The Importance of Making Demos

When I thought about demos, I used to imagine a shittier version of the final song: badly recorded, unedited, and with a sub-par performance.  I used to label tracks “demo” when they weren’t up to snuff.  It was never planned; f I was embarrassed to share something I made, I used “demo” as a qualifier, thereby excusing all mistakes.

Nowadays I have a better grasp of what a demo is.  It’s a rough take of the  finished song, not intended as a final product, but a necessary step in the creative process.  All the essential elements are there, and the arrangement is done (to the best of your ability).  When you listen to the demo, you’ll hear how all the parts work (or don’t work).  You’ll discover what sections feel too long or too short, if the drums are meshing with your guitar, if there’s enough contrast from verse to chorus, if the bass guitar is boring, or any number of issues.  

There are some things you simply won’t know until you hear them in context.  These are changes you want to identify before final tracking.  When making a demo, you’re not concerned with guitar tones, what the best mic is, getting great takes to edit, or editing at all.  Your goal is to get the idea down, have it sound good enough, and learn from it.  How will the final song sound?  Once you have a better vision of what the song is about, going into the studio is fun because you know exactly what you’re going to do.  It takes a load off your mind, and then you can spend more time experimenting with tone, knowing you won’t need to come back and re-record.  

Even if the song is just guitar and vocals, I still recommend making a demo.  You’ll be surprised at what you hear when it’s playing back.  It’s counter intuitive, but while you’re playing you don’t notice everything, and the demo can reveal what to fix.

I’ve recorded songs with and without demoing first, and I highly recommend it.  There’s always the occasion where my original demo was spot on and I don’t need to change anything, but that’s usually not the case.  Most of my demos have been pretty bare bones, but I’ve found that the better the demo, the more you learn from it.  That being said, don’t be a perfectionist.  Make the demo, make it pretty good, and move on.  Keep finishing.

Spring (2019) – Semester Wrap-up.

This semester I took Songwriting II, Musicianship II, Practicum in Music Industry, private guitar lessons, and Concert Attendance.  I had a lot more on my plate this time around, but I only had to commute to school two days a week.

Songwriting II was my favorite class.  We learned mixing techniques, made demos,  and got lots of feedback.  Class was split pretty equally between the classroom and the studio; the main way we learned was from our own projects.  A student would bring something in and we would learn to edit, track, or mix whatever it was.  I found it helpful because a lot of what I learned was stuff I didn’t know I was doing wrong.  For instance, when recording bass, you want the initial sound to be kind of thin and not have a lot of low-end.  The reason is that it’s easy to add bass frequencies later, but more difficult to take them out, and once you start taking frequencies out it messes with the tone you had going in.  These are things you wouldn’t know unless someone told you.

Musicianship II was an ear training and sight singing class.  We learned to sight sing solfege in major, minor, melodic minor, and harmonic minor.  If you don’t know what solfege is, it’s a system of syllables relating to scale degrees.  You’ve probably heard this song from the Sound of Music that explains it.  Class was okay, but our time wasn’t utilized all that well.  It felt like we didn’t have a lot to go through, so about half the class was the teacher joking around.  I’m not criticizing him necessarily, we were well prepared for finals and all that, it’s just that the curriculum wasn’t demanding so we had time to kill.  The most useful part for me was getting a better understanding of modes and how to use them.

Practicum in Music Industry was like a weekly TED talk.  My professor was always enthusiastic; he talked about current trends, music news, and volunteer opportunities.  He is a firecracker of optimism, and has the stories to back it.  He’s worked with Prince and has taught countless successful students, so his fervor is earned.  This class wasn’t hard, but it was uplifting and I looked forward to it.  The only assignments we had was to usher two times, and volunteer for 16 hours.  The volunteering could be done with more ushering or with other music events.

My private lessons were all right.  Not very challenging, but still useful.  Concert Attendance was kind of a hassle to get done, but that’s mainly because I live out of town.  All in all, a pretty good semester.  Here’s my final EP for Songwriting II.

I’m having a bit of an identity crisis with my music, so I decided to write two electronic songs and two singer-songwriter tracks.  I’m happy with how these turned out, but since this was finished around the same time as Chasing Ghosts, I haven’t been promoting it.  These songs are more about exploring sounds and finding out what I want to be musically, whereas Chasing Ghosts was a defined statement.  That being said, I like these songs, and I’m happy to share my journey through them.  I titled it Mankato Tapes, Vol. 1, and I plan on making successive volumes.

 

Luke Smith – Chasing Ghosts (New EP!)

When compiling songs for this EP, I wasn’t only looking for songs I liked.  I wanted the songs to have a central theme.  I’ve said before that albums are like a time-stamp of when they’re made, and I wanted to document a lot of the positive change that’s been happening to me over the last two years.  Together, these songs chronicle positive experiences and lessons from a specific time in my life.

Originally, I had a picture of just the piano and guitar for my album art, but for the final version I added the ferret.  Why a ferret?  Well, my previous CD had a picture of a dog on it, which was based on this picture of my friend’s dog smiling at the camera while I performed.

infamous dog picFade Away - FRONT

One of my other friends owns ferrets, and she always said I should put her ferret on an album.  I wasn’t going to initially, but since she’s moved back to town, she’s been to just about every one of my shows, so she’s earned it.  I’m actually really happy with how it turned out.  Her ferrets are pretty photogenic, and they even have an Instagram.

FerretModelsCroppedChasing-Ghosts-bandcamp (1)

My previous EP was professionally printed using Copycats, a media duplication company in Minneapolis, but this time around I decided to go the home-made route.  I burned the CDs from my laptop, and for the artwork I used this company called Avery.  They allow you to upload your design onto their template, and with their custom printing paper I made CD stickers and CD inserts.  This was perfect for me because I knew that most people wouldn’t buy CDs, but a few people would love them.  I could accommodate those few without having to order a lot of product I didn’t need, and I can always make more later.

This is my third independently released singer-songwriter EP, and I’m always trying to improve.  I had these songs professionally mastered by a friend of mine, and distributed through CDBaby.  That means they are available on Spotify and iTunes as well.  I hope you enjoy this.

All songs written, produced, and performed by Luke Smith.
Mastered by Anssi Tenhunen.
Artwork by Phillip Lasfroh.

Dave Simonett (of Trampled by Turtles) came to my school!

If you’re savvy to Minnesota music, chances are you’ve heard of Trampled by Turtles.  Hailing from Duluth, this blue-grass and folk band has released 8 albums and 7 music videos. They’ve played countless festivals, performed on David Letterman (twice), and held a Top 10 spot on the bluegrass charts for 52 weeks.  David Simonett, guitarist and vocalist for the group, visited MSU Mankato and sat down with some classes.

I hadn’t heard of Martin Zellar before he came to school, but I’ve been a Trampled by Turtles fan for awhile now.  I forget when I first came across them, but I remember “Wait So Long” being their smash at the time, so it was after 2010.  I’m mostly familiar with their work after Palomino, my favorite album being Stars and Satellites.

I was fortunate to get one of my songs played for Simonett.  This version is pretty bare, but I’m planning on adding more instrumentation.

Simonett liked it!  He said I have a “beautiful, unique voice.”  I could hardly believe getting that kind of praise from someone who’s made multiple albums that I own.  It felt great.  He had kind things to say about my classmates, too.  I guess we’re a pretty talented bunch.

Unfortunately, Dave Simonett’s concert for the Minnesota Story Tellers Series sold out, so I wasn’t able to attend, but I can offer some insights he shared in class.  One thing I found interesting was what he said about collaboration: “I’m limited by my own imagination… Get someone else in there.”  I’ve talked about the importance of collaboration before, but I never thought of myself as being restricted when I write alone.  He talked a lot about the importance of other people’s input.

When asked how often he plays shows with bluegrass bands, he said, “Almost never.”  That came as a surprise.  I assumed that most shows or festivals they play would be very genre-specific.  He said, “We spent most of our time touring with friends, because we have more fun with friends.”  That ties in well with the theme of community championed by my teachers.  Who do people want to work with?  Not the most talented or the most similar, but people they get along with.

Although I only saw him for the one class, Dave Simonett attended several, played a show at the performing arts building, and was part of Minnesota Story Tellers where he spoke about his songwriting process.  This was really cool and informative.  I hope we host more artists in the future.

Are You Too Old to Make Music?

  It’s pretty common for people to believe that there’s a time limit when it comes to making art.  “If you haven’t done it by x, then it’s not gonna happen,” as if these things had expiration dates like milk or something.  We romanticize the past, particularly when it comes to what we didn’t do that we should have.  It’s painful.  Rather than cut our losses and do it now, we believe in a magical time that no longer exists.  “Well, it’s too late.”

I’m not talking about “making it” in music, but that could be a separate discussion.  I’m talking about someone who wanted to play guitar, write, or draw their whole life but never took the chance.  They were too scared or too busy to start, and now they’ve reached a point in their life where (in their minds) it’s too late.

When I was 26, I started piano lessons.  All my brothers took lessons when they were younger but I never did.  I could’ve gotten a book for “older beginners,” but I picked up a kid’s book instead.  It was filled with cartoons and short pieces like “Let’s Go to a Party” and “Dinosaur Stomp.”  It was pretty fun, actually.  I definitely wasn’t too old, but you might be wondering about someone who’s older.  We’ll imagine they’ve never played an instrument before and today is their first lesson.  They’d have to learn their notes, practice fingerings, and talk about boring stuff like tuning and posture.  It can be daunting to begin and the slow process is why so many quit.

Adults haven’t had to deal with the growing pains of learning a new skill in a long time.  They’re used to being capable, so to fumble over a piece of music intended to teach children can feel embarrassing.  Who wants to struggle at something most people master at twelve?  That being said, it’s absolutely worth the trouble, and I believe anyone who’s physically able to, regardless of age, can be creative.  As Kurt Vonnegut famously said, “To practice any art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow.  So do it.”

My advice for the older beginner is to put in the work, and be humble.  No matter your age, it’s not too late.

 

 

 

Small Town Vs. Big City

When people talk about getting into the arts, there’s usually a few cities that come up.  Los Angeles, Nashville, New York.  Big cities, vibrant cities, cities with people who are great at what you want to be great at.  My field is music, but this applies to all art forms.  A big city has a lot to offer, but do the pros outweigh the cons?  We talked about this in class and I thought it would be a great topic to blog.  My own experiences are limited, but I’ll share some observations.

The most obvious advantage of the small town is the cost of living.  Food, drinks, and entertainment are all more expensive in a big city.  Not to mention having to pay for parking, and spending more on gas because places are spread out.  In Minneapolis (population 422,331), a studio apartment will cost you around $900 a month.  Meanwhile, in Mankato (population 39,528) you can rent a one bedroom apartment for as low as $350.  Minneapolis has a price tag, but it also has something Mankato does not.

The most obvious advantage of the big city is the culture.  Music, art, restaurants, venues, and people.  More people = more culture, as the saying goes.  Well, no one says that, but it’s true.  (Not everything that’s true sounds snappy when you say it).  On any given night there’s a concert, art event, comedy show, or something going on.  There’s like infinity bands and a million places to play.  When I lived in Saint Paul, I used to walk by the Amsterdam Bar & Hall on my way home.  I heard new bands all the time.  It was exciting!  My time in Saint Paul was short, but there was always a show.

Deciding where to live is a balancing act of the cost vs. opportunities.  This isn’t a perfect scale, but it’s relatively safe to say that the more opportunities a city has, the higher the cost.  That being said, if you move to a big city you need to take advantage of it; it’s not enough to just live there.  Sure, you can spend over a thousand on rent and live downtown in a cool area, but that means nothing if you’re not actually getting out and going to shows.  What’s the point if you’re not engaging?  I feel like a lot of people move to LA without knowing why they moved to LA.  There’s a lot to be said for someone who lives where it’s cheap and commutes to events.  I’m not saying that’s right for everyone, but it’s an option worth exploring.

The question of where to live, like a lot of questions I ask, has different answers for everyone.  It depends on what your goals are, and what you need to do to accomplish them.  Answering for myself, I’m trying to be a small town hero, at least for now.  I love the sense of community and the low risk factor.  I want to build an audience here before I cut my teeth elsewhere.

Rhythmic Conflict

I had the opportunity to share one of my songs in class and have it critiqued.  The song was pretty much done; I just needed to re-track the vocals, add some layers, and finish mixing.

As soon as he pressed play, my teacher noticed some issues that I hadn’t.  The acoustic guitar and drums were not vibing.  Everything was performed on time, but they had opposing feels.  Basically, I had written a guitar part without drums in mind, and when drums were added they didn’t fit.  Rather than change the rhythm of the guitar to be more drum friendly, I just dumped drums in.  (I could also have changed the drums to accommodate my guitar, but at the time I didn’t notice the issue).

This is common for singer-songwriters.  We outline a song with guitar and vocals, and just add everything else on top.  Sometimes it works, but sometimes it doesn’t.  What do you do if you like the drum part, but it isn’t working with your guitar?  You change the guitar part!  As obvious as this sounds, it’s never something I try.  I tend to be attached to the first iteration of a song, and changing strum patterns or rhythms isn’t even considered.

You might think of the acoustic guitar and vocal version of your track as the main dish, whereas other instruments (bass, drums, synth pad) are seasoning, but that’s not the case.  The song is the sum of the parts.  All the parts have to play together nicely, and if they don’t, they have to be changed or removed.   Just because a part is cool by itself doesn’t mean it’s right for the song.  How does it sound in context?

If you’re writing a song and you know you want to add drums later, write with drums in mind.  Just like with mixing, you want to be thinking ahead to the next step.  My teacher said, “Writing is mastering.”  If you wrote a song without drums in mind, but later decided to add drums (like I did), be flexible about changing parts.  The part doesn’t necessarily need to be changed, but if it does be open to it.  It’s all about what’s best for the song.

Here is the second version of my song.  I didn’t have time to re-record the guitar before it was due, so I opted to change the drums.

It’s not there yet, but it’s better.  I’m finding out that the more I write, the more I learn.  I’m always uncovering these issues that I didn’t even know I had.  For my next song, I’m going to write with percussion in mind.

MSU Mankato, Songwriter Showcase. Spring Semester, 2019.

On April 2nd, MSU Mankato’s department of Music hosted a songwriter showcase.  It took place at the Halling Recital Hall of the Earley Center for Performing Arts and featured five songwriters.  I had gone to the last showcase in October, and was impressed by the talent.  This year was even better, and I want to share the music with you.

Starting out the night was Alec John and the Sky Surfers, an Indie Surf band.  Their brand of surf rock is mellow and groovy, with influences like Hippo Campus.  They wear bright Hawaiian shirts and perform shoeless.  They’re the kind of band you want to hear outdoors on a nice day, beer in hand.

After that, solo performer, Noah Battles, took the stage armed with an acoustic guitar and a loop pedal.  His voice is mellow and fits well with his folk rock playing.  His style is similar to Neil Young.  Using his loop pedal, Noah peppered in some solos.  The guy can play.

Brandon and the Clubs is a solo pop artist in the style of Lady GaGa.  Brandon dresses in sparkling clothing, and performs with backing tracks.  He is one of those performers who is fearless onstage: dancing and interacting with the audience.  His songs are about self love and acceptance.  He didn’t play this, but his song “Love Club” is really catchy.

Second to last was Anastasia Ellis who took her place at the piano.  Ana writes lyrical pop music and is influenced by Rhianna.  She performed two songs from her new album, Love & Attention.  They were both emotional and raw, in particular her song “Battered Skin.”

Matt Ruff closed out the night.  He plays piano and has a powerful voice, with songs reminiscent of Sam Smith.  Like Ana, his music is emotional and full of stories.  He absolutely kills it at singing, and can play a mean piano, too.  Overall, a great night of music.

I realize this is different from my normal posts, but I’m trying to get away from my blog being all about me and my thoughts.  There’s a lot of great music happening locally that I want to highlight and share.  Please check out any of the above artists that catch your fancy.  You might be surprised at what you hear.

MSU Mankato, Minnesota Storytellers: Martin Zellar.

I hadn’t heard of Martin Zellar before he came to school, but I got a brief history lesson from my teachers.  In the 80’s Minnesota rock was starting to gain mainstream attention.  Zellar was the frontman for the Gear Daddies, a band that rose to fame among the likes of Hüsker Dü, and the Replacements.  At the time, Minneapolis was hot.

After three studio albums, a performance on David Letterman, and three years of touring, the Gear Daddies peacefully broke up.  Zellar started playing with a new group, Martin Zellar and the Hardways.  They released their first album in 1994, and have been together ever since.  Zellar has enjoyed a long lasting career, and a loyal Minnesota fan base.  He sat down with my Songwriting II class, listened to our songs, and shared some words of wisdom.

Zellar was very complimentary; he said the songs were fantastic.  There’s a lot of talent in our class, and it was cool to hear that validated by a successful songwriter.  He said that what a lot of my classmates got right, was having a memorable chorus he could sing back.  Zellar’s own music is defined by story telling, and he talked about the importance of being a good listener.  He said that a lot of his songs come from stories others told him.

For the first Minnesota Storytellers, Martin Zellar and the Hardways took the stage at the Earley Center for Performing Arts.  They had two acoustic guitars, a bass (played by Zellar’s son), and a drummer who mostly used brushes. Zellar sang lead, and the drummer occasionally harmonized.  They played their brand of country and rock, old songs and new.  I am only recently familiar with his repertoire, but I was happy to hear “Stupid Boy,” and “Wear Your Crown.”  They did not play that damn zamboni song, which was fine by me.

Every two songs or so, Professor LeGere would come onstage and ask questions.  They talked about breaking from a small town, and the importance of their Minnesota community.  Zellar said that some Minnesota bands were kicking down doors and his band could kind of sneak in behind them.  When the Minnesota rock sound was hot, labels were sending out A&R guys just to find their own Minnesota band.  The community had defined a sound, and everyone wanted a piece of it.

Zellar is definitely a story teller.  He gave quite a bit of backstory between songs, and told us about his time with the Gear Daddies.  My favorite was when LeGere asked if they had any “debaucherous tour stories,” and they talked about playing at Carleton College and throwing a tray of food against the wall, making a mess.  They felt so bad about it they cleaned it up themselves.  “We’re just nice Minnesota boys,” Zellar said.   It was also funny to hear that when their label was called about them performing on Letterman, the head of promotions had never heard of them.  Overall, this was a pretty cool event, and I look forward to the next one.

First Do It Badly

Lots of people are afraid to start something on the grounds they won’t be any good.  I’m that way.  We’re usually right about it too, but the problem is that if you don’t start you won’t get any better.  There’s a quote attributed to Carl Jung (I couldn’t find the source), “The fool is the precursor to the savior.” If you’re not willing to be bad, you’ll never be great.

You have to be willing to fail until you succeed.  That’s all that practice really is.  I’m taking piano lessons right now, and when I’m learning a new piece, it can be excruciating.  Before I can play the song well, I have to sit there for hours and play it terribly.  I fumble over rhythms, hit the wrong notes, forget to take my foot off the pedal, and lose my place in the music.  That’s after practicing both hands separately.  I trip, stumble, and fail my way through.  And then I do it again, but this time it’s a tiny bit better.  I continue that process 20 or 30 times, and eventually, I can play it.

When talking to students hesitant to begin writing, Jordan Peterson tells them to “Write a really bad first draft.”  That gives them something to edit.  Once it’s out in the world, the problems are no longer theoretical.  They learn exactly what they are, and that makes them easier to fix.  Keeping ideas inside and worrying about them is death.  I’ve wasted a ton of time worrying about how I’m going to write songs, rather than just writing songs.  Once I’m doing the work, my objectives are clear.

I’m trying to have a healthier relationship with failure; by all accounts the arts involve a lot of rejection.  My teachers have been recently pushing the importance of content creation, even if it’s bad.  That’s harder than it sounds.  You think it’d be easy to just write something and not care too much, but it takes practice.  The issue is that once you have an inkling of interest in what you’re doing, it becomes a little bit precious, and that impedes the finishing process.  At any given time, I have two or three ideas that I really like, that I want to flesh out and perfect.  I’ll start a new song from scratch, a project with less at stake, but pretty soon that becomes precious, too.

Allowing ourselves the practice we need will help.  That’s why I’m learning to create on a schedule.  I’ve been been trying to release a video every week.  My first video took me the longest.  I had to decide where best to shoot it, how to get the lighting right, where to place my mic, and how to edit the video and audio together.  It’s been getting easier and faster every time.  It’s helped me realize how I look while performing, which isn’t something I normally think about.

Adventure Time’s Jake the Dog, puts it like this, “Sucking at something is the first step towards being sorta good at something.”  Getting over the initial cringe of sucking is paramount, because it comes up again and again.  Every new piece of music, technique, or exercise, if it’s helpful, will have growing pains.  I remember taking guitar lessons at McNally Smith and my teacher gave me a difficult exercise saying, “This is going to make you feel like you can’t play guitar.” Eventually I want to get into making more elaborate videos; I can tell you right now that my first few aren’t going to be great, but they will give me an education I can’t get anywhere else.  Don’t be afraid to suck!

 

Works Cited

Peterson, Jordan B. “YouTube.” Biblical Series IX: The Call to Abraham, 2017, 58:30, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GmuzUZTJ0GA.

“His Hero.”  Adventure Time, season 1.  Written and story boarded by Adam Muto, Kent Osborne & Niki Yang.  Directed by Larry Leichliter and Patrick McHale.  Cartoon Network, 2010.