For the past two years I’ve been working toward becoming a full-time musician. This past January I finally took the plunge. I feel very privileged to be able to do something I truly love to do and live off the income. But sometimes I just need to switch gears for a bit.
My Uncle Brad manages a greenhouse in Ramsey, Minnesota. Green Valley Greenhouse. They supply all the potted plants for all the COSTCOs, Cub Foods, and hundreds of other retailers in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area. For the past two years I’ve gone up to work as seasonal help for the week leading up to Mother’s Day. It’s by far their busiest (and money makin-est) week of the year, and they hire a bunch of extra people and everyone works a whole lot of overtime. Working from 7am to 7pm is pretty average for any given employee during this particular week, and a lot of people end up working more than that. Despite the extremely high volume of flowers being loaded, delivered, unloaded and sold, and the accompanying warehouse chaos, I’ve really enjoyed this random little side-job each May for the past couple years. The management is great to work for (including my uncle) and the rest of the employees are great to work with as well. It’s also great to be able to work a midst an array of absolutely gorgeous plants, with the accompanying burst of pure oxygen they provide. It’s like working in an oxygen bar.
Confession: I have never been to an oxygen bar.
I love music, but it involves a lot of precision. Tune the guitar. Adjust the gain. Tweak the EQ. Tune the guitar again. Sometimes it’s just nice to carry heavy stuff and get your hands covered in dirt. I’ve noticed that doing some occasional manual labor is actually really good for me (ya think?) So that’s obvious I guess. But it’s easy for me to get in a mindset of thinking that I must work unceasingly at writing, recording, and performing music, 80 hours per week, year after year. Because as I’ve been told, there’s someone else out there (in Nashville I assume) working just as hard as me at what I’m doing, and if I don’t continue my grueling pace, that person will steal all my success and I’ll be left with nothing. No, I’m sorry, breaks are good. I need breaks. So, starting tomorrow, I’m heading up to Minnesota to go work at a greenhouse and enjoy some good old manual labor.
I have a hard time applying myself to something unless I know why I’m doing it. Songwriting is something I’ve had to come back to repeatedly as I continue to ask myself “Why am I doing this?” ”What’s the point?” A few months ago I took time again to put down on paper what exactly I was going to try to accomplish by writing songs. One of the things I put down was “to preserve history through songs”. This certainly is not a groundbreaking concept in the songwriting arena…Many of the Psalms and poetry contained in the Bible are a preservation of the history of Israel. Early American folk songs preserved the memory of meaningful events, such as those found on one of Decca’s earliest albums, a compilation titled, Badmen, Heroes, and Pirates, which pays homage to folk legends who fought against injustice.
People have been writing and singing about their past from the beginning, but it is a little more intimidating than it used to be. Long ago groups of people all held basically the same beliefs about certain past events, and affirmed those beliefs through their cultural expressions. But now, even seeing is not necessarily believing. There’s CGI, and Photoshop. There are people out there trying to dupe us to serve their own ends, so we must be suspicious. Anything can be called into question. So as a modern day songwriter, I sure don’t want to be the guy who writes a song about how great William Shakespeare was, only to discover to my embarrassment that scholars have decided unequivocally that William Shakespeare, in fact, did not write the works of William Shakespeare (some people believe this, btw).
But I love history, I love learning more of it, and I believe some historical events and figures actually happened/existed, are meaningful, worth preserving, and can speak meaningfully to us in our time.
However, it wasn’t really an articulate thought process that led me to write and record “The Story of St. Patrick”. It was green beer. It was corned beef. It was leprechauns. If March 17th were called “American Perception of Irish Celebration Day” it wouldn’t have bothered me. I know, I know, nearly all the histories behind our holidays have been completely obfuscated by commercialization. But, by jimminy, it’s called “St. Patrick’s Day” and nobody was talking about St. Patrick, so I needed to write this song.
Yesterday I finished my song of the week, “I Had a Thought of You” (click above to listen).
I had two main ‘rules’ or ‘limitations’ when I wrote this song:
1) The bass notes for the song had to be descending and chromatic, within an octave, from the high C to the low C. (The chords did not need to be the same as the bass note, but they needed to work around the chromatic, descending bass line.)
2) The lyrics of the song were limited to a short, 8 line lyrical idea I had.
I broke both of these rules:
1) In the middle of the song, the bass not goes back up (not descending) from F# to G before continuing it’s downward descent.
2) I made slight changes to the lyrics the second time through the song
Overall, though, I stuck to the rules and I like the result. The song is lyrically simple but the second time forced me to change the melody a bit to keep it from getting boring. The fact that I had to use EVERY NOTE in the bass forced me to come up with some chords that I definitely would not have normally thought of. The most difficult was figuring out how to smoothly resolve from C# down to C. That took me a while.
In future songs I’d like to continue with the limitation idea. If you have any suggestions please let me know!
I also used a new microphone for this song which I’ll talk more about in the next post.
Another song from that show at Uncommon Ground a few years back. It’s pretty long so this is only the last half of the song, but you can hear the full version if you click here. The inspiration for this song came from reading a devotional book, Humility, by Andrew Murray. He talks about how water always goes to the lowest place it can find, giving the most nourishment to plants and roots which are in the lowest place. So also people who voluntarily take a humble place will be nourished, but trying to be in the ‘highest’ place will result in dryness and eventual starvation and death. Some of the lyrics in this song are about the process involved in making coffee and how long and arduous the process is (for the roaster and the coffee bean).
In the Fall of 2008 I was living in Chicago, had just finished an album called “Poor Homeless Soul” and wanted to play some shows. I emailed every venue I had heard of asking if I could play there (including the Chicago Theater, haha). The two places to get back to me and offer me a spot on a bill were Silvie’s Lounge and Uncommon Ground. I booked and confirmed a show with Silvie’s, and exchanged a couple emails with Uncommon Ground about possible dates, but after asking for confirmation for a certain date, I never heard back. Then a couple months later I woke up at 5:15 a.m. to go to work and my friend Dylan Peterson texted me saying “Hey, it says in the reader you’re playing at Uncommon Ground tonight.” I had no clue. I worked my morning shift at Weber Grill, came home, brushed up on my songs, arranged to borrow my roommates car to transport my keyboard, and drove up to Wrigleyville an hour early to set up. Unfortunately there was a Cubs game going on that night, so I had to park about ten blocks away from Uncommon Ground and then carry my keyboard and stand, which was extremely difficult and also funny when I met people on the sidewalk. People don’t really know what to say to you when you’re just carrying a piano down the street. I finally got to the cafe, set up my piano, got a mic set up, got plugged into the system, and played straight through the album. The guy running sound that night was kind enough to record the whole set and give me a CD of it before I left. Lots of good friends came to hear the music and enjoy the food. The audio clip above is the first song I played that night.
I never really ended up pursuing more gigs after that. As much as I enjoyed writing and recording that album, playing solo really just left me wanting to put a band together, but when I’d tried putting something together with friends it never really worked out. Soon after that I decided to put music on hold and set my sights on going to Korea to teach English. (Although being in Korea resulted in all sorts of great musical influences and opportunities which I never would have imagined…for a later post)
A little background on “Ephemeroptera”: In 2007 I was visiting my family in the Quad Cities. I was driving along River Drive on a summer night and it was that particular time in the summer when the whole area along the road and next to the river is completely swarming with mayflies. There were so many that the ones near the streetlights were illuminated making them look like leaves on a glowing tree. Later that week I was walking along the same area and noticed piles of dead mayflies lining the road in a mass grave along the curb. This somehow fascinated me so I looked up more information on mayflies on the internet and found out that their official “order” (remember science class?) is Ephemeroptera, meaning “short-lived, wing” and their life span can go from as ‘long’ as a few days to as short as just a few hours. This spoke to me about how short life is, so I wrote this song. Admittedly there are a lot of other thoughts/musings/feelings crammed into this song, but the original inspiration came from those glowing trees of extremely short-lived bugs.