The Composition Nexus

I started coming up with silly little songs at an early age, like most people I’m sure… but the difference was even at four years old I was serious about it.

At sixteen I discovered Country (and Western) music, and realized it resonated with me.  Deeply.  Not every song, because some are just too hokey to handle, but rather what was possible in the genre.

In my eagerness to learn more about the craft I began paying close attention to singer/songwriters who struck a chord in my head and heart.  Besides the obligatory pop and rock stars like Jimmy Buffett, James Taylor and Dan Fogelberg, I sought out country artists who weren’t afraid to at least occasionally buck the Nashville establishment.  That meant latching onto folks like the inimitable Waylon Jennings, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Rex Allen Junior and Earl Thomas Conley among many others too numerous to list.

I saw the latter perform many times, and got the good fortune to become friends with his equally-talented brother, Fred.  I think I was around 20 or so when I asked for Fred’s opinion on some lyrics after a show in Dallas.  They were performing again the next night so Fred told me to show up and he’d give me feedback.  My first from a professional!  I was so excited I couldn’t sleep.

The next night while Earl was hobnobbing with local celebrities Fred sat me down and gave it me straight.  My writing showed promise, but I was trying too hard.    Too much poetry, too few hooks.  I wasn’t too discouraged–  Fred just confirmed what I already suspected I needed to do.

So I spent the next several years writing constantly, any time an idea hit.  I accumulated pounds of scrap paper with thoughts inscribed.  Song fragments emerged onto the backs of envelopes, on post-it notes, and yes, even on the proverbial napkins.

At some point I found myself close to that sweet spot where I could say something hopefully clever and have it connect with audiences on different levels– without being heavy or preachy.  Finally, forty some-odd years after beginning this journey, I find that a groove occasionally shows in my path and I fall into it gladly.  It’s a track that pulls in all the right elements and when I’m in it, the songs write themselves.  I think I’m just the conveyance.

I write all the time even when the groove isn’t there.  I think those are the times of sheer practice, filling my subconscious with forced thoughts that over time it crunches into something more creative.

Lately I’m real pleased with the results, and can’t wait to share them with a larger audience.  Brace yourself, world, it’s coming!

Published in: on 20 March 2010 at 3:13 pm  Leave a Comment  

Speaking of voices…

Nabbed a TC-Helicon VoiceLive off ebay.  Can’t wait until it gets here!

Published in: on 14 March 2010 at 12:57 am  Leave a Comment  

Finding a voice

Yes, I’m still alive and still making music.  Just in more of a solitary mode lately.

I’m not happy that I failed in my goal to get an album out last year.  The momentum was there, the people came together, I had the tools… but one gremlin after another threw itself into the works.


Published in: on 11 March 2010 at 10:34 pm  Leave a Comment  

Striking new chords

I’ve been creating songs since I was around 4, got semi-serious about it at 16, then recommited myself in early 2009 after losing my job.  Or, based on the rollercoaster last year was, maybe just plain committed would have been better.

A few things I picked up along the last several months’ rocky journey were tools that have so proved their worth they’re almost worn out already.  The first is The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Music Composition.  I had been flying mostly blind, using a trusty Ovation acoustic guitar to pull tunes out of my busy head.  problem is, for a guy with little training and a bad case of tinnitus, this was rarely easy or even accurate.  It took me way too long to realize I’d been imagining Em where G fit better, and vice versa.

The composition book has been a tremendous help.  I now have a handy reference to fall back on when intuition (or memory) fails.  Sure, following the rules strictly can lead to creative ruts… but as a college English teacher admonished decades ago, it’s easier to get away with bending or breaking the rules if you actually know them first.

The second aid I’m rapidly wearing out is The Chord Wheel, one of the most ingenius musician’s tools I’ve ever seen and something I could have really used years ago.  It’s a simple thin booklet with a rotating wheel on the cover that dials you through keys and chords, graphically illustrating the relationships and allowing a novice to instantly grasp composition principles.  Used in conjunction with the aforementioned book, and even a beginner could hack his or her way through some basic compositions.

Becoming slowly and steadily better at chord progression (and vocabulary) has had an unintended consequence on other areas.  For the longest time I either came up with lyrical ideas before tunes, or both simultaneously.  I have stacks and stacks of old notes (i.e., unfinished works)  demonstrating the process.  But now I find myself firing up Band in a Box and starting instrumental arrangements first, often before I have any idea of words or even a theme!  I’m not sure if this is good, bad or whatever.  the one downside though is that I don’t pick up that old Ovation as much.  Which is okay in a sense, because I was never going to be a great guitarist, whereas my oldest son just might.  Now he has more opportunity to find out.

Speaking of opportunities, I’m now looking forward to whatever 2010 brings.  I can assure you that no matter what, one thing for sure will be an album of songs from the Freelance Rider Company.  Yeehaw!

Published in: on 4 January 2010 at 2:41 pm  Leave a Comment  

Kicking off 2010

What a year was 2009!  Lost my job, spent six months frantically finding another… and meanwhile got serious about music.

During those six months of unemployment I made sure to develop a work routine other than job-searching.  That meant organizing my songs, improving arranging and mixing skills and assembling a virtual band composed of some truly fine people.  It was an up and down process, but the overall trend was positive!

I fell short of the goal to have an album out by Christmas ’09 but thanks to lessons learned and progress made it will be easy to attain for this year.  In fact, we might be able to pull off two.

So shake off that cynicism, buckaroos, the ride is just beginning!  😉

Published in: on 1 January 2010 at 3:04 pm  Leave a Comment  

Susan Boyle “destroys” charts, rebuilds CD sales chimes in on the incredible Susan Boyle phenomenon, pointing out how her debut album “I Dreamed a Dream” is defying not only numerous truisms about the state of music today, but also the so-called death of physical media.

Granted, CD sales are not what they used to be, nor are they likely to be again.  But no one who thinks this through should be surprised at all about Ms. Boyle’s amazing ability to deflect downloads from iTunes and, not to mention song sharing outside the retail channels.

It’s all about demographics.

My teenage sons and their peers have grown up thinking of popular music as some nebulous product with only transitory value, whereas my ancient generation and those before placed so much stock in a moving song that we kept the truly profound ones charted for months.  Sure, a large part of that was the physical nature of the media, but it also spoke to a now-fading loyalty to things that evoked passion.

I blame the music industry at large for the devolution of the art, and largely because it is an industry.  Churn is everything now; a long-charting song keeps revisions 2, 3 and more from moving up to coveted top spots.

I’m not saying there was more altruism in the 1960s and 1970s on the part of record executives, but in those decades they had to follow the prevailing will of the people.  We demanded staying power from our artists then, and the industry had to reflect that.  It went beyond that, too– we wanted the same staying power from the novelties of one-hit wonders.  It all boiled down to what ws unique, and good to enough people.

Those two decades shaped and were in turn shaped by a democratic approach to music, where anyone with something to say could find an audience and occasionally, a degree of success.  Now, the main channels are created and restricted by people with no vested interest, it seems, in music for its own sake.

The Buggles uncannily prophesized that Video Killed the Radio Star in 1979, and there’s no denying that in its heyday video changed the way we look at music.  Over the course of the 1980s, looks became more important than actual talent.  Glam and “hair” bands proliferated at the expense of the beauty-challenged.  Technology could fix a broken voice; it couldn’t help ugly.  Legends like the rugged but talent-rich Waylon Jennings became just so much audio driftwood in that era.  Had his career started in the 80s, we would have been the poorer for his music’s likely failure to succeed.  I wonder how Susan Boyle might have fared then, too.

The grunge trend of the 1990s was a rebellion against such superficiality, but the allure of hip-hop killed rootsy rock… and today’s skin-deep, manufactured pop just added pretty nails to the coffin.

Which brings us back around to the marvel of Susan Boyle.

Ironically, video created her career, in complete rebellion against what it had been doing for decades prior.  One can see the MTV legacy on the faces of the audience when Susan cheekily chatted with the judges… but that cynicism rapidly melted once her singing started.  It was as if we had rewound back to those wide-open pre-video days of the 60s and 70s.

It’s certainly not the grinding hordes of Britney Spears or Kanye West fans who are flipping off online song purveyors to actually buy and bring home something they can get their hands and hearts around.  Susan’s sweet, angelic voice and song selections appeals to us CD-buying dinosaurs.  Through her, we can return to the days when a plain-looking but powerfully-voiced everywoman could surprise and earn the respect of a grateful music-loving public.  And we don’t mind paying for the privilege.

Let our children and grandchildren download and share as they will– one day that chicken will come home to roost.  In the meantime, we fossils can get behind the Boyle bandwagon and keep pushing it as long as we can.  There’s plenty of room for more on that train.,, and Susan Boyle’s dream coming true means, yes, that anything really is possible.  😉

Published in: on 25 December 2009 at 4:45 pm  Leave a Comment  

Happy Holidays 2009

Here’s a little letter I just sent to my bandmates (with minor editing):

I just wanted to touch base with everyone with a little status update and more.

You haven’t heard much from me for a variety of reasons.  One of course is work.

I was also elected as a council rep recently for a growing Linux-based developer and enthusiast community at  This is an organization sponsored by Nokia, and the council position has meant a lot of work for me (I am developing user group outreach programs) but I’ve been repaid with a trip to Amsterdam and one to Santa Clara CA, so no complaints!

But of course I’ve also been working on music.  I realized I was being way too ambitious with some song choices, so I had to swallow my pride, reign in my impatience and rethink what I wanted to do.  So the Poco tribute goes on hold.  I started writing new songs with a few things in mind:

– you guys.  Your singing, playing and arrangement talents.  You’re all awesome!

– hits.  I want accessible songs with the potential to bring all of us some attention.  There was potential in the ones we’ve worked on so far but I wanted to do more.  I think you’ll all be excited about what’s developed when you hear and see it.

– what I’ve learned.  As you all know I’ve had educational and technical challenges, but they’re 95% overcome.  You’ll hear it in the newer mixes.

I think all of us have had our individual challenges and I’m confident we will each come out stronger for it.  As of 2010 I am recommitting myself to success with music– and that includes doing whatever I can to help your own dreams come true.  My hope is that your participation in this virtual group will bring the sort of attention you’re looking for.

I feel truly blessed to count you all as collaborators, bandmates and friends.  I look forward to what develops over the next few months, and being able to craft something powerful and special in this age of bland, pointless crap masquerading as music.

Happy Holidays, and hang tight!


Published in: on 15 December 2009 at 1:30 am  Leave a Comment  

Left of center

No, the title is not referring to anything political, but rather a problem I’m having with song production.  Specifically, balance.

I noticed a while back that audio was coming out of Cakewalk’s Sonar with a noticeable leftward bias– easily 20%.  This was in general mixes– if I mastered or remastered the same production in Sonar again, it got even worse.  A cumulative error.

I first figured the problem was in Sonar, and maybe due to my preference of starting every project as a 5.1 Surround creation (and mixing down to stereo for typical use).  But when I tested that theory with a simple Stereo project, I still ended up with bias.  Sonar, however, was still a common denominator.

I knew it wasn’t my soundcard, because it was new and the problem had manifested on the previous one as well.

I discovered I could correct the problem to a certain degree using stereo massaging in Ozone 4… but it’s imperfect and I want to address root cause.

Then yesterday I noticed that Windows default system sounds were exhibiting the same bias.  I had nothing to do with mixing these, so the problem was definitely in playback.  Digging further, I think I found at least another symptom: In the Sounds control panel applet, only the left speaker shows up for volume control.  On a 5.1 system!

So now I’m suspecting something screwy with Windows XP 64… maybe in the way it handles 5.1 soundcards because that’s what the last 2 have been.  I’ve never noticed the missing right speaker control before but it makes sense; maybe the setting for the hidden right output is lower than the left, and since I can’t see it to change it, it’s stuck there.

Well, not completely.  I’m going to try nudging the left side down 20% and mix again.  It’s a workaround, but I hope it works.  I’ll report later on what happens.  Meanwhile, if anyone reads this and knows a real solution, please let me know!

Published in: on 23 October 2009 at 4:21 pm  Comments (2)  

Getting the band out of the box

I said in a recent post that I would rave about PG Music’s steadily-improving Band in a Box but an article about iTunes induced me to broaden my scope.  First, though, the amazing product.

Band in a Box (along with its younger sibling RealBand) is one of those almost-hidden gems, a tool for singer-songwriters that does not garner a lot of press (despite over 600,000 hits on Google).  Its main strength lies in enabling us to bring our compositions to life without having professional arrangement skills or hiring musicians.  The description on PG Musics’s site is helpful:

The award winning Band-in-a-Box is so easy to use!  Just type in the chords to any song (like C or Fm7b5), choose a musical style from the hundreds available, and click the [Play] button. Band-in-a-Box automatically generates a complete professional-quality arrangement.

Well… almost.


Published in: on 18 October 2009 at 7:09 pm  Comments (1)  
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My favorite compliment

“That’s not my usual musical preference, but I like it!”

Published in: on 18 October 2009 at 1:16 am  Leave a Comment