Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Serenity Gardens (02.25.19)

Serenity Gardens... a pretty sim run by very cool people. Photos by Kat.

One thing that you keen-eyed readers of this blog have likely noticed: I don't perform at as many Second Life venues as I did a number of years ago. The reason is simple, and purposeful. First and foremost, going back to 2011, I stopped doing any shows at "tips only" venues. It's my opinion that it would be completely unfair to charge some venues a performance fee, and then turn around and do that same hour of music for free elsewhere. Not everyone feels the same as me in that regard, and that's fine; I only can live based on my own set of ethics, and I don't assume or demand that others will want to act the same.

But since then, there's also the very important aspect of time. I am a busy human being, like many of us are. I own a small business. I am a father. I have a love life. And, musically speaking, I devote a chunk of my time working on the writing and recording of original music, as a solo artist and with my band They Stole My Crayon. All of that adds up to my not being able to spend a ton of time preparing for, promoting, and performing shows in SL. I am fortunate that my manager Maali Beck understands this very well, and she never books me without checking on my availability, nor does she push for my doing shows more frequently. Therefore, when you see show reports on this blog from the same few venues repeated time and time again, it's because playing those places is my choice.

Last night's show at Serenity Gardens was a good one, as most of them are. While it wasn't the right timing for my doing new songs as I often do (more on that below), I made a specific point of pulling out some tunes that haven't been in my set for a number of years in some cases.

Getting Immersive
The reason I didn't have time to choose and learn any new tunes for this show is that my weekend was filled with creating a different sort of new songs... those of my own. Last week, my bandmate Bunny had suggested suggested that he and I do an ICS session. ICS, as I've mentioned before, stands for Immersion Composition Society. Per the true ICS "rules" (note: there really aren't rules... just ideas), some writers do as many as 20 songs in a single day. I found that pushing for quantity just for the sake of getting to 20 songs is a limiting factor for me, so I basically spend a day and get as many as I can. My only personal rule is that even if I have some other songs in various stages of completion, I use absolutely nothing that doesn't start and finish on the day of the ICS session. Every song I do on one of those days literally did not exist before I awoke that morning. If you'd like, you can listen to the results of that 24 hour songwriting session below.

My weak point as a songwriter is the first part of that word... the song. Songs are sung. I'm a decent singer -- not great, mind you -- but that's not the issue. When I try and force myself to write lyrics while not being inspired to do so, it's almost always a recipe for musical disaster. For this ICS session, I made a decision to continue writing music and not let my lack of lyrics stop me from it being a productive day of music creation. That's why out of the seven songs I did, only one of them have a full set of lyrics. I honestly tried doing lyrics for one of the other songs, and realized while I was recording those vocals that they were so horrifyingly bad that I was better off just leaving them out.

Keep On Rocking in the Digital World
All that left me with little opportunity to learn any new cover tunes for the show -- and the new original songs were so new (and incomplete) that performing any of them live wasn't really possible. But still, the show itself was really good. We had a fun crowd, and of the songs I did choose to play, several were in the "extremely rare" pile. Below are a bunch of photos from the show courtesy of Kat.

Serenity Gardens set list...
Ziggy Stardust (David Bowie)
Falling Down (Zak Claxton)
Saved by Zero (The Fixx)
Low Key (Tweedy)
Shame Chamber (Kurt Vile)
Pickles (Zak Claxton)
Afternoon Delight (Starland Vocal Band)
Nowhere Man (The Beatles)
Bag of Nothing (They Stole My Crayon)
Gardenia (Iggy Pop)
Bring On The Night (The Police)
As Tears Go By (Rolling Stones)
Radio Free Europe (R.E.M.)

Big ol' thanks to each and every person who came to the show, with special thanks to the following who helped support it!
Lyin and Joe Trafalgar, Rosie Arnaz, hynesyte Harbour, TheaDee Resident, Trouble Streeter, Kat Claxton, go2smoky Resident, Diana Renoir, Aurelie Chenaux, Bee Blackrain, my excellent manager Maali Beck, and the fabulous team at Serenity Gardens, Tilly Rose and Ilsa Wilde.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Lutz City of Templemore (02.15.19)

The amazing dreamland of Lutz City of Templemore. Photo by Kat.

There's always an element of mystery involved when I hear from my friend Luis Lockjaw, designer and co-owner of the Lutz City of Templemore sim, asking if I'm available to perform there. Most Second Life venues are what they are, and remain mostly static with occasional design updates. But when I get asked to play at Templemore, there's always a strong chance that when I arrive at the venue, it's a place I've literally never seen before. The reason is that Luis is one of the very best designers in all of SL, and despite the fact that his real life is extraordinarily busy with multiple jobs, he will often build an entirely new, amazingly detailed venue on the sim.

During the past week, I found myself wondering what kind of stage I'd be on for the Friday night show that had been scheduled, so I went and took a look. My mind was blown when I teleported to the location; it was an abandoned library, overgrown with vines and weeds, and thoroughly beautiful. Luis's design aesthetic is based on decay; rather than shiny perfection that seems to have been the norm in Second Life environments, his places are strewn with rust and rot, and the level of detail of each texture to impart corrosion and disrepair takes a far greater level of effort than simply making things look "right". I never have enough good things to say about Templemore's designs, and coming from me -- a person who doesn't generally pay much attention to the visual aspects of SL while focusing on being a live musician -- I can honestly say I've never seen anything like Luis's environment designs in the 12+ years I've spent enjoying Second Life.

Templemore's new Abandoned Library stage is as incredible as anything Luis has ever created. Photo by Kat.

No words for how amazing this place looks. I can't even begin to understand how Luis does this. Photo by Kat.

Playing Songs No One Has Heard By Artists No One Has Heard Of
I really do try and make each show I do in SL somewhat unique. Unlike a tour in real life, where you're playing to nearly entirely different audiences as you travel from city to city, SL doesn't have any geographical restrictions; it's just as easy to teleport to anywhere on the grid as anywhere else. That means you are often performing for the same folks, be they your fans who attend your shows at various locations or people who frequent the venues you play over and over. There are two ways to solve the possible dilemma of being too repetitive in your show, and I do both. First is to have a really big repertoire, and my total list of songs I've done in SL has passed 600 at this point. The other way to do it is to curate your set so that there's a specific theme or vibe at each show. I don't take requests on a general basis, and I don't pass out a song list like many SL artists do (nothing wrong with that, by the way). I find that when I have a certain mood planned for my show, I don't enjoy suddenly shifting gears... it's just a personal choice.

Last night's set list was purposefully filled with songs by indie artists. It's not unusual at all for these artists to be part of my sets, but they're often mixed in with a lot of music by well-known singer-songwriters and occasional songs by pop and rock artists that everyone can sing along to and enjoy. Again, that's fine. I love many forms of music, and enjoy making people happy. But as I told the crowd at Templemore last night, it's a sign of respect to my audience that I believe that they hold the level of sophistication and openness to new sounds which allows me to play an hour of music where few people know more than a couple of songs. If I was an SL artist whose primary goal was to play a lot of shows and get a lot of tips, my approach to my repertoire would be way, way different. But really, my goals for my SL shows is to a) give my audience a fun and interesting bit of entertainment, b) enjoy myself, c) raise awareness of my own original music to a large scale audience, and d) allow my crowds a chance to hear stuff they just don't hear elsewhere in SL (or, perhaps, anywhere). I think I do pretty well on all counts.

My view from the stage. Photo by Kat.

Being Appreciated
I'll tell you something else about that; nothing is more gratifying than being aware that the artists themselves appreciate your helping to spread awareness of them and their music. After my show last night, I stumbled across a new song released by one of the artists I'd covered, a young guy out of Nashville who records as German Error Message. The song was incredibly good, so I shared it on Facebook and noted that I'd covered one of his songs that very night. Again, nothing against bands and artists who have achieved global fame and success, but at no point would Beyonce go out of her way to "like" or respond to one of my social media posts or whatever, whereas it's a pretty common occurrence for these indie artists whose music I enjoy so much to be appreciative of my support. It's not like German Error Message is some dude I know (though I do love covering music of my friends as well). He's just some fellow human being out there creating excellent art via sound, and frankly I'd rather give the extra effort to let people know about a guy like that than just play another Pink Floyd or David Bowie song for the 900th time (regardless of how much I love those artists as well).

Getting your post loved by the musician whose music you enjoy: priceless.

The other song I covered for the first time last night was one by Girlpool, whom I wrote about recently after the release of their new album a couple of weeks ago. I actually found "Lucy's" to be a very challenging little tune to cover on solo acoustic guitar! It's packed with lovely textured sounds that come from the overlap of guitars and bass, and doing it to any degree of proficiency while also singing took a good amount of practice to be passably performable. It was totally worth the effort, and I'll definitely be doing that one again at future shows.

Getting off the stage and jamming my last tune with the Templemore crowd. Photo by Kat.

Lutz City of Templemore set list...
All I Want (Joni Mitchell)
Never Run Away (Kurt Vile)
Always Tomorrow (Zak Claxton)
Catamaran (Yawning Man)
Crosses (José González)
Things Under Trees (They Stole My Crayon)
Friday I’m In Love (The Cure)
*Everything Is Scary (German Error Message)
*Lucy’s (Girlpool)
Half Moon Bay (Sun Kil Moon)
Save It For Later (English Beat)
Northern Sky (Nick Drake)
Airport Bar (Martin Courtney)

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

Giant thanks to everyone who came to my show last night at Templemore, with special thanks to the following people who generously helped support it!
DupliCat Resident, Taj Nishi, Diana Renoir, hynesyte Harbour, Asimia Heron, Gospel Voom, go2smoky Resident, Kat Claxton, Aurelie Chenaux, Templemore's excellent hostess Bee Blackrain, and the owners of this amazing place, Grace Sixpence and Luis Lockjaw!

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Serenity Gardens (02.11.19)

A quick screen grab from last night's fun show at Serenity Gardens.

I certainly want to tell you about last night's show at Serenity Gardens... about half my set were songs I'd never performed before or those that are very rare in my list. But first, I want to mention an interesting little micro-controversy that popped up last week.

I was scrolling down my Twitter feed when I saw a post from the EDM artist Marshmello where he was talking about a concert he'd done in the video game Fortnite.

The key phrase I saw were the words "first ever virtual concert", and for those of you who know me, that was akin to waving a red flag in front of a bull. Making matters much worse was the way some of the media then ran with the story.

Well, I got... slightly annoyed.

That probably wasn't the best way to react, and I'll explain why. It's very telling that after more than 15 years of virtual music performances in multiple platforms, Marshmello's statement and the acceptance of it from the public and media indicates clearly that the concept of virtual/remote music concerts has not permeated the awareness of the majority of people. I honestly don't think that Marshmello was aware that there have been thousands and thousands of virtual shows before his. I think he was led to believe that what he said was true, which was unfortunate, and left him in a position of having to defend the claim.

The Early Years
Virtual live music performances started happening almost at the moment that Internet bandwidth became wide enough to allow for the realtime streaming of audio. It actually goes back to the mid '90s, when various kinds of chat platforms (Paltalk, etc.) began allowing for streamed audio. As soon as streaming audio is a possibility, people begin using it for live performances in combination with use of avatars. The tech has obviously improved; audio quality has gotten better as bandwidth has grown. The ability to create high-resolution virtual environments and realistic avatars makes the experience feel more real today than ever before. But make no mistake; people have been doing this for over 20 years.

Big Names
One of the arguments in regard to Marshmello's Fortnite show was that he was the first "relevant" artist to do a virtual show of any kind. Au contraire... artists and bands like Suzanne Vega, Duran Duran, U2, and David Bowie all did various kinds of virtual shows in different platforms going back about 15 years. I'm sure that Marshmello has a big following among EDM fans today, but let's face it; he's not a "bigger" artist than several of the aforementioned.

But let's look at the big picture for a moment. Music is music. Some artists are household names, and others are barely known even in small circles. But if someone is performing live music for an audience in another location within an artificial environment created by computers, they are part of this world as well. This would be where I mention Second Life, the platform where I have done the majority of my performances since starting in 2006, and that I wrote about in Electronic Musician magazine back in 2008. I believe that over 1,000 different artists have done performances in SL over the nearly 16 years it has existed, and that continual flow of live music has, for many people, been one of the highlights of their virtual experiences in that time frame. To negate their efforts would be unfair, to put it mildly.

I Get Interviewed
A day or two after I lashed out at Marshmello (probably too harshly, I reiterate), I got contacted by a polite and pleasant woman from the UK named Emma McGann. She said that she was a fellow musician, and was writing a blog article on the future of music in VR. I gladly spoke to her, and gave her permission to use some images. I really had no idea that her article would end up being a very well-researched and well-written piece, published on Medium, that took a look at several of the many forms of virtual/remote performances. I was impressed. And that led me to another thought, which I can share with you now.

Marshmello's Show Was Good For Us All
The fact is that Marshmello (as a relatively popular artist in a certain genre) having done his show in Fortnite (a very popular gaming platform for a certain populace) was great for the future of virtual music performances of all sorts. There are reportedly 80 million users of Fortnite, and literally millions of them were able to experience Marshmello's show. Those people -- many of them young -- are now aware that virtual concerts are a real thing, and perhaps the aspect of getting people to attend other virtual shows on other platforms (games and otherwise) will be easier due to this breakthrough of public awareness. The tech is less cutting edge than what we were dealing with in the early days of these platforms that were not at all designed for live music. More people can easily participate and get an uninterrupted concert experience than ever before. So perhaps instead of calling Marshmello names and feeling slighted, the better move would be to thank him for opening this door to bigger and better shows for us all.

Hey, Didn't You Do A Virtual Show Just Last Night?
Yes, thanks for reminding me. After some schedule shuffling, we're finally back into our regular routine of bi-weekly Monday night shows at Serenity Gardens. I don't have to mention that it's a great place to both play and see live music. The people who run the place are super supportive and very welcoming to everyone who comes by. I never feel any pressure to stick to any certain style or genre of music there, which is nice and freeing for me as an artist.

There was no particular reason that I chose this show to debut so many songs I'd never played before. It just worked out that way. Additionally, I reached a little deeper into my repertoire and did a couple of other songs that usually don't leave the bottom of the pile. All in all, I think it was a nice refresher for my crowd. I always want to be sure that they know my shows aren't like a record stuck on "repeat". I try and make every single show a little different in various ways.

Serenity Gardens set list...
One of These Things First (Nick Drake)
Loading Zones (Kurt Vile)
Carey (Joni Mitchell)
Pickles (Zak Claxton)
*Year of the Cat (Al Stewart)
Blew the Dust Away (They Stole My Crayon)
The Waiting Boy (Zak Claxton)
*Sledgehammer (Peter Gabriel)
*I Feel the Earth Move (Carole King)
The Loner (Neil Young)
Landslide (Fleetwood Mac)
It’s Good to be King (Tom Petty)
*Boy in the Bubble (Paul Simon)

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

Big thanks to every single person who attended my show, with special kudos to the following who helped support it!
Rosie Arnaz, Jaron Metaluna, Tyche Szondi, Trouble Streeter, go2smoky Resident, dirkdanger11 Resident, Kat Chauveau, shaggycritter Resident, Asimia Heron, my lovely manager Maali Beck, and the fabulous team at Serenity Gardens, Tilly Rose and Ilsa Wilde.

Sunday, February 3, 2019


I did something new yesterday, which is cool because finding new things to do is becoming more and more rare as I get older and older. What I did was listen to a guy sing a song, and then hear a girl sing a song, and it was the same song... and it was sung by the same person.

Let me explain. The new album What Chaos Is Imaginary by LA-based band Girlpool was released on Friday, and I’d been a low-key fan of this lo-fi band since I first heard them maybe five years ago. After hearing their name around town for awhile, I recall seeing and enjoying the two young ladies who made up the band, Cleo Tucker and Harmony Tividad, on an NPR Tiny Desk concert in 2015, and then was impressed by them while watching the live stream from Coachella in 2016. Their 2017 album Powerplant expanded their sound by adding drums and more involved arrangements. They’ve definitely been on my radar since then.

As you may know, I have a weekend ritual along with Christina; on Saturday mornings along with our coffee, I listen to as many new indie/alternative music releases as conveniently possible, and I noted that the new Girlpool was out. When I played the first track on the album, I immediately knew that the direction they’d taken from a musical perspective was going to be right up my alley. Chaos is a sonically rich, textured album that goes far beyond the fun yet simplistic vibe with which they’d began.

A Different Voice
I was slightly perplexed, though, about one thing, as I played the phenomenal opening track “Lucy’s”. It appeared, by the sound of a lower-register voice taking the lead vocal, that there was a boy in the Girlpool. My first inclination was to assume that the band had a guest singer appearing on the track, which I thought — especially for the opening song on the album — was kind of bizarre. And yet, in a world where guest appearances on albums are hardly rare, I didn’t think too much of it.

But as I progressed through the album, and took a closer look at the recent photos the band had posted, the truth became more apparent to me. Cleo Tucker, at some point, had begun the process of transitioning gender — now preferring the “they/them” pronoun set — and the hormone treatment had caused their voice to deepen, as one would expect.

It should be obvious to anyone who knows me well that I am completely supportive of people who choose a non-binary or gender fluid direction in life. But this was an area, as a musician and performer, that I’d never previously considered. One’s voice is a huge part of one’s identity as a singer… the main part, it could be said. There have been other well-known musicians who transitioned genders; Wendy Carlos, the hugely respected synthesizer music pioneer, was born Walter Carlos. But her gender change had zero effect on her ability to compose and perform on keyboard instruments, while Cleo’s transition — as a singer-songwriter (key word “singer”) — resulted in a massive change to the way the audience would perceive their music.

Before I say anything else, I do want to state that I listened to the whole new Girlpool album and felt it was the best thing I’d heard from them by far. I like the sound of Cleo’s new voice, and feel it works well contrasting against Harmony’s harmony (sorry, couldn’t help myself). But still, the thought of undergoing such a drastic sonic change is unnerving to me as a music creator and performer. It would be, as I mentioned to Christina, like my having to abandon the guitar entirely and only having a bass to play, forever. I do love playing bass, but I feel I’d miss the guitar.

To make matters even less clear, I’d heard that many of the songs on this album were those that the two members of the band had done on their own, and some were several years old. With the awareness that Cleo’s transition had begun pretty recently — in the last year or so — I did some Internet sleuthing and sure enough, Cleo has a Soundcloud page that includes several demos that ended up on the album, including that lead track I'd liked so much, then known as “Lucy’s in the Sky”. So I clicked to play the track and there it was; a slightly less-polished but still very good version of the song, but sung a full octave up, in Cleo’s pre-transition voice.

"Lucy's" from What Chaos Is Imaginary (2019)

"Lucy's in the Sky" from Cleo Tucker's demo (2016)

Side note: I just freaking love listening to demos of any kind, by any band. It’s super neat to hear how the song develops between the initial idea and what happens after it goes through the process of working in the studio with producers and so on. I’m seriously considering gathering the demos from the They Stole My Crayon album and offering them as a free download companion piece. I should probably ask Christina and Bunny about that at some point. I also dug up Harmony Tividad’s solo demos, by the way, and enjoyed hearing what they became on the Girlpool album, which seem very similar in process to the acoustic demos Bunny did that we eventually turned into Crayon songs.

Anyway, now I had a whole other question of sorts: which version of the song that Cleo created, pre- and post-transition, was the more enjoyable of the two? I’ll start by answering that question from my role as a fellow musician and music producer... while both versions are generally similar (meaning the song was well developed before they started the new album), the album version is a way better recording and has a ton of texture and vibe that had yet to develop on the demo. But as a listener, I had always enjoyed the clear tones of Cleo’s feminine vocal range, and I had to ask myself if the experience of listening to this song had been negatively impacted by it now being in a male vocal range, an octave lower than that of the demo.

I found that the answer was more clear than I’d originally expected. Cleo’s voice is that of a person who knows how to impart feeling to a song, and the song is performed extraordinarily well regardless of the vocal range. The voice Cleo had used for the demo was great; the voice Cleo used for the album version had changed, but was also great. And perhaps that’s something we can consider whenever we start comparing and contrasting anything in life; different doesn’t have to mean better or worse. It just can be different. Is yellow better than blue? Is the brie inherently superior to the camembert? Is a labradoodle a better dog than a Boston terrier?

Subjective tastes being what they are, I wouldn’t fault someone who simply preferred Cleo’s old voice to their new one, or vice-versa. You can listen to both versions above and decide for yourself. But I can tell you one thing: when I first heard “Lucy’s” and wasn’t at all sure who was singing, I knew I genuinely liked the song a whole lot, right away... and that should probably tell you that art is independent from chromosomes or testosterone or anything else that really has nothing to do with one’s creative soul.