Thursday, February 18, 2021

Can't be Anyone but Myself album release notes

I just spent the past 10 months writing and recording this set of 8 songs. "Why only 8 songs?" Well, I actually wrote and recorded around 60 songs total, but I'm only putting out the best 8.
Of course, out of the 60, the majority aren't good enough at all, although I will mention I could probably put out a 12 song album, and no one would blink. I have the extra four songs, they're just not quite up to snuff.

Click to listen to my album, "Can't Be Anyone but Myself"

First off, I believe songwriting is the ultimate test of a musician, at least the type of musician I am, which is basically a hobbyist (multi-instrumentalist) who is involved in the pop/rock world of music for the "common man." The world of classical music is a whole 'nother reality, which is quite honestly a lot of riding up on a high horse. But that's for another blog post. I guess I might as well mention I do have a college degree in music, but who cares, right?

The way I tried to write this music was basically trying to emulate Kurt Cobain's songwriting style, although I applied and developed my own style over the course of doing this. I think if I had to summarize how Cobain writes songs I would basically say he balances dissonance with an appropriate measure of consonance, and melody is the key ingredient in all of his stuff.

Back to Kurt Cobain's songwriting... This is somewhat common knowledge as he's already been quoted as saying he wanted to combine the sound of The Beatles (melodic consonance) with Black Sabbath (think, tritone-based dissonance). Some of Cobain's writing is simplistic (i.e. "Negative Creep") while other stuff is more layered melodically (i.e. "Lounge Act"). Regardless, there are always creative melodic additives, in the form of quirky vocal stylings that when boiled down are note-perfect and surprisingly upbeat, and even cartoonish. Despite the media's image of Nirvana as death rockers, the music speaks for itself and is full of life, hence why it's still popular today. The level of dynamics in Cobain's songwriting is fairly high if you ask me. The music is full of juxtapositions, both lyrically and in the arrangements.

Why did I write a Nirvana-influenced album of music? I guess it's because I tried to write/record stuff I actually want to listen to. Most of the time I listen to pop rock. While recording this music I listened to a lot of Nirvana, Sarah Jane from Australia, a bit of the Meat Puppets album "Mirage," some Armor for Sleep, some Velvet Revolver, I also listened to a hip hop album "Now or Never" by Giggs, some other stuff thrown in there, some of the second (or third) Foo Fighters album, Motley Crue's Greatest Hits, Mountain's Greatest Hits. A good amount of Ramones, including some cuts from a Live in Germany DVD, and "Subterranean Jungle." Some other stuff I'm probably forgetting too. 

My taste in music is not as eclectic as you might think. Over the past four years I've found I'm much less interested in certain types of music. I almost exclusively listen to pop/rock music at this point, and there's a ton of crappy rock music out there. It's tough to find stuff I want which is why I tried to write it myself. I mostly listen to the same albums over and over, and it's a lot of Pop/Rock or Alternative rock.

What else about my own album can I mention, what's relevant?
From a technical standpoint, it's nothing new. I tried out some different microphones, and used mostly cheap gear. Then again, if I were to write a break-down of how much money I've spent recording this "album" it would be laughable. Just for a ballpark figure, it's easily over $1000.

I made one major change halfway through recording: I bought an adult-sized drum set. For half of these songs I'm playing on a drum set intended for use by children more or less. I finally invested in a proper kick pedal which made a huge difference. I bought an Iron Cobra Tama pedal. I actually broke the other kick pedal in half while recording a song. Then I glued it back together and kept going.

Another interesting note... I recorded and wrote everything while working a 40-hour a week job. The type of work I do has lent itself better than any other occupation I've had to being a musician. Needless to say, I don't sit at a desk all day and stare at a computer. I'm active at the workplace, but not so active that I return home exhausted. 

I've tried to write/record music while working at a desk job, and I couldn't do it. I've also tried to be a musician while working closer to 60 hours a week at a manual labor job, and that was impossible. At 40 hours and a moderate pace and friendly environment I can come home with energy to write music and I'm comfortable and focused. I guess I'll also mention I'm completely sober, and I don't even drink caffeine. No cigarettes, no coffee, no alcohol. Once in a while I eat Gummi Bears.

From a lyrical standpoint, I basically tried to come up with lyrics that fit the song and that I wouldn't be embarrassed to sing in front of an audience of my closest friends, or strangers. I don't labor over lyrics, if it doesn't work, I move on. Although some of the lyrics I sketch out, and then I fine-tune them and trim the fat so they fit into the song properly. Let it be known at one point I was writing a lot of lyrics, maybe about a page a day, and none of that was ever used. It's more of a writing exercise that helps you practice a bit. If someone found my notebook full of unused lyrics and started reading it out loud I'd turn red in the face. I might even crap my pants. Just kidding..

Strangely enough, I wrote and recorded most of the album cuts out of thin air. I don't even remember recording a lot of it. Other cuts I spent a while on. I spent 3-4 weeks figuring out how to structure the guitar parts for "Mouthwash." I also spent about a week preparing to play the drums on "Dose." I basically write songs based on the form, so once I have the form solidified, I can start writing the drum parts. All you need is two parts for a song. The form would be something like ABABAAA, for example. I try to keep my drum parts somewhat simple, because at the end of the day I only have so much time to work on stuff. If I spend 3 weeks writing a set of drum fills, I'd have way less material.

Writing the music for this album was, at times, a major struggle. I went weeks and weeks trying to come up with chord progressions and churning out crap. Then, out of nowhere, I'd come up with something I liked. That's what happened with "Sketches by the Campfire." I had put in a solid day of attempted writing before anything worked... I occasionally spend 8-10 hours straight of a day off writing music, and come up with nothing. Then all of the sudden, I figure out chords and write lyrics within minutes, seemingly out of nowhere.

Some of the songs I wrote on the spot completely. I laid down the drum track for "Don't Want a Boring Life" by itself, without any music or lyrics in mind at all. From there, I just picked up the guitar and played the first chord progression that I came up with (that worked) and finished the song like that.

Songwriting isn't always so easy, though. It's more difficult than it seems. Going back to Cobain, if you listen to the Nirvana song "Stain," (check it out above, or click here) it's pretty simple. Verse, chorus, solo. Those are all the parts. But the actual vocal melodies over the guitar chords and how it's so simple yet signature is why it's so good. If you prompted any musician to "come up with something like Nirvana's Stain that's a different piece of music entirely but is similar," it might be more difficult than you'd think, particularly to make it 100% original.

While we're on the subject, this music was written with a three-piece arrangement in mind, so if anyone's out there reading this and thinks they're good enough and wants to play the bass parts or drum parts from this album with me live at some place... i.e. wants to join in, be my guest. Because this material is this simplistic, you can rehearse in short amount of time, I've actually done it before.

To finish up on the difficulty of songwriting topic.... You can't just churn out a song like "Come As You Are," but at the same time, you might. I've mentioned this analogy before, but it's like a litmus test. With songwriting you never know what you might come up with, what's written within seconds that could last many years afterwards. That's why laboring over music can be useful in certain contexts, but it can also be a waste of time. I think listening to yourself and knowing your limitations and exactly what you want to achieve is key. If you know exactly what you're doing with clarity and certainty, who can stop you? No one.

Where do I go from here?

As I wrapped up this project, I grappled with the idea of putting out 12, or 14 songs instead of just the eight. I was working on a set of songs that were faster-paced and even shorter in length, but the material wasn't quite there yet.

Going forward I have a vision of the music I want to create that will accompany this stuff. Putting a concept of a potential musical sound into words is near impossible (although I do use thought-bubble exercises at times), so I'll spare you any details. But still...

There were certain elements of songwriting missing from this "grunge rock masterpiece, well... kind of" album. Notably, I think I can write better lyrics, if not generally, at least over the course of 1or 2 songs. I also believe I can improve with dynamics, and maybe experiment a bit. If you look into the final days of Nirvana, the sound was going towards a more experimental type of sound, as Cobain put it, "Sort of like the Grunge version of The Beatles Sgt. Peppers." For examples you might check out the X-rated B-side from "In Utero" that's "Moist" or... the radio hit, "You Know You're Right." Maybe an entire album doesn't need to sound like that, but using those examples as conceptual guidelines can lead towards success for one song, and you certainly need to write songs one at a time. 

Basically, I'm going to keep going, and try to write another grunge rock album, that should be at least the same quality if not better overall, though certainly different-sounding. If I were to follow the trajectory of Nirvana this album would be my version of "Bleach," I guess.

Overall, I like to draw in influences and express myself. One of my non-musical influences is the cartoon Ren and Stimpy. I like how the cartoonist's work is overly "out there" and exaggerated. It's just way out there. At the end of the day, I'd like to achieve my full potential as a musician, without holding back anything. I'd like to be the best I can be. Who knows how good that is?

I'm going to keep going and work on that next project now. If you're a fan of the music that's great. Until next time. - Mike

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