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 →
Here in the U.S. St. Patrick gets parades, green beer, and buttons telling people to kiss you, and everyone becomes Irish for a day. Everyone goes to the “pub” and sings along to “Finnegan’s Wake” even though the song isn’t nearly as hilarious as the book.
But mention St. Andrew and you get looks of “huh?” which, coincidentally, is also the reaction most Americans have to songs in the Scots dialect. Some people know what a caber is. Everyone knows Robert Burns’s “Auld Lang Syne,” or rather, they know a single verse and chorus sung to a different tune than the one Burns wrote, because they sing it around his birthday. (News Years is close enough, right?)
There’s no swilling copious amounts of Scotch that’s been dyed blue or wild haggis hunts. We don’t run around calling each other “Jo” and dancing the fling, except by accident.
We don’t even get to see the St. Andrew’s Day Google Doodle in the U.S.! This year’s is Nessy winkin’ at ye. Look at it. Loooook!
I love that Scotland allegedly invented a lot of its history and culture during the 17th century because everyone was doing it.
I love that possibly their most famous citizen ever, Robert Burns (or at least he was until that Braveheart movie came out — you know, that movie staring the crazy racist Australian living in a America) was not just a writer, but a songwriter, and one who wasn’t afraid to toss off a bawdy verse or two. I love Scottish music and songs, especially the really dark stuff that comes from the ballads throughout Britain — stuff that doesn’t survive as well in other Celtic folk music traditions.
So in honor of St. Andrew’s Day, this year, on a whim, I decided to spend the last week recording an EP of five Scottish songs plus one that’s American but has a connection to one of Robert Burns’s most famous songs, mostly in the original Scots. Silly? Maybe. A peculiar thing to just up and decide to do on a week’s notice? Maybe that, too. But it was fun.
Here are dropbox links to the MP3s if you don’t want to use Bandcamp:
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 →
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 →
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.