1. Hope.

    I mean, that’s basically it. It’s all worth the rare moments when hope swoops down on you and carries you away, like a bird of prey that appears out of nowhere. There’s no choice in it, but that’s the magic of it, really. Let me not forget this in all of the dark gritty moments.


  2. Hard day

    I just wrote a song for my dead dog, and again I’m reminded about the power art has to express sadness. I think that, more often than not, that is the healing power of art: it helps us to express our sorrow. It’s not magic.

    One of my greatest encouragers told me yesterday that writing is almost always elbow grease, and almost never divine inspiration. I think the same is true of happiness. We get there in short, difficult shuffles, pressing on through the ten-foot-deep snow of sorrow. Art is almost never the summer, come all at once. More often, art is a shovel. It is enough.


  3. Two things, at the moment.

    1. Grant Wood landscapes.
    2. Sleep.

    One for emotional exhaustion, the other, physical exhaustion.


  4. If life is a series of interwoven narratives,

    (and I’m inclined to believe that it is, at least in part) then I think that, right now, I’m living a big part of my origin story. No doubt, I’m already engaged in several important, compelling, beautiful stories. But if I had to guess, I’d say that all of this, all my life up to this point, has really just been a part of the setup. The defining conflict in the overarching narrative of my life has not yet arrived. In a way, that makes me really excited. The best and worst have both yet to come. There’s still so much life left to live. So many things to create, so many battles to be fought, so much love to give, that I can truly say I’ve just barely begun. And I suppose that the way I live my origin story now will have a lot to do with the way the main plot unfolds in the future. There’s hope in that, and also a bit of fear and a little pressure. If I squint my eyes, I can just barely make out the upward slope that’s in front of me. And that’s all I need right now.


  5. Thoughts on the new Lorde album

    I recently bought the new Lorde album, Pure Heroine, on a bit of a hunch. I hadn’t listened through the whole thing, but I have been familiar with her music since this summer, and I had been hearing remarkably positive reactions from across the board. After listening through the album a few times, I really am struck by how good it is. I tend to be skeptical of albums that I enjoy the first time through, because I almost invariably get tired of them before long. That being said, while I enjoyed the first listen a lot, I found plenty of justification to keep listening, and I’ve yet to be disappointed by a subsequent listen. The first time through, I was mostly struck by the aesthetics. She’s definitely not one-dimensional, which I appreciate. As far as vocal production and melody go, I definitely hear Lana Del Rey, Metric, Kimbra, and Coco Sumner to name a few. Those are all good sounds, and the mix makes all the elements infinitely better. More than just the vocals though, her beats and her mixing are immaculate. The only exception I can come up with is Team: I think the beat on that song is really underdeveloped. It feels a little bit like she just phoned it in (although, apart from the beat, the overall production of the track is exceptionally good). Maybe the most striking element of the album (aesthetically) is the dynamics of the tracks, especially the transitions between the typically minimal verses and typically thick, saturated hooks. There’s not a single track of the ten that stays in the quiet, nor a single one that fails to provide lulls between the heavy-handed hooks that drive the album. And the transitions themselves are really well-worked. They are often sudden (think Tennis Courts or A World Alone) which gives them a power that is often missing in this kind of music. However, they are also graceful and complex. The brilliance of Ribs is that the verses and the choruses are almost identical lyrically, but the choruses are rephrased with a force and precision that counters the meandering of the verse melody. White Teeth Teens introduces multiple melodic fragments that are all equally qualified to be main hooks, and the trick of the song is the seamless transitions between the fragments (and, eventually, overlapping them). I suppose that, in describing the aesthetic elements of the album, I’ve really strayed into song construction. So much of writing electronic music is about throwing away the grid and introducing musicality into songs that are fundamentally based on structure (I am making the controversial claim that good music inherently contains imperfection or disorder, but I’ll assume that most people can go with me on that thought). Point being: she does this extremely well. At no point do these songs become boring. They are exactly as long as they need to be. If there is a minute left in the song, there is some musical element that has not yet been introduced. She saves a shift in the base beat until the final minute of the song several times on the album (notably on White Teeth Teens, where she brings in a sample that cuts the time in half, and then takes it away after four bars). The slow reveal does so much for development within songs, which in turn makes the whole album feel more developed. I truly think that, even though comparisons to contemporary female electronic artists are easier to make, Lorde might be more rightly compared to somebody like James Blake. Obviously it’s not a perfect comparison, because she’s much more pop-sensible, but her level of craftsmanship surpasses that of Lana Del Rey or Ellie Goulding. She doesn’t write really good hooks. She writes really good songs, which contain really good hooks. That’s where I see comparisons to the true geniuses of electronic music rather than this whole electro-pop movement.

    However, none of that stuff is really the reason I like the album. I like the album because of the intangibles. There’s honesty and hope and, yes, attention to detail. By ‘honesty’, I’m partially referring to the immaturity of the music. She’s not trying to be thirty, and that’s refreshing. There are lines about a boy seeming grown up because he can drive, lines about the drama of being in high school. Even more than that, there’s a line, “I’m kind of older than I was when I reveled without a care,” seemingly claiming that she’s all grown up…and she clearly isn’t. That in itself says so much about the maturity of the music. It’s not yet all grown up, and that’s fine. She consistently fails to keep her meaning as close to her chest as most artists do. Many of the songs can be taken at face value. Much of the imagery is obvious, and there are times when she simply skirts meaning in favor of an easy rhyme. But the thing is, the immaturity doesn’t take away. There’s growth in the album. The most compelling development of the album is how the central concept of the album (which I might label “aloofness”) is reinterpreted. At the beginning, the aloofness described (especially in the first three tracks) seems to be derived from self-consciousness. It’s the appearance of aloofness that is important. The first message of the album is self-interested: “never not chasing a million things I want.” By the end of the album, the aloofness is not an end in itself, nor is the central concept self-interested. The pivotal line of the final song is, “you’re my best friend, and we’re dancing in a world alone.” The album ends with the lines, “people are talking, people are talking, let ‘em talk.” The aloofness is still there, but it’s not an end in itself; it’s simply a result of a deep affection. Then, if you’re listening on a CD player like I am, the album starts over, and it begins with the line, “don’t you think it’s boring how people talk?” The album isn’t set up as a circular album; rather, it’s set up with book-ends. At the beginning, the judgement of others is an object of derision, and it’s also a point of concern. At the end, it’s no longer relevant. It’s a much more blatant sort of theme than most, and I love its simplicity. Pure Heroine contains a ton of gaudy imagery and boasting, but it also contains a level of vulnerability that makes the whole thing work. As an album, it’s complex enough to yield new insights with every listen, but it’s also limited enough to be cogent and compelling. Hopefully it’s the first of many well-formed albums from Lorde. Perhaps she says it best herself in the album notes: “I poured my brain and heart into this, and maybe I’ll hate it in two years, because that’s the nature of being my age, but for now, it’s the most powerful thing I can give.”

    One note: I’ve treated Lorde as the solo project of Ella O’Connor, but the producer, Joel Little, probably deserves just as much credit. He is responsible for much of the instrumentation, as well as a fair amount of the artistic direction.


  6. I was listening to music with the most amazing girl the other day,

    and she pointed out how great this one line is in Andrew Bird’s song, Near Death Experience. “And we’ll dance like cancer survivors/ like we’re grateful simply to be alive.” It is a really great line, in a great song, on a great album.


  7. A good example.

    I always find myself defending the view that music really ought to be listened to in albums. My usual line of reasoning is that (good) music can only be understood in context. Then, if whoever I’m talking with actually engages the conversation, I usually have to come up with some examples. The problem is, my examples tend to be albums that only make sense as a unit. And most people never really listen to albums like that. So, this is where my new example comes in. It’s the song You Can Call Me Al, which is a huge fixture of 20th Century American pop music, almost inarguably. Here’s the thing: it’s on Paul Simon’s groundbreaking album Graceland. That album is a fusion of American folk-country and South African township jive music. Every track on the album has an element of both strands of music (usually, the vocal and subject matter tend towards the American, and the rhythm and instrumentation tend towards the African). You Can Call Me Al is actually a really strong example of the fusion element of the album. However, without the rest of the album, a lot of the obviously African elements don’t stand out from the American pop music of the time. To understand the song, in its truest meaning, the listener needs the rest of the album. I don’t really want to break the whole thing down at the moment, but I think the general point stands. The real point I want to make is that, while this is a famous and fairly well-understood example, a ton of music fits into the context-specific model. And that alone should be an argument for listening to music in its most natural units (which, for most music recorded between the 60s and now, is the album).


  8. I have a particular friend

    whose friendship is somewhat sporadic. Today, we “talked” for the first time in months. I was describing how my life has been lately, and I typed,

    "I’m learning to be happy with who and where I am (never losing sight of where I’m headed) and I’ve decided that the purpose of my college education is to become a better person, so if a class isn’t making me better, I won’t take it. It’s working wonderfully. I’m getting better at handling myself. My calling is to make things and to love people, and maybe to teach them stuff sometimes. I would love to have a family of my own. I know God but I don’t know him all that well. I’m not worried about it, I’m just excited to see where the years take us. He’s not worried either. I’m better when I am focused on a task, or when I’m too busy caring about other people to remember that I’m scared of them. I have never been happier, but I think I will be. I am not scared of sadness, and I’m not scared of happiness either. They are both my friends. That’s me."

    It’s all rather idealistic, but I can’t poke holes in it at the moment.


  9. It’s been too long

    I need to make some meaningful art. Creation is a practice that fades when neglected, and it’s been entirely too long.


  10. The power of individual experience

    I was talking to a good friend the other day, and he made the claim that the crux of postmodernism is the secondhand experience. That is to say, many times we do things simply to be able to say we did them. We’re too busy taking a vine of a concert to actually be present at the concert. We’re thinking of the best way to tell the story of the time we went on a spontaneous road trip instead of actually being engaged in the experience of going on the road trip. We live in the secondary experience. 

    I definitely see myself doing this a lot. Of course, one of my first instincts was to try and apply this idea to music. I think concerts and even recorded music are often “consumed” for the sake of having experienced them. They fall prey to the secondhand experience, and thus they lose some of their value. When I think about the times that I experienced music for the music’s sake, rather than for the sake of the experience, I realize that those times were much more formative to me. We can’t be changed by experiences that we have passively for the sake of experience.


  11. In Honor of Seamus Heaney

    He swore that he would dig with his pen,

    and he did, page by page,

    year by year, ‘til one day

    he stood in my Town, breathed my air,

    and left me changed.

    His words, penned so many years past,

    came down upon me, and even the most tenuous spaces,

    the little pin-hole inside a lowercase e,

    the slow breath at the end of a page,

    dug up those deepest parts of me,

    buried under all the ashen mulch so lately fallen on my life.

    That was, I think, his art.

    He brought the long-buried fossils of the spirit up to the air,

    fashioned them into tools.

    And now he is gone.

    Now he breaks ground one final time, his body the spade.

    As he enters the sod, his Creator looks down,

    proud of his son, the latest in a long line of creators.

    The world shall shake itself quick and carry on,

    yet it is better for having heard such a man speak his word.


  12. Reversal

    One thing I have been thinking about lately is reversal in music. Because a lot of the music I’ve been working on this summer is rooted in the juxtaposition of the beauty of love and the pain of love lost (and, often, the almost instantaneous, jarring transition from one to the other), I’ve really been overt in reversing the trajectory of my songs at times. The two saddest songs at the moment are tentatively named “Doubt” and “Darkest.” I am quite certain that everyone (myself included) will get them mixed up if I don’t change of of their names. But I digress. Both songs start out describing a love affair. “Doubt” talks about a love that takes a lot of work, but is still rooted in a deep connection. The chorus simply states “(But) I’m still in love with you/ I never loved anybody else/ Oh, I’m still in love with you.” However, the chorus changes at the end. As the song progresses, the couple find it impossible to bridge the gap that has grown between them, and in the last chorus, they sing new words to the same tune: “So what is love to you/ Oh, what is love to you?/ I doubt if I knew you/ I doubt I knew you.” And that’s how it ends. The strongest conviction of the song, that “I still love you,” is replaced with betrayal. Something about the fact that the words are sung to the same old tune make it that much more obvious that the old love has been erased, replaced with a gaping hole.

    "Darkest" is even more jarring. It’s a song about learning to accept love from someone else. As the narrator comes to feel the unconditional acceptance of his lover, despite her knowledge of his deepest flaws, he asks, "how could I earn your love?" Then comes the chorus: “‘Cause you know me, and you know my darkest side/ You just hold me, and you tell me not to hide." And just when the narrator comes to understand that he has not earned her love, but that she has given it to him freely, just as he comes to accept her love and be transformed by it, the final chorus comes. "Oh, you loved me, but that never was enough/ You still left me when push had come to shove." Out of nowhere, the unconditional love that is saving him is stripped away. The song gives no explanation. All you can do is feel the jarring pain of love lost without reason, sung to the same tune as that first realization of what true love feels like.

    I think it’s really powerful to be able to communicate that sort of pain. It’s not easy to sing these songs, especially because they are quite autobiographical at times. But I think that they are songs worth singing, and for that reason I can’t put them away.


  13. Debrief

    So, a few days have passed since my first session that will hopefully go into some sort of self-release. After letting the ink dry a bit, here are a few of the things I learned, noticed, or generally feel compelled to comment upon.

    First, I have realized just how deficient I am in the mixing/mastering department. Maybe even producing, on some level. That is hard to swallow, but hey. Only one way to get better, right? 

    Okay, I’ll be done with bellyaching. Overall, the actual material was really good, so I don’t have much to complain about. Second random thought: I approached listening to music really differently this time around, and it really helped. Basically, I did a bunch of stuff to avoid ear-fatigue, and one of the main things was that I pretty much only listened to electronic music and hip-hop the whole time I was recording. That really helped with ear fatigue, because all the electronic stuff worked as a good palate cleanser when I was taking breaks. It also had the advantage of isolating me from a lot of my natural influences, which forced me into a place much more conducive to originality. When you have James Blake and Australian electro-rock stuck in your head, the acoustic folk parts you write tend to be a little more out-of-the-box.

    One thing that has been cool is being able to hash out what some of my biggest influences have been. First, there was a lot of Grizzly Bear, which was most helpful in introducing me to Chris Taylor’s views on songwriting and producing. One of the things he’s really big on is going outside of music to find artistic influence. In his view, if you write a song with another song as an inspiration, you’re bound to produce a cheap knock-off. I’ve definitely done my share of that, but I have been conscious of it this summer, which has been infinitely helpful. Another huge influence was the influx of radically different songwriting styles I got when I became enamored with Andrew Bird and Paul Simon (thanks to my friend Madeleine for getting me into both of them, although either Jake or Spencer was the first to introduce me to Andrew Bird if I remember correctly). Both Simon and Bird are incredibly verbose in writing music, and their music challenged me to try some different uses of narrative and absurdity in songwriting. It has definitely shown. I also really got into the melancholy-romantic-drama-usually-ending-in-a-breakup niche of movies, for obvious reasons, and I think that greatly affected the way I tell stories in music. So many of those movies hinge emotionally on moments of silence, on little bits of imagery that communicate the feelings of the characters subtly rather than overtly. I think that use of symbols and abstract imagery has crept into my writing style substantially.

    I suppose another thing to comment on is that I really gained a bunch of artistic insight through the first session. I’m starting to get a feel for what some of the more abstract lyrics actually mean (I know it sounds backwards to decode your own lyrics, but here I am. Call me a deconstructionist.), and musically the some of the under-developed material really grew into itself. I’m excited to play some of this stuff live now that it is newly revitalized. 

    I’m also starting to see where the music could be headed in the next few months. I’ve traveled pretty far down the whole deconstructed-folk road this summer, and I really like where that’s gone, but I think that I’m moving towards a much more stripped-down style. Probably somewhat loop-based, which is scary. We’ll see.

    Anyway, I’ve now moved into the realm of straight-up rambling, so I suppose I should shut it down for a while. Bottom line: the first few pieces of this thing have come together really well, but I can’t ride that success. It’s time to get back in the trenches and do more heavy lifting.


  14. Day 5 of Recording

    Today (technically yesterday by this time of the night) was really good, given the limited time we had to get stuff done. I officially have vocals on all the tracks. I’m going to spend some time tomorrow patching up vocal tracks, adding some background parts, and perhaps beginning the painfully tedious process of mixing. Overall though, I’m really happy with where I’ve gotten thus far. These songs have taken on a new life in the studio. They have actually become full-fledged songs now, and I’m deeply pleased with how they’ve grown over the past few months.


  15. Day 4 of Recording

    Today I got an entire song tracked. It was the same song I started yesterday, but we ended up scrapping everything from yesterday and replacing it with better material from today. I’m really happy with how it turned out. It’s going to have some serious power once I finish adding the final details and polishing it. That said, I’m on pace to be completely done with this session tomorrow. That’s a really relieving prospect. It’s going to feel amazing to come out of a session and say that I’ve accomplished all my goals.

    Tomorrow’s going to be a lot of vocals, since basically all the guitar has already been tracked. I can only hope that it’ll go well and I’ll finish strong.