1. 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.

     

  2. 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.

     

  3. 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.

     

  4. 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.

     

  5. Day 3 of Recording

    …was actually just an hour or two of tracking guitar, and I’m going to have to scratch most of it. It’s a wee bit frustrating, but it’s okay. I’m still making good time.

     

  6. Day 2 of Recording

    The success continued today. It really wasn’t an incredibly long or hard day, but we got an entire song done, which was a good feeling. The highlight was getting an incredibly intimate vocal on the song, which is definitely the most personal song I’ve ever written. I had already decided to be done with recording vocals, and for some reason I decided to give it one more go. That final take captured all the emotion I had channeled writing the song, and listening to it played back was very emotional for me. I can honestly say I’ve never been moved by my own music until that moment. Listening back and hearing all that raw emotion converted into music that I am legitimately proud to have written was a profound experience. It was a moment of healing and affirmation. That’s what music is at its best.

     

  7. Day 1 of Recording

    I’ve never had a day of recording like today. I got more done than I expected, I got things tracked in fewer takes than I expected, and I had more good ideas than I expected. I had more people helping than I anticipated. I got less frustrated than I expected. Partially, I know that’s a function of lowering my sky-high expectations, but more than that, I just really know these songs. I’ve poured myself out writing these songs, and they’re finally beginning to materialize. I can’t even express how exciting that is. I’m still waiting for the inevitable roadblock, but for now, I’m going to bask in what was by any standard a great first day in the studio. Which is my house, by the way. Which is awesome.

     

  8. Quick Thought

    I haven’t posted in forever, so here’s a distillation of some thoughts I’ve been having lately. In art, brute honesty, vulnerability, and other such things can be very embarrassing, because they are very intimate. The artist cannot hide behind veiled presentation or ambiguity. The artist’s soul is laid bare. However, that uncomfortability is worth it. When vulnerability and honesty are expressed correctly, they make art infinitely more meaningful. “Beauty is embarrassing.” It is embarrassing, but it is worth the sacrifice of comfort to create something that can really move people. I don’t want to hide behind art. I want art to be a vehicle for the expression of the truth of my soul. Quite an undertaking, but a worthy one as well.

     

  9. Drive

    had entirely too much blood and entirely too little of Carey Mulligan, but the soundtrack and the cool pink font and the beautiful cars made up for it.

     

  10. I’ve never heard an album that’s as meaningful and singable at once as Modern Vampires of the City. I respect that Vampire Weekend has refused to sacrifice depth or pop sensibility in making their latest album. That’s a true achievement.

     
  11. I saw this painting by Gustave Doré in the Denver Art Museum a few days ago. It was deeply moving in person.

     

  12. A thought on songwriting as it relates to experience.

    I think my best songs are rooted in experiences. And most of those experiences are bad, or at least painful. I think, in a way, if I write a good song on account of a bad experience, I have conquered it. And that’s really cool.

     

  13. I think I’ve been trading goodness for erudition. Which is a stupid trade.

     

  14. I have a new least favorite band of all time

    and it’s Neutral Milk Hotel.

     

  15. Shooting Straight

    I saw the Avett Brothers yesterday at Red Rocks. Of all the concerts I’ve been to, I smiled the most at this one. It was a beautiful experience. They have such a joy and intensity about them. It wasn’t all grins though. There were a handful of tender, beautiful moments, and a few really powerful ones (the best tender moment for me was hearing their song Offering for the first time, and the most powerful was an encore performance of I and Love and You, with the whole audience singing). The thing that lends the gravity to their best songs is often simplicity. They shoot straight. I hide so much in metaphor and imagery in my writing. I describe emotions, shades of feeling. They describe life. And they do it with a lot of power when they say it simply. Interestingly, that amazing day ended with a deep melancholy for me. I found myself feeling a deep sadness for opportunities squandered and friends lost. I thought back on old memories with a rare sense of regret. It floored me, really. I was so caught up in my head that I imagine I was rather unpleasant to be around. I think I know why: I saw myself in their music. Their tales of unrequited love, of grand errors, of the strength of the familial bond, of the cancer of self-doubt, all ring true in my soul. They are singing about me. I think that’s something really powerful, and something I hope I can do from time to time. It’s simple: if you really have something to say, something that most everyone can understand and learn from, don’t beat around the bush. Say exactly what you mean. Shoot straight.