Tag Archives: featured

Listening Lab: EMA

I’m writing a moody rock song about the mall. It’s pretty dark and sort of pretty and there isn’t much of a rhyme scheme but I’m enjoying the literalness of it. I like a lyric that looks you in the eye. There’s something mesmerizingly literal about EMA’s “California.” It’s also mesmerizingly stream-of-consciousness. That’s a neat trick. I can’t look away. Here’s to pointing fingers and naming names and my home state.

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vicarious

Vicarious Is A Four-Letter Word.

I just finished reading Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta. The book is about a 40-something former rock ‘n roll wunderkind, Nik, a recluse who keeps making brilliant music, and his sister, Denise. It’s about true obsession and tenuous family bonds and time passing. It’s about how everyone and everything is shaped by the confounding feedback loops between memory and identity and art and life and authenticity and invention. The story takes place at the intersection of what might have been and what really is, a place you won’t be able to locate with GPS but where you will almost certainly find yourself on a dark night, at which time you may, like Denise, conclude that you have “in middle age become a person whose deepest emotional moments happened vicariously.”

I’ve never quite framed it in those terms, but I think the prospect of turning into that person is the reason I decided to stop writing about songs and start writing songs. I spent so many years on the outside looking in. Here’s how it’s been with me and music: like falling in love and following the guy around for a couple of decades and writing about him in your journal (or the newspaper) without ever introducing yourself, or going on a date, or kissing.

I grew weary of being an observer. I grew frightened of the creeping sense of detachment. I wanted to say less and do more. A lot of people think those deep emotional moments Spiotta writes about are the province of the young. We’re supposed to grow up and out of it. Adults are supposed to value familiarity over novelty, practicality over passion, stabililty over adventure. To which I say, bullshit.

Vicarious Encounters by Matt Belk

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thiebaud_cakes

My Cake Is Something. Not A Song. But Something.

To recap: a drum machine, a keyboard, and a wannabe songwriter walk into a bar.

“What’ll it be?”

“The usual. Confusion. Frustration. Elation. Disappointment. Fear.”

“How about a shot of selfishness? While you’re at it.”

“Good call. Line ‘em up.”

My Cake” is about selfishness. It’s made of a bunch of tracks I recorded using instruments I don’t play. I arranged the beats, keyboards, and vocals in layers and then wrote a couple of quasi-verses and a bridge that currently functions as a coda because this whole thing has been done in the most ad hoc possible fashion and the end was the only place to put it. The bridge/coda sounds completely different from everything else because I recorded it quickly and mindlessly the other day just so I could remember how it went.

Three songs make their presence felt here in ways large and small: A Real Hero from the Drive soundtrack, Actor Out Of Work by St. Vincent, and Pictures of Me by Elliott Smith.

Gary Smith helped me make a beginning, patched in the bridge/coda, and made the whole mess more listenable. Think of it as a scratch pad, or an underdeveloped snapshot, or six parts in search of a song.

Filed under: I am trying to write some songs Tags: , , , ,
mikedoughty

Mike Doughty Is Looking Back and Moving On. Neat Trick.

And the award for Rock Musician Least Likely to Become a Nostalgia Act goes to…Mike Doughty. The former Soul Coughing frontman doesn’t play Soul Coughing songs. Ever. His new memoir, “The Book of Drugs,” is a literary middle finger to the artist’s salad days. It puts the mental in unsentimental. It screams goodbye to all that — the band, the junk, the tunes, the willful inscrutability. To that last point, Doughty spent 2009 answering audience members’ off-the-wall questions between songs, and has just released a double-live album of recordings from the tour called “The Question Jar Show.” Doughty, 41, answered yet more questions via email.

Q: What’s the relationship between drugs and art as it has played out in your life?

A: I bought the spiel about the romantic connection between drugs and art, for sure. In practice, though, I used drugs to shut down self-loathing, so I could finish songs.

Q: What happened to your songwriting when you got clean?

A: I’m better than I was. The songs have more depth, there’s more of my heart truly in them. I’m able to access a darker part of myself — ironically. I’m working for the music, not trying to justify an inflated, grandiose sense of self — which was fundamentally just trying to feel OK about my existence.

Q: You’ve said that when you were unable to write songs you wrote prayers. Are you a man of faith or were you desperate?

A: People roll their eyes at the spiritual-not-religious spiel, but it’s very true. I was indeed desperate. But I did have a real fire to connect with something larger and deeper, to get out of my self-centeredness. The tragedy of Narcissus wasn’t that he was so into his own looks — it was that he was unable to stop looking at his reflection, and missed out on everything in the universe. I heard a cardinal say, “To have faith is to have crises of faith.” Which is incredible to hear from a guy whose entire life has been about his faith.

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Listening Lab: St. Vincent

Everything about writing “My Cake” has been hard and thrilling. I’ve got a melody now, thanks to Gary, who pointed me to “Actor Out Of Work.” The song had fallen off my radar, as songs will do. If you’re trying to wrap your brain around how to write a melody for a groove insteading a string of chords, it’s a real education. Plus, she wrote the whole Actor album using GarageBand. Here’s to code-cracking and inspiration and keeping going.

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