Monday, May 6, 2024


I think it was around 2013 that I started making music with a friend of mine from grad school. Over the next year or so, we wrote about seven or eight songs together. I played acoustic guitar and wrote most of the music, while he sang and played some guitar as well. I was impressed by his skill at writing lyrics that seemed to fit so organically with my mostly pre-assembled riffs and chord progressions. He made it look easy. (Thanks, Nate.)
As was the case in pretty much every band I've ever played in, I was not the lead singer. As I am somewhat of an introvert in my personal life, I have typically been more comfortable in the background anyway. At the same time, I feel like I have learned from being the Garfunkel how to be a better Simon. I think that the best way to grow as a musician is to play with people who challenge and inspire you to get better. As Simon and Garfunkel would likely each tell you, but never in the same room together, ego just gets in the way.
Being the lead guy is a fairly new thing for me, but it's why my current musical project bears my name. For the first time, I've put myself at the center of my music. I like to think that it is more about perspective than it is about ego. Besides, at this point, I think most of the good band names have already been taken, and as much as I loathe advertising, I recognize that my name as it relates to my various creative, intellectual and professional ventures, is also kind of my brand. Perhaps I can one day use it to sell hot sauce.
After about a year of my friend and I making music together and performing our songs at the local pub, he graduated and moved to California, thus putting an end to our nascent band. RIP Autopilot. I was just starting to get back into the whole performative aspect of playing an instrument. The experience reminded me that sharing music is fun, but since I didn't think that anybody outside the vicinity of my front porch wanted to hear my one-man instrumental acoustic jams, I decided to learn some cover songs so that I could keep performing live on a regular basis. 
I had grown to rather enjoy the aspect of sharing music and wanted to continue as a solo artist, even though I hadn't written any songs for me to sing in over twelve years at that point. Crafting lyrics had been relegated to something that I used to do. Most of the writing that I did throughout this period was either screenplays or academic stuff. For all intents and purposes, I had ceased to think of myself as an aspiring lyricist.
The availability of tablature made it easy to learn a bunch of songs -- especially compared to those dark days when I had first started learning guitar by ear. Before long, I had a binder packed with printed lyrics and chord notations for about a hundred or so cover songs that I got to know pretty well. There were a lot of Counting Crows, Oasis, Van Morrison, Leonard Cohen, The Cure, The Violent Femmes, Pearl Jam, Bright Eyes, and a bunch of other random songs in there, an eclectic sampling of my various influences. 
Of those songs, I can still probably play about two verses worth of most of them before realizing that I don't remember the whole thing. That seems to be how it goes, anyway. They're all in there somewhere, but my ability to recall them is a bit rusty. Plus I don't listen to the original versions of these songs nearly as often as I used to.

After about a year of playing other people's material, I got kind of bored with it, so I started writing my own songs again. The catalyst was probably when I heard my [now ex-]wife listening to and singing along with one of our songs that my friend had written the lyrics to, and I thought about how cool it would be if she might want to sing my songs as well. Sadly, that never happened, but it inspired me to keep writing lyrics anyway. (So in a roundabout way, thanks again, Nate.)
Once I opened the floodgate, the ideas kept flowing. It turns out that I really enjoy songwriting. By 2017, I had three full albums worth of original music, and by 2021, I added another three albums to my repertoire. I am currently working on album number seven. Now the bonus challenge has become practicing all of these songs regularly enough to remember them. 
I very rarely play covers anymore, in large part because my own material keeps me plenty busy. If I do play cover songs, it's usually just in practice or fun, pretty much never in performances. It isn't that I have anything against playing other people's music; in fact, I have a lot of respect for people who can cover someone else's songs well. I just personally don't get the same enjoyment out of playing them as I do my own. 
I can connect with stuff that I wrote in ways that I cannot otherwise. I also don't feel compelled to make it sound like anything other than myself, which, frankly, is kind of liberating. It's hard to sing a Counting Crows song, for example, without feeling like I'm doing an impression of Adam Duritz. Plus if I mess up a lyric in one of my own songs, more than likely, I'm the only one who notices.  
Nonetheless, I attribute much of my proficiency as a songwriter to that year or so that I spent learning cover songs. They taught me to keep it simple, as it didn't take me long to realize that most of the tunes in my overstuffed binder were composed of only a handful of chords. Verse, chorus, and occasionally a bridge: that was all I really needed to make a song. Armed with this knowledge, I went on to write a lot of original material.
Admittedly, my playing style has simplified somewhat as a result. Part of that also has to do with the challenge of being able to sing my songs as I play them on guitar or piano, while also staying in rhythm. For most of the time that I have been playing music, performing vocals wasn't really part of the equation, and I've found that singing and playing an instrument is a lot more difficult than just playing in the background while someone else sings. For a while there, it was a pretty steep learning curve, but playing cover tunes certainly helped with this aspect as well.
My advice to anyone who is just now starting on guitar or some other instrument is to practice singing at the same time if you think that this is something that you might eventually want to do. To that end, I also recommend learning how to play a lot of existing songs that you enjoy, as this will help you to develop a sense of what it takes to craft a catchy song. Do that until you get bored, and then, if you so desire, apply the lessons learned to developing your own original material. Or just keep playing cover songs. It's all good. Music is a journey that may take you to some unexpected places. 

Thank you to all of the people who dedicate even a portion of your lives to making music, including all of the great cover bands out there. I am of the opinion that every town needs at least one band who can play the songs that everybody knows. 
Music is meant to be shared, and doing so makes the world a better place.  

* EDIT: I just spent most of the evening playing cover songs in my living room. That was a hell of a lot of fun. I remembered more of these songs than I thought I would.

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