Entries in songwriting (6)


Change: ready or not, here it comes

Last week I wrote an article about Nightwish, describing how much my family enjoyed our road trip to see the band in Salt Lake City. I mentioned that their lead singer, Anette Olzon, had been in the hospital for their previous show in Denver and they had performed with a makeshift lineup. I had applauded the band and Anette for making the show in Denver work and for coming back out the following night to put on a show we all enjoyed. Little did I know that at roughly the same time I published that article, Nightwish was onstage in Seattle, performing with Floor Jansen on vocals, because Anette had been asked to leave the band.

Just like that, my most-often played band on KGLT had gone through a major upheaval and there's really no way to know whether the next chapter will be as enjoyable for me. The music world has these shifts all the time. David Lee Roth split with Van Halen, and regardless of which version you like the best, the band was never the same after that (with Sammy HagarGary Cherone, and the return of David Lee Roth ). There are these magic periods in a band's creative lifetime and sometimes they are painfully short. And then things change...

I had been excited about my activities on the radio and had anticipated the onset of construction for the Music Tech Center. With the former, I felt like I'd really found a home, a place with like-minded music lovers sharing the common thread of highly eclectic taste. With the latter, I could taste the next step and see what the building would look like after completion. And then things change...

So, I now move on because that's the only thing any of us can do. Sometimes the changes come along and you can't stop them. We've got an election coming up. Even if political sentiment was the same as four years ago, things would still change. Under current circumstances there will have to be changes, some of which I will be unhappy about, and maybe, if I'm lucky, there will be a few things I'm happy about.

More importantly, though, I have to accept the ongoing progression of life and the many aspects I have no control over. Time is a big one for me. It passes no matter what I do to increase my efficiency or shortchange myself on sleep. I'm once again looking at how I spend my time and wondering which activities are really worth the effort. I'm also facing the challenge that the same creative juices are needed for blog writing as for songwriting. I'm taking 3 songwriting and music classes this quarter and barely having time to breathe. I love what I'm learning but to get the most out of the experience I'm skimping on a lot of other activities.

Honestly, it may be time to cut my losses with respect to the radio show. It hasn't been much fun since losing my regular slot and I'm not seeing a way back to that enjoyment level. The Music Tech Center is still very much up in the air, but I need are more conversations and more pondering, things I do better when I have some breathing room. Finally, there's the question of this blog...

I spend a few hours every week writing the articles for this blog. Over the last 2 or 3 months, I've had a harder time coming up with ideas for those articles. Now, the blog writing is butting heads with all my songwriting homework and without the radio activities I have less music-related thoughts to share with everyone. I think that my blog is going through one of those "And then things change..." moments. It was inevitable but it's still destabilizing. To keep the blog going and keep the content lively, I need some new pool of ideas. I need to be talking about something that I care deeply about and that I'm actively immersed in. Hence, the blog needs to change, much like replacing its lead vocalist or changing its record label, something to freshen things up.

At the moment, I see a songwriting and my efforts to release my next project(s) as the prime candidate. Yes, I've talked about those here previously, however, those were interspersed with many articles drawn from my radio experiences and suddenly there's a lot less of those. I'm thinking that the blog will become a way to keep all of you updated on my creative efforts. As such, I don't honestly know how often I'll update it through the end of 2012 with my course load and the holidays. Somewhere along the line, however, I anticipate things picking up again. As I start generating musical content, then the blog can serve it's primary purpose as an extension of my own experiences and a way to share those things that mean the most to me.


But that's not new

I have this conversation with myself quite often. Don't worry, I keep it inside my own head most of the time. I lie awake at night trying to figure out what comes next for me musically. I struggle to develop an approach or concept that will drive the next batch of songs and set them apart both from my previous work and somehow allow them to stand apart from all music past and present. I'm not doing too well with those struggles and that bothered me quite a bit until I wrote The Pursuit Of New.

I feel a little better now. See, music can't always be completely new and absolutely unrelated to the music that preceded and surrounds it. Every musical work (and really any creative work) is a melding of influences both internal and external. Just the internal component alone pretty much guarantees that what I create will be different from anything ever created. There never has been and never will be anyone just like me, and if I simply channel who I am into the music, it really can't end up being like anything else. Then, on top of that, if I draw on the music I listen to, a unique, eclectic collection of influences, how could my next works not end up standing on their own?

It's amazing how music works that way. Most music is restricted to 12 notes, often 8 or less. Most popular music leverages 4-6 instruments, including the human voice and even orchestral music relies on a very well-defined, centuries-old collection of instruments. And yet, every song and every performance of that song is unique. Much like the complex genetic and developmental process that guarantees each of us are unique, similarly every musical performance stands alone. There are so many elements even when a power trio gets on stage, tempo variation, slight pitch variation, room response, audience response. Every single song performance is unique.

By the time I come to the table with a song that I've written... By the time I find other musicians to help me capture that performance live or recorded... By the time that performance reaches your ears... It is guaranteed to be unique. It may not be brand new and entirely unrelated to the music I've heard before. Maybe if I chose to play nothing but reggae-infused quarter-tone polka, leveraging only power tools as instruments, then maybe I'd completely distinguish myself from everything that came before. Even that, however, would not be completely unrelated. It would draw on reggae and polka; other musicians have composed with quarter-tones and power tools have been used as tone sources.

The more I listen to and enjoy music, the more I realize it's not about reinventing yourself. Food tastes good not because the latest big-name chef has decided to throw away all known ingredients and cook with only what is mopped off the floor at your local auto repair shop. Nope, tomatoes, potatoes, salt and pepper still taste good after all these years. A chef can cook a unique meal using known ingredients, without needing the chemists of tomorrow to continuously concoct brand new ingredients. Music is the same way, guitars, violins, drums and the human voice still make great music. Not everything needs to be newly synthesized and modeled, but it can be. It's more a question of how you put it all together.

I've got access to all the ingredients I need and can generate something uniquely David. Not only can I, but I will and I look forward to experiencing the results along with all of you. I also look forward to experiencing all of your unique creations. Life is fun when we experience things. That's really what newness is about, it's the freshness of experience. The more we can find in our day-to-day meanderings that we view through fresh, open eyes, the more interesting each day is. Some of those experiences aren't always fun, but the freshness is still a valuable source of drive and stimulation.

While you're out there experiencing each day with a fresh outlook, let me know what you discover. What are the key things that make your day interesting, and what music serves as the soundtrack?


Object Writing: A Creative Catalyst

Recently, I stumbled onto a YouTube video of Pat Pattison describing the online Lyric Writing: Tools And Strategies class he put together for Berklee College of Music. I have been trying to jumpstart my own creative process, especially where words are concerned, and was immediately captivated by Pat's description of the class. It didn't take much thought before I knew that I wanted to take the class and, as luck would have it, the new term was starting in only a few weeks.

I have now been taking the class for 6 weeks, and it's been an amazing and rewarding experience. The class focuses on tools you can use to get from a raw idea to a finished set of lyrics. We've learned a great deal about structure, rhyme schemes and how the overall assembly influences the character of your song. But, the key element for me, object writing, began on day 1 and has continued throughout the class. It's been the secret to getting me immersed quickly again and has served to funnel my creative juices rapidly into new songs.

Starting that first day and every day since then, we've been expected to do object writing. This was an entirely new process for me. Essentially you start with a word and then proceed to develop words, thoughts and phrases that are drawn from that word. We try to focus on all the senses, and the results can vary greatly in how directly they relate to the original word. Sometimes the writing immediately diverges from the original word, never to return. In other cases the writing stays locked solidly on the word.

We use a timer and vary our writing from 90 seconds, to 5 minutes and as long as 10 minutes. Each day of the week is a different word, and many days vary in duration. Berklee gives us the words via an online tool, so we don't know the word until we're sitting down doing the assignment. I typically do my object writing early in the morning, right after I wake up. I find that really helps to keep my brain from getting too intellectual and helps make sure there's a smooth creative flow.

After each object writing exercise, all students submit their work and we all have access to everyone's writings. One of the keys to the success of this class (and I consider it one of the best classes I've ever taken) is how interactive it is. All of the students are involved in reviewing each other's writing. It works in a fairly organic way, there are no rules or instructions about who should review what, but this group of students is great about keeping up with each other's writing and providing regular constructive feedback so that we all get lots of input.

There are websites that help you with your object writing routine;  are examples. However, if you have any opportunity to do your object writing with friends, family or peers, I highly recommend it. It's a really great experience to take turns picking seed words and then sitting together to do the object writing. When the timer runs out, you can all read each other's work. I think you'll be surprised at how sometimes everyone ends up with completely different results and other times there are common themes, even similar phrases shared in everyone's work. Doing your object writing together with others also serves as a great springboard for songwriting collaboration and is both fun and rewarding.

I've gone from struggling to generate just a few words to being genuinely confident that, even under time pressure, I can crank out ideas and song lyrics in both good quantity and self-satisfying quality. Although, the many techniques from this class have helped me hone my lyrics, I really have to give all the credit to object writing when it comes to getting the ideas flowing in the first place. If writing creatively, regularly and under pressure is a goal for you, I highly recommend that you try object writing for yourself. Establish a daily routine and stick to it, then look back at it after a few weeks and then again after a month or two. Let me know how that affects your creative process, and your satisfaction with the results. And then, if you still want more, check out Berklee's online course catalog.


The Next Album

As I mentioned in a recent article, I've struggled to find the right musical outlet here in Bozeman. This has become more of an issue now that the Danger, Ltd. album and the Scattershock album are complete. I no longer have those projects and their corresponding goals to keep me going and as a result I'm going a bit nuts (yes, even more so than usual...). That, in turn has spawned another one of my "big ideas."

I need a new project, a goal. It needs to be music and it needs to be original songs, not covers. And it needs to be music that's stylistically close to my heart. I listen mostly to melodic sub-genres of metal, e.g. power metal, goth metal, emo/screamo/alt. metal, nu metal, metalcore. It's what I gravitate toward naturally. It's not an intellectual thing, it's about gut instinct. And yet, I've generated very little original music that fits that collection of styles. It's time for that to change. I need to create something that comes naturally, from inside.

I need a band and yet the longer I live in Bozeman, the less likely I think it is that I'll find one here. I need other musicians that live and breath the same musical styles that I do. I need a drummer, a bass player, another guitarist, a vocalist and maybe a keyboardist, all of whom need to have musical instinct in the same rough vicinity as my own. We don't all need to think alike, we just need to have enough overlap to focus on a common goal. I'm beginning to think I need to assemble that band in the heart of the world's best melodic metal. Sadly, that's not here in Bozeman and more and more I think it's not even here in the U.S. Most of the bands I listen to hail from Finland and Sweden, and maybe it's time I acknowledged that.

So my working plan, my slowly crystallizing vision, is to record my next album in some combination of Finland and Sweden. If I can pull this off, I'll identify musicians in Scandinavia that are interested in playing on the album. I will need to develop a budget for this project, because I'll need to pay the players, pay for my own travel, pay for studio time and, most likely, pay someone in that neck of the woods to coordinate things for me. I'm thinking that last role is the key. I need an "associate producer" or "facilitator", someone that has connections in Finland and Sweden and can help me assemble the right musicians for the project and can help oversee the project. If I can find that person, then I think the rest will come together.

To be clear, the songs have not yet been written. That's on me, at least the music. This time around, I'm also thinking that I need to contribute lyrics, unless somehow I get lucky and find someone who's interested in a collaboration, something more than a simple studio musician role. I need to start writing again and at the same time, I need to start making contact with studios and engineers in Finland and Sweden and see if I can find the right fit. There are a lot of challenges that need to be overcome before this becomes a reality, but it gives me something to strive for. A new dream that can pick up where I left off after completing the Scattershock release.

Are you a musician in Sweden or Finland that would be interested in contributing to this project? Are you a recording engineer that can record and mix this project for me? Do you know musicians that would be interested in playing on the album? Are you elsewhere in the world but find the project interesting enough that we should talk? I'm very open-minded about how this comes together, so if you have ideas or suggestions, please get in touch!


Collaboration: Better Than The Sum

In my article, So far, the promise of digital music falls short, I discussed the mixed blessings of the digital revolution in music. The revolution began with great promise, leading many of us to believe it would be a silver bullet empowering unknown artists and bands, freeing them from the tyranny of the record industry. Though I place part of the blame on a shift in power from the record companies to major technology companies like Apple and Google, I also much acknowledge my own contribution along with those of my fellow musicians.

The technological progress that has empowered home recording and a project studio in your garage has intoxicated many of us. We have become so engrossed in what the technology does for us that we've forgotten the power of the music itself. All of us are familiar with the sight of ourselves and those around us, shuffling downtown sidewalks, hunched over our mobile phones, tablets and game devices. We no longer talk to each other because we're too busy keeping up with our 100s or 1000s of Facebook friends and Twitter followers.

So what's that have to do with music? Well, as musicians we've caught the same disease. We hunch down in our bedrooms, closets and garages. We write, arrange and records songs by ourselves, leveraging technology to fill the void left by the musicians that would have been essential a few decades ago. In the process we've deprived ourselves and our listeners of the real magic that is music.

Until very recently, music was a binding force in the community. It served to communicate a cultural history, shared experiences and catalyzed community gatherings. Musicians joined together to perform, sometimes spontaneously. Without those musicians there would have been no music, given that recording technology and music distribution are very young technologies relative to human history.

This realization hit me hard over the last few years. My struggles adjusting to my new home in Bozeman led me to realize that my own actions have been a big part of my own isolation. I built a recording studio in Redwood City, and proceeded to spend hours and hours alone in it, with the Christmas Rhapsody and Danger, Ltd. sessions standing out as the only real exceptions. That realization has been a major contributor to my vision for the Music Tech Center, but even that vision could veer off track and lead to isolation.

In truth, my most satisfying creative projects have always been working side-by-side with other energetic, highly creative people. Whether in software or music, it's the collaborative energy that has fueled the most interesting and satisfying results. Unfortunately, the displacement of many commercial recording studios by home recording technology has eaten away at the collaborative opportunities in music. I am saddened to see musicians forget the power of collaboration. Much like the commuter with a mobile phone, we tune out our surroundings and write, arrange and record our music alone, place aural and creative blinders around us to shut out the distraction. We forget that the distraction from, and interaction with other musicians is the secret ingredient to most musical creations.

By working with others, we end up with a creation that could not have existed based on the work of one. And, at least in my own experience, not only are the results more interesting but the process is more enjoyable. Being stretched beyond our own comfort zones, trying new things based on suggestions from our collaborators, that's where the real magic begins.

Personally, I need to revisit the role that technology plays in my music. It's a tool, meant to facilitate the process of creating and recording music. It's not an excuse to avoid other musicians, or hide from the audience. Music is notes, chords, rhythms, timbres; it's an aural phenomenon. No matter how it's sonic qualities are generated, in the end, it just matters how it sounds and how it makes each of us feel. The more we remember the joy of experiencing music together, the more we'll experience the power of music.

I encourage you to think about how technology has influenced the way you listen to and create music. Are the tools getting in the way? Have you forgotten how to collaborate with other musicians? What steps can we all take to wrest the musical process from the grip of technology and return it to the people that experience it?