The Short Story
I had writer’s block for a few years. I broke it by writing a song a day in May 2015. I recorded rough demos of all thirty-one songs in the last ten days of June, and mixed and posted one demo a day in July. The demos will be on display throughout August. This is the musical equivalent of a visual artist showing at a coffee shop, or an enthusiastic kindergartener plastering the refrigerator with crayon on construction paper dinosaur scenes.
My favorite ten (as of August 10th):
All 31 songs from first to last:
All 31 songs from last to first:
The Longwinded Self-Indulgent Essay
Part 1: Writer’s Block After finishing my album ‘Long Lost Love’ in 2011, I set about recruiting musically inclined friends to help me bring the album to life as a live ensemble. People came and went as freely as the band names we tried out: Sam Cooper & …The Earthquakes, The Long Lost Lovers, The Free Rangers, The Countrymen, The Lunchboxes, The Paperweights, The Invisible Light Spectrums, The Pluto-Cats, The Fence Benders, The Fence Menders, The Shack Thwackers, on and on. For most of 2012 and 2013, the majority of my musical focus went to teaching the same ten songs to a revolving cast of colorful characters.
It’s not that I wasn’t working on new material all that time. Late nights and early afternoons, I consistently conceived and cultivated song starts, cool riffs and progressions and gibberish vocal warbles that seemed promising. I also moved a lot of ink across a lot of pages as lyrical drafts and stream of consciousness babble. But my headspace was all about that band practice, all about the precision of the performance, all about managing schedules and attention spans.
Plus, I’d been growing a lot as lyrics listener. I was ever more appreciative of the power and beauty of great lyrics in the music I was hearing from friends and legends alike, so the standards I held for my own writing were rising to levels that were harder and harder to reach.
By the summer of 2014, I had dozens and dozens of musical ideas, from short snippets and fragments to fully fledged compositions, but no completed lyrics that I felt were worthy of the songs, or worthy of being listened to. It always seemed to be decent at best. No matter how many drafts I drummed up, the lyrics never seemed great enough. The songs were never finished.
Part 2: The Mayhem Begins In April 2015, as the dark days of winter began to burn off in the scorching spring heat, I figuratively grabbed myself by the lapel and slapped myself back into action. It had been too long since I’d completed a song. No more dawdling haplessly in the frustration of being imperfect. It was time to rise to my meet my elevated standards, or at least to learn to ignore them long enough to get something done!
I challenged myself to write a song’s worth of good enough lyrics every single day in May – May Mayhem. If you do the math, that’s thirty-one songs. The music didn’t necessarily have to be worked out, in terms of melody, chord progression, song structure, arrangement, instrumentation, time signature, key, groove, or any and/or all of the above. Just the lyrics.
At about 8:00 PM on May 1st, I was in a subtly enchanted backyard in Ladd’s Addition. I had a notebook and a little red ukelele. The impressively persistent pre-summer twilight was slowly melding with a scarlet sunset, and an approximately full moon was rising above the south-western horizon.
I had started and abandoned numerous drafts of Mayhem song number one, and I was already toying with the idea of just scrapping the project altogether without even really trying. The first step of a journey is often the hardest to take, but it’s probably also the most important. So I soaked in my surroundings, took a deep breath and let myself just write something.
It began with a casual observation – “A newly floating moon, and a truly red balloon, framed between the chem-trails and the power-lines” – and yes, there really was a red balloon in the sky. From there, the song began to delve into the personal, a bit into the political, a bit into the psychological. After an hour or two of effort, I had a finished song, and it was even pretty decent pretty decent! Certainly not great, just pretty decent, but that was the whole point! I had to learn to set aside ‘great’ in favor of ‘existent.’
Part 3: The Mayhem Continues For the next thirty days, I consistently encountered all sorts of distractions, from work to shows to parties to car troubles to camping trips to you name it, but I still managed to write something that was at least minimally acceptable every day in May. It was just a matter of proactively carving out time to sit down and gently force myself to engage a few hours of poetic perspiration.
Some of the songs I wrote with a guitar or piano or ukelele at hand. Most were written with nothing more than a pen and notebook and vague melody in mind. Three of the thirty-one were written to famous 60′s tunes and set to new music later. Four of the thirty-one were written to melodies and song structures from the dozens of unfinished songs I’d been sitting on for years. But most were just words I liked enough, written with a mild confidence that I’d be able to relatively effortlessly do the music part when the time came.
Some days inspiration came easily, from conversations with friends, from radio broadcasts, from the news, from eavesdropping on strangers at bars. Other days I had to squeeze it out of myself like water from a stone. Still I stuck with it and by early evening on May 31st, another evening with an amazing fullish moon dangling in the fiery sky, I had usable lyrics to thirty-one new songs.
Part 4: Recording Binge On June 1st, I didn’t want to lose my momentum. It seemed appropriate to follow a songwriting binge one month with a recording binge the next month. So I gave myself until June 30th to record all thirty-one new songs. Conveniently, a recording studio was about to fall into my lap.
Ok, more accurately, the garage at my house was about to become available. Several years back, one of my best friends magically transformed the detached garage into a quaint and cozy bedroom, and this year he was planning to undertake an epic journey over the summer (www.riversignal.com). Instead of finding a sub-letter for the time he was gone, I called dibs and volunteered to pay extra rent so that I could claim the garage as a musical workspace.
On June 19th, the room became mine to use. I dismantled his bed, stowed it in the basement, and rearranged the furniture to fit as much gear as possible. I loaded in my not-particularly-nice drum set, a few amps and other instruments, and recorded the first song, “Orange or Azure.” The next day, I recorded the next two, “To Be Continued” and “Fire Mountain.” The day after that, I recorded the next three, and the following day, I reached the pace I’d maintain for rest of the recording binge, four songs a day.
By recording, I mean that I multi-tracked myself into the built-in condenser mic of a Tascam Portastudio 8-track SD-card recorder. Every song ended up as some combination of drums, bass, guitars, keys, violin, banjo, mandolin, and vocal harmonies. The audio engineering left a lot to be desired, as did the performances on many of the takes. But just like with the lyrics writing, the point was to make something good enough and existent, not something great.
I started neglecting nutrition, hygiene, social commitments, kid’s music lessons and more, all with the singular goal of recording all 31 songs before going to sleep on June 30th. I even failed to call my own grandmother to wish her a happy birthday on June 26th (I did call her on July 1st and she forgave me).
Part 5: Compose Yourself The SD-card on the Tascam could only fit four or five songs at a time, so whenever I had that many tracked, I had to make quick mixes on laptop speakers and backup the files onto my computer so I could clear the SD-card for the next batch. The rendering and data backup processes tended to take a little while, so while I was waiting for those to happen, I multitasked by actually writing the music for next few songs. After all, the whole point of the Mayhem was to write lyrics. I usually had no set melody, key, or chord progression right up to the hour I was going to record the song.
This was a complete inversion of my normal process: I’ve been writing songs for as long as I’ve been playing guitar, which is nearly eighteen years. With almost no exceptions, I’ve always more or less finalized the music before writing the lyrics. Hey, maybe that explains why I so often felt my attempted lyrics were unworthy of the music and never really fit the compositions. Maybe that explains why I had dozens and dozens of unfinished musical ideas with no real words!
The eighteen years of songwriting and musical tinkering came in handy. After almost two decades of starting so many musical ideas that never developed finalized lyrics, it was pretty easy to come up with music to lyrics that were already written. I was able to come up with pretty good melodies and chord progressions, usually in less than half an hour, and run right into the garage to get the basic tracks down and build them up from there.
Sometimes I had clear instrumental parts in mind. More often I just improvised as tastefully as possible, though if you pay attention to all the lead guitar work, you’ll notice that I more than occasionally failed to be tasteful. But when you’re binge recording 31 songs and doing literally every job yourself, you sometimes have to move along.
There’s lots of sloppy drumming, wonky clipping bass, pitchy violins, suspect vocal moments (I can hear the early summer grass allergy snot in my nose on pretty much all of these demos), consistent train-wreck endings, and all sorts of other imperfections, but you know what? It mostly turned out pretty good! That’s why I’m putting these recordings on display, but only for a month or so.
Part 6: Mix Down, Upload I waited to announce the May Mayhem songwriting project and subsequent recording project until they had already happened. Too often in the past have I publicly set out to do something and then flaked. I wanted to make sure I actually completely the task before heralding it. I was certainly elated to have followed through, and I wanted to share the music, even as a work in progress, with whoever was interested in checking it out.
The one problem was the laptop speaker mixes. They sounded, well, like laptop speaker mixes. Which means bad.
On July 1st, I bought some extremely cheap studio monitors and set about making a decent mix of the first song. I had backed up all the demos as I recorded them, so I was able to reload the data from the computer to the Tascam and dive back in. Just like every other step of the way, the mix was far from great, but it was good enough. I paid a few bucks to have an online instant mastering algorithm get my mix sounding a little more standardized, and I posted the song to YouTube as an art-video, just the song and the album art (which was a photo my friend took on May 1st as I worked on the first song).
I decided to proceed mixing and releasing the demos just like that, one May song on each corresponding day in July. I usually spent one or two hours on the mixing and called it good enough. After a few days, I realized I could compile the videos as a playlist, and that is what is streaming above.
Part 7: Capstone Show These recordings will remain available for streaming until the evening of August 31st. These are just demos after all, and while I’m excited to display them temporarily, they are well below the quality I’d hope to attain for a real release. Most of these songs will be rerecorded much more professionally and released as proper albums and singles in the not too distant future.
To celebrate and close out the May Mayhem summer, I’ll be performing all thirty-one songs in the order they were written at The Waypost on Monday August 31st, from about 8:00 PM to 10:00 PM. I hope you can make it to the show, and I’m seriously impressed if you had the focus to get all the way to the end of this. Thanks for reading!