Back to work

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This is what my current work space looks like. I had just finished tracking some drums, so there are cables strewn all over the floor.

After a long hiatus, I’m back to writing songs. I’d love to be able to write a new batch, get the band back together, and make anew record.

It’s always a challenge to get back into writing after taking a break. Breaks after finishing a record are necessary for me. I spend so much time inside the set of songs for a record that it’s good to get some distance. Over the first three records, I had been progressively shrinking the breaks between them, but this time around, I needed to take a longer break. Now that I’m no longer a swinging bachelor, I have had to figure out a way to make time for writing. Additionally, the way I write needed to change. Before, I could have easily declared any random day to be a song-writing day and spent the majority of that day just working on a song. Now, I only have finite windows of time on a given week — even this short blog post has taken me over three or four days to complete. I have had to learn how to work in stages and document my progress much more carefully. The good thing is that I have had to do this in my academic research work. I know how I need to do this. It’s just an initially uncomfortable adjustment because it interrupts the previous workflow I established. It’s difficult to stop once you get going. I don’t like looking at the clock when I’m recording. It rushes me. But then again, that’s what I got, so it’s better to make due rather than not do anything at all.

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Check me out! I’m now able to do some fancy things like send out my mixes to outboard gear. Here I am sending out a mix to a Strymon DECO to give it some tape compression/saturation and some modulation by double-tracking.

I treated myself to some new recording gear. I recently picked up a 4 channel audio interface and some extra cables, so now I’m using a full Pro Tools setup. This new gear along with working solely in Pro Tools works out a bit better for working on songs in spurts since I can make a bunch of notes easily and visually see the progress between sessions. It also allows me to do some fancier things than I had done in the past. For example, I am now experimenting with sending audio out to gear like my Strymon DECO for some tape compression on my mixes. I still plan to keep things really simple, but I’m already achieving better sounding tracks with this new approach.

Before, I used a stand-alone digital 8-track. Then I uploaded those tracks into Pro Tools to edit them. That setup had a certain simplicity to it. I liked the limitations that it imposed, especially with regards to getting a complete take. Having recording separated from editing made playing too removed from editing, which I like to keep very separated from one another. As a result, I just had to construct and practice the part in its entirety until I got it. That was most challenging for my drumming, but I have gotten much better at playing drums as a result. I did/do small punch-ins here and there, but that’s it. From the editing point-of-view, I think that it makes a difference. It does to me, anyway.

One thing that happened to me as I started to think about writing again is that I started to second guess what I had done which, in turn, led me to second guess what I should do next. I suppose it’s natural to have doubts when you make records. It doesn’t help that our world is one that really doesn’t listen to records anymore. Still, I started to think about if what I had done was done “wrong,” and perhaps if I did something differently, it might be “right” this time. It all comes down to seeking external measures of self-validation, I suppose. If that’s the case, there’s no squelching this. I know at least that much. That’s not how this sort of thing works.

A few weeks ago, I listened recently to an interview with Dan Wilson where he talked about this very idea. He had put out a Semisonic record that he really liked, but didn’t hit. He said his A&R guy or manager told him that if an artist puts out a record that they really love, but doesn’t do well, they should do it again. I’m paraphrasing, but that is how I have interpreted what he said. Anyway, he followed that advice and wrote “Closing Time” which ended up being a rather big hit.

This idea was pretty huge for me. The truth is, I really like how I’ve been making records. I would love to make another record the same way I’ve been doing it. Sometimes it feels like I shouldn’t feel that way because of any number of reasons: record sales, friends’ responses (or lack thereof), etc. I cannot verify those things, but the thing that I can certainly verify as being true is that I really like how I’ve been making records. So given that certainty and the uncertainty of everything else, why would I second guess or talk myself out of forging ahead? I suppose it seems so simple now, but that simplicity points to why it must be correct.

It’s established. I will forge ahead feeling good about what I have done and what I will do. So what exactly does that mean in terms of another record? I think the songs that there are two types of songs of mine that have seemed to work best.

Examples of the first type are Could You Find It In Your Heart to Love Me? and I Actually Feel Pretty Good Today. I’m not sure how to categorize those songs. For me, they’re inspired by older pop songs that sound almost cheesy, but have really sophisticated underpinnings. To me, I came about to these types of songs from listening to Big Al and Joey Spampinato songs. They mix sophisticated chord changes, but aren’t overtly “jazzy.” To some, these songs might sound a bit schmaltzy or adult contemporary-ish, but I have grown to love these types of songs.  It’s because of the chords. I now spend time looking up different chord voicings, inversions, and alternatives which brings me into new territories of melody. It’s more than just hooks. Hooks are more abrupt and coarse devices. Now that guitar-based pop music is so pervasive, our ears have grown very accustomed to standard chord voicings. By changing things ever-so-slightly, I think you can achieve a more subtle color that is felt over the entirety of the song rather than just some clever hook. Another thing that has really affected me is an interview that Blake Mills did for Fretboard Journal. When he talks about the song “Don’t Tell All Your Friends About Me,” (at around 24:00) he talks about the voicing of the very first chord. I think it’s a B-flat. He ends up tuning the guitar to feature that voicing. It’s so intelligent. The progression is familiar — it’s just a walk down from the 1 to the 4, but the voicings lead you to hear it so differently. If you have the time, also watch him discuss and play “Cry To Laugh” (at around 55:00). It’s ridiculous. I know what he’s talking about when he’s talking about Randy Newman’s piano playing incorporating really small changes with large sounds. There’s a style of guitar that adheres to that notion, but I forget what it’s called. I wanted to learn it so badly when I was young, and I never did. It’s kind of related to playing “horizontally” rather than “vertically” (in relation to the staff).

For the second type, I really want to explore more songs like Troubled Girl. It’s a pop song with a pretty standard chord progression, but the rhythm and groove are really interesting and compelling to me. That song actually started as my homage to the Shirelles’ “Mama Said,” but it morphed over time to what it is now. It’s obvious to me that song comes from listening to a lot of Ry Cooder records, but maybe you didn’t know that. A big song in my life is “Fool Who Knows” from the Little Village record. First, it’s Nick Lowe at some of his finest. But the combination of Keltner’s drum part and Cooder’s slide is something that I will be chasing forever. Another noteworthy bit is the first instrumental part of Blake Mills’ “Seven.” There’s a groove to these types of songs that is different and interesting. Plus, I’d like to focus more attention on my fingerpicking and slide playing, so these types of songs are the right kind of vehicle for that.

So that’s that. I’m going to continue on with what I’ve been doing. I’m going to do it for the simple reason that I like doing it. That will just have to be enough.

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Paying homage

A law suit is going on right now with the Gaye family claiming that Robin Thicke’s recent songs are acts of “brazen copying.” I had read another report in which Thick and his producers counter-sued using the argument that being “reminiscent of a sound is not copyright infringement.”

I am not particular interested in the copyright issues of this law suit. Rather, I’m interested in what is an artist’s responsibility for transparency with regards to paying homage to the songs that served as their inspirations. I was a bit disappointed that the Thicke-camp didn’t just come clean about their work. If they had publicized up-front that they were explicitly trying to bring Marvin Gaye back to the forefront of popular music, that would have perked my interest.

We debated the notion of sampling a while back. It was controversial. Now, isn’t it kind of an honor to have your song sampled by another? I suppose there’s the issue of royalties, but zero percent of zero is zero, so this has not become a relevant point for me.

There are several songs of mine that have very well-defined influences. I have no need to hide that. Even when I don’t tell people explicitly what the songs that serve as the inspiration are, I like it when people figure it out. In fact, I had once thought of the idea of making a record called, “Pairings.” The design would look like a tasting menu in which the songs I had written were paired with the songs that inspired them. One easy example is the song, “Going Back Alone” being paired with Gladys Knight & the Pips performance of “Midnight Train to Georgia.” Maybe I’ll still do that. I don’t think it’s a horrible idea.

What kind of music do I play?

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I don’t have the foggiest idea.

When I tell someone that I write music and make records, the question, “What kind of music do you play?” invariable follows.

I know I should have an answer ready to go, but I honestly don’t know how to answer this question.

Now that I’m getting ready to drop my third record, I think I should spend some more time thinking about this. It’s about time I formulate an answer.

To my credit, I don’t think or say that one should “just listen” to my records and come to their own conclusions. I dislike it when people say that. My problem is that I generally assume that the person isn’t really interested in listening to my records because I don’t think people really listen to records anymore. But that’s not a helpful attitude, either.

I recently read a blog post on CD Baby that talked about this very issue. This blog post recommends not answering this question by listing your influences. I see now why they have to say that. Thinking about my own situation, I would much rather tell you the cool music I listen to rather than how I perceive my music. It’s easier and ultimately more impressive to say that I was influenced by Al Green, NRBQ, Ry Cooder, Marvin Gaye, Prince, and Morrissey rather than saying directly that I think I am this or that.

The key is to use generic terms. The point is to not be creative. Here are 5 generic genre tems I have chosen.

  • Pop
  • Soul
  • Blues
  • Country
  • Singer-Songwriter

What do you think? Is this an accurate list or do you think I should use some other genre descriptor?

Not Much To Say, But a New Record Is On Its Way

I actually don’t have very much to say. I just feel bad that it’s been so long since I’ve posted anything, so I thought I’d try to post something.

Airline acoustic with gold foil pickup

The new Airline acoustic with gold foil pickup

Well, there is this new guitar I picked up a few weeks ago. I wasn’t planning on it, but there it was and I couldn’t pass it up.

It’s an old Airline acoustic with a Teisco gold foil in it. It’s on “okay” sounding acoustic, but that gold foil sounds terrific. There was another one there, but this particular guy played better and sounded a little bit crisper. The high E string has a funky buzz to it that makes it sound like a really bad electric sitar. I need to learn how to play to that, but I haven’t put in the time just yet. I hope to be able to soon.

So this week, I got word that we should have the newest record mastered this week. That’s exciting news. I have spent a lot of time with the pre-mastering mixes and so I have gotten to know the record in that context really well. I have listened to some drafts of the mastered mixes and they really sound good. There’s some nice sparkle and shine to them. Among the Yellow Hope Project records thus far, this one is the one that could stand up strong to a bit of compression and EQ. The others were recorded so dry and live that we didn’t want to mess with that too much. Even though we recorded the vast majority of the songs live in the room, this new record has a bigger sound and was recorded on tape, so I think it’ll be nice to have pushed on the sound a bit.

Another big difference this time is that Jason and I aren’t physically present during the mastering. Since we heard about the sad news that Piety Studio closed down, Jason and I went about looking for another place to master this record. Jason suggested his friend, Bronson Tew, down in Mississippi. I trusted Jason on this and we made a good choice. Bronson has been really great to work with. He’s responded really quickly to our notes and he’s been able to really add some nice touches to the mixes. It’s a bit weird to not be there this go-around. I liked making that trip. It was an occasion. When it was done, I walked out with a physical object that was the record. This time it’s all emails, shared cloud folders, and text messages. It’s not a bad working situation. It’s just different. I miss the human interaction. Then again, for the Fifty Shades of Yellow mastering session, I was massively hungover, and I spent a good deal of time in the studio bathroom dealing. Perhaps I really don’t need to interact so much with other humans?

So the new record should be ready to drop very soon. I’ll do the normal thing — post it to bandcamp while I’m waiting for the physical CDs to be pressed. This time around, I think I’m going to order a limited number of CDs. Although I think this is my strongest record, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that it’s not going to sell too much. Now I’m not being poopy. I’ve just got some experience with this now. I definitely want to press some CDs because Scott’s design is really great and it came together well. It definitely needs to be. It just doesn’t need to be that many.

Regardless, I hope you will like the new record. I had a blast making it. I think that you can hear the band enjoying their performances in each of the songs. There are definitely some fun moments in there.  You’ll be hearing back from me soon.

 

Introducing the Reubencaster

I have just heard the news. The Reubencaster is done!

In a recent post, I described a few new projects that I have started. The major project of the bunch was having Reuben Cox at Old Style Guitar Shop modify a cheap Squier Strat to swap out the stock electronics to include two Lollar pickups: the Supro Steel and the Gold Foil in a configuration inspired by the famous Coodercaster. I picked up a Daphne blue Indonesian Squier at a local guitar store and then sent it down to Reuben. I got a message from Reuben earlier this week with a picture of the guitar in progress. Today, he told me that it is now finished. Below is a picture of the finished product.

The Reubencaster!

The Reubencaster!

Needless to say, I’m very excited abut this beautiful guitar. The workmanship is fantastic. The modifications are so clean and Reuben assures me that it has sustain “for days.” His correspondences with me indicate that he’s pretty excited about how this project turned out and that, in turn, makes me really happy. It’s nice to know that the kind of guitar I want built is the kind of guitar that builders want to build. It’s not that I had any lack of confidence in my taste, but it’s still nice to be validated. I’ve also gotten a few reports that some rather impressive people who have come by the store today freaked out over it. How cool is that?

I’m nervous about its trip up to me, but I can’t wait to play it. Just the thought of it makes me want to work even more on my slide playing. Perhaps I can bide my time by listening to all of my Ry Cooder records. Stay tuned!

Long Time Coming

I haven’t given this much thought, but I think at this point in my life, I have been playing guitar longer than I haven’t. Many of the few people that read this blog have not known me as a guitarist,  but there once was a time when I wasn’t.

One of the few times I've performed in a suit.

One of the few times I’ve performed in a suit.

I started off playing piano. I took lessons from my sister’s teacher. I think I took lessons for only two weeks or some very limited amount of time. To this day, I’m an idiot on the keyboard. It takes me far too long to spell out chords. I have a Wurlitzer around for recording demos, but for me to knock out a part takes hours and leads involuntary shouts of gratuitous expletives.

Next, I took cello lessons. My teacher was the same as my brother’s. See a pattern here? I can’t remember for how long I took cello lessons, but it was for a few years. For some reason I cannot remember, I just stopped taking cello lessons. I’m sure my interest in it faded, but I don’t think that was the sole reason.

After cello, I started to take viola lessons. Viola is a rather natural change from cello. The strings are tuned to the same pitches, just an octave higher. In fact, much of the viola music out there is transcribed cello music. I remember that transitioning from bass clef to alto clef was weird. Even now if you see a piece of viola music, the clef looks like a kind of a funny, goth “B”.

Less formal and with my trusty ’58 LG.

However, the physical playing of viola is quite different from cello. I don’t think I ever felt comfortable holding a viola under my chin. Moreover, my bow technique was always poor. My fingers bend rather strangely at the knuckles closest to the nails. Somehow, those knuckles didn’t allow me to keep my fingers “naturally” curved in a manner like my teacher insisted they should. This was a problem up to my very last viola lesson. My vibrato was manic and tight instead of being loose and flowing.

Despite my poor technique, I think I managed to play viola (and later violin) okay. I played in a number of orchestras, quartets, etc. I performed recitals, adjudications, competitions, etc. Violas are generally underrepresented, so it was easy to manage playing just okay. Playing that much was kind of fun. I met lots of friends. I think I managed to gain an appreciation and knowledge of playing in ensembles. I knew I didn’t really enjoy the competitive aspect of it, the posturing, and the grandeur of the classical music scene. Even back then I knew I wanted to play guitar.

I think it was my sister who bought a guitar for a special music class. It was a small-scale nylon string guitar. I remember that there were color coded stickers on the fingerboard between the frets to show which frets and strings you should play for certain chords. I think all three of us, my brother, sister, and I spent time playing this guitar. I clearly remember playing G, C, D, and Em chords. I also remember playing harmonics. I knew about those from cello and viola. Even back then I remember really liking it. I liked the idea of playing chords on a string instrument.

That must have had something to do with the beginning of my fascination with the guitar. I remember that my viola teacher had a classical guitar in his house. After my lesson, I would often have to wait because my mother and his wife were friends and would spend a long time gossiping. I would often try to sneak into the room where the guitar was. I’d just barely open up the case and play a few of the strings. I really wanted to pull it out completely and monkey around on it, but I didn’t think I was allowed. I didn’t even feel comfortable asking if I could. I generally assumed the answer would be no. Other times, we would visit another friend of my mother’s where I would be kind of alone while my mother and her friend would talk. That family had a steel stringed acoustic FG-style Yamaha that I spotted. Again, I was timid to bring the guitar fully out of its chipboard case. I’d just open it and play a few strings with it still inside. I think once or twice, I would pull it out, but I only played my coveted G, C, D, and Em chords quickly and quietly and then hide my tracks. Now that I’m thinking about it, I think I also figure out how to slide a D chord up two steps to play an E and then back down to A, or something like that. I still do that trick whenever I can.

At the time, guitar wasn’t an option for me. It was this forbidden thing. I definitely had the seeds of obsession. I remember sitting in orchestra rehearsal after a break playing my viola like a guitar. I had figured out the chord changes for the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me.” My stand partner thought it was hilarious that I had the audacity to do that. If the sectional teacher would have caught me, I’d likely be in trouble.

The big change came when my parents and I moved to Shreveport.

As I’ve surely discussed before, my parents and I moved to Shreveport just before my freshman year in high school. My brother and sister had already moved out of the house by that point. It was a big move. I continued to take viola lessons with a very nice teacher whom I liked a lot. She wasn’t strict. She encouraged me to consider interpretation of pieces. She didn’t assign me a bunch of etudes. Rather, she told me to use isolated measures of the pieces I was playing to develop my own etudes. I really liked that. At the same time, I didn’t have the inertia of playing in a bunch of orchestras and other constraints to keep me playing, so I just kind of stopped.

My parents definitely felt bad about having to move me from all of my friends and the life I had. To help ease their guilt, they bought me a guitar because they knew I really wanted to play one. It was a steel string Takamine. In terms of giving me something to do, my parents’ plan worked. I played that thing anytime I was at home, which was just about anytime I wasn’t at school since I had no social life back then. I took lessons with the initial intent on learning classical guitar, but those slowly moved over toward blues, rock, and folk. I ate it all up. I bought Guitar Player and Guitar For the Practicing Musician. I collected as much tablature as I could and I worked at it. I remember when my teacher wrote down Travis picking patterns for me. I practiced them everyday. I remember practicing them in front of the TV before school, and then when I got back from school, I’d pick up my guitar and start playing them again.

I was obsessed. What had once been this forbidden thing now was available to me and I wasn’t going to waste a single moment.

I still play guitar just about everyday. I have always felt like I was meant to play guitar. I just really enjoy playing guitar. I never feel any sort of need to stray or move on from it. The opportunity to play a 6-string guitar, acoustic or electric, was such a huge moment in my life. The magic of it has never gone away.

Projects

I just gave this blog a bit of a face-lift, so that motivated me to write a new post. Do you like the new look? I changed the theme to be more consistent with the designs of my records. Look to the right. I just added widgets for Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Isn’t it great? I am integrating all of my social media! Hopefully, this will motivate me work less and participate in social media more.

I’ve spent the majority of my day today in a hotel working. I’m traveling for work this week. Although I feel like I haven’t been very active, now that I think about it, I’ve been busy. As I mentioned in my last post, things are moving forward with record number 3.  I just spent weekend prior to this one in Los Angeles to play another gig at Cinema Bar with my friends, Scott Gagner and Kevin Garrett. I think the gig went pretty well, but it was a whirlwind tour through LA, so I don’t remember too much of it.

Whole chicken at Kyo Chon.

Our order of a whole chicken at Kyo Chon with garlic and hot sauces.

Wait. That’s not true. I remember a lot. I had three solid Korean meals in the course of 24 hours. Upon arrival to LA, I went straight to Olympic Noodle to have their steamed dumplings, kimchee, and hand-cut noodle soup. It’s fantastic Korean comfort food. For dinner after the gig, I went to Kyo Chon. I’ve written about this chicken before. They changed their service a little bit. Now they have a dine-in service. The thing that hasn’t changed is the chicken. It was still rather spectacular. Overall I think it’s fortunate that I don’t live in LA. I’m not sure I have the self control to resist this place. On Sunday, we went to an early lunch in Pasadena at Goan, a Korean BBQ place. We managed to order a set meal and add to it some additional items. You can witness the first set of beef briskets hitting the grill. It was a thing of beauty. There was a lovely variety of pork bellies, beef rib eye, and marinated short rib, too.

Now that I am back from that LA trip, I feel compelled to initiate some new projects. I suppose I get into these moods every once in a while. Perhaps I’m wanting to start new projects because work has been really busy. I tend to think of these things when other thoughts are heavy on my mind. I’m not really enjoying being this busy with the things I’m doing at work. I’m looking for an escape.

Raw materials for the Reuben-caster.

Raw materials for the Reubencaster.

One project involves building a new guitar. Actually, that’s a bit misleading. I’m not going to be the one to build it. I’m asking Reuben Cox to build me a guitar for slide that’s based off of the famous Coodercaster. Lollar makes a version of the Supro/Valco/National string through steel guitar pickup used in the Coodercaster. We’re planning to put that in as well as something funky for the neck pickup. I’m not sure Reuben likes this name, but I’m referring to it as the Reubencaster. Yesterday afternoon, I went to a local music store to see if they had a cheap Strat that I could use for this project. After playing a few of the inexpensive Squire Strats, I found the one shown in the picture shown to the right. Apparently, the color is called “Daphne blue.” For a very reasonable price, I picked it up. The plan is to use this as a dedicated slide guitar with heavy gauge, flatwound strings and high action. It’s about time I had a proper slide guitar, and soon it will be. The next step involves me shipping this down to Reuben to let him work his magic. Stay tuned.

The other projects I am contemplating are not nearly as interesting, but important nonetheless. I’ve started a new focus on my personal health. I’ve let myself go. I have to fix me. I’m not planning on doing anything too dramatic. I just am refocusing attention on wellness. I’ve started to swim. I’ve never swam for exercise before. It’s kicking my ass, but I’m enjoying it. Maybe it will improve my breathing which will affect my singing? That would be cool. Maybe I can stop belly-aching about singing in ALL CAPS and just join in the crowd? Then I’d have to eat my words. Words are carb-heavy, so perhaps not.

I’m also starting to feel the pangs of need to write songs again. Some ideas are cycling around. I haven’t been playing guitar too much lately, but I picked one up the other morning and generated several ideas. I’m not quite there yet, but I’m close. It would be consistent with my previous behavior to start writing a new crop of songs just as this new record is getting ready to drop. No rest for the weary. Onward and upward!