Monday, November 29, 2010

Sing It So I Believe It

Parents packed and shipped safely home, Alaska and I declared today a day of rest. So, as the "180 minutes" of ALL THREE football games slowly passed, I propped up my socked feet and hunkered down with a backlog of glossies to see what's sleek in this world of ours.

I didn't travel far before coming across Justin Davidson's New York magazine profile on vocal coach to the opera stars, Steven Blier. Here's the link to the full story entitled "Sing It So I Believe It," nicely done:

It's interesting to see Blier's philosophies up against those of my own vocal coach. While Mark Baxter is busily stripping away my classical training so that I can deliver the message, Blier seemingly maximizes every last drop of his students' training so they can do the same. Different styles, different venues, but plenty of room for intersection. These snippets were particularly apropos to my latest blogvestigations.

Justin writes:
"Over the past 35 years, Blier has become a guru of song, the man who patiently guides singers past their vulnerabilities, who coaxes them to scrutinize and express some tiny grain of meaning in the text, who homes in pitilessly on glints of fake feeling. A mixture of therapist, teacher, impresario, and pianist-for-hire..." 
(Uh-huh...sounds familiar.)
"What separates the [songs] that interest him from those that don’t is not style, but a nugget of emotional intensity. 'A song is the closest thing I know in waking life to dreaming,' he says. 'It’s a coded version of reality. It’s not like playing a scene from Chekhov, where you’re trying to look like you’re having a tea party or a nervous breakdown. Instead, you’re enacting a coded, ritualized version of that moment, and somehow everyone in the hall is dreaming along with you.'"
(Hmm. Hadn't thought of it that way.)
 “'When I roll onstage, I am the song’s messenger,' he says. 'Maybe some other guy can play it better than I can, but I was given the message, and I have to deliver it.'”
(This one's  MOS DEFinitely going up on the bulletin board.)
"In concert, Blier’s emotional curiosity emerges as good humor and tenderness, but it can startle singers, says Sasha Cooke. 'People open up when they’re around him,' she says. 'You enter the room and all of a sudden everything feels very intimate. But some people don’t want to be figured out.'” 
(Do I want to be figured out??) 
 "Vulnerability and determination are the performing artist’s two contradictory but equally essential tools..."
(Those two specifically? Well, I certainly feel vulnerable enough and will even 80 times so when I brace myself and post that first song in a few weeks. Determination? Against my better judgement, perhaps, yes.)

And, on that note, the basement recording session is set for this Friday at 7PM. AUUUGGGHHHHH!!!!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Ass over Teakettle

As my "About Me" states, and as I've alluded to a bunch of times, I am a marketer by trade. I draw big pictures, I brand, I package, I strategize. I pay attention to what's important to people — artists, presenters, journalists, fans. I help develop and assess what the Word is, who would be most interested in the Word, and then connect with the best places to get the Word out. It's what I do. And I love it. Specifically, I think it's the bee's knees. This is all great and awesome for my career — my fantastic new biz partner and I have announced our joint venture, I am absolutely loving the work I'm doing for my first client, I plan to do a very good job. Et cetera.

But when it comes to my own music-making, it means that I am ass over teakettle. I mean, I am sitting up high on my horse maniacally whipping that cart.

For example, I'm on the train. BAM. A song bolts into my head. Chunks of lyrics, like they're free downloads from some Universal Creativity Bank. Snippets of a melody, maybe the entire chorus, maybe just a solid hook. OOH-RAH.

And then I start scribbling them down, fiddling with the ideas. What about this next? Or this? Yeah, yeah, yeah! The spaces fill in, the words keep flowing through, it's almost finished. HUZZAH.

I sit down at the keyboard and map out the chord progression. (Removes monocle, sets down quill.) I guess in rock they're called changes. Fine. So I "map out the changes." HMMM. I GUESS THEY'LL DO.

GIDDYUP. GIDDYUP. GIDDYUP. GIDDYUP. GIDDYUP. The marketing cart comes tearing in from behind and the next thing I know it's dragging the poor undeveloped song by its ankle. BUMP — FLIP — SMASH — down some old beat up pot-holed country path.

Marketing brain computes in overdrive. Before the song is written, it is given a title, placed on an album, and cover art is envisioned. The album is given a title. A short list of prospective producers, publishers, and record labels has been generated. A venue has been identified for the album release. A band. How the band will be branded. The kind of show we will put on. Does anybody have a beard. What we will wear. (My shoes will be green.) Which bloggers and journalists will be invited based on their interests in X Y Z. Which music supervisors at which ad agencies might be the right fit for a commercial sync. WHAT?!

You must understand, this happens almost instantaneously. This baby can get from songwriting to crazy in about 6 minutes.

OK, I'll be nicer. It's not crazy. It's what I do. And for my clients, that's a damn good thing. But the catch is, the Flash Marketing Storm raises the water level waaayyy to high for me. I'm a pro marketer. But I am a beginner songwriter. And the fact is, I need to splash around ankle deep in a neighborly creek for a while. As in, record one song. Let it be itself. If it's mediocre, who cares? It's just music. Unproduced, unmixed, unmastered. Played by whatever instruments I have on hand, or joined by whatever friends are happy to come over and play. And by "play" I mean for fun.

And so, I am very happy to say that I have found the pause button on marketing brain, and I have also found a mandolin-banjo-guitar-violin friend and a super tech-savvy video-editing and audio-learning husband, who are going to help me record one of the first songs I ever wrote. The plan is to do this in our basement before Christmas.

And the audience? Not music professionals. Not labels or producers or music supervisors or publishers. Just friends and family and friends of friends and sojourning readers and music professionals who happen to also be friends or friends of friends or sojourning readers.

So, who wants a copy? Think of it like an mp3 Christmas card of original music (and I'll try to think of it that way too).

Thursday, November 18, 2010

I've Been Wholly Insincere

Yesterday at a power lunch with an incredibly talented and attractive (he's available, gentleman) publicist friend of mine, we overheard a singer at a nearby table talking to his date about His Voice. (Eyeroll. The brass player comes out in me. Blasted vocalists with their scarves and their hot herbal tea and matching mittens and perfect posture and make-up on their faces. Gag me. )

. . .

So let's talk about My Voice!

Prior to my first lesson with Mark Baxter (has it already been 5 months?!), I sent him a few tracks from a piano-vocal demo I made back when I was living in Miami in 2002, along with one single solitary track of my own music, just to give him a sense of my voice. I told him that, for reasons I couldn't quite articulate, I L-O-V-E to sing but have never liked the sound of my singing voice. I told him that I find it boring, uninteresting. Kind of lame. How to fix this? A gal who loves singing more than just about anything but cayen't stayend the sound of it?

And this is how this dude shot me right between the eyes before I had so much as walked in the studio and unwrapped my scarf (kidding! remember, it was June). He said he had listened to the tracks I sent and wanted to tell me something. (Yes, I think. Fix it. Make it sound Right.) And he spent about 10 minutes talking to me about honesty.

WHAM. OK. Well, that was not what I was expecting. I shall now paraphrase (though I could transcribe the whole thing from that cruel, cruel, disc he makes me bring to each session):

Here's the thing, he said. We are all animals. We have a finely tuned sense of whether or not somebody is being straight with us. The moment a stranger walks into a room we have made an almost instantaneous judgment of them: safe or unsafe, trust or don't trust, real or hiding something? And we do that very same thing when we hear someone sing. Singing is primal. We can all tell (or at least we think we can tell) when somebody means it. If they let down their guard, we let down ours. If they let us in, we let them in. Trust. 

 And here's the blow that won the match before it had started:

When I listen to you sing, what speaks loudest to me is not what you are saying, but how careful you are being. How you are hiding behind all of your training. How all of your defenses are up, ensuring that no vulnerability shows through. You are heavily guarded, shielded. I hear someone who is going through acrobatics to sound correct. If that's what people hear, they won't even bother to pay attention to the words because they won't be interested, they'll be bored, they won't believe you because they won't trust you. Is that what you want people to hear when they listen to you?

Jesus. Well . . . no.

For someone who has, on more than one occasion, been referred to as "honest to a fault," this is pretty much the last lecture I was expecting to receive. I mean, for better or for worse, I can't stand talking to someone whose guard is up and who's only presenting veneer. I consider making conversation to be part of my job and I can definitely do it when I'm "on duty" but I find myself counting the minutes and wishing for the moment when the crap is up and the conversation can finally start. And I'm pretty awful at sustaining any friendship that stalls out in facade territory. Boring. Get real. I surround myself with friends who dig deep. To a large extent I don't think I can help it.

BUT - he's completely, totally, 100% right! I mean, he nailed it. And I felt this huge sense of relief! I didn't realize it, but that is precisely why I haven't liked listening to myself sing. I don't even believe myself! How can I expect anyone else to??

I was always frustrated in voice lessons because every teacher I ever had was training me to be a mezzo soprano with 26 Italian Songs and Arias, coaching me on "Sure on This Shining Night" (OK, I actually really loved that one but wished it was about a fourth lower). Those weren't the kinds of sounds I wanted to be making. I didn't want to wiggle my hand to remind myself to use vibrato. I never wanted a big fat lacquered voice. I just wanted to sing what I was feeling, seeing. I wanted to tell the story as I see it. That's all I still want to do. I have all of these words and melodies and harmonies and stories inside that I want to tell. I want to make songs that people can hear and say "Yes! It's just like that! I see it too!" I want to write a song that somebody can crawl inside and call home the same way Sufjan Stevens, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, and Emily Saliers have done for me.

And so, the past few months have been warbly. Unstable. Edgy. I'm making some of the uhg-liest croaking sounds imaginable. I'm flat. I'm sharp. I'm weird. I'm resisting the almost-consuming compulsion to sing like "somebody who knows better." I'm singing "too high" in my chest voice. He assures me the cracking and squawking is no sign of injury, just a sign of a control freak who's refusing to let go of all of her safety nets. Sounds like a hot mess.

But I see signs of progress. There is no correct way to pronounce, to inflect, to phrase. I am discovering the myriad effects a person can get with a single tone. It's endless. It's overwhelming. And each one means something different, totally, slightly. There is no Right. And maybe, so what if my voice cracks?

I don't know. As of now, it doesn't feel like I have any...control...over the sound. As in, how can I convey the feelings behind the words if my voice is bucking around Brooklyn like some freaking startled bronco? I suppose I could only sing songs that are intended to sound haphazard and reckless? Mmm. Still, it's been six months since I started this blog and I ain't let nobody hear nuttin' yet. I mean, if I keep waiting until I sound awesome and everything's perfect then it's never going to happen and everyone's going to lose interest, right?

So many questions. And only two lessons. But I heard Sufjan Stevens's voice almost crack a few times on Monday night and it was heart-breakingly effective. I paid attention because he meant it.

And I mean it. I really really do. I just have to let go and get out of it's way.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Yes, Even Unto the Ends of the Earth and Autotune, Sufjan Stevens

"The mathematician's patterns, like the painter's or the poet's must be beautiful; the ideas, like the colors or the words must fit together in a harmonious way. Beauty is the first test: there is no permanent place in this world for ugly mathematics." ~ GH Hardy

I was introduced to the songs of Sufjan Stevens as prelude music to Wednesday night "small group" Bible studies when I first moved to New York in 2004. In a Brooklyn apartment that felt oddly like an old farm house, while plain popcorn shook on the stove and assorted teas steeped in mismatched mugs, I'd tell this rather understated crowd how my prior week was (something very much akin to The Devil Wears Prada with more dish-washing and less swag, by the way), as we played squirrel with Sophie-the-dog and waited for the others to get started. All the while, the musical sounds of (it must have been) Seven Swans shushed us from the host's boom box. Once, in exchange for some quality time, Sophie-the-dog made me a mix CD that began and ended with bird calls, and included four yet-unreleased Sufjan tracks: Opie's Funeral Song, What Goes On, Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing, and Rake. I shall love them forever.

At that point, if you'd asked me about the music of this songwriter friend of theirs, I'd have said "it's quiet."

Monday night, at Sufjan's Beacon Theatre NYC homecoming concert with Alaska and our friends, Lemon Peele, Professor Lime, Daisy, and Jasper, I'd have said it's anything but. It was a balloon├Ęd pop dance party, an autotun├Ęd Martian landing of the numerological kind, a schizophrenic-prophetic journey into prog rock's epic Weird. And yet, it was unmistakably 100% Sufjan.

How is that? At Manhattan Diner, after the the show, Lemon Peele made the comparison: "It's not like when Jewel all of the sudden tried to be Gwen Stefani. He's still himself."

True. If I scoot back through the discs, there have always been dance (folk), mixed meters, electronic effects, programmatic story-telling, the observations and reflections of a spiritually-minded researcher, and something inexplicably off-kilter. With his two latest discs, he just takes it all waaaaaaaaaaaaayyyyyy off on a diagonal.

When I listen to Seven Swans, Illinois, or Michigan, I feel like I'm at home. Like Sufjan has somehow tapped into my core desires and made me a nice universe to revel in. In the words of Lemon Peele Liz Lemon, when I hear those albums, "I want to go to there."

Is it nostalgia? Does my heart leap every single time I hear Chicago because I remember that amazing night at BAM with Jenny Bilfield when we sipped cosmos and munched popcorn at Robert Redford's advance screening of Little Miss Sunshine, having no idea what to expect but crying with laughter at the surprise ending? Is it because Sufjan's music feels like my first few years in New York City, those small group meetings of real people talking about real things? Or does it go back to what Mark Baxter (vocal coach) said in my first lesson? We're all looking for music that makes us feel like we are not alone in our hopes, fears, and dreams.  

Maybe it's all of the above. But whatever it is, it has won my loyalty. Yes, even unto the ends of the Earth and Autotune will I follow Sufjan Stevens. And, to be honest, I too hate chemistry but love physics and algebra. (I screamed a little bit during his math monologue.) So there.

"I was in love with the place in my mind, in my mind / I made a lot of mistakes in my mind, in my mind."

More anon.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

laundry (warning: explicit lyrics)

Here's a song I wrote last October (2009). It's called "laundry."

sometimes i like to put his laundry away
it's the least, it's the least, it's the least
to hold his socks, his undershirts
sometimes it's the closest i get to his heart,
his heart
i fold it over my hands, the warmth
nestle it away
when sex isn't enough
his shoes in all their places lined up,
lined up
in his shoes i see all their faces
what he wants
when he tried, when he tried, when he tried
all around

and those girls, some may have loved him and he them
like a man, a man could love whiskey or hate gin
but the clothes he's wearing these days
when a sleeve, tie brushes his face
he's a married man to me

sometimes i put my heels on
just to see what it's like, what it's like
sometimes it's the closest i get to his head,
his head
all i want is his stare
his eyes down my hair
when hope isn't enough
the look of a man who's won,
i'm carried away
and his arms, and his arms, and his arms
in a circle closed in

and those girls some may have loved him, and he them
like a man, a man could love whiskey or hate gin
but he's charmed on talent and poise
and this charm disarms all the noise
he's a married man to me

all the apple pie in the world
can't put me inside, though i've tried
so i make, and i make, and i make
he's the other---man,
i pour some milk
the sweetest there is
toss in some salt
i'm walking away
taking off heels
i'm walking away

but those girls some may have loved him, and he them
like a man, a man could love whiskey or hate gin
but when he goes to bed every night
feeling warm and satisfied
he's a married man to me

- Virginia, 10/12/09

I was listening to a lot of Patty Griffin last fall so this one's pretty raw—acoustic guitar and voice is all. I'm still trying to figure out the musical placement of parts of the verses because they're asymmetrical. I like the way certain songwriters (like Patty) are able to set uneven lines, so I'd rather work on that than make any cuts in the lyrics. But the chorus was settled pretty quickly with no problems.