S.E.R.S. Two weeks of songwriting

S.E.R.S. What I learned from two weeks of full time songwriting

Schedule - For the past two weeks, everyday I wrote, a lot. Every time I’ve read or watched an interview with a professional songwriter they always stress the importance of a schedule. Since I had a couple weeks off, I thought I’d give it a try. I spent between 8 and 10 hours a day composing; 3 hours free writing words on paper (or computer), 3 hours writing music with no words (usually on the guitar), and 4 hours writing and recording a combination of the two. After this experience, I am fully a believe in the time commitment aspect of songwriting. 

There are two major obstacles to increased writing time. The first is the obvious one, not having available time. However, I believe professional songwriters are not magically inspired people, they are just people who have allocated significant amounts of time everyday to practicing their craft. The second major obstacle is maintaining a flow during the allocated writing time. It was my goal to make sure that the pen was moving the whole time. Most days, I didn’t want to write at all, and if I did, I had no idea what to write about. I probably spent 30% of the time writing incoherent gibberish or random words, 30% of the time writing sentences about observations, 30% of the time writing word lists, and 10% of the time writing something that slightly resembled poetry or songs. Obviously, I would have rather been coherent for a larger part of the time, but I was happy with the fact that I kept writing. I felt as if I had accomplished something even if 99% of what I had written was awkward, uncomfortable or didn’t make any sense. For the first time, I wasn’t judging myself for writing junk. I was just proud of the fact that I had written something.

Execute - Everyday I required myself to finish one song. Allotting time towards writing was a great first step, however I knew that for me, time alone was not enough. The second most important feature of my two week songwriting spree was having a deadline. As I mentioned above, a lot of what I was writing was nonsensical, so without a daily requirement of finishing a song, I think it would have stayed that way. Experts who study creativity, all say the same thing: creativity requires limitation. Without limitation or a problem to solve, there are no creative solutions. Although I’ve heard it said many times, I have now experienced it. For me the limitation was the requirement to finish one song. In order to meet my daily goal, I was forced to take the ideas I had floating around in my head and stitch them together into something usable. As it turns out, I think this is really where creativity hides in the brain. In these situations I had to find connections between two or more ideas, that didn’t exist before. 

Record - Recording served as part of my deadline oriented goals. After writing the song, I would record a video of it and publish it on my YouTube channel. Surprisingly, the best part of this experience was sharing the songs that I really disliked. For me, it’s always felt disappointing to spend a lot of time on something, and then have no one like it. However, once my goal was to complete a song on time, I felt a sense of accomplishment, even if the song was bad. The end result was that I enjoyed the whole process much more. I also found that when I listened to my recordings it was a very different experience than playing the songs.

Share - I’ve known for a little while, that I was going to have some free time this February, so I planned my two weeks carefully. It’s played out pretty close to how I expected. I thought that I’d have ten new songs, some of which I would like and some which I would not. Not surprisingly, I have a mixed bag of new songs. However, by sharing my music, I learned my most unexpected lesson. I am a terrible self evaluator. I have always thought that I know when my songs are good and when they are bad. After two weeks of feedback from friends and other songwriters, it could not be more obvious; I cannot tell. Only an audience can tell me that. Which really becomes the overall take away message for me:
write more and judge less.

Thanks for reading!

All of my songs from the two weeks can be found here:

Rockin' around the Christmas tree chords!

I was playing Rockin' around the Christmas tree with with chords I found online, but it kept sounding strange. The tabs I've seen just have G and D for the verses, but I think it needs some minor chords thrown in. It's tough to hear the chord structure in the original recording because it's made up by quiet doo wop singing behind a strong rhythm section, but I think they are slipping in minor chords that are hard to distinguish. I also put a capo somewhere and play it up a few keys. It's a little more work to play it this way, but I think it's more accurate and sounds better. Here's my take on it:

Intro:  G     Em    C   D
G              Em           G               Em              D              (Am)    D  D7
Rocking around the Christmas tree at the Christmas party hop
Am          D                Am          D           D                         G     G7
Mistletoe hung where you can see every couple tries to stop
G             Em              G             Em                D            (Am)  D   D7
Rocking around the Christmas tree, let the Christmas spirit ring
Am            D               Am          D                                            G  G7
Later we'll have some pumpkin pie and we'll do some caroling

C                     (Am)            Bm
You will get a sentimental feeling when you hear
Em                                         A                            D
Voices singing let's be jolly, deck the halls with boughs of holly
G            Em             G               Em             D        (Am)  D    D7
Rocking around the Christmas tree, have a happy holiday
Am.         D.          Am.                 D                              G    G7
Everyone dancing merrily in the new old-fashioned way

(Instrumental over verse chord structure but with only G and D major, no minor chords)

(Same chords as above)
You will get a sentimental feeling when you hear
Voices singing let's be jolly, deck the halls with boughs of holly
Rocking around the Christmas tree, have a happy holiday
Everyone dancing merrily in the new old-fashioned way
Everyone dancing merrily in the new   old - fa - shioned way

Fun times at Brewers Coalition! Now recording!

 With new faces and a few regulars every week, the open mic at Brewers Coalition is starting to build some momentum! The bar is lined with high back barstools and the walls are decorated with a creative selection of bottles and antiques. It's a great place to eat and have drinks. Come join us to play a few of your favorite songs or listen to some great local musicians!

I'm going to start recording some selected songs from Wednesday evenings to share online. No guarantees on quality, but I can occasionally email some recordings as well. 

Here is a recording from last night of Ken Carter and Pete Kearns rocking a great version of Ooh la la! 

This is me covering Say it ain't so, I only mangled it a little!

Come by and join the fun!!!

Snowed in at the Midway Cafe!

Derek, the sound pro at the Midway Cafe, held the door open for me as I carried in my guitar and dusted off the snow. When Ethan Miller, Sonny Jim Clifford, Liz Kyer and Prateek Poddar stepped in right behind me, I knew we were still going to have a great night of music! With a handful of guests still braving the storm and a few locals stopping by it was a cozy feeling at the Midway. Jill welcomed us to the bar and served us the first round of beers and great drinks! Thanks to the Midway Cafe for hosting us last night, I had a great time!

Thanks to Anna Miller for the excellent photos!

Zack Bolles and Ethan Miller

Zack Bolles and Ethan Miller

Sonny Jim Clifford

Sonny Jim Clifford

Liz Kyer and Prateek Poddar

Liz Kyer and Prateek Poddar

Ethan Miller

Ethan Miller

Sonny Jim Clifford

Sonny Jim Clifford

Thank you Jill!!!

Thank you Jill!!!

Having a beer with the Bourbon Chasers

I hadn’t even opened the door yet, and I could hear the edgy mix of country and rock n' roll inside. I walked into Devlin’s restaurant and grabbed a stool at the long wooden bar to listen to the Bourbon Chasers, a local country rock band dominating the local bar scene. Cameron Robbins, standing a bit over six feet tall at the microphone, was wearing his signature Bourbon Chasers trucker hat and sporting a thick beard. Next to him, Tim KO was shredding a bright white 90’s style Telecaster and Pete LaGrange was seated on a cajon laying down a steady rhythm. After a loud round of applause and a bit of the band's gear shuffling, I sat down with the Bourbon Chasers to find out what inspired these guys.

Cameron – We’re working on our first studio album, “Drinking with you.” We’re hoping for a year 2017 release! The best part about working on the new album is working with your buddies on music you write from the heart, music that means something to you and the prospect of getting it out there for people to hear. I’m also a bit of a gear-head and we’re currently making our own little studio to record the album. We're getting new gear to play with and building a fun space to work in.

Tim – It’s been great seeing the music we’ve been honing come to fruition! During the first year as a band, we focused on playing country and rock covers for pubs and corporate parties. Over time, Cameron has introduced some fun originals that I get to add some tele twang to. Now with Pete on percussion, we’ve really been able to coast the truck downhill like a Georgia overdrive. The album will help us continue on a path and create a more clear direction for us.

Cameron – Some of the inspiration for “Drinking with you” comes from having a band to play with. These guys I play with are so good that you can’t help but want to write songs just to watch and hear everyone collaborate. Another good chunk of inspiration is me finally getting married, finding some love in life and taking that and flipping it, looking at life when you weren’t in love or were heart broken, down on your luck. Finding some happiness has really allowed me to look back on times when I wasn’t, or thought I was, which is a great source of inspiration… surprisingly.

Tim – Inspiration is about having fun with friends too! Without that, there’s nothing.

Cameron – Right on, Tim! Also for me when you hit the pocket and everyone is locked in and just killing a groove, there’s no better feeling. You feel like you can play all night, you look out to the crowd and everyone feels it too… it’s like a drug.

Me – Last question, if you had to spend a year on a dessert island, what three albums do you bring?!

Tim – Three albums? That’s a tough one… Pixie’s “Doolittle.” Beatles “White Album” and “Born in the USA” by Bruce Springsteen. If I can add a forth, it’s “Appetite for Destruction” by Guns n’ Roses.

Cameron – One, James Horner, “Braveheart the Complete Score.” Two, “Dave Matthews Band Live Trax Vol 22,” that one’s a three hour show! Three, Gary Allan, “Get Off the Pain” deluxe edition and if Tim gets four, mine would be Eric Church “The Outsiders.”


Three of my favorite chord progressions

I made some jam tracks for three of my favorite chord progressions. These are all very common in all genres of music, but I thought it would be fun to make some super simple recordings of them. For me the hardest part about writing songs is finding a unique way to use something that's been done so many times. I'd love to hear your opinions, ideas or uses of these progressions, which have become such a large part of contemporary music. Please leave comments with your thoughts! 

1) Progression: ( I  V  VI  I )

2) Progression: ( I  V  vi  IV)

3) Progression: ( I  IV  vi  V )

5 Singing tips from a barfly

In the past few years I've been singing in noisy bars a fair amount. Anyone who sings should work with a professional coach, but I think we have a lot to learn from each other too. I've found a lot of blog posts and youtube videos that have helped me learn to sing better. If you have suggestions, experience, criticism or other thoughts please leave a comment!

1) Sing close to the microphone, but not too close.
For the sound check I sing some middle volume notes a few inches from the mic. Then I can back off on loud notes and get closer for soft notes.

2) Politely ask the sound person for more or less vocal in the monitor.
Often they can't hear my voice in the monitor and they don't know how loud I perform or how close to the mic I sing. Having the vocals at the right volume is critical to good singing.

3) Drink water beforehand and don't hurt yourself.
I was shouting and straining to sing high notes and eventually I developed a grumble in my voice. I had to stop singing for a few months for it to go away. I'm sure I'm lucky that it wasn't worse.

3) Breath deep but don't overdo it. Nice deep breaths provide the foundation to my singing. It feels best for me to keep the breath bellow my chest but above my stomach  Breathing too deep makes me uncomfortable and doesn't really help my singing.

4) Sing with a lower larynx.
For me it feels like the start of a breath or a smile and a laugh in the back of my mouth. Early on when I tried to keep my larynx low I held it down with base of my tongue. This was incorrect technique. It wasn't until I started focusing on how lower larynx singing sounds that I was able to make progress. It helped me to think about Darius Rutger's voice. He has a very rich sound that goes along with a lower larynx. When I sing with a high larynx it gets very tiring and cuts off my high notes.

5) Find and develop your head voice
When I sing high notes without shouting and straining I feel a slight sensation in my face and head. If I sing high notes with to much force I feel the sensation in my throat. For me the best way to build the higher part of voice was to focus on the sound.

Head voice singing doesn't sound like shouting, but it also doesn't sound like falsetto*. I think about the following sounds: a person crying or sobbing, a witch cackling, a person pretending to be a cat. When Kurt Cobain or Black Francis from the pixies cry out high notes you can really hear this head voice sound. In the song Mr. Jones by the Counting Crows, Adam Duritz sings a very head voice sounding bridge. I was sitting at a keyboard imitating sobbing noises when I first sang with my head voice. Also my undeveloped head voice sounded quite awful.

*some people consider their falsetto to be head voice and what I described above as mixed voice.

Thanks for reading! If you have thoughts, suggestions or advice please leave a comment!

The man behind the harmonica

I've been lucky to get to play with Ethan Miller a lot lately. I was posting some recordings from my latest performances and I realized Ethan was in almost every one of them. Here's a  short highlight real of some of the great harmonica playing I was lucky enough to record:

He was also generous enough to let me include a short bio about him on my website.

“Ethan B. Miller has played everywhere in Boston lending his edgy and melodic harmonica licks to musicians of every genre.” – Tim KO

Ethan blends blues riffs and country melody with his cross harp style. He can add a whisper to the musical background or cut to the front of the room with a lead solo. With a wide variety of musical taste he can be found playing with Americana bands, blues musicians, Reggae groups and singer-songwriters.  

Thanks to Ethan for playing with me!