Monday, April 6, 2015

Three Days, Three Songs

The real title of this post should be "Seven Days, Four Songs", but that wasn't nearly as snappy.

I'm going to tell you a little bit about how my band They Stole My Crayon creates songs together, but I'll start with the exciting stuff first: we just finished three songs in three days... except a) they're not at all finished and b) instead of being made in three days, they were made in about two years. Confused yet? I hope so. It would be odd if you weren't.

Here are a few of a nearly infinite number of ways to write and record music
My current philosophy is that putting too much effort into and/or overthinking the act of writing a song is almost always a mistake. So, let's say I'm noodling around on a guitar (while I play multiple instruments, I almost always write on acoustic guitar), and I come up with some interesting series of chords that might be a new song someday. I immediately turn on some kind of recording device. The most convenient for me is the webcam on my computer. I point it at myself, press "record", and play the song. And sometimes, heh heh, I forget about them at that moment. Seriously, I forget they exist. More on that later.

More often, I share them with my bandmates, usually by popping them up on YouTube and sending them a private link. At that point, several things might happen. If neither Christina nor Bunny do something with the song (i.e. create a melody, write lyrics, or the like), the song might sit there in musical limbo forever. I might eventually pick up the ball myself and create a demo of the song. Other times, Bunny will surprise me and send over a link with audio of him singing along to this embryonic tune. It's always a fun moment when I hear that for the first time. To better illustrate some of these concepts, I'm going to tell you about four TSMC songs that we worked on over the past week.

March 29: "Carry Me Here and There"
This song (which we'll call "CMHAT" for brevity's sake) started in a fascinating way. In mid-2014, Bunny was working on one of his songwriting projects, and asked Christina and I to give him a batch of song titles that he would use as inspiration to write new songs. We randomly gave him dozens of titles. Nothing but titles. Some of them he used, but most of them sat there doing nothing. Some were very silly... I mentioned "Bad Bush Day" and "Choad of a Toad" on that group of titles. One of the titles was "Carry Me Here and There". That's all it was... a song title. On December 14 of last year, Christina told me that she wanted to try her hand at doing some music composing; not the easiest thing for someone who is a relative novice to music creation. I helped her through some ideas, and she came up with a nice little tune. And then, it sat there for a few months until Bunny, on March 16, sent over a new demo where he'd recorded some lyrics he'd written with a melody over the original live recording of acoustic guitar. Then, a week ago Sunday, I fired up my computer's DAW software and "fleshed out" the song, adding drums, bass, and keyboards, and re-recording the guitar. Then Kat and I did some vocals for it. One note: we'll often record things that we know for certain will never end up on the final version, but are helpful to keep pushing the song forward. We call those "scratch tracks". Now you know.

So, "CMHAT" is now back in Bunny's capable's hands. I expect that he'll re-do his lead vocals and change some stuff in the mix, adding and removing parts until it's closer to what we want to have on the final version. Then the song will come back to Christina and I to revise our parts. In any case, it's a lot closer to being an actual song than it was before.

April 3: "Favorite Things"
On September 24 of last year, I did something I do often: I picked up my shitty guitar and wrote a bunch of chords that seemed interesting. I video recorded myself doing it, and sent a link to Christina and Bunny. They seemed to like it, and on October 19, Christina wrote a batch of lyrics for it, calling it "Favorite Things". On January 10, Bunny took her lyrics and my chord progression, did some refinement, and recorded himself singing over the original video. Voila... another song was born. But then it sat around for awhile. I liked the song from the very start, and couldn't wait to turn it into a fully arranged recording. But, you know, I got busy and blah blah blah and... it sat around for months. On Friday of last week, I was intent on making use of as much of the entire weekend as possible to work on music, and this time, I actually stuck to the plan. I did a full version of "Favorite Things" that evening. I started it at about 5PM, and before 9PM, it was done and sent to Bunny (Christina was already here, listening to me as I recorded and mixed it). Now Bunny has to do his contribution, re-recording his vocals and all that jazz.

A typical scene of me writing a new song. I'm holding a guitar and playing something I've never played before. Don't ask me where it comes from before that... it's a mystery that's been analyzed for thousands of years and no one is any closer to an answer than ever.

April 4: "Picked Up Off the Floor"
Much like "CMHAT", "PUOTF" is a song for which we'd created a title, but nothing else. On June 28, 2014 (a Saturday, unsurprisingly), I was chilling with Christina and came up with a tune. You can see me playing a rough version of it in the video below, which is typical of the rough sketch ideas I share with my bandmates. I didn't bother with lyrics, but I did have a feel for the chorus placement and melody, which I sang.

The actual original recording of "PUOTF" to share with Bunny, never before shown to the public at large. We have dozens of songs that start like this. Some die at that point. Others move ahead.

Then we sent it to Bunny, and then... nothing, for ten months. Suddenly, on March 16 (the same day he surprised us with "CMHAT" lyrics and melody), he sent over a new version of "PUOTF". Christina and I loved it, and so on the Saturday of my musical weekend, I spent the day working on the song. By 9PM, I'd sent over the new full demo to Bunny. As per above, we're now awaiting his new contributions. It's exciting and fun, especially when a song has taken a long time to gestate like this one. We could have conceived and delivered a baby faster than this song has taken from the start until now, but that's okay. Speaking of which...

April 5: "River Shallows"
This song is a little different than the three above. Here's why. I knew that I had dozens of song ideas that had never been developed over the years. For some, it's because they sucked, and weren't worth developing. But others were quite good, and just got lost in the shuffle. Even after spending the previous two days working on songs, I still felt inspired on Sunday morning. However, while other choices were available, I decided to take a trip down memory lane, and looked through my old files to see if there was something that I'd set aside and could be revived. Boy, am I glad I did that. Christina and I found a recording from May 12, 2013 (yeah, almost two years ago) of a song sketch I'd done, and then completely forgotten about. The song was great. I just forgot it. I never even showed it to Bunny. It happens, I promise.

This one had no title, and only mumbled fake lyrics with just a hint of melody. When we decided to make something of the sketch, Christina and I did something cool: we spoke about the vibe of the song and how that might translate to a lyrical idea. I really wasn't expecting her to come out with a great lyric on the spot, but that's exactly what she did. While I got to work on the song, she cranked out lyrics for it in record time. I'd say that she spent maybe 15-20 minutes writing, and the version we used had almost no changes from her first draft. Awesome! We had a good flow and just went with it, so now, "River Shallows" is a brand new Crayon song that was started 23 months ago. Bunny is into it, and I can't wait to hear what he's going to add.

While it seems pretty amazing that we have 20 strong songs for our first album, you don't even see the songs that we've either set aside or otherwise shelved. There are probably a total of 35+ TSMC songs that almost no one has heard... yet.

What's Next?
Who the hell knows? We work collaboratively, and Bunny needs to make his mark on these fleshed-out demos, which he will do when he's able and inspired to do so. Bunny also writes rather prodigiously, and there are a good number of songs that he originated that need to receive the contributions of Christina and I. In both cases, we're in no huge hurry. Eventually, parts of these songs will be re-recorded with higher quality, but for now, we've got a current total of 20 (!) really solid tunes that will be on our first album(s). I couldn't be happier, and am already thinking about next weekend's musical possibilities, even though it seems far away from my Monday morning perspective of the moment.

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