The album is dead, say the pundits. Yes, and water is quite wet. Music consumers, or people who love music enough to spend money on it, may have migrated to an a la carte singles model, but some of us who make music still think about framing our songs in album contexts.
Whether you’re talking about a simple longplayer, or collection of songs, or something more overarching with a consistent theme, what’s often called a “concept album,” albums are pretty cool things. And if not for a greedy record industry, which (quite arguably) killed the album by letting marginal acts put out $15 or $17 CDs with one or two good tracks, the album, along with record stores, might still be around.
Anyway, in one little corner of the universe the album still lives, and there’s this annual thing called February is Album Writing Month, or FAWM; you can find its website at FAWM.org. After hearing about some other local songwriters who’d done it, like Christian Kiefer, who’s done a couple of them, one of which resulted in his Of Great and Mortal Men project, I got a hankering to give it a shot.
The idea is that you write 14 or more songs, and then record them if you can. Last year, I began on February 1 and wrote a song a day for 14 days, and then I think I wrote one or two after that. I didn’t have a setup to record them, until I got a USB mike and was able to record all the songs and mix them in Apple’s GarageBand program over the course of a day and a half at the end of the month. I’d wanted to post them, but I didn’t have a place to upload the tracks, so I just burned some CDs and gave them out to friends.
I had no idea what I was doing, but I did it anyway.
So, now February 1 is less than three weeks away, and I just got an e-mail from FAWM letting me know that the album-writing festival — better to call it that than a competition, which it is not — is commencing to begin. I’d begun thinking about it in earnest right after New Year’s Day, so no need to pitch me, but I appreciate the reminder nevertheless.
Okay, so the beauty of participating in FAWM, for me, was that I learned a lot about how the creative process works for me. First, when you set a goal of writing a song every day, you have to figure out how to turn off that internal editor so that the ideas can just flow. And second, you have to be willing to live with the idea that this is the best you can do on that given day, and if you have all month, you can get your song-ideas down early, then go back and revamp.
I’m thinking this year I’m going to record the songs I write as I go along, which will differ from last year. This way, I can post them as I go along, and I’ve got a couple of weeks to line up some server space where I can post the MP3s.
Last year, I made a decision that what I would come up with would be songs that showed up in my cranial inbox at the time, rather than take half-baked song ideas — I’ve got a whole bunch of those — and shape them into finished tunes. I haven’t decided if I’m going to repeat that process this year; it seems like an honest one, but then using FAWM to finish work on some songs that might not otherwise see completion might not be a bad idea, either.
So when I began last year, I was still rather freshly brokenhearted, or let’s just say that the depths of hurting from a relationship that had ended a few months before, one that I figured would be much more long-lasting, was beginning to hit home with me, so that theme surfaced in a number of the songs. This year, I still have residual saudade, but most of that has worked its way out, and now I’m writing from a much more grounded place again, at least emotionally and spiritually.
How I usually go about the writing is that I sit down with my guitar and start playing around with chords and chord progressions, what Beach Boys composer Brian Wilson calls “feels.” When I get something that sounds promising or worth pursuing, I’ll start humming melodies until I find something that fits. Next comes the structure; I try to figure out the verse melody and underlying chord progression, and then the chorus melody and progression, and then a bridge or “middle eight” if that seems appropriate or fits.
And then comes the lyrics, which are the hardest part. It’s kinda weird and ironic; you’d think that someone who’s been writing for as long as I have, and under pressure of deadline, would be able to come up with words as easy as turning on a faucet. But I’m the worst kind of perfectionist, and I get locked into rhyming conventions and internal rhyme sequences, which is akin to me doing a Houdini by binding up in several straitjackets before I hop into that barrel that’s about to be pushed over Niagara Falls. (And, yeah, my metaphor blows, but so what.)
Before I get started on this year’s FAWM, though, comes the “feed your head” phase. Since I’m a pop songwriter, with aspirations to grow in the storytelling tradition of Ray Davies and Difford & Tillbrook, and maybe Elvis Costello and Graham Parker, but would like to throw some Brian Wilson and Elliott Smith and Todd Rundgren and maybe Alex Chilton in there, too, I’ll be listening to a bunch of those artists’ stuff, along with some other things — old country tunes by Harlan Howard and Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson, newer ones by Townes Van Zandt and Jimmie Dale Gilmore, some jazz and classic Tin Pan Alley, and maybe Argentine tango orquestras tipica and Italianate singers like Domenico Modugno and my favorite guy, Dean Martin. And perhaps some Jonathan Richman and Leonard Cohen and even Bob Dylan for some perspective, and a little Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis and John Coltrane and Judee Sill and Joni Mitchell and Sport Murphy and Stephens Malkmus and Foster and my old standbys J.S. Bach and Scott Joplin. And I’ll go hang out in coffeehouses and listen to what’s playing there, just because you never know what you’ll be exposed to, like the Norah Jones song “Dont Know Why” I heard yesterday, and then backtracked to its writer Jesse Harris, and then checked out some of his other stuff on YouTube. I’ll shut up now; you get the picture. It’s an exercise in preparing the field.
I will post links and progress on this when it comes. I did FAWM last year, and I know I can see it through until completion. Which is more than I can say for National Novel Writing Month in November (NaNoWriMo.org), for which I got 16,000 words (out of 50,000) into a ridiculous story about some Midtown Sacramento twentysomethings who were being pursued by alien life forms crawling out of sewers, squidlike Lovecraftian creatures, and some of them were being taken over by anthropomorphic crustaceans from Davy Jones’ Locker who could assume near-human form but not quite; I got going pretty good, but then tried to complicate the story with a loose squadron of psychic Sikh cabdrivers, and things went too awry to continue. Then I got the writer’s block that resulted in me starting this blog a month or so later.
At any rate, stay tuned if you’re interested. If not, well, hey: do something else, no? —Jackson Griffith