Big Turn Music Fest – 2020

I had volunteered at Big Turn last year, and it was a good experience.  I discovered new music and met a ton of musicians.  I knew I had to come back.

One of my favorite things about this festival is that many of the acts are lesser-known, Minnesota locals.  They have a great lineup of successful artists (Lydia Liza, We Are the Willows, Mason Jennings, Jeremy Messersmith, Charlie Parr, ect), but they also showcase artists who don’t have a big following.  Some performers had fewer than 100 likes on their socials, and it’s cool that they were included.

Big Turn hosts a wide variety of music from pop, hip-hop, folk, funk, reggae, blues, EDM, bluegrass, and more.  The audience is diverse, too.  It’s not all young adults, but an age range from tweens with their parents, to couples in their 60’s.  Given the range of audience, you’d expect the older folk to be turned off by metal or rap, but I generally saw age diversity in nearly every venue I visited.  These people, like me, wanted to check out new music, regardless of genre.

My first stop was ArtReach, a visual arts non-profit.  Glitch and electro-pop artist SYM1 was performing with EDM producer Eye Dyed.  They had a fun, high-energy show with lots of dancing and dope beats.

After that I went to Mandy’s Coffee & Cafe where singer-songwriter, Noah Short, was performing.  He is a classic, coffee shop, singer-songwriter: acoustic guitar, pretty melodies, and emotional lyrics.  He was accompanied by a guy playing a cajon-type instrument, and a girl who sang and played piano.  It was lovely.

After that I explored more, checking out random bands from their descriptions in the logbook.  Beth Kinderman & the Player Characters stuck out because their bio boasts songs about video games and nerd culture.  When I first walked in, they didn’t thrill me, but as I stuck around (not wanting to leave after one song) I started to like it.  Having the songs be about nerdy things made me more attentive to lyrics than I normally am; and a few of the songs were pretty catchy.  I recommend “Refusal of the Call.”

After that I started my volunteer shift at the Barrel House.  My job was to check wristbands and make sure we didn’t exceeded our 75 person capacity.  The worst part of the job is explaining to drunk people that, yes, the fire marshal comes through counting people, and my one job is to make the fire marshal happy.  However, I did get a brush with Minnesota music royalty from the experience!  Apparently one of the guys wanting to get in was Greg Norton of Porcupine and Hüsker Dü.  The person he was with kept asking me if I knew who he was.  I kept saying no, and eventually she told me.  At that point, he had already slipped in the back where there was no volunteer.  I’m gonna call that networking.

My time at the Barrel House was all right.  Volunteering is awesome because you get to hear music for free, and the only downside is being tied to one venue.  Aside from having to argue with drunk people from time to time, it’s a good deal.  I would definitely do it again.

 

Notable Acts (that I actually saw)

SYM1, Eye Dyed – electro-pop, EDM, high energy.  Dance-able.

Noah Short – Soothing singer-songwriter, pretty melodies, thoughtful lyrics.

Beth Kinderman & the Player Characters – Nerd narrative.  Catchy songs.  Intricate lyrics.

Soultru -R & B, solid voice.  Soul vibes.

Beat Station EP

My creative projects fell through the cracks during my Fall semester.  Understandably, I was busy with work and school.  Over break I knew I’d have a lot more free time to make music, but I also knew I’d waste that time without a plan.  Thus, the Beat Station was born.  My guidelines were simple: I had to write an EP of electronic music, but I could only write songs while at the Fillin’ Station Coffeehouse.  I could do mixing, layering, and tweaking at home, but not songwriting.

The main reason for this project was to help me finish songs.  I’ve mentioned before that one of my struggles is indecision in songwriting.  Only being able to write at a specific place helped me to hunker down and make decisions.  A lot of times I’d be working and think, “Oh crap, they’re closing in an hour and I won’t be able to come here for a few days.  I need to finish this.”  When a song is coming along, you want to finish it, but being able to work on it whenever you want makes it easy to procrastinate.

This was also a great excuse for me to document something.  My teachers always talk about the importance of documenting, but I never really did it.  Suddenly I had a story to tell about my songwriting challenge, and lots of opportunities for pictures and footage in the coffee shop.  I made three videos about the experience and lots of social media posts.

In retrospect, this challenge wasn’t ideal for my songwriting goals.  Since I was releasing an EP, not only did I need to finish four songs, I had to produce, mix, and master them. That takes a ton of time, and I wanted to focus more on songwriting.  Typically when I write an EP, I write more songs than will actually be included.  That way I can pick the best ones to release.  In this project I wrote four songs and released four songs, so I didn’t have room to curate.  Going forward, I may do something similar, but with the goal of finishing demos.  At the end of the writing phase, I can pick the best ones to produce and release.

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I went into this knowing I wouldn’t do it perfectly, but that I would learn what to work on for next time, not from YouTube videos or by sitting around thinking, but by doing it and seeing the results.  This turned out better than I hoped, and now I know how to improve.

Now available everywhere.

 

I Moved to Mankato

As many of you know, I’ve been going to MSU Mankato since January of 2018.  I’ve been living and working in Faribault: making the drive to class a few days each week.  I started slow with just Music Theory II, then took Activities in Music Industry and Songwriting 1 the following semester.  I liked my classes a lot and felt I was learning exactly what I needed to.  My last semester was three classes plus guitar lessons, and I was happy to hear some major improvements in my songs.

Because of the commute and my work schedule, I haven’t been able to take a full load.  This has been frustrating to say the least, and the lengthy commute – made longer by the Minnesota blizzards – meant more time on the road and less time making music.  Because of this, and wanting to be more engaged in the community, I decided to move.

It wasn’t an easy decision.  I actually tried really hard to find a schedule that would make staying in Faribault sensible, but I couldn’t find one.  I’d been living with two guys that were good friends, the rent was cheap, and my family was a two minute drive away.  I was pretty sad about moving to be honest, but now that I’m here I know it was the right choice.  Let me tell you some things I like about Mankato (so far).

I live two blocks from a coffee shop and a used book store!  Well, I live near downtown so there’s lots of places I could mention, but those two I was most excited about.  I’m probably just romanticizing the idea that I can walk over and get a cup of coffee and smell old books whenever I want, but it’s always been a dream of mine.  What’s more relevant to this blog is that I’m within walking distance of Pub 500, and they host an open mic night.  I’ve only been once, but I’ve already met some cool, local musicians.

I’m also excited to be able to go to shows without having to drive forty five minutes.  The Coffee Hag hosts singer-songwriters, and the What’s Up Lounge a variety of acts including rock, indie, and hip-hop.  And for bigger artists, there’s the Mankato Civic Center.  I’m sure there’s other venues and events as well that I haven’t discovered yet, but I’m hoping to learn it all.  I want to meet more people, make more music, and be part of a great musical community.

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.

 

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.

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.