2016/11/11

Music for life

I'm a musician. That's a fundamental aspect of me. I tried being not-a-musician, but it made me unhappy. I realized that I love making music more than anything else, and that it is my primary source of joy. Especially at my age, I'm not going to live without that.

I'm also a songwriter. Even when I was trying to be not-a-musician, the songwriter kept popping out, making me scribble lyric ideas in notebooks or on scraps of paper.

Being a musician and songwriter, I make records. Not vinyl records, although I have in the past. More in the sense of snapshots of a set of songs at a particular time. In August and September I recorded four songs. I just received the approved masters. Three songs are available on Soundcloud. The song that is somewhat of an outlier is for later.

As well as being a musician and songwriter, I am also a performer. I have been performing on stage (mostly as a singer-musician but for several years in theatre) since I was about 17 years old. These days, public performance for profit, or even for free, is not easy to come by. I am very unfamiliar with the scene in the Lower Mainland for solo performers. There are some clubs. There are pop-up venues and house concerts. There are festivals. Obviously I must get a lot more familiar with the ins and outs if I hope to play anywhere.

Even if I never played for anyone but myself (and Sweetie, who can't help but hear), I imagine I would continue to write songs, simply because I haven't managed to turn them off when they want to be written. I can't get my brain to stop turning life into song lyrics.

But because a huge part of why I make music is that I need to communicate, to reach out to people, I do crave listeners. I'm long past dreaming of fame and fortune, but I'm pretty sure even the most confident artist needs a certain amount of affirmation from viewers, listeners, participators. Even negative feedback is better than indifference.

So, the record. At this point it's called, with much flair, Demo 2016. It's far from perfect, but I'm proud of this record of my performance of the songs. To anyone who at least gives a listen, thank you. Maybe I'll get to play for you live.

2016/10/25

On impact

A week and a half ago while I was driving home from an appointment, I was involved in a collision with an SUV. No one was hurt. The damage to the passenger side of the Subaru did not look terrible. I was able to drive the car home. I opened a claim with ICBC (the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia, our public motor vehicle insurer). Armed with a claim number, I drove the car to the body shop down the hill. I figured all would be set right soon.

A couple of days later, I got another call from ICBC. There was more damage to the car than it was officially worth, so they declared it totalled. I did not argue, since what had seemed to be surface damage actually included frame damage as well. Once the frame of a vehicle is bent, it will never be right again. As well, the car is, or was, a 2002 model. As invaluable as the car was to us and despite fairly low mileage, it had little market value.

If you're going to crash your car, do it when it's still worth fixing.

For the nonce, we are car-free. Neither of us commutes by car. Non-driver Sweetie works two days a week a short bus ride from the house. I work out of my home office. She has a monthly transit pass because she rides frequently in addition to her commute. I use transit less but still quite a lot, especially to go into Vancouver. Our main use for a private vehicle was to go shopping on Saturday, which might involve stops at any of a pet store, a farmers market, our co-op for groceries, a seafood shop, and an Italian deli. We would also occasionally use the car at other times, including to go into Vancouver when there was a compelling reason to do so (dressed fancy, coming home very late, etc.). And once in a while, we would take a road trip.

Being without a car had an impact on last weekend, as expected. On Saturday morning I made a trip to the final Trout Lake Farmers Market of the season. In the afternoon I made a very long trip to get cat food (a brand not available in most stores) and to make one other stop. It was not the most efficient trip—bus-SkyTrain-bus to get to the pet store; bus-bus to get to the next stop; and finally bus-SkyTrain-bus to get home—but connections were pretty good, and it took less time than I expected. Each trip cost me two one-zone (because weekend) fares ($2.10 with Compass card), so C$4.20 for each round trip. On Sunday I went to the co-op and the fish market. That trip also cost C$4.20.

I'm glad to know that it's possible for me to do all the things I need to do on transit, given plenty of time and the ability (and willingness) to haul heavy loads. It is unlikely to remain practical. In two weeks the winter farmers market will be at Nat Bailey Stadium—accessible by transit, but a long ride plus walk (there is also a Sunday winter market at Hastings Park, but many of the vendors I need aren't there). The farmers market trip would be fine in good weather, but add rain or cold or both and it's a different story. And even though I can carry a lot of weight, I have only two shoulders for bags, and taking more than two bags on transit is difficult anyway.

As well, even though I'm a tough old broad and pretty strong, I'm getting neither younger nor stronger. I was proud of myself for doing all the hauling this past weekend, but my body was pretty worn out later, and my left knee threatened to go on strike a few times while I was out walking.

And here's the kicker: if I somehow were to get a gig, I would need a car to get to it. Or a much smaller guitar amp.

Joining a car co-op would have been our first choice. It's expensive to buy, maintain, and insure a vehicle, especially for the little that we use one. Sadly, ICBC ruled that I was at fault in the collision. I can't approach the co-op unless I have two years free of at-fault claims. I have to earn my way back into the good graces of the driving world.

That leaves us with three options: remain car free, buy a used car, or buy a new car. For all the reasons above, the first option is good only for the short term. That leaves buying a new or used vehicle, with both require money up front and ongoing costs.

If we buy a new car, at least it can now be an electric vehicle (EV), plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV), or hybrid electric vehicle (HEV). Our all-wheel-drive Subaru was awesome on curves but was not particularly fuel efficient, even for highway driving. EVs, PHEVs, and HEVs available in Canada are all expensive, but if we're going to buy new, it has to be tomorrow's car, not yesterday's. Either that or we buy an older car and then have to go through the same exercise in a few years.

Meanwhile, even though using transit takes extra time and effort, I'm enjoying my liberation from driving. I get to read or check my phone or even observe my surroundings while being taken to my destination. I do more walking by covering distances on foot that are too short to bother waiting for a bus (I'd rather move than wait). I realize that I am fortunate in not having to use transit during peak periods. I have done so in the past, and I know that rush hour trains and buses are only more crowded now than they were then.

I also appreciate not having to drive because at this point I'm still feeling the effects of trauma. That surprised me, but shouldn't have. Even though the collision was minor (except to the vehicles), the scenario plays itself over and over in my head. I see and feel the other car closing in on me, me trying to get out of its way, and the bump of the hit. My brain wants to undo what happened. But that's not how time works. We live with our mistakes until we can let them go.

So I'm feeling chastised and wobbly. I get to deal with both trauma effect and shame! Being a conscientious and careful driver is something I was proud of. I will overcome this. Whenever I get back in the saddle, I will be even more conscientious and careful. But I'm not there yet. So I shall try to enjoy my car holiday.

2016/09/20

Studio nerd

I'm sure there are bands that go into a recording studio and just bang out their songs, leaving all the technical aspects to others. But I think for most musicians a recording studio is a magical place. Some serious wizardry happens in studios! I find it more fun to immerse myself in the magic than just to be a player and singer. I don't know nearly as much as some, but I'm learning.

And this time was different than previous studio sessions. I've spent lots of time in recording studios where it was only an engineer and me. That's usually how it has for mixdowns. I don't remember any band members being particularly interested in those. And sometimes, being the guitarist, harmony singer, and occasional percussionist, I would go in by myself for overdubs. But these three sessions were the first I ever did both by myself and for myself.

The object was really to create a demo—decent recordings of a few songs that I can link to when I try to get someone to hire me. But I aimed for a bit more than that. I wanted the tracks to sound pretty much like they do when I play them live, but I also wanted to fill them out a little.

I took four songs in. I was well prepared. I had been practising with a metronome to get used to playing with a click track. All of the song tempos were where they sounded best to me.

At the same time, I knew that I didn't have to have everything planned in advance. I wanted results within two sessions, more realistically three, but this being my first experience as the sole creator of the music (engineering is also a creative process), I also wanted to give myself time to relax, be happy (and not just okay) with takes, and maybe even to come up with new things.

The first session was about guitar and vocals. I recorded bed tracks—just a guitar, in this case—for each of the songs I had planned to record. Something about the fourth song didn't feel right when I was playing it, and playback confirmed it. It wasn't right. It didn't feel like it should be in a set with the other three. More surprising, it didn't feel like V. Diz. I had not suspected that before, but I was sure of it now. I abandoned that track, got inspired, and played another song from my list. And I realized that was the one I wanted to record. Which I did. At the end of day one, I had guitar tracks and most vocals for "Drive By," "Normal Day," "If We Pretend," and "Hunting Season"—the new song, which is actually an old song, which is another story.

After listening to the rough mixes for a week, I had a plan for the second session. Some things went right. I nailed a vocal section that had given me trouble at the end of day one. I played more guitar parts. I might have subtracted a track or two of guitar from the previous session. And then the engineer and I set to mixing. Initial setup takes a bit of time. Fortunately, the setup provides a starting point for the subsequent tracks. We got a possible keeper mix of "Drive By" and a mix of "Normal Day" that I knew had been done too hastily and would need more work.

Listening to the two mixes confirmed that at least "Normal Day" needed work. I had several weeks to listen and consider and come up with ideas. One idea was for percussion. In session two I had intended to play djembe (African hand drum) on a couple of songs but I had forgotten to bring it. Just as well! I needed a lot of practice. I'm happy to say that I have gone from being a djembe dabbler to actually playing the djembe—perhaps not in a traditional way, but mostly in rhythm.

So for session three, I started with the drum. I did a couple of takes for "If We Pretend" and a couple more for "Hunting Season." And then it was time to do the serious mixing.

We put "Drive By" aside as potentially being a keeper and started with "If We Pretend," because it's very simple, not even a second guitar, just one guitar, djembe, and vocal. I ended up putting the vocal well in front of the instruments. That's a scary thing for me, but it sounded better that way because the song is a story. At least I'm reasonably happy with the singing.

We changed a few things before getting the sound I was looking for on "Normal Day." I wanted to go psychedelic on it, because I have psych in my blood from way back. Swirly guitar, fuzz guitar, processed vocal.

On "Hunting Season" I decided to drop the djembe from the beginning of the song and have it start at the chorus and continue to the end. I think it's more effective that way. And you can blame me for the echo on the chorus vocal. Totally my idea.

Finally we went back to "Drive By." I wanted more of a sound change on the bridge. So we put a chorus effect on the guitar (I play it live through my flanger) and ran the overlapping vocal tracks through software that emulates a Leslie speaker. More psychedelia! I guess I indulged myself, but hopefully it sounds good to others as well.

None of the tracks has been mastered, a step that involves matching volume levels among songs, sometimes changing equalization or compression, and making sure that the songs sound like they belong together. I need to book that. But it's been so long since I had any recorded output other than my home recordings that I have to preview, at least. So here is the debut of "Normal Day" (premaster):


2016/08/19

Human-world

In the beginning, according to a sacred text, woman came from man, formed using a rib taken from his side.

And thereafter man continued to form woman, not in his own image and likeness but in the image and likeness of his fantasy mate. And he declared himself to be her superior.

And all was well for woman as long as she fulfilled what man wanted. But woe upon her when she failed to do so, in myriad large and small ways.

And man imposed his will on women and indeed the entire world for tens of thousands of years. But finally, woman realized the injustice and stupidity of this system and decided to demand and create change.

The idea that the world should be human-world, not man-world, sent man's heads (big and little) into a spin and caused him to cling even more desperately to man-world.

But man-world is so last millennium (and several before). Human-world has already begun, and will become stronger and stronger until man-world is but an historical memory.

Because really, everyone should get to live in human-world.

2016/08/14

Band of one

I miss being in a band.

As soon as I saw the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show, I wanted to be in a band. The idea of a group making music fascinated me. There is no leader, it's an ensemble! Or so we thought. Even once we knew that wasn't quite true, still, a band has a sound, an identity, that is more than the sum of individual members. I've played in cover bands, acoustic combos, and original rock bands. The only time I've ever had any measure of success in music has been with other musicians. Playing in a band is also hugely fun.

And yet now I find myself sans band. I know a lot of musicians. I don't know if I could get any of them to start a band, but I doubt it. At any rate, I haven't really tried. After all those years in bands, I'm going for it. I am performing as a, gasp, solo artist.

(I am still open to bands and playing with other people. It's just that younger musicians mostly want to play with other young musicians, which makes sense, and most musicians my age aren't into the same kinds of things that I am. There aren't many Kim Gordons and Toody Coles in the world.)

I began this project in earnest last year, especially when I started having rehearsals with Leenie Bennett. On my own and with Leenie, I started to figure out just who I am musically. Not me in a band, not me leading a band, but me answerable to no one but myself.

It's scary. It's thrilling. It's either audacious or misguided or both. I have only my guitars, an amplifier, a small pedal board (but no loop pedal), my songs, and my voice. I want to create music that works using those components. I want that sound to define this project, at least for now. And I want to be heard. My passion for musical communication is stronger than ever.

Songs first. I've always thought of myself as a songwriter before anything else. I've been writing for almost as long as I have played guitar. I feel good about the material I have been coming up with lately. I'm pleased that some older songs, including some unexpected ones, fit this new paradigm. I used to have trouble writing unless it was for a band, which set boundaries and provided a guideline for my songwriting. Now I'm finding my own personal song boundaries and figuring out where the guidelines are, really for the first time.

I write songs. I keep the songs I enjoy playing, as long as I enjoy playing them. I send that all through an important filter: does this song sound like V. Diz? I could play any song I wanted, but I want to create a distinct sound, just as with a band.

One way I'm trying to make the sound more distinct is by really working on melody. Listen to a lot of rock songs and you will find that the melody is pretty close to the one you'd come up with if you just sang words to a chord pattern. There's a sort of default melody, one we fall into easily, and it's not special. I'm trying to stay out of that pattern or to break out of it if a song has gone that way. Interesting melody is not just for pop songs!

Guitar is making me pretty happy these days. Even though I'm older and have pain in my left hand, I seem to play better than I used to. Not more reliably. I'll still mess up a part in the studio. But I think my playing-to-accompany is better. More creative, more varied, more interesting. And since I'm not using the overdrive side of my Marshall, I can make better use of the pedals.

And then there's the voice. Oy. I can nail harmonies like nobody's business. But singing lead is a whole 'nother thing, especially without a band. If you have a good voice, great. You practise and get better. I admire such skill! But I don't have a conventionally good voice. I have a peculiar voice. Since that's not going to change, I have to figure out how to use it to best effect. For expression. To convey meaning. I allow it to be distinctive and weird and hope that anyone listening likes it better than I do.

I'm still often disappointed by what I hear, but I keep working at it. I might change the key of a song (a capo is a wonderful thing) to hit the best range for the melody. I'm letting notes be short if hanging onto them doesn't sound great. I'm learning how to sing a lot more quietly! Or rather, with my full dynamic range, something you don't usually do in a rock band. And I'm actually practising singing and working on rough spots or making changes to avoid them.

Learning to cultivate and embrace distinctiveness and weirdness is a lesson applicable to all of my music. I have always been a pleaser. Unless you're a particularly talented pop songwriter, trying to please everyone can be a terrible thing. I realized that I would all too often knock the edges off my songs, my playing, my voice. I would try to push everything toward a more conventional sound, even when I thought I wasn't doing so. But now I'm letting the edges stay sharp, and I critique every song. Is it too conventional? Is it pretty but generic? Does it really express whatever I am making V. Diz about? I'm just as tough on any covers I want to play. Do I play it well? Sing it well? Sing it poorly but interestingly? Make it distinctive? Make it my own?

Because whether people love or hate my music, the first thing I have to do is get them to listen at all. And I have no idea why people like some artists and not others. There are a lot of successful performers who I think are pretty much shite, and many I think are great but that remain obscure. Somehow, in this crowded, noisy world, I have to get at least a few people's attention. And I will never have a hope of doing that in any conventional way. My particular weirdness will either succeed or fail, but it's the only way I have a chance.

It's not as though "success" is particularly ambitious these days. I really only want to be able to play around town, maybe out of town. So all I need is to get enough positive attention to be able to have a draw, so that people will come see me when they see I am performing and thus I will keep getting hired.

In less than a week, I will be in the studio to see if all this work can sound like I want it to. Can't wait!

2016/06/21

Withdrawal symptoms

Photo by belle ancell
Is it possible to live anymore without social media? Of course it is. Lots of people live without it, and not just old folks. I have two friends who have sworn off social media entirely. I know of others who did as well. Many other people use social media but only on an intermittent basis. It's not central to their lives or a major use of time.

A more pertinent question for me is whether I can live without social media. Or if not without social media, then with less involvement—whatever that would look like and however it could be made the happen.

Until about a month ago, I would check Twitter frequently, at least at certain times of day. I would check tweets from as many as five lists. I followed favourite bands to get news about them and hear about shows and releases. I followed a variety of accounts that I found interesting. I got a lot of news. One list in particular was for accounts in my city, for which Twitter is a good source of information and connection. Sometimes I would get the satisfaction of having tweets faved or retweeted. Often I would get the satisfaction of micro-blogging my not-so-humble opinions, no matter that I was usually just an old lady shouting at a cloud.

My problem with Twitter is basically time. Checking it often or even occasionally rather than obsessively is still a time sink, because it's never just checking. It's reading and responding and writing and reading more and searching and watching videos. I like the actual interaction on Twitter, at least in my twitterverse. I'm going to declare, on no particular evidence whatsoever, that Twitter is beneficial to my well-being. Except for that time thing.

Facebook is a different story. Even a month ago, I had already curtailed my Facebook involvement. Even so, I was reading part of my wall several times a day. I wasn't posting often, but I would read a lot, and like or react or comment fairly often. And I would check events.

Facebook is more than just a time sink. I get much more stressed out from Facebook than from Twitter. I don't have a huge number of Facebook friends, but quite a few. These are people I know, people whose lives I care about, people who are special to me. I do want to know things that happen in their lives. But sometimes I get overloaded with information.

A month ago, I went off Twitter and Facebook almost entirely. All of a sudden I just didn't want to go on. I say "almost" because I had a show coming up and I needed to publicize it. There's part of the answer to the question: it is difficult to have a music career without social media, not just to advertise shows but just for general schmoozing. After the show I stayed off, but then my usage crept back up. Now, however, I'm feeling an aversion again. I can't seem to find the sweet spot. And the longer I stay off, the more I fear going back on, lest it turn to shite again.

Because it's not just usage of Twitter and Facebook. It's the time I spend on my laptop. Twitter and Facebook take quite enough time, but then while I'm sitting there, it's very easy to find something else to do on my computer after Twitter and Facebook, and until the next scan for new posts. Before I know it, an hour or two has passed, and things I ought to do as well as things I want to do have been crowded out.

Thanks to one of my social-media-less friends, I've read what life offline is like. I've experienced some of the same things. It's disorienting to have been following so many lives and suddenly to follow almost none. That's quite a void. It's disorienting to have been (seemingly, at least) plugged in to your local scene and suddenly to be quite unplugged. And indeed unplugged from the world to some extent. But the sudden silence of the void might also be welcome. Right now I seem to need the silence.

Every good thing has a price. The price of this peace of mind is isolation. I miss your babies and kids, your pictures and links, your heartfelt postings! I miss the occasional lively debate. I miss feeling connected, whether I truly was connected or not.

It seems to me that I will have to reconnect at some point. The only question is how to keep that from getting out of control. I've started to use Twitter only on my phone. That removes the factor of lounging comfortably at my laptop for hours. I want to put Facebook back on my phone as well, but the app is so bloated that my SIM-less phone can't install it. I need to figure that out (I hate having to delete most of my music). So far, I've used Twitter a lot like I do when I'm on vacation—much less.

I do want to reconnect. I have no snobbery about having become a non-user. After all, even now I'm active on social media-ish sites like Goodreads and TripAdvisor, and I'm going to hypocritically post links to this blog post on Twitter and Facebook.

But I have to say, staying away really is liberating for my time. When I'm done work, if I don't immediately get involved in laptop activities, then I'm out for a walk or to practise my songs or to write new ones (a bit tricky, because I do most writing on my laptop). Or to clean or fix something in the house. Or to work in my garden. Or even to see friends in person! Or any of a number of other things I need or want to do. When I reconnect, I need to be able to do so without losing (too much of) the liberation.

2016/05/31

Teamwork

I confessed something during a show I played the other night: I think Taylor Swift is the shiz. I think she has a strong voice that she knows how to use to very good effect, and it's imperfect enough to be interesting. She's a real musician. She has excellent stage presence. And above all, I think she is a distinctive, inspired pop songwriter.

I keep going back to videos of her performing "unplugged," just her singing and playing acoustic or electric guitar (she plays well). That's where you can tell whether a song is truly a good song or just the result of production. "Wildest Dreams" on the album doesn't particularly stand out for me, but Swift performing it solo at the Grammy Museum slays me. I watched a video of her playing "We Are Never Getting Back Together," a monster hit that sounds great with her singing and playing.

Before she sang it, she told the story of how the song came about. And there's no question that having the inspiration of saying about an ex-boyfriend that "we are never getting back together" in the way that she did helped create a hit song. But what struck me was Swift saying that she had gone to the studio that day specifically to write a song. She and Martin were going to work until they had produced something good.

This is not an unusual way to work. It's how pretty much all pop songwriters work. You don't wait for inspiration. You make inspiration. You scribble ideas, or draw, or play an instrument, or whatever gets your juices flowing. You bounce ideas off collaborators. You write and throw away the stuff that doesn't work until you have not just a song but a good song. There are bands that do something similar: hole up together and write songs for the next album until they have enough.

Me, I've usually been of the lazy, wait-for-the-muse type. The upside is that I'm generally happy with what I write. The downside is that I have so little output. The muse is fickle. And if I don't block out time to write, other things will get done instead, and song output will be less than my output on this irregularly updated blog.

It would be dumb to say, as I have said, that I'm just not a prolific songwriter. The reality is that I don't work enough at it. Neither harder nor smarter.

I have rarely collaborated to write songs, and almost never in the way that Swift and Martin do. I wonder what that would be like. I do know that writing with another good writer is likely to do two things: produce more good songs and make both participants better songwriters. I say I "almost" never work that way because that's pretty much what you do at rock camp. But rock camp songwriting does not usually produce hits. You're mainly concerned with getting the song finished at all!

I don't know if any of the songwriters I know would want to do any collaborating. I could ask. I could also seek out workshops where co-writing is part of what you do. I'm so used to writing alone, in a very personal way, that it's a bit scary to think of working with one or more other people. But I bet it would do me a lot of good.