Friday, January 7, 2022

Front Porch Troubadour

[Lately, I've been reposting old articles that I have polished up a bit, as I am actively engaged in other projects. This is one of my longer posts, an autobiographical tale of a musician-in-progress. There may be something to glean from it, but I might be too close to the material to know for sure. In any case, thank you for reading. If you like my work, please share it with others.]

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For most of the time that I have been playing music, I was not writing lyrics. My first band was a two-piece instrumental noise group in Grand Rapids, Michigan where we both played electric guitar. We were loud. Our album/set consisted of three acts, the second of which could be best described as structured chaos. I ran an AM radio through an effects processor and incorporated the mostly indistinghishable voices of talking heads into the music. It was very avant garde. Alas, the world may not have been ready for it.

Around this time, I also jammed with a lot of different people who played a lot of different styles of music. Most of these musicians were far better than I, but I learned to keep up and found this to be an effective way to learn an instrument. As they say, I faked it until I made it. Jam sessions generally took place in basements or on front porches. Back then, just as today, I played almost entirely by ear. 

When my friends and I played acoustic cover songs on the porch, I learned that singing in the periphery of passersby is a good first step in overcoming stagefright. Nobody ever yelled at us, anyway, at least not what we could hear. In the winters, when it was too cold for front porches and Michigan basements, I wrote a lot of instrumental music and got my first real taste of multi-track digital recording. I later wrote a song about all of this that condenses it into one summer.

Then I moved to Chicago, where I started writing lyrics and playing acoustic guitar in front of small audiences. On Tuesdays, I often performed at open mic night at a predominantly lesbian bar down the street from where I lived. It was always a good crowd, especially considering how bad I probably was at the time. It took practice for me to gain some level of comfort at being the center of attention in a crowded room, but the audience at this place was always welcoming and receptive, despite my awkwardness behind the microphone. There was also an Irish-style dive bar on the west side that I performed at sometimes, where the patrons were quite kind to me as well. The later I went on stage, the better my set was usually received. Guinness: it's what's for dinner.

When I graduated from film school, I moved to Los Angeles, where I played in a three-piece band while trying to gain some semblance of success in the motion picture industry. I played electric guitar, while the singer/lyricist also played harmonium, and we had a creative drummer who could pound a steady beat out of a suitcase or just about anything else. We played a few small shows here and there, but mostly, we made the apartment building where we all lived on different floors sound like music on a fairly regular basis. The tenants were all artists of various persuasions, so nobody ever seemed to mind. When we played shows, I mostly kept to the background, focusing on the notes that I produced with my Stratocaster.

I also wrote about a dozen acoustic songs with lyrics while I lived in LA, which I occasionally performed as a solo artist. I do not remember how to play any of them, as the songs were pretty forgettable. In my experience, open mics in Los Angeles are kind of weird. There are so many people who desperately want the exposure, thinking there might be a talent scout or whatever in the audience. Plus, of course, there is no shortage of exceptionally skilled musicians in the greater Los Angeles area. As a result, performers often had to sign up a week in advance and were usually limited to sets consisting of a single song each--so it had to be good, especially if they ever wanted to perform there again. It was a good exercise in working under pressure.

After I left LA, I got involved in a lot of other things. I directed a no-budget feature-length documentary. I started a family. I went to grad school--twice, in fact. We lived overseas for a couple of years on opposite ends of the world, where I continued to play guitar but seldom performed. When not pursuing advanced degrees, I usually wrote one or two screenplays per year, which more or less satisfied my creative itch when it came to wordsmithing. Songwriting fell to the wayside. 

While I was working on my MA and my PhD, though, I didn't have time for any big creative projects, so I tried to at least keep Fridays open as my music days. It was part of an overall strategy to compartmentalize the various facets of my life, which was rather hectic at the time. Every other day of the week, I was either reading dense academic literature, writing lengthy analytical papers with subtitles introduced by colons, making lesson plans for my students, or grading their weekly homework. Plus, as you may know, having a family requires a certain degree of time and energy as well, and as they say, kids are only young once. It was a lot to balance out. Whenever the house was quiet, I was usually reading.

For a while during my time in the doctoral program, a friend of mine and I got together once or twice a week to play acoustic guitar on my front porch. After a couple months of jamming and playing songs written by other people, we decided that we might as well come up with some original stuff. I wrote most of the music and he wrote the lyrics, which he would then sing. Once we had a reasonable setlist, we played at a couple of local venues regularly and continued to rock out on my porch every Friday, as well as an occasional Wednesday if the weather was decent.

We wrote about six or seven songs together. Then he graduated, got married, and moved to California. I'm sure there's a song in there somewhere, if John Mellencamp hasn't already written it. Meanwhile, I continued to perform as a solo artist while I finished up my PhD, usually about once a month, except when it was too cold to ride my bike. For a while there, my sets were made up entirely of cover songs. 

After about a year or so of this, I started to get a little sick of playing other people's music, so I went back to writing songs, but with my own lyrics this time. At this point, I had also begun working on my dissertation, and making music provided a good balance to what I would consider to be the exact opposite kind of writing. One has to be vague enough to be emotionally relatable, while the other has to be supported by factual evidence and laser-focused in terms of spefificity. 

When I resumed songwriting in late 2015, it had been over ten years since I had crafted a song for myself to sing. I think the first one out of the floodgate was Gravel Roads, on my 2017 album Weather Patterns. This song still makes almost every setlist, whether I'm performing or practicing. It's quite fun to play and an excellent way to warm up.

This may not come as a surprise to anyone, but I've never really thought of myself as a singer. In the back of my mind, I've always figured that if Bob Dylan can do it, then anybody can. Seriously. I enjoy writing lyrics and expressing those words with my own musical accompaniment, and so I sing. It's that simple. I would even say that I like songwriting more than performing, as weird as that probably sounds. I attribute this to my INFJ personality type. Art above ego.

This is not to say that I haven't grown to rather enjoy the immediate gratification that one gets from playing a song in front of people who seem to genuinely appreciate it. Over the years, I think my voice has gotten a little bit better, too, but only because I practice just about every day. At this point, I can sing all of my own songs spot on, which is all I really care about. If people don't like the untrained timbre of my voice, I'm ok with that.

I do still play cover songs from time to time, but usually just on piano. When I rehearse, if I'm not making stuff up as I go, then I'm most likely playing my own songs that I have already written. Sometimes I like to mix it up and use different instruments than those which I originally wrote these songs on, if only as a fun mental exercise. For what it's worth, Dandelion Wine (If Only...) sounds pretty cool on piano, even though there isn't any keyboard at all in the recording of it.  

Not that I need to justify why I write lyrics, but I thought that I would walk you down the path that took me here. I have been playing music for many years, but for most of that time, the only writing that I did involved other projects that had nothing to do with music. At various points in my life, I have come back to writing my own songs and lyrics, most recently about five and a half years ago, when I asked myself, "Why not?" and couldn't come up with a reasonable answer. 

Since then, I have released six albums of original music: sixty-four complete songs with lyrics, plus one instrumental track. Once the floodgates were open, I discovered a whole reservoir of material that I had accumulated from years of practicing, while inspiration continues to abound. The flow has been more or less steady ever since, and I find that singing my own songs is a rewarding exercise for the body, mind and soul. 

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Thanks for listening to my music and reading my blog. If you dig what I'm doing, please share it. Thank you for supporting independent art.  

Monday, December 20, 2021

Capo Crunch

I only started using a capo on a regular basis about ten years ago, when I lived on a small tropical island that gets among the most rainfall of anywhere on earth. Rarely did a day pass without a tremendous downpour, after which the air became steamy as the equatorial sun pulled the moisture back up to the clouds. Rinse and repeat. 

Most of the time, I couldn't tell if I was sweating or if the air was just sticking to me, but it was probably both. In the afternoon, the temperature would reach 86°F or so, and at night, it got down to about 72°F. Sunrise and sunset were at the same time all year. 

Rats played the roles of squirrels as they scurried along the power lines, while smiling geckos scouted for ants from the living room walls. The steering wheel of my car was on the right side, which is also the side of the road that they drive on. Cheese was virtually nonexistent, but the fresh fish was incredible.

What does this have to do with a capo, you ask?  

The only guitar that I brought to Micronesia was my acoustic/electric. It was all that I could carry on an airplane. I quickly learned that between the heat and the humidity, the climate in this place is not kind to musical instruments. Guitar strings corroded within a day or two, and the fretboard absorbed a lot of moisture from the air. Within a few months, the neck had started to noticeably bow. 

I did not think to bring a truss rod wrench, nor did I really want to make any major adjustments to my guitar in this environment--so to compensate for the intonation being off, I started using a capo. Prior to this, it mostly just took up space in my guitar case, along with an old sock, a string winder and a bottle slide. 

Many of the songs that would later find their way onto my albums, particularly those that use a capo, started as riffs and chord progressions that I played on the back porch during the year that I lived on the island of Pohnpei. Examples include:

    Tunnel Vision (Out of Habit) from Embers (capo on the fourth fret - DADF#BE tuning)
    
    Wake Up! and Signs from Mechanical Bull (capo on the first and sixth frets, respectively)
    
        and
    
   Particle from Weather Patterns (capo on the fourth fret).

I'm sure there were others, but you get the idea. In most cases, it would be another six to ten years before I turned any of these "practice riffs" into fully realized songs. At the time, I wasn't really thinking about writing music. With no cell phones or televisions, where the electricity came by way of enormous diesel generators, playing guitar behind the house was just something to do. I kind of miss it sometimes.

By the time I left Micronesia, the pickguard on my guitar had almost completely slid off. Upon returning to the US, I had to take it off the rest of the way and then glue it back on, as well as make some significant adjustments with the truss rod. That said, I'm happy to report that the guitar still works perfectly fine. It is adventure-seasoned and well-traveled. I still use a capo quite a bit in my songwriting, too.

I guess if there's a point to any of this, it's that when I changed how I approached the instrument in order to adapt to this different environment, I came up with a bunch of stuff that sounded cool to me, which later became songs.
    
Change in Environment-> Learning to Adapt -> Finding Inspiration in the Unfamiliar -> Writing Lyrics to Fit the Music

Thus a song is born.

Friday, December 17, 2021

Greatest Hits

Happy Friday to my fans, casual listeners and random stumblers upon this site.

Today's songs that I would like to share with you are my personal favorites from each of my albums. Click on the song titles to open them in Spotify or click on the embedded links to play them through YouTube. If you use a different streaming service, you should be able to find these songs there as well.

Track one comes from my most recent album, Petrichor (2021). It's called Dandelion Wine (If Only...):


From Embers (2021), here is We Are All That We Need:


Track three of today's selections comes from Better Days (2019). It's called Be Civilized:


From Good Night, Fahrenheit (2017), this next song is called Modern Inconveniences:


Track number five comes from Mechanical Bull (2017) and is called Screen Memories:


Finally, from Weather Patterns (2017), here is a song called Gravel Roads:


Thank you for listening and for supporting independent art. If you like what I'm doing, please share it with others.


Monday, December 6, 2021

The Art of Happiness

On a personal note, this past year and a half or so has been kind of rough. I'm sure that a lot of you can relate to some degree. 

Entropy, from Better Days (2019):


    In this state of entropy
    Empathy is everything
    In someone else's shoes
    Would you choose the same...?

Back in July of 2020, my dad died unexpectedly of a heart attack. Not long after that, my mom got sick with covid. By the time she recovered, due to the pandemic, my job teaching English and tutoring students in the writing center at a community college had essentially dissolved. This, in turn, may have contributed to my marriage of sixteen years falling apart, which left me little choice but to move back to the place where I grew up and have spent most of my adult life trying to get away from. I now live over two hundred miles away from my two kids, whom I miss dearly. 


   

    Wherever you are, I hope you hear me
    Wherever you are, I want you near me
    I'm sending you a life preserver
    Put it on, kid. You deserve it... 

Haunted, from Petrichor (2021):


    Is it everything you wanted?
    Is it everything you hoped it would be?
    Because this old house is feeling haunted
    By the ghosts of memory...

Music and writing are what gets me through it. While I generally try to not conflate art with therapy, sometimes these things do overlap. 

Quicksand, from Embers (2021):


    I don't expect you to understand
    How it feels to be swimming in quicksand...



    Don't forget who you are
    Is unforgettable to me
    Your eyes are lit up like the stars
    And only you know what they see
   
     Share your mind, share your heart
    And let yourself be free
    Because only you know who you are
    And all the possibilities...
    
Since the pandemic began, I finished and fully revised the novel that I had started writing back in January of 2020. Coincidentally, it's about an event that disrupts and transforms the lives of all Americans, causing a sudden reevaluation of our priorites. Sometimes life only makes sense when you step back and look at the big picture, and sometimes it takes years for this to happen.



    I know you wonder what might have been
    If you had taken the other road instead
    But you know it's only in your head
    
    It takes a lifetime to get it right
    And only sometimes do we recognize
    It takes a lifetime, takes a lifetime...

I also recorded two albums this year, the first of which I began writing back in late autumn of 2020. Embers is essentially about trying to save my marriage and find meaning in existence, while Petrichor is largely about accepting what I can and cannot control. 

Original Miles, from Embers (2021):
 

    Take me as I come
    Because this is who I am
    I'm not fooling anyone
    I don't even think that I can...

Wasted, from Petrichor (2021):


    It's not what you anticipated
    I know it's always complicated
    But everyone would be so devistated
    Another day, another night, another life is wasted...

As I mentioned in a previous post, I haven't played an actual show since before the pandemic began. Now that I'm back to living in the very small town where I grew up, I don't even know where I would perform if I wanted to. I still practice, and I've toyed with the idea of writing another album, but my priority right now is in finding a viable way forward from my present situation. I certainly never expected to be here now. 

Holiday, from Petrichor (2021):


    Restless again at two a.m.
    Trying to dream
    Myself away to another place
    Where everything is as it seems...  



    Where do we go from here?
    It could be anywhere
    We don't know where we're going
    Until we get there...

That said, my mom appreciates the help around the farm, and I am thankful for the time that I get to spend with her, especially since it's time that I never really got with my dad. Besides, who knows where I'll be living after this? Being here is also kind of therapeutic in its own way, an opportunity to recharge for whatever comes next. Life is precious, and it's easy to take the things we have for granted. Right now, I'm just trying to make the most of what I've got, one day at a time, while trying to create and pursue new opportunities to look forward to.



    Got my life, and it's ok
    It will be brighter another day
    Can't blame the rain or curse the night
    It will change again by morning light...
 
It's also nice to be reminded that I have friends who care about me. When I lived in Ohio, most of my friends were in the graduate program with me and have since moved on to better things. I had expected to be there for five years and ended up staying for about nine, in what was unquestionably my least favorite place that I have ever lived. In the end, it got kind of lonely, while being quarantined and unemployed certainly didn't help. 



    You and I are drifting by like contrails
    Parallel lines through the sky, don't know where
    Don't know why, that's just life and all it entails...

Signs, from Mechanical Bull (2017):


    Home is a house in the dark
    The rough stone that makes you sharp
    Don't let it fall apart
    Don't want to go back to the start...

I am sharing all of this with you not only as a means of self-therapy, but with the hope that you might get something from it as well. Fundamentally, I think the most important thing we can do is to see to it that the world is better off because we're in it, whatever that means. Our contributions do not need to be gradiose in order to be significant. 

Better Days, from Better Days (2019):


    So make today a better day any way that you can
    Make today a better day like only you can
    And we'll keep making our own better days
    Isn't it just like fate to change...?

To everyone who is reading this, I wish you the best. I believe in the beauty of the soul, and that art and love are its greatest forms of expression. That in mind, I hope you will find the beauty within yourself and share it with others, whether through a song, some other work of art, or a simple act of kindness. 



    It seems to me
    That life could be
    So simple....

Love. Create. Find happiness wherever you can, and try not to take it for granted.

If you like what I'm doing, please share it, add my music to your playlists and follow me wherever you listen. This is how it spreads, and I can't do it without you. 

As always, thank you for supporting independent art. 

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[Here are all fifteen of today's songs in a Spotify playlist:]



  

Monday, November 22, 2021

Blog-jamming

Other than the time a couple of months ago that I played a few songs for my friend and his two kids, I have not played a live show since before the pandemic. In an effort to help rectify this, I played a set of original music in the back room of my mom's house the other day. These are all stripped-down acoustic versions of fifteen songs spanning all six of my self-produced albums that I have released in the past five years:


I hope you like it. If you do, please share it. Thanks for listening. 

[Note: I am not left-handed, nor does South America look like that. I thought that I could correct the mirror effect on my phone's front-facing lens after I uploaded it to YouTube, but this was not the case.]