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):



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.


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!


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.



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.


Pilgrim's progress

I'm about a week into my reform program. I hate reform programs and resolutions and self-improvement shit. I didn't want to change anything about my life. After too much time, I realized I was unusually stressed and anxious. Once I did realize it, I got over not wanting to change anything and started making changes. Because feeling bad sucks.

So far, not bad. It's been a week partly of being more conscious of how I already spend my time and partly of doing more priority things. I practised more, including with Leenie. I wrote an important email that took away the obligation to do something I really did not have time or desire to do. I sent some personal correspondence. I walked more, usually as transportation to do errands plus added distance.

It wasn't all work and then more work. On Tuesday, I did three fun things: took a road trip, had dinner out, and saw a band I love. Sweetie and I went out to dinner last night. And a lot of what I do is not work, including preparing meals and reading.

More time doesn't mean I get everything done. Some things are easy to do more of -- playing guitar and singing, writing to people, gardening. Some things, however, I'm not as good at doing.

Songwriting is one of those things. I get bored without new songs. I need new songs. But writing is work. I've mostly been a lazy songwriter, getting inspired occasionally and then following through. But with songwriting you need to facilitate inspiration, give it a kick start, and that means grabbing a notebook or opening a text file (I do both) and writing virtually whatever comes to mind, for a good hour at least. Topics, titles, bits of lines, rhymes, drawings, whatever. That's how you write more and write better. But it's one of those tasks that is easy to put off because it's daunting.

It's also too easy to put off house cleaning and maintenance. I can't say I've improved that situation much yet. But it's a lot easier to keep a reasonably clean and fixed up house if I don't let things slide until there are too many chores. Both cleaning and fixing are things that I should do at least every few days.

Getting overwhelmed is one of my biggest problems. The longer I let things go, and the more things there are to do, the more intimidating it is to start even one thing. It becomes easier to do nothing. The pile is so high! But there's nothing that will make the pile smaller other than to keep at it.

Most of the time I gained comes from being scarce on social media. As much as I enjoy tweeting, I was spending too much time on Twitter, and even then not keeping up. It's pretty much the same with Facebook. Unfortunately, the relief of having more time and less anxiety is offset a bit by the anxiety that comes from being out of touch. Without Twitter, it's harder to maintain contact with local people and know what's going on locally. Without Facebook, I lose contact with Vancouver friends and people far away and am unaware of even more events. And yet I'm afraid to do more than breeze in and out, lest I fall back into old patterns.

For the next couple of weeks, at least, my social calendar is fairly light. I will keep doing things I should be doing. I will keep leaving time to relax and do nothing (other than maybe watch TV). I will fill whatever time I have with things I claim to want to do. One of those things is hanging out with friends. I will try not to worry that social media invisibility will lead to actual invisibility. I do have email and text links to many people. I can reach out. I can hope that people reach in.


Sea change, maybe

I'm at the end of a few months of being heavily booked. Overbooked, really. Everything I committed to was something that I wanted to do. But the lack of downtime started to get to me. And I realized that the overbooking caused the things I claim are most important to me to lose out. I can't be much of a musician if I rarely practise or write or play out because I'm too busy with other commitments as well as stressed out and unable to focus because of two months of house uncertainty and repair (thankfully done).

Just this past weekend, I felt something shift. I have no idea if it's a permanent shift. I imagine not. But I hope some of its impact endures. Right now I find I have at least some resolve to change the situation, to reorder my priorities. I feel the change even physically. My appetite is down (for me, that's a good thing). I feel more energetic, a nice change from the usual. I found myself on a social media break (it happened, then I realized it), not total but substantial. I have more time and energy to work on my time.

When I need to figure stuff like this out, my analytical and obsessive-compulsive sides tend to kick in. Probably both of those played into my creating a table of priorities. I entered activities that I do or want to do. I marked each as to whether I needed it, wanted it a lot, or wanted it a little. I added the frequency of activities, first as it is at present, and then as I want it to be. The table evolved as I added information, sorted it differently, remembered more activities, added and removed columns. It's full of colours too.

It's a chart of my life. I never realized my life fit into a Microsoft Word table.

The still-evolving table is currently sorted by desired frequency, so it's easier to see activities that need to happen daily, often, weekly, and so on.

Most important are the activities I need or want to do pretty much every day, such as work, walk (my only real exercise), practise music, make dinner (I get breaks from that), and screen films ('tis the season). There are things I should do at least every few days, such as housework (best if I keep at it regularly) and gardening (both so my garden will thrive and for my own mental health).

Just as important are the things I've been doing daily that I need to reduce or eliminate. At this point, that's pretty much just social media. It's not just the actual time on social media. It's the overhead of sitting at my laptop too often and for too long. There are always other things to do on my laptop when I'm not on Twitter or Facebook.

The chart also shows other things I need or want more time for, such as reading and personal correspondence (mostly email but occasionally handwritten). I would like to get together with friends more often, which is way better than social media interaction, but when it's less often than I wish I'm not going to stress about it.

The chart helps me be honest with myself. Am I ever going to play softball? Not without eliminating or drastically reducing at least a few other activities, and that's unlikely. Do I really want to blog more than I do? Probably not. My blog seems to run only off sporadic inspiration, not steady hard work, and that's okay. Songwriting, however, is something I need to do every day, or at least every couple of days. Block out time with minimal distractions and write.

One thing that's going to take a hit is political volunteering. I've realized that while it's something that I sometimes love to do, mostly it's something that I feel I ought to do. One reason that's been stressful lately is that I'm not very good at "ought to" volunteering. I'm a better volunteer when it's something I love to do, such as my arts and civic involvement. I'm always a political junkie, but only a sporadically enthusiastic political volunteer.

Full-time work makes a huge impact on the schedule, not just in the time it takes but in the desire not to work during non-work time, even when it's work I want and need to do.In only a few years I will be able to stop working. I have not yet managed to get my hours reduced, but at some point work hours will cease altogether. I can only imagine how my life—and chart—might change.

While I'm still working, however, I need to manage my time. There really aren't enough hours in a day (and sleep is not optional), so I have to divide my waking hours more carefully than I would like. I'm not very disciplined! But occasionally I get determined, and while that's so, I'd better take advantage of it.

One day at a time. I'm not going to get this changed all at once. I hope I stay determined for a while, however, lest this blog post become an embarrassment. Long-term determination has never been my strong suit. That itself must change.