore was a third-story walkup on 25th Street between St. Paul and Charles St. I lived there for a couple years, most of the first year by myself and then for about a year with Lexa after her lease ran out while we saved up for the house. Continue reading →

Song sources: “Fallout Shelter”

Warning: There’s an explicit lyric. You have been warned.

This is part of a series I’m doing on the tracks on the new EP, Baltimericana. To read the other parts of this series, simply click on the tag “Song Sources” above.

Lyrics

To be honest, I don’t remember the writing process for this one too well. I think I started writing it after I noticed a sign for a fallout shelter one of the buildings near work that says the capacity is 1250, and it was almost certainly influenced by Josh Ritter’s “Temptation of Adam” (if you’ve never heard that one, it’s is lyrically perfect and one of the best songs I’ve ever heard). I do know that my wife had been playing Fallout 3 a lot around the time I wrote this, so that might have had something to do with it.

Baltimore still has a one o’clock whistle, which is an old air raid siren that’s played on Mondays at 1:00 in the afternoon. What little reading there is to do on the subject leads me to believe that this is in fact one of the many strange things about our city. Also, there are supposedly 112 of them. (Not a primary source, there, but there’s a picture of it.) I don’t remember hearing it in other places I lived, but the only other large city I’ve ever lived in was San Antonio, and I lived on the outskirts and worked in a windowless building, so who knows. Continue reading →

Song Sources: “Robin (The Mirror)”

This is part of a series I’m doing on the tracks on the new EP, Baltimericana. To read the other parts of this series, simply click on the tag “Song Sources” above.

This song came out of thinking about the cancellation of the U.S. shuttle program. If that sounds weird, then you don’t know me very well. Really it’s more complicated than just having given up on flying around in space. There are all sorts of implications, but the biggest one is probably “well, this planet is all we get after all, ever.” I have a general interest in space and astronomy, so I consciously know that the chance of terraforming Mars or reaching another star is remote in the extreme, but that doesn’t seem to help. People fight hopeless battles all the time, even knowing that they’re futile, but there’s a big difference between than and actual despair. So I pondered that a bit.

My wife was on vacation for the weekend at a conference, so I had the house to myself and got the song done in a couple days. Continue reading →

Song Sources – “(Can’t Swim in the) Harbor”

This is part of a series I’m doing on the tracks on the new EP, Baltimericana. To read the other parts of this series, simply click on the tag “Song Sources” above.

The song started with a riff that came to me while driving down Calvert Street one morning a few years ago. It got stuck in my head on repeat and eventually the words “Can’t swim in the harbor” came to mind. I think I had read a news story about how for all intents and purposes the Baltimore harbor might never support life during my lifetime due to the pollution levels that have been present for centuries. That or maybe I was just remembering the bilge water and floating trash caught in one of the little nets that run in the miniature canals that abut the streets in Fell’s Point. Sometimes I look at those and think that jumping into the water a mere five feet down is about as dangerous as jumping from the top of the Bromo-Seltzer tower.

I can actually remember the first time I noticed just how polluted the harbor was. I must have been about ten and was coming home with my parents from some function downtown. We were walking near where the Aquarium is and crossed over a small bridge; there was just tons of trash caught in a net there. Continue reading →

If you encounter a tree from above

If you encounter a tree from above,
you’ll see a hundred branches
diverging in all directions,
a paralyzing (almost) endowment of choice
and you think, “I can take any one of them and there will be even more branches”;
so you take one,
but discover
they all converge at the trunk
toward and beneath the soil.

It’s so strange that we think that for others, younger than us, it will be different, which is a peculiar kind of hope.

Faulker’s advice about ignoring inspiration

Slate had a cool series a while ago now called “Daily Rituals” about the habits that one should have to produce art, specifically writing. The 15th part is about ignoring inspiration.

William Faulkner: “I write when the spirit moves me, and the spirit moves me every day.” George Balanchine: “My muse must come to me on union time.” Chuck Close: “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.” John Updike: “I’ve never believed that one should wait until one is inspired because I think that the pleasures of not writing are so great that if you ever start indulging them you will never write again.” George Gershwin said that if he waited for inspiration, he would compose at most three songs a year.

Great advice if you’re in a situation where producing art on a nearly constant basis will be meaningful. My question is: What good is writing 50 or 100 songs a year if you can’t reasonably work on more than 20 (notice that tag “work ethic”)? Or play more than 10 of those 20 live, or practice them all to figure out which ones are good? Or take advantage when you pull The One out of those 50 (because who cares if you write the Best Song Ever and only 5 people hear it)? This is just songs. I’m not even going to get into the implications for writing fiction.

Originally I was going to post about what a great idea Faulkner’s was for professional artists, but then I thought to myself: this is my blog, and I’m not a professional artist. Instead, I’m just going to point out a major difference between truly professional artists and … the rest of us, good or otherwise. That difference, I think, is that professional artists have the time, resources, and opportunities necessary to make writing constantly not a complete waste of time.

I do know that professionals also get roped into publication, release, and promotion schedules that overwhelm the ability to work on something and get it to the point of greatness. That’s a separate matter. I’m sure it has something to do with many people producing their best work early in their careers, even accounting for the two decades they had to write their first album or novel (versus a year or two for each successive).

I hope no one thinks this post is overly negative … maybe if there ARE some professional artists reading this, they will chime in with whether they are able to take advantage of “excess production.” This is, after all, just speculation on my part. The closest I’ve ever come to that is when I took a summer off after college to work on writing a novel, and spent 8-12 hours a day doing nothing but writing.