Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Three-Day Crayon Weekend

Despite the fact that I often seem to whine about not having enough time to lounge about and do nothing at all, I really do prefer to keep busy. This actually explains a lot about my life, but I digress; it was another fantastic weekend here in Crayonland, and I want to tell you about it.

Sunday May 24: "Longing On" and "Take The Ride"
Some bands have the luxury of going into a commercial recording studio and recording everything for a song (or an entire album) in a short time frame. That would not be us. We are forced to build our songs slowly, due to both time and money constraints. What results is that often, we have to record a part knowing that it will need to be later replaced by a better version. In the case of "Longing On", a song that Bunny had originated and that we last worked on in March 2014, we knew that the original drums left a lot to be desired. We started Sunday's Crayonisms by putting together a new mix of that, and it sounds terrific.

Later that evening, we revisited one of the oldest songs in the Crayon repertoire: "Take The Ride", which we began in December 2012 and have, for the most part, set aside since early 2013. The song is an epic monster of a tune that had originally been clocking in at eight minutes and thirty-six seconds. That's a long song. There's nothing wrong with long songs, but they need a reason to be long. If listening becomes a tedious chore, you need to recognize that and fix it. So, that's what we did. The newer mix of "Take The Ride" certainly isn't short, but at 5:51, it's much more of a reasonable listen without losing any of the intense vibe of the earlier demo. Another note on this song: even without discrete drum sources, it weighs in at a mighty 44 tracks. That's a lot for us. However, I must say I found that working on the song within my Logic Pro X software was pretty straightforward.

Most of our songs have maybe 10-12 tracks. "Take the Ride" has over 40. We apologize in advance to our mixing engineer.

Monday May 25: "Again" and "Vendetta"
Ah, Memorial Day. Some American people reflect in quiet contemplation and gratitude for the military service members who died in the line of duty. That's about 1% of people. Another 98% of them put meat on grills and beer in their stomachs, or go shopping for discounted crap they probably don't need. And then, there are people like me, who are appreciative to have an extra weekend day to make music.

For our Crayon work on Monday, there was a similar situation on "Again" as there was with "Longing On". Some of the sounds of the first version just weren't up to our standards, so we replaced the drums with a newer version, and it really added a lot to this ballad. But there was more: this song also has a pretty cool string part which also got improved, and Bunny provided a guitar solo that we like very much.

"Vendetta" is an interesting case. It's another tune that Bunny had initiated as a solo song. Sparse and haunting, I always liked his original version, but it was simply lacking some of the vibe of our band as a whole. I started by adding some more distinct drums to the song. Also, the previous attempts at doing the backing vocals that Christina and I were singing had fallen flat (literally and figuratively), so we re-recorded those entirely. I also had a new guitar part to record, and then finally a new mix to make. It's particularly exciting, since this tune had sat mostly dormant since June 2013. Yeah, two years. But it's a lot closer to being finished now.

Finish Line Getting Closer
It would be silly for me to give you a firm date as to when this album will be completely done and available for listening. As per above, we still have plenty of crucial tracks like vocals and drums that will need replacing before the songs are ready to hand off to our talented (and patient) mix engineer, Spencer Crewe. But it's our current goal to at least start getting him songs to mix around the end of June. It seems crazy, but we're finally on the cusp of having They Stole My Crayon music you can actually hear. Yeah!

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Linden Lab Second Life Music Fest Auditions (05.23.15)

Yeah, that's right. I auditioned for a thing. And I liked it.

Here's the story: I was be-bopping around the interwebs about ten days ago, and saw a post on the Second Life official blog that said "Sign up to Audition for the Second Life Music Fest in Celebration of Second Life’s 12th Anniversary!" This was a bit of a surprise for two reasons. First, it's been a number of years since Linden Lab, the makers of the Second Life platform, had been directly involved in their own annual anniversary celebrations. It's instead been run by a team of SL resident volunteers who have done a great job. Second (and perhaps far more perplexing), to the best of my knowledge, Linden Lab has never once held a music festival... especially one where the performers were offered compensation.

People have to understand that the reason for this is simple: SL is simply a platform, and nearly all of the content within is user-created, as opposed to being provided by the makers of the software. That includes all events and activities. All of the hundreds of live shows I've done there have been privately contracted between myself/my manager and the owners/managers of the venues, with Linden Lab having no role in the process. So, as a longterm SL musician, seeing this blog post was fascinating. I previously hadn't felt any interest in performing at the upcoming SL12B event; as you can see by flipping through this blog's archives, I'd performed at many other SL birthday celebrations. Frankly, they were never among the better experiences I'd had at live SL shows. But this call for musical talent from Linden Lab themselves was, if nothing else, something I'd want to check out merely to see how the process would go.

To be honest, I was a bit skeptical. Why get involved at this point, after more than a decade of musicians and venues doing it on their own? But like most things in life, a move like this is only as good as the people behind the idea, and I must say, they seem to have a champion of the music scene in Xiola Linden, SL's lead community manager. More on her later; I want to tell you about the auditions themselves.

A whole bunch of SL musicians gather at Lavender Field, awaiting the auditions to get rolling. Photo and top photo by Kat.

Where and When and Who and Why
They were held on Friday May 22 and Saturday May 23. The location -- which was a good idea -- was Brique Topaz's Lavender Field, the same place where I've done a number of "Feed-a-Smile" charity events. The reason this was a good choice is that a) it's a relatively low-lag venue and b) I noted that a number of folks were also contributing to Brique's cause while waiting around for their turn to audition. My audition day was Saturday, but I couldn't resist popping in on Friday to see how the process was running. The answer, it turned out, was pretty smooth. Of course, there were some issues; any time you get a whole bunch of avatars in one sim, you get the accompanying lag and other issues. Also, as any SL musician or venue owner knows, the act of flipping around between some 30+ musicians with varying stream capabilities, having to switch the venue stream concurrently... well, that's a pain in the ass, and little problems are inevitable. That having been said, I'd say that under the circumstances, it was very well organized.

I have to also say that they were smart in how it was put together. The audition was not an "open call". The Linden people had a submission process that allowed them to pre-screen musicians, and choose the ones they felt would be the most appropriate for this kind of event. Do you run into the possibility of making someone feel rejected if they are, um, rejected? Of course you do. But as performing musicians, even the best of us run into rejection constantly. Music is a subjective art where there's no such thing as wrong or right for 100% of the listeners. But I digress; I estimate that roughly 60-80 musicians were selected to audition over the two days. I was happy to spread the word around to the SL musician community so that as many of us as possible could try for a shot at auditioning.

Rocking for the Lindens
On both Friday when I stopped by as a spectator and on Saturday when I was scheduled to audition myself, the place was pretty packed. Lavender Field is a pretty expansive venue that does accommodate a lot of people, and a lot were there. In addition to the musicians present, the event was open to the public, and a number of people -- friends and managers of musicians, it seemed -- were in attendance. One thing I noted was that rather than seeming competitive, the musical community was being highly supportive of each other. The fact is that for the most part, we're a tightly-knit community who have come to know each other well. Many of us have become friends completely outside of SL, and have attended live jams together where we've had some real-life time to hang out and become close. What you saw at the auditions were many musicians applauding each other and truly enjoying the music that the other performers were doing.

The aforementioned Xiola Linden was the master of ceremonies for the event, and she was doing a great job. But she wasn't the only Linden there; on both Friday and Saturday, I saw a good number of their telltale blue-colored name tags. Xiola's demeanor throughout the auditions was what any musician wants from the most ardent fans at their shows. She was obviously thoroughly enjoying every performer. As my friend and fellow SL musician Ren Enberg said at the end of her audition, one can only feel sorry for the people who have to choose which of the performers will actually play at the music fest.

Since I got randomly picked to go first, I hopped on stage purely out of habit. Eight years of virtual shows tends to do that. Photo by Kat.

What I Did
Each artist had a 5-minute audition time. That's basically one song, and it was a tough decision as to what I should play. Between originals and covers, I have about 500 songs in my repertoire. If my goal was purely to try and increase the odds that I'd be selected for a spot at the Fest, I probably should have played a cover that would be familiar to all listeners. But being me, I didn't do that; instead, I did one of the original songs from my last solo album, a song I've been performing in SL since 2007: "You're Like a Cloud". I felt fine about my performance. There was a bit of a typical SL-style glitch; they asked me to use their house stream, but there was a problem getting it to work. No big deal; I'm long past sweating about stream problems. After a few minutes of getting it dialed in at the venue, I was rolling live. After my song, which kicked off the Saturday auditions, Kat and I stayed for two more hours listening to everyone else do their thing.

Rocking "You're Like a Cloud" for my SL musician friends. Photo by Kat.

Kat and I ended up having a great time listening to all the various kinds of performers who were playing their stuff at the audition. We hung out for almost the entire thing, over two hours of five-minute performances.

Perhaps the best part was seeing the level of supportiveness offered by the whole community for each other. It makes me proud to be part of this scene.

Probably the most fun parts of the day were twofold: first, getting to hang out with so many SL musician friends that I don't see in world very often, and second, getting to hear some of the newer SL musicians who I hadn't met or heard before. There were a lot of impressive performances I heard on both days. As usual in SL, just about every conceivable style and genre of music was represented, from rock to singer-songwriter to show tunes to metal to country to jazz (except for hip hop, which has always seemed under-appreciated in SL). A lot of it was impressively good. One note: some artists who I hadn't heard in a few years showed marked signs of improvement, and that put a big smile on my face. It's always nice to see evidence that your friends keep getting better at what they do.

What's Next?
I have no idea! It would seem that currently, there are sixteen slots for this music fest, spread out over two days of the SL12B event. I assume that at some point in the near future, Xiola and the other Linden folks and judges will go through their notes and select the people who will be playing. I am not at all worried about being one of the Sweet Sixteen. As I mentioned to my other friends in the SL music community, the most important aspect of this already happened, which was the exposure of the Linden people to our community as a whole. That does nothing but good for this group of forward-thinking musicians who have been using the virtual world for their stages over the past decade. I think it's exciting, and will certainly be attending the Second Life Music Fest shows as a fan if not a performer.

Friday, May 22, 2015

The Islands of New England (05.21.15)

I woke up yesterday in a coiled spring of uber stress, and went to bed last night as calm as a... okay, enough with the analogies. I'll just tell you about the day, and my show at The Islands Of New England in Second Life.

Thursdays aren't necessarily bad days for me. Not at all. They are, however, busy days. I start my Thursdays with two consecutive weekly meetings I have with my business clients, and these aren't passive meetings; I am generally expected to lead both of them, giving reports of our actions over the past week and talking about upcoming plans, and all that business crap that business people do. After that, I often have massive deadlines that will crush my soul if I allow them to. And, for whatever reason, Thursday seems to be a day I also get booked for shows in Second Life. I like doing shows, obviously, but when you start your day with a whole bunch of tasks ahead, just about anything can add to the stress level.

Need something to kill the stress in your life? Instead of turning to drugs or moving to a remote island, try picking up a guitar and playing music in front of people for an hour or so. I guarantee that whatever was bothering you before will be smaller and easier to deal with afterwards. Photo and top photo by Kat.

Well, as usual, I got through all the stuff I had to do, and by the time my show at TIONE rolled around in the evening, I was feeling good. One note (that people who see me play often already know): when I have two shows in a short time frame, as I did this week on Tuesday and Thursday, I am always very cognizant of the fact that some people are seeing me twice, and the last thing I want to do is bore them by playing the same shit over and over. So, last night's show didn't have a single song in common with Tuesday night's show. I mean, come on; I have hundreds of songs in my repertoire, and there's just too much good music in the world to play the same things again and again in any case.

I was slightly concerned when I strummed by first note, since there were like five people there. And in typical SL fashion, there was a nice sized crowd before I'd finished that song. Of course, a venue like The Islands of New England gives great support to artists performing there, so I shouldn't have been surprised that it worked out well. I also want to note that once again, I used the opportunity to debut a They Stole My Crayon song. Since I'd just restrung the Shitty Guitar™, I tuned it so I could perform "Favorite Things" for the first time ever, which went well. I should also mention that Amforte Clarity performed right after me, and it was good to hear her again as I hung out after my show.

The Islands of New England set list...
Any Major Dude (Steely Dan)
I Like You (Zak Claxton)
Frigid Spring (Chairlift)
*Favorite Things (They Stole My Crayon)
Lines On Your Eyes (Zak Claxton)
Cat's In The Cradle (Harry Chapin)
After The Goldfish (Neil Young)
Starman (David Bowie)
Perfect Day (Lou Reed)
Things Under Trees (They Stole My Crayon)
This Afternoon (Zak Claxton)
Big Empty (Stone Temple Pilots)

*Indicates the first time I've performed this song in SL.

Massive thanks to all who came out the the show, especially the following people who helped support it!
Soniarising Resident, AMFORTE Clarity, Maurice Mistwallow, Brookelyn Breen, Richy Nervous, Aurelie Chenaux, RansomTalmidge Resident, TheaDee Resident, Kat Claxton, my manager Maali Beck, venue helper Sesh Kamachi, and TIONE event manager Christine Haiku!

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Panorama Arts Center (05.19.15)

I'm not an easy person to analyze. Not even for myself. Especially for myself, really. It's not easy for me to pinpoint why I do what I do, or why I like what I like. I've learned over the course of time that making these confirmations is less important than I used to think it was. For example, most of my shows in Second Life are good. Some seem better than others to me, and sometimes, the reasons are obvious. Like any performer, I have days when my voice is more cooperative, or my guitar playing seems to come more easily. And I have the opposite kinds of days where for whatever reason, neither are doing what I want them to.

But that's not really what seems to make me wrap up a show with a high degree of satisfaction. The performance aspect of the show -- what material I did, how well I felt I sang and played -- is really only one component of many. Last night, for example, I felt I had a really strong show at Panorama Art Center in Second Life. It had been over a year and a half since the last time I played there. I've said before that my feelings of confidence in performing at a particular venue were tied into my level of familiarity with the place, but there are other aspects as well. The people who run the place make a huge difference, as do the number of friends I have in the crowd. When I feel confident, I lose the self-consciousness that's an inhibiting factor to any kind of performing artist, and it always makes for a better show. I don't divert the mental energy I'd spend on my performance toward being concerned about what people think about it.

Photos by Kat.

Anyway, we had a really good combination of factors rolling last night. I was booked for the show by one of my most longterm SL acquaintances, Ursula Cinquetti. The folks who run Panorama seemed to all be in attendance, and I recall that I enjoyed their company during our previous interactions. And yeah, we had a great turnout of Zaksters, which always helps put me at ease during a show. Plus, and this is no small thing, the place itself is cool. Let's face it; some SL venues feel weird or oddly contrived. The virtual environment of an SL venue does have an effect. But I need to note one other very important factor: the other artist(s) who play at the venue, especially the one directly preceding me. Last night, I was fortunate enough to have a super talented person who I believe is a kindred spirit to me in many ways, musically and otherwise... Matthew Perrault, aka Matthew Broyles, aka The Matthew Show.

I don't know about other artists, but when there's someone playing directly before me, I'm listening to that person's set while getting my own shit together to play. Having someone really good, whose music I enjoy, is an inspiration for me. I've even made last-minute adjustments to my set list in order to have a better transition from the last performer to my own show. With a guy like Matthew playing before me, it couldn't be more of an easy process. While we're different in the kind of material we play, there's a vibe that makes for a good flow for the audience. We both enjoy independent music, we're both songwriters (and enjoy doing the music of our fellow songwriters), and we both play fully live. Neither of us are very interested at all in doing current pop hits. In fact, heh heh, we both probably go out of our way to not do those songs. And yet, both of us are pop artists in our own way, and both explore multiple genres of music as influences to our own.

Anyway, enough on that. I felt great taking the stage after Matthew's last tune, and the good feelings stayed with me throughout the hour of my show. I also pulled out one They Stole My Crayon tune that I hadn't ever done before, so that was cool, too. And finally, it appears that both Matthew and I will be doing a repeat of our shows there in another month or so, which gives me more to look forward to on the horizon.

Panorama set list...
Never Run Away (Kurt Vile)
Pancho and Lefty (Townes Van Zandt)
Northern Sky (Nick Drake)
*River Shallows (They Stole My Crayon)
Sleeper in the Valley (Laura Viers)
It's Choade My Dear (Connan Mockasin)
Blew The Dust Away (They Stole My Crayon)
Big Yellow Taxi (Joni Mitchell)
Peace Love and Understanding (Elvis Costello)
Low Key (Tweedy)
I've Been Waiting For You (Neil Young)
Say Goodbye (Beck)
You're Like a Cloud (Zak Claxton)
Tea for the Tillerman (Cat Stevens)

*Indicates the first time I've performed this song in SL.

Big, big thanks to everyone who came out to my show at Panorama, especially the following who helped support it!
Timo Dumpling, Triana Caldera, Kat Claxton, Sesh Kamachi, CB Axel, Christine Haiku, RansomTalmidge Resident, Cicadetta Stillwater, Aurelie Chenaux, TheaDee Resident, Alexis Fairlady, Ursula Cinquetti, Matthew Perreault, my manager Maali Beck, and everyone at Panorama!

Monday, May 18, 2015

The Monday Morning Crayon Report

I've been feeling like I've been missing something this morning, and I was having a helluva time trying to figure out what it was. I mean, I knew I was procrastinating on getting some necessary work done, but that feeling is pretty much a daily occurrence. Then it hit me: I've been reporting on the activities of my band They Stole My Crayon each Monday, since I am able to devote time to working on music over the weekends. It makes sense. So, I'll fill you in on the most recent round of Crayon work. This weekend, we didn't do much work on our current round of songs, but instead focused energy on some new music.

Thursday May 14: "Hummingbird"
Yeah, I know: Thursday isn't the weekend. But I'd been hoping all week that I'd get inspired to work on music, and it hadn't happened. I was kind of bummed about this, but I've said many times... you can't force artistic inspiration. It happens or it doesn't. On Thursday evening, after I'd wrapped up a day of work, I decided to pick up a guitar, which is often a good first step toward making music. Gradually, a patter of chords came to me, so I did what I usually do. Let me tell you about what that is.

When a song is brand new, it may not be perfect. Hell, it may barely be a song. I used to make the mistake of trying to completely flesh out a song with lots of musical details and a complete set of lyrics before recording the idea. Huge, huge mistake. Here's why: first off, the song might not be very good. You'd be surprised that a musician can put a whole lot of effort into a tune only to realize somewhere down the line that the song just isn't great. It happens. A lot. So, getting it down quickly might allow you to make a better determination if it's worthwhile continuing to refine. Second, and probably worse: in the time it takes to get gear set up, choose the perfect arrangement and instrumentation, and all that, you might literally forget the song. It's happened to me, and I'm certainly not the only one.

I used to fight this potential tragedy by keeping the old paper and pen handy. I'd jot down the chord progression, and sometimes make notes about lyric ideas or other thematic plans. But in They Stole My Crayon, I still have the task of sharing the song idea with my bandmates to get their opinions. So, my current method is even easier. I just fire up my webcam (which is a completely average Logitech), point it at my guitar, and play the song. I never have lyrics at this point, so I usually kind of hum along, giving a possible path for the melody. And that's it. I go through the song once -- sometimes writing portions of the song while literally playing it at the same time -- and that's all. Make a mistake? Who cares! I just keep going and wrap up the song. Then I post it as a private video on YouTube, and share the link with Christina and Bunny. I'm often unsure at that point whether it's even worth pursuing, and rely on their input to see if we should move forward on it.

Anyway, back to Thursday night. The song I did has a working title of "Hummingbird", courtesy of Bunny. I had told him that day about how I maintain a completely ridiculous superstition about being inspired to do music when I have encounters with hummingbirds, so that title works as well as any. It's currently a pretty minimal song, but no one (self included) has any idea of how it will turn out later. Since I'm in a band, I like to make use of the talents of my bandmates. Bunny or Christina will probably write the lyrics, and Bunny will refine the melody (or create an entirely new one). I think it has some potential. We'll soon see.

Top and above photos are stills from the videos I made to show my bandmates these new songs. Why not just post the video? Because the songs are barely even begun, and might change a whole lot before we're ready to allow people to listen. It would be like serving a food dish that you just started cooking. They're not ready yet!

Saturday May 16: "Land of Tears"
Similarly, on Saturday night, I found myself with some open time and a guitar that was ready to be played. I had done a live show earlier that day in Second Life at Hesperia of Templemore, so I was pretty warmed up to play some more.

I've addressed the "How do you go about writing a song?" question on numerous occasions, and honestly I don't feel I've ever been able to explain it very well... especially the crucial earliest phase of which chords get chosen, what key to use, what tempo to choose, what overall feel to impart. I have never, ever, sat down with my guitar or keyboard and tried to write a particular kind of song. Ever. I write what I'm feeling at that moment. Why is the first chord of this song a G? Because that's where my hand went when I grabbed the guitar. Why did I put a capo on the second fret? I don't know. I grabbed the capo and that's where it ended up. Why did I shift to an F# in the bridge? Look people: I don't know. My hand went there while I was playing. Wasn't I in control of my own hands? Yes... but not on a conscious level. To be artistic, you need to let go of part of your conscious control, which is not easy, and explains why most people are simply not capable of the creation of original music.

I did my usual routine, recording the song via my webcam and posting the video to YouTube, and then sending my friends the link. Both of them liked it (as they did the other tune), and Bunny asked if I had any idea as to what the song was about. I thought about it for a couple of minutes, and then responded with a quote from the iconic novella by Antoine de Saint-ExupĂ©ry, The Little Prince. The quote was, “It is such a mysterious place, the land of tears.” Well, Bunny reacted positively and dubbed the song "Land of Tears" at least as a working title.

On Sunday morning, I spent a short while seeing how the song might work with drums and keyboards and so on, but I think I ran out of creative steam, and didn't get very far. But that's okay; the important part of creating two potential new songs was accomplished, so I feel like I had a productive musical weekend. That's something I'll never complain about.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Hesperia of Templemore (05.16.15)

The very first thing I noticed today when I arrived at Hesperia of Templemore was that I was not alone. Far from it. Instead of the mostly empty room that we musicians are usually greeted with when they're scheduled to be the first performer in a series of artists, I noted a number of avatars already there. And then, as things rezzed, I saw someone onstage. It was Mimi Carpenter! I was quite happy to unexpectedly find that a really enjoyable performer was already there; the last schedule I saw didn't show Mimi, and it's always a pleasure to hear her, and to have a small but happy built-in crowd before I got going.

A few notes about my show. First, I did a Simon and Garfunkel tune that I can't imagine why I didn't do previously. It's a great tune and it went really well. Second, I once again devoted a couple of songs to the music of my band, They Stole My Crayon. Those went well too. In fact, I think the whole show was pretty smooth. Temple more is great on several levels... first of all, the incredibly creative stage spaces they have there so that I never feel like I've played the same venue twice. Probably more important is that it's run by people I consider close friends (like Luis Lockjaw and Sassy Nitely), and the resulting mood is always fantastic. Speaking of Sassy, she had the slot after me, and was totally killing her set which I'd have stayed around for longer had SL not booted my ass out unexpectedly. Ah well. It was fun while it lasted.

What's going on here? Well, today's Templemore stage theme was kind of an evil circus tent. And of course, with two open trapezes behind me, leave it to Sassy and Luis to jump on and turn my show into even more of a circus than usual. Love them both. Photo and top photo courtesy of Thea Dee.

I suppose every clown needs some acrobats. Photo by Thea Dee.

Templemore set list...
On a Plain (Nirvana)
California (Joni Mitchell)
*America (Simon and Garfunkel)
Waking Light (Beck)
Blew The Dust Away (They Stole My Crayon)
Pink Moon (Nick Drake)
A Day In The Life (Beatles)
Always Tomorrow (Zak Claxton)
Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (Neil Young)
What I Got (Sublime)
Carry Me Here and There (They Stole My Crayon)
Swing Lo Magellan (Dirty Projectors)
Shame Chamber (Kurt Vile)

*Indicates the first time I've performed this song in SL.

Huge thanks to all who came out to my show today, especially the following who helped support it!
Mimi Carpenter, Blindboy Gumbo, Diana Renoir, Aurelie Chenaux, TheaDee Resident, my lovely manager Maali Beck, and Templemore's Bee Blackrain, Sassy Nitely, and Luis Lockjaw!

Monday, May 11, 2015

How To Play (Or Not Play) A Guitar Solo

I hope whoever is reading this post doesn't expect to learn how to play a guitar solo by reading this post, despite the misleading title. You can't learn to solo from spending five minutes reading some random guy's babbling. But I will tell you some things that may perhaps help you to think of playing solos in ways beyond those you may consider currently. Ironic side note: I'm hardly someone who would be considered a great lead guitar player. I'm sloppy, and I don't go for playing designed to impress other musicians. That having been said, you still might enjoy some of my thoughts on the topic.

1. Listen
This may seem obvious, but it's important to say. Want to learn to solo? Well, guess what: many guitar players have done many solos before you, and like most things in life, you can draw upon what's been done in the past. Listen to your own favorite solos. What makes them great? What makes you excited to get to the part of the song where the solo resides? As part of the listening process, try playing along with the solos you respect. Even if you can't hit every note at the tempo you'd like, play along, and learn the patterns of fingerboard motions for that player. It's a great exercise in discovering why the original player chose the notes that he or she did.

2. Pay attention to details
Ever try and learn someone else's solo note for note, perhaps through a tablature site, and yet it still doesn't sound right when you play it? Guess what: it goes beyond the notes, and beyond the tone. How you approach every single note, how long each note is sustained, whether or not there's vibrato on the note, and how you move toward the next note... these are all fine details that will help you be a better creator of your own solos, when you get to that point.

3. Ask yourself, "Is this solo even necessary?"
Let's take a little walk back through time. Before the advent of rock and roll (which we'll get to shortly), there were indeed solos. However, they were a little different. A jazz trio in the '50s would perform the song's basic melody and chord progression, and then each member would have a little solo section. These solos were played over the same progression as the tune. As rock took over and the guitar became a predominant instrument in popular music, more and more often, the solo section would take up a bigger portion of the tune. This probably peaked in the '70s and '80s as hard rock/metal, progressive rock, and "guitar shred" music became mainstream.

But then something interesting happened. With the advent of alternative music in the '90s, the solo became less of an essential part of a song. In fact, heh heh, the inclusion of solos meant that you were living in the past. Today, music is a little more open to whatever the writer feels is good for the song. Solos are neither expected nor verboten. But still, don't put a solo on a song because you think you have to. Do it when it's good for the song, and only then.

This weekend, I worked on a solo for the in-progess song "Picked Up off The Floor" by my band They Stole My Crayon, which you can listen to above. It's not done yet; I certainly didn't do a perfect performance on the first take, seen here. But I am happy with the approach I've take to create the solo, which should come out great when it's really ready.

4. Then ask, "Is this solo adding anything to the song?"
What makes a solo good for a song? Perhaps you want something to break up the monotony of your verses. Perhaps there's a bridge in the song that doesn't seem to require lyrics, but needs some sonic interest beyond the basic chord structure. The point, once again, is that the solo should benefit the tune. Try and stay objective, and ask yourself if it's really bringing something interesting, or just unnecessarily extending the song's length for no purpose. Have the wherewithal to abandon that solo, if it's not needed.

5. A tune within a tune
The most simple guitar solo is just the melody of the song done on guitar rather than voice. Kurt Cobain's now-classic solo on "Smells Like Teen Spirit" is just that. He plays the same line he'd been singing in the verses, and guess what? It works. Other solos are different. They may draw from the song's melody, but add various elements and flourishes that are new. And some solos -- especially those in a song's bridge, which might be in an entirely different key than the rest of the tune -- are songs of their own. For those, you need to go into a different mode of songwriting, where you're creating a new little song within your song. Some of the most memorable solos are like those.

6. Can you sing it?
One test of a solo that people will appreciate is whether or not you can sing it. Why would you want to do that? Well, if you can hum around with the solo, that means you've given it enough melodic interest to stand out on its own. Some of the more well-known melodic soloists include people like Brian May of Queen, Elliott Easton of the Cars, David Gilmour of Pink Floyd, and many others whose solos add so much to their songs that often people regard them as being more integral to the song than even their singer's lead vocals. Can you sing along with Jimmy Page's epic solo toward the end of "Stairway to Heaven", or Jay Graydon's mind-blowing solo on Steely Dan's "Peg"? Of course you can. And that's why they're some of the greats.

7. Speed kills
Look, we're all impressed by fast playing, to a degree. But speed without melody is the kiss of death for most guitar solos. I'm not saying that you can't play speedy lines in a solo! But I am saying that fast playing tends to kill melody, and generally only is of interest to other guitar players (and often not even them). I understand that when you first learn how to do an arpeggio sweep, you want to add that to your repertoire. Fine! But don't do it throughout an entire solo, please. Variety is the spice of life, and the secret to a cool solo.

8. Don't fear simplicity
If you're of the opinion that good music offers a feel and a vibe, then a solo doesn't need to be complex to be great. Neil Young's solo on "Cinnamon Girl", for all intents and purposes, is one note. Why does that D note played over and over again seem perfect for that song? I don't know, but it does, and hats off to Old Neil for having the balls to do it.

9. Learn scales, but for God's sake, don't use them literally
Gaining an intimate knowledge of scales is crucial to good and interesting solos. If you're stuck in the same pentatonic blues scale on every solo, chances are high that you're not an exciting soloist (unless you are simply amazing at stretching tons of vibe and feel into each note, and let's face it; most players aren't). So, expand your chops and get into different ways to use modes and minor scales to make your solos super melodic. That having been said, there's nothing more cringe-worthy than a solo that sounds like someone practicing a scale. A little tip: good melodic playing tends to have both upward and downward pitch motion, and rarely uses more than a few consecutive notes in a scale before skipping around a bit. Also, vary your timing. A bunch of consecutive eighth notes are fine when you're practicing, but rarely do they make your listener excited in the context of your song.

10. Practice (duh)
The last thing I'll tell you about solos is the part you probably don't want to hear. Everyone wants a quick fix. Everyone wants immediate results. Guess what? Learning to play really cool and interesting solos doesn't happen overnight for anyone. People who you probably consider masters of the art of guitar are often those who are still aware that they can improve in their playing, and continue to practice accordingly. Pull out your metronome and start playing scales, paying attention to your picking technique, how well you fret each note, and all of that. You will get back what you put in.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Kicking Ass with The Crayon

Okay, it's true: I'm posting a lot about my band They Stole My Crayon lately. The reason is easy to understand... I'm doing my solo shows in Second Life much less frequently, and in the meantime, each of my recent weekends has been filled stem to stern with making new music with The Crayon. So, unless you want posts about doing laundry, my rather mundane work, or much worse, politics and world events (no!), you're going to get some Crayon news here for awhile. I doubt it's a big problem for anyone. Also, I find that blogging about the process of creating music is very helpful. It's a big undertaking, writing and recording an album of good music, and having this reference is good for everyone involved. Hopefully you enjoy it too, my fine reader.

Life as a Typical Person Who Makes Records
I don't know what a typical person is, by the way, and don't really like to think of myself as such. But I do know that I am referring to a person who may have responsibilities outside of being a musician or audio engineer/producer. Things like a job, and a family. I imagine that if I was some lonely guy who just made music for a living, things would be much different (probably not for the better, by the way). But for a person like me, we're forced to limit our music-making times to not conflict with the other areas of their lives. That means that I am generally able to focus on creating our Crayon album on Friday evenings, Saturdays, and Sundays. Every once in awhile I find a little time during some weeknight, but more often than not I have these self-imposed limits, and that's okay.

The result is that I cram as much music as possible into those free moments, and I appreciate those times a lot. On many a recent Monday morning (like today), I bemoan the fact that I'd prefer continuing to work on music rather than work on... work. But as I referenced above, I choose to be the responsible person I am (though I sometimes wish I weren't). And I'd say that at least for the past six weeks or so, we've been doing excellent work during every minute of time we have available.

This is what I'm looking at while recording or mixing music. It's Apple's Logic Pro X software, and while it's super powerful (like most DAWs these days), it's not nearly as complicated or hard to understand as it might seem on the surface. You get multiple tracks (limited only by your computer's processing power and hard drive space) where you can choose to record audio sources (like a microphone or a guitar) or MIDI-based software instruments (like virtual pianos, keyboards, and other sounds). You can add effects internally or use them externally. And then, you can mix everything until it sounds like you want. Simple enough, eh? In the image above, you can see the waveforms of tracks for vocals that Christina and I did, along with some of my guitar tracks. Our use of software-based recording systems allows us to quickly record parts of songs in various physical locations, and then use the Internet to send files back and forth for our respective contributions to a song. Good times.

Friday May 1: "Disarmed"
I got to a point late Friday afternoon that none of my clients and colleagues seemed to be responding to my emails. That can be a frustrating thing for most people, but not me! It's my signal that it's time to get out of work mode and get into Crayon mode. I started by opening our song "Disarmed", which needed a new bass line and an outro guitar part to replace the earlier incarnation. Both improved the song tremendously.

Saturday May 2: "Carry Me Here and There", "Bag of Nothing"
Our song "Carry Me Here and There" had a problem: it was a little too smooth. There's nothing wrong with smooth. We like smooth. But our band isn't an easy listening band, and the first version of "CMHAT" was a little too streamy and organic to be part of the Crayon vibe. To be frank, I wasn't sure this song was going to end up making the cut, but during our band meeting the previous weekend, we identified areas where some changes could happen. I spent a good chunk of Saturday doing just that. I can't tell you how much better this song got after swapping out some instruments and adding new parts, and then doing a new mix. So stoked!

But later that day, we still had time to do another round of changes from our list. "Bag of Nothing" needed a new bass line as well as a keyboard part, and a new mix. We did that, and it went really well.

Sunday May 3: "River Shallows" and more mix additions
We started Sunday by continuing the stuff we'd done on Friday and Saturday, which now had some new contributions from Bunny. He'd done a new guitar line for the bridge in "Disarmed" which was very cool, so we added that. Then he sent over revised vocals for "CMHAT", and we plugged those into the mix. Each song kept getting better with each additional revision.

Then it came time to do work on another song that we already knew was cool, but was missing certain vibe aspects that we all wanted. "River Shallows" was just a little too predictable in its arrangement and style. We had also defined what changes we wanted, so it was just a matter of going in and doing them. I started by changing the rather boring drum part to something much cooler. Then we changed the guitar tones to be less macho; though we love heavy music, we're really not a metal band. Then we added a vocal part from Christina that she'd been patiently waiting to do, and then re-recorded my lead vocal to be better in line with the newer version of the song. After we shipped it off to Bunny, he got inspired to do some new guitar parts, which he sent over late Sunday night. Despite my disclaimer above about limiting my music creative time to the weekends, his new parts were too cool to wait and hear in the mix, so I opened the song file this morning at the crack of dawn, and did one final mix for the weekend before Monday got into high gear. I should add that this went from being kind of a mediocre tune to being one of our favorites via the weekend's work. Way to go, Crayon!

More to come...
We are continuing on a really good path to have the album recording completed in the next couple of months, after which it will be shipped off to mixing engineer Spencer Crewe in Canada. I have to say, each song keep getting better and better. And yes, next weekend will once again be full of work on this project. When it starts getting good like this, it can be all you think about for weeks on end. We're all highly anticipating the day when this whole thing is done and ready to show to the world... at which point we'll immediately be moving forward on the next one.