You’re So Mean

Again I was assailed by a song idea that wouldn’t leave me in peace. I’d find myself singing this song at my desk, in the car and in the supermarket. Fun, but frustrating. So I had to make it real, make it something I could listen to on the stereo. That reduces its potency in my head for some reason.

Yes, it’s called You’re So Mean. Unusually, it has a danceable beat complete with handclaps and a sing-along chorus. And even more unusually, a lead guitar solo. It’s probably not destined to appear on an album or be used for anything, so you can download it or head over to the Listen page and see if it’s the sort of thing you’d like on your music listening device.

Enjoy. And do tell me what you think.

Notepad

I’ve been writing songs for 36 years or so, seriously for more than 30 years. Those first few years were more about emulating and wannabe-ing … which is not at all a bad way to start. You’d think though, that once I got the knack (no, that’s not a reference to the 70’s power-pop group) I’d pretty much get on with the job and churn ’em out with some regularity. Fame and fortune would of course follow closely.

But that’s not the reality of it. I have wrestled every one of those years with the fear that I was kaput, that my best songs were all behind me. It’s a rotten feeling, far worse than when someone first criticises your songwriting (although yeah, that was tough too). And every time I push through it with the help of a simple tool.

Songwriting is a craft more often than it is an art, however. It’s a skill and a discipline you master. You don’t sit on a mountaintop waiting for inspiration to strike, you have to set up your creative environment and get to work. I always say you have to finish writing 100 songs and you might find there’s a gem among them. The keyword here is finish; it’s no good to come up with that sweet riff for the intro to your great masterwork only to give it away when the verse chord progression isn’t forthcoming. The discipline of the process is to find ways to jog your creative wheels into motion. There’s a bunch of ways to do this, but in my experience the most reliable tool is your audio notebook.

I used to have a beat-up old cassette recorder that did the job. I’d sit in my room every night without fail and noodle on my guitar, usually singing meaningless words over the top. If I heard something with even the slightest merit I’d record it for 30 seconds or a minute, then move on if I wasn’t hearing the ‘next bit’.

On the odd occasion I’d review these tapes, but that cold-blooded process rarely resulted in anything new.

The real benefit of my musical snippets was when I had a partially-completed song. My personal rules told me I must finish it, but if I had no middle eight or (rarely) no chorus … out would come the cassette deck and I’d listen through, listen with intent, for that moment I could use to finish my song. Aside from being a wonderful source of potential inspiration, it took the pressure out of songwriting. If I was stuck I knew I could plunder my own ideas, squirreled away for my musical winter.

These days I have my trusty iPad 2. So reliable, so available. I have a little app that lets me record with the built-in mic, with just one tap of a button. Then I name every snippet; if I record two bits that are related I’ll give them “#1” and “#2” indicators. Some of the names I give are crazily fanciful, but it doesn’t matter what I call them – it’s just for some recognition later.

I just lay in bed and reviewed my notes from the last year. A handful of songs that sprang complete from my right brain, but mostly just interesting tidbits. I was moved to write this blog entry because I was struck anew by what a juicy resource those snippets truly are. Most of them could be dropped into a movie soundtrack to underline an emotional moment.

My advice to the wannabes out there? Do your right-brain the favour of capturing its output. Then use your left-brain to craft something out of the disparate pieces, play with the juxtaposition of light and dark phrases. Use your snippets like Lego, play and build things up, then tear them down again. This is where your building blocks come from – now go forth and play architect with them.

Bitter July

On the last day of July I wrote an email to a Sydney friend noting that July had been bitter at my home in the mountains. I did also talk about good things that had occurred, and the fact that I’d actually enjoyed being warm in my home office while it was cold and miserable outside. I sent the email, then its subject line – ‘Bitter July’ – lodged in my head.

An hour later I had the song completed. That’s how it works. I wrote my friend and sent her the lyric, told her I’d do a demo of it for her.

Then I made leek and potato soup. Yum. However it turns out that leeks aren’t quite as firm as I thought, with the result that the great sharp knife in my right hand found itself co-existing with half the top of the middle finger of my left hand. It’s quite surreal to see a knife embedded in your finger to that depth. Ow, and … ow! I got it bandaged up, but there was no guitar playing going to happen for a bit.

A few days later I went to hospital for a double hernia op. Been meaning to fix those hernias for a while, and this year I’m doing all the self-repair I can manage. This is not the middle ages, so surgery like that is pretty minor. That’s what I told myself anyway, and it was more or less true. But then again, it did involve a masked man cutting large holes in me … and I soon learned that minor surgery is still actually surgery, and surgery that cuts through your stomach muscles is going to have some side-effects.

It was, as it turned out, surprisingly debilitating. More than two weeks later I’m still in discomfort.

However, my finger came good much faster than I’d imagined was possible. When I could play drums and hold a guitar on my lap again, I set to work on getting that song recorded.

Recall that I’m now recording on my Mac with the Profire interface. It’s a very different prospect to the old analogue mixing desk, but I’m getting used to it. I’ve transferred over a bunch of songs-in-progress from the old platform, but quickly discovered that the timing was loose. I’d decided to re-record all the drums, so I pulled up some new tracks to do that. Listening to the click track (rigid timing) at the same time as the already-recorded instruments (loose timing) results in drums following the click sometimes, the guitars other times – with a predictably shitty result.

So Bitter July was an opportunity to practice a new workflow. First I create a rough drum track from the loop library, then record rough bass, guitar and vocal tracks. At this point – with a nice loud clave sound in my headphones – I can record a tight drum track. I love this step, I must admit. I’m not a good enough drummer to lay the drums down flawlessly the first time – plus I’m still crafting the emphasis within the song – so I get to play it over and over. The neighbours love it.

What I love is that after the first take I can apply the EQ, compression, even a touch of reverb, so that after every take I’m listening back to a nearly-final sound on the drums. Mind you, after a bunch of experimentation I’ve decided to stick with an unsophisticated mic setup: Rode NT-1000 on the kick, a couple of large-ish condenser mics as overheads (widely spaced to my left and right, nearly at ear level) and a Shure 57 on the snare. I’m lucky that the room has a sloped ceiling, solidly-filled bookshelves on one wall, and is open on the other wall – it’s a nice-sounding space.

With the drums down, I record final versions of all the instruments and voice. At the moment the only non-analogue instrument is the organ. I play in a rough track via MIDI then fine-tune it onscreen, adding the expression and Leslie effects after the fact. I could try to play it all neatly first time, but I need that keyboard to sit perfectly towards the back of the mix … and I’m just not that good a player!

Anyway, here’s the song for your listening pleasure.

Going Corporate

Last month and this month I had a couple of firsts: I did two corporate gigs. Although I’ve done that sort of show with bands in the past, it’s always been with seven or eight other people on stage, and I wasn’t the front guy. It’s easy to survive in a group. This time it was me, just me, and my acoustic guitar. Each night I played two sets of my own songs, nearly two hours’ worth, while a big roomful of people ate their dinners, drank their wine and chatted. The venues were ‘resorts’, i.e. big hotel-y kinda places that could host multiple conferences. I got a lovely hotel room, I was fed and watered. Felt very confident of my material, especially as I arrived hours before the gig and could just sit in my room and run through the material.

For the actual gig I dressed formally: black suit, white shirt, silver tie. It was intended a little ironically, but when it came down to it I felt like I was being respectful. I was being paid quite nicely, after all.

With a dedicated sound guy ensuring I could be heard enough but not too much, with a crowd enjoying themselves in front of me, with no responsibility to do more than offer some entertainment that people could enjoy … I felt like I was in my element. Had a great time, did a good job.

Would I do it again? Hell yeah. It was that good.

The American Accent Thing

I am easily annoyed. I think anyone who knows me personally is aware of at least one thing that totally bugs me. Very near the top of that long list is non-Americans singing with an American accent. Ever since I was about five years old, idly singing “she loves you yeah yeah yeah” in my bedroom only to be cut off by my mother yelling “it’s luv, not lurve!”, I’ve been aware of accents in song. The irony of that childhood moment is of course that I was singing a song by some English lads who were themselves emulating an American accent.

I like my accent. I like the Australian accents deployed by bands such as The Steinbecks, The Lucksmiths and yes, the Hilltop Hoods. The latter I particularly admire because hip hop is at heart a black American music form that has a powerful cultural drive, strong enough to have middle-class Australian kids adopting its words and cadences. “Yo” and “ho” are two of my seafaring-like favourites. Or “not!”, as our culturally confused youth might append.

Americans are most welcome to sing in their own accent. I heartily approve. But everyone else should stick to their own. Vive la difference!

Anyway, I was pleased to see Slate’s “Explainer” address this issue from the US perspective. It’s a brief but informative read. Nice to know I’m not alone in thinking about this issue.

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