Monday, October 27, 2008

The Eight Year Folly

I made a particularly foolish decision when I started to write seriously, but it was probably the best decision I could have made.

I always had a facility for rhyme and meter as a kid, and wrote verse – doggerel mostly – for peoples’ birthdays and whatnot. My Junior Year English teacher despaired of my ever doing anything worthwhile with my talent. By the middle of college, I abandoned writing as a hobby from my childhood.

Many years later, in 1995, after years of thinking that “I can certainly write something at least as good as *that*” I bludgeoned myself to sitting down and proving it to myself. See if I actually had the talent to pull something “worthwhile” off.

I started to write a song from a bride’s POV, in which, as she walked down the aisle, her whole relationship flashed in front of her eyes. I started to experiment with the five stages of death (anger, denial, bargaining, etc.). It got long, and I let it. I decided to let it be whatever it was going to be, rather than squeeze it into a box. Each section got longer, with its own verse structure, changing rhythms, changing tones, going for laughs but by the end speaking some truths from my heart through this “character.” I figure if the song were ever composed and performed it would run 10-15 minutes – a real monologue.

While I was writing that one, I thought I should try to write something “serious” and simple, with fewer rhymes, and wrote about a woman attending her mother’s funeral, while recalling a dream the night before of attending the funeral. I started with a non-rhyming verse pattern almost lifted from Sondheim’s “Pretty Woman” – this, too, grew larger and longer, creating another monologue in song.

I started to write a third, and a fourth, and the birth of my first son interrupted me for a good eight months. When I got my bearings back, I finished those two – probably the two best things I will ever write, and began to envision an entire theatrical evening of pieces like this.

The birth of my second son set me back four or five years. But I was determined to finish what I had started. And I refused to let myself write anything else until I was entirely finished with this extended piece. With the lengthy interruptions, it took more than eight years to get to a point where I could put it down and move on.

Eight years is a long time to obsess about something that will never been seen. I wrote long pieces in several styles, experimenting with forms and structures and rhyme schemes, spending months on each piece. The whole thing is terribly impractical, probably unworkable, and it will sit on my shelf gathering dust. I sometimes think of cannibalizing it, breaking off pieces for shorter works, but I can’t bring myself to take it apart.

But boy, when I had finished that project my muscles were limber as hell. I felt like I could write anything I wanted. It was a grueling period, but doing it taught me so much about expressing thoughts in song form. A foolish decision to take eight years to complete it, but it was the best exercise I could have had.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

My Life as a Record Producer....

Somehow I've taken my first little steps into "production" -- inevitable, I guess, but when I turn my head I'm not sure how I got here.

I’ve written six songs with Ian Ferrin. He’s a good guy and the songs are quite unlike any others I’ve written – these are pop ballads, a couple of which have a spiritual element to them (especially “World of Wonder”). Ian has moved on from pop songwriting, to other projects, but we have these songs and it would be nice to be able to send them out, or place them in other media. Give them some life beyond my website.

Ian and I agree that to market these songs we could use a stronger vocal to replace his own, and I’ve had it as a back burner project for a while. I’ve been looking into sending them to a studio in Nashville and hiring a demo pro, though that will be quite expensive (Nashville is a “top of the line” market). But it occurred to me that Philly has plenty of studios, and I should be able to find a good singer locally.

I do know someone with a studio that has quite reasonable rates (maybe 2/3 or less of Nashville prices). But finding the right singer is elusive. Of the six songs, some need a modern ‘pop’ sound, but some need a clearer voice, country or even theatre. “World of Wonder” is almost a Family Channel song, and “Crossing the Threshold” could work in a country market. I’m looking for a vocalist that can hit all the notes and all the styles.

I’ve put up a Craigslist ad, and gotten many responses, of all kinds. I’m trying to manage the process as best I can, giving a quick listen now, and saving the e-mails and clips to evaluate carefully over the weekend. I’ve responded to all people who have e-mailed in, letting them know I’ll get back to them one way or another.

After I listen to all the entrants, I still have the option of holding off on this, or going to Nashville and spending lots more money. I’m still hoping, though.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Bagels in Nashville

Nashville is not noted for its international cuisine. The approach to food is as meat-and-potatoes and no-nonsense and down-home as its approach to music: Real, authentic and with country roots.

So finding a decent bagel is not an easy proposition. They are a very, very New York phenomenon, and as any bagel snob knows, a real bagel is boiled before it is baked. (My unscientific and totally unfounded theory about why "good" bagels can be frozen and microwaved is the water content from the boiling process).

Luckily, one "authentic" chain, Brueggers, has two stores in Nashville, one downtown and one to the south-west a bit, close to where I was staying. And good thing, as I had promised to bring bagels to Jen Foster's for breakfast.

Jen Foster lives in Nashville, but is not a "Nashville artist." She is an "indie pop" artist, creating catchy ballads about the usual stuff of life (breakups, high school, love, remorse, joy, vacations, Home Depot, etc.) with a strong pop sound. She grabs effortlessly (it seems) for catchy hooks and is a first-rate lyricist, speaking and singing from her heart. And as an out lesbian, with a strong gay fan base, she does not move in the same circles as most Nashvillians (or as we joked, "Nash-villains").

But the label both defines and constricts her in an unfair way. Her music transcends any gender politics, as her numerous awards (Great American Song Contest, International Acoustic Music Awards, John Lennon Songwriting Contest) will attest. Take a listen to her newest song, "Closer to Nowhere," about the dead-endedness of most peoples' lives. This song won First Prize in the AAA category of the International Songwriting Competition last year.

Which is how I met her, as her name and picture were just below mine on the winners' page. I e-mailed her a congratulations (and it turned out we had a couple mutual friends). Several e-mails and missed phone dates later, I got together with her while I was in the city.

In person, she is warm and open and at a place in her life where she's quite comfortable with who she is. If we hadn't both had prior afternoon commitments, we might have just talked all day. It was a great visit and hopefully the first of many. She's like bagels in Nashville - tough to find, but of high quality and worth searching for.

Her new CD will come out in 2009, but four songs from it are currently available on "Songs From Thirty-Nine."

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Young Queen Coles

There’s much to say about Nashville, of course, and much of it has been said many times. This was my second visit, but only my first to really explore the music scene/business.

I have been told repeatedly and often that the Nashville scene rewards long-toiling residents, and is mostly closed to outsiders, carpetbaggers and their ilk. That’s probably true. It is very much a handshake, workshop, community town. And that’s not a knock, it’s perfectly understandable. You work with the folks who are around you all the time, and Nashville is so overpopulated with incredible musicians and great writers, that working remotely with an out-of-towner is an alien prospect.

Doesn’t stop a guy from trying, though.

I had a very good sit-down with Ralph Murphy of ASCAP, a courtly and eloquent gentleman with years of insight into the business, who gave me hard truths in the nicest possible way; and another good sitdown with a songwriter/self-publisher who gave me both en- and dis- couragement, and some good general advice.

I finally met my friend and co-writer, Eduard Glumov of Kazakhstan, and we took in Writers’ Night at the famed Bluebird CafĂ©. One great writer/singer after another. I enjoyed the enthusiasm of a guy named Maury Davis, and both of us were taken by a singer/writer named Julie Forester. Julie is a demo singer, and commits to her songs in a major way, approaching them as an actress as much as a vocalist. She thought her way through each ‘beat’ of the song, as a Yale Drama student might. Both Eduard and I wanted to talk to her about co-writing.

The next night, I caught up with Julie at a solo gig she was doing, at a bar that was a lot harder to find than it looked like on the map. I wanted to show up (because Nashville is a “showing up” town), and chat a bit more, before moving off to Writers’ Night The Blue Bar (a great disappointment, as when I got there, I found out they weren’t doing Writers’ Night that evening). She kept imploring the crowd to hang around for the other act, a lady named Coles Whalen, as she was “fierce.”

I hadn’t intended to stay, but “fierce” only begins to describe Coles Whalen. She sang with an intensity and commitment, with exemplary musicianship. Her songs were all closely observed mini-acts of sex, contrition and absolution. The performance and the musicianship were always fierce, the lyrics all good and in some cases exemplary. You should watch her video performance of “Wrecking Ball” and listen to “So it is” which is a lyric I wish I had written. That I wish I *could* write.

More Nashville later on, in particular a wonderful visit I had with Jen Foster, but she deserves more than a desultory paragraph….