Hey Ms. Tambourine Gal

I’ve started playing tambourine in the band. Which, if my sources are to be believed, means that I am now Valerie from Josie and the Pussycats.

I also play a mean egg shaker.

At first it felt a little silly, but I think it does add a certain something-something. And by something-something, I mean “sound that sounds good.” I’m highly, musically technical.

Also, repetitively repetitive.

It’s always felt a little odd to be the only person in the band who doesn’t play an instrument. I mean, I know how to play the guitar… but we’re all a lot better off if there’s someone else who’s playing it. Someone who is definitely not me. I am a thoroughly mediocre guitarist. I write the songs and I sing them. I’m not exactly dead weight. But it does feel like a bit of a cop-out not to be playing something.

I really like playing the tambourine. I keep joking that they’ve created a monster, because I find more and more songs to add it to. I’ve requested that we find a song that features the cowbell. So far, there have been no takers.

We do, however, have an outro for our newest song. It’s all instrumental. I play the tambourine.

I do believe I will take the opportunity to really explore the room.

If you don’t understand that reference, I suggest that you click here.

The Songwriting Process

Mary asked me last week about my song-writing process.

Hope, I’d like to hear something about your songwriting process. What comes to you first — music or lyrics? Sometimes both? Sometimes one but other times the other? If it’s lyrics, do actual lines come to you or does the story of a song suggest itself and you then search for the lines?

The short answer is that I don’t have much of a set process.Which is a shame, really, because it would probably help me to write more songs. Or, at the very least, better songs.

Songwriting is something that I actually find quite mystifying. Sometimes, I can sit down, attempt to pour my heart out and then end up with absolutely nothing that I could play for other people without dying of embarrassment. Sometimes, I sit down because I don’t know what else to do, I fiddle around and I end up with something really special. And there’s no rhyme or reason as to what makes that difference.

The main thing I’ve found is that I need to be in the right head space. I can’t be feeling any one emotion too strongly or all I end up with is dreck. By that same token, I have to be feeling something or all I’d write would be Eagles songs.


Back when I was in the dating game, I had to wait a few weeks after a breakup and then I’d end up with something that I really liked. These days, I wait for a quiet moment when I can clear my head and then tap into some old emotions. I’ve never managed to write a song about something that is currently bothering me, but it always helps me to feel better when I work through old emotions in a song.

Sometimes, the idea for a song will strike me at an odd moment. I’ll write down a few lyrics and then go back to them later. I used to carry around a composition book for just that reason. These days, I type up a note on my iPhone. The first half of the lyrics to Beer and Pie were written in the car on the way home from my sister’s wedding. My battery died just as I finished typing up the last line. I’m glad that it didn’t die any sooner! In a pinch, I’ll write on the back of an envelope, but those have a tendency to get lost.

Once I have a few lyrics, I’ll sit down with my guitar and I’ll play different chords until I get something that sounds about right. Then, I’ll sing the same few lines over and over until I get a melody that I like. I always know I’ve succeeded when it gets stuck in my head.

If I don’t have any lyrics, I  play some random chords in the hopes that something will come to me. I often have an idea of what I want to write about, but it usually changes as I continue playing. I’ll start with a line that I like ok, then I’ll come up with a better second line and then I’ll change the first line to fit better with the second line. Then I’ll throw out all of the lines and write a song about my cat instead. :p These are often the sessions where I get up afterward and tell myself what a colossal waste of time that was. Unless I managed to write a cat song, of course.

I can spend an hour working on something and never get anything useful. If inspiration strikes, I can write a song in ten minutes. If I could figure out how to force inspiration to strike, I’d put out a new album every month.

The songs I like best are the songs that tell a story – even if it’s a story that only I can follow along. I wrote Flickering Street Lamp over ten years ago (now I’m feeling old!) and I still remember that moment in great detail every time I sing it. It was midnight in Harvard Square and we were watching all of the people dressed up to go in and see the Rocky Horror Picture Show. I knew I liked the guy I was with, but I wasn’t sure exactly where things were headed. It was a moment of great trepidation but also of great optimism. I’d like to think that I captured that feeling.

I think that the most important element of songwriting that I’ve learned over the years is that I just can’t force it. I’ve sat down to write a sad song or a funny song or an upbeat song and it’s never really worked out. You have to let the songs go where they want to go. I might want to write a silly song about cupcakes, but if I’m not really feeling the cupcakes, it will come out sounding forced. I just have to get in touch with an emotion, remember a moment, keep singing and hope that it works out for the best.

I’ll go back in and revise a song after it’s done. I change words to make the lyrics more interesting. And I’ll try to change things up so the song isn’t just verse chorus verse chorus verse. I don’t usually mess with the melody, but the guitarists in my band have been known to improve on the chords. A lot. (I have some musical talent, but I’m a thoroughly mediocre guitarist). I took a songwriting course with Ellis Paul last year and some of the techniques that we learned have been immensely helpful in going back and editing. I never used to edit my songs. I would just discard the ones that I didn’t like very much.

I think that what I really need to do is to find more quiet time for songwriting. Because, while I might not like 80% of the things that I come up with when I’m noodling around, I can’t use 100% of the songs that I never even attempt to write.

Here’s to more songs in 2011.

I <3 Last Minute Gigs

There are two things that make me nervous about gigs. One is that nobody will show up. The other is that I will suck. Ever since I started playing out with my band, the sucking has not really been a concern. These guys are awesome. As long as I don’t forget the words, we’re going to sound good.

People showing up is never really an issue, but it’s still something that I worry about. What can I say? I like to worry. It’s in my nature.

I love last minute gigs, because there’s no pressure. If we get a few folks out to listen to our music, we’ve done well. If everyone has a good time, mission accomplished. Last night? I feel like I should have handed out some freaking medals.

We agreed to play at the Plough and Stars last night with less than 24 hours notice. I think we had about ten or so folks brave a blizzard warning to come and hear us. The regulars got into it as well. I love having an appreciative audience. I feed off it, like some sort of positive feedback sucking vampire. I hope they all got something out of it as well.

I probably should have headed home a lot earlier than I did. By the time I hit the road, the blizzard was upon us. There was nobody on the road but me, the policy’s and some emergent vehicles. I’m not dumb enough to thing that having 4WD makes me invincible, but I was not sorry to have it.

I crawled into bed a little after 2am and then slept until just before noon. I almost felt like a real rock star.

Benefit Gig for PAWS New England

On October 17th (that’s a week from this coming Sunday), I’ll be hosting a benefit concert for PAWS New England. Here are the details:

Who: Music lovers of all ages (a rare chance to take the kids to a show with you!)
What:  A benefit gig for PAWS New England
Where: The Polish American Citizens Association, 747 Cambridge St. in Cambridge, MA
Why: Because PAWS is in desperate need of funds to rebuild their facility down in TN
When: October 17th, 2010, 1-5pm
How Much: A suggested donation of $10.  Karma points for bigger donations

For more information about the PAWS rebuilding project, please to be clicking here.

Why You Should Attend the 17th Annual Mardi Gras Ball

Because I will be a special guest singer.

Duh. This one is a no-brainer!

Because it benefits a damn good cause.

The New Orleans Musicians Clinic does some seriously important work. They provide medical care and wellness programs to musicians who otherwise couldn’t afford it. These men and women have spent their lives creating beautiful music. I know from personal experience that this is not exactly a lucrative endeavor. The Musicians Clinic provides an incredibly important service. They could use some of your money.

Because it’s going to be a fun night.

Along with me, you’ll get a chance to hear special guests  Boston Babydolls, Dennis Brennan, Holly Brewer, Joey Pesce and Linda Viens. And possibly others. Plus the house band which has an all-star lineup. That I’m too lazy to type out.

Here’s the pertinent information:

Where? T. T. the Bear’s in Central Square, Cambridge.
When? February 13th
How much? $12

Where can I go to find out more information? Click here, my friend.

[Insert Staples Joke Here]

Hey… that was easy.

Within 48 hours of losing one of my guitarists, we’d invited a new guitarist to come play with us, decided that he rocked and invited him to join the band.

I wish that this music business was always this easy!

Necesito un Guitarist

One of my guitarists dropped out of the band yesterday. There are no hard feelings on either side, he just didn’t have the time to commit himself fully. I’m definitely going to miss him… but now I need to find a new guitarist! The show must go on, or something like that. Also, I am lazy and fear change. So this is kindof giving me a headache.

This band business is tough. You want to find the best musicians possible… but the best musicians possible tend to already be in other bands. Plus, I have no interest in working with total assholes. I’m bitchy enough for one band. Hell, I’m bitchy enough for like 11 bands.

So, this is how it works. You need good musicians with lots of free time who are fun to work with, dedicated to the music and not too likely to get drunk before gigs and throw up all over the sound guy.

Sound guys hate it when you puke on them.

Door guys, too.

Finding people who you mesh with and get along with is super important. Band drama is toxic. It sucks the happiness out of something that should be fun. It can be that thin line between moderate success and total failure. I’ve been really lucky that, in all of my years of working with other musicians, I’ve never had to deal with anyone who has been a bigger diva than me. In fact, all of my various band-mates, wether in the studio or on the stage, have all been incredibly nice people. And talented musicians.

It’s a little bit like winning the lottery.

Every day.

For eight years.

Lucky for me, my drummer (Matt) has a replacement in mind. And I know enough other musicians that I’m slowly getting the word out. Because I refuse to go the craigslist route. So, if you know anyone in the Boston area who is talented, easy-going and not prone to puking on sound guys, definitely let me know.

Band Practice!

Tonight, after a “brief” hiatus (geologically speaking, three months could be considered brief) we had band practice. We were a little rusty at first (as a solid democracy, we took turns fucking up), but things settled in nicely. It was almost like we hadn’t just spent a quarter of a year letting ourselves get rusty.

We ran through a couple of the songs off of Beer and Pie and then we started working on two new ones. These are the ones that I work-shopped with Dave last week. I’m glad that we took the time to get stuff ready, because it gave us a much more solid base to build off of. One song was super easy. It’s fairly straight-forward with some good potential. We banged out a nuanced version with the full band in short order.

The other song? Let’s just say I’m glad that we have no pressing need to get it performance-ready.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good song. In fact, if you’ll allow me to indulge my ego for a bit, I would say that it’s a great song. And it has real promise. Band promise. As in, everyone in the band contributes promise. We added space and pauses and changed phrasing and nudged chords and an extra chorus and lions and tigers and bears.

Oh my.

We were too tired to fully flesh it out, but I’m confident that we’ll de-zombify it next week. I’m excited about its possibilities.

I’m also really, really freaking tired.

Band practices will be on Monday nights. On Tuesdays, I don’t have to be at work until 11am. This is definitely a good thing.

Some Random Songwriting-y Thoughts

My guitarist, Dave, and I got together last night to work on some new material. For someone who is a bit of a control freak like me, it’s not easy to invite someone into your head-space. Don’t get me wrong, I went into this excited and happy to have someone to collaborate with and to bounce some ideas off of. And I would say that it was a rousing success.

It’s just that I sometimes need to take a deep breath and remember that the essence of my songs is mine all mine but that the details are up for interpretation.

I think that my album was successful because I put my songs in the hands of people who I knew were talented and let them work their magic. It’s my plan to do that with all of my new material as well. I think that the major difference is, with Beer and Pie, we were working on songs that I had been singing for up to eight years. These songs were mine. Their very essence was infused with me.

These new songs? They’re babies. Young, weak, impressionable.

This is where you have to tell yourself that you can either sing the songs as written and hold onto them tighter than a nine-fingered hobbit. Or you can let go a little bit and ask the people who you know have mad skills to add their voices to the choir. Sure, it means sharing a little… But I tend to enjoy my desserts a little more when there are two spoons involved. Maybe the songs will be 80% me and 20% my band, but they’ll be, like 1,000% awesome.

And that’s what counts.

The songs themselves, you say? I’m so glad you asked.

We took my two new songs that I think are my strongest (so far) and we changed them up a little bit. Added a couple of bridges. Reworked the chord progressions so that they were a little more interesting. Added in some space. It was nothing earth shattering, but I sometimes feel that songcrafting is all about the subtleties. The difference between a good song and a great song is sometimes just a few notes, a couple of words and some extra syllables.

We can’t all take, “Scrambled eggs, scrambled eggs, my baby’s got a nice pair of legs” and turn it into “Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away.” But some of my favorite songs on Beer and Pie started off as my least favorite. And all we had to add was something like seven guitar parts. ;)

Ellis Paul Master Songwriting Class

To put this post into perspective, you have to understand that Ellis Paul and Steve Earle are my two most favoritist songwriters of all time. Followed closely by Dar Williams. So, to get to sit in a room and learn about song-writing from him pretty much blew my mind. It was like getting driving lessons from The Stig. AKA: kindof a big deal.

Anyways, it was a three hour class where we talked about the song-writing process and how you can write songs that really tell a story. Listening to Ellis (can I call him Ellis? I’m going to call him Ellis) talk about his aims in writing songs (capturing a mood, telling a story, creating a moment) it made me realize why I love his music so much. We’re both coming at this whole song-writing business from a very similar place.

He also vocalized all of the things that I have subconsciously been trying to do with my songs. Adding the details in that make it come alive. Showing what you mean instead of saying it directly (I lost track of the number of times he said, “show, don’t tell”). And he added in a new dimension (at least for me) which is to engage the senses. Bring in sight, smell, taste, touch and sound and people will feel like they’re right there with you. It doesn’t have to be completely literal (if it did, there would be a lot more songs about burnt hot dogs), you can actually do it very subtly. But I had never really thought about adding kinesthetic elements to my songs. With that idea in the back of my head, I think that I can write some songs that have a lot of the same elements as some of my favorite songs. I’v added in a lot of those details in the past, I just never did it consciously.

I’m not going to lie, there was a part of me that was hoping I’d get a chance to play one of my songs (we were encouraged to bring guitars for work-shopping) and he’d say “OMG! You’re the next coming of Joni Mitchell!”) and sign me up to open for him on his next tour. I have a strong suspicion that the other 24 people in that room were thinking the same thing. Which makes me feel a little less crazy.

A little.

In case you were wondering, I did not get referred to as the second coming of Joni Mitchell and, as of this writing, I will not be joining Ellis Paul on his next tour. You’re all shocked, I know. I’m sure that this has everything to do with the fact that my guitar stayed snugly in its case. And nothing to do with me not being the second coming of Joni Mitchell. I’m really more of a Lucinda Williams. We only had time to workshop one person’s song. But it was still really valuable. And gave me some good ideas about how to approach my new stuff that I’m trying to bring to that next level.

Everyone who attended the class got a copy of his latest CD. Which doesn’t come out until next January. So, don’t I feel special. Sortof. You can buy a copy on his website, here. Would it have been too dorky to have asked for an autographed copy? I figured it would be too dorky. So now I will just need to be content with knowing that I got my copy in person. I made a joke about “trade ya!” and gave him a copy of Beer and Pie. I hope he listens to it. More importantly, I hope he likes it.

I’m floating around some new ideas in my head. I think I have a few songs in there that are getting ready to come out. And none of them is about burnt hot dogs. I’ve also decided that I need to start doing what I did for years and years and years, which is to carry around a notebook and to jot down little snippets and the beginnings of songs. I stopped carrying a composition book right around the time that I started writing most of my songs on my lappy toppy. I will occasionally make a note on my phone, but it’s not quite the same. Although the song Beer and Pie was tapped out furiously while I was hoping and praying that my iPhone battery didn’t die.

I had a good time today. Just sitting six feet from Ellis while he played a song for us was well worth the price of admission. Throw in a free CD and I got a hell of a deal.

Hopefully, this will be the beginning of some fantastic new songs.