Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Song Lyrics: You're An Old Man (You Don't Know What You Want)

I've been to finish off two recent songs -- both of which smacked me upside the head initially, and one of which didst bring a most grievous spirit upon me.

Yet this morning, while hustling through the shade of Prospect Park, trying to appear as powerful and unaccost-able as possible, I got an idea for a third song and rushed home to test it out on my voice. It's right powerful. Our Dotdotdotmusic intern was stationed with me today, so I put it aside for several hours to do expense reports (gah tax man! gah! gah!) and some tweeting, but then picked it up and finished it lickety-split this evening.

So . . . why can't I do this with the others?

Anyway, here it is. The lyrics, at least. I can't quite record it at the moment because it's "scored" for guitar, upright bass, and maybe castanets but I don't play any of those instruments. Grr.

you're an old man
you don't know who you are
you're an old man
you don't know who you are
you think that I'm nobler
you think I am better
because I am poorer
because I'm not lettered

dress me up and slap me down

you're an old man
you don't know who you are
you're an old man
you don't know who you are
you say that you want me
you say that you need me
but drunk on your ego
you don't even see me

tie me up and cut me down

I'd like to think
with each turn of the page
I'll find the missing links
I'll get wiser with age

but you don't
but you don't

oh old man
you don't know who you are
let them bow down
let them worship their star
you won't be my idol
the lesson that I've learned
from being up closer
to see just how you burn

you're an old man

Monday, July 18, 2011

All squares are rectangles but you should feel ashamed.

A few weeks ago, I popped a question to Twitter while "Stenven Rheinsberg" and I were plunking away at Dotdotdotmusic: What is different about songwriting as compared/contrasted with composing?

Blam, blam, blam, blam! The @ replies came pouring in. By the end of the conversation, I'd received around 60 responses. Almost all addressed matters of form: songs are shorter, the importance is more likely to be placed on the text/lyrics rather than on the development of the music. And, from what I could tell, everyone believed the two have a square-rectangle relationship: all songwriters are composers but not all composers are songwriters. OK. But there was something else that I was getting at that wasn't being answered.

So I asked a second question: What do you, as a listener/fan, want and expect from a song or singer-songwriter versus a composition or a composer? And a third question: Your favorite songwriter is who and why?

The line went dead. What had been 30 minutes of rapid fire tweeting came to a sudden halt. A colleague dropped out of the conversation, noting that the topic was "weirdly incendiary" (great way to put it) and he didn't want to be attacked (again) for his musical tastes. After a bit of nudging, a small handful of folks did respond (and thank you to those who did) but I'm going to pause right here for a moment.

Take a walk with me. I was raised in a religious sect that believes instrumental music in worship is wrong. God only likes a cappella. Dancing is a sin because it might cause your brother to lust after your body. The same goes for wearing shorts or skirts above the knee, tank tops, tight or low-cut clothing. Not only is it a sin to drink alcohol, it is also (to some) shaky ground to go to a restaurant that serves alcohol because what if your brother sees you there and thinks you're drinking and it causes him to stumble. My grandparents didn't come to my wedding and, though the reason I was given had something to do with a bad back, I am fairly certain it was because my wedding reception had both drinking and dancing (neither compulsory, by the way, but nevermind). I heard sermons on the sin of anger and, once, on the sin of depression. So it is not only a sin to do certain acts, it is a sin to even think about doing them or to cause someone else to think about doing them, and it is a sin to have certain emotional responses. All of this is to say: I am familiar with the use of dogma and shame in order to force and protect community (groupthink). The hours and hours of four-part a cappella shape-note singing were positively heavenly, but at some point my heart could not rejoice in the music-making for all the endless red-foreheaded frothy-mouthed dogmatic hair-splitting arguments among the men. (Women do not have the authority to speak publicly on such matters.)

Cut back to scene. I left this religiously dogmatic community with its rules about acceptable and unacceptable music, and while, for the most part, I have found the professional music community to be omnivorous, I am fascinated and disappointed when I see the use of of dogma and shame regarding musical output or taste. Depending on the decade and source, I've observed that it is/has been wrong/shameful to write or to like: expressive music, modernist music, mainstream music, beautiful music, atonal music, sincere music, ugly music, pop music, new music, catchy music, old music, music that doesn't take itself seriously enough, music that takes itself too seriously, it goes on. And the shaming! The snubbing! The snark! A famous example is when Ned Rorem wrote that "nobody really likes the music of Elliott Carter: his many admirers only pretend to like it." But I also see it on blogs that tell me what bands I ought to be embarrassed by and which artists I should feel guilty listening to. Then, of course, there's the ritual one-upping and slamming amongst commenters who pronounce things to be "overrated" and "underrated" (for lack of any better vocabulary?).


Whenever I read a tweet, comment, blog post, or review that claims someone else's music or musical taste is Wrong/Shameful, I wonder by what dogma this is being measured. But more than that, I just don't care.You'll forgive me if I maxed out on dogmatic arguments and shame many many years ago. This house is clean.

That is not to say that I do not value critical listening or rigorous discussion. I learned what that looks like early in my days at Boosey & Hawkes. I once made a dismissive comment regarding a certain composer's music and I was swiftly and kindly corrected. "Nope. That's not what we do here." The staff, led by Jenny Bilfield, was a group of people with extraordinary listening talent. People who loved a broad range of music, supported creativity, and who had the uncommon ability to hear music thoroughly and deeply for what it is, rather than for what it is not. In our listening sessions, music was never dismissed. The question was never "Is this music good or bad?" The questions were: "What do you hear in these sounds? What did the composer set out to do/say? Did s/he achieve that end effectively? What is interesting/special/significant about this? Who would find this interesting and why?"

With so much else to talk about, there's not much room left for shaming. So I will answer my own questions about songwriting. I love songs and songwriters because they provide a soundtrack to my life and put words on experiences that I had not considered. I love singing along. I love Patty Griffin's story-telling, her raw illustrations and elaborate articulations of American life from the eyes of clearly defined characters. I love Paul Simon's poetry, his unpredictable phrasing that dangles, the worlds he captures via instrumentation and meter in Graceland and Rhythm of the Saints. I love Rufus Wainwright's sloppy drunk voice, the theatrics, his careless way of progressing through remote chords. But most of all, I love the songwriters I do because of their honesty, their vulnerability, their intimacy.

Still, the time came for me a few years ago when other songwriters' words were no longer saying for me what I wanted to say for myself. And so I've picked up my pen in hopes of putting my own words and songs on my life, voicing my own truths, telling my own stories. As I write and record homemade demos I am trying to keep only the good questions in mind. Questions that bring me forward rather than stopping me in my tracks. What am I hearing? Am I being honest? Am I allowing myself to be vulnerable? What am I trying to say/do here? What do I need to do to say it most effectively?

But most importantly, I am shamelessly enjoying doing it and sharing it. Because this woman has given herself the authority to sing honestly and publicly on such matters.

Friday, July 8, 2011

French Hornist Escapes in New York City

I'm on the loose! Brooklyn-based French hornist looking to infiltrate the world of indie rock. (It's a French Horn Rebellion, y'all.)


I will:

  • Play in your band, your friend's band, or some other band that you heard needed a lady horn.
  • Make up my own parts or play the ones you've meticulously written.
  • Be down with extended technique, chance music, social experiments.
  • Do strange things in the name of art. If your tune requires me to play horn from the center of a giant hamster ball, I will do that. (I will also sit in a chair. Your call.)
  • Wear whatever costumery you might require: clothes pins, ball gowns, chucks, feathers, yellow rain jackets, all black, no black at all, etc.
  • Play very expressively and with great musicality.

I will not:

  • Be able to leap from the bottom of my range to the top of my range with a great deal of accuracy. Nor will I be able to do the brass equivalent of "shredding." I'm just not that fast. If you only write for horn in the upper register I will likely start to sound like a repressed elephant. Same goes if you write everything fff.
  • Play standard orchestral/band/brass quintet repertoire. Nothing wrong with it, I just don't want to. I want to rock out.

I have:

  • An undergraduate music education degree from James Madison University with a concentration in horn.
  • Experience playing most other orchestral instruments + ukulele on a 7th grade level.
  • Decent piano skills.
  • A super ear for harmony, which makes me a great back up singer.*
    *I cannot play horn and sing at the same time. I can however play ukelele or piano and sing at the same time. I am very good at that.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

25 or 6 to 4 (put the trombone here)

I had a quick conversation in May with a producer who advised me to make very basic demo recordings + lead sheets for a host of songs, before I bring a band together so that the players have starting points for rehearsal. Fine.

So: I now have two demo recordings done from the list plus a third new song that wasn't on the list. Check check check.  I'm going to be plugging away at the rest over the summer -- most of these songs need some polishing/finishing before demos can be recorded. As I'm going along I'm getting ideas for new songs that I want to work into the mix (like "My Baby's Gone to Vegas").

Also: Sibelius has arrived! The time has come for me to learn how to use notation software so I can produce lead sheets (usually just the melody line + chord changes + comments like "trombone here," instead of writing out every note for every player).

Also too: My grand scheme is to prep demos + lead sheets for songs (July/August?), bring the interested band members together (see image!) to rehearse and find the strongest pieces (September?), and play a show sometime around my birthday (October). This may be too ambitious in terms of time. We'll see how it goes.

songs in line for treatment:

ask seek knock (1999)
boats and snow (2010)

+ my baby's gone to vegas (2011)
one two/january ballet song (2010)
microbiology (2010)
laundry (2009)
la plus belle (2008)
when it rains (2002)
ft. lauderdale first date song (2003)
rescue (2010)
my momma says (2009)
i am a projector (2010)
god only knows (2004)
naked/good man (2004)
regret robot/defense chicken (2010)
red leaf falls on old virginia (1998)
i will grow old (2011-)

second string songs i don't think i'll do anything with:

pale blue horizon (2002)
raindance (2000)
birds (2008)
red sky (2001)
pluto (2000)
no reason to doubt (2000)
sinking (1994)
another round (2002)
shu-sha (2000)
rita's song (2005)
dandelion (1998)
blessed is the man (2005)
lay you down (1998)
feel the breeze (1998)
red sky (2002)
oh see thats fine (2001)
she flies (2002)
uncle Sam (2004)
crepe myrtle (2000)

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

How It Went: LOL

So, the song was released. The report:

"Catchy as hell." (Stenven Rheinsberg, Dotdotdotmusic)

Snippets of the song have been absent-mindedly hummed by Alaska while: drying his hair, packing the suitcase, driving, washing the car. This is good. After carrying around loads of my own songs in my own head for decades, I can't explain how surreal and satisfying it is to hear them coming back at me from someone else's voicebox. Yes, please, you carry it for a while.

However, I still can't get it out of my head. I suppose this is what I get for writing catchy songs.


Both parents and in-laws gave audible LOLs. As did my bro-in-law, and some of "your parents friends" referenced in the song. We basically did a tour of Lake Chautauqua, stopping at homes, inviting folks to our car (The Silver Fox), and playing it from my iPod over the Fox's speakers with doors open like some kind of Old Time peddler show. Alaska mentioned that I like to stop time to play my songs for people. Yes. And so?



I've so far had one person say they think I should crank up the oom-pah with a carnival of instruments and one say they think I should smooth it out with ukulele. I'm going to use Sibelius to do both. I've also been informed, by the second aforementioned person, that Sibelius playback instruments sound like "angels who got into mushrooms + machine gun attacks." I am certain that I've already heard that band.


Those who are related to me and/or friends with me on Facebook say "Great Lakes Boy (Boats and Snow)" is: "Totally awesome. Gorgeous. Witty, affectionate, heartfelt. Fun!! Sweet and romantic."


The stats on Soundcloud plus the number of Likes/Comments on Facebook might indicate that I am in a sophomore slump on the most micro of levels. I released my first song, Ask Seek Knock, in December to and, between MySpace and Soundcloud, it has now received about 400 plays and 11 downloads. My second song, My Baby's Gone to Vegas, has received 79 plays on Soundcloud, and 1 download. In third place but rising is Great Lakes Boy (Boats and Snow) with 71 plays on Soundcloud and 3 downloads. It seems, as time goes on, people just expect me to release songs as a matter of course. In other words: it is no longer news that I am an active songwriter. The real question is: Now what?

Other factors: Timing. I released this on a holiday weekend (specifically tied to the holiday, as it's a road trip love song about the 4th of July weekend). I released "Ask Seek Knock" as a Christmas gift but I released it on Christmas Eve Eve Eve Eve, so there was more time for people to listen before traveling. In the case of this last one, I released it on a Friday morning before a big outdoor summer holiday, so it's possible that folks just simply weren't on their computers to see the posts or hear the song. Quality: my first song was arranged and mixed by collaborating musicians and a real audio producer from CorbinSound. These last two are just rough demos.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Great Lakes Boy - it's the 4th of JOO-ly!

  03 Great Lakes Boy (Demo) by Scarlet Knight

First songwriting deadline: met. The demo is up! I now have recorded demos of THREE original songs  = it's happening.

This tune is about July 4th weekend, 2006. I got the idea of "two seasons: boats and snow" last August while rollicking on Lake Chautauqua in the Toy Knight.

The piano/vocal feels extremely obvious to me, too elbows-out-OOM-PAH-yukk-yukk-yukk for my taste. I'm thinking of softening it with different instrumentation (ukulele in place of piano?) OR just embracing the oom-pah and making the whole song a carnival with tuba, French horn, Ragtimey piano, but then adding some dissonance/oddities to make it off-kilter a la Beatles or Tori Amos (Mr. Zebra).

The overall effect I'm going for is somewhere between Rufus Wainwright's Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk, Feist's 1-2-3-4, and Joni Mitchell's Carey.

Brand new Sibelius is due to arrive any day now and I'm excited to finally be able to play around with different arrangements OUTSIDE OF MY HEAD. Speaking of outside of my head, I will be playing this for Alaska + the in-laws this weekend (hence the deadline). 'Bout time this earworm infiltrates someone else's head. Hopefully even yours?

Biographical footnote: The songwriter's mother (we'll call her by her CB Radio handle, "Nature Lover," from now on) did, in fact, ask Alaska if he would take a bullet for me. Response: "Why? Do you have a GUN??"

Everyone's hilarious.