Feedback Is A Good Thing

Last week I returned to the stage for two different performances with two different bands. Thursday night I returned to The Midway Cafe in JP as a pre-Queeraoke act. Saturday night my other band Six Times Seven returned to PA’s Lounge in Somerville for our first show in almost two years! It was almost like I was experiencing what it was like to be a real, working musician—except for the not getting paid much part, and still working a 40+ hour job. Still, it was nice to feel kind’ve busy musically. I also got some really good feedback from the Midway Show, which I’ll get to shortly.

The setlist for the Midway show was the longest yet at 13 songs. I added a number of new ones into the mix including a couple —The Longest Night and This Land — from the RPM Project back in February. It feels like a real accomplishment to be able to pull off ~1hour set.

The Midway Cafe show also had one of our largest audiences to date. One of my co-workers from my new job also surprised me by coming. Turns out he lives a couple of blocks from the Midway so he wandered on over. He’s also a musician; he plays guitar with the band Sidewalk Driver. If you’ve never seen them live, you should. At the very least go to YouTube and look them up. They’re legit, as in they know their stuff and have played some pretty impressive gigs. Of course that means that once I got back to work I put him on the spot and asked his professional opinion of my Midway Cafe show. You know, beyond the niceties of “You guys were good…”. He laid it out and I found his feedback very useful so I thought I’d share it.

  1. Try to get backing vocals on choruses.
  2. Get a bigger amp
  3. You play with both pickups?
  4. Dress for the occasion

 

Try to get backing vocals on choruses.

The first one is interesting because it just so happens that this was the first gig where the drummer, Seth, actually did sing some backing vocals for me. He came up with the idea to double me on the chorus of “This Land” during rehearsal. I liked it and asked that he also double me on the chorus for another tune called “Going Dark” (an unreleased song). That worked out well. I did really like having someone else on vocals, so I’m psyched to do more of that where it fits.

Get a Bigger Amp

The amp I play on is a Mustang III. It’s not a bad amp, louder than my old Princeton reverb. I think I may be the only guitarist in the world who gets told to turn up. I’m pretty certain that my amp was somewhere around 4-5 on the volume setting, so before I go shopping for a new one, I’m going to try actually turning up on my current one.

You Play With Both Pickups

I loved this feedback because it’s absolutely the kind of thing that a guitarist would pick up on. I do in fact most often play using both pickups. It’s kind’ve a safe zone for me. I’m not a shredder, so I shy away from the bridge pickup. However, I feel like the neck pickup alone is more muffled than I like unless I’m going for a clean, bluesy sound. The underlying point that I’m taking from this advice is really about paying attention to my sound. I’m lazy and I don’t really spend much time crafting my guitar tone. I certainly have not invested time in figuring out what sounds best for different songs during live performances. I’ll cycle through settings all day trying to get the right thing when recording, but for performing I don’t give the details as much attention as I should.

Dress For The Occasion

This was probably the most important and interesting feedback. It’s not the first time I’ve heard something like this as a general rule of thumb. It is however the first time I’ve heard it specifically directed at me. I can no longer pretend that my khaki shorts and t-shirt are part of my “image” and not just me wearing my everyday clothes. He pointed out that it was important to let the audience know that they’re about to see a show, and how you look is part of that. It’s about branding, and uniformity onstage. Me and the dudes look like we could be having a bbq at any given show. I mean, I don’t exactly have a color scheme or anything, but this compels me to put more thought into what we look like for our next show.

Maybe I’ll rock out with some leather chaps and a fringed denim vest, crank my amp to 11, and use that hot bridge pickup! I’m jesting of course. I found the advise very useful, and even better actionable, and I plan to re-evaluate those points as a result.

Til next time,

Stevie

Mission Accomplished: RPM 2017

Third time’s the charm, I guess. I’m very proud to say that this, The Year of My Second Attempt, I completed the RPM Challenge. Jump down to the bottom for the songs without the introduction.

When I tried this last year I made two major mistakes. The first was that I really underestimated how much time it would take (or overestimated how good I am) and didn’t get a jump on it. Like, days started passing and I’d be like, “Hmmm, I should probably get started.” The second—and probably costliest—mistake was trying to get things actually sounding professional with zero skill in engineering. I was literally reading mixing tutorials while attempting to do this, and man there is just not enough time for that nonsense.

This year, I gave myself a good talking to. “Listen, you have to really focus on this being about quantity, not quality. Sure, it’d be awesome if you could churn out professional-grade recordings like some of the other folks doing this, but it’s not happening so deal with it. Also, have a little discipline. Put down the Xbox controller and make music, even if you don’t feel like it. Okay? Okay.”

I started off pretty well I thought. I actually had some song ideas that had been rattling around in my head but hadn’t been put to machine yet. I focused on those first but instead of spending a ton of time trying to get the mix just right (or learning to mix in general) I was spending a ton of time layering and adding and creating parts to get exactly the sound I’d imagined. At the end of 2 weeks I had like 3 songs to show for it. So much for quantity not quality.

Week 3 found me pulling at my hair trying to find inspiration for the remaining songs, and this is truly what the challenge is all about: making music without feeling inspired. Sitting down and forcing inspiration when nothing seems to be there. I looked to all kinds of sources to help get something going. I scrolled through drum loops for an inspirational rhythm; I used chord-generation websites to try and break out of my standard progressions; I started off with a bass line to try and shake things up. That’s how I got the remainder of the songs, and it was at that point that I was starting to work on songs that frankly, I didn’t even like.

The final weekend came. Music was all done, but I only had lyrics and melody for one song and my creativity was loooowwww. My favorite studio to record vocals was booked solid for weeks so I wound up slouched over in a closet with a mic for vox. Saturday and Sunday was essentially me on the floor in the doorway of that closet, pen and pad in hand, listening to a song, trying to come up with lyrics and a melody, jumping up to record those vocals as soon as I had something, and then moving on to the next tune. Monday I “mixed”—it’s really generous to call it that— with a little EQ, a little compression, a lot of level adjustments, and that’s it.

My thoughts on the overall project: I’m glad I did it. I feel accomplished, and I’m proud of myself for seeing it through. I regret that it became a chore though. I was working on songs that I just didn’t like, the kind of tunes that I would have simply discarded if I weren’t on a deadline, and that felt crappy. I found myself exclaiming, many times (to the amusement of my wife): “God, I fucking hate this song!” I’m also not psyched about the production value. The vocals are pitchy in places, guitar is sloppy (and sometimes poorly tuned) in others. In the end I came away with 5-6 songs that I think I can do something with, and the rest are throwaways, hence the title of the collection: “Love Like Hate”.

The Songs

56 Bars: one of the last-minute desperation songs. I started with a drum loop that I liked, then the intro guitar riff came out, and finally the chord progression. The lyrics were pieced together from an old song I’d written in high school. That song had a decidedly different tone to it in that it was poppy and upbeat and fast. It’s an okay tune I guess. High vocals were out of my range.

Alone: the chords for this came courtesy of one of those chord-generation sites. This was another last-minute song, written in its entirety over the last few days of the challenge. Lyrically I was trying to tell a story in a way I typically don’t, so I hacked these together Sunday. I;m not a fan.

Black Girl Magic: this one was done early on, and was one that I’d already had an idea for how I wanted it to go. It was conceived out of a conversation that I’d had with my wife about something our daughter had said. I plan to write a separate post about that because it’s a larger issue that I want to speak on in more depth than I care to go into here. It’s one of the songs I love, especially because of its message.

Another Song About Being Dumped: this might be one of the last ones I did, and you can tell from the title that I had kinda given up by then, lol. This is one of the ones I absolutely hate! I hate the lyrics (some of which were culled from college-era songs I’d written), I hate the way the vocals came out, and I hate the faux 70s soul rock vibe of the chorus, like I’m channeling Ace or something.

I Can’t Be Sober For This: what a departure! My daughter was inspiration for this as well, as the “duh duh” portion was something she’d made up and walked around the house singing. It was catchy and my wife and I found ourselves randomly singing it, so I decided to make it into a full song. I wanted it to be fun, what I jokingly called a “club banger”. I’d love to get someone who actually knows about mixing/producing this kind of music to fix it up.

Eirene: I love this song. It’s my favorite of them all. I love the message, I love the chorus vocals, I love the vibe. It’s a keeper that I plan to clean up and make part of my stable. I sing it all the time.

It Waits: another end-of-the-line tune that I wound up hating. You should’ve heard the first incarnation of my foray into “metal”. Anyway, the verses are fine instrumentally but the vocals are so dramatic I roll my eyes every time I hear it. I also really struggled with the lyrics (for the half an hour I tried to write them). I was inspired to write a song about war based on this quote I heard on the Stuff To Blow Your Mind podcast:

“It makes no difference what men think of war, said the judge. War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner. That is the way it was and will be. That way and not some other way.” – Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian

Just For Tonight: I hate this one too. It’s bluesy in a way that’s simply not me, and I vocally don’t carry it off well.

The Longest Night: I was lukewarm on this one until I finished it. It’s an old song. The lyrics were written during winter break my freshman year at Wesleyan University. I was away from my girlfriend (who was also my first girlfriend ever!) for the first time, and I was a Grade A Clinger. I wanted to talk to her on the phone every day, and simply could not imagine how I would survive winter break without her. She wasn’t quite as distraught about the separation, being a mature, experienced individual. It was a sign of things to come I guess. Anyway, the guitar parts I added beyond the basic chord progression, the drums, and the bass line were all created during this challenge and it really changed the feel of the song and made it more layered and sophisticated I think. I love it.

This Land: I was given inspiration for this song by a Facebook comment someone made about how I should write some sort of take on the “This Land Is Your Land, This Land Is My Land.” So I did. Although it’s definitely a little heavy on the 90s-grunge Shirley Manson vibe, I dig it and think I can work with it, so it’s a keeper.

Long post over. Let me know what you think in the comments.

Update

Well, I find it a little ironic that I’m posting this after my most recent post, “Is There Such A Thing As Too Personal?”, but it is what it is.

I’ve been pretty absent online and musically over the last few months save for a few pre-scheduled posts. I wish I could say it was because I’ve been super-busy making awesome music and doing cool gigs and such, but it’s not. In April I was diagnosed with breast cancer, and I’ve been reeling from the implications and trying to deal with it ever since.

I’m mid-discovery. I had a mastectomy this month, and am now awaiting test results to determine whether or not I need chemo and such. I don’t know what the immediate landscape is. I plan (hope) to be back at it by August, rehearsing the awesome songs I wrote B.C. and gigging in the fall, but who knows. There’s a lot of cool stuff happening around me in the music community as well that I want to get involved with again. Angelle Wood of Boston Emissions has hosted two awesome forums, The State of Live Music and The State of Live Music: Venue and Artist Relationships. I was able to attend the first; the second was too close after my surgery. There’s also an anti-gun violence event being put on by JJ Gonson of ONCE and a bunch of other folks that I wanted to volunteer for in some capacity (there’s a bigger story there that I won’t get into). I was also in the works with a local recording studio to run a crowdfunding campaign to record an EP.

Anyway, you get the drift. I was kind’ve on a roll, and I hope to catch that fire again at a later time. Until then I’m kind’ve laying low until I get a better idea of how my life is going to be in the immediate future (and maybe kind’ve how long my life is gonna be in general). I’ll update this when something musical happens (or dire I guess), but until that time know that this is why there’s so much quiet from me.

Ramblings aside, thanks to everyone who’s supported me, bought my music, or hell, even just listened to it. I hope I can give you more.

Good health and lots of love to you all,

Stevie

 

Songwriting : Lesson 4

The Lesson

Last lesson we covered rhyming, so it makes sense that this lesson would go into rhythm.

We started off with a description of how to determine line length. Line length is determined by the number of stressed syllables. Stressed syllables are syllables with a higher pitch than the others. It’s kind’ve intuitive as it follows the natural cadence of normal speech. For example, in the sentence “Magnets, industrial strength magnets” the syllables “mag”, “dus”, and “mag” are stressed. “Do you dream of them at night?” has the stress on “dream” and “night”.

Multi-syllable words have obvious delineations when considering stressed vs. non-stressed syllables, but where is the stress in single syllable words? It depends on the job or function of the word. If the word is a noun, verb, adjective, or adverb it is considered stress. This is partly why the words “dream” and “night” in the second sentence from paragraph one are stressed. Single-syllable words that perform a grammatic function —articles, conjunctions, prepositions, and personal pronouns for example— are not stressed.

So what does this have to do with songwriting? Well, the idea is to craft your lyric rhythm to match your melodic rhythm. You want your stressed syllables to fall on your stressed beats. Melodic rhythm is the arrangement of your syllables without considering any actual chords or melodies. You’re just trying to match the rhythm, the beat.

The Assignment

For this assignment we were to either use a drum sample from the provided library or come up with rhythmic accompaniment of our own against which to speak or sing our lyrics, and to rewrite the lyrics and use different words in order to make the lyric rhythm match the melodic rhythm. This is what I came up with for “Bad Neighbor”. I found this assignment a little challenging because my time signature wasn’t standard, so figuring out where I wanted or needed the stressed syllables to fall within a measure was a little difficult. This is what I came up with.

Note: I decided to sing this, and this is a very rough draft. I was under a time crunch and pretty much just tried to throw this together using my laptop and its built-in mic, so not only is the sound quality crap, my vocals are off-key and not very inspiring. The end product will be much improved.

Songs That Make Me Cry

I was listening to Spotify’s Throwback Thursday playlist last week, and a song came on that had me tearing up. It made me think about how there are certain songs that I just can’t hear without getting a little sniffly, for whatever reason. Maybe there’s something in the chord progression; maybe I can’t help but think about the movie and whatever was happening in it. Actually, since these are all from movies I guess it’s pretty clear that the latter is the case. Whatever. The point is, I’m pretty much incapable of listening to these songs in public because it makes me look like an idiot.

 

3. “The Rose”, Bette Midler

I first heard this song as a kid. I was sleeping on the living room floor. I don’t remember why. My guess is that I fell asleep with the tv on while having one of my late Saturday night tv binges; that’s kind’ve my mo. Things are a little blurry because I was still half asleep and it was a long time ago, but I have this image of lifting my head up and groggily regarding the tv as the strains of this song filtered to me. There was a woman standing on the stage, singing, and then she collapsed. I think the credits rolled at that point, and I remember being filled with this sense of dread and sadness. I was also super confused. Like, what was I watching? I couldn’t have been more than 13 or so at the time.

It left me disturbed and whenever I heard that song this wave of sorrow would wash over me. It wasn’t until years later that I found out that I had likely been catching the last few scenes of the movie The Rose starring Bette Midler as Janis Joplin. I’ve still never actually seen it because I don’t do sad movies like that. I’m already scarred on that movie from childhood anyway, so I can take a pass.

 

 

2. “My Heart Will Go On”, Celine Dion

Go on, give me shit about this, but don’t pretend that you didn’t cry during the end of this movie (or wonder why the hell Rose didn’t move over and let Jack have a little room on that “raft”). I sat in the theater with my now ex-girlfriend bawling for like half an hour after it was over. I’ve only watched the movie once sense then, and I cried just as much. It is officially on my Never Ever Watch Again list, along with such atrocities as 8mm and … well, I can’t think if anything else right now.

And the number one saddest song?

1. “The Wings”, Gustavo Santaolalla

Two words: Brokeback Mountain.

I’ll just leave you alone to cry now.

Painful Truths: Rough Review

praise_posterA few weeks ago (maybe more like a few months ago) I submitted one of my songs to this website that does music reviews. The site, which I will call The Truth —mainly because I don’t want you to go and look up the review I’m about to talk about because it’s a little embarrassing—has this format wherein every week they have a panel of reviewers who listen to three songs, live, and give their feedback after each one. They have a podcast and they also put up a video of the episode as well. I got an email this weekend that announced that my song was one of the three being reviewed in their upcoming episode. I was excited but also nervous. I’ve watched previous episodes of The Truth and I know that they don’t pull punches. If they like your music, super, but if they don’t they will be honest about that—even to the point of being a bit brutal.

I was unable to tune into the show live but I caught it later that day, and I was surprised to find that they weren’t reviewing one of my solo songs but rather a song that I had submitted for my band Six Times Seven, way back in the day of our first EP, A Lesbian, A Jew, and A Dave. Seriously, this EP came out in 2013 and I know I haven’t hawked it within the last year so The Truth is just a smidge behind in its submissions.

Anyway, I knew nothing “good” would come out of this review. For one thing, we’ve grown as a band and our music has gotten a little more sophisticated. “Somnambulist” the song being reviewed, was one of the first tunes we’d ever written as a band, and in my opinion it hasn’t stood the test of time. I elect to skip it during rehearsals and we haven’t performed it live in at least a year. I don’t feel it’s our strongest effort (though at the time of writing and recording I thought it was stellar), so when I realized that they’d be reviewing a song that’s almost three years old I new nothing good could come of it.

Something good did come of it though. Someone else put thoughts to something I’ve only recently begun to realize, and it was a painful but necessary truth.

I’m a boring singer.

sherlock-game-of-shadows

I obviously put that down for shock value because I don’t think I’m “boring”, really. I actually think my singing is my best trait musically; my best instrument. I think that I record in a boring way though. This is pretty much the takeaway that the reviewers for The Truth had, and they’re not wrong. They just articulated what I’ve been feeling when I listen back to my recordings, both solo and with the band.

It’s crazy though, because you’d better believe I don’t feel boring when I record. I can easily bring to mind what I’m doing while I’m singing my part, and there’s a lot of emotion and movement and balled fists and scrunched face—and none of that translates to my vocal delivery. I’m feeling the shit out of my songs, but I’m not conveying it. I think I’m fine live, but in a recording situation something isn’t clicking. After giving it some thought my suspicion is this: I’m concentrating too much on vocal accuracy and not enough on vocal expression. Does that make sense? The scrunched face and balled fists aren’t outward manifestations of emotion; they’re outward manifestations of me concentrating and trying to hit the notes correctly. It’s me trying to be as on pitch as possible, and I think I’m sacrificing feeling for that goal of accuracy. The first thing I notice when I listen to playback isn’t whether or not I’m believable in my emotion, but whether or not I hit the notes properly.

Some of this, as pointed out by the reviewers, is simply a need for a producer. A producer is apparently the person who says, “Hmmm…maybe you could throw some keys in here or arpeggiate the chord there…and could someone pinch the lead singer because I think she’s sleeping.” And some of it is me getting out of my own way. I think I’ve gotten better about it—i.e. I think recordings post-“Somnambulist” are better—but still not quite there.

No one likes to get bad reviews, and listening to this was a little painful ( I won’t even get into the digs on my guitar-playing, which I also acknowledge), but this was a really important thought exercise for me. I’m contemplating hitting the studio this winter to release my first solo EP, and I’d certainly hate to feel less than awesome about it when all is said and done. Luckily the person I’m considering working with is not only a veteran in the studio, and a super-talented performer and musician in his own right; he’s also a friend, and someone I can trust to work to bring out the best in my performance.

So, here’s to accepting criticism gracefully and recognizing areas for improvement. I’m hoping to use the feedback I got and my own growing awareness to make an awesome EP in the winter! yeah

-Stevie

How I Wrote This – Dawn

I saw a The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon video featuring Nate Ruess called “How I Wrote That Song” and really dug the idea of a video where the content creator could talk about the where, why, when, what, and how of a song’s genesis. I therefore decided to mimic that whole thing and make my own—sans Green Room or Blue Room or whatever color room Nate was in and the professional production and all that other stuff. This is just me in a room downstairs with the curtains pulled back to get some natural light in, and some poor editing in iMovie.

You’re welcome. 😉

Cartoon Theme Songs

Do you ever get songs from cartoons stuck in your head? There are seriously some theme songs for cartoons that I watched as a kid that I still sing to this day. I’m talking knowing all the words and feeling it. Let me share a little nostalgic road trip with you. Here are a few of my favorite cartoon theme songs.

Kidd Video Theme

That blond guy! I thought he was the hottest thing walking, especially when he does that little 80s-style dance move while playing guitar and flexing his little arm muscles. That song got me pumped though, and the show was a must-have in my Saturday morning cartoon arsenal.

Saber Ride and the Star Sheriffs

“Dat guitar riff”! Starting at 0:34. Go on, I dare you not to air guitar to that. Cheesy and wanky as all hell, but my fingers move every time. Like the intro to The Bangles cover of “Hazy Shade of Winter“, this was one of those guitar parts I absolutely rocked out on my guitar whenever I wanted to feel like I was “shredding”.

The Littles


I mean, sheer bubble gum in this theme song. It reminds me of “Oh Mickey” by Toni Basil in that rah-rah cheerleader way. I can’t listen to this tune without doing a little
carlton

Jem- Set Your Sails

This is a little cheating because it’s not a theme song. This little gem —oh, it was too easy, really —was something I discovered when my mom bought a Jem doll for me one Christmas. The dolls all came with a cassette with one or two songs on it, and I lierally played this song every day. Ridiculous.

Rubik the Amazing Cube

I have no explanation for this choice. I mean, watching it on YouTube just now I was creeped out by that wrinkly blue face. But the song is catchy, right? Just…close your eyes.

And, to throw in something a smidge more contemporary, I offer you this terrible cartoon with the ear worm of a theme song:

University of China, IL

I don’t know what Adult Swim was thinking of with this. Actually, I rarely know what Adult Swim is thinking with their programming. Assy McGee? head shake

So, what cartoon theme songs are unforgettable for you? Feel free to add them in the comments.