Filtering by Tag: songwriting

Courage to Be Quiet (and to watch Springsteen on Broadway)

I’ve realized something about my solo performances. I keep trying to be as loud as I can. I keep trying to add in as many elements as possible to get the biggest sound. I keep trying to be more than I am. That last one may sound like an admirable trait, but in this context it is damned near debilitating. To never reach that full sound I want is maddening. It causes me to doubt not just the sound, but my ability to perform and the songs themselves. It sucks.

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And then this weekend I watched the Netflix film Springsteen on Broadway. Let me say that I am not a fan of the Boss. I just don’t get it. There are a few exceptions though. “I’m on Fire” and “The Ghost of Tom Joad” are undeniably great songs. But from where I stand, they seem to be the antithesis of “Born to Run” or “Born in the USA.” His voice was somewhat of a turn off, and I hated their cover of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” But I’ve heard a lot of people talk about Mr. Springsteen’s broadway production and thought this would be an opportunity to listen with fresh ears. I’m glad I did. While I’m by no means a convert, I can now appreciate what it is that he does. Hearing his stories, his solo acoustic guitar, imperfect strumming, and stripped down arrangements was refreshing for me. It was like watching a masterclass on “Solo Acoustic Performance and Storytelling.” There was a lot of silence in this film, all of it very purposeful. Needless to say, I took some notes.

And after all of this, I realize that I have never had a problem being loud. I can play bombastically without issue to nearly any room. But I get most stage fright when I know things will be quiet. I think it’s because I am afraid that everyone will hear each and every one of my mistakes and imperfections. If the performance is quiet and I blank on a lyric, everyone will hear. It’s hard for me. But I now know that I need to have confidence and the courage to be quiet. I need to trust myself and my songs. I need to give myself permission to make mistakes. I need to accept that I will make mistakes, and that’s ok. Fortune favors the brave.

From Studio to Stage

I hung up my gigging boots back in August 2017. After two years of giving it all of my effort as a solo artist, I had fallen out of touch with other aspects of music making that I love so much, including studio work. I'm a man of extremes, so for the next 12 months, I dedicated myself to the studio, releasing new recordings and songs every month. It was the breath of (not so) fresh air that I needed. Being hidden away in my home studio gave me time to experiment, go down some rabbit holes, and find my voice a bit more. But all good things must come to an end. I've opened the door and have my first gig in over a year coming up on Friday.

I now found myself in the position of translating the work I've done in the studio to the stage. Without an approximately 20 piece band at my disposal, I was left with no choice but to make some changes. Every aspect of the music was on the table, including song choice, structure, key, and instrumentation. That can be a bit overwhelming, especially for songs that were written in the studio. Well, it was time to rip off the band-aid! (pun 100% intended.)

 

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I chose to start with instrumentation. I've known for a while that I'm a stronger electric guitar player than acoustic. Add in my desire to keep my set up as simple as possible and I concluded to stick to a single electric guitar, amp, and pedals. This setup would allow me the maximum amount of tones with minimum gear. I always want to be sure that I keep things as interesting as possible for the audiences' ears. I started playing with my pedals (Earthquaker Nightwire, Moog Minifooger Delay, Neunaber Seraphim Mono Shimmer, Boss RC-1 Loop Station, Boss SD-1 Super Overdrive) and came up with some base levels and pleasing combinations.

Next I started playing songs exactly as I did when I recorded/wrote them, but with the electric guitar set up. Using a loop station can certainly free things up for solos and texture building, but it can also be risky and a logistical nuisance. The RC-1 is quite basic, so you essentially get one shot to get it right. For me, it requires a little too much concentration at times, so I decided to use it sparingly. Because I essentially set my restrictions (electric, pedals, voice), the songs started to take shape pretty quickly within those confines and others were cut. The songs had to be dynamic, utilize different effect combinations, and still stay true to the original sentiment and intentions. Not only that, but the effects had to amplify those sentiments. (Again, pun totally intended.) I cut a few intros that depended on lead lines that I couldn't create in this setting, and replaced them with simpler ones that still set the scene/key. For the most part though, the biggest change and focus was dynamics. Overdrive and the Mono Shimmer both do wonders to add that extra push over the edge.

Things sound a lot different, but it's been fun to rework these songs in a new exciting way. I look forward to presenting this smaller version of Next Paperback Hero to new ears in hopes of enticing them in for another listen. 

 

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Everything You'd Want to Know (And More) - "How Long Till Dawn?"

On this edition of Everything You'd Want to Know (And More), I'll be going over the writing, meaning, and decisions behind my song,  "How Long Till Dawn".

For me, this is a song about restlessness. The narrator has difficulty sleeping, thinking about what has been and what could be. He sees a black and white picture and imagines the subject looking back on all the things he should have done, but it's too late. Our narrator strives to avoid that fate, but feels so many things are out of his control, so he whispers, "How long till dawn?".

I started chasing the opening chord progression a few weeks ago and settled into a pattern that not only highlighted the melody I wanted, but one I could also perform. I'm much more comfortable with a pick, but this song required something more nuanced.

I'd had some trouble sleeping for a few nights and it felt like something was there, but the real inspiration came while re-watching the 4 hour Tom Petty documentary. In the opening of the movie, Jackson Browne refers to Tom Petty being the embodiment of the rock and roll dream. For whatever reason, the word "Dream" triggered everything else. The verses came together relatively quickly, though the pre-chorus gave me some trouble. I occasionally write melodies that have a very specific syllable count and that can really pigeon-hole things. This one got in my head, but I ended up writing out as many of these 3 syllable words and phrases as I could. From there I mixed and matched them along with the other sections of the verse.

The arrangement could have gone so many different ways. I was tossing around keeping it really quiet with some light synths while featuring the finger picking, but the restless nature of the song and picking pattern moved me away from that. Then I started recording a version with some pretty heavy fuzz bass that turned the chords into a choppy riff. While interesting, it didn't feel quite right.

I had just written another new song that I was really excited about and started to feel uncertain about "How Long till Dawn?". It didn't feel as strong and I lost confidence in the direction of the arrangement/recording. I played both songs on the acoustic guitar for my wife and she gave me some really helpful thoughts. Aside from the chorus, I had been trying to sing everything full voice. But she pointed out that some softer vocals would compliment it better. She was totally right!

I started over with a new recording and performance of the guitar as well. It all fell into place from there. The guitar turned out better than I thought and the lighter vocals really complimented it. The chord progression moves too fast for the long, spacey synths I had originally envisioned, so I had to adjust. I made the parts purposeful, but not overbearing.

I've really enjoyed utilizing background vocals as well, so this one was a great opportunity to do more. I added some "ooos" and "ahhs" to give it more color. The beat you hear on the second half of the song was originally playing throughout. It didn't feel right, but I knew I wanted it at some point. After recording almost everything else, I sat down to cut up the drum part and created the simpler beat to give the opening more space and room to build. I really love the congas that add more excitement to the beat as well.

The synths ended up having a "Stranger Things" vibe that I really enjoy. Though I don't know many Tears for Fears songs aside from the hits, I'm seeing some similarities there as well. I also enjoy the balance of the guitar and synths, keeping up with the dichotomy of my recent music. Overall, I'm really happy with how this one turned out and it may end up being a favorite!

- Nathan

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