This Song Sources series is a retrospective and comprehensive set of liner notes (including recording and mixing techniques) for every track on Pirate A.M. Waves. It’s my hope it will be useful to other songwriters and home recordists.
Better late than never this time around: I forgot even to update my home page with the new album, I was so focused on announcing the release on YouTube and Bandcamp.
Covert art by my dad:
Pirate A.M. Waves
F Bb C
Sleep on the gravel like you planned
F Bb C
And in the backseat when you can’t
F Bb F C
Watching as the stars like birds in a vee
Set and finely disappear
F Bb C
If you wander then you’ll see
F Bb C
Those who disappear are free
F Bb F C
But I’ll be damned if they couldn’t be saved
Hearing pirate AM waves
In a little church on 35
They sit and they pray for afterlife
And what you called the endless day by day
Called a different word for pain
Somewhere near nowhere and free will
Fighting through static and the still
Hidden in the sea of amber waves of grain
Sings pirate AM waves
This was the 10th song I wrote for the month, but I moved it first as I thought it was a good signal for the album’s themes.
This is a someone (in my head, a trucker, but it doesn’t actually matter) out on the road somewhere along I35 in the endless expanse of tremendously little known as the great plains trying absolutely desperately to find hope in anything. They try to find it in nature, by sleeping out under the stars one night, and in a little roadside church, but finally for some perhaps completely inexplicable reason find it in a broadcast from a pirate radio station, the only thing that they can get on the dial of their radio.
There were a bunch of things that led to this one, but I started reading about Pirate Radio a little after it was mentioned in a Tom Scott video. My site leader at work also mentioned that he was getting his ham radio operator’s license, which is kinda interesting (and apparently it’s much easier now because they don’t need to know Morse code anymore).
The song’s not about radio, exactly, and I’m not totally sure I even really explain why this makes me feel what it does (I guess this is why we write stories … to express things we can’t express otherwise, right?). I’ve never listened to a pirate radio station, but I was thinking: Terrestrial radio was declared dead not too long ago, and yet it’s almost certainly going to outlive television. And even if it does disappear, there’s this little group of people who would commandeer the now-empty space for their own purposes, and sometimes just to talk with other people who have a two-way radio.Continue reading →
Since this year’s FAWM was a bit more varied song-to-song, I thought it was worth talking about all the songs.
Most of the notes here are directly from my “liner notes” posted with the songs on FAWM.org, but I’ve updated the entries with my current thoughts. I hope this proves useful to other songwriters and home recordists.
Before you click “more” I want to stress that, while I’m happy with the recordings — and some people have even paid money to download them — these are still home recordings, recorded on a lot of DIY gear, good quality budget stuff, and using comparatively simple production techniques with mostly real instruments. I think they’re good quality demos, but I can still tell the difference when I listen to something recorded in a real studio and can definitely tell the difference next to something that’s been professionally mastered. Continue reading →
For the third year in a row, I took part in the madness that is February Album Writing Month (FAWM), writing (and/or co-writing) and recording an entire album of 14 songs in 28 days.
As with previous years, the recordings where I collaborated with others were particularly memorable, so big thanks are in order for Dave Benham, Rick Veader, Kate Fleming, Lexa, Joe Scala, and Mosno.
The Writing Process
Typically, I don’t try to dictate what type of music I end up with when writing over such a short span of time, and this year I almost ended up with 14 different genres!
Like last year, I picked two words around which to build the themes for the album, chosen at random in a dictionary (my Arabic dictionary this time … I like to make sure I’m surprised!). They were “drown” and “evidence.” You can’t make this stuff up! Consequently, I ended up with songs about water (“The Brigandine” and “Dry Town”; “Gold Rush” and “Oh Brother” also have connections to water in the lyrics), trust (broken or kept), crime (“Dakota” for a serious song and “Bad Luck, Jack” for a nonserious) , and other related themes. The “evidence” theme also led to a lot of thinking about history and how we record, reconstruct, and examine it. “The Brigandine,” “Gold Rush,” “1851,” “The Field of Agincourt,” and even “The Last of My Kind” came directly out of that take on the theme.
Unlike previous years, I ignored the weekly challenges for the most part and just focused on taking whatever opportunities to create that came along — but I did write a couple things that fit a select few challenges, the biggest being the “epic outro” challenge for “Last of My Kind.”
Here’s the entire playlist, along with some notes about each song.
1. Oh Brother (Ain’t It Hard) — A Welch/Rawlings-style recording of a song made to sound like classic American Apalachian folk.
2. Southeastern Breeze — An instrumental with guitar, mandolin, and banjo. The recording sounds like bluegrass, but the tune itself is closer to Maritime. My favorite part of this was learning the same tune on multiple instruments in the course of a day. Went to Teavolve’s Open Mic in the middle, came back and nailed the mandolin in a couple takes.
3. Dry Town — A completely fuzzed-out rocker (probably the most aggressive song I’ve ever written), but with lyrics inspired by Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl Ballads. It is about the current droughts in California and more broadly about our use of natural resources. It was inspired by this famous photo.
4. Dakota — With David Benham on Native American flute. This is story about a woman assaulted on the Yankton Reservation in South Dakoka. Her assailant is a non-native — reservation police had (and still have to some extent) a problem investigating, much less prosecuting, non-natives who commit crimes on reservations and then leave. Many poorer reservations also have problems with higher instances of violence against women (not just sexual violence as here but domestic violence as well). Banjo and native flute are a magical combination, and there is more material from mine and David’s session.
5. The Brigandine — With Rick Veader on pennywhistle. Peter Easton was the most successful pirate that ever lived — yet most people haven’t heard of him. This is a story about someone who joins a crew in Britsol as a fisherman, but the captain of his ship hates Easton for having cut off his hand as punishment for escaping press-ganged service. The captain pays gold as protection money to Easton (a standard bit of racketeering), and when it comes time to pay again, he fires his (no doubt inferior) cannons at Easton’s ships. The pirates make short work of the narrator’s vessel, murder the captain by hanging him from the rigging until he freezes to death and then dump his body in shallow water wrapped in the mainmast, and take the rest of the crew prisoner. Notable: It’s a folk song in 7/4, with one bar of 6/4 in the chorus.
6. (Someone Please) Have Mercy On Me — This one got a lot of comparisons to Gram Parsons’s Flying Burrito Brothers, so I guess that’s what it sounds like. I try not to talk too much about my personal beliefs, but this one’s about where we go when we die, which I believe is “nowhere,” and making the most of your time while here.
7. Bad Luck, Jack — It was Friday 13th, so I started thinking of horrible ways to go. Then I just created a couple guys going around knocking people off, and the body count kept climbing. The really fun thing with this one was the recording process, where I figured out how to make my guitar sound almost exactly like a horn section!
8. Gold Rush — A slow, majestic waltz narrated by the ghost of a California gold miner who lost everything in pursuit of riches. I think this is the first time I’ve played keys (piano and organ) on a public recording.
9. I Thought You Were the Wind — This is a story of an immigrant who loses his friend/role model to a bad situation. I left the lyrics intentionally vague, so it could be about a lover, friend, older sibling, etc., and there are many different kinds of trouble that they could have gotten into. However, I will let you know that while writing it, I actually had the brothers in mind from last year’s “Hold Tight,” but told from another perspective and with a different outcome … characters are as mutable as situations, sometimes. Southwest flavor with guitars and what I think is some of my best mandolin playing.
10. 1851 (Allons Enfants) — France’s 1848 revolution had an incredibly ironic outcome: Not only did it fail to reestablish the republic after deposing the last king of France (who was comparatively reasonable as Monarchs go) but the elections that followed saw a Napoleon elected President and — wouldn’t you know it, just like the last two guys named “Napoleon,” he declared himself emperor after a little bit of time in office pretending he totally wasn’t going to do that. I realized that someone could have been a child at the time of the first revolution (old enough to remember and understand what was happening) and still be young enough to be approached to “do his part” by revolutionaries in 1851. In the song he tells them why he won’t bother supporting them, because he thinks that it will end just as badly as it did before. The arrangement has some intentional resemblance to Knopfler’s “Done With Bonaparte.”
11. This was a collaboration with Kate Fleming, called “One Little Paper.” Kate unfortunately had a cold at the time, so, out of respect for her, so I will keep it private until she gets a chance to do the vocal to her satisfaction.
12. The Field of Agencourt (King Henry) — With Lexa Hartman on bodhran. I was surprised to find that there are a dearth of battle ballads about this very famous king and battle, at least in English. So I decided to write one. I played pennywhistle on this, which was another first for me.
13. The Last of My Kind — Caveman rock! This was written for the “extinct species” challenge given by a member of the FAWM forums. I picked … Homo neanderthalensis. There is a narrated poem backed by a massive amount of percussion and chanting (Lexa helped again), but stick around for a huge musical shift for the epic outro. The song/poem/thing as a whole was inspired by — and constructed somewhat similarly to — Italo Calvino’s “The Dinosaurs” from Cosmicomics (one of my favorite books … it also gave me the title of the second Midway Fair album).
14. We Are Travelling/Compagnie Generale Aeropostale — With Mosno and Joe Scala. This is a cinematic suite of recordings we made based on an idea Joe had: a pilot crashes in the desert and is rescued by Bedouins, who he has to convince to take him back to the city. I wrote the lyrics for the pilot and then wrote the verse in Arabic, which Mosno edited and sang lead on, and then we did a live recording of both songs. Joe created the plane crash (believe it or not, that’s a bass guitar), and we made sound effects, then edited everything together. This was so much fun we’ve made tentative plans to expand it into something larger. One of the best days I’ve ever had recording music!
The Recording Process
In 2013, my first year completing the challenge, everything was done as a one-take video. Last year, I had just gotten my digital home recording setup, which allowed me to do some overdubs to enhance the recordings, which was especially important for songs that needed harmony vocals and two guitars. The recordings sounded more substantial but certainly still had a hand-crafted feeling even when I wanted a fully produced sound. Both years I thought I ended up with a few decent songs that have since appeared in my set lists both solo and with my band, Midway Fair.
This year, I went one step further and decided to create more fully produced tracks and playing a wider array of instruments. In fact, I’m downright proud of the list of instruments I played:
Guitars (of course)
Piano, organ, and synthesized accordion
Pennywhistle (first time!)
Bodhran and some other types of percussion
Lionel’s Cigar Box Guitar (see here)
Drum machine programming
And lots and lots of vocals
For nearly all the tracks, each individual instrument was an overdub. Last year I typically did the vocals and acoustic guitar simultaneously, which led to a lot of doubled vocals because I still wanted to get the lead vocals just right. This year I didn’t really use stacked vocals at all but instead went with a lot of two-part harmony throughout the song (and plenty of three-or-more-part harmony on the choruses), which gives the songs a different feel, more polished maybe. The recordings were definitely cleaner, but they were also easier to mix despite having more tracks, and not just because I’ve gotten much better at the recording aspects in the past year.
I also think the biggest strides I’ve made in recording and writing since last year are improving what parts I play on each instrument. Too often in the past I would overdub a part and either scrap it entirely because it was messy or try to bury it in the mix … leaving a messy part buried in the mix. Recently, I’ve started simply avoiding the EQ for a lot of parts and focusing more on playing the right thing. Granted I don’t always succeed and there are times when I could have stopped playing or one instrument is stepping on another, but I think I’m getting there, and the result is recordings that sound a lot fuller but not as messy.
My mixing skills overall still need a ton of work, but that’s a lifelong pursuit.
I’ll try to keep this brief, but for the gearheads, this is what I used:
1. Interface and DAW: Scarlett 18i8 with Logic Pro X.
2. Plugins: I used no third-party plugins.
Nearly all of the compression is the “Vintage FET” and “Vintage Opto” plugins. These were my primary tone shaping tools in post as well. — I used almost no EQ throughout, except as an effect (such as the vocals on “Bad Luck, Jack”) or to correct shortcomings in an instrument (such as the piano on “Gold Rush”).
I used the rotary cabinet simulator in a couple places, which I find to be a very useful effect, but it was also the “amp” used for the acoustic on “Bad Luck Jack.”
For reverbs, I stuck mainly to the presets for the vocal plate, short ambiance, and large hall with very few exceptions. Most often I would turn on a preset and then delete the EQ and redo the compression settings just to keep the reverb settings, which usually required very little adjustment for my purposes. I do think the reverbs are still the least convincing aspects of Logic, but this is likely user error on my part, as they allow you to shape them in every conceivable way. I was at least much better about it this year than last.
I used the Tape Delay plugin in a few places (especially the vocal on “Last of My Kind”) and also used it as a “tape head” filter in a couple places. It adds a nice compression and distortion when set 100% wet with 0ms of delay and will also do through-zero flanging when needed.
The Spectral Gate plugin got a couple seconds of use in “The Last of My Kind” for the utter insanity at the end. Man, I want to turn that into a pedal, but it would be hyooooooooj.
I used a stereo tremolo plugin on “We Are Travelling” and on some sound effects.
One of the vocal tracks on “Bad Luck, Jack” used the pedal plugin for a treble booster.
3. Amps: Every electric guitar and bass track was recorded using Sakura, the 5W amp me and my dad built. I never felt like I wanted anything else, and despite the low wattage, I thought it worked just find on bass!
4. Acoustic guitars: I used my Crafters of Tennessee mahogany dreadnaught (similar to a D-18) for all of the acoustic parts that used a pick. I did use it on one or two fingerpicked parts when I thought the sound was more appropriate. Most of the fingerpicked acoustic parts were done with my Koa Larrivee D-05.
5. Electric guitars: On “Dry Town” I used my 50th Anniversary Sheraton for the rhythm and lead, and the red tele for the secondary lead. The Sheraton reappears as the “horns” on “Bad Luck, Jack.” The red tele also makes appearances as the lead guitar on “Someone Please” (middle pickup) and “Allons Enfants” (neck and middle). All other electric guitar parts were the DonQuixotecaster, usually on the neck and middle pickups.
6. Bass: Epiphone Viola bass.
7. Keyboard: My Roland FP5 provided the piano, organ, and accordion sounds used on the album. I did have to do a lot of post production for the piano and organ (EQ for the piano and a rotary cabinet sim for the organ), but overall it was more than adequate for my needs.
8. Microphones: I really abused the Sennheiser MK4. It appears on every track, and there were several tracks where it was the only microphone used. I did use a Sennheiser e609 for a couple guitar tracks, an AT2021 when I wanted a darker sound for something, and an AT2020 for the acoustic on “We Are Travelling.”
9. Pedals: For the most part, I didn’t need to deviate from my main pedalboard.
Compressors: Nearly every electric guitar and bass part used my Bearhug Compressor first in line. I also use compressors a lot in post, so there are typically multiple layers of compression.
Delay: I used the El Capistan for the delay on most of the tracks that have it, though I did use some post-processing delay on a few things. The “chorus” pedal on “We Are Travelling” is the other delay pedal on my main board, a Malekko 616.
Distortion: “Winnie the Pooh and Some Bees” fuzz, the one that Luke from Luck Duck pedals built me a long time ago before I started building (and the fuzz that lives on my main pedalboard) is the main dirt pedal (besides the amp itself driven by a MOSFET booster) on the outro to “Last of My Kind.” The Snow Day OD makes an appearance during the solos on “Dry Town.” A couple fuzzes I built appear on other tracks: the Rust Bunny is the primary fuzz sound on “Dry Town,” and the Tea and Crumpets fuzz is part of the “horn” sound on “Bad Luck, Jack.” Lots more clean electric on here!
Volume pedal: Ernie Ball VP for volume swells.
Filters: I don’t use filter effects very often, but when you need ’em, you need ’em! A major part of the “horn” sound on “Bad Luck, Jack” was the Something’s Fishy pedal, an FSH-1 clone, set to a short decay and short attack.
Tremolo: The Tap Tempo Cardinal makes an appearance on “Dry Town” on the Sheraton lead track.
10. Drums: Unfortunately, for the most part, if you hear a drum, it’s programmed. However, there is some improvised hand percussion on “The Last of My Kind” and “Bad Luck, Jack,” and Lexa’s bodhran on “The field of Agincourt” is of course real.
11. Other stuff: No idea what the pennywhistles were. The harmonica on “1851” is a Hohner. The cigar box guitar on “The Last of My Kind” was made by Lionel on the BYOC forum.
I think that’s everything!
Out of the three FAWMs I’ve done, I ended this one feeling much better about the output than previous years. I had a few clear favorites in previous years, and a couple songs each year that I thought were pretty lousy, but I can say pretty confidently that this year I have no regrets. Sure there are a couple places where I wish I’d had more time to really nail a certain part (particularly vocals, which are tough on songs I haven’t internalized), a couple vocals that could have used more practice, and some mixes that could have been improved with more time, or a couple lines that I might revise in the future, but what album isn’t like that?
Now I have to decide what to do with the recordings, if anything. I have considered having the backing vocals replaced with the other people in Midway Fair and overdubbing real drums for some songs to use on future recordings. Of course, then they would need to be remixed, and I’d probably want to redo a few things in a real studio … and, and, and. I’ll just live with it for a while and see what happens!
I also want to link to two people’s albums I was very impressed by.
The first is Gardening Angel from Spokane, WA — this was her first FAWM. To me she sounds like Beth Orton and Tom Waits got together to make an album together. Fantastic heartfelt writing and voice. “Big Blue Jar” is my favorite on here.
Another is Lightning Streak Dave, who wrote a concept about the robot dystopian future, with the opposition led by Donald Duck, told from the perspective of a dozen characters including what must be the last living DJ. “Steamboat Cleanup Crew” in particular is utterly spectacular, some sort of marriage of industrial, blues, and chain gang music. Exceptionally creative and expansive recordings.
Joe Scala of course also completed his 14 songs, taking a different tack from previous years and working on several songs at once. He actually wrote 3 songs on Saturday the 28th and recorded 6 in the same day, so he totally Please Please Me-ed it! It’s a shame the recordings with Chris Durm and Tony Colato had some technical difficulties, because they were cool songs that I am excited to play at Marksmen shows. Also, check it out: Katie Scala has a co-writing credit on “Let Me Your Light”!
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.
Well, I wrote 14 songs in one month.
Ordinarily, the writing is the easy part and the rewriting is the real work. Condensing all that writing into such a short time period, though, really is really tough! As Joe Scala put it, having your imagination turned on all the time is exhausting. It wasn’t always fun, but there were some good times, and I got a handful of songs I really liked, and a few others that I think have potential. I know the point of February Album Writing Month is to get into gear and be creative, so I guess it was successful.
Here are my three favorites:
#6, “(What Kind of Heart Beats) In the Black Breast of The Beast”
Easily my most comprehensive song for the whole competition — I think the chorus is very strong, the guitar part is as good as anything I’ve ever written, and it fits the overall Midway Fair aesthetics of cinematic folk songs and “pretty music about ugly things.”
One of the most unusual stories I’ve written. There were other better “song” songs I wrote, but this one had a particular level of emotional resonance that I think gave it an edge.
#13, “The Language of Flowers”
Before I got around to recording this song, I had some worries. Although it’s far from the best demo I recorded (my voice was pretty ragged, and the sound is not so good), this is one song I think has a ton of potential as a band song, and I also think that the lyrics are quite strong and only need very minor adjustments.
And an honorable mention for #1, Rowhouse
Although a completely unserious song, it was a good performance and a lot of fun. also, people seem to like it.
Finally, Joe and I collaborated for our #14, “Carnation”
I think we had a good result for our first song written together. This was the first time I’ve co-written a song with anyone, and I enjoyed the process, though it was pretty tough getting past the “someone’s watching me write” jitters. It was a good way to end our respective albums.
Wrapping things up
Would I do this again? Hrm. I’d have to think about it. Joe and I talked about doing it as a “band” next year and co-writing or at least working on all fourteen together, or perhaps doing the RPM Challenge (which is 35 minutes or seven songs), both of which is a bit more appealing to me now. I learned a little bit more about the pace of my work, and it was kind of poisonous to my experience when there were times I wanted to continue working on something I knew was good and could be great (like “Black Breast of the Beast”), but I had to interrupt my momentum to work on the next song because the goal was quantity, not quality. What I’m saying is, I would definitely do a challenge like this again, but maybe not this exact challenge.
If anyone’s interested, almost all the songs can be heard on my FAWM site. There are a couple that are hidden to people who are not logged in to FAWM because I genuinely do not feel they were good enough to post to the general public. Here’s the link:
I also highly recommend checking out Joe Scala’s songs from this year’s FAWM on his blog, especially “Grounded” :
Copping my buddy Joe’s title scheme …
For #14, and to help reduce the stress or pressure on both of us to finish, I suggested that we get together and actually collaborate, since we’re supposed to sort of, you know, work together anyway. You can read on Joe’s blog about the kind of weird free-association that led to our setting and subject matter (the Portuguese “Carnation Revolution”). The interesting part to me has been the difference in how we work.
I tend to think in character first, and my best work has always been just telling a story about a character. I learned this from Catch-22.
Even though creative writing teachers dredged up the old chesnut that “character is story,” they don’t really explain it and often don’t assign reading material that demonstrates it in the best way possible. Instead you read lots of short stories that are often “slice of life.” A lot of “modern” writing (the kind of hyper realistic [boring] stuff descended from guys like Raymond Carver that permeates “academic” literary fiction) simply creates characters that have some character and having them do some stuff and then calling it a story. Sure, they might have some sort of conflict, but when I think back on a lot of the stories like that I had to read, I’m always struck by how oblique and bleak it was, and that the point of the story was more often to have “just some guy” doing “just some stuff.” The characters are often lonely, or at least alone, or nearly so. There are rarely antagonists, and the characters therefore don’t even rise to being protagonists. People think this is realistic. It is. It also makes for very … unimportant storytelling. And you can have an almost infinite amount of it, because the little problems of the world that don’t add up to a hill of beans are almost infinite. So there’s tons of it out there. It’s ironic how much of it is upheld as being important writing.
Catch-22, which I read after college while working on the first draft of a novel, did something completely different that, for want of a better phrase, blew my mind: it had the same plot and situation for lots of people, and threw them all against the same problem and against each other. All the chapters are named after a character, and it follows that character through some part of the story that might be told elsewhere.
It was so much more life-like. Sure, plenty of people deal with little situations in life, but real conflicts arise from the clash of characters against characters. The more important their desires, the grander the story, because you start to find the true worth of people. It no longer matters if the conflicts are real or anything like that, as long as they follow internal rules. the characters are exaggerated, but that’s the point. When you go back and read the great literature of centuries past, there aren’t “little” stories. Everything is grand, and larger-than-life.
Or at least, that’s my opinion.
Where was I going with this? Well, I knew I didn’t want to finish with a story that was small, everyman type of stuff. Even if my characters were everymen, I didn’t want them to be in a small situation. So when Joe brought up the Portuguese revolution, it was a pretty good opportunity to brainstorm character ideas.
Joe’s writing process was very different. He seems to work in imagery and brainstorming until he finds a phrase he likes. His lyrics tend to be more musical, and word-for-word are denser than mine, because he doesn’t focus as much on making sense in a story, just of conveying an image or feeling.
While I was working on the story, he was writing stream of consciousness based on the concepts from which I was writing the story. Then he organized them into things that matched up: rhymes, categories of images, etc. It was interesting to watch and also interesting to see where it had come from.
Anyway, after a bit of this, he sent me a message on Gchat that there was one particular image and phrase he liked, about explosions and the blooming of flowers, and said he was taking a break.
It was particularly interesting, because it’s not an image I ever would have come up with in my writing process except through a great deal of more forced thought, and it was pretty much a perfect analogous image about two diametrically opposed things (peace [flowers] and war [bombs]).
I went back while he was taking a break and recomposed it into a story, with a rhyme scheme and structure, and I’m pretty happy with how it ended up being so completely different from the song idea we started with.
We’ll be committing it to tape tonight. Still composing the music in my head.
I spent the weekend mostly making and updating some older prototype pedals to make sure they were ready to take to Invisible Sound’s tone geek thing. I’ve also been asked to record madolin with Matt Pless for his upcoming record AND with Dave from Whale Show (who I’ve been playing shows with recently), so my February is now stuffed to the gills with music.
The pedal thing was partly to get feedback from other players about my designs, and actually building *my* Hamlet, since I didn’t have one made for me yet. I also finished a harmonic tremolo for my buddy Keith, since it’s something he’s wanted to try for a long time. I hadn’t been building much except to verify the PCB designs I recently sent off to get fabbed.
Obviously this is a pretty significant distraction when I’m supposed to be writing like a madman. I did get one song written and recorded over the weekend (#7), but given the time crunch to complete this challenge, wouldn’t it have been better to spend the weekend writing and skip tone geek this once?
Maybe. But I had dinner with my parents on Saturday night, and my mom reminded me that taking a break from anything is important. I have a day off coming tomorrow if I want it, still deciding, because it’s not like work disappears if I don’t show up. I think, though, that the only way good writing comes up is by expanding your experiences, even everyday experiences. Spend all your time alone and it’s all introspective, and while some writers can pull that off with incredible results, Van Morrison I ain’t. This means that if you’re in the proper state of mind, things that would normally be a distraction from your work can become opportunity.
The big thing is that I’ve had to force myself to pay attention. I mean, really pay attention. Not the pay attention most of us go through life with, which is mostly autopilot and a moment of shock when a driver cuts you off. It’s things like noticing that the mode on the Strymon Mobius pedal that someone brought in has a tremolo preset called “Shaven” and on the way home noticing the street sign for South Haven Street written as “S. Haven.” Yes, this is nigh-useless for a song, but the point is I’m not sure I would notice that if I weren’t in a desperate hyperactive state of readiness for something, anything, that can be jumped on to write about. And just noticing that South Haven street sign meant I was noticing other things: The dilapidated warehouse with furniture out front, the look on a guy’s face at the pump when the wind cuts through his jacket, the particular blue gray of this afternoon’s sky. Forcing myself to paying attention means that this becomes habit in some way and it’s far more likely I’ll notice the moment something musical (or at least interesting) comes out of someone’s mouth or when something on the radio really captures my attention. And this isn’t a feeling I can ever remember having before, since most of my writing is a deliberate, short-term burst, and I then work on honing the rough draft into something better.
For the moment, there’s not enough time to reflect if this produces better work, but it does occur to me that when folks like Bob Dylan and Dolly Parton (yes, her) spend an entire year doing nothing but writing, that they must be in a manic state like this, where everything is a song. There are clearly some FAWMers who are somewhat on this level of being keyed in to thinking in song. I’m not sure I’ll get to that state, but at the moment, it’s working, and they say it only takes 21 days to make or break a habit.
I’ve decided to do February Album Writing Month this year after some coaxing from my friend Joe Scala. The challenge is to write (and record) 14 songs in 28 days. So far it’s pretty fun — I’ll post some of the material here after I’ve completed the challenge (or you can follow along on my YouTube channel or at http://www.fawm.org/fawmers/midwayfair if you want to see my progress). I hadn’t been writing much lately, and it’s nice to write without needing to worry about genres, whether it fits a band or even “myself,” and all that.