Sunday, June 27, 2021

Front Porch Troubadour

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 in a variety of genres, often in basements and on front porches. Most of the musicians that I played with were far better than I, which I found is a good way to learn quickly. Back then, just as today, I played almost entirely by ear. When my friends and I played cover songs on the porch, I learned that singing in the periphery of passersby is a good first step in overcoming stagefright. In the winters, when it was cold, I wrote a lot of instrumental music and got my first real taste of multi-track digital recording. (Incidentally, I later wrote a song about all of this as though it was condensed into one summer.)

A few years later, when I lived in Chicago, 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 a Guinness-centric dive bar on the west side at which I played sometimes, where the mostly buzzed patrons were also quite kind to me. 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. (Long story made short: I was a medium-sized fish in the goddamn ocean.) 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 only on the notes that I produced with my guitar.

I also wrote about a dozen acoustic songs while I lived in LA, which I occasionally performed as a solo artist. 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), and of course, there is no shortage of exceptionally skilled musicians in the greater Los Angeles area. With these factors in mind, 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. We lived overseas for a couple of years (where I still played 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 proportionately verbose subtitles, making lesson plans for my students, or grading their 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. 

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. (That was back when we lived on the college side of town.) After a couple months of this, we decided that we might as well write some original stuff, so 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. Meanwhile, I continued to perform as a solo artist while I finished up my PhD. For a while there, my sets were composed entirely of cover songs. After about a year 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.

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. 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 have long believed in art above ego. On the other hand, I have 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 when I rehearse, if I'm not making stuff up as I go, then I'm usually 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 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, and the flow has been more or less steady ever since. 

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.  

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