Writing a melody that moves through relative keys is like playing with paperclips and magnets.
I think about stuff, pretty much constantly. Sometimes I write my thoughts on a blog.
Writing a melody that moves through relative keys is like playing with paperclips and magnets.
I think that there’s something extremely valuable to intuition. Intuition is a helpful compass when seeking metaphysical truths, and an invaluable guide to moral truths. This, of course, depends on having intuitions which are filtered through a well-formed person, both intellectually and in terms of character (the astute philosopher would challenge the contrast between these two modes of life). All things being equal, I think this is a simple but often overlooked principle: if it seems right, it’s probably right.
I’m as much of a thinker as anyone, and I believe deeply in the importance of rationality and a desire to apprehend truth; that said, I think the gut can often tie the facts together and send us in the right direction. Intuition is the tug of the deepest parts of us, nudging our rationality towards truth, goodness, and beauty. It’s no more infallible than our perception of the external world or our capacity for deriving knowledge, but it is another powerful, imperfect tool aimed at the good.
has been Love’s Crushing Diamond. That album is the sound of the rare long, deep breaths that friends drink in and sigh out after reminding each other that it’s all going to be okay. Just bought There’s No Leaving Now on vinyl, so I’ll be spending some time sifting through the exposed mind of one of my biggest influences over the next few days. I walk away from that album with new truths every time. What a beautiful bit of art.
A Minor Bird
Things That Happen at Day
Born & Raised
I always name the stem tracks goofy names. It’s one of the little, innocuous ways that I keep myself entertained while I’m working. I’d bet that many if not most musicians do this. And I thought it would be interesting to post the names of all the stem tracks from a song, so here are the track names from a song I’m working on today, tentatively named Topaz:
Rick Nielson’s Twin Brother
There’s a pretty clear point where I got snarky. As a point of interest, the tracks named after rock bands are all electric parts that I thought sounded like them.
I was really raised in the blues school of improvisation, and that’s where I draw most of my inspiration, but most of my favorite guitar solos are jazz solos. I think I know why: in general, jazz guitar communicates more complicated, nuanced emotions. Blues solos are more emotional overall, but they are blunt objects. That being said, the real magic is writing a vividly emotive jazz solo or a deeply nuanced blues solo. The distinction between the two is probably more spectral than binary.
Love’s Crushing Diamond
I was talking to a friend a few months ago, and she mentioned that Armchair Apocrypha was her favorite Andrew Bird album. I asked her why, and she essentially said that it was his most complete: every song on it is just good. That really took me by surprise, because, frankly, I didn’t agree. So, I went and listened to the album with fresh ears to see if there was something to what she said. Here are my thoughts:
First of all, the album is produced really differently that his other albums. If I had to describe it in two words, I’d say “washy” and “humbucker.” I don’t think I need to unpack the word washy, and I don’t think I could efficiently explain the word humbucker as a description of sound; I’ll just say that a humbucker is a type of guitar pickup that lends itself to a sort of gritty mellowness, when used the way that it is on the album. The fact that I reference a guitar rather than a violin should say a ton about the album…unlike his usual stuff, the violin is really only used as an accent on most of the album (Imitosis and Plasticities are two of the obvious exceptions, but they’re also both built on material borrowed from earlier projects, so I don’t feel that bad making the generalization). The guitar functions as the main rhythmic drone on the album, along with a lot of really prominent, basic drumming. The vocals are noticeably less tight on this album. There’s a lot of slap-back reverb and space in most of the vocal performances. The effect of all this is, at worst, an Andrew-Bird-esque interpretation of garage rock, and, at best, a sort of anthemic rainy-day music. The stretch of songs to start the album (the first five, from Fiery Crash to Plasticities) has a sort of hollow drone to it. It’s hard for me to connect emotionally to that first stretch, save as a statement of utter disengagement, which I doubt is really intended to be the central tone. It does do wonders for the rest of the album by setting a tonal foundation that can be exploited by the rest of the songs. I also really like some of the tracks individually (Imitosis, Heretics, Plasticities), but the overall effect of the first twenty minutes or so is a little less than I expect from a well-crafted group of songs. However, the transition into Armchairs does wonders for the movement of the album. It’s the first real breath, and it leads into a much more spacious section. This second stretch, from Armchairs to Cataracts, bounces back and forth between contemplation and groove, and it is everything that I wished the first five songs would be. It’s a second interpretation of the instrumentation used on the album, and a more musically robust interpretation in my opinion. There are still prominent drums and guitars, but there’s a lot more space inside the songs for his sweeping strings and meandering vocal lines. There’s even an instrumental transition, The Supine, that gives the album a second chance to breathe before Cataracts. The final three songs, Scythian Empire, Spare-Ohs, and Yawny at the Apocalypse, are an upswing of optimism at the end of the album. There are recordings of birdsong (a la Give Up the Ghost, the second-to-last track on King of Limbs) stuck between the last three songs, and they have the quintessential Andrew Bird quirk-energy that is notably missing from the rest of the album. Yawny at the Apocalypse is not so much a song as an unwinding of the album or a final salute, and it makes the album feel truly complete.
Overall, on listening back to the whole thing as a unit, I was really captivated by its movement. It takes you somewhere. I’ll take the controversial stance that the album has a slow start, but that the textural themes of the album ultimately benefit from developing towards the second half of the album. Armchair Apocrypha is definitely not my favorite, but I’m really glad I put in the time to listen to it again. Sometimes first judgments can keep us from appreciating things fully.
Roller-coaster days are hard, but they bring out the best in people. It’s really hard for me to ask the people I love for help, or even be vulnerable about what’s bothering me a lot of the time. I tend to use vulnerability as a way to progress relationships and build trust, but often I still bottle up things that I’m afraid of or guilt that I feel about a situation. I’m so grateful to be surrounded by people that are helping me learn how to trust others even when I’m at fault or when I’m afraid of rejection. All I can do is marvel at the love that I constantly receive.
Recently, I went on another googling odyssey, this time trying to figure out how to classify the genre that I’d put myself in. I’ve been calling it “indie-folk,” which I think communicates some of the essence of the genre, but is still lacking. It’s really an emerging group of bands, which don’t seem to have any central ideal or unifying front. They’re scattered across age groups, they have signed with labels big and small, and they point to really diverse influences. To give a bit of a picture of who I’m referring to, I’ll give a short list of the biggest movers and shakers in the “genre” in my opinion: Fleet Foxes, Grizzly Bear, Bon Iver, Tallest Man on Earth, Sufjan Stevens, and maybe a few others like Midlake, Dr. Dog, and Laura Marling. There are a lot of threads that run through most of the bands, but I couldn’t find any threads that run through all of them. The partial threads are, as best I can enumerate, as follows.
First, acoustic (folk) instrumentation. Almost every band on the list has had some defining music that was based in acoustic guitar-driven soundscapes. There’s also a ton of violin, used as either orchestration or an alternate lead melody. Banjo, mandolin, and upright bass all make it into the mix…you get the idea. The use of alternate guitar tunings (especially “open D,” aka DADGAD) is also really common throughout the aesthetic. I can attest specifically to Tallest Man, Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes, and Grizzly Bear using open tunings, and I’m sure most of the others have as well. The sound that comes out of open-tuned guitars is fairly unique, and it’s very typical of the genre. There are a lot of doubled or tripled notes, and the tuning can also lead to more uses of sevenths and seconds. The result is a lot of lush, complex chords and guitar parts that move melodic elements through the rhythm guitar. I’ve got a lot more to say about the subject, but I’ll leave it there.
Second thing, there is a real tendency to go in and bolster the really rootsy aesthetic with electric guitars, rock drums, and electronic elements of various sorts. For Fleet Foxes, that means Fleetwood Mac-esque psychedelic guitar. For Grizzly Bear, it means a ton of gnarly post-production, and the addition of electronic percussion and synth (this is even more obvious on the Department of Eagles side project, In Ear Park). For Bon Iver, it means the reframing of the brittle side of emotive indie music into a much more powerful, ambient soundscape full of reference to 80s rock instrumentation. Then there’s Sufjan, who has come out with everything from brittle folk to easy-listening music to deconstructed electronica. The point is that these bands are all drawing lines back into the past, but they are heavily reinterpreting things.
Which leads to the third point: most of these bands have a much more impressionistic, vague bent to their lyrics than their 20th Century analogues. The Tallest Man on Earth is often compared to early Bob Dylan. It’s really easy to draw comparisons from A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall to Into the Stream, but while both are clearly metaphorical, and even metaphors for similar topics, Dylan’s imagery is much more straightforward. The lyrics that Tallest Man spins are veiled in a way that the lyrics of many of his influences are not. Same goes for most every other band on the list. A trend I have noticed, however, is that many of the bands (notably Grizzly Bear and Fleet Foxes) have slowly gravitated toward more comprehensible lyrics. I think that, in a way, it’s a function of maturity as a songwriter. Clarity leads to vulnerability, and vulnerability is especially uncomfortable in art. It takes a truly great artist to baldly state feelings or convictions in a meaningful, technically sound way.
Other, perhaps less important threads through the genre are things like group-singing, heavy use of reverb (especially natural reverb), heavy reference to geographic locations, historical figures, and non-musical art, use of woodwinds, unpolished improvisational passages of music, transitional material that is not in standard song structure, narrative-based songwriting, and non-traditional, tom-heavy percussion.
So, on to my internet odyssey. I spent a ton of time reading or watching any interview I could get my hands on. I read some personal blogs. I watched a bunch of crappy “early versions” of songs recorded at shows on cell phones. And here’s the realization I came to. There was a moment in music that created, in some capacity, every one of these bands. It happened in the 60s and 70s, as the resurgence of folk music was corrupted by psychedelic rock music. Paul Simon, who had led perhaps the most well-known folk duo in history, got interested in African township music. Bob Dylan played an electric guitar and got booed off stage. The lead singer of the Byrds recorded a foundational americana album that featured the undeniable influence of the Doors and late Beatles. Somewhere in that moment, when folk, proto-country, americana, 70s rock, and funk all got mixed up, the foundations for a new genre were born. Oddly, the genre largely sprang into existence decades later, mainly at the hands of people that hadn’t been born yet. It was the result of a cocktail of nostalgia and couter-cultural tendencies, bolstered by the sounds of our parents’ generation, and largely self-sustaining (through labels like Sub Pop, festivals for indie music, and a growing base of people who were tired of what the Billboard charts had to offer).
I think that I’m finally grasping the foundations of that genre that has so enthralled me for the past few years. The exciting part is this: a new generation of musicians has been reared by the genre that I still refer to as indie-folk. That new guard sits not only on the shoulders of the greats of folk and americana, but also on the shoulders of indie-folk. By and large, we find equal influence in Bob Dylan and James Blake, in americana and in hip hop. And now we are beginning to make music of our own, in a context that has never existed before. I’d wager that some of the most amazing, revolutionary music of our time will come from the second-gen indie-folk musicians, and that’s something I can’t wait to hear.
is being able to ask stupid questions that I can’t answer on my own. I used to try and hide the areas where my knowledge was weak, and it was really crippling. I’d sit around being unproductive and hoping that the answer would descend from the heavens to save me. Now I’m learning that there’s rarely shame in baldly asking someone something. It’s the hiding that can lead to embarrassment.
that I’m stuck on for weeks on end. And I feel guilty about them because I’m supposed to think certain things in certain settings. A lot of times my thoughts are questions. And a lot of times the questions are about the truth of things that everyone takes for granted. When you’re in a group of Christians, for the most part it’s not good to question the things we all take for granted. Or maybe you’re allowed to question them, but you’re only allowed to talk about it once you’ve “made it through the desert.” Doubts are private things, but stories about “overcoming” doubt are things to be shared for the sake of encouragement. If you’re not sure that there’s such a thing as Hell, or if you’re not sure that being gay is a sin, or if you’re not sure about the point of large scale missions, then you have two choices: keep it to yourself, or have a bunch of conversations with other Christians who have transitioned into conversion mode. Until I started expressing fundamental doubts to other Christians, I never understood how crappy and annoying it is to talk to someone who doesn’t want to talk to you, but rather feels obligated to convince you of your wrongness. It’s very isolating, and you end up lying and pretending to be convinced so you don’t disappoint the other person.
On the other hand, there’s this second kind of conversation. It’s the kind where you bare your soul, explain you questions, and fully expect the other person to try and convert you…but instead they listen. And then they say, “Wow. I feel that way. I feel unsure. I wrestle with those questions. You’re not crazy.” And those kinds of conversations heal me.
And the thing is, the questions are rarely the point. More often than not, I use questions to protect myself from painful changes. I see the depth of my own inadequacy, and I know I need to bear down and grow, and then I get stuck on some doubt, and a lot of times I use the doubt as an excuse to avoid becoming better. But I’m firmly convinced that the doubts do help us grow. They’re necessary. And when people give us space to work at the questions and wrestle with the gods we think we know, that space is love. That love transforms us.
The last couple of years, I’ve felt God less than any time I can remember. I can maybe think of two times in the past year that I could point to as “emotionally experiencing God.” But I’ve known him more than ever the last two years. And by and large, I’ve known him through the people who have loved me. It’s like this whole time he’s been saying, “you can’t tell I’m here, you’re not sure I exist or care or am relevant to you…it’s fine. You’ll be fine. I love you.” I’ve often cut off the tradition channels of “hearing from God”…Bible reading, sincere meditative prayer, engaging “worship” music…doesn’t matter. He’s here, in those people, in those doubts. He’s not worried about me, I’m not worried about him. I look up to people who don’t feel the need to run away and fight the system and poke ever hole they can imagine in the structures that support them. But I’ve come to terms with the fact that I can’t help feeling that pull, at least for now. I’m not meant to. And I believe there’s a place for people like me in the Church. I just hope that the insiders in the Church can accept us for what we are.
Today I got an email from a friend who is much smarter and more creative and more experienced in music than I am. He was giving me some feedback on my music, and he didn’t just say “this was good” or “this could’ve been better.” He did that a bit, but mostly he just described it. He described it in terms of technical choices, and more importantly, in terms of the emotions it impressed on him. To hear a guy like that talk about my stuff like it’s just some random, legitimate art we were discussing was so encouraging. It’s like he was saying, “I don’t like this stuff because it’s yours, I just like it. I don’t want to talk about things in terms of what needs correcting…this art is complete and legitimate. I don’t see it in terms of correction, but in terms of quality or lack thereof. You don’t get a special measuring stick anymore, because your stuff is real music.” The relief of being taken seriously by someone you respect is truly inexpressible. It means I have reason to keep working.