Friday, July 27, 2007

A question makes me think

In the thread below, a commenter (-Di) asked me a question quoted here:

"I have a question. It is in reference to your comment about making great music to sell records. How do you define success in the area of selling records?

The reason why I ask is because there are artist I like who have a modest core group of fans but their singles are rarely top 40 material. (e.g. Michael Penn, as far as I know he's a one hit wonder.)

If you put out an album that you feel is the best music since Mozart and for some reason it does not sell, in your opinion would that mean the song were not as good as you thought?"

And it got me a very good way.

As a side note, just a little about me: sometimes I get a question from someone here or in real life and it gets me thinking. I can be overanalytical at times, honestly. But it some ways that can be a good thing. I want to be able to explain why I do what I do, and how I do it. So, the questions got me thinking about one thing, which lead to another and suddenly I have a medium sized blog post. Anyway, my mind works strangely, but maybe this will give you a glimpse into how I work.

Some of my favorite records of all time: Sufjan Steven's "Illinoise" (which I'm listening to as I write), Sigur Ros "Takk", even Mute Math's debut....they are not commercial successes (in that they haven't sold buttloads of records) but there is no question in my mind that these are albums that live up to every measure of artistry and songwriting that I hope to someday reach. Most people don't even know that names of these groups, yet they made albums that I would be proud to call my own.

However, if I do make an album that is commercially successful, it does not mean necessarily that the songs were good (do I need to actually point out crappy records that sold a ton of records? I think you get the point), and I would hope that with the next album I would challenge myself to write better songs than ever before.

On the other hand, perhaps I will make an album that is not all that great and it translates into a small amount of sales.

The final thing that could happen is that I make a great album and it happens to translate into commercial success. This is what I hold to...I have to believe that if I make a great record it will sell well because it gives me hope. However, the realistic side of me knows that great records do not necessarily sell. And there are so few spectacular albums anymore (in my opinion), that how realistic is it to think that I can make one of them?

And to be honest, over the last few weeks, I have been torn a tad. I feel like I have a niche that I feel comfortable in...I feel very comfortable writing songs I think that an audience can sing along with and have familiarity with early on in their listening experience. However, lately, I find myself messing around with ideas of songs that are completey non-commercial, experimental and raw. Songs that feel the best underproduced and emotional. So which side of me do I feed? Maybe both...I can always have songs in the bank for later use, or for side projects. But ultimately it comes down to the creative process for me.

So, my creative process, though cloudy of late, comes down to this:

1) Emotional connections are what tie and artist to a consumer for life. When and if I can connect on an emotional level with a listener then chances are that listener will buy my next album and maybe my next. How does one connect on an emotional level? I don't think it happens any other way than simply being honest and raw and dare I say emotional from both a lyrical and musical perspective. So, as I write, I attempt to force myself to expose myself in ways I haven't been able to before. So I hope to connect with you in a way that you can understand and feel as if you've experienced the same things perhaps in different ways.

2) Music, ultimately, is what will sell a song as a great song. You can have the greatest lyrics in the world but if the melody doesn't make sense and doesn't tell a story, then the point is lost. So, as I write, I attempt to tie the lyrics as best as possible with the melodies. Songs are stories...maybe not a linear story that tells of this person and this person and how they fall in love or how they make it (a la one of my favorite songs "Living On A Prayer"), but a story. Ultimately drama in the music is what forces the story forward. For some songs, the drama is a loud and soft dynamic change (think "Smells Like Teen Spirit"), some songs the drama is in a slow build to a climax (think Coldplay's "Fix You"), while others the drama is a small change between the verses and choruses. But ultimately the music will sell the song.

3) Production can make or break a song. I have heard songs of mine that I thought were okay songs turn to great songs because of the way the song is produced. Production is like onions...they both have layers (sorry, Shrek) My favorite productions are ones that have layer after layer of things that you find the more you listen to it. This doesn't mean necessarily that the songs must be over-produced...listen to a White Stripes or Racanteur record and you'll find how underproduction can still provide layers that suprise you in multiple listens. The way a song is arranged is important. Sometimes having an interlude between chorus 1 and verse 2 can hurt a song, while with other songs, the interlude is necessary to promote the mood needed in the songs. With the songs, this is one of the most important things. Instrumentation is also part of this: believe me, instrumentation can break a song...think if the Beatles "Blackbird" had been done with full band...the moment would not have been the same (same thing with "Yesterday"), whereas a song like "Mama" by My Chemical Romance could have been done with just a mandolin and been awesome, but there is drama when the full band comes in.

4) I just try to write what comes natural, then re-write, re-write, re-write to make it better. This is the tough part. Most songwriters will tell you that re-writing is the toughest part because it's easy to become married to certain sections of a song, even when those very parts are what is making the song not work. So, I try to force myself to rework and re-write and never become married to something even after it has been recorded (i.e., there are some songs from the HPF I will be re-recording and I am actually rewriting some lyrics and reworking some parts of songs). I actually think that these things kind of build off each other. None is more important than the other, but I usually start with #1 and move through #4. Hopefully, at the end I don't realize I've wasted my time on a crap song (that's happened more than a few times).

So, as I write, I try to make sure that all these pieces fit together to make a great record. What may come is a very uncommercial record that I love, a commercial record that I hate, or, hopefully the happy medium, of a record I love and the consumer loves.

Anyway, I understand that maybe this is a little more in depth into my head than what was asked, but a question was asked that made me think, so I thought I'd post a few thoughts. So, hope you like it. Sorry if you don't.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

10th Place

So, I thought I'd share a little bit about what I'm learning. Obviously it's important to find what one needs to learn as they walk through life.

1) One thing that I learned over the last few months and am simply being reminded of now is that it is okay for people to be better than me. I have been a big fish in a little pond for a long time, and when I see that there are performers who perform better than I, there are singers who sing better than I...well, honestly, at first it was somewhat hard to take. It was a humbling experience. Every night of the tour is a humbling experience for me, and I believe that is great. It is also challenging to become better at what I do. And, instead of being defensive about someone being better I feel freed to support them in being better than's actually quite a freeing experience.

2) It should be obvious, but it seems that people don't think of it like this: I came in 10th place...I am close to the bottom in popularity of the top 10...simple right? Certain performers get incredible responses every night. I feel like I am challenged to go out and make new fans every night. Then when I see, as I did in San Diego, a group of like 50 people all wearing Chris Sligh t-shirts, I am excited and feel lucky to have fans. The reviews that I've seen of the tour have all been very kind to me, but ultimately a review is just a review and one person's opinion. I just have to go out and play as well as I can for 10-15 I'm on stage every night and then enjoy the ride...and hopefully show people a glimpse of what's to come.

3) This is the most fun I've ever had. The one downer is that Sarah isn't a part of this. I feel like I get to make a living with no pressure. Some contestants have pressure to perform at a certain level. Most people don't remember me, or remember me vaguely from the show, so it's a blank slate...I just have to go out and do my thing. Others have expectations to live up to. I set up my studio in the dressing room in almost every city and during the show, when I'm offstage, I work on demos. So, almost every day, I'm being creative, working out song ideas, helping other contestants with song ideas, recording demos, then on top of all that I get to go out in front of a crowd bigger than anything I've played before and will probably ever play again. This is fantastic!

4) Ultimately, I have to make great music to sell records. Before American Idol came around, I had several labels after me. If I had signed with them a year ago and not had American Idol, what would have sold me was the music. Coming in 10th place is great because I have the experience of being a part of this whole amazing process and to make great friends, but there are no expectations on me, other than to fail. So, in September-October when I hit the studio, if I can make a great record, then it will be the music that sells itself, as opposed to hype from the biggest show on earth. Now, granted, AI has definitely aided in making great fans...but it's the music that will do that talking, I hope. And if I don't make a great record (God forbid) then Darwinism goes into effect.

5) I have also learned that there are going to be some ultra successful contestants this year. Just take my word for it...I have heard songs coming from people that I never expected. It's going to be huge!

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Some New Music I'm Checking Out

Now, these are all pretty new to me, so I'm not completely sold on any of them quite yet, but I'll say this: on the first few listens they're all pretty great new bands.

RUTH - Secondhand Dreaming

Ruth is a new Tooth and Nail band. I'm wary of T&N bands because T&N usually takes the attitude of putting out as many bands as possible and seeing what sticks. However, bands like Anberlin and Mae have gotten me, and I've heard a lot of great things about this band, and they do not disappoint. The songs are pop/rock similar to what my band does. They are definitely influenced by Switchfoot (the lead singer's voice is so much like Jon Foreman's that I actually wondered if Jon was making a guest appearance). But the music is strong and the lyrics are thought-provoking and deep. Check them out on may like and love.

JONEZETTA - Popularity

Jonezetta is an older T&N band that I have been wanting to check out since they toured with Mute Math, but have never gotten around to it till recently. I am now officially kicking myself for not checking them out sooner. They write catchy, hooky, danceable pop/rock. Some songs are in the dance/rock vein like some of the Killers (without the synthesizers), most of it is just well-written melodic yet rhythmic pop/rock. Definitely check them out on iTunes.

PLAIN WHITE T'S - All That We Needed

I've listened to these guys the least. On first listen they are really, really great. They mix pop/punk with elements of alt-country - or at least that's how it feels to me. It's really kind of interesting. They never quite go to the pop/punk but they imply it, if that makes sense. Basically, they seem to be a great rock band. They are not my favorite band, but they are great. Again, check them out on may really love them.

PAUL McCARTNEY - Memory Almost Full

I bought Paul's last album and, though there were some moments, it was kind of a disappointment. I think I've made it clear that I am, however, a huge Paul McCartney fan...I still think he is what made the Beatles great. Anyway, my expectations were not incredibly high, but I started to hear a little buzz. Sir Paul left Capitol records to go with Starbucks new imprint (which is a genius idea, btw). I actually got the record at Starbucks. And it is a really, really good record. I am very pleased. I swear his voice sounds better than it has in 30 years. Weird, right? And the songs are all great. You don't even need to check this one out...go to Starbucks, buy a mocha frapaccino and this record. GET IN YOUR CAR NOW!

MIKA - Life In Cartoon Motion

I like this guy, but the record is very uneven for me. He is definitely a pop artist, but at times he is reminiscent of Freddie Mercury and Queen. Some songs are great. Some songs are very weak. Hopefully he gets to a second record because I see a lot of potential, but this album is definitely one you should buy certain songs from, instead of the whole album.

Now, go get some new music.

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