Mindgames for 3 Ways To Shake Up Your Writing!

3 Simple Steps For Breaking Out of a Songwriting Rut
We all have creative systems. A strong creative groove. A way of songwriting that is habitual, comfortable, and works for us. A melody pops into my head as I’m playing with my kids, I record it, I throw some chords at it when I get a chance then I plumb my Top Secret Inspiration Notebook for lyrics. It feels good. I like the results.
But…
But sometimes my results are too similar. I feel like I’m retreading the same path and all of my writing is becoming to “same-y”. It feels like I’m lacking real heft after the afterglow of the original inspiration.
When does a groove become a rut?
Here are three helpful tools to help us shake up our systems:

1) LISTEN BACK
I’m surprised at how many songwriters I meet that don’t
     A) Write down their songs
and
     B) Never record them.
This way of writing only allows the writer to hear the song as it goes out, never as it comes back to them–as an echo. Listen to the song come back in. Simply writing down the song on paper and/or recording a rough musical sketch can help us self-reflect and approach the song as a listener. This will ALWAYS help us in the re-writing process.

2) CHARACTER ACTING
Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits is this week’s subject of American Songwriter’s Writer of the Week web series. – In the song “Brothers In Arms”. Mark tries to inhabit the experience of his character. If narrator’s voices are just simply a vehicle for your values–they are puppets, talking heads, gadflies buzzing against art’s glass ceiling.
“’Brothers in Arms’ is sung by a soldier who is dying on the battlefield,” he said. “You can’t just write off the top of your head; you have to dig deep to get those things. You have to experience, if a thing is really going to be realistic, if you’re gonna try and get whatever you feel across. So, in a sense you’re an outsider, but you’re also digging inside to do it properly. I don’t think you can get away scot-free with these things; otherwise, it’s just not going to work. If you stay outside of these experiences, they’re just not going to translate to people.”
I finally got to watch “Birdman” last night, and Ed Norton’s self-parody of himself in the character Mike Shiner was my favorite aspect. Norton portrayed a brilliant actor who memorized every other actors’ lines, parsed the dialogue for motivation and tone, and spat this powerful quote:

3) COWRITING
I am continually surprised at myself when I co-write. I recently sat down to do an e-write (is that a thing? It is now!) with a buddy to write a song for the pop-country market. I was taken aback at what I was willing to say in that song in terms of voice and honesty. When I’m not trying to write in the syntax/tone of Bro. Andy Newton, dragons begin to crawl out of the corners of the maps, and I really start to blow the self-imposed limits on what I think I can do. Also, I used the above-mentioned technique of “Character acting” to develop my song, but there was an advantage to a to-and-fro of perceived immediate feedback. What was my partner going to think? I had to shape my out-going ideas for translation. Will my partner understand it?

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Bio Updated

Iced coffee summer vibez

Iced coffee summer vibez

Updated my bio in the “Story” section of the site.

Also, if you need any freelance writing, composing, song or jingle writing, I’m fulfilling orders now! By all means, and any means–send me an email.

PODCASTS!

Mainly been sticking to the SG straight through the Vox, dry--no pedalboard.

Mainly been sticking to the SG straight through the Vox, dry–no pedalboard.

I heard somebody say once that a musician in the studio should try to avoid outside influence in order to not let last minute influence negatively affect the work. Another way I understand it, is that the recording stage is the “end” of the musical creative process, and we deal enough with the unruly Crappy Valley. Have you heard of this? Malcolm Gladwell writes about a place between epiphany and validation where the artist struggles against toxic second-guessing.

Crappy Valley

Crappy Valley


I’ve been feeling that a little bit—however I will say that I listen back through my Spotify playlist of influence songs to help keep me on-track. It’s an inspiration board for my ears. As promised last week, thar she blows—->


So what do I do now that I’m not listening to much music? PODCASTS!
Here are some of my fresh selections; I’ve picked ones in particular that stick to the theme of this blog:
 
Excellent peer into the minds and craft of some much-beloved songwriters. Adam Schlesinger, Nick Lowe, Van Dyke Parks, Neil Finn, They Might Be Giants, Todd Rundgren, Al Jarreau, Mike Stoller, Neil Sedaka, just to list a few. With two interviewers you’d think things might become unruly, but the presenters are verbally conservative and know how to position the right questions to draw out golden juices from their subjects to satisfy audiences.
Stand-out episodes: Mike Viola, Stuart Murdoch (Belle and Sebastian)

A fun, shorter (10-20 min), episodic romp that features songwriters/composers going wide and deep on the inspiration, development, and production of a single piece of music. I appreciate how there is no outside presenter’s voice. It is purely the writer’s narration, interspersed with clips of their track. Recently the podcast has accessed a lot more of TV/film composers like Alexandre Desplat, Game of Thrones and Avengers: Age of Ultron.
Stand-out episodes: The Postal Service, The Microphones, Converge.

Full disclosure: I’ve actually only listened to the first one with John Luther Adams, but a great listen. The editing feels more in terms of an NPR-journalistic style, which stands out from the rest of the efforts on this list. The interviewer is out-of-the-way and sounds more like a talk magazine. If the first episode is any indication, this is a solid listen.
Stand-out episodes: John Luther Adams (doy)

The singer/songwriter and Get-Up Kids frontman interviews various indie-rock friends and musicians, many time covering songwriting ground. Love this one because it feels really blue-collar.
Stand-out episodes: Chris Conley, Andy Hull, Kliph Scurlock, Rocky Votolato, Kevin Devine

Exceptional productivity advice from not-high-strung dudes Seth Workheiser and Bill Meis.
Stand-out episodes: #5 Project Management without Email
What other writing/craft/music related podcasts are you jazzed about that didn’t make the list?
Listening – currently tracking, I try not to listen to music that might influence me while I’m making records. I did really like the freshly-released. Low single. (link)
WatchingOrange Is The New Black S3
Reading – Back issues of Tape-Op, for the feels.
PlayingAlien Isolation – Xbox 360

“Bach in Wartime”, and New Song!

One thing Brian Eno points out, is that art should be an extension of an artist’s philosophy of all life. Some might say that the effect is similar to the observations of anthropologists who note that members of a culture are unable to accurately perceive their own culture. Many times this is done unintentionally; we don’t take time to self-reflect and parse the weeds to suss out a “life-philosophy”.

But we artists ARE communicating something.

What is that something?

Is it the same thing that I’d want to communicate?

It could be chaos and its descendants. Punk rock. Rock n roll deconstruction from nihilism made sound waves.

It could be the excruciating and exact reproduction of the image of a ship (like the Neo-classicists).

It could be transcendence through beauty. (Like the Existentialists/Romantics)


Maybe Dadism and Surrealism strikes your fancy? Letting anti-art wash over your mind, allowing neural pathways to try to create order where there is none.


So you can see where I’m going—philosophy influences style.
Shoenberg, Webern and Berg needed a way to communicate the heartbreaking horror of the Holocaust, and they settled into atonal 12-tone serialism.
In her fantastic collection of reflections Walking on Water, Madeleine L’Engle comments that folks love Bach in wartime because even tempos, fully functional harmony, and deliberate cadences gives us a sense of structure, rigidity, and security. In peacetime people can dance. They can experiment.


What other examples can you think of?
There’s a musician I’m familiar with that only uses modular synths from a certain era ALSO is a Quaker and tries to put the Quaker view of plainness and simplicity into all his work—something I found very interesting and to my point.
Limitations for a Creative System
As I’ve mentioned, I’m in the deep of tracking a new full length record, Precious Melodies Against Satan’s Devices, and it should be released by the fall! I’m very stoked on the new songs, and I discovered years ago that creative limitations help the whole thing go quicker. I generally make records by myself, and limitations help create the “voice” of other band members, dissidents, opposing view points from which to carom—without ever talking to a soul. I look at the “Fredkin Paradox principle—(your decisions take longer the more similar your options) which I’ve written about before, and I use the creative limitations to create riverbanks for my creative stream to flow through.
The last record (Unreliable Narrator) I had a few limitations:
  • No electric guitars (broke this one, but that’s ok)
  • Always choose the weird way – between two choices, I’d choose the one more elaborate, baroque, or rabbit-trailed
  • Drum programming over live drums
If you’ve listened to the previous record (Slingblades of Husbandry) you may notice an inverse relationship. Slingblades centers around electric guitars, economical pop songwriting, and live-band drum and room sounds. Many of the artistic/musical movements listed above are reactions to other movements on that list. In fact, ALL artistic movements are reacitons against other philosophies, trends, and movements.
Current Limitations for Precious Melodies Against Satan’s Devices
now I’m trying a few different things, I have a type of album-structure archetype that I like to follow, mostly dynamically and a “vibe” kind of thing. Maybe that’s a whole ‘nother blog for the future.
  • Thinking about a fictional band and sticking to a lower number of tracks for the arrangement.
  • Try to use more “live” instruments: MicroBrute, Juno, rather than in-the-box instruments. But if they sound better, then hey.
  • I wanted to use a Rickenbacker electric through a Vox AC-30 for the backbone of most tracks. I wasn’t able to get my hands on one (if you have one you’re looking to lend me or sell, hit me up!) so I’m borrowing an SG. I’ve been sticking to single-coils the last decade or so, especially my Jazzmaster.
I like fast ones, slow ones, that means really upbeat/driving, and at least one acoustic one thrown in there to really bring down the whole dynamic level. I actually tracked that one yesterday, and here is a link to an unfinished version, just for the followers of this site! It’s called “Shine for You”.


Watching: Orange Is The New Black – S3
Listening: Candy Butchers – Hang On Mike
Reading: Just Do Something by Kevin DeYoung
Playing: Alien Isolation (XBOX 360)

Practical Magic

How do we use technology without it letting it use us? Been thinking about this idea lately, some recent films have thrust this theme to the forefront (like the superb Ex Machina) and smart men like Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk’s implicit cries not to develop a high-level artificial intelligence give me gooseflesh. But has there been a recent shift in the way technology has been approached in filmmaking?

Maybe we’ve reached critical mass?

Maybe we’re learning to use technology and not let it use us–letting every action movie smear into a Michael Bay-brown?

Tech used to make us feel like we could do anything, now it has its own trademark, which becomes limiting.


Each one of Mad Max Fury Road’s vehicles was a functioning car. Maybe the functioning cars were from the mind of a demented 8-year-old’s Cirque de Solie fever-dream, but all the vehicles ran and stunt drivers actually drove them! Director George Miller wanted the grounding of practical FX to anchor his far-fetched future.

Going to Zaxby’s


And then there’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens. As a Star Wars devotee, I was guardedly optimistic about the new J.J. Abrams-helmed trilogy. The prequels gave me buyer’s remorse (although if you are a serious fan, this “Ring Theory” has been making the internet rounds this week and it’s worth a look) and I believe in Abrams so so much, just based on his previous cinematic history, both on the silver screen and the small.

Here’s a passage from Vanity Fair’s SWTFA production observations that beautifully surmises this “grounded” approach:
The several minutes of footage I saw backed Willams up, as much as any several minutes from any movie could. Case in point: At the effects session, Abrams was demonstrating his commitment to the more retro, more tactile filmmaking Kasdan had talked about. One scene featured an alien creature that abruptly pops up out of the desert landscape with glowing, flashlight eyes that make it look like a distant cousin to the Jawas of A New Hope. Abrams later called it “a classic, old-school seesaw puppet. We just buried it in the sand, and Neal Scanlan, the creature guy, pushed down on one side and the thing came up on the other side.” At the session, the scene, with the alien suddenly sticking its head over a dune, got a big laugh. Some perfectionist suggested a few digital polishes, but Abrams was wary. “It’s so old-school and crazy,” he said. “We could improve this thing, but at some point do we lose the wonderful preposterousness?” – VF (ht i09)

Family reunion at Zaxby’s


Also working on the films is screenwriter Rian Johnson, who puts it this way;

“I think people are coming back around to
[practical effects]. It feels like there is sort of that gravity pulling us back toward it. I think that more and more people are hitting kind of a critical mass in terms of the CG-driven action scene lending itself to a very
specific type of action scene, where physics go out the window and it becomes so big so quick.”

I’m no luddite, but how can we use tech in music production, writing, etc. and not let it “use us”?

Deep, Deep, nerd stuff, but the DragonAge Inquisition characters quote this line all the time: “Magic was made for man, not man for magic”

I wish I could be John Vanderslice, only recording to analog tape at Tiny Telephone Studios, but it’s financially prohibitive and I need to use what I have. And that said—let it not use me.
I’m taking a break from trouble-shooting my M=Audio FireWire 410—my Mac’s not recognizing it and I can’t uninstall the software in order to re-install. I’m hoping that my day won’t be spent down-grading back to OS 10.10.1 (after I just went up to 10.10.3 yesterday). The demos for the new record are almost done, and they’re being sent to the geniuses involved in the project. Be very stoked.


Listening: New Tame Impala singles

Reading: Marvel’s Civil War 
Watching: The Staircase (RIYL Serial)

Write Smarter, Not Harder: Bro. Andy Paens the Praise of Evernote


My fourteenth semester at Visible Music College has concluded, and I’d like to roll out the time to plan and plot. However, a two-year-old bio-terrorist in the twins’ class brought a lice outbreak to their classroom, and now I’m just trying to keep cheese on the cracker.

But. On to this week’s lesson and musings. I know you’re excited.


Today I’m going to show you how the organizational process I use to write and save songs.
It’s crucial to write down and record every song I write. I audition scores of scallawags for the college’s Songwriting Division who simply rely on their own memory devices to recall all the songs they’ve written. Let’s give our brains a break. Our minds feel relaxed and open to new sources of information and inspiration when they feel they don’t have to “hold” on to previous data. That’s basically the scuttlebutt on one of the primary ideas behind Morning Pages.

Up until about three years ago, I’d transcribe chord charts in Word/Pages/Finale and save them in a “Music” folder within Documents on my laptop’s hard drive. Inside that there would be different folders corresponding to a bevy of bands, projects, or years (if they were songs-without-a-home). This helped with organization as far as archival, but not helpful when it came to quickly finding something I was looking for, or juggling in-progress ideas. As I normally work on two or more songs at a time, this weakness was crucial to fix. Also, trying to access the songs anywhere besides my hard drive was a drag. I’d need to print off on paper or email a file to myself in order to open it on my phone (where I do most of my work on-the-go).

Next, I’d sing musical ideas into the VoiceNotes app in iOS, or just throw down a rough take in GarageBand. As far as  on-the-go lyrical ideas, I’d use an iOS note feature like MagicPad, since it had more text editing features than Notes, (although the Notes feature of syncing-with-iCloud is really attractive).

I needed ONE primary source to aggregate all my inspirations, works-in-progress, and finished ideas. Not countless computer folders that I can only access on my Mac, not three different was of recording. Not even two. ONE.


ENTER: EVERNOTE
I’ll forever sing the praises of Evernote. All my files live in the cloud, so I never lose information whenever my computer or phone crashes, AND I don’t need to worry about re-copying material across multiple devices. Basically, you create documents called “Notes” that you can put in formatted text, photos, audio, etc. It is not limited by page breaks or tight margins, so I feel like I’m writing on a giant whiteboard, not a typewriter sheet. For some reason, that stimulates the ol’ Newton noggin. In fact, I write all of these blog entries in Evernote, then once edited, I upload them to the WordPress interface.


WORKCHAT
Since Evernote’s WorkChat feature has been added, the possibility of collaborative songwriting efforts right in the program are realized. I’ve used it a couple of times in teaching songwriting lessons, but not yet in something that I’ve worked on with somebody. (If you want to collab on something, email me!) The only thing I feel WorkChat is missing is a markup history, ala  GoogleDocs, that way I could follow who made which changes. It definitely decreases the amount of steps needed to share a saved file between people, whether it is a song chart or a saved web article.

NOTEBOOKS
On the organization/archival front, Evernote lets you create “Notebooks” that contain notes on a certain subject. For the topic of “Songwriting”, I actually have three: Songwriting Tips, Songwriting Ideas, and plain ol’ Songwriting, where I have works-in-progress and completed songs. Evernote’s tagging feature helps me further organize the minutia.
Here’s a simple songwriting workflow.

Sample Songwriting Workflow


Full disclosure: when I’m in a pinch, (aka driving) I’ll still open up iOS voice notes and quickly throw an idea in there, but if I can focus long enough, I depend fully on Evernote.

I’ve barely scratched the surface when it comes to the capabilities of the program, but I wanted to simply outline the way I use it for my songwriting workflow. I’ve chosen Evernote because hey, you can’t beat free, but ultimately I would encourage you to find some method that helps you 1. Record and archive every idea

Watching: Whiplash
Listening: The Delivery Man – Elvis Costello