Autumn Good Morning, Summer Good Riddance

It's finally starting to rain, which is a wonderful thing. Too much heat and sun makes yours truly a little grumpy. Summer is officially almost over and we here at the Reclinerland offices couldn't be happier. Our receptionist has started bouncing around the office chattering at the birds outside and clawing the furniture again. Only three weeks ago she was prostrate on the carpet, unable to move because of blazing temperatures. Now she meows "Good riddance you awful, long, sweltering time of year, you." I couldn't agree more. Hello long rainy walks, drizzly mornings, cool evenings listening to the car tires swishing outside the window. Autumn good morning, summer, good night! 

I've been wandering around Portland with my iPod listening to rough mixes. That's really all I've been doing. I'm a boring person these days. After a bit more disappointment in the romance category, I've sworn off women for good (Ha ha) and am confining myself to the bohemian lifestyle of soda pop and song. All I do on the weekends is get up, practice piano, get some writing done on the musical, record or write music for A Common Porno, and keep my fingers crossed that the Parks & Recreation album will be finished sometime soon. Oh, and I also eagerly anticipate Scott Garrett's word about the Ideal Home Music Library mixes. That's when I'm not at work, you see. Weekdays I get home by 4 o'clock from spending time with the kiddies, and then it's hunker down and get to work. Sometimes I go out, but without anyone to really go out with, I just kind of sit in bars and imagine myself in some of those other boys' places. 

So you see, I'm a literal chick repellant. Chicks begone! I'll have no more of you! I forgot to mention that on these long walks of mine, I also kick puppy dogs, push shopping carts into expensive vehicles, climb trees and drop Kool-Aid balloons on hipsters, kick people's crutches out from under them, and fill parmesan cheese dispensers with my dandruff. Ha! Take that, females!

Oops, sorry. This blog is supposed to be about music and the creative process.

To Dream The Impossible Dream

A couple of days ago I finished the rough draft of the first act of the book for my musical. The thing clocks in at 109 pages so far. According to the maxims of musical theater, that is way too long for a first act. Of course, it's only the first draft, so I'm not concerned. I'm just getting it all down on paper. But the writing of the book is making me just absolutely itch to have the thing finished so I can get started on the music. It doesn't help that the Ideal Home Music Library is in its mixing phase. So I'm listening to these other show type songs and wishing I could just dive in. Also, I've been watching a lot of musicals lately, studying them (and freakin' LOVING them). As a result, I've rediscovered my love of theater. God, when Richard Harris weeps at the end of Camelot, or when Natalie Wood starts waving the gun around in West Side Story, I get goose pimples. Pop music has its allure, but I really feel that a musical, or any kind of musical theater or film, is the highest achievement a songwriter can attain. Some might say a symphony would be the highest, but a symphony isn't made up of songs. A pop song is a wonderful medium for expressing whatever you want. And good, simples pop songs are hard to write. But a musical song has to move a character from point A to point B, or advance the plot, or express a particular emotion. Plus, the lyrics have to come from the character singing them, not from the songwriter. A pop songwriter that clings to a particular style of lyric writing won't be able to crank out very good musical songs because his or her writing won't come from the character's voice.

I've also just heard that my famous friend is working on a musical. That got me thinking: wouldn't it be awesome if we sparked some kind of revival? Not that musicals are dead, mind you, I mean, shows are still going up all over the place, but the standard for quality in musicals is still Broadway and the West End. What if we could shift the standard, or at least create a new era of musical theater? The Indie-pop Musical. What if we could develop what Stephen Merritt started with his 69 Love Songs album into a full-blown, non-ironic, non-judgmental movement of artistic expression? There has already been a revival of interest in narrative lyrics. MTV bands like My Chemical Romance and such are writing songs that have stories in them. Hip Hop mastered the narrative drama song ages ago. Drama and theatricality are enjoying a resurgence in indie rock songwriting. It would seem the natural next step would be for everyone to start writing musical plays. That would be so awesome! Speaking as a complete drama nerd, I just think it would be so exciting. We could stop standing onstage behind microphones and start jumping out and playing characters. Rip off our tight tee shirts and put on costumes! Lights! Dancing! We could really get it moving.

Mind you, I'm not presumptuous enough to think that my little play would have any impact in bringing musicals back into fashion. Mine will probably be just a pin prick in the whole constellation. But I suspect that if my famous friend were to crank out a musical, you can bet bed knobs to broomsticks that every head band wearing, trucker capped, bearded, aviator sunglasses toting, castro hat sporting, cowboy shirt with pearly snaps clad, flowery dress donning, little birdie on a branch drawing, porno moustachioed indie kid from Portland to Poughkipsie would be ditching their barista jobs and busting out into the street singing "Hello, Dolly!" And once that happened, the rest of us aspiring musical writers could just sit back and ride the wave. Seriously, though, to get a musical performed on a stage has been a dream of mine ever since I saw Rachel Sakry's Whatever Girl staged here in Portland. Forget Broadway, I'd settle for putting one on in my backyard. But what if we all, not just Old Fancy Pants, started this big revival and musicals became trendy. Holy crap. Now that would be a trend I would welcome with open arms (I look really sleazy with a moustache).

Is this just an impossible dream? Well, I suppose I shouldn't get ahead of myself. I should just be happy I got the first draft of act one. I don't even know if this thing I'm writing is any good yet. Well, right now it definitely is not good. It's the shitty first draft, after all. I've started act two. Just take it one step at at time. I've never been one to take things one step at at time. I suppose that's my problem in life. I'm a victim of unbridled passion. Ha ha.

The Orange Moon

After all this time, after all of this recording, waiting, recording again, and waiting again, after all of this hoping and hand wringing and sweating, I made the final edits to Kaitlyn's lovely vocals on Up On The Orange Moon, thereby finishing the basic track work on the IHML. You may recall from an earlier post that we had to re-record Up On The Orange Moon because the original take was way too high for Kaitlyn's smoky alto vocal register. Well, we went to Scott Garett's house and recorded the piano tracks with my friend Steve White on piano. Then Kaitlyn did her vocals and emailed me the finished takes. Today I did a few little clicks and drags in Digital Performer and, viola! It's all done. So the basic tracks for all 12 songs are finished. The next step is to mix and master the record, which will be a whole other ordeal, but I'll keep you posted on events as they unfold.

In other news, this past weekend we filmed another little short for Grammar School Pictures. This one is called "The Interminable End" I think, and it's basically me giving a woman a ten minute speech about how I want to break up with her. The camera doesn't move from me the entire time. You can see the girl in 3/4 back view, but that's it. It was just me. Yikes! My speech was about four pages long and it took me about 3 days to memorize. This film was a challenge. I had to not only remember all the lines, but I also had to dredge up my worst qualities and harness them to make this guy seem like a typical, flaky-ass boy. Some of my exes might say it wasn't much of a stretch, but I don't think of myself as anything like this guy. I think of myself as much more suave, much kinder. Much less self absorbed (he says as he sits writing a blog post about HIMSELF). The hardest character to play is yourself. This person is kind of a caricature of the worst parts of me, but still, it was a stretch to make him believable and funny. Plus, channeling all of the memories of break ups and dating frustrations in order to find the truth in what I was saying was difficult. But I slogged through it. I woke up early the morning of the shoot and talked through the monologue in the mirror a few times until it was time for Joe to come and get me and bring me to the shoot. Initially, when I'd read the speech all the way through, it clocked in at only about four minutes, so I had to bring in my own stuff and improvise some stuff. I was happy to hear that during the takes you could only see me struggling for lines a couple of times during the monologue. That's good to know. I haven't seen the finished film yet, because they're still editing it, and, frankly, I'm a little self conscious about a film that's entirely made up of me talking. The photos included here are of Matt Knapp in the gray shirt with the camera, Joe Ballman in the maroon shirt also at the camera, me looking a bit afraid, and Shelby, the girl I had to break up with. Anyway, I hope people will enjoy it.

The Common Pornography record is going well. I have 14 songs done. Only 14 more to go. I'll be blogging about that process probably next week. See you then.

Happy Birthday, James!

This post is a digression from my usual idle prattle, so if your name isn't James Johnson, skip it. Otherwise, read on.

As soon as the clock chimes midnight this evening, it will be my older brother James' birthday. James is my lovely estranged brother who isn't talking to me or my mother. If only he knew how much I miss him and how much I love him and how much I positively ache to talk to him. If I were with him, I'd make him a big cake, and after we ate it, I'd walk with him all over Seattle, pausing only occasionally to look out at Green Lake, or sit by the docks and look out across the sound at Bainbrige Island. That's where he lives, you see: Seattle.

James, if you're reading this I miss you so much. Let's get back together and bury the hatchet. I hope you have a happy birthday. I love you very much!

More later, kiddies.

Making it up as you go

I discovered something about writing this week as I was working on the play: You can make it up as you go along! Yes, it's true. I did lots of planning, and that has really paid off, but as I've been writing I've been adding bits and changing things. So it seems the process is about simultaneous planning and changing, planning and changing. It's really fascinating. It was good to plan. I learned all I could about the town of Melbourne, Australia, where the bulk of the action takes place. Did you know they have a harbor district there, where all of the swank hotels and nice galleries are? I had no idea. What a beautiful city, though. I would love to go there. Anyway, my point was I'm learning so much. Too much planning is not a bad thing, because you have to have the details of the characters' lives in your mind so they can speak about themselves when they need to. But you can also fill things in as you go along.

The most fun thing about writing a musical is sitting back once a scene is finished and deciding where the songs should go. So far I have three songs: an opening number, with Nicholas and a whole host of gallery patrons, a song in which Charles, Nicholas' boss, lectures him, and one about all the different ways Gregory could kill himself. It's similar to that scene in Cyrano where he rattles off all the different ways one could make fun of his own nose.

Through all this I've rediscovered my love of musical theater. I got a huge collection of Broadway soundtracks off of X-torrent the other day and I've been eating them up. I hate some of them, though. Andrew Lloyd Weber's musicals can blow me. I liked the movie version of Les Miserables, but the music for the live version is so cheesy. I can't stand it. Same with Phantom of the Opera. Pure shlock. However, all the old ones, Guys and Dolls, West Side Story, Showboat, Sweeney Todd, they're all classics. I have to say I didn't like Into The Woods as much as I thought I would. The melodies are pretty jumpy and flat. And after I listened to Hair I wanted to beat up everyone on the bus.

It's great to listen to all these musicals and get pointers. I've discovered that the best musicals are the ones in which I can tell what the story is just from the songs. If I can tell roughly who the characters are and what's happening by just the songs, it's pretty thrilling.

So, I'm sitting down now to get to work. Wish me luck.

Well Oiled

Thanks to the expert advice of some of my compatriots in the field of writing, I scrapped my last post and gutted the first scene of my play. I've discovered that this blog is actually hindering me in that department, because it's causing me to think about the process too much. For this initial stage, as my good friend Matt advised, I should just be writing. So A few days ago I sat down and started doing just that. Now things are cooking along. When I get to the editing stage, I might blog again about the play, but until then, no thinking, just writing.

So, other than that I'm working steadily on A Common Pornography. I came up with a really nice melody for a song called Mayfair. It's about two kids who keep going into the restroom of the market across the street to look at porn. That's the stuff poetry is made of, I can tell you. Also, I'm almost finished with the vocals on the Parks & Recreation album, which I CAN NOT WAIT for you to hear. It's going to be awesome. Finally, I'm in the process of getting the final piano track laid down for the Ideal Home Music Library, Volume 2. This is going to be a big year for me in terms of musical output. I hope you stay tuned!

By the way, does anyone know where I can find the books, not the music, but the books to broadway musicals? I keep finding the soundtrack recordings, but I want the entire script. I've been looking at opera librettos, and I have a Gilbert & Sullivan book, but I'd like to get some more modern musicals to look at. If you have any ideas, please contact me!

More later!

Work work work

On Saturday and Sunday I did a ton of work on A Common Pornography. I redid some vocals, fixed up the lyrics and recorded Silhouette, remixed some songs, and wrote and recorded another song called Stereo. I really like it. The short story references the Cars' Candy-O album, so I stole the synthesizer melody from the first song on Candy-O for the vocal line. It's not stealing, actually, it's an "allusion", so put the phone down.

I also did some singing on the Parks & Recreation album. My voice must have dropped in the last year or so because, man, some of those songs are really high for me to sing! Could this be a second puberty for me? I'm not sure. I noticed the other day that I've gotten a bit taller and thicker. It's midlife. It must be.

Tonight I did some really pivotal work on the play. I started talking to myself about the script while doing dishes, and some really nice stuff came to me. I was able to answer some pivotal questions and work them in to the synopsis. I also read quite a bit more about the art business and how it works and looked up information about the town of Melbourne, Australia, where I decided our antagonist will be exiled. Also, I came up with final names for all the characters by looking up their etymologies. Now I have a premise, a group of six reasonably well-drawn and orchestrated characters (though I know some details about them will change as writing progresses), and I have for the structure of the play a shape that I'd like to pursue. I see it unfolding in three acts. Act one: Nicholas digs the pit. Act two: Everyone gathers strength against Nicholas, Act three: Nicholas takes the fall. I want the play to be really juicy, full of sex, betrayal, art, intrigue, and drama, lots of drama. All that in a musical? Is it possible?

I'm finally ready to get to the good part, which is the actual writing of the actual dialog and everything. That's coming up next, as soon as I decide whether to write the play in verse or not. I was thinking that each character could speak in a different form of verse. Gregory, for example, being all brooding and dark, could speak in iambic pentameter, the rhythm of Shakespeare, while Nicholas, being the flighty dandy conniving fop that he is, could speak in couplets. I'm not sure. Maybe it's too gimmicky. I'll explore it and see what happens. It's worth a shot. Plus, if the spoken lines were in verse, it might ease the transition into the songs. That would make the play kind of an operetta. Especially if I put the entire thing, dialog and all, to music. I don't know. Like I said, I'll play around and see what happens.


Silhouettes

I finished the song Silhouettes this evening. Here is the finished lyric:

Matt and I saw a spaceship.
We watched it creep across the sky.
From the weak porch light we traced the faint blip
Safe in our sleeping bags outside.
We talked of UFOs and Bigfoot
Until we closed our eyes.
Soon I was dream-interrupted
And I awoke sometime in the middle of the night.

I raised my head to look around me.
Roughly twenty yards away
Stood a silhouette looking down at me
By the garbage cans in the alleyway.
I just froze staring at that shadow,
Who seemed to be watching as we lay.
Wondering who else had seen our spaceship,
We called the radio station the very next day.

Then we talked all morning about our evening
But I never mentioned my shadow man.
Ten years later, Matt confessed to me
He'd never sleep outside again.

I decided again, in the spirit of writing in nouns and verbs, to cut any extra adjectives or descriptive language. So the word "moonless" didn't make it in to the final draft.

Now I'm off to sleep. Tomorrow I start work on a new song called Laynee. We'll see how it goes.

Prose to Poetry

The purpose of this blog is to get me off my butt and get me to work, so once again it has come through. After talking about this song in the last post I couldn't wait to work on it, so I did. I thought I'd share the experience.

One of the challenges of this project is converting the prose in Kevin's book into song lyrics. In prose you have the freedom to be verbose, whereas song lyrics must be economical. The book excerpt
that I converted runs like this:

Matt and I saw a spaceship skipping through the sky. We reacted at the same time, surprised we both saw it. We stayed up late that night, sleeping outside on our side porch in our sleeping bags. We talked about UFOs and Bigfoot. We planned a Bigfoot hunt near Walla Walla when we got older.
After falling asleep, exhausted from speculation, I awoke some time in the middle of the night...

So you see the challenge?
It would be a pretty jumpy melody that could accommodate all of those words. The rhythm is sporadic and doesn't fit the melody that I came up with. So, the first step in converting this prose into poetry is to abridge it, retaining all of the essential ideas, and pruning some of the less important details. My first line is:

Matt and I saw a spaceship

That's pretty much word for word from the story, right? But the second line is different:

Skipping through the gloomy sky

Well, I don't like the word "gloomy" because it's a heavy handed, lazy way to set the mood. The words in a song should just describe a scene, or present a picture, the music should describe the mood: an eerie melody set against dark, minor key harmonies would go a lot further to establish a "gloomy" mood than a qualifying adjective.
Besides, people have different definitions of what "gloomy" is, so it's vague on top of being loaded. I always try to write songs in nouns and verbs. So I changed "gloomy" to "moonless" because that word creates a picture and leaves the music free to describe the mood. Do you see the difference? The word "moonless" is descriptive, but it's less loaded, less qualified than "gloomy". It describes the situation by showing it to us, not by telling us how to feel about it, which is the music's job. A moonless night could be quite beautiful and peaceful if it was in a love song, for example. But in this song the music makes the moonless night rather spooky. The music, not the words, sets the mood. It's that way in films, too. Take a film clip about an alligator slowly emerging from a pond. By itself it's just an image. If you sync it to scary music, the alligator looks quite menacing. But suppose you synced it to some goofy cartoon music; now the alligator looks kind of funny lumbering out of the lake on his clumsy, stumpy legs.

Moving on,
if I want the song to rhyme, which I do, these first two lines have set up a rhyme scheme. I have to fit the next couple of lines into that rhyme pattern. I came up with:

Through the weak porch light we traced the faint blip
Safe in our sleeping bags outside.

Rhyming this particular passage was problematic. I played with the internal rhyme between the words "I" and "light" in lines one and three. (Both fall on long notes and strong beats) For the outside rhymes I ended up with near rhymes. I tried to rhyme "spaceship" with "faint blip", for example, which is kind of comical. And then "sky" and "outside" are also near rhymes. Not perfect, but of all the combinations I tried, this one was the best.

Now the next four lines:

We talked of UFOs and Bigfoot
Until we closed our eyes.

My fitful dreams were interrupted
I awoke in the middle of the night.

This is hard to describe, but the melody changes at those first two lines about UFOs and Bigfoot, so I set them apart from the rest. To further set them apart, I broke them out of the rhyme scheme. The melody of last two lines are the same as the top two, so, except for the word "interrupted", they sort of rhyme with the original two lines. The rhyme pattern, if your curious, is A,B,A,B,C,B,D,B. Well, again, they're near rhymes, but the vowel sounds match, and that's the best I can hope for. Speaking of rhymes, I tightened up the inner rhymes between the second and fourth lines. Now, instead of skipping through the moonless sky, the spaceship creeps across the moonlit sky. I changed it not only because I wanted to create an inner rhyme between "creep" and "sleep", but also because I felt that the pronoun "across" was more accurate than "through". Since from the viewer's vantage point the sky is flat, through the sky means the spaceship's trajectory is poking perpendicular through the black canopy of sky toward the viewer, but across the sky means the spaceship's trajectory is moving parallel to the canopy of sky, flat along its curved plane. You may call me anal retentive, but it's part of a songwriter's craft to paint with such a fine brush. Here's the entire passage:

Matt and I saw a spaceship,
We watched it creep across the moonless sky.
Through the weak porch light we traced its faint blip
Safe in our sleeping bags outside.

We talked of UFOs and Bigfoot
Until we closed our eyes.

My fitful dreams were interrupted
And I awoke in the middle of the night.

As you can see, my poetic version of the passage above is abridged, but it contains all of the most essential elements. Its all nouns and verbs. It's just a picture of two kids in their sleeping bags, under the porch, tracing the path of the spaceship (or the plane, satellite, or whatever) across the sky. I cut the part about the Bigfoot hunt because it seemed like an aside, and didn't fit into the moment I was trying to paint. Like I said, in prose you can put in those little digressions. In poetry you have to paint a picture and move on. Finally, I want to mention that I added the word "safe" in the line safe in our sleeping bags to draw attention to, or to foreshadow, the sense of danger coming up, when one boy awakes and sees a silhouette of a man watching him and his friend sleep. The spooky music happening underneath the word "safe" underscores how unsafe the boy actually is. Interesting how you can do that with music.

Anyway, that's the first part of the song. More later, if you can stand it.




Cooking along

Recent depressing events in my (now non-existent) love life have caused me to have trouble concentrating on anything. You should see me during the day. I'm a complete basket case. All I can think about is being dumped, and about what the future holds for me. I have no idea. But despite those unhappy circumstances, or maybe because of them, this play is really cooking! I'm writing a little bit every day. I'm really taking great care to flesh out the characters first and foremost.

According to the book The Art of Dramatic Writing, a good play has well drawn characters. "Well drawn" means they are filled out in those qualities of humanity that constitute a human being's three dimensions: psychology, physiology, and sociology. Once all three of those aspects of the characters are filled out, you can begin to get your play rolling. So I've got all my characters filled in now, I know what they look like, what their personality is like, and what their place is in the social structure in which they live. Now, I have some more work to do before I can get them on the stage. For one,
I feel like the only way to really get to know these people is to get to know all about what business they're involved in: the art business. Charles owns a gallery, for example, Nicholas is a delivery boy/odd jobber at the gallery, Nora is an art dealer, Tim works in a record store, but he's an art collector, Grace is an art dealer, and Gregory is an artist. So I need insight into the business of art. For example, if Nora is an art dealer, how did she come to have that job? I have no idea what the career path of an art dealer is. How does one come to own a gallery? I have no idea. So I'm working on that research now. It shouldn't take long to get all the information I need to finally start writing.

In other news, after a short break from working on songs, I've just started going on a song for A Common Pornography called Silhouettes. After a couple of days of toying with it, I finally got a melody, and I'm sitting down now to write the words. I'll keep you posted on what's going on with that. I think it would be worth it to reflect on the process of turning prose into poetry. Once I'm finished with the lyrics I'll post about it. More later.

We're back...again...

It's the damndest thing, but you know when you fail to pay for things, someone takes them away from you. I can attest that it is true. And so can you if you've been trying to visit the site or the blog the last few days. But on to more pleasant topics.

Rest assured that the Parks & Recreation album is not dead in the water. It lives. And although it may seem like we're sitting on our hands, it is not true. In fact, we just finished overdubbing the strings and horns, and everything sounds fantastic. Next up is the vocals, then a little mixing, a little mastering, and voila, it'll be pumping through your head in no time. Just get through the summer, if you can, and we'll be there shortly.

In the meantime, you have so much to look forward to, and so do I. The last post helped me tremendously to loosen the crossed wires in my brain a little, and so the characters are almost all fleshed out for the musical. I only have two left to fill in, and then I'll be able to put them on the stage and see what happens. You may think this is a roundabout approach, but I tell you it's amazing. I can see everything taking shape even as I sit and imagine who these people are. Every little detail of their past lives is important, and it's incredible how things are lining up to justify my choices. I'll give you an example. I told you earlier how I'd picked star signs for each of the characters, trying to create opposing relationships. But then, when I examined each character, I found that the star signs I picked at random actually give them the exact qualities I'd envisioned in the beginning. I know it seems like it isn't a coincidence, because it's all happening in my own brain, but that's what's so interesting about the writing process: it doesn't feel like I'm doing any of it. It feels like I'm sitting around waiting for something to happen to me. But anyway now I have Nicholas, a charming, foppish, dandy, extravagant, flamboyant, energetic, manipulative, ruthless social butterfly (an Aries) set opposite Gregory, a brooding, self-loathing, insecure, independent, sensitive layabout (a Cancer), plus two more characters. And those initial vague decisions about their personality type helped me to fill in their personal histories. I was able to start from that broad sketch and flesh out their histories in pursuit of the question "Why are they that way?" It's an amazing process, writing. You should try it if you haven't already. It's really cool. It's hard work and a real stretch of the imagination inventing people, but it's a fun challenge.

Also, I've got six songs for A Common Pornography, and counting. So you see? We're back...again!


Writer's block - part 2

The next character I worked on was Gregory. He's Nicholas's brother, and it was pretty easy to flesh him out. I just made him completely the opposite of Nicholas in every way. His star sign is Cancer (which happens to be mine), which, in the Zodiac is 90 degrees from Aries, making it basically opposite. Where Nicholas is tall and elegant, Gregory is short and blunt. Where Nicholas is oversexed and a social butterfly, Gregory is pretty much a perpetually single lonely recluse. One of the few things they have in common is their ambition. So Gregory was pretty easy to sketch out.

So where am I stuck? Well, My imagination is straining to find backgrounds and physical descriptions for all of these other people. I did extensive research into astrology and Meyers-Briggs to make all of the characters opposite from each other.
Earlier I mentioned that I made a circular diagram like a color wheel to represent the characters' relationships. Well, the wheel is divided into six segments, with Nicholas in the top center segment. So, Nicholas is an Aries, and Gregory is the sign 90 degrees, or "square" from him: Cancer. I put Gregory in the segment directly opposite Nicholas. Well, I have another character named Grace, and she's Gemini. Her segment is to the left of Nicholas. So the person opposite her on the wheel, to the right of Gregory, is Timothy. He's a Pisces because Pisces is square to Gemini in the Zodiac.

As a side note, an interesting thing happened when I laid out the characters in this way, and it happened totally by accident. The circle ended up having two halves, a "Nicholas" half, populated by the three characters who were extroverted, and a "Gregory" half, filled with the three characters who were most introverted. I noticed even more interesting and weird coincidences when I laid out the characters in this way, but I won't get into all of them here.

Okay, so, like I said above, I'm straining my imagination to invent backgrounds for all of these other people, and the character I'm stuck on now is Timothy. He's a Pisces, an Introverted Intuitive Thinking Judger. Okay, fine. But now what? I have to think up a background for him that would be fitting for that type of guy. What kind of background, social situation, etc., would create a Intrverted Intuitive Thinking Judging Piscean? Ah, good question. So my imagination wanders to people I've known in the past, and it settles on a girl I dated once. Her name was Bevin, and she was from Santa Rosa California. Maybe if I flesh Timothy out with details from her life, it'll settle in nicely. I'll try it and see what happens.

More later.

Writer's block - part 1

At first I thought my inability to sit down and write was due to my schedule. Then I thought perhaps I couldn't write anything because I was mercilessly dumped in the most cruel and inexplicable way last weekend. Then I thought maybe getting sick had something to do with it (cough). But now I realize, as I sit here with the entire weekend stretching lazily before me, that I just have writer's block. I'm officially stuck, you see, and there's no help for it but to blog.

The play I'm writing was really chugging along there for a while. I started with a basic idea of a plot about two brothers, one a savvy, successful fop, the other a brooding, sensitive failure. Having never written a play before, I thought I should do it right, so I've been working out of a book called The Art of Dramatic Writing. First and foremost, I established a premise for my play: He who digs a pit for others will fall into it himself. Good. Now I'm working on drawing the characters. So far, I have the two main characters filled out in exhaustive detail. I have their star signs, their Meyers-Briggs personality type profiles, their physical, sociological, and psychological profiles all fleshed out, including some bits about their backgrounds. Here is an example of the abridged profile for Nicholas Quite, my pivotal character:

Nicholas Quite

Physiology: Male, 27, 6'0, 155lbs, Light brown, straight thin hair, green eyes, fair skin, erect posture, graceful, very attractive, fashionable, trendy, wears expensive, well-fitting outfits from trendy Pearl District boutiques, handsome, too thin, has a girlish, weedy look.

Sociology: Middle class, lives in comfort, works as an art gallery errand boy, has a B.A. degree in painting, Nicholas's father was not his birth father. In fact, his mother left his birth father when Nicholas was very small. She remarried early. Dr. Quite, her second husband, was a wealthy doctor. He was a good man, but his career left him little time for his wife or for Nicholas. This didn't stop him, however, from adopting Nicholas's foster brother Gregory after seeing an article in the paper about a tragedy that happened to Gregory's family which left Gregory an orphan. Nicholas resented this move, although he liked the idea of having a younger brother to care for and pick on. Eventually, Nicholas's mother left Dr. Quite for yet another man, and Dr. Quite was left to raise two boys on his own. The strain caused him to drink, which in turn led to his death when Nicholas was 18. Nicholas, armed with another reason to hate his father, took over as guardian of his younger foster brother.

Psychology: Nicholas has a rather overactive sex life, he attends regular swinger parties at the house of the couple he's dating. He hates children and abhors the idea of marriage. He wishes to be the center of the art and fashion world. His chief disappointments are his parents. He resents his mother for marrying and leaving bad men, he resents his father, Dr. Quite, for being passive and too preoccupied with his career. Nicholas can't tolerate failure. He's exceedingly optimistic, sarcastic, quick-witted, and a social butterfly. He has a talent for influencing people. He's an Aries, which makes him adventurous, ambitious, impulsive, enthusiastic and full of energy. His Meyers-Briggs personality type is Extroverted Sensing Thinking Perceiver, or ESTP. This makes him a spontaneous, active person who derives great satisfaction from acting on his impulses. Activities involving power, speed, thrill and risk attract him. He is competitive and unscrupulous.

See? Now in order to draw the other characters, I just started with Nicholas and gave them qualities that were opposite him in every way. The end result was a wheel, similar to a color wheel, with all six of my characters laid out in opposite spaces. So if Nicholas is red, then Gregory, his brother, is green, etc. It's all very complicated, I'm realizing as I look at it.

And now on to part 2...

Heroin

I played a nice show last night. Reading Frenzy was having a benefit for the IPRC and my friend Kevin was celebrating the release of his new book. He invited me to play. It was a beautiful experience. I haven't played live in some time now; about a year. I guess I sort of got burned out on doing solo shows last year after a disastrous gig at the bar called Roture. After blanking out on the stage in front of the 5 loudly chatting audience members and leaving the stage after 3 songs, I just thought I should take a little break. And I did. But you know, sitting on that little chair, looking out into the darkness, seeing the vague dark shapes out there, feeling the lights on me, letting the images from the songs play through my head, listening to my fingers on autopilot plucking with the sound floating up at me, was the best feeling. That feeling of really wanting to sing to those people, to make them feel good, bubbling up in my tummy. It's the best. Heroin addicts say that first hit after they get out of rehab is the best. Something about cleansing your body makes taking the drug feel like it's the first time all over again. Something like that happened to me. Although, as soon as I finished playing the usual darker feelings crept in. That emptiness. The loneliest feeling in the world is lugging your equipment home all by yourself in a cab. The most profound part of the experience was the feeling that I didn't have anything to gain from playing the show. I was doing it out of pure pleasure. No CDs to hock, no hipsters to avoid, no schmoozing to do, no one to suck up to, none of it. I was just entertaining the audience and showing my friend Kevin the new songs I wrote about his stories. I think the hiatus cleansed me. Now I just jones to be up on stage again.

I recorded another song today called Egg Hunt for A Common Pornography. I'm really insecure about Garage Band and my mixing skills. I have this Korg electric piano instead of a real one, and I thought, well, if Daniel Johnston can make low-fi recordings sound honest and sweet, why can't I? And yet, I can't seem to get the crackles out, or the little buzzing noises. All the equalizers and digital knobs and effects. It's all so confusing. I'm a pen and paper man, through and through. Despite my misgivings, I'm having a great time recording on a laptop in my apartment. I think the songs are coming out great. I've got 5 written, and 3 recorded. Life is good.

I really need a forum for talking about writing this play, so I'm going to devote the next few posts to that. Also, I'm going to start doing some posts about the process of writing these little Common Pornography songs. I was talking to someone last night about the process of turning someone's prose into lyrics. I think it would be valuable to reflect about it here. So, more later.

Hello Again

Hello again! I'm sorry to have been away so long. The blog is looking pretty dusty. Actually it's looking like poo. I'm working on moving the whole outfit over to Word Press. I gave Reclinerland HQ a facelift, which I'm excited about. And the Parks & Recreation site redesign is back on track. A lot has happened in the last six months. Most of it pertains to other areas of my life. In particular, I have completed the graduate program that qualifies me to teach elementary school kids music. I graduate with my Master's degree this summer. This is the same program that had me so busy, that I haven't blogged or webmastered for almost a year! Nor have I seen any of my friends. Man. Well, it's very liberating to be standing at the beginning of a new crossroads. But it's also very daunting. When all the roads are open to you, the trouble becomes deciding which one to pick. Plus, being broke stings more when you have a Master's.

Despite this, I'm working on a new set of songs whose theme I borrowed from Kevin Sampsell's book A Common Pornography. The book is made up of short vignettes about various episodes from his childhood. I felt such a connection to the middle class nostalgia of his vignettes I thought I'd write some little songlets after them. A songlet, so you know, comprises the best, simplest, most melodious, juiciest parts of a song; the stuff that isn't the introduction, the verse, the solo, the tedious instrumental section, or the fade-outs. Why must a song drone on for 3 whole minutes with so much extra gunk? Just give me the catchy parts! Leave out all that fluff and give me the nicest, catchiest melodies in the shortest amount of space. That's a songlet. The term is copyrighted as of...NOW.

The Ideal Home Music Library hit a little snag. Nothing to worry about, it's just that one song has to be re-recorded. I wrote it too high for Kaitlyn Ni Donovan's smoky vocal range, so I've had to knock it down a few steps. I thought about finding someone else to sing it, maybe a soprano, but I don't really want anyone else. This means, however, that I've had to scrape up money for a piano player and some studio time. Well, I've found a piano player who's quite good, and as soon as I can afford it, we're going into the studio to re-record the song. Other than that, the album is so close to being done I can taste it.

The project I'm most excited about, however, is the musical. I was inspired by this music I heard a few months ago by Jacques Brel and Noel Coward. It seemed like the perfect kind of music for the story I've had in my head. I think it's a natural step. I've gone from pop songs to show songs without a musical. I'm going to write a draft of the story, and then I'll be working with Chris Streng to put it all together.

I'd like to give a huge warm thank you to Jason Cohen of Stereophile magazine for his glowing review of the Parks and Recreation album. He extended me the biggest compliment ever by calling me "The thinking man's Steven Merritt." Wow.

Finally, to all of my friends who haven't heard from me in such a long time, I want to extend my most sincere apologies. I've really missed you all. I've been a bad friend. My head is hung low even as I type this.

And that's the news. I'm glad to be back updating the site, and I'm glad you're still here.

Icebreaker

Loves. The Grammar School Pictures site on MySpace TV has a trailer for their new little film, Icebreaker. The trailer is really funny, even though it's just a bunch of people sitting around looking worried. Also, if you look below, you can see a couple of films of Parks & Recreation recording at the Magic Closet this past January.

I have a lot to tell you about in other creative matters, but it'll have to wait for another post. More later!

Go Write Some Music

This past couple of weekends we've been working on the Parks & Recreation album, so progress on the Ideal Home Music Library has temporarily halted. I should be back in the bathroom by next week. In the meantime the strings and horns sound really good. We got them all together on the Saturday before last. On a gray and rainy day all 8 of the players showed up to the Montessori school where we're recording. By the way, we can now officially add Montessori school to the list of indie-rock recording venues. I know it isn't as cool as recording in an old church or an abandoned warehouse, but it's the best we could do. Anyway, there we were: me waving a little wooden conducting baton at a group of eight musicians sitting in pint-sized chairs, Anthony tinkering with knobs and sliders, all surrounded by math, science, and language materials, plus lots and lots of children's books. Quite funny. I had given the players the parts I wrote way ahead of time, so they all were well prepared. I had a score in front of me, and we went for it.

I heard an interesting piece last weekend on NPR about Johnny Mandell, a famous arranger. In his interview, he was describing his first arranging lesson. His teacher said, "Make sure you get musicians to play what you wrote, otherwise you won't know what it sounds like." I can tell you that "knowing what it sounds like" is only half the thrill of hearing your music played by real people. Of course it's valuable to hear how things do or don't work when played by humans. In my case, the baritone saxophone player gave me some notes about how his parts were written too high, and there was one section of a song where the strings sounded terrible because of some chords I'd misspelled. I tweaked the notes in that part, and everything turned out fine. But again, ironing out those problems is only half the thrill. The real thrill is in hearing those little dots and lines come to life in front of you. When they fill the air, and you hear it all come together for the first time, just as you'd imagined it, it's such an incredible, uplifting feeling. At one point, after we'd overdubbed the brass on Handsome Models In Love, and heard the playback, I was laughing so hard I was in tears. It took me a few minutes to compose myself. Part of the reason I was laughing was because the music I'd written was so cheezy that we were making jokes about my indie-cred card being revoked. When I say cheezy, I mean it sounded so much like the soundtrack to Shaft, or like a Barry White album, that I had to laugh. Joe pointed out that In the context of the song, it was so MacGyver, so A-Team soundtrack, that it was perfect. But the other reason I was laughing was out of sheer giddiness that it came together so well. After playback had stopped, I felt like the floor had dropped out from under me. Like I was on a thrill ride that, after slowly climbing a steep incline, with a quick lurch sends you plummeting to the floor. It was a giddy buzz like you only feel when you skip home from a lovely first date. I can't describe it no matter how much I attempt to. You can't get that feeling from drugs. It's better than drugs. I abhor drugs thanks to that feeling.

My advice, if you want to know what it feels like: go write some music and get your friends to play it. More later!

Michael Built His House All Spiral

I've spent the last few nights overdubbing vocals onto the piano tracks for the IHML. You wouldn't believe the lengths I've gone to. Let me describe it to you:

I was going to use our little guitar studio space to record in, but when I drove all the way there, I realized I'd forgotten a mike stand. So, I decided instead to just do the recordings in my apartment. The trouble is, my apartment has a wall of windows that overlooks a busy intersection, so it's very noisy. I also have to contend with Lily, mewling and sniffing and head butting everything. So, I shut all my windows and banished Lily to the hall. Then, in order to combat the noise and take advantage of the natural reverb, I set up the equipment in my teeny tiny bathroom. When I'm recording the 16-track mixing board is underneath my sink, tilted at an angle because the bathroom is too narrow to accomodate it. My laptop sits on top of the toilet, and the microphone stand towers above the bathtub, with the microphone jutting out at an odd angle because, again, the entire bathroom isn't wide enough to accomodate the length of the boom stand. The lyrics and music lie open on top of the kitty litter box, which is right next to the toilet. When I sing, I sit on the edge of the bathtub, stooping over slightly. It's very uncomfortable. Fortunately I keep my bathroom impeccably clean. Anyway, I draped a bunch of towels and such over the bathtub curtain rod in order to cut down on...well, I don't really have a scientific explanation for why I did that. I just kind of thought it would help. In the same spirit, there are two jackets hanging from hooks on the door. They're meant to cut down the noise from the windows. But what about the sounds of my neighbor talking, using her shower, or turning on her faucets? Well, that will just have to end up immortalized on the IHML. We do what we can. I just hope she and her boyfriend can refrain from any kind of intimate activities in thier bathroom while I'm holed up within earshot. I've heard them at it before, and I can tell you, getting those noises on tape would make the IHML a completely different kind of album.

And so, stooped over in my tiny bathroom, with the scent of kitty litter filling my nostrils, I cranked out the vocals for 6 of the songs. I have to redo one because of corrections to my French. Other than that, things are going along smoothly. I'm very excited to see the tracks nearing completion.

Incidentally, since my last post I've been getting emails of consolation! Thanks everyone, but, well, when I said Reclinerland had flat-lined, I didn't mean that it was dead. I merely meant that the shape of my progress in music was more of a straight line than an upward climb. One of you, however, offered a better shape for my "hobby": that of a spiral. I like that shape better, and shall adopt it forthwith into my philisophical grapple with the past 10 years. However, considering that I started off recording in warehouses and ended up recording in my tiny bathroom, I'm left to wonder whether the spiral is upward or downward shaped. I'm happy either way. And so will you be when you hear these tracks. Yay!

Flat Line

Tonight I'm planning to head into the warehouse space where I teach guitar lessons and begin recording my vocals for the Ideal Home Music Library. It occurred to me just now that this month, September, is the 10 year mark for Reclinerland. Wow. Ten years ago this month our band the American Girls were dropped from our label. While the rest of the band members got cold feet and hightailed it back to Eugene, OR, I stayed up in Portland and started my own act. It's amazing to think of it. A few months after all that I borrowed my friend Eil's digital four-track machine and recorded songs for Reclinerland's first CD. I carried out those sessions alone, mostly, in an enormous warehouse on SE Oak St. I remember vividly the cold, late nights sitting crouched in a dark room among coiled masses of cables and microphones just winging it by myself. Eli helped on some sessions, but most of the time it was just me. I just closed my eyes and really got into the songs with no one sitting behind control room glass directing me. I had nothing but a digital four-track machine and a guitar.

My story is the same story, I realize, as thousands upon thousands of obscure aspiring singer/songwriters out there, but with one amazing difference: that I'm the one who experienced it. I can't tell you how mixed my feelings will be when I sit down to work tonight. I can already feel pangs of sadness in my chest.
Reclinerland has taken me across the US and back again. I've been abroad, I've met many musical luminaries, the names of whom I shall not drop here, and I've recorded 4 CDs of questionable quality. I've made amazing friends and written almost 100 songs.
And yet after all of the things I've been through these past 10 years doing Reclinerland, I'm going to end up right back where I started. Only this time, instead of sitting in a dark warehouse with a digital 4-track machine, mixing down to a DAT tape, I'll be sitting in a dark warehouse with a laptop. The technology has changed and the songwriting is better, but the situation is still the same. It's really startling when I think about it. Where did all of that time go? What have I been doing? What do I have to show for any of it? Who is listening? Where did my dream go? Some bands, you see, the very lucky few, look back at ten years and see an upward jagged climb to eventual success. The great majority of us, however, see a flat jagged line that ends up right where it began. It's all very profound for me, you understand. I'll be chewing on that for some time, I expect.


So there you have it, ladies and gentlemen, Reclinerland has almost flatlined. But it'll go out singing!

High High High

Another weekend went by and the Reclinerland mobile studio was at it again. This time it was Kaitlyn Ni Donovan who lended her talents to the Ideal Home Music Library, Vol. 2. She sang beautifully, even though the part was written too high for her. This has become a bit of a problem with me. You see, way back when I started writing these songs, I had Kaitlyn in mind to sing the vocals on Up On The Orange Moon, so I listened to some of her music and wrote the song in what I guessed was her key. Confident that I had guessed correctly, Jenny and I recorded the song. Well, I was wrong. Although Kaitlyn was a huge sport about it, and her performance came out beautifully, I put a bit of a strain on her voice, and for that I'm sorry. What I should have done (let this be a lesson to you) was written the song, taken it to her and asked her where it would be comfortable to sing. Then I should have transposed it (put it in a new key) and recorded it. Oh well.

I want to emphasize, however, that Kaitlyn's vocal was really really excellent. She sang expressively, with the character in mind. We tried lots of different ways to deliver the melody, and she adapted to each one perfectly. HIgh and plaintive, or low and smoky, her voice was perfect for the material. At one point, during Il Fait Calme, she sounds like Brigitte Bardot. I can't wait for you to hear it.

So now I'm off to record my vocals, which I will do this week and on into next week. I'm going to shut myself up alone in our guitar teaching studio and have at it. I'm looking forward to singing these songs. I'm going to try to push myself to really sing differently for each song. I'd like to really work toward conveying the characters in the songs. There are some songs that I would still like to hand to other vocalists, and I'll think about that as I proceed. I'd love to have my friends Doug Sheperd, or Mathew Hattie Hein sing on these songs. But there may not be time. And people keep hinting that they'd rather hear me sing everything. We'll see what happens.

Anyway, the album is taking shape nicely. I'll keep you posted!