Releasing Original Music: My History

My first EP was released in 2015.  I recorded it in my parents’ basement with affordable equipment and my own limited tracking skills.  It’s not great, but I have a fondness for it.  It’s a timestamp of my skill level at the time, both in writing and producing.  The album art is a shot of me playing at the Contented Cow, a bar in Northfield I frequented.  It’s a perfect cover because back then I was playing at the Cow about twice a month and the regulars were constantly subjected to my originals.

My second singer-songwriter release was in 2016.  I wanted to expand on the sounds of the original so I added MIDI piano and strings.  I also layered in electric guitar and harmonica.  I was happy with the outcome and decided the artwork should be more professional.  I got in touch with an artist I know and gave him a picture to work off.

infamous dog pic
Performing at the Contented Cow with Cody (2015).

I was very pleased with the outcome.  High & Dry was sold on homemade CDs, but for Fade Away I got them professionally printed.  I used CopyCats, a CD and DVD duplication company in Minneapolis.  I opted for the cheaper, paper sleeves rather than jewel cases.

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Original paper sleeve for Fade Away (2016).

The sales have not been great.  It took over a year for me to break even on the cost of printing and artwork, but I think it was worth it.  The important part for me is that I created a piece of art I’m proud of and have a tangible way of sharing with others.

I’m currently working on a new EP and will be releasing it in two parts.  Part one will be available digitally on January 18th, and part two later in March.  It’s being recorded in my home studio, and I’m utilizing musical skills and production techniques I learned in school.  Here is the first single:

If you’re looking to record and release your own music, I highly encourage you to do so.  It’s incredibly gratifying, and it doesn’t matter if your first recordings aren’t great.  You’ll get better as you practice, just like with your instrument.  And it’s okay if the first song you publish song doesn’t get a lot of traction.  Take it from someone who’s released albums on Facebook with only two likes, the joy is in the making.

 

Semester Wrap Up – Final EP

Well, this semester is coming to a close.  Although I was only in three classes this year, I’ve grown a lot.  I have an arsenal of new writing techniques, a better knowledge of production, and a higher standard for my own material.  The greatest change in my writing is the increased use of layers, both for instruments and vocals.  I always knew about the importance of instrument layers, but I never applied them as much as I could.  Layering instruments can really fill a track out and bring it to life.  Vocal layering is another great tool I hadn’t been utilizing.  Because of my own struggles performing and recording, I shied away from it.  I’ve found that simply adding a unison vocal or singing up an octave can do wonders and is well worth the effort.

My industry class was a one hour a week lecture.  It focused on current trends in the industry, music news, and other things we should be excited about.  The big take away from class was to pay attention: follow successful people on Twitter, read the news, and keep yourself informed.  Solid advice, and if the class itself wasn’t all that informative on it it’s own, it sure was a nice pick-me-up.  Professor LeGere’s enthusiasm is contagious, and hearing his lectures made you share his optimism.

Here is my final EP submission for Songwriting 1.  Originally, three songs were required, but that was later changed to two.  According to the teacher, this was because some people had submitted “dumpster fires” as their first songs.  I wish I had re-recorded the vocals for “Lights,” but I had a cold and ran out of time.

“Let Go” was recorded at the school’s studio, but “Lights” was recorded at home.  The guitar and bass in “Lights” were recorded directly into my interface and processed using Guitar Rig.  The solo for “Let Go” was recorded using a Stratocaster into a tube amp.

Thoughts on Collaboration

Well, the semester is winding down and so is my final project.  My three song EP is due this week and I’m putting on the finishing touches.  I’m recording, mixing and arranging.  One of my tracks needed a solo, and my classmate stepped in.  Here is just the solo section, by Noah Battles.

You’re probably wondering why I would have someone else play a solo when I play guitar.  Most of the time, I do just that.  My philosophy used to be that if I could do something alone, I would.  I liked having control over every little thing.  Since then I’ve learned to appreciate the magic of letting others be involved.  They can take the song to places you wouldn’t expect, and try things you wouldn’t consider.  The results can be dope.  In the above example, I was originally writing a synthesizer melody, but that wasn’t cutting it.  Noah’s bluesy playing was much better.

In 2016, I was writing my EDM album.  For one of the songs I wrote a melody that was too high for me to sing.  I could’ve transposed it, but I liked the energy of the song the way it was.  I recruited my old college buddy, Jacoby Filand, to sing it.  I gave him the lyrics, a clip of me singing it (badly), and a demo of a synth playing the melody.

He changed a couple notes, had a more punk rock delivery, and overall improved the idea.  Listen for yourself.

Collaborating is awesome.  As much as we like to shape everything ourselves, letting others into the process can spark unique outcomes.

I’ll give one more example.  In 2014 I was working on my electronic side-project Lobster Boat.  It was mostly instrumental tracks and I was sending people demos for feedback.  One of those people, Phillip Emery, asked if he could take a crack at singing over one.  I was skeptical at first and only agreed on the condition that I could reject his vocals if I didn’t like what he did.  The result was pleasantly surprising and I kept them.

It’s easier said than done, but I’m a big fan of the idea that we shouldn’t be precious with our music.  Not only does it get in the way of actually writing music, but it can lessen the music we do finish.  In these situations, had I been precious, I would have missed out on some great input from other artists.  Don’t be afraid to let others get their hands on your canvas.  You might be surprised at what they do.

Creating When You’re Not Inspired

This is the perfect topic for today because right now I don’t feel like writing.  I’m in the school library sipping a La Croix, trying to get some work done, and no topic is calling out to me.  It’s not that I don’t want to write; it’s that I don’t have anything to say.  I’m uninspired.  This happens in music too.  I’ll be trying to write and nothing seems to flow, my progressions feel as bland and stale as every song I’ve ever heard.  It’s like I’m writing the same tune over again, repeating myself.  It’s all very deflating.

A common misconception is that creativity occurs only when you’re inspired.  If you’re not feeling it you have writer’s block or something and shouldn’t even try.  In his book, On Writing, Stephen King writes, “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.”  There’s a lot of great quotes on the topic, but rather than just share what others have said, let me offer my own experience.

What we call “writer’s block” isn’t the failure to create; it’s the failure to create something you like.  Under that definition, you can always write.  There’s no reason not to.  You don’t need to share everything you try, and you don’t need to like everything you finish, but you always need to be trying.

If you’re in a rut listen to some great music, try something you’ve never done (new synth sound or chord progression), or approach the song in a new way (starting with melody instead of chords or vice versa).  There’s a lot of techniques you can do to shake things up, and pretty soon you’ll be inspiring yourself.

That being said, every song you finish isn’t going to be great.

Earlier this year, I was attempting to write three songs a month.  I put my best effort into them: writing, mixing, and mastering.  I wanted a solid product.  I was hoping to release an EP every month, focusing on different genres.  What I found is that for every three songs or so, I only really liked one.  You don’t realize that at the time, of course.  You don’t think, “Man, this song I’m writing sucks,” but looking back it’s easier to be critical.  What I’m getting at is you need to keep writing so you have songs to pick from.  Otherwise you release an EP of two songs you like and three others that are there just because it’s all you have.

I’m not advocating you write songs you don’t like.  Just write the best songs you can and when it comes time to share them, be picky.

KING, STEPHEN. ON WRITING. SIMON & SCHUSTER, 2000.

An Introduction

   I’ve recently found myself in the unique position of being back in school at 27. I’m not pursuing anything reasonable like most adults who go back, but instead I’ll be going after my Bachelor’s in Music Industry. In this blog I’ll be documenting the experience and showcasing whatever projects or songs result.

  But first, let me give you some backstory.  

  In 2011 I was a composition major at McNally Smith College of Music. My parents and I had taken out a loan for the first semester, but due to the high cost they decided I couldn’t go back.  I wasn’t able to take out a loan that large by myself, so I had to dropout.  I knew I could afford to go to MSU Mankato, or Winona or somewhere, but I was enamored with McNally Smith.  At the time it was the only school I knew of where you could study and write in contemporary genres. They had rock and metal ensembles; you could even get a hip-hop diploma.  I loved the integration of production, and that composition majors like myself could work in the studios once we passed a competency exam. Teachers played gigs all around the Twin Cities, and amazing local acts would perform right in our cafe.  It all seemed so relevant. Unfortunately, all that charm came with a price tag, and even once I was able to get a loan, I couldn’t justify it. McNally Smith was just too expensive.

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My first day of school (2011).

 Over the years, I did music on the side:  performing live, writing songs, and learning production along the way.  I released singer-songwriter EPs, electronic side projects, remixes, and experimented with videos.  All the while I flirted with the idea of going back to school. One of my issues was not be able to choose between audio production and composition; I wanted a degree that taught both.

 In December 2017 McNally Smith announce they’d be closing their doors due to lack of funds.  I was shocked. (I won’t go into how they handled it or what it did to students, but I mention it here because it was a turning point for me).  What this did was eliminate an option I had been subconsciously clinging to. McNally Smith was out. I could either give up on music school or go somewhere affordable.  The choice was easy.

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Performing at the Contented Cow, Northfield, MN (2015).

 That month I began scanning the music programs page of MSU Mankato, and I came across something new: a major in Music Industry with a focus on Songwriting and Production.  This would be a combination I hadn’t seen before and exactly what I wanted. I learned that you can write in any genre you want, that Mankato was building studios for students over the Summer, and that the school didn’t care what DAW you used (most schools make you use Pro Tools, but I’m an Ableton man so this was good news).  In January I took Music Theory II and I liked it a lot.  This semester I’ll be taking a couple more classes.  Stay tuned for updates and song demos!  

(I should’ve started writing this during my first semester, but as I’ve learned with all creative pursuits, it’s better to start late than never start at all).