It was nice to wake up Friday to find the cover of my CD on the Americana-UK website alongside such stalwarts as Bob Dylan, Ryan Adams, and The Replacements. Of course, I had not actually read it yet, so there was no telling what was going to be said. And with Americana UK, they score the album from 1-10 so a number was awaiting me along with the prose. So, if you are wondering what I faced, here it is.
This is the first time I have ever gone through the process of making a real album. It is a LONG process and the first ingredient is songs. In order to write songs you need inspiration, which can’t be bought at the drugstore. Well, some might disagree with that assessment and come to thinkk of it I suppose i have walked out of the drugstore with inspirational products on occasion but I digress No songwriter knows when inspiration will strike, but the first step is usually to open the door by writing and playing the guitar. Once the ideas begin arriving you need to chip away at the inevitable drivel to get to the song material. Then the songs have to be written and shaped and sung and tweaked and reshaped and resung and rewritten and resung again, preferably in front of an audience. That process can take a couple years at least to get a batch of 10-12 songs in fighting shape. Then comes the recording, mixing, and mastering process which takes time, planning, and MONEY. Then comes the arduous process of deciding which songs make the cut for the final album and which order they go in. And then there is the album art. The cover is agonized over. The font is agonized over. The copy in the liner notes has to be written and layed out and rewritten and re-layed out. Then the CD artwork and master CD have to be sent to to a manufacturing facility. And how many CDs will you make? And what about vinyl? And how will you do digital distribution? Have you created a publishing company? Are you going to sign up with ASCAP or BMI or do you think they are the Devil incarnate?
And what about a Kickstarter campaign?. If you do a Kickstarter you have to make a video (don’t half-ass it) and offer prizes (don’t half-ass it) which usually means more graphic design and t-shirts and beer koozies and private backyard VIP concerts and updates on the process and a CD release show (which results in a looming deadline) and pressure to deliver a product that lives up to the hype of raising $10,000 because you don’t want your benevolent donors to think “What? I gave Derek Senn $100 so he could go dick around in the studio and all I got was this piece of shit CD and an ill-fitting t-shirt?”
Then the CD’s arrive, all 1,000 of them, which sounds like a paltry sum until you realize you only have 27 fans, 14 of whom aren’t really your fans but feel obligated to support you anyways since they are members of your immediate family. So how to get rid of those 1,000 CDs? Local press helps. Maybe a morning radio show. Nothing like getting to serenade the masses at 7 am while trading barbs with the Tom and Brian. Maybe a newspaper feature. And gigs. Gigs and more gigs. Gigs at 8 PM on a Monday in the dining room of the Best Western playing to unsuspecting businessmen and imploring them to drop $10 on a form of nearly obsolete technology that they have not actually bought since picking up the latest Jack Johnson CD on a whim 3 years ago at a Topeka Starbucks. So after selling 7 CD’s in 4 weeks you conclude the reason they are not selling nothing to do with the quality of the product but rather the apathy towards the medium in general. They are not valued. At least not as much as a nice buzz, so you sit in wonder as people at your shows refuse to lay down $10 for your amazing music but do not balk at ordering multiple glasses of very mediocre Pinot Noir at $12 a pour. Maybe a few holdout hipsters buy CDs these days; those who are fortunate enough to live in one of the few remaining outposts on earth that actually have independent record stores. Wal-Mart and Starbucks ain’t gonna carry your shit, and those are the only places you can buy actual CD’s anymore in most parts of the Country, so unless you are Mumford and Sons or Norah Jones (or Jack Johnson) you are screwed on the retail front.
Thus begin the giveaways. A full crate on the floor of the car slowly begins to dissipate as you randomly pass out discs to whomever; the car wash guy, the homeless dude who would far prefer a dime, random sedans in the Bev-Mo parking lot, a shrink-wrapped disc furtively slipped under the wiper blade to greet the unsuspecting driver who upon return who will invariably be disappointed that it is not a coupon for 20% off Old Navy next door. Colleagues and co-workers will privately cringe upon receipt as they wonder what to do. ” Do I tell him it fucking sucks and that he should really just focus on real estate, or do I just sort of pretend like I never received it?”
So, um, I’m working on finishing up the CD artwork, working as fast as I can before the CD medium becomes obsolete and before I decide the songs I just spent two years writing, woodshedding, and recording totally suck, so that I can give the CD to you so you can decide whether or not the songs I just spent two years writing, woodshedding and recording totally suck. Hang on, I’m almost finished!!!
Before I had kids I used to spend an entire weekend holed up in my bedroom recording. I loved getting lost in the process. After I had kids getting lost in the recording process was not an option. I had my first kid 8 years ago, so, aside from a few one-off projects, I have not done much recording since my first child was born. So when I finally decided to record my first “proper” CD this year in a real bona-fide recording studio, I wanted to do it in a place far from the demands of my day job and of parenthood. I wanted to sequester myself and focus completely on recording and I knew that was not possible if I was to stay in town, so I chose to record elsewhere.
I am not sure how I remembered the name “Tiny Telpehone” I must have come across it in the liner notes for some random CD. Somehow, the name stuck with me so on that first night when i went cyber-exploring for a place to record, I typed “Tiny Telephone” into the search engine. Next thing I knew, I was emailing John Vanderslice, the studio owner. This is what my email said:
I am a singer-songwriter from San Luis Obispo looking to record an album April-ish. I’ve read about Tiny telephone in the past and it looks like it could work, but i suppose you would be a better judge of that based upon what I am looking for:
I have a couple of young kids. Before they came along I did a lot of lo-fi home recording which I am quite proud of. I played all instruments myself and made good old fashioned 3 chord garage folk/rock kind of stuff. But family distractions/day job etc no longer allow for those long, uninterrupted weekends when i would record away. I still write a lot of songs and play solo acoustic shows but cannot ratchet up on my own time to produce my stuff. So I am looking for a studio where I can record but also have the input/resources of a producer who can help shape my songs with ideas and guest musicians. I play in a bit of a vacuum so i wish i could drag a cadre of musicians in the studio with me, but I do not have those resources.
So, in a nutshell, I am not looking for a place where someone will simply press record. I need help. Help with musicians, with ideas, etc. In my humble opinion, I think i write good songs, but i need help bringing them to produced fruition.
I figure I would need at least a week. I’m hoping for some studio serendipity. My goal would be to have 10 songs album ready.
Any input is appreciated!
And this was John’s response:
derek, this sound perfect for the studio actually.
we have a large group of exceptional, well-priced session folks.
i love the songs, listened to the entire man cave man and will listen more tonight.
i can hook you up with a producer no problem.
it might be easier to talk quickly on phone.
i’m around all day tomorrow. Call me.
april is good, feb and march are sold out.
thanks derek and THANKS for thinking of us!!
Next thing I knew, I had booked 10 days at Tiny Telephone.
How quickly we can fall from our superhuman pedestal. Today marks 18 days since I turned my ankle and got sick. Since then I have done pretty much jack shit. I feebly tried to run a couple days ago and threw in the towel after a few blocks, since my left ankle was already begging for mercy. Oh how I dearly miss running and how I dearly miss having a functioning body. Today is just a gorgeous day and I would love to head out for a nice 6 mile trail run, but I am going to hole up for awhile longer.
I have continued to cheat on my vegan diet, but not by much. Yesterday for lunch I had some cheese. Horrors! I have also been embracing my sedentary existence by delving heavily back into songwriting and beer drinking. The songwriting is tremendously humbling. I am not in writing shape so yesterday marked my first day in quite awhile of trying to brainstorm a song. I got something, but it definitely falls into the category of sniveling drivel.
As I get back into songwriting I am reminded of its similarities to running. It is solitary, humbling, challenging, rewarding, and is about putting one foot in front of the other. It is something you have to show up for, to stay in shape for. Yesterday was the songwriting equivalent of going for a jog after a year long hiatus from exercise. Today I am very, very sore.
Yes, less than 7 weeks until the San Luis Obispo marathon. I have been sick for 10 days and have been nursing a bum ankle. And there were some serious cracks in my vegan facade this weekend as I ingested bacon, eggs, carnitas, and cheese. Basically, I am kinda sorta throwing in the towel. I am not going to beat myself up trying to prepare for the marathon. No point.
On the musical front, my good friend and ex-Shambler bandmate Mike Marotto visited this past weekend. We hung out on Friday night and played guitar and it was pure bliss. Mike is basically a fantastic human being and an incredible musician. Too bad he lives in Vermont.
So, the silver lining of being laid up with sickness and such is I am getting back into the guitar. I think I’ll book a gig.
Well another Live Oak Music Festival has come and gone. We have been going every year for the past 8 years or so, except the year when Diego was 2 and Charlie was 9 months old and I have never regretted that decision for a second.
It is very interesting going every year with the kids because the milestones are quite extraordinary. A couple years ago was the first year that we could bicycle around the festival on two wheelers as a family. And this year was the first year that Diego, at 6, really wanted to take off and bike all by himself, which he did. It was hard to let go.
This year’s lineup had some big names in it and, as usual, there were some good acts and some bad acts. Some big names disappointed and others came through.
Back before the kids were born I soaked up a lot of the music. These days I just catch little snippets, but it is easier to cut away for an entire show sometimes. This year, my must see shows were James McMurtry and David Lindley. David Lindley’s set was a bit flat, but the highlights were the Excedrin song, which was one of the funniest songs I have every heard, and Joe Craven doing the accompaniment. Joe Craven is very tasteful in how he accompanies other musicians. He stays out of the way yet adds a very important element. HIs multi-instrumental ability is something to behold. He is a show in himself as a sideman.
James McMurtry, put plain and simple, kicked ass. He was by far the musical highlight of the weekend for me. His lyrics are so fantastic. I love watching someone who has lyrics that I can only dream of aspiring to. Lots of times I am disappointed by the awful lyrics I am hearing, but McMurtry is a master songwriter. And his band rocked. They were just a 3 piece, but they were so tight and full of sound that they did not need anyone else. An additional guitarist joined them later in the set, but his solos were barely audible and it didn’t really matter.
When I think about putting a band together these days it is in the James McMurtry template. Groovy bass with lock-step drums that hold back in the pocket to let the lyrics come through as audibly as possible, yet which provide a rocking groove to allow simple chord progressions to come alive. And I also have to mention James’ guitar playing, which is really fantastic. He is unheralded as an electric guitarist, but he is damn good. James McMurtry is the shit. If you like fantastic lyrics and good rock-n-roll then he is not to be missed.
Song shuffle on the iPod is so cool because this morning My Michelle by Guns ‘n Roses came on which, of course, needs to be blasted at ear splitting levels. And then right after that came Minina Flor, from Stan Getz and Luis Bonfa’s Jazz Samba Encore, which is one of my favorite albums ever. And then a bit of Salsa from Celia Cruz followed that. I own the best radio station on the planet!
And then there was this weekend, where I found myself on the beach on Saturday night at a very late hour and up popped a great Rock en Espanol song from an Argentinian band called Soda Stereo, so i turned up the iPod as far as it would go. Sorry ears. The song is called De Musica Ligera. If you want to see 100,000 Argentinians going apeshit over the song then check out this video. I remember hearing this song on the radio when I was an exchange student in Ecuador in 1990. It brings back memories…