On Your Way to Brilliance

It’s the opening weeks of classes here at Visible Music College, and it’s my favorite time of year. Students come in with such sparks of brilliance, and I’m excited to lead them to the work—and in exchange, I’ll learn a ton from them.
Students are grabbing the important lesson of trying everything at once, and, at the same time, learning to say “no”.
We are all starting somewhere; some on our way to brilliance.
But we’re not there yet.
If you do not breathe through writing, if you do not cry out in writing, or sing in writing, then don’t write, because our culture has no use for it. ~Anaïs Nin
Some are artists, pushing genres and creative boundaries to their limits. They add beauty and wonder to the world, stretching our possibilities and our lenses. Art sparks our imaginations to ask, “What else could it be?”
 
EXAMPLE.
One of my heroes, James Murphy (Ex-LCD Soundsystem) is working on reformatting the NYC subway turnstiles to generate a harmonious cacophony of joy, called “Subway Symphony”. He’s got a corporate sponsor and moving forward with the Transit Authority. The video below outlines his vision and sets a high bar for his music-making. You don’t have to think of something ambitious as this—just ask yourself the question:

What else could it be?



But.
Some “content creators” don’t care at all, and are just adding noise.

Dave Allen talks about this in his (now legendary) article, “The Internet Doesn’t Care About Your Mediocre Band”. Maybe a more descriptive title might be: “Be Amazing or Get Out of the Way” (ht Never Was Podcast).
Allen encourages artists to make a decision to be great by doing great work.

It may sound like I’m speaking out of both sides of my mouth, as this blog has emphasized the necessary reality of putting in the hours in the woodshed, and just doing the work. I’ve written a lot about the noticeable gap between the work we’re doing and the quality of work we want to be doing. This can be an intimidating Law of Greatness to follow and give up. Yes, the Internet could not care less about your mediocre band. I know I’m the worst offender. If a song doesn’t grab me, I’ll not make it 30 sec into a song without turning it off. Many times even a poorly-staged or over-earnest promo pic will prompt me to just say, “Pass!”

Yes, we’re not there yet.

But.

On your way to brilliance.

Keep taking steps.

Decide on the front-end to make your voice rise above the noise.

Close that excellence gap.

Go for it. blow it up. the internet is the great democratizer. Rise above the noise.


Listening: Low – Ones and Sixes
Reading: Huck Magazine’s insightful interview with Ian Mackaye
Watching: The League – S6
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Mixology


They call me “Sir-mix-a-lot”. Actually, nobody calls me that. My friends call me “Golden Eagle”, or just “Eagle”. Either of those will work. Or “John”. Or “Coach”.

Here we are, the last day of the Dog Days of Summer and I think I’m done with principal tracking for B.A.N. record #3: Precious Melodies Against Satan’s Devices. I say I “think I’m done”, because I never know what manner or shape of self-doubt may strike my heart. Yay! It’s been a long and lonely road, and I got by with a little help from my friend(s) (@noahglenn). I now enter the mixing phase. It is a dark labyrinthian cave which I may never exit. Many a man has been beguiled by its wiles, and this stage can take forever if I let it. If you’re like me, it feels like I’m about to clean the gutters. I’ll be happy when it’s done, but it’ll be a messy, long process, with hands full of organic matter. And on a ladder. No, just kidding. Or maaaaaybe??
I run things on a pretty tight budget, so right now, it’s financially prohibitive to rent a room or pay out for an out-of-house mixing job. I WILL have another set of ears take in my roughs to give me pointers, but it’s pretty DIY around Casa Newton.

When it comes to mixing, here are a couple things that make my life easier.

1) I got started in Logic by the Mitchel Pigsley YouTube videos. He gives a lot of quick and dirty tutorials on many of Logic’s entry-level functionality. If someone needs a fast overview of, say, how the rhythmic quantization works in Logic, head there. His gains structures and on-air personality are occasionally questionable, but when I have a quick question about Logic, it’s the first place I head.

2) An enormous help to me is Recording Revolution Series. Graham Cochrane attempts to level the mixing playing field for the audio production layman by publishing daily blogs and videos aimed simplicity. His aim is to downgrade the idea that great mixes come from great gear, (outboard and plug-in) and to affirm the notion that the best tool we have is our ears. He encourages to start with volume,EQ, and compression (EQ and compression both a form of volume control by themselves! EQ is a “smart” volume control for specific frequencies, and compression just being an automated volume knob). I can’t say enough about this guy’s curriculum, and with a mountain of information before the beginner, here are some hip-shot links to some of the most helpful vids:

3) Mixing in Mono-
Ultimately, I learned this from #2 on my list. Mixing the bulk of my sessions in mono has been one of the single-most helpful tips! Mono eliminates the false audio impression of a center speaker through the use of directional panning, so if you are listening to a mix on lower-quality speakers, or in some degree away from the sound source, mono comes in handy for checking accurate balance of volume and frequencies of your tracks, and eliminating phasing.


Watching: Foxcatcher

Listening:


“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)

The Auteur and LISTENING to Music

When was the last time I simply listened to music–without doing anything else?
I’ve been really enjoying Mark Salomon’s Never Was podcast. Last week featured Copeland frontman Aaron Marsh, and he talked about when he was young, his friends would call and ask what he was doing, and he would reply, “Listening to music.”
Just—“listening to music.”
When did that stop for us? Maybe it never stopped for you. I hope that’s the case. I may say “I’m reading.” Or, “I’m watching a movie.” But how difficult is it to just close my eyes and focus on a record for its own sake? Not driving and listening, not making dinner and listening, not bathing the kids and listening, not working out and listening but just…simply encountering the work. It’s actually my dream for people to encounter my work that way. On a great hi-fi system or with headphones—I’ll come to your house and give your dog a swirly if you listen to my records on those infernal laptop speakers. I’m serious. They call me “The Wet Bandit”.
But you know me–I appreciate the auteur. I love how David Lynch sent specific projection instructions to cinemas.
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So the other morning, I awoke naturally, and my kids were gone, the wife snoozing blissfully beside me, and I listened to the incomparable Songs of Pain and Leisure by TW Walsh. There’s another guy with the “auteur” touch–his fingers are apparent on any project he writes, co-writes, mixes, or masters.
Please love yourself this week and actively listen to music, at least one time this week. Who’s with me? Hey, why not start with my latest album. Haven’t heard it? It’s right here:

Listening: TW Walsh Songs of Pain and Leisure

The Hulk, Wearing Purple Pants Everyday, and Decision Fatigue


Cartoon characters–from Daffy Duck to Pooh–wear the same thing every day, right? My son smashes the day away with an Incredible Hulk action figure, and recently I found myself scrutinizing Hulk’s signature tattered purple pants. I realized that Bruce Banner must be wearing purple pants everyday when he turns into the Hulk in order for the Hulk ALWAYS to wear the aforementioned eggplant slacks.  Maybe they’re his most hated pair of pants, and since Banner knows he’s gonna hulk-out after brunch, he doesn’t care if they get destroyed, and thus purposely wears them. Maybe Banner is a genius—(he IS the world’s most leading scientist on Gamma radiation, after all). Or perhaps Banner is familiar with “decision fatigue”, and with only so many usable hours in the day to do research-y stuff, he is going to stick to the purple slacks and white lab coat.


“Hulk smash below belt!”


With our limited amount of creativity and willpower, let’s conserve it for the things that matter—your creative work, your relationships. This idea of “decision fatigue” haunted Madame Bovary writer Gustave Flaubert, who said,

“Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”

In one of my favorite books, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, Mason Currey outlines Flaubert’s austere schedule which he used while he wrote Bovary. 

The president does the same thing. Interviewing President Obama for Vanity Fair, Michael Lewis records Obama saying,

“You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits. I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.’ He mentioned research that shows the simple act of making decisions degrades one’s ability to make further decisions.”
We can think of other creative “greats” who have latched onto a similar idea. Steve Jobs’ signature black mock-turtleneck, blue jeans and white sneaks.

Mark Zuckerburg, (while not lauded for the choices) commits to a daily grey tee.

One of my favorite comedians, Jason Mantzoukas (aka “Dirty Randy” on The League), has a whole Tumblr devoted to his uniform of white BDCO’s and blue jeans.


I drink the same coffee every morning at 8:45. Gone are the days of experimenting with alchemic variations of shot and syrup ratios. During a recent summer, ago I ate a Cobb salad every day for lunch from the little bistro counter that occupied the lobby of the First Tennessee Bank on Third St. What daily decisions can I establish as sacrosanct so that I don’t have to decide? I’ve started using templates as I demo songs in Logic X, that has saved me a lot of time. I mainly stick to the same drum, guitar, and keyboard sounds at first, and let’s me focus on writing and arranging the actual song.
The fall of 2001 I didn’t get to go away for school, and I was flipping carpets at a Persian Rug department at a furniture store. I wore a size small (yeeeesh) black Hanes tee everyday. I did like it at those times. But now, opening a closet to one outfit feels a little soul-killing–“variety is the spice of life”, they say. I’ll think about it.

Listening: Gasoline Heart, Thanks for Everything
Watching: House of Cards, S3
Reading: Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy (trying to finish the last 40 pages)
Playing: Battlefield for Xbox

Hot Yoga, and Leonard Cohen Tells The Truth

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“I’ll be there for you”


A new Planet Fitness opened around the corner from my house, and I decided to try something new and become a member. I totally love going, and going as often as I can. Kinda surprised myself. Am I becoming a gym rat? I just like going for the drugs. Get all those juicy endorphins, dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin flowing like wine. Keep away the haranguing depression and anxiety–a pox on you! This morning they actually gave out free bagels, so I made sure to replace all those beloved calories that I had just burnt off. I was a runner for almost ten years…I loved the high and the freedom of the wind blowing betwixt my whiskers. Running’s not for everyone. My wife hates running. I respect that. I hate hot yoga. No, not Bikram Yoga, hot yoga. Practicing two feet away from a lot of other sweaty, farting, bodies in a 100º room. Yoga rules. Love yoga. But I hate being hot. It’s difficult enough surviving in the Memphis summer heat, my tongue parched and pores screaming for moisture—except for the 80% humidity, ahhh that’ll do the trick. But she loves it. And since my knees staged a body mutiny, I stick to the gym machines. That is a truth.

Been plagued by this idea of “truth” in songwriting (and “regular” writing), ever since I read Leonard Cohen’s interview in Paul Zollo’s Songwriters on Songwriting. I wrote about this interview a couple of weeks ago, but this idea of truth has emerged like a weed in many songwriting conversations the past couple of weeks. Maybe it’s not a weed, but a blossom.

Cohen starts by actually stating the opposite point of truth (pg 334):
Some songs take a decade to write. “Anthem” took a decade to write. And I’ve recorded it three times. More. I had a version prepared for my last album with strings and voices and overdubs. The whole thing completely finished. I listened to it, there was something wrong with the lyric, there was something wrong with the tune, there was something wrong with the tempo. there was a lie somewhere in there, there was a disclosure that I was refusing to make.

Zollo keys into this and follows up with,
PZ: Earlier you said that you couldn’t sing an early version of “Anthem” because it had a lie in it. Does this mean that the songs have to resonate in truth for you to be able to sing them?
LC: They have to resonate with the kind of truth that I can recognize… (pg 339)

My mind’s been orbiting this thought in one way or another for the better part of this month, with (two posts ago) about point-of-view and value. Maybe that has something to do with it, as well—being authentic with your POV and your values. Bringing everything into focus, like the focus wheel on binoculars. I’m trying to strive for this…this, focal truth—I’m throwing overboard the word authentic because it stinks of co-option by marketing boardrooms. Writing songs this month committing to not having lies in them.


Reading: Song: The World’s Best Songwriters on Creating the Music that Moves Us ed. American Songwriter Magazine
Listening: Giant Sand
Watching: House of Cards, S3

Van Dyke Parks And A Matter Of Perspective

Brian Wilson micromanaging Van Dyke Parks. (j/k???)

On a bit of a creative momentum. Been finishing a lot of new songs lately, trying to figure out why. I would say that I normally start a lot, but I won’t put the time into it if I feel that it’s not worth finishing. Or maybe I have another idea and I move on to the new shiny. A lot of “writing coaches” talk about finishing everything, no matter what, and maybe that’s somewhere in my head? I already have 14 songs in the running for a new record, falling under the working title Precious Melodies Against Satan’s Devices. Yes, an old Puritan reference. Or perhaps, Old Hundredth. So, yeah, a creative momentum. Not this week, though. Been an odd week; with a combination of a persnickety sickness and fistful of snow days, I didn’t leave the house for almost a week. Wednesday was my birthday and it was a quiet one, at home with my children, playing Legos, fielding hilarious calls from loving family members.
Around the site here, I’ve attempted to re-working my bio in the STORY section, and make sure there are listed lyrics for the last two records in the SOUNDS page.
The other night I played LaserTag for a good pal’s bday, and the mob of us were required to pick codenames. There was a score system to tell you who you shot and who shot you, and 10-year old us’ crawled out of our skins. Hanging out with such a group of clever guys keeps the laughter flowing like wine, and we had a couple version of codenames of my friend’s mom, and two alternate spellings of his dad’s name, and mine, JUNG$TUNNA—yes, as in Carl Jung, shooting lasers into everyone’s collective unconsciousness!!
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I enjoyed everyone’s humor point of view, and I might wager that’s why we like who we like. I’ve been re-reading sections of Paul Zollo’s weighty tome Songwriters on Songwriting, specifically the mid-triptych of Leonard Cohen/Van Dyke Parks/Randy Newman/Harry Nilsson. If you haven’t checked it out, Songwriters is an essential musicological primary sources and an embarrassment of riches. Zollo compiles in one volume his interviews with “classic” folk/pop/R&B/country songwriting heavyweights whose careers peaked between the 1950’s through ’80s. It is the kind of book that works in small chunks, as a desk resource and bathroom accoutrement. So many of the interviews sparkle; many take considerable time to digest the gold.
(The Incomparable) Van Dyke Parks mentions in passing, that his perspective on lyric is that all lyric is is an illustration of a point of view. My copy’s at the office and it’s a snow day, but I have the Fourth Ed, and it’s in that chapter, beginning on pg. 295.
I can show you practical ins-and-outs regarding lyrical technique, but I can’t make your lyric interesting. It’s your POV that will help your lyric from falling flat. A former colleague used to say that people respond to feel over perfection. This is why you can have an amateur lyric that shakes your soul, and at the same time have an elaborately well-articulated idea in with perfect meter, rhyme scheme,  and prosody that sounds like it was written by a robot. And everything is adjusted to taste. I’m picky, and you may hate what I like, and vice-versa. This is ok as well. We like points-of-views like we like people and personalites. And isn’t that what a lyric is? An extension of someone’s personality? This is the case I’m trying to make, at least.
The point-of-view becomes the vehicle for your aesthetic values and art philosophy.
I once had–I wouldn’t call them lessons, because they were more collaborative feedback sessions on the artist’s work–but I worked with a really cool songwriter/musician from the Faroe Islands (I hadn’t heard of it either, somewhere off the coast of Iceland and the Netherlands?). I think he’s now hung up his rock n roll hat and become a sheep farmer, but the kid was genius. He told me that in every song he had three values he worked to integrate: a spiritual truth, something humorous, and something dance-y, or movement oriented. He posited that if you could get the audience to become physically involved, the band could make quick work of their minds and emotions. This writer had an enjoyable and distinct point-of-view, and I had found a brother in values from across the sea.
Find more out the perspective that you love–what you love, finding out why you love it, someone else’s values mirror your own in a point-of-view that is sympathetic, empathetic, or seductively contrary to their own (or parents: see: hip-hop, heavy metal, every teenager everywhere). Your point-of-view then becomes a vehicle for your values, your writing isn’t a utilitarian vehicle for your values. You don’t like the color blue, and then find a car you can spray paint blue just to show it off, right?
That’s why I love the song Susanne: values of spiritual, and earthy. Same thing with Running Up That Hill (Kate Bush) and One of Us (Eric Bazilian). God is real in these songs, he has a phone and lives in a building, maybe, thus preserving mystery.