Friday, August 26, 2016
Sunday, August 21, 2016
A striking resemblance
It's late "winter" (such as it is!) here in Brisbane, Australia -- so I was wearing a stocking cap indoors, because I was cold. (Cleverly, homes in Brisbane tend to not have "central heating", because -- Hey! -- we're subtropical.) I looked in the bathroom mirror, and thought, "I know who **I** look like...!!!"
Guitar not included.
Thursday, August 18, 2016
My songwriting processes and approaches
Very occasionally I'll "work at" writing a song -- but in general, my better songs aren't labored over.
Usually I'll just hear a phrase -- or a phrase will run through my head -- and I'll take it and run with it. The trick -- the magic -- is recognizing the phrases that will make good song ideas.
For example, back in the mid-'90s I was at my summer job and Jill, who sat at the next desk, was looking in Beth's direction and mumbling something. Beth asked her to say it again because she didn't hear her, and Jill replied, "Sorry -- I was looking at you, but I was talking to myself."
Ooh!!! So I wrote that down, and that phrase became a song: "Looking at You, but Talking to Myself".
As another example, about a year ago a co-worker was heading off for the day, and he said "Well -- I'll see you guys on the other side of midnight." I liked the line -- so I wrote down some lyrics that evening, and worked out the chords -- and the next evening I recorded a quick version of it.
So, that's my songwriting process. Usually the words just come pouring out of my head -- if they're going to come at all. Occasionally, for the songs that indeed reach completion, they're written in a single block of time -- with a few pauses to think of the next line -- but generally they come oozing out within fifteen or thirty minutes. Although, when I later review the song and sing through it, I'll improve the words if I think of better words or better lines.
And it will often happen that when I've been singing my recent song to myself over the next few days, that I've been singing certain words "wrong" -- which indicates that the way I've been singing them are better, because it has a smoother flow than how I'd originally written it.
For the typical structure of my songs.
My three basic songwriting structures are either (1) narrative, where each verse builds upon the other, or somehow progresses the story or further describes the situation; (2) deeply symbolic and "sideways" rather than narrative, in that there's no real journey or progression; or (3) re-interpretations, where I have a catchy phrase for the chorus, and then each verse interprets the phrase differently, with the quirkiest or least-expected interpretation saved for the end (i.e. when developing the song, the order of singing is sometimes not the order in which they were thought of).
The first approach ("narrative") is fairly typical, so I won't explain it further -- except to note that when I (one of these days!) get around to submitting some of my songs to a publishing house, I think that a lot of my songs would do well in the "Country" realm, because they're fairly melodic and narrative: they tell a story.
A good example of the "symbolic" approach is a song I wrote about a woman I had a crush on (and was vaguely friends with) back in college, called "Nightsprint". For example, "My window sees the face that's seen the Silver Wall" means that my dormroom window faced across a plaza to the side of the dormitory that her room was on, and that she'd once visited the Great Wall of China".
In the same song I wrote "She can't be plotted without staring at "V". What I meant was that to plot three-dimensional objects, you use X, Y, and Z axes; for four-dimensional plots you'd need (presumably) "W"; but she's five dimensional, so you'd need five axes -- staring with "V" (through "Z").
These sorts of songs are fairly "Lewis Carroll", in that no one would understand their underlying meaning because they're so heavily encrypted.
Finally, the third, "three different interpretations" approach is reflected in the "Looking at You But Talking to Myself" song that I mentioned above: the first verse is about my gabbing away on a date, just to hear myself speak; the second was about a friend who felt that talking to his then-wife was like talking to a brick wall; and the third verse was a literal recounting of Jill's statement.
Similarly, my recent song "I'll See You on the Other Side of Midnight" has a man who's going to bed early, but maybe his wife would wake him in the morning; a sea captain weathering a stormy night, but it should be fine in the wee hours; and a man on his deathbed.
I also typically don't have bridges -- because I feel that they generally spoil the momentum of the song. However, I'll very occasionally have a brief instrumental break -- just for a quick change-of-pace.
Note that I don't consciously choose any of these approaches: it's just how the song spills out.
In terms of arrangement and instrumentation, I tend to not use fancy harmonies: my chords are either power chords, or major or minor chords (mostly major chords). However, occasionally I'll be messing around on the guitar, and stumble across a chord shape that's useful. But I don't know the technical name for it (diminished/augmented/sixth/whatever).
My basslines are either steady eighth notes; simple riffs based on the root notes of the chords (i.e. when the chord changes, the bassline riff shifts to the new root note); or a riff that complements the vocal melody.
In fact, I have two types of basslines: either they're the heart of the song, and the vocal melody and the guitar part are in response to the bassline (e.g. "Mona Lisa Smile" [although Guitar Cousin wrote the guitar part]; "Moon Amie"), or else they're written in response to the melody line.
I totally cannot do the "Pearl Jam" thing of having an instrumental piece and then just laying a vocal melody on top of it: I prefer having the vocal line embedded among the other instrumental lines.
Most of my songs tend to be a straightforward "vocals, guitar chords, bassline, drum machine" arrangement -- sometimes with a simple guitar riff. Occasionally I'll intentionally keep it simple, and just have "vocals plus guitar chords" (e.g. "Psych Smile").
Sometimes I'll be quirky, and intentionally omit the drums, or the bassline -- because I think the song doesn't need it.
And sometimes I'll add in a keyboard (synth) part, or other instruments.
One of these days I'll record "real" drums -- but I haven't had the time or the setup to do so. Although, on a song that I'm working on right now I intend to record some cymbals and floor tom in addition to the drum machine: they're more as an "effect", so it won't matter that the tonal quality of the cymbals and tom won't "match" the drum machine sound.
And, particularly on the simpler songs, I'll subtly change the arrangement throughout the song, just to provide some (subconscious) variation to maintain some interest: for example, on my cover of Beat Happening's "Bewitched", I change the drum machine pattern and the bassline that are underneath each verse.
I also like to engage in some studio trickery, now and again -- just to maintain listener interest. For me, the arrangement and the recording process is an integral part of the "song": it's a component of how I imagine the final product. So I add things like sound effects, vocal samples, and quirky things like guitar feedback and recording things backwards (or rather: recording them forwards, then flipping them). But only if it suits the song.
I tend to write the music from instinct and from "sound", rather than from any strong knowledge of music theory or an intentional manipulation of the listener. In other words, I'm not thinking "If I move from a seventh chord to a diminished minor, that will emphasize a feeling of tension." I don't know how to do any of that.
I write the vocal range for the melody to suit my own voice -- because that's what I hear in my head, and that's what I get when I hum it to myself. Although one of these days I might write something for someone else's vocal tone and vocal range.
I write the instrumentation to my own level of ability: if I actually spent more time playing music, I'd probably come up with more complicated guitar parts, "actual" keyboard parts, and etcetera. Although: I generally prefer other peoples' "simple" songs (rather than over-arranged), and feel that as artists and bands get more musically skilled they tend to write songs that aren't as catchy and punchy as the ones they wrote early in their career -- when they were still learning their instruments.
Because I'm a one-person band, I have complete freedom in the instrumentation of my songs. In contrast, a "real" band typically has to find a role for each band member in each song. For example: when They Might Be Giants were a duo (multi-instrumentalists!), some songs might have tuba, or accordion, or keyboards, or whatever. This meant that each song had different instrumentation: whatever suited the song. Then, after a few albums, they assembled an actual "band": thereafter, each song was "vocals, guitar, bass, accordion/keyboards, and drums" -- as reflecting the band line-up.
Lyrically, I try to avoid "typical" rhyme schemes ("moon"/"June"/"soon"...). And I try to have clever turns of phrase and the occasional insight. But some of my songs are (intentionally) just plain old stupid fun (e.g. "All I Want (is to Be With You": "I like the way you drive // I like the way you dance // I like your shoes // And I like your pants").
That's about it. Except: Cheryl Quade -- if you ever Google your name and come across this, ping me: I have mp3s of two songs about you that I wrote and recorded, back in the '90s. You may as well have copies of them: they're pretty good (I think), and vaguely flattering (i.e. "kindly/nice, not mean").
Wednesday, August 10, 2016
Not bragging, just saying
As I've mentioned before, this blog is an extended letter to my kids -- kind of like the hologram of of Jor El (Superman's dad) in the first Superman movie with Christopher Reeves.
Because of that, I'm going to break from my usual modesty, and note a few things that I do that I hope my kids will someday emulate. And I'm fine with my two or three "readers" listening in.
In other words, squids (what I sometimes call my kids -- because I like to play with language) -- what I'm about to describe is part of who I am -- and I hope that, to some extent, you end up like this, too.
Different people say that money is good for various things. Your grandpa (my dad) says that money buys options. For other people, money buys freedom.
For me, the power of money is the ability to help people: to make other people a little happier -- or at least, a little less sad.
For context: my household isn't wealthy. We do okay -- but our expenses are somewhat high. I'm just a mid-level office worker (for the state government), and my wife is a college professor.
Here are some examples of what I do:
-About once a week I bring food to work, and leave it on the breakroom table. Nothing fancy -- just a bag of corn chips, or some banana bread (store-bought, not homemade), or the like. I used to announce it by e-mail, but I got embarrassed by people saying "Thanks" to the whole group, so now I just dump the food and run. It costs me maybe five to eight bucks each time, depending on what I buy -- but that price is worth it to me if I know that it makes people a little happier. Plus, as my paternal grandmother would affirm, "Food is love".
-There's a bi-weekly magazine that is sold by homeless/impoverished people, called The Big Issue. Besides two different "audio recording" magazines, The Big Issue is the only magazine I read anymore. The price is $6; I always pay $20. Because I figure the vendor can use the money. And it makes him/her happy.
-I intentionally over-tip -- often about double what you're "supposed" to tip. Because it amuses me.
-A few years ago when I was visiting Seattle in late December, my cousin and had lunch at an IHOP. For some reason it was oddly quiet: besides my cousin and I, there was only two other customers there. On our way out (after we left a tip on the table), I chatted with our waitress and the other waiter, and one of the two cooks, who were all just hanging around and waiting for some customers to arrive. And restaurant workers earn most of their money from tips. So my cousin and I headed out to the car, then I excused myself to go back inside, and I gave them a "bonus" $100 to split among them -- just because it amused me (and I figured it would make them happy). So, Merry Christmas, I guess.
-I usually buy The Big Issue from the same lady, starting maybe half a year ago (? - I've lost track). She's going through chemotherapy, so she only sells the magazine on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays -- because Tuesday and Thursday mornings she has chemo, and that basically wipes her out for the rest of the day. So a few months ago she was gone for about three weeks, and I was beginning to worry. When she finally returned, she said that she'd had double pneumonia (apparently, chemo messes up your immune system) and had just got out of the hospital -- so she was down by three weeks' income as was worried about paying her (low-income) rent and etcetera. So I went to the bank and withdrew some money and gave it to her in an envelope -- but told her not to open it until she got home.
-There are occasional fundraisers at work, as well as collections for "going-away" presents. I always donate fifty bucks, because the fundraisers are for a good cause, and it would be sad if only a piddling amount was collected for that person -- so I "load" it so that the total will (by definition!) exceed fifty dollars.
-Sometimes people bring in boxes of candy bars, as a fundraiser. I'll quietly ask the person if I can buy an entire box. When I do, I stash it under my desk until the fundraiser is over, then dump the contents into a big bowl and leave it on the breakroom table (I don't want to undercut the fundraising sales by flooding the market with free candy bars at the same time).
I rarely talk about this stuff, so you kids don't know about it. But it's "what I do". And, now that I think about it, I've been doing variations of this since I was eighteen or so. Two prompts: Abe Beeson; two co-workers from The Uptown.
And, I've read -- somewhere -- that the truest measure of generosity is when you help (or donate) -- and no-one knows that it was you. Whereas when you make a public donation, that's really just Public Relations.
Similar to donating money, I'm willing to go out of my way to help others -- although, kids, I don't want to to do this blindly: I don't want to you get into a dangerous situation by blindly helping others (e.g. helping a fake "stranded by the side of the road" person and getting robbed).
-Some people from my church were getting rid of a small "living room"-style organ. I mentioned it to a co-worker, who was interested, but didn't have a way to transport it -- so I took a few hours to pick it up from the donators' house, drive it to my co-worker's place (who lives a surprising distance away!), and helped him get it into his house.
-At work there used to be two or three cutting boards -- but they went missing. So when I saw some wooden cutting boards at a garage sale, I picked them up and donated them to work. And then after a few months those cutting boards got lost, so I went to the cheapy store and bought three more cutting boards (bamboo, I think). And then some of the original cutting boards mysteriously reappeared -- so now we have plenty of cutting boards.
-The lady who sells The Big Issue sometimes need to talk. So I'll sometimes spend about half my lunch break just talking -- or listening -- to her.
-At the last place I worked, one of the stalls in the Men's Room was missing the cleat, such that it didn't latch properly. So I anonymously fabricated a (slightly rustic) replacement out of wood.
-And today -- which is what got me thinking of all this -- a professor that I used to work for (I did research work for him) stopped by the office to drop off some sensitive data. In the next pod over there's a co-worker who, unfortunately, I've had a falling out with, to the extent that we're no longer on speaking terms. (It's a long, complicated, multi-faceted story: it's essentially my fault, although it spiraled out of control by a failure in communication, prompted by some mis-interpretations. Yow.) Some people think she threw me to the wolves -- but it's more complicated than that, and I still very much respect her. Anyhow, this professor does work that's relevant to my colleague's area, and she tends to hero-worship academics a bit, and has mentioned him by name -- so I asked if he had time to be introduced to someone. As it turns out, he didn't. My manager was with us, and asked who, and I paused and then said "[Name]". Afterwards, my manager said, "That was nice." But, you know -- I'm not going to not be nice to someone, just because we're not on speaking terms. And, as it turns out, this professor agreed to come by in a few months and give a presentation -- so my colleague will have a chance to meet him then.
Somewhat related: I read somewhere that it is often better to be kind, than to be right. In other words, if someone else is wrong about something, but it would hurt his or her feelings to point out the incorrectness -- just let it go. Don't "be correct", or prove someone else wrong, just to stoke your ego and make someone else feel bad in the process.
And, as some sort of context, a co-worker of mine once commented that I'm the most generous person she's ever met. (It's immodest of me to reveal this; but it's a fact that she said it. In the elevator. To my manager.) Although I'd like to think that I'm actually a caring person -- and that "being generous" is just a manifestation of my caring about people.
And -- as I think I've mentioned before -- caring about people is just an extension of my belief that I'm responsible for the well-being of everybody around me: I always have my antenna up, to make sure that people are okay.
As a coded memory-jogger to myself: my song about the number 3,700. And the precursors. (Hopefully I'll remember what I'm so cryptically alluding to.)
Now, I know you kids are completely aware that I'm not perfect. But I aspire to be gentle, and patient, and kind -- and I'm most of the way there -- most of the time! But "generosity" -- with money, and with time -- is one aspect of my character that I'm satisfied with. And I hope that -- either through genetics, or through socialization, you kids end up like this as well.
Friday, July 29, 2016
My movie review of What If
Last night I watched What If? on DVD, with Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter!!!) and Zoe Kazan.
Guy has a bad break-up, and a year later meets a woman who he completely connects with, but it already in a long-term relationship. But they become friends, and he lives a tortured life for the next year or so.
Somewhat low-key, but good pacing: I enjoyed it. Reasonably witty, with some good lines. Picked it up used for two bucks, but would probably put it on my “To Buy” list, as I can see myself wanting to re-watch it in the future.
Some implied nudity, possibly some swearing (I didn't specifically notice), and some frank sexual talk.
Worth watching if you like Rom-Coms. Also, I tend to like movies with Zoe Kazan in them (Ruby Sparks, In Your Eyes) – although I don't know if it's because she's a good actor, or because she knows how to choose film projects well.
Tuesday, July 12, 2016
Amusing pics from Japan
My folks were in Japan a little while ago, and my dad sent me a few photos.
These three were my favorites.
Regarding the middle photo: In the U.S. you "get takeout" (food); in Australia, it's a called "takeaway". So, an extra level of amusement for me.
Sunday, July 10, 2016
Two of them have my grandmother's brother (long since deceased), in 1937, playing a guitar: I've posted one of the photos here.
That's pretty neat; I had no idea that anyone in the family, prior to Guitar Cousin and myself, played the guitar.