NEWS FROM THE WOODS
By Bob Ketchum
Originally Published January 28, 2011
"I've had an epiphany !!"
I've had an epiphany: A sudden realization of great truth….
Funny I never noticed it before.
Apparently my harboring of ill feelings toward the music industry that has avoided me like a plague for my entire career has somehow caused me to stop writing my own personal music. Looking back now I realize that the resentment and frustration I was holding inside was choking my creative aspirations. Also, I haven't felt much like exploring the world of lyrics lately, either.
Maybe I have felt like my music was too pretentious, I don't know. A songwriter slash musician is a pretty insecure personality if you think about it. And yet it makes us get up in front of strangers in large groups and baring our souls. Most of the songs I've written and recorded in recent years were either attacks at the things I see wrong in the world or just plain silly fodder to make people laugh (not that there's anything wrong with that).
I also realize I have somewhat restricted myself by avoiding some styles. I have very definite rock and roll roots as a player, and as a singer. However, my music background is much more extensive than that. My mother was a star of the stage in her own heyday, fronting an orchestra at a Steinway in Kansas City and St. Louis. Growing up as a child I was educated in all the old standards. After retiring and moving here with dad in 1947, my folks operated a hunting and fishing resort. My mother played piano and sang every night to the guests after dinner, and I stayed up as late as I was allowed and watched her entertain everyone. Beside the fact that it was an exceptionally fortunate childhood for me, I learned all about music from several eras. In addition, my grandparents were also music lovers and while attending military school I got weekend liberty when I wasn't in trouble, and spent hours listening to their collections of operas and orchestras. I remember hey had a full 6-album set of RCA Red Seal Recordings of the works of Enrico Caruso. I still remember the first time I ever heard "O Sole Mio". I had never heard anyone sing like that. And my Grandfather also loved barbershop quartets, and took me to the National Sing off in Tampa, Florida every year. It was amazing to hear all that talent.
When you hear ANY music "by a master", it changes your perception of the world. That is part of music's magic. It has the power to move people's hearts.
Well, somehow in the past decade my distaste for the industry blinded me to that gift. I haven't played live very much in recent years, mostly due to my carpal tunnel problems which are now solved. But for several years there I could not complete a 4-hour gig without my hands going completely numb and paralyzed. I've lost touch with an audience. I've managed to keep playing in the studio because I could take frequent breaks, and recorded several albums as a session drummer by taking breathers.
I managed last year to produce a good album of smooth jazz on a project we call "OMC". The music was composed by Mark Rex, but it was all-instrumental. The only songs I have written lyrics for in the past five years were contrived pieces usually all self-produced. (That means nothing really "serious"), and I really haven't had any desire to craft a song and take the necessary steps to write lyrics.
I don't suppose I gave it much thought amidst all the other things going on in my life. After we finished the "OMC" project Mark moved to Florida to live near his son. However, I met a new friend while producing that album. Ron Miller, a Nashville transplant that had moved here to be near his mother, played keyboards on the OMC project, and he and I hit it off immediately. We probably would have started up a duo or trio locally, but the live music scene here is appallingly bad. Ron does a single gig locally at the Blu Pig BBQ, and I sit in with him occasionally.
Instead, we have just been piddling about in the studio, jamming and comparing notes. And then one day about a month ago we hit the RECORD button and recorded a 30 minute jam with me playing my Roland drum synth and him on guitar with a little Fender amp. What happened next was unexpected. As we listened back to the jam session, on impulse, I grabbed my Fender bass and thrust it at Ron, whose main axe when he started in the biz was bass. He took the hint and started jamming along with what we had played. Naturally I recorded what he was playing (as I said I record everything), and when we hit a snag I just ran it back a little and punched him in. In a 3-piece format, the core idea of a song jumps right out at you. Listening to the original guitar and drums with the added bass part gave us an indication if the ideas were good ones or not.
From that 30 minute jam session, I pulled out the best ideas and we zoned in on them. They were just 4-bar and 12-bar ideas almost completely covered up with all the other jamming. Using the surgical tools found in my digital software, I cut out those moments of greatness and pasted them all together into a complete composition. It took very little time to build verses and chorus parts, and even breakdowns and bridges. The end result was that the arrangement sounded like a band had rehearsed a complete song and then laid it down. Nothing was further from the truth. I discovered that by using the same 4-bar measures for verses, each verse "element" sounded virtually the same (because they WERE the same clip over and over), lending familiarity to the composition. After adding more guitars and/or keyboards the tracks took on a new life. As I built the song I wrote down lyric ideas that came to me while working. By the time we had a song constructed I pretty much had the words all written.
Since during all this time the word "jam" remained in my producer's mind, I didn't think too much about whether these ideas (lyrically and musically) were commercial or even worthwhile on a serious level. But when it was all said and done, the song, now titled "Hold On To My Life" most definitely sounded like a "serious" song. In less than two hours (after the initial jam recording) we had crafted a "real" song out of a 4 minute segment of a simple jam session.
I had never actually done that before, although I knew I had the tools to do it and had the editing experience to understand and implement the concept, but the occasion had just never come up. Ron's encouragement prompted me to continue producing it section at a time. Within another two days we had worked the arrangement over so thoroughly that several updates were made. First, because it now sounded so good I decided to re-record a new vocal track. To my dismay, I just could not beat the original feel I did on that first night. I hadn't even used my regular "go to" mic for vocals, but relied on an old Sony broadcast desk mic I have for voiceover work. There was just something "special" about the way it sounded and the way I sang it that first take. Which brings me to another point: By using the original "jam tracks" of drums and guitar, there was a certain spontaneity in the way the tracks sound that enhanced the feel of the song, no matter how many tracks we overdubbed on top. And after a while, I worked backward and started DELETING certain passages of instruments to make it sparser and less dense. I believe this also adds to the "romance" of the track.
Here I was, doing all sorts of things that I had either never done before or had refrained from trying because of time constraints on previous "paying sessions", or perhaps even my obsessing over considering commercial appeal, etc. Also, I sang the lyrics in a lower register from my usual rock and roll forced vocal delivery. The vocals were therefore MUCH smoother….. So smooth that I was in fact uncomfortable listening to my own voice in the playback. But once again, Ron convinced me to just go with it and see what happens. After all, I DID have the luxury of changing it if I didn't like it in the end, but after a while, my "new" voice grew on me and I started loosening up.
At day 3 I had already found another "gem" in the original jam files and was already working on it before we even finished "Hold On To My Life". Ron arrived and I already had the second tune arranged and the vocals recorded. I put it on and he just sat there with a smile on his face. We knew we were on to something. The new track, which I call "Heavy Handed", is more like my usual in your face rock style. But THIS time I totally went over the edge and wrote lyrics so simple and direct that nothing was left to imagine. I even did my best to destroy my vocals sonically, which only seemed to fit the mood of the track even more. We spent perhaps two more days on this track before it shaped up into a form we were happy with. We were trying to beat our first effort, and the heaviness of the new one made it easier for me to conform to my old familiar singing style, which worked well for this particular track.
Two days later Ron showed up for another jam session, this time with his keyboard in tow. 45 minutes later I had another set of tracks to cull ideas from. The end result of that session, one week later, yielded two more complete songs. But by now (and perhaps because of the style we chose since he was jamming on keyboard) I was ready to really explore my new vocal technique. On the two newest tracks the lyrics just flowed as I used my "building blocks" approach to composing. Also, by now we realized that all we really needed was four bars of everything, so we'd play four bars one way, then another, or adjusting with different drum and keyboard sounds, until we had perhaps ten different "sections" of a riff which could be used to build verses, choruses, and bridges.
The third song, "Keep Trying", is more of a ballad and we treated it as such with orchestral instruments and my voice in a lower register. We leaned heavy on grand piano and other "mellow" instrumentation to wrap the lyrics in a warm and fuzzy feeling. We are just now wrapping up the arrangement to song #4, which is something I wrote for my wife I call "I've Fallen". I was afraid the song might sound too sappy but once again Ron jumped in and kept me from over-thinking the project. This song wrote itself lyrically. I hardly had to even think about it. And this is where I had my epiphany while wondering WHY all of a sudden I can write lyrics so easily when before it took a lot of thought and work. I know much of it is because I am more relaxed and I am not even considering the "business" of music. I am just writing songs for myself and for what audience we may have out there. I have received nothing but encouragement from many of my musician friends that I have sent some of these track to. I have discovered that I CAN live with my lower register "crooner voice", for lack of a better definition. Not only that but I am beginning to ENJOY myself playing music again.
At this point I feel like a new door is opening up for me and for Ron. He has been the perfect writing partner because he has SO MANY song ideas and it just flows naturally out of him while jamming. The same goes for me. I can sit at the kit (or the pads, as it were) and instantly bounce ideas off his ideas. We build from there, and we spend no unnecessary time working and slaving over an arrangement. We just get that spontaneity and then cut it up and construct our compositions after the fact. I can't WAIT for the next jam session……
Which reminds me….. Ron is on his way over right now…… I'd better go warm up the computer!
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