Is The Song Even Good?

It’s a good question to ask, and the answer isn’t always obvious.  When compiling songs for Chasing Ghosts, I was constantly changing my mind about which songs to include.  I had about ten songs I liked, but wanted to release five.  One of these songs was “Maybe Next Time.”

When my roommates heard it for the first time, it instantly became their favorite.  They regularly requested it at shows and were very encouraging, so I decided to record it.  When I released the EP, a lot of people mentioned that one, and it became my most played song on Spotify.  And to think it was almost a reject!

This lesson is this, we’re not always the best judge of our own content. We see our art in a way no one else does, and what might seem to us like a lame idea could resonate with others.

Did you know that Slash from Guns ‘n Roses originally didn’t like “Sweet Child ‘O Mine”?  In an interview with Loudwire, Slash says, “I didn’t hate it, but I wasn’t fond of ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine.’ And that gives you a good idea of how credible my opinion is…”  When Ed Sheeran wrote “Shape of You” – currently the most streamed song on Spotify, ever – he wanted to pitch it to Rhianna.  It was the head of his record label who convinced him to keep it.  “I don’t know what it’s like to choose a hit,” Sheeran said during an interview,  “I just like writing songs.”

Basically, our job as songwriters isn’t to judge art, it’s to create it.  There’s going to be a certain amount of self critique and creative decisions on our own, but we can’t neglect the importance of community.  I can become biased for or against a song based on the amount of time I spend on it, how musically complex it is, and how personal the lyrics are.  A person giving me feedback won’t have these biases and can give me a different perspective.

At the end of the day, we are the artist and we make the final decisions, but getting outside viewpoints is useful.  Sometimes we need a kick in the pants that the house track we produced is actually pretty bad and a cheap imitation.  Other times we get the good news that someone connected with our lyrics in an unexpected way.  Whatever it is, take the note and keep working.

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Works Cited

Childers, Chad. “Slash ‘Wasn’t Fond of’ Guns N’ Roses ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’.” Loudwire, 15 Apr. 2014, loudwire.com/slash-initially-not-fan-guns-n-roses-sweet-child-o-mine/.

New York Times.  “Ed Sheeran’s ‘Shape of You’: Making 2017’s Biggest Track | Diary of a Song,” YouTube, 20 December 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZpMNJbt3QDE.

Krishna, S. (2019). Spotify reveals its most-played music for its 10th anniversary. [online] Engadget.com. Available at: https://www.engadget.com/2018/10/10/spotify-10th-anniversary-decade-of-discovery/ [Accessed 2019].

Why You Should Make To-do Lists

I’m a big fan of to-do lists, making a list of what needs to be done on a daily basis and holding myself accountable.  It does wonders for my productivity and stops projects from falling through the cracks.

Every week I’ve been trying to post a video and a blog post.  Since school ended, I’ve been missing weeks.  Somehow, with more free time, I’m getting less done.  I attribute this to the illusion of more time phenomenon, a phrase I just made up.  Basically, when you have a ton of free time, you don’t think you need to plan things out because you assume what needs to be done will happen eventually, given all the available hours.  But time has a way of slipping through our fingers, and only in retrospect do we notice it was wasted.

When I’m working on a project, I break down what little bit I can do each day.  For instance, when planning a video for a song I already know, all I have to do is practice it a few times daily.  It’s the same when I’m planning to record.  I just practice my part to a metronome every day leading up to the day I record.  It’s incredibly easy to do, but greatly improves the outcome.

Make To Do List

In his book, Keep Going, Austin Kleon writes, “A little imprisonment – if it’s of your own making – can set you free.  Rather than restricting your freedom, a routine gives you freedom by protecting you from the ups and downs of life…” (20).  My advice to anyone starting a to-do list, start small.  It can feel great to write a bunch of stuff down – imaging yourself as an unstoppable, productivity machine – but don’t overdue it.  It’s better to have a small, completed list than a large, unfinished one.

That being said, don’t be discouraged when you fail.  You may find that you “weren’t modest enough in your estimation,” to steal a line from Jordan Peterson.  A good strategy for me is to put down the bare minimum of what needs to be done, but then make a secondary “If there’s time” list.  Anything on the “If there’s time” list is strictly optional, and considered extra.  That way, I accomplish more if I’m able to, but if I’m not, I won’t lose momentum.

Making lists, modifying them over time, and finding what works is helping me know myself.  I’m not great at it, but I’m getting better.  Even when I fail miserably, I still get more done than I otherwise would have.  Failure is a part of the process, and shouldn’t be discouraging.  We are still moving forward.

 

Works Cited

Kleon, Austin. Keep Going : 10 Ways to Stay Creative in Good Times and Bad. New York, Workman Publishing, 2019, p. 20.

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.

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.