Thursday, March 19, 2020

Big Egos and Grandiose Notions: How Songwriters Act in Times of Crisis

We’ve never seen anything quite like this in our lifetimes.  As songwriters shelter in place, they are no doubt contemplating writing, recording and releasing songs to make people feel better during a sad time for the world.  I’m not an exception. 

Instead of some sort of save the world through song, Live Aid-style thing, I’ll probably want to get out a few more songs from my bedroom here in Michigan somehow.  Maybe another album, maybe a single, maybe just hit record on the computer webcam and upload a solo performance of a new previously-unreleased original to YouTube.

When the lucky, famous, wealthy and privileged people seemingly have advantages to get tested before the rest of us regular folk, you dread the inevitable indulgent all-star jam for a worthy cause, and this cause is different.  Thankfully, you won’t get all those celebs on the same stage together for quite a while.

Don’t die with the music in you.  That’s from a t-shirt I saw a while back in a songwriter magazine.  I’ve got some good ones in progress, and some completed ones I haven’t released yet.  The thought has crossed my mind that I’ve got some risk factors, and when dead and gone, my wife won’t be able to figure out how to get my recordings of my songs off my computer and put them online, so no one will ever hear them.  Not that there’s a big demand in my case, but these are the types of thoughts that can cross our minds lately.

You can bet that the recording artists with a certain level of self-importance like that perhaps misunderstood Bono guy from U2 for example are going to record a video or house concert with a new, uplifting song, and those who were already generally annoyed by him will be more annoyed than ever.  I predict you’ll see a wave of similar popular acts and famous artists hit the internet and YouTube with something similar in the coming months, and the pretention levels will be high.  That said, it’s all good.

Whether we can relate to a sad song about loss, or feel uplifted by a song with a “stay positive, we’ll get through this” sentiment, such new music will be a welcome escape for those of us with internet connections, and for those without, at least for those who still have electricity, we’ll take solace and comfort in our old CDs and records on a home stereo of some kind, or maybe even the now-old-fashioned thing called a radio. 

In an unprecedented time when Amazon has stopped selling CDs and vinyl records, might as well take advantage of the seclusion and alone time to get inspired and “re-kindle” the creative fires.  So when you’re stuck in the house, and your guitar is there, and there’s a computer to type and record on, songwriters are going to do what they do, whether they really think their songs can truly make a difference in the world or not.

I’m no different.  If you have this hobby, you can’t help it.  It’s a way to get your feelings off your chest, and a creative outlet is a good way to spend your time instead of constantly consuming the latest sad news and living in fear.  I’m on a bit of a roll of late, having written and recorded a few new songs this year.  It’s fun, and it takes your mind off worrying about the future. 

You can’t help but wonder if your latest new inspirational song could catch on and make a difference to people by cheering them up or providing a calming influence or temporary escape from the fear.  Few can make money from writing and recording songs these days, but that’s not why you do it anyway – it’s out of pure passion.

When you think you’ve written a good one, and one that would be particularly impactful during tough times, you’re tempted to put it out as a single right away, rather than wait for enough songs to release a whole album.  You’re also tempted to just record a solo video of yourself singing and playing it live because the reality is you might not be around long enough to release that next album.

It occurs to you in times like these that you won’t be around forever, and little will remain, but maybe some of the songs will still be floating around the internet.  That’s the hope.  Long after I’m dead and gone, this little blog nobody knows about or reads might still exist, and if so, its posts will collectively tell some type of larger story about some dead guy who used to write songs and record them while he was alive.

The optimist in me believes I’ll survive, and the songwriter in me thinks it’s one of the reasons I was put on this Earth.  I seriously have this grandiose notion that it’s part of God’s plan for me – to stick around and keep putting new music out into the world.  It may be funny to some to hear that because I realize I’m not famous or even particularly good.  I’m aware I’m not a great singer or musician, but it could be that my ego is telling me I’m a decent songwriter, and that’s a part of my life’s purpose.

Praise is a strong word, but if you’ve interpreted positive feedback from people about your songs, the realist in you might chalk it up as being “kind and polite,” but your ego reassures you that it’s genuine.  If you’re at all like me, you know you have these thoughts from time to time, and that you’ve been spared so far because it’s a contribution you make, and further, that it might even be important in some way. 

When you’re confident enough to call yourself a songwriter, whether you qualify in the minds of experts or not, you keep on with it regardless of your abilities because you can pause for a while, but you can’t ever stop completely, even if all you can do is write in your head.

Indeed, I have had people tell me they enjoyed my songs before, and that fact tells me I’ve already made a small difference in people’s lives.  Just a little of that serves as fuel to keep going.  You can’t help but want to help, and writing and recording a song is a way you can help. 

It comes naturally to people like me, so you can expect that in a much smaller way, sad and pathetic as it may sound, I’ll probably be jumping on the bandwagon and joining the ranks of all these artists you’ll be getting inspirational songs from during this challenging time in the world.  We’re all going to die eventually, but it’s going to be okay.  You keep doing what you do in whatever time you have left.  Stay tuned.

Saturday, March 7, 2020

Why acoustic guitars are so much better for songwriters than electrics

It may be that playing an acoustic guitar instead of an electric is doing it the hard way, or a wimpy way, depending on how you look at.  Electrics are tougher, meaner, wilder and more aggressive sounding, but they’re easier on the fingers to play.  You don’t have to press as hard, the necks are thinner and faster.  Bronze wound acoustic steel strings build up calluses on your fingers and thus kind of get you in better shape for playing.  Higher action and heavier strings on acoustics, lower and lighter on electrics.  Hard rock on an electric is easier to play, soft rock on an acoustic is harder to play, one could argue.

Depending on your preferences, acoustics can perhaps sound harsh and rougher on the ears, whereas electrics have a slick smooth sheen about their sound.  The sustain and effects can hide a lack of good playing technique, whereas acoustics leave you naked and can easily reveal the little mistakes.  On the other hand, acoustics played well can be simply beautiful.  The music they produce may be lighter sounding, and the actual weight of them is physically lighter.  Electrics can be uncomfortably heavy to play and the necessary shoulder straps can hurt your shoulders and give you neck and back problems, especially when you’re older.

To use an all-American baseball analogy, acoustics could be considered like practicing batting swings with several wooden bats in the on deck circle before throwing them on the ground and stepping up to the plate with a light aluminum bat.  Maybe electric guitars are aluminum bats, and maybe amplifiers and effects pedals are like swinging with corked bats.  I have a preference throughout my playing and recording "career" to stick with acoustics, not for practice to get in shape for electric playing, but even when I have electrics available at my disposal, I almost always choose the old dreadnaught.  It’s more handy for writing, and I just prefer the tone they make more when recording.

I’ve stayed true to a signature sound that includes the acoustic guitar as the primary instrument in my music.  It evolved naturally.  I was not a musician until several years into adulthood.  Before that, I was a music fan.  Early on, I was a fan of music my parents liked, which included early 70s folk rock, an example of which was the John Denver records they had in their collection.  His music also featured acoustic guitar, his lyrics were about the beauty of the natural world, he was an environmentalist, he seemed like a nice guy, and he liked skiing – all things I appreciated, even as a young boy.

As I got a little older, I got into the hard rock of the late 70s with my peers, which included musical acts who also had acoustic songs like Neil Young and even Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin.  On the radio, I’d hear the soft rock artists like America, Gordon Lightfoot, James Taylor, Paul Simon, CSN, Jim Croce, Cat Stevens, Van Morrison, and Bread.  This is what I grew up on.  The late 70s brought a myriad of changes that lasted through the entire 80s that were not great for acoustic music – with the exception being the Violent Femmes, a huge influence on me.

Disco and punk faded out as new wave, pop and hair metal came and went along with grunge in the early 90s.  Then came the unplugged MTV show and related album releases of the early 90s – it was getting appealing again – with rock bands playing rock music on all acoustic instruments.  From about the turn of the century onward though, acoustic music has been off the beaten path and underground for the most part.  Mainstream country sounds like bad rock music sung with a southern twang accent, which I don’t have a taste for.

There’s always been this undercurrent of serious folk – last popular in the 60s and slowly dying since with the baby boomer crowd – that’s just somehow not cool or fun enough for me.  It should be no surprise the singer-songwriter genre leans more toward rock than folk, and features the acoustic guitar.   Along the way, I somehow discovered the good stuff from before I was born – the early acoustic blues and hillbilly music., the acoustic songs of the Beatles, etc.  Online discovery and recommendation has led me to discover the odd gem I somehow missed along the way like Elliott Smith.

The cheap, used acoustic is a typical first guitar for many, and I’m no exception.  It’s easier to find sheet music or chords online for guitar than other instruments when you’re learning covers of your favorites early on.  Because I was raised on rock, the guitar is a natural choice, because there was at least one in all these bands I liked.  It’s great to learn on, and there’s just something about the immediacy of being able to just pick it up and make sound without the hassle of having to plug anything in.

When the creative urge strikes, you want to capture what you can as soon as you can so you don’t lose the magic.  Over-editing and over-producing can achieve slick perfection, but I like the rough edges.  On the other hand, I have a soft side, I’m a mellow laid-back kind of person, so it’s just a part of what suits my style and personality I guess.

It’s also a lot easier to emulate the songs you like as opposed to playing a bass, drums, or a horn to sing along with, so it’s the ultimate solo instrument.  It’s made of trees, so it’s pretty organic.  They’ve been around a long time.  They’re portable, and you don’t need extra stuff like an amp and a cable to get sound out of it.  You don’t need to be near electricity, so you can hike into the wild and entertain around a campfire.

For all these reasons and more, it’s possibly the best instrument to write songs on as well.  You get a faster idea to recording transfer.  They tend to stay in tune better than electric guitars.  They rest on your leg easily while sitting without the need for a shoulder strap.  You don’t have to turn knobs to dial in a sound first – just grab it and start playing.

I love me some loud electric guitars from time to time so don’t get me wrong – I’m not knocking them.  In early jazz and blues bands, acoustics weren’t loud enough to be heard live, so amplification helped with volume.  It’s arguably cool to get more sustain for certain styles, as it is to add effects like reverb and distortion.  Too much of that can get annoying in a hurry though.  I guess it’s just more pleasing to my ears than electric – that’s the bottom line.

It could be that as people get older their music tastes might tend to mellow a bit, and that would be true with me to some degree, although as already stated, I’ve always been a fan of the mellow stuff.  Another factor is that I don’t want to impair my hearing further, and want to preserve what I have, so I’m cautious about excessive volume as I get older.  I have played electrics in bands, some of which accompanied acoustics, and I like me some crazy digital noises on occasion, but I like the honesty of an acoustic guitar better, and both as a fan of other music as well as my own, I gravitate toward an all-acoustic unplugged overall sound in general.

As a songwriter, I want to put my ideas to music quickly, before I lose the muse, and an acoustic is great for that.  A typical way to record is to lay down a rhythm guitar track first before you add bass, drums, vocals, or keyboards, so my first track is often an acoustic rhythm track.  Due to my tastes, it just so happens that I like to hear my songs in an acoustic style as well, so I don’t replace it with electric.  I also enjoy knowing I’m not using digital, electronic and technological trickery.  It feels more true and real and authentic with an acoustic, like I’m not cheating.  No covering up imperfections with fake sounds or software fixes.

In the back of my mind, I know it’s a little harder to play than an electric, and for some reason, I like knowing I’m doing something that’s a little more difficult.  Some of the primarily electric guitar musicians who went on the unplugged show revealed they weren’t that good on acoustics, and you don’t want to be like them in that way.  I’m not a take the easy way out person.  In several areas of my life, my personality has been such that I’ve intentionally and perhaps even stupidly, done things the hard way as a general approach, but there’s a greater satisfaction in it for me knowing that.

It has been said that if a song is really good, it sounds good with just a single guitar, as if when stripped of additional instrumentation and studio polish, the true quality of the songwriting can really shine.  Some songs are band songs, and don’t sound great when performed solo on one instrument.  So, in this way, a songwriter has a better idea if the song can stand alone that it will possibly be even better when doctored up with accompaniment.

In it’s pure, raw form a good song will sound good on an acoustic guitar, so it’s a good test, and a way to get immediate feedback when playing live or listening back to a demo recording.  For me, I always opt to keep the initial scratch rhythm acoustic track in the mix, and take it from there.  I even prefer to play fills and solos with an acoustic as well, just because my ears like what I hear better.  So it’s through this preference based on many aforementioned good reasons that I’ve evolved into a primarily acoustic solo recording artist, and why I feel strongly that the acoustic guitar is better than an electric for writing songs.