Songwriter's Studio is almost a year old. I looked back on all the projects we did and a couple of interesting trends revealed themselves. Our prices are the lowest in Nashville, even with the recent bump up to $15/hr., and I've gotten lots of calls, and if I worked with everyone who inquired I'd be booked 24/7 for months ahead. But only a small percentage of those who contacted us actually followed through. It was enough to keep us busy, but I can't help but wonder what held back the majority who never called back. Did some combination of work, health, family, or personal crisis make them hesitate to make that second call? I can only speculate; maybe for some it just got too real. With the cost factor removed could it be a fear of not being "good enough". If that's true, and I'm just guessing here, it's kind of sad, because one of the reasons I started the studio was to provide a way for those with limited funds to get started with their dreams.
When I first set up my home studio it was in a space that had been a playroom and was painted in shades of peach and orange, great for kids but not my style. I always intended to repaint it but as time passed there always seemed to be other priorities so it never got done. It's a good sized space that I thought could be divided into a small tracking room and control room, and I spent idle time sketching ideas for a layout that I could build. Since I've built several professional studios I know a bit about sound treatment and one thing I had going for me was the cinderblock walls that are great for soaking up excess bass. Then one day I acquired a double paned glass door (another story) and it seemed like an omen to finally put the plan in motion. It took three coats of paint to cover the walls and I built a partition with the window in it, did some sound treatment, including hanging a quilt my grandmother left me, and set everything up. It sounds good, has a great feel for working so I'm looking forward to doing some projects.
Now that I've been back a while I've been thinking about the short tour I did in July and something struck me I hadn't considered. All the details of booking, practicing, and traveling had me so distracted that when it came to actually play, I didn't completely appreciate how fun it was to do a whole hour of my songs. There was one big worry that had overshadowed my anticipation of the performances: my insecurity about being able to hold an audience. As it turned out that really didn't matter. My plan was to structure the set with some stories about being a songwriter in Nashville; after over a decade in town I had a few. The first three songs were older ones that had been through the rounds and had gotten some nibbles but no bites with the idea to show how capricious the whole pitching process is, and I followed up with some newer songs that I considered commercially competitive, with an emphasis on traditional versus "new" or "young" country/countrypop and then wrapped with some of my personal favorites, the last one being a song about never giving up your dreams. It's pretty much the same set I'd do if I were playing a full on concert with a full band in a big venue, and someday I'd love to put that together, but for now I feel that I've come out of the whole experience at a new level of confidence and I'm looking ahead to start making the rounds here in Nashville with my new perspective.
We're back in Nashville after a two week mini tour...5 dates in 12 days. Our first performance was in Nashville and then we traveled to Idaho, Nevada, and California. Coffee Houses, house concerts, and a full on bar... It was everything I'd hoped it would be and more. It's been a long time since I played outside of Nashville and now I'm feeling it was long overdue. The challenge was to break out of the two or three song sets that characterize writer's nights here in town to play a long 10 song (or more!) evening, and hold on to a room full of listeners. That's no small task. In the coffee houses I was more or less background in a sort of quiet environment, but I played one place that was a small, very loud bar and the feeling was of performing in front of a waterfall. Back in my rock band days we'd just drown them all out, but even though I had a great PA, there was no way I'd overcome that, so I just settled for playing to a couple of tables of friends and relatives who were really supportive and though I was apprehensive when I started my set, by the last couple of songs I was having a great time. It was so refreshing to play some old songs, some I'd never performed, as well as new ones too. I can't wait to get out again.
I'm looking forward to getting out of Nashville and hitting on the road for some dates out West. It's been a lot a work to find and book these shows, but I'm getting a feel for how I could possibly do more tours around the country. It's an opportunity to play for some audiences of "normal" folks, unlike Nashville, where most of the time you're playing for other songwriters. The upside to this is that you have instant feedback about your performance, because unless you're really good, Nashville audiences will simply ignore you. It's not personal. Writer's nights are networking opportunities so there's usually a lot of chatter in the room while you're playing, and usually the applause is polite and perfunctory...unless you really nail it, so there's an incentive to do your best. It's a competitive and critical environment and if you can quiet a room of other songwriters you know you're doing something right. The downside is that you seldom get a feel for how regular people might respond to your music. One exception is the Bluebird Cafe, where a good percentage of the audience are tourists, but for the most part performing in town is like living in a bubble where you're mostly playing for peers. There's not as much pressure when you play for non-industry folks, not that you can slack off, but for the most part I think they are more attentive and less concerned about the nuances of your performance than with the overall impression you make. I'm excited to see how I do out there.
If I mysteriously disappear after posting this blog you'll know why. After giving it a lot of thought and observation I believe I have the answer and I'm sure there are those who will not want this information to become common knowledge. If you've ever wondered, as I have, about that special magic that creates a musical prodigy, or superstar...that confluence of talent and opportunity that catapults an individual beyond the heights of fame and modest reward to immortality...then you also have, if you aspire to artistic excellence yourself, perhaps felt cheated, shortchanged and ignored by the world while these "others" soared. It seems unfair that few receive so much while many get nothing. Well, I think I have the answer. Those amazingly talented individuals...Elvis, Celine, Carrie...Justin...that seem superhuman in their abilities, so far above common folk like you and I, are indeed something different. And now the truth can be revealed: They are aliens. On a planet far outside our solar system, in a galaxy far far away, there is a civilization so advanced that they can adopt any form and move through space and time to anywhere in the universe. You may ask yourself, how do the members of this incredibly advanced society amuse themselves? Well, the answer is they do a lot a traveling. Our Earth is a popular destination; coming here is sort of like a Carnival cruise for them. One thing they get a kick out of is taking human form and playing "superstar". Don't you find it strange they never have to practice, play strip clubs or use a rest room? Now you know why.
Last year I started playing out after a pretty long break, and I really am enjoying this new dimension to my music. Since I played in bands a lot early on I've always considered myself a performer, but it's like any other skill, without exercise it withers. The first few times I went to open mics I was frankly, pretty clumsy, and it surprised me. It wasn't stage fright; It was more like not being able to focus on all aspects of my performance, playing, singing, interacting with the audience, and it's taken a while to get that part of my act together. Lately, though, I'm doing a lot better and I think it's because Ive been spending more time practicing and preparing to play. What I'd forgotten about performing is that the music part has to be pretty much automatic, which is how it was when I played in a band. We knew the songs backwards and forwards and almost could play them without thinking about it. Only then could we focus on the audience and hopefully make that connection that all performers work for and create those moments when it all comes together and more. So by pushing out of my comfort zone and getting out and playing for people I reawakened one of the reasons I love music...sharing with audiences.
Music may be able to heal, there's some evidence it has a physiological effect, though no definitive studies have been done that I'm aware of. So maybe it can heal, but I'm sure that it can medicate. As I get out and about I'm meeting a lot of people who have latched on to playing music as a way to alleviate their personal pain. This is a revelation for me, and opens up some fascinating avenues for understanding the role that music plays in our society. If one thinks about the psychological effects of sound on the brain, and couple that with the messages contained in lyrics then it leads me to the notion that can me seen as a custom designed mind altering substance, and like any of them can be abused. We'd like to think it's only positive; when we listen to music we like we feel good, but I don't think we can rule out that desiring that good feeling can mask symptoms of deeper issues with personality problems, social problems, and the like. Consider that people often couple pharmacological intake with music, so it's not that big a stretch to look at it as a way to medicate. This is a huge subject, so rather than dig deeper I'll leave it with this thought: I certainly can see how I've used music to treat myself, I hope with a positive result, and whether we can prove it or not I believe it does heal and that's what I want to share with others.
I like to listen to music on headphones. Even though I have a great pair of JBL studio monitors in my small studio that sound amazing, it's my AKG phones that I listen with the most. Its a habit I've developed over the years that started when I worked in a studio and spent many hours editing tape, commercial voiceovers mostly, using a set of headphones because I needed to hear exactly where words stopped and started. My first set was a pair of Koss that were loud and not all that transparent, though just about the best available at the time. Made of plastic with vinyl cushions, they finally just disintegrated after about 15 years and it's then I got the AKGs. When I put on the headphones it's like entering another world, where sound, hearing, is the primary sense. Sitting back in my chair I focus on the music and the outside world just fades away. When one hears music on speakers there's something missing in my view. No matter how good the system, and admittedly equipment nowadays is better than ever, for me there's always this sense of distance. Music can be appreciated when you listen on speakers, but with headphones there's an intimacy that even the loudest, clearest PA system can't achieve. There's nothing like listening to a great band with an audience, and you'll always find me in the front row, but with headphones I get inside the music, as if I'm there in the studio with the artist, hearing every nuance, and that, for me, is what it's all about.
When I started playing music recording was a rare and mysterious process. I actually had my first recording session on my 21st birthday...it was a gift...and I had the good fortune to have an engineer, not much older than me, named Bruce Botnick. You may have heard that name because Bruce later worked with the Doors, Eddie Money and James Taylor. Remembering that session I recall that I was so in awe of the whole experience I hardly noticed the guy in the control room...a missed opportunity and the subject of a future blog...and I wonder if musicians these days feel that same sense of wonder that I had the first time I faced a microphone. Thomas Edison invented recording. We need to remember that before his "phono-graph" machine the only way to hear music was if a musician was in the room. It's still the best way, if it's done right. Edison made his first recordings in 1878 and we've been improving the technology at an ever increasing pace until now world class equipment is available to anyone for a fraction of what it cost back when I had my first session. Edison's first recordings have recently been digitized and made available and it's a revelation to listen to them. It's both eerie and thrilling, those moments captured and held for over 130 years. That's what the best recordings do now, too. I think a lot of musicians look at recording as simply manipulating sound and for me that misses the point. Yes, capturing pristine sound is important and requires a measure of artistry and skill, but let's not forget that Edison's goal was simply to divise a way to document reality, and it's the reality that's the important thing.