2021 Year End Review

This is not my typical experience, but I actually completed every musical goal I set at the begining of the year. I’m just as surprised as anyone.

My first goal was to be a singer-songwriter again. For most of 2020, I had zero shows. I stayed in my room making electronic beats, which I loved, but I missed my acoustic roots. This year I played a ton of shows, wrote new songs, and started recording an EP (my first singer-songwriter release since 2019).

My second goal was to collaborate with other artists. This mostly involved my friend Jplayin. I recorded two release for Jplayin, and had him as a featured rapper on two of my songs. I also got to work with Brandon and the Clubs, my former classmate. We dropped a Ke$ha-esque pop song. Stylistically it was a very different direction for me, but so fun to make. I had a blast working with both of them!

My third goal was to create consistent content. This mostly involved my weekly YouTube videos on songwriting and music produciton, which was then broken into microcontent for Instagram and Tik Tok, but I also peppered in the occasional blog post. I’m happy to say that I now have over 100 YouTube subscribers!

My fourth goal was to get an internship / volunteer, and this Fall I got an internship with the Minnesota Music Coalition. I got to assist with the Caravan Du Nord concert series and travel all across Minnesota, meeting tons of new artists and old favorites.

I’m also happy to share that I lost 30 pounds, finished 67 songs (mostly beats), and I officially graduated with my degree in Music Industry. I also started teaching guitar for the first time this Summer, which has been a fantastic way to make money while honing my craft.

I’m focusing on the good here, but I don’t want to give the impresison that I’m an unstoppable productivity machine that doesn’t make mistakes. This year was far from perfect, but despite my own flaws and battles, I was able to make things better for myself. I can only pray this trend continues and I keep moving forward.

Just Do It

I haven’t dropped a singer-songwriter track since May of 2019. Since then I’ve been working on other projects, releasing videos, and finishing up my degree. It’s easy to use busyness as an excuse, but it doesn’t tell the full story. As someone who has watched six hours of Squid Game in one day, I can tell you it’s not a lack of time.

A couple of months ago I was planning to buy a new microphone specifically for my singer-songwriter EP. I had been using an MXL 990 to record my acoustic ($100), and I was excited to upgrade. An unexpected expense ate that money up and I was frustrated. I didn’t feel like recording the old way, and I even considered shelfing the project until I had better gear. Also, I was toying with the idea of turning my EP into an album, possibly recording a full band and having a bigger release.

These two excuses gave me the instant gratificaiton of being able to delay my work, and it came with the added bonus that I could imagine my work being better for it. So I didn’t have to do anything in the present, but on a far distant day, I would have something amazing.

The problem with this of course is that I continue to do nothing. There are some situations where perhaps it would make sense to wait, but in my personal experience, it’s never been justified. Regardless of the gear you have, the idea that waiting is going to help you make something better in the future is flawed. Making stuff is how you get better. You can always get new gear later on, but in the meantime you can be improving for free.

Your reservation might be that you have a really good song or concept that needs to be exactly right before coming out. If that’s the case, you can write and release other things. Just don’t let that be an excuse and lose momentum. Also, it’s worth mentioning that songs I wanted to save two years ago, I wouldn’t even release now. Your tastes evolve as you keep creating.

So, after countless roadblocks and excuses, I’m finally recording my EP. It’s already an improvement from my last project, but I still find myself making excuses. It’s not going to be perfect, but it is going to be done, and that’s enough.

My Internship with the Minnesota Music Coalition

I am extremely blessed to be an intern with the Minnesota Music Coalition. Their mission is to support Minnesota musicians by creating a statewide network, offering educational resources, paid performances, and other opportunities.

I first heard of the MMC when I attended a Caravan Du Nord in Faribault. Caravan Du Nord is a traveling showcase of Minnesotan artists. It features local legends like Reina Del Cid, while also putting the spotlight on up-and-coming acts like Kaleb Braun-schultz. These events frequently take place in smaller towns like Red Wing and Austin, bringing great music to places that don’t often get it.

This bringing of music to small towns is what first excited me about the MMC. I was thrilled when I learned that Frankie Lee, an artist heard on the Current, was going to be playing in my hometown. It wasn’t so much that I was a fan of Frankie Lee, but that an artist of that success could be seen in Faribault. I was used to driving 45 minutes to see ANY show, let alone someone well known. It caught my attention.

That was a few years ago and now I’m an intern helping to put on Caravan Du Nord events all across Minnesota. It’s been an absolute pleasure attending workshops, meeting artists, watching shows, and trying my best to be useful. I’m not sure what the future holds, but I’m happy to be where I am!

It Takes Practice

This Summer, I started teaching guitar lessons. It’s been interesting learning guitar again through beginners’ eyes and hearing their perspectives. A variation of this question comes up again and again: “What’s the secret?” When they’re struggling, beginner’s tend to think that they’re doing something wrong; they want a quick tip or trick that’ll resolve everything.

The answer I give rarely satisfies them, but it’s the only answer that’s true. “There’s no secret. You just need to keep practicing.” Practicing new material can be frustrating because we’re constantly rubbing up against our own limitations: hitting wrong notes, missing rhythms, and having to work on the same parts again and again. It can be a daunting process, but it’s how we grow.

Audio production and mixing is one of those areas where it’s tempting to think you can just have someone explain it to you and you’ll be able to execute it perfectly. Afterall, mixing is more of a technical skill. You’re turning knobs; you just need to know what everything does and then you’re good to go, right? Wrong. It’s more of an art than people realize, and an ear for mixing needs to be developed just like a musical ear.

This concept also applies to genres. Someone can absolutely crush it at lofi, but when they try to make EDM, they struggle. This comes from a lack of experience in that genre. There’s definitely mixing and sound design skills that carry over from genre to genre, but when writing in an unfamiliar style, you’ll have a lot of new questions. I often hear people say that they are bad at a particular genre. They accept it as an unchangable fact about themselves, when in reality they probably just haven’t practiced it enough.

So whatever it is that you want to improve about yourself, there is no secret sauce that will make everything easier. I only have one tip to give you: it takes practice.

Creative Offloading

Today I’m going to talk about something I learned in music school. It’s called “offloading” and it’s one of the reasons I was able to write 50 songs in 2020.

In songwriting you have these creative tasks: chord progressions, melodies, basslines, drum patterns, lyrics, sound design, etc. Offloading means to take one of these tasks and rather than generate it creatively, you offload it to a different source. This happens when you take a chord progression from another song, use a drum loop or MIDI pack, or anytime you load a preset. That’s offloading too since you’re offloading the sound design.

This is incredibly helpful for starting and finishing ideas. When you offload a task, you free up time and energy to focus on the next step. If you’re feeling uninspired, a drum or melody loop can be the kickstart you need. Rather than trying to create every piece of your music originally, it helps to decide what parts you want to write and what parts you want to offload.

You might hate the idea of offloading if you haven’t heard it before. It might feel like cheating. I used to feel that way, too. One of my buddies used to Google “Awesome chord progressions” and write songs that way. He even stole a progression from a YouTube ad. He wasn’t afraid to take inspiration wherever found it.

Over the years, I softened to the idea. I didn’t realize it at the time, but my biggest problem was my ego. I enjoyed being “creative” more than I enjoyed making songs. Offloading to me is about letting go of my ego and realizing that if I want to make captivating art, I need all the help I can get.

If you haven’t offloaded before, try offloading your least favorite part to write. If you’re a drummer and you love writing drums, offload the melody. If you love melodies and struggle with drums, offload the drums. If you’re really focusing in on sound design, design the sounds and offload the chords. For lyrics, you can even borrow rhymes. There’s a lot of possibilities and room to experiment.

If you feel guilty or think that it’s cheating, realize that it’s a collaboration. Pretend that your friend sent you the drum loop. They want you to use it. That’s why they made it, and honestly, that’s not far from the truth. Producer Com Truise said that sampling is “Collaborating at a distance.” And the big difference between sampling and using a loop (other than the legal difference) is that the creator of the Splice loop wants you to use it.

If you try to be 100% creative in every area of your song, you’ll write a lot less songs. And honestly, no one cares if you do “everything yourself.” They’ll only know if you tell them, and if you feel the need to tell people, then maybe you don’t believe in the song to begin with.

Making a Lofi EP

This December I graduated college and I celebrated by releasing a lofi EP. I wanted something commemorative of the college experience, and what better way than by making chill beats to study / relax to? Not to mention, I love lofi. I dropped it during finals week in the hopes of attracting more student listeners.

I started the writing process in June. I know firsthand the annoyance of putting together an EP and not liking all of the songs. I usually handle this by releasing fewer songs or by writing more, but this time I tackled the problem upfront. I committed to writing 20 songs and only releasing the best. This helped me relax while writing since each song carried less weight. I wasn’t too hard about whether or not I liked what I had; my goal was to finish two demos a week, good or bad. This gave me more freedom to experiment.

After I had my 20 demos, I found several that I could eliminate instantly. They were good songs that didn’t fit the lofi aesthetic for varying reasons: too exciting, too high energy, too much dynamic range, and a few that I just wanted to develop into hip hop beats. Writing a lot of tracks made it easy to finish these ideas as they came along rather than scrapping them on the spot. Especially after I had a handful I liked, it was nice to write without any sense of needing it to be good or having it fit in a particular way.

I eliminated seven songs for genre reasons and one because it was a remix (Misty by Ella Fitzgerald). I wanted to have five to eight songs. There were some I planned to include from the start (Morning Dew, Breakfast Brew, Halloween Chillin), and for the others I relied on Instagram polls. I had eight songs selected, but as the deadline got closer I narrowed it down to five. I was on the fence about a couple and opted for quality over quantity. The project is only 9 minutes long, but I think I made the right choice.

I’m happy with the outcome and I hope you can enjoy these songs while studying, relaxing, drinking coffee, or watching the snow fall.

Finals Week Available Everywhere.

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.