Thursday, August 26, 2021

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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