this is a blog about songwriting, the RPM challenge, booze, & the magical state of new hampshire.
i think one of the things i miss most about college is writing assignments, as much as i procrastinated on them at the time. nobody has assigned me anything real to write since may of 2007 & i haven't really blogged
in forever, as i haven't felt exciting enough to. however, i've had a lot of friends asking me what the hell my status updates are about over the past week, & today a good friend of mine (who will remain nameless in case this doesn't pan out) brought up the possibility of guest-blogging for her amazing website sometime in the future. & so i started thinking about how i'd blog about this particular project. then i started doing it in my head. then i poured myself a cocktail & decided to do it in real life.
this whole thing really starts with guy capecelatro III
. guy is a magical person who i met in portsmouth, new hampshire through my friend dylan when i went to record some tiger saw
songs with them last year in april. guy has a recording setup in his attic that has every instrument you could ever want to play with strewn about (christine
referred to it as our candy store when we were there a few weeks ago). guy lives with his magical wife pam in their magical house that is painted a billion different magical colors & is quirky & colonial (for example there are some hallways where i can't walk without making sure
to duck, otherwise i bash
my forehead into a wall or ceiling) & is in the magical town of portsmouth, new hampshire. it is pure magic. magic everywhere. after our first meeting, i went back to visit with guy in august for a house show with two of my best ladies, emilyn
& emily hope
, & this is really where the story starts.part 1, home recording.
in college i made 2 records. we used the studio in the basement of the music school
. because there were conservatory students everywhere & the studio was so fancy, it was very hard to create something that sounded simple, or unaffected. i am in no way ungrateful for that studio - i love it & the people involved with it & learned so much there. however, i was in a place, physically & artistically, where everything i made sounded really full, lush, important, & epic. the things that airplanes do was a freaking opus.
so fastforward to the tour this past august when we stayed with guy. i'd loved how the tiger saw stuff from the previous april had come out & had asked ahead of time if we could record a few of my new songs in his attic. he sweetly agreed after already hosting & playing a house show that evening, the point at which most normal people would've been exhausted & showed us where we were sleeping. we (being emilyn & me, since neither guy nor emily hope drinks) boozed ourselves up & set out to record 2 songs until the wee hours of the night, imaginary babies & judy garland (my two favorite new songs that i had been debuting, really, on said tour). & so we recorded them. i sang differently than i ever had in the school studio. i played differently (thank you gin & gingerale) than i ever had before. granted, this was also very new, different music. but i got a sound out of myself & the space & all the silly instruments that i had always admired in other musicians, really my favorite
musicians, but never been able to emulate.
this, of course, took place in the month right before i made the move from chicago to madison. i moved in october, two new songs from guy's in my back pocket & a whole bunch of space to unpack my music gear in my new place - a whole laundry room, in fact. add to this the fact that the boyfriend i moved in with (sorry ladies) had a bunch of gear that i'd never had access to before (a nice recording mic, an electric guitar, a preamp, a *real* guitar amp, etc).
once somewhat settled in madison in late october, i decided that i should make a record of the songs i'd written over the year or so i'd lived in chicago, especially since most of the songs had a pretty strong, similar current running them. i was also to the point where i was sick of airplanes, & was in the process of booking my fourth tour since the record had came out & still (with the exception of a tiny live tour compilation
) didn't have anything new to give to peeps on the road. the boyfriend & i also had decided that we would make a christmas record for our families & friends (he plays bass), & decided that we'd do it at the same time that i was making the new EP, since i'd already be in recording mode.
i bought a glockenspiel on ebay (i was jealous of emily hope's, & accordions were too expensive). i started putting down what i thought the songs should sound like. i recorded my mom's classical guitar while i was visiting for thanksgiving in texas & used it for the song that i'd imagined a classical guitar on. long story short, i finished the EP recordings all before leaving for christmas (& we succeeded in an amazingly fun & awesome christmas record, too). i used imaginary babies & judy garland from guy's house on the record because they were pretty much perfect (not to mention the fact that using them meant i only needed to record 4 songs, & i am
a procrastinator at heart), & so i mixed them & had my good friend eric boulanger
master them at the studio he works at in ojai. when i got back from christmas i had 4 days before leaving for the tour to burn the cds, print the cd sleeves & matching tshirts with my good friend & flamingo-guitar artist birdie watts
, unpack two suitcases & repack another. going from california sun to madison snow didn't make the process any smoother, but it got done.
this brings us to (almost) the next part of the story.
however, i'm going to go make myself another drink. i just wrote some kind of justification, but being a semi-grown woman, i am deleting it. deleted.
alright, new drink, back to it.
i'd made this EP that i was so proud of. so proud. incredibly proud. i couldn't wait to tell everyone about it. i listened to it in my car. i immediately sent a zip file of it to all of my best lady friends. who knows if it was just the newborn-art-realized pride or if it was something more, but i couldn't wait to push it on people at the shows, which started, (as i've implied with all the christmas-talk), on january 15th.part 2, the RPM challenge.
fastforward 3 weeks of awesome shows & adventures to february 7th when we arrived on guy's magical doorstep yet again to hang out, eat at the (magical) friendly toast, and do some more recording. as ever, guy had a million projects going and asked me to add my vocals here & there, which i always love to do when i stop in. (tangent: it's awesome to listen to a song you've never heard, come up with a line in your head, sometimes under a set of guidelines – oos on the chorus, or something with these words – & sometimes completely free to do whatever you hear. it's a totally crazy mindgame that is super rewarding, or at least that's been my general experience with adding to peoples' projects, especially in the last year or so, especially when i randomly wander in on them, such as at guy's.) we spent sunday eating at said friendly toast (which i still have dreams about now that i'm back in the midwest) & recording some of christine's new songs. & then guy asked christine & i to write some 6-word songs. & then the RPM discussion came up.
guy had kept saying, "it's february, it's february," as if it was some national month of creative craziness that we all should know about. i hadn't completely understood the RPM albums he'd given me the previous year & written it off as some project he'd done with some friends. finally as he started to explain it to the lot of us, the pieces came together - just one album in one month, it was guy
, the loveable over-achiever, who was taking on five albums
. most people just took on one. the full challenge is pretty simply explained here
& was started by the wire
, a weekly paper in portsmouth, who i knew as the people who ran one of guy's art pieces, some women
. there's an awesome radio piece (where they actually play one of MY SONGS for guy's 6-word project) here at new hampshire public radio
one of guy's (five) projects was a collaboration in which he requested the help of all of his friends to make songs with only 6 words, vaguely based on this new poetry craze of 6-word poems. i instantly said, "the internet will break your heart." so we knew we had one to put down. guy also had pages & pages of 6-word lines that he'd written printed out, & offered to let us pick through some. christine chose "i'll burn the things you left", which was pretty much in the same vein as all the songs she was writing anyway & seemed amazingly appropriate & perfect. then as joe was doing bodywork on my shoulders with his feet (which had, of course, been going on during our whole conversation about RPM) he said, "LET GO!" to which i responded, "I CAN'T!" to which he responded, "LET GO!" to which i responded, "I WILL!" which then quickly became my other 6-word song. so i had the words & just had to come up with the melodies.
fastforward two days. on sunday we'd played in portland ME & stayed the night, so monday morning found us driving back to guy's to record all day before our show with lucy wainwright roche
at the red door that evening. joe was extremely hungover & took a nap on the car ride. while he slept i started coming up with tunes in my head for my little songs. i started imagining guy's attic's plethora of instruments. when we walked into the house i said, "ok, let's go upstairs!" guy & i put down my two songs, "the internet" & "LET GO!" super fast, and with guy's amazing musical help, they came out almost exactly as i'd heard them on the car ride. really
? it was that easy to put down two songs? i was amazed, awed, & feeling pretty accomplished.
what really got me was the style
of the two songs. "the internet" is a song with my "sweet" voice & a toy piano & violin & lots of "ooooo"s (not to be confused with ooze, although it does ooze a little too -- you can listen to it on my myspace
). "LET GO!" (which is always required to have previously shown punctuation) is a song with electric guitar, bass, yelling, ME PLAYING DRUMKIT (my first time, pretty laughable), organ, and my rock voice, which i hadn't attempted to use since my high school rock band, random robot
. when we played the new songs for joe (who had been napping off his hangover still while we recorded), the look on his face was priceless. "well, they certainly are different," he said. this is only hilarious, i guess, if you know joe.
i was so excited by these new sounds that i started talking about the idea
of doing the challenge. this was on february 9th, we had a show & a day at home ahead of us, & i was expecting to get back to madison on february 14th, or very late on the 13th. the project was due postmarked on march 1st, but there are only 28 days in february. one of those days would be be valentine's day/my arrival home after a month away, & another would be my birthday (the 26th), which i planned (& still plan to) make a very big deal of. i wanted to do the project, but i just didn't think there would realistically be time, & i've done enough commiting-without-following-through to know that i feel like a big jerk afterwards if i don't get it done, so i was not ready to commit to something like making an entire album
somehow in the two days of our burlington, VT show & a day at home in lexington, MA, though, i'd decided i was going to do it. in fact, i called guy while i was walking around downtown crossing because it was so gorgeous outside & i already missed the magic of new hampshire, & i thanked him for our time & said, "yeah, & i think i'm going to do the RPM challenge."part 3, the present situation.
it doesn't seem like that was a big decision, or at least a big enough decision to warrant such a long freaking blog. it'll get there, though.
instead of stopping in cleveland like i'd planned, i drove all the way from lexington, MA to chicago, IL. it took 16 hours. there was a lot of precipitation & a lot of coffee. i even stooped to red bull at one point. i had cds & my zoom recorder
recommend it to anyone
!) within arm's reach on the passenger's seat. i started coming up with little tunes. i'd record them on the spot, sometimes speaking words that i couldn't hear melodies to, sometimes recording 5 different versions of the same song because i'd come up with one new line. songs weren't difficult things anymore, suddenly songs were any length, in any style, with any instrumentation. i didn't have an awesome attic like guy's but i had (& in fact am presently sitting in) my laundry room, & i had inklings of ideas, & i had this momentum that had smacked me in the face in new hampshire. not to mention the fact that, even without a project in mind, i usually write my best stuff on long car rides by myself.
so i got home & spent two days in the bliss of valentine's day, food, & on demand TV and after the weekend, on february 16th, i signed up on the RPM site & set out to record 10 new songs, or at least 35 minutes of new music, in 12 days.
the first thing i did was go out to buy a real glockenspiel since mine was terribly out of tune, which had proven to be kind of a problem on tour. while buying it i was convinced to also buy a snare drum because it was cheap if you bought it with the glock, and i had the cash on me, and i couldn't shake my amazingly fun time playing guy's drumkit in new hampshire no matter how terrible i was, so i bought the snare as well. and then i dug up the boyfriend's electric guitar.
the next thing i did was type up all of the lyrics that i had at that point, print them, & come up with chords for the songs based on what i'd recorded in the car, which i then recorded roughly on my zoom. that was the only thing i did in any kind of organized fashion. i've been reading peoples' updates & they seem very methodical, very practical, getting entire songs down and then moving onto the next. as a good majority of things in my life, i barreled into thi process & have continued, erratically, as such. on day one i put down the two songs that i'd formed to their fullest during the long drive. that night i wrote a bunch of new lyrics. on the next day i added more instruments & voices to the first two songs. then i took a day to keep writing & watch some tv & cook some pasta. then i took a day to laze about & do almost nothing. then on friday i put down two more songs. then on the weekend, which should've been the recording productivity's height, i nursed hangovers and watched movies instead of recording. then yesterday, monday, i put down four more songs in a 10-hour marathon session. which puts me at eight. today is the first day that i've gone back to those first two songs; i spent today going into each song to tweak, start initial mixes, and add more instrumentation. which is where i am now.
(break taken to take this photobooth picture of myself, literally where i am now. notice glock, snare & microphone surrounding me).part 4, songwriting, or Song Writing
in my freshman year of college i wrote like a madwoman, newly solo after the dismemberment of earlier-mentioned random robot
, writing songs on the piano in my dorm's common room, suddenly flooding with new music, a new place, a new love interest, new friends, new life. i did my first show, had a friend record it, and then promptly burned 300 copies and sold it as my first cd. it was a really big accomplishment for me at the time, but it was everything i'd written to that point. it was a mess of thoughts. it was not well edited. a lot of songs sounded exactly the same.
i still kind of look at my first studio album that way, too. at the time, it was the most exciting thing to date, & i wanted to cram as much on there as possible, i wanted people to get as much me
as they could (oy). & to a point, airplanes was pretty much the same thing, too – all the songs i'd written during the interim – but i only let two of the older ones on there, & these were orchestrated, arranged, & had a continuity to them. with airplanes, i felt like i was starting to make intricate songs, like maybe i was starting to be a songsmith like the artists i admired so much.
that brings us to the EP. i took the year's 6 songs (there were 2 or 3 stragglers that i'd never finished) & put them together and was proud
(see above part of this huge blog where i talk about said pride). they took a year to formulate. the songs were complicated & intricate & interconnected & fleshed out in a way that really felt right. i had subscribed to the songwriting mantra of only putting out your best possible work for, really, the first time.
the thing about this RPM project, for me, is that it's opened up something that people have been talking about for years but i've never really tried - a song a day, or "just write it for the sake of writing it". i've grown into the mantra of lots of editing, workshopping (thank you poetry school), fixing, poking, prodding, and then, once completely satisfied, trying it out live. and then eventually putting down a "real" recording. especially after putting out my first album, i accepted the fact that putting out something for the sake of putting out something isn't worth anyone's while.
and then came this project.
i'm not saying that i've completely converted, or that i'm going to start recording every stupid thing i think of & putting it on the internet. but to fulfill the project's time limit i went into old journals, found unfinished songs, let the rock songs pass through the initial filter, let every
song pass through that initial filter. and the more i let pass through, the easier i found new songs coming, and so the cycle continued and continues. i stopped trying to make songs that fit my personality or my singer/songwriter character that i've created/perpetuated/accepted/portrayed as my music has gotten more mature (that character business is totally a whole different blog all on its own). i started hearing other people, letting songs come and letting them be inspired by whoever i was listening to. "oh, this is a patty griffin folk song. oh, this is a regina spektor song from songs
when i first fell in love with her live stuff. oh, this is a jason anderson singalong song. oh, this is a kimya dawson song if she & i were hanging out with the kids at that house show i just did in new brunswick." suddenly i am making a bunch of different kinds of songs i never thought i'd make. and i'm letting their recordings be messy. i'm letting them be ragged, partially because of the time limitations, but also just for the sake of being in their natural habitat. suddenly i am on brand new ground.part 5, the present situation, part 2.
i have an entire week left. & by week i mean five days. that's a lot of time. i'm feeling remarkably confident. i think the rush of the initial songwriting blitz has worn off & i can't figure out why i'm having such a hard time with these last two songs. i spent most of today adding drums & more singing & lots of handclaps the eight already in existence. my birthday is on thursday. there is word that i might be getting a banjo from the birthday fairy. i think my subconscious is holding out on finishing song no. 9 & starting song no. 10 in hopes that i will be able to write them on a banjo. the only other issue at hand is that, since i'm on a spurt of "anything goes," most songs have been very short. i'm creeping in on 25 minutes with 8 songs and i doubt i can make each new song 5 minutes unless there's a fiery banjo solo somewhere in there.
still, most people seem to be at about 8, which doesn't seem bad for starting 16 days after everyone else. the album is so far untitled and i have no thoughts on how to make it, physically, in terms of art & such. again, i'm not worried. i will think of something.
list as of now (alphabetically, with instrumentation so far, which is not final & none of these are yet considered done):
america hugs - written on the long car ride, 3:08, voices, guitar, claps, snare, toy keyboard, tambourine, la da dum dums
guilt (killing the ghost) - written on the long car ride, 3:36, voices, guitar, melodica, claps, boom-chick, tambourine, lots of harmonies
louisa - written during tour in virginia, 4:16, voice & guitar
new england - written on the long car ride, 3:24, voices, guitar, snare, jingle bells, tambourine, glock, whoas
toy boat - written on the long car ride, 1:47, lots of voices, glock, guitar, snare, tambourine
seashore song (to winter) - written in november as a duet & then re-vamped, 2:54, voices, guitar, boom-chick, glock, shaker, toy tambourine
sing along work song - written at my desk last summer but finally finished, 2:16, guitar, voices, snare, tambourine, glock, lots of yelling with the boyfriend in the hallway
women - also written last year but now re-written & finished, 3:19, voices, guitar, organ, tambourine, snarepart 6, in conclusion.
i'm feeling pretty posi. i've been writing this blog instead of watching TV because the boyfriend is writing a paper & we have an apartment with no walls that reach the ceiling, which makes doors pretty useless (yet another blog unto itself). i will also happily let you know that i'm only 3/4ths of the way through drink number two. i feel much better now that i don't seem so boozy. however, this blog has turned out way longer than i originally intended or expected. so if you actually made it all the way through, i suggest you go & pour yourself a drink.
(song machine / boozehound)