Art Talks Interview with Bruce Carter at WVIK

wvik1

Morgan, Jake, and Lewis with Bruce Carter

Yesterday afternoon I went with all available band members to do an interview with WVIK’s Bruce Carter for his weekly program, “Art Talks”.  He interviewed me, Morgan, and Jake about things like songwriting, how the band formed, and what it’s like to play music in the Quad Cities, and also played a few tracks from the new album.  After listening to excerpts from the interview, I realized I still say “uh” way too much when being interviewed, blaaahhh!

Bruce had me relate the events leading up to my decision to make music my full time job, and regarding the financial risk factor, he said years back he had interviewed a very successful Czech painter who had originally moved the the US with his wife and child, and although they only had 70 dollars between them, he kept thinking “I have to paint!”

We found Bruce to be a very knowledgeable and gracious radio host.  He was very enthusiastic about the album, and optimistic about our future as a Quad City band.  The interview will be aired on 90.3 WVIK, Thursday, August 14th at 7:00 pm, and also on Sunday, August 17th at 1:00 pm.  After the air date, you can find our interview, as well as many other local artist interviews at WVIK website.  Hope you tune in!

 

 

 

On Finishing What I Started

The Deluge, John Martin

On January 1st, 2013, I decided not to continue substitute teaching and to write, record and perform music as a full-time career.  I set some goals for myself so as to be able to measure how things were going.  One of the goals I set was to write and record 52 songs this year.  For the first 16 weeks I was consistently cranking out a song every week.  Then came summer, with all its busyness, and after spending time out of town in Minnesota, Seattle, and a 5-week stint in Europe, my song-per-week regimen had come completely undone.  I was still fairly consistently recording new songs over the summer, but I wasn’t making up for missed weeks.  And now I’m significantly behind.  I had started thinking it was unrealistic and had pretty much decided that I had already written plenty of songs and wasn’t going to stress the 52-song goal.  But a couple friends reminded me of the importance of accomplishing goals in keeping momentum going with my music and so with 29 songs down, 23 songs to go, and only about a month and a half to finish, I’m going to try to do this.  Some of the songs may be a little rough, (I plan on re-recording a lot of this year’s songs anyway) but with renewed resolve, I’ve decided to commit to finishing this project.  I’d like to thank you for your support and interest this year.  Get ready for a deluge of new songs!

Getting to know Bremen

After 3 solid weeks of gigs, I’m in the home stretch with one final show tonight at “Moments” in Bremen.  Nearly every evening has consisted of finding a venue, tracking down some dinner, setting up gear, playing, selling CDs, tearing down gear, and driving home.  The nice thing about having a home base ‘flat’ in Bremen is that each night I’ve had a place to come back to and get a good night’s sleep.  So since I’ve basically been living here for almost a month, I’ve gotten to know the city a little bit.

bikesI’ve taken public transportation nearly every day for the past two weeks.  It’s the first public transportation I’ve used where you pay for and receive your ticket from a machine after you get on the train and just hold onto it (honor system).  I was definitely confused the first time.

I won’t soon forget the greasy (delicious) lamb wraps (called Doner?) from the Turkish-owned kiosks.  One time I ate one and was full for six hours.  That never happens.

I’ve run to the bank to get my change converted to bills, to the post office to send postcards, the electronics store for a SIM card and batteries, and the grocery store for food .  ALDI here has daily fresh baked bread. aldi bread

There’s a touristy area in Bremen called the “Schnoor” and I busked there yesterday afternoon for a couple hours.  A guy stopped and sang the first verse of “Wonderwall” with me.

There are bikes everywhere.  There are bikes in the bike lane, bikes in the street, and bikes in the sidewalk.  Long story short – watch out for bikes.  I’ve met lots of people who don’t own cars and just take the train if they need to travel far.

There’s a strong history of counter-culture in Bremen dating back to the ’70s.  For this reason, graffiti plays a symbolic role in the city and, at least for the most part, is left as-is and not painted over or washed off.  Last night I went downtown with Joe and Boubacar and took a few pictures of graffiti here and there in the winding Viertel neighborhood.

graffiti1 graffiti3 graffiti2

So Bremen, it’s been good getting to know you.

And that’s my 2 cents worth.

2 cents

Doubleheader Sunday – Kulturambulanz and Katakomben

There have been a few days during this tour where we have played two shows in one day.  This past Sunday we played at 1pm in a concert hall inkulturambulanz a park near a Hospital in the Bremen area.  There were around 20 people in attendance and they were very into the music, and also quite generous when we ‘passed the hat’.

Then in the evening we drove about 20 minutes away to a very cool spot in Achim called Katakomben, an underground ‘beer cellar’ as Ollie, the owner, described it.  As soon as I walked in I went full-on shutterbug.  By the time the show started the place was totally packed and everyone had an ‘uber’ great time.

katakomben5 katakomben4 katakomben3 katakomben2 katakomben1 lewis katakombenbuba

And I really knew it was a good show when I broke my pick on “With Your Soul”

pick

Learning How to Write Music – Using Tone Color

“What to Listen for in Music” is a book written by 20th century American composer ImageAaron Copland, originally published in 1939.  I read it 5 years ago and am now re-reading it and finding it extremely insightful for understanding more theory behind song writing.

Music has four essential elements: rhythm, melody, harmony, and tone color.  These four ingredients are the composer’s materials.  He works with them in the same way that any other artisan works with his materials.  From the standpoint of the lay listener they have only a limited value, for he is seldom conscious of hearing any one of them separately.  It is their combined effect – the seemingly inextricable web of sound that they form – with which listeners are concerned for the most part.

I like how he describes these four ingredients in concrete terms, ‘as any other artisan works with his materials’.  Music itself cannot be seen or touched, so it’s hard to think of writing music in concrete terms, and the process or writing or finishing a song can start to feel completely nebulous.

Taking the element of ‘tone color’ as an example – I might get an idea to play a “C” note on the piano in the background of a chorus.  if I’m writing a song in an abstract sense, I might get caught up in deciding simply whether to go with the “C” idea, or skip it.  Or maybe I would get distracted and start experimenting with what it might sound like to play a “D” or an “E” instead.

However, let’s think of the “C” as dab of yellow paint on a palette.  Does the painter only think “Should I use the yellow or not”?  No, the yellow can be used sparingly, liberally, can be mixed with any color, can be watered down, can be thickened, etc.

In the same way, the “C” note on the piano can be played loudly or softly.  On a full 88 key piano, you have the option of playing a C somewhere in the low, middle, or high register of the keyboard, each one creating a slightly different feel in the song.  You can play the C in quick 16th notes, quarter notes, or hit the C one time and let it ring for the whole chorus.  Already there are so many possible combinations, it would take hours just to try them all.  I think it’s important while writing music to maintain a frame of mind where I’m thinking of musical elements as organic materials

Sonnendeck – Dangast/Varel

Played a fun show last night at this vacation spot on a bay that leads out to the North Sea.

sonnendeck 1

There’s a little bar/restaurant right on this beach and I played on the deck for a couple hours.  Did an hour of covers and an hour of originals.  Got a request for “Leaving On A Jet Plane” which I butchered, but then redeemed myself with a segue into “Country Road”.  Sold 4 CDs.  The owner was really nice and kept trying to give me more food…even after I ate a whole pizza.  Whew, I need to go for a run.

Maximilian, Big Buttinsky, De Nul, Lambooijhuis

My first show was on Friday night at a restaurant/bar called Maximilian.  I played on one end of a large patio area, and since the weather was perfect everyone was sitting outside.  I played two forty-minute sets with about a 50/50 mix of covers and originals.  Overall people seemed to be enjoying it, but a few people at the table closest to me were really into it.  After I finished they bought CDs, we hung out for about an hour, and they’re going to host a house concert later in the tour.  While we were chatting they told me “In northern Germany, we usually do not show enjoyment with dancing.  We may seem to look stern, but we are dancing in our minds.”

Saturday was my first night playing with JeConte and the Mali All-Stars.  (The previous night we were scheduled for separate venues).  I have to say I’ve really enjoyed hanging out with them, listening to their music, and they even let me come up on stage and jam with them during their set.  (Videos to come later).  Through their songs they seek to speak peace into the current turmoil in Mali (read more here).  They have a new album available on itunes which you should really check out.

We played at a venue called “Big Buttinsky”.  When we arrived we had a hard time finding the venue because it was right inside a movie theater, located directly across from the ticket booth.  It isn’t owned by or affiliated with the cinema, it’s just a really cool venue that happens to be in a movie theater.  For that and many other reasons, I found this venue to be fascinating.  They treated us extremely well, even giving us a place to stay for the night.  But the thing I was curious about from the first time I perused the list of venues was “Why are they called ‘Big Buttinsky?'”  I had a chance to ask Carson, one of the owners, and he told me that 6 years ago when they started the venue and were trying to think of a name which would give them the number one spot on any Google search in any language.  Somehow they came across the word “buttinsky” which means “A person who habitually butts in; an intruder or meddler.”  So after trying different words and combinations of words on Google searches, they found that “Big Buttinsky” did the trick.  

jcmas big buttinsky

Sunday we headed for the Netherlands and played at a Venue called De Nul.  Very cool venue and staff who are establishing a place for independent musicians to play.  They gave us all t-shirts before we left.  I would love to play there again.  After we left De Nul we went a few blocks away to another ‘optional gig’ at a place called Lambooijhuis, where we had dinner, played for about an hour, and called it a night.

joebubadenul

Now we’re back in Bremen and have a show in town tonight.  One thing I’ve wanted to accomplish during this tour is to really develop my original songs for live performance and I think that is definitely starting to happen.  I’ll post some video soon, stay tuned.

Turkish Delight

I spent Tuesday in Chicago with my buddy Gerad, who graciously offered to drop me off for my flight in Chicago, but since it was an evening flight, we decided to leave in the morning and hang out in Chicago all day.  We hung out with some Chicago friends in the afternoon, and topped it off with some barbecue for dinner at Weber Grill Restaurant where I used to work.  I had to be at the airport at 8:15 PM so we left a little after seven. However shortly after getting on the 90/94 freeway, we hit a sharp groove in the road and the right front end started making a scary, loud, wobbling noise. Sure enough, it was flat. Gerad pulled off into one of those little triangular areas between the freeway and where an exit begins, butted right up against the concrete divider. I started to get out to help, but he was like “don’t get out” so I just sat in the car and prayed that none of the cars whizzing by us would hit him as he took the flat off and put the ‘doughnut’ on. (Doughnut = slang for a small spare tire which is just meant to get you to the repair shop so you can get the tire patched.) So in less than 10 minutes he managed to get the old tire off, and the new one on. We were back on the road and still got to the airport by 8:00.

Leaving Chicago

I had decided to go with Turkish Airlines since it was the best price I could find.  The first flight from Chicago to Istanbul went fine for the most part. I got a little sleep, and did the two hour layover. Then I got on my plane from Istanbul to Hamburg. I boarded early, but then it was delayed one hour, then two hours, then three hours, with the pilot repeatedly mentioning they were waiting on some “information” from Germany before they could take off.  Finally they told us that the flight had been cancelled for security reasons.  Later I could see that all of the flights from Turkey to difference places in Germany had been cancelled.

They brought every passenger back outside the plane, went through everyone’s carry on luggage, and we all got thoroughly frisked. Then they put us on a bus and we waited for about an hour before finally getting carted back to the airport. Unfortunately, during this time we didn’t receive any direction as to how to catch the next flight. Everyone went straight to the ticket transfer desk and almost mobbed the Turkish Airline staff with questions and complaints. It was actually kind of funny cause there were like 15 people behind the desk and it seemed like none of them knew what to do, and they were just nervously talking to each other until one guy got up and stood on the desk, very much George Bailey style, and answered everyone’s questions, one by one. However, it was all in Turkish and I had no idea what they were saying. I asked several other staff what was going on, and they tried to respond, but it was clear they didn’t know enough English to explain.

If you’ve ever seen The Terminal (with Tom Hanks) it felt a lot like that for a couple hours. It really would have helped if I’d known German. I kept asking people, both staff and passengers, what to do and how to just get on the next flight, but kept having people tell me that they didn’t speak English, or speaking English that didn’t make sense, or giving me ‘directions’ that weren’t there when I got there. I figured out that I could get a free hotel room and sleep for four hours before coming back to catch my flight. But if I wanted to do that I would need to get a Visa at the airport, since I would be leaving the airport and entering the country, and I didn’t feel like doing that. By this time I hadn’t eaten for over 8 hours and wasn’t feeling good, but all the food places were on the other side of airport security and I still didn’t know how to get to the right place.  I did find an apple juice vending machine, but it only took euros.  I tried to withdraw some money at a nearby ATM with both my credit and debit card but it gave me an error message in Turkish, probably about my type of card not being accepted. Finally after asking more people and walking around,  by process of elimination I figured out how to re-enter the departure area, got searched and scanned for the third time for that flight, ran into a Starbucks and ate a bunch of food, and killed time wandering around the airport, buying water, defragging my hard drive, and writing this.  So in end, the flight which was supposed to leave at 7:10 PM left at 4:00 AM the next morning.  (This morning.)  (Thursday morning.) (I think.)

Now I’m safe and sound in my apartment in Bremen. I took a much needed nap, went grocery shopping, and got an internet stick.  Below is a picture of the kitchen I’m sitting in.  It has posters on the walls of all the previous tours and detailed notes by many of the musicians and bands on what the venues and fans were like in different places, how many CDs sold, etc.  The other band I’ll be playing with will be arriving in a couple hours.

my kitchen

I didn’t have the best experience with Turkish Airlines but the food on the plane was actually pretty good, and I was able to sleep enough at least to avoid going mentally insane. Also, at the beginning of the flight out of Chicago, I had my first taste of the notoriously delicious Turkish Delight.

Checklist For Trip to Germany

I take off for Germany Tuesday night and will be touring there for 3 weeks.  (If you haven’t read about it check out this post)

So as the time draws near, I’ve been trying to make sure I’m as ready as I can be and don’t stupidly forget something like my phone charger, which I have done numerous times.  Here are some things I’ve been doing/will do to get ready.

1. Cut Hair

I want to be remembered for the music I play, not for the neck hair I forgot to cut.

haircut

2. Wax/Polish Boots

Can’t be walking around with dull looking cowboy boots.  I just don’t feel that would represent America well.

boots

3. Get Fridge Empty

Gonna be gone for over a month.  Anything left in here will probably be gross when I get back.

fridge

4. Do Laundry

Something I also do on a regular basis.  But also now.

laundry

5. Make CDs

Making sure I have plenty of merchandise to sell at shows.

cds

6. Write Down Itinerary

Triple check.  Quadruple check.

itinerary

7. Bring 220 Electrical Adapter

Still have this from Korea

adapter

8. Finalize Setlist

setlist

9. New Strings

strings

 10. Bring Passport

Not going anywhere without this.

passpt

Tour in Germany

This past January I got an email from my friend Bryn, “Lewis, give me a call!  do you want to play a tour in Germany this summer?”

This really caught my eye, mostly because I rarely, if ever, get (non-spam) emails from friends asking me if I’d like to play a tour in Germany.  songsandw

I met Bryn when I lived in Chicago, about 5 years ago.  He writes and records great music (check it out!) and had been asked to do this tour in Germany himself, but because of other commitments, was not able to, so he passed the opportunity along to me.

So, after much preparation, all the tickets are purchased, and plans are in place to head to Germany August 13th and do this thing!

Let me try to premeditate what kind of questions you might have about this trip:

Q: “Who organizes this tour?”

A: “Songs & Whispers” a live music and artist development network. It is presenting live music in venues in Bremen, Germany and other places in Europe.

Q: “Is this a paid tour?”

A:  No.  I have to pay my own way to get there and stay there (plane ticket, apartment to stay in, food) but there will be ‘pass-the-hat’ style tip collections at each gig I play which I will get to use to recoup my expenses.  Also I will be able to sell and keep all money from selling my own CDs and other merchandise.  I have been in contact with several other musicians who have already played for Songs and Whispers and they told me that after all was said and done, they were able to make back their expenses plus a little more.

Q: “Are you goint to stay in hostels during the tour?”

A: No.  The musicians rent a flat in Bremen and use it as a ‘home base’ for the duration of the tour.

Q: “How long is this tour?”

A:  From August 17th to September 8th

Q: Is there anyone else on the bill?”

A:  Yes.  Most shows I’ll be playing will be with a band called JeConte and the Mali All-Stars

Q: “Do you speak German”

A:  Very little.  I bought all 3 levels of Rosetta Stone for German a long time ago, studied for a while, forgot about it, and am now picking it back up again, learning how to say things like “Dog” and “Egg” and “Sandwich”, but probably won’t know enough for any practical use.  Just enough to maybe make a couple of German people think I’m cool.

Q: “What songs are you going to play for the shows?”

A:  Songs and Whispers encourages their guests to do mostly original music with a few covers.

Q: “Are you bringing your piano?”

A:  No.  Just my acoustic guitar and a suitcase.

Q: “While you’re in Europe, don’t you think you should see some sites, and visit some people?”

A:  Yes.  After the tour I plan on visiting a friend from college who now lives in the U.K. and then over to Denmark to meet some very distant cousins who my uncle Jim met while doing some family history research online.  I found out about a good place to busk in Copenhagen.  Also it’s the 200th Anniversary of Soren Kierkegaard and I hear there are some cool exhibits on him.

So it’s coming up, just a few more weeks away.  In case you or someone you know happens to live in or near Germany, here are the dates/venues of the shows:

Saturday, August 17th @ Big Buttinsky, Osnabruck, 21:00

Sunday, August 18th @ De Nul, Hengelo, Netherlands, 16:00

Sunday, August 18th @ Lambooijhuis, Hengelo, Netherlands, 20:00

Monday, August 19th, @ Litfass, Bremen, 20:00

Tuesday, August 20th, @ RadioWeserTV, Delmenhorst, 14:30

Tuesday, August 20th, @Hafen Casino, Bremen, 20:00

Wednesday, August 21st, @ Strandgelanda am Weichelsee, Rotenburg, 20:00

Thursday, August 22nd, @ Altes Gymnasium Bremen, 13:30

Thursday, August 22nd, @ Moma-Cafehaus, Worpswede, 20:00

Friday, August 23rd. @ Sonnendeck, Dangast/Varel 20:00

Saturday, August 24th, @ Litfass, Bremen, 14:00

Saturday, August 24th, @ Whiskey Tasting – Summerfest, Bremen

Tuesday, August 27th, @ LOX, Bremen,  20:00

Wednesday, August 28th, @ Strandgelande am Weichelsee, Rotenburg, 20:00

Thursday, August 29th, @Elephantseven, Hamburg, 18:00

Friday, August 30th, @ Altes Amtsgericht, Lilienthal, 15:30 and 20:00

Saturday, August 31st, @ Schwarzer Bar, Wilhelmshaven, 21:00

Sunday, September 1st, @ Kulturambulanz, Bremen 13:00

Sunday, September 1st, @ Katakomben, Achim, 20:00

Monday, September 2nd, @Grusewsky, Emden, 20:00

Wednesday, September 4th, @Radio Jade, Wilhelmshaven, 14:30

Wednesday, September 4th, @ Pumpwerk, Wilhelmshaven, 22:00

Friday, September 6th, @Harlekin Pub, Neuharlingersiel, 20:00

Saturday, September 7th, @ Slatterys, Delmenhorst, 21:30

Sunday, September 8th, @ Club Moments, Bremen, 20:00

5 Things I Learned At Fiddletunes

Last week I attended the 40th annual Fiddle Tunes workshop/festival at Fort Worden State Park in Port Towsend, WA.  It’s a very unique event which gives uke classparticipants of all skill levels a chance to be exposed to different kinds of traditional folk music and develop proficiency in those styles.  Each morning and afternoon there were classes taught by the featured musicians from all over the world in which they would focus on a particular song or style of playing.  In the evening those same musicians would perform in a small theater.

Every day after lunch was “Band Lab” which gave participants an opportunity to join up with one of the musicians, form a combo band, learn songs from the musicians, practice throughout the week, and then perform at the end of the week.  I chose to join a group led by a Trio from the Basque country, and with about 15 other students had a great time learning 5 songs and learning how to sing in the Basque language, which I had never heard of before.

Basque band

I wanted to go to all the classes and workshops, but due to my  inability to be in more than one place at one time, I tried to just take in a variety along the course of the week.  I went to classes for banjo, piano, mandolin, guitar, violin and more and learned a lot about techniques when playing traditional folk music.  

The classes are open to anyone at any time, and people can participate as much or as little as they want, so even though I only had an acoustic guitar, I was able to check out quite a variety of classes without getting looks of disapproval from teachers.  The structure of the whole week is very relaxed, but full enough so you can participate all day if you want to, and that’s what I decided to do.  It was great to listen to, play with, and chat with musicians who know so much about the history of the music that they play.

Here are 5 things I learned during my week at Fiddletunes.

#1:  “Keep repetetive guitar chords interesting by adding bass notes.”

– Rich Hartness

 #2:  Songwriting is a process of borrowing (stealing?) from other songs/styles.

“Take part of a song you like, keep playing it, it turns into something else, you have a new song” – Joseba Tapia

#3:  Rhythm is based on organic sounds.

“Western boom-chick songs sound like horses hooves.  16 Tons sounds like the pounding of a hammer” – David Whipple

#4:  Happiness and Sadness are all part of good honest music.

“I play lots of sad and depressing songs.  I think that’s why I’m so happy” – Riley Baugus

#5:  The Amazing Slowdowner for PC or MAC

(Software and App for slowing down fast songs to be able to hear individual notes and learn them slowly.)

No Turning Back

Click play to listen to “No Turning Back”

Click here to purchase the song at bandcamp.com

After 4 solid months, I’m taking a one month sabbatical from my new song project to work on a more urgent recording project.  In the meantime I’ll share a few songs I wrote a while back as a part of an album called “Word Trees”.  I wrote and recorded the songs for this album while living in Korea and made it available on my bandcamp site, but after more listening wasn’t happy with the overall recording quality of it.  So I’m going to re-master the songs and incrementally release them.

The original idea for this song came to me while I was still living in Chicago.  I was at Ipsento, a coffee shop close to my apartment and I was talking with the then-owner, Rachael Smith, about how, when you first start drinking coffee, you can get used to whatever kind of coffee you’re introduced to, but then if/when you taste a cup of really good coffee, suddenly you ‘know better’ and the coffee you were perfectly content with before is no longer good enough, thus causing you to take farther trips and pay higher amounts of money just to get the coffee that measures up to your new standard.

Whether it was something within or beyond my control, there are a whole lot of things that happen which I look at and think ‘It would have been nice if that wouldn’t have happened…but it did.’   We have to live in the context of all the things that have really happened, even those things which we prefer would not have happened.  We do stuff and we’re stuck with it.  That’s what this song is about.

Manual Labor

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.

History in Songs

https://lewisknudsen.files.wordpress.com/2013/03/story-of-st-patrick.mp3

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.

Humility, Water, Coffee

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). 

Playing a Show at Uncommon Ground

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.

Auditioning for The Voice – Handling Rejection

A few months ago I was playing music somewhere and someone told me, “You should audition for The Voice.” Soon after that, someone else said something similar, so I got curious, looked into it, learned about the chair twirling and everything, and decided to audition. All I needed to do was sign up on the NBC website, so I did. At first I told myself I wouldn’t take the whole thing seriously. Just an interesting thing to experience. But then I told a couple people, and those people got excited and told some other people. Then I started getting detailed suggestions on which song I should audition with, and how I could gain the edge. I recorded some videos and had people vote for which song I should do. I’m used to singing with a guitar or piano in front of me so I had to practice singing without playing anything.  I went to an open mic night and ‘auditioned’ for the audience and had them critique me. Lots of friends and family sent good luck wishes. The big weekend came. I printed out my special “audition Artist Pass”. I drove to Chicago. I went a day early to stay with friends and be well rested. The whole thing was held at a huge convention center in Rosemont. I parked in the parking garage. I walked to the building.  I followed the signs.  I got in line, and started chatting with other people about what songs they were doing, where they were from, while we all grew increasing nervous/excited as we neared the audition room. We stood in wide rows until they moved our row into another giant room where we stood in line. They scanned our audition pass and we were moved somewhere else and stood single file. Then we moved somewhere else and sat in line. Finally after a lot of sitting, standing, and waiting, I was led, along with nine other people, into the audition room which was a conference room with 90’s hotel style carpet. We all sat down in a row facing the ‘producer’, a twenty-something woman with a large mac book pro in front of her. One by one she had us stand up and walk to the duct tape ‘x’ on the floor and sing a couple verses and a chorus. I sang first. I felt nervous, but thought I was able to not let it effect my voice and was satisfied with how I did. One by one, the other people auditioned. I was excited. I was nervous.  I could anticipate the excitement of being asked to do another song. But after we were all finished, the producer asked only one girl out of our group to stay, thanked the rest of us for auditioning, and showed us the door.  

Outside the door of the audition room, I exchanged “good job”s and “nice to meet you”s with the people from my group and then headed toward the parking garage.  I was kind of in shock.  I had really thought I had a chance. It was a very weird kind of daze, a “what just happened?” feeling. I had spent 3 hours waiting and being moved around with a definite goal in mind, and that goal was no longer achievable. My mind retaliated.  I had some “I’ll show them!” kind of thoughts, although I’m not sure how one goes about “showing” NBC.  I second guessed which song I should have sung.  I thought about auditioning next year – but I’ll have to wait a whole year.  What I was left with was a realization that, despite not taking it seriously at first, by investing myself in the process, I had come to take it very seriously, and had seriously planned on making the cut, but it didn’t happen the way I wanted, and this thing I had put my hope in was seriously gone.  Obviously we all experience disappointment with ‘things’ not ‘going’ the ‘way I expected’. It’s part of life. But for me, walking into a lonely parking garage on a cold, rainy Saturday night, my mind full only of thoughts of how I had taken something seriously and failed, I had to just as seriously ask myself the question:  “What is my hope?”

All these thoughts brought me back to something I had heard in a Tim Keller sermon podcast recently.  He shared quotes from several celebrities about what drives them to pursue success.  Madonna said every time she accomplished something great, she felt valuable, but after a while the feeling would wear off and she would feel like a loser again until the next big achievement.  Eric Liddell of Chariots of Fire fame, said before a race, “I have 10 lonely seconds to justify my existence”.

I went into this audition fueled by several small scale ‘successes’ as far as my personal goals with music. I viewed the attempt at being on “The Voice” as taking a step toward something bigger, a chance to sing one song to ‘justify my existence’. However, not making it and the accompanying sinking feeling showed me that I need something better than my own potential achievements to put my hope and identity in.  But what’s worth putting hope in? It would have to be a sure thing.  It would have to be a the kind of hope for which failure was not an option.  There has to be some way for me to forget about myself and take on the identity of someone who cannot possibly fail. I can’t settle for anything less.