Nationally certified music instructor and friend, Christine de Santis Hoffman, conducted an email interview with me circa July 2013. Its about time it appeared on my blog I think. It's one of my most articulate.Thanks to Christine for taking the time to come up with a few questions.
Are the characters you create (such as Daisy Von Zeppelin) truly imaginary or are they exaggerated versions of traits of people you know? Alternatively, where do the imagined characters come from? I'd like to imagine that you opened a box with a slip of paper that said "Inspected by Curly" and went from there . . .
I was handed a slip of paper with the words “Inspected by Curly,” actually. It was a real clothing inspector slip (now taped in one of my song books) and I did take it from there. It’s not a really detailed portrait of a guy. The silly subject doesn’t require it. I just thought of a vague sort of person working on the assembly line checking for defective underwear. However one does that on a busy shop floor.
My own childhood is still a major source for song ideas. Real life people and things that happened end up chronicled, and that’s a good thing for me and the cosmos I think. All these happenings could just vanish otherwise. I could be wrong but I think usually I sing about them in a deadpan way. There’s no sneering or sarcasm. If there’s comedy it’s typically from the vocal delivery, the subject, or the descriptive words, but rarely is it mockery. The real life Tim E. Redmond, for instance, really did steal bikes. That’s a fact. It’s the core of the story and the song. It’s all very matter-of-fact. There’s no hate or resentment. The childhood songs are mostly reporting. Some of the childhood songs are me trying to recollect what happened. Examples of these include “Mike Ives” and “Did It Happen at the 7-11?”
Sometimes I think of a ridiculous character name (like Daisy Von Zeppelin and her predecessor, Charmion Chandler Cheese, both sort of stereotypical 20’s debs) and work from there to flesh out something, using, as you say exaggerated traits of others. In these cases, I am never aware of writing about a particular real life person when it comes to traits or emotions, however. There are songs on Smellicopter that sound as though they might be about the things I’m going through these days in real life. However, these were all written long ago. All “relationship” type lyrics in my songs are just the product of watching many, many movies and tv shows over the decades. It is not completely honest, deeply felt work. What I’ve done many times is to take warmed over emotions and scenarios and, hopefully, recreated them a bit as my own. Often I envision a scene or situation and the words come to describe what I can “see.” But, again, these are not from my own life. I don’t know where they are from.
On Smellicopter, the one honest song that is emotionally real is “I Could Use Some New Friends.” That one is about me. I do find it hard to make friends. As in the song, people have insincerely said they’d like to get together. I’ve done it, too. It’s a hard thing about living. There’s a lot of regret, loneliness and desire for change in the song. And a masterful rip-off of the creepy vocal swell in 10cc’s “I’m Not in Love.”
Like most songwriters there are observational pieces as well. Every person in “Weirdos” is absolutely real. A few I got the merest glimpse of in traffic, the others were neighbors.
To start a song I must have an “instigating phrase” of some kind.
What instrument would you like to learn how to play?
I’d like to fully grasp jazz, r&b and gospel styles of piano playing.
What is your greatest regret as a musician?
Not playing live. On the one hand, there’s only so much time available to us all. Maybe not playing live enabled me to do a better job of writing. Who can say? I have allowed that fear of mine to dictate part of what it means to be a musician.
How do you collaborate with musicians in other countries? Skype? Video files? Email? Phone calls?
I use FB or email and ask first if this talented foreign national would like to collaborate. It’s always someone I already know. If the answer is “yes,” I make several quick mixes of my own demo: one with a click track throughout, one without. I try to mix so that it would be comfortable in the person’s headphones. Usually, I have no particular prescribed thing I want the collaborator to do; that way I get something that I would never have thought of myself, which is the whole point. Typically, I send the several mixes as 24-bit Waves files via a service like WeTransfer, Dropbox or YouSendIt. The only technical issue that arises sometimes is keeping things in sync. By patient dragging of the audio file, though, we prevail. I love to do this because not only are the musical ideas increased, but the sound of another world slips in there: a room in another country, different software, mics and instruments.
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What do you think would happen to you if you stopped writing songs? I know the process weighs on you, but it seems like you are driven by a need to create.
If I didn’t write songs lo the mighty rivers would flow backward. I’ve written so many, honestly, that if no more came along I could record the leftovers (many of which are at least as good as those that have been properly released) and have decades of releases left in me. The musical work would become reconstructing and rearranging older material, rather than writing. I’ve long passed the age when I could write 20+ fine songs each year, which I used to do.
These days the “visitation” of a musical idea is rare. I sit at the keyboard and hope that a useable mistake will happen, mistakenly going to an unusual chord, a slightly different progression. If I sing or whistle a melody line over it, then I know I have something to work with. Probably I have at least one line of lyrics to use, an instigating phrase. When all that does happen I play it over and over and then write it in a song notebook AND record it as MIDI if time allows at the moment. That part of the creative process feels good. Something is happening and there is the dizzying hope that in the session you’ll have enough to say “I wrote a song today.” There’s a desperate and exhausting panicky feeling, too, as I hope that the flow—wherever it is coming from—won’t stop until enough is written. And, frankly, there’s a post-writing let down, at least a slight visit from old man depression. I actually don’t think non-creative people miss out on any happiness. Quite to the contrary.
The rest of the words and the final arrangement, of course, can take years to complete. Revisiting the song fragment and trying to extend it is typically frustrating. If you look at a lot of my lyrics on paper, there’s nothing all that special there. I have to go with whatever sounds best being sung. If that includes a few trite rhymes, so be it. That said a lot of effort goes into the words.
The only new piece from this year I would call a proper “song fragment” is called “Snow Day.” It has a verse and chorus, meaning chords, melody and probably two lines of lyrics. A few days later it snowed.