More Disjointed Thoughts

5 in 5 Song Challenge 

I saw Chelsey Coy from Single Girl/Married Girl mention something about a songwriting challenge.  It seemed interesting, so I went after more information. It seemed even more interesting, so I joined.  Today, I get to tell you about the 5 in 5 Song Challenge. 

This challenge is sponsored by Song Fancy, a website run by Nashville based singer/songwriter Sarah Spencer.  The website itself is designed to reach out to other songwriters, to help them when the obstacle of writer’s block rears its ugly head.  The site says it is specifically for the “contemporary lady songwriter”, but there are no barriers to entry for this challenge. Plenty of male songwriters joined.  Prior to this challenge, I had never stumbled across this website, so I can’t comment on the sense of community there, nor can I comment on the effectiveness of the songwriting tips shared.  I will say however, that I think this is a fantastic idea, and very altruistic of Sarah Spencer to share ideas that have helped her to be a better songwriter with others. 

What exactly is this challenge?  Well, it consists of five days… and it consists of five songs.  Those of us who signed up for the challenge are expected to write one song each day for five days.  That seems daunting, doesn’t it? If you aren’t feeling particularly inspired, it can be hard to write one song in two weeks, let alone a song each day for a business week.  The task is a little less scary than you might think, because each day comes with a song prompt. 

For Monday 11 March, also known as Day 1, we were given a list of ten words.  We had to use five of them in a song. For Tuesday 12 March, which was Day 2, we were given a phrase to use as a jumping-off point for the song.  For Wednesday 13th March, something that we call Day 3, the prompt was phrased as a dare… a dare to complete an unspecified action… but the song had to be written from a specific point of view. On Thursday 14th March, which as you might have figured out by now, was Day 4, we were given another list of ten words... but they were ten different words than Monday's list.  Finally, on Friday 15th March, which you surely realize was Day 5, we were given a specific two-word phrase to use as a song title.

Speaking personally as a songwriter, on the occasions I feel blocked, it is because I don’t have a place to start.  Maybe I’m not particularly moved by anything in the moment… no recent life tragedies, no recent life victories, and a general feeling of "meh". Some days I might have something to say, but can’t exactly find the motivation to write.  I found that this challenge solved both of those issues for me. Each day, here’s a new topic… something specific. Where to go with that topic, well, that’s in the hands of each songwriter. If you give 50 songwriters each a list of ten words and tell them to go write a song using five words from that list… well, you’ll get an incredible variety of styles and feeling.  The same can be said of the other prompts. In addition to the topic, having the expectation up front that YOU MUST COMPLETE THE SONG TODAY really helped me to get the songs finished. Nothing like a deadline to inspire urgency… 

Looking back at the challenge, I can’t say the songs I created were my best work.  (This means that you probably won't be hearing them, even if you ask nicely.  Ok, maybe one of them might see the light of day eventually, but not in its original form.)  Normally for me, I write and re-write and re-write a song before I bother recording a home demo of it.  Only the strong survive long enough to get recorded. When you are tasked with writing and recording a song each day, the ability to self-edit like that goes away.  That being the case, I didn’t come up with anything that I would consider “polished”... but there are some tiny moments in each of the songs I wrote that I think I will excise and use again somewhere else.  I think that having these songs be so raw and unpolished is part of the point of the challenge. The daily deadline forced me to step away from my natural tendency to immediately judge my own art, and to simply create. 

In order to keep us all accountable, this challenge came with a private Facebook group.  This is where we received the song prompts. This is where we shared our songs with the other writers.  This is where we gave feedback. This is where we got feedback. This is a good idea, but it is only as useful as the community involved can make it.  For the first couple of days, I tried to listen to every song that was posted to the community. On the first day, I think I left feedback on three of them.  On the second day, I left feedback on two of them. As the challenge moves on, trying to keep up with the submissions became overwhelming for me… especially since this challenge is happening in the middle of a normal work week in my daily life, and, oh yeah, I have to step back and CREATE something each day as well.  The challenge serves the two-fold purpose of (1) pushing us to write even when we might not be comfortable doing so that day, and (2) also getting us feedback from our peers. In my experience, the challenge was successful on point one, and not successful on point two. Even though it is art and a creative endeavor, a songwriter should treat it like a job and set aside specific time to work on the craft... this challenge forced me to do that.  As for point two...  the song I submitted for Day 2 didn’t get listened to even one time.  All of the others were listened to at least once, but feedback was minimal.  (Again, that's my experience.  Some of the writers in the group got plenty of feedback.  This may be related to genre.)

My final verdict… if you are a songwriter and you struggle with what to say or how to say it or where to start or how to get something finished… go visit the Song Fancy website and sign up for this challenge the next time it is offered.  It is a great mental exercise. It will enable you to stretch out your songwriting skills in a way you might not have considered before. Most importantly, even if you don’t come out of the challenge with anything you feel like keeping or sharing, I truly think this sort of thing makes us better at our craft.

Anxiety & Depression - A Personal Tale Of Being Broken 

The last time I went to Sri Lanka was 2014.  This was, like all of my visits to that lovely island, a work trip… long days in the office, then more work from the hotel later at night once the United States had woken up and gotten to work and started sending emails.  I worked hard. Too hard, it turns out. I came home… kept working… drinking a couple of liters of coffee a day, fighting the jet lag, trying to keep up with things, and not sleeping enough… then one day, it would appear that my mind and/or body decided that it couldn’t do this anymore. 

I remember having felt strange for a couple of days, but no more than strange.  On one particular day however, “strange” went to a completely different place. Chest pain.  The shakes. Racing heartbeat. I broke out in a sweat. I felt dizzy. I was convinced that I was having a heart attack, and asked my wife to drive me to the hospital.  We hadn’t even gotten a mile down the road when it got worse… shortness of breath… left arm pain… more chest pain… the feeling of impending doom… more shakes. I implored her to pull over, and we called 911.  I made sure to tell her that I love her, you know, because I was surely going to die. The ambulance shows up, I get on the bed with the wheels, I get loaded in, and away we go. The medic gives me nitroglycerin in pill form, immediately starts an IV, and then runs an EKG.  We’re not even to the hospital yet when he tells me that I definitely did NOT have a heart attack. He says that since he’s not a doctor, he can’t give me an “official” diagnosis, but he says that what I have had is a panic attack caused by stress. I ask him how I would be able to tell the difference… he says that I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference, and calling 911 was the right thing to do. 

Overnight in the hospital.  Lots of tests.  IV in each arm… and I hate hate hate needles.  Lots of EKG. One of those CAT scans where they put dye in you that makes you feel like you have wet yourself, then wheel you into a machine head first.  A stress test, where you run on the treadmill. It turns out that I’m fine. Sure, I definitely need to lose weight, but my blood pressure is great. Blood sugar is fine.  Cholesterol levels are fine. Everything’s fine. Welcome to having anxiety. 

Starting from that day, panic attacks are a part of my life now.  They were most intense the first couple of months after the diagnosis.  It is most unsettling if I am driving. Usually these days when I get a panic attack, I am at home by myself, but I recently had one in a rather public setting with a lot of people watching, and that wasn’t any fun.  I guess this is part of my new normal… or maybe, this is something that I’ve always been dealing with, and now I’m old enough that my mind/body can’t suppress it anymore? 

After this - and I don’t remember when exactly, but it happened at some point - the suicidal thoughts returned.  I say “returned”, because I’ve had them before, but it’s not something I generally talk about. Maybe that’s genetic, as I know my dad had them too.  Anyway, here’s a secret… my first speeding ticket, back when I was 19… that was a suicide attempt gone wrong. I was having a particularly angsty time as a late teen.  I had recently lost someone who I was very close to. Work was particularly frustrating. I remember feeling that I couldn’t deal with it anymore. To get home from where I was working at the time, I had to make about a 25 minute drive, and much of it was on one of those two lane roads that cuts through the country bits connecting the Dayton suburbs.  I decided I was going to get going up to around 90 mph, take off my seatbelt, and jerk the wheel left as soon as I saw a car that looked big enough to make the destruction instantaneous. I never made it quite to 90, and I never got the seatbelt off, because I got pulled over for speeding. Of course, being a young black man, at that point, I was 100% frightened of the police officer, and all of the suicidal ideation went away, and the self-preservation kicked in.  I mean, death is supposed to be a release from pain, and getting shot is painful, so that’s pretty much all I thought about. 

The medication.  The first go-round didn’t work.  The doctor upped the dosage. The higher dosage made the room spin around for about an hour, starting ten minutes or so after I swallow the pill.  I stopped taking that. The insomnia got worse... something I had dealt with before, but it was back and worse than ever before.  When I did manage to sleep, I would wake up drenched, having sweated profusely through horrific nightmares... body wet, hair wet, clothes wet, sheets wet, pillow wet.  Ick.

Then I started having trouble concentrating.  Those that know me probably know I have perfectionist tendencies… I hate being wrong.  I’d rather say nothing than say something that is wrong. One of my personal points of pride in the past has been being efficient and effective at work, showing attention to detail, and getting things right.  Well, I started making mistakes… silly ones, when I should know better. Often, nobody would notice. Sometimes, someone would notice. I noticed them all, and each one ate at me… I would get more frustrated with myself.  Some days, I just couldn’t function. I would just lay in bed all day. I wouldn’t eat. (By the way, not eating for a few days is a very effective weight loss strategy, though most nutritionists would probably not recommend this.)  I got more irritable. Sometimes I would cry for no reason. More often, I just felt numb… everything was “meh”... no good, no bad, no up, no down, just IS. I’m sure I was a pain for my wife to deal with. I couldn’t remember things that I had read or seen… and again, those that know me probably know that I tend to remember just about everything I read, especially if I read it more than once.  Since all of this was beginning to impact my ability to do my job, I figured I should be more thorough about getting professional help. 

When I did this, my wife told me that she knew I was depressed even back when we were dating, many years ago.  That was an interesting revelation. Maybe I don’t even know what “normal” or “well-adjusted” is supposed to be.   

The therapy.  I went to therapy.  I didn’t like that. I should probably try it again, but sitting in a room talking about my feelings is not my idea of a good time.  I have been told to try it again, by multiple people. Sure, I’ll try it again as soon as I am done procrastinating. 

New doctor.  New medication.  It gave me diarrhea.  I didn’t feel better. I kept taking the medication.  I kept checking in with the doctor. I kept having panic attacks, albeit less frequently.  More medication. Higher dosage. The diarrhea stops. I didn’t feel better, but the doctor says he sees improvement in my ability to focus and have a conversation.  This makes me realize that I was affected in ways that I surely didn’t even notice. I go on a work trip to North Carolina, where one day I go to the lobby of my hotel around 4 in the morning convinced I am dying again.  New hospital. Still no heart issue. Yet another panic attack, a particularly bad one… and particularly expensive, due to the ambulance ride and hospital visit and the United States. More medication. Check in with the doctor. Higher dosage.  The feelings of worthlessness.  This is my new normal. Medication daily, try to fight off the very dark thoughts, try to stay busy, try to get work done.

I’m broken.  This is something I have come to accept. More often than I care to admit, I just don't have "ganas"... somehow this feeling makes much more sense in Spanish than in English... see, "ganas" means "want to" or "feel like" when it is a noun.... yeah, "se fue las ganas" is something you could quote me as saying regularly, except for I don't often actually say it out loud.  Some might reason that having faith should make everything better, but faith doesn’t work like that. Alexa, insert that meme that says “that’s not how any of this works”.  For instance, imagine that a person has lupus.  This person may have all the faith in the world, but that isn’t going to make the lupus go away, or even treat it.  This person needs professional attention… and while faith might help them to endure the condition, it is not a cure.  I have come to understand that anxiety/depression works in a similar manner. It’s something that I need to manage with professional attention, and while having faith might help me to endure, it is not treatment, and it will not make the issue go away. 

You know what helps me feel a little better sometimes?  Music.  Now, I do not mean that music is a panacea, nor is it treatment.  Indeed, there have been multiple occasions where I have had tickets to a show already paid for, and couldn't bring myself to leave home, so I skipped the show and was just out the money.  (The musicians got paid though, so there is your silver lining.)  However, quite often, when I am sitting at the piano or playing the bass, I can feel some of the stress peel away.  Writing songs is especially cathartic. I am not exactly a gifted musician by any means, but I like to play, and I like to continue learning about theory and how/why music works.  Indeed, music is a great confluence of my inner drive to read and learn and absorb, mashed into an art form that I find to be pleasing. In addition to making sure that there isn’t any weaponry readily available in our home, being project-oriented around music helps to keep the suicidal ideation at bay.  First, making suicide plans just seems to be too much effort… and second, I have a bunch of songs I want to record, and being dead would make it much more difficult to get that done.  It would be inaccurate to say that music makes me “happy”, but sometimes it makes me feel just slightly less broken.

Thoughts on Kickstarter 

Are you worried I am going to ask you for money?  Well don’t worry, I am definitely not going to do that today.  However, crowdfunding has become a very useful resource for creative types, and that being the case, I’ve been thinking about making Kickstarter a part of the process for the as-yet-unnamed second album.  Below are three disjointed thoughts about this, in no particular order. 

Vinyl.  Vinyl is cool again.  Music sounds great on vinyl.  I know people who say that music sounds warmer on vinyl.  (I don’t hear it, but maybe that’s because my turntable isn’t of a high enough quality.)  Vinyl is so awesome that Pearl Jam wrote a song about it. Alexa, play “Spin the Black Circle”.  Here’s the problem.  Vinyl is expensive.  From what I understand the mastering process for vinyl is different than it is for other media.  Further, producing vinyl is a time-consuming process that requires a very unique set of machinery, and that makes it expensive.  Simply put, there is no way I can afford to release this album on vinyl… but I really want to. The only way I could do that would be if folks pre-ordered enough vinyl copies of the album to offset the production costs. 

Begging.  It feels like begging. I mean, when you’re an “indie” artist, you kind of want to be as independent as you can. DIY, right?  Crowdfunding is not so much DIY… it’s more like DI with a little help from my friends and as many complete strangers as possible.  It feels like begging. Of course, one would offer rewards in exchange for a pledge to back the project, which makes it more like pre-ordering.  Of course. It feels like begging. 

Fear.  You know, if you use Kickstarter and you don’t reach your financial goal, you don’t get paid.  Zip. Zero. Nada. Rien. Now, there are reasons why that is a good thing… let’s say I offer vinyl as a reward, and I don’t meet my financial goal for the project… well, if we aren’t doing an “all or nothing” model, I would be obligated to fulfill those vinyl pre-orders when I really can’t afford to do so.  However, to quote a movie about music in a slightly out-of-context way, “some money would be nice”.  Not reaching the goal, well, that would feel like a crushing failure, and not in a good way.  (Looking at you Ken Andrews.) That’s scary. Fear. 

Maybe.  Probably.  These are words to describe my feelings about Kickstarter.  At this moment though, I don’t have to decide. Tracking for the album has already begun, and I’ll keep plugging away at it.  After all, before any kind of crowdfunding starts, one should have demonstrated that work is already in progress and a product is going to result, yes?  I am definitely not asking anyone for money today… but in a few months, well, let’s see.

Music as a Time Machine - Part 1  

Part of the lasting appeal of music that we may have discovered many years ago is the place we happened to be in our lives when that particular music became part of our soundtrack.  I am sure this is true for other folks as well, but for me, certain songs and certain albums really take me back to a specific time or place…and sometimes those are warm memories and sometimes those are bitter memories… but for me, there aren’t many things that take me back the way that music does.  That being the case, here’s the first entry in an ongoing series “Music as a Time Machine”. 

 

 

Toadies - Hell Below/Stars Above 

Toadies. The pride of Forth Worth.  Their debut album showed up while I was in high school, and for a time you couldn’t get away from that lead single.  It went platinum, back when albums still used to go platinum. You would think that this kind of success would establish them some goodwill with their record label… but you would be wrong. 

The second album that Toadies presented to their label… well, the label didn’t like it. The band went back to the drawing board… went back to touring… went back to writing.  I remember avidly following them via their website and their message board. The members of the band would often interact with the general public there on the message board, and I gathered from reading the posts, they would do this in the community as well.  They gigged regularly - at least around Texas. They would go to other shows. They would host the occasional party at one of the band members’ homes. They would talk about their interests outside of music. All of this turned these people who seemed very much like rock stars to the high school version of me into regular folk for the early twenties version of me. 

We finally got a second Toadies album, Hell Below/Stars Above.  Amazingly enough, it’s actually better than their debut album, the one that went platinum.  The band went on the road to support the album, and I remember seeing them in Cincinnati and in Columbus and in Cleveland with my friends.  (Notably, Justin locked his keys in the car at a rest stop in Lodi where we stopped on the way home from the Cleveland show for a snack. Good times.)  Sadly, the label didn’t do much of anything to help promote the record. I don’t remember seeing any videos, and I don’t remember any radio play. Sales lagged.  All of the stress of this time caused the band to fracture. 

We still have these songs though.  The album starts off with a Vaden Todd Lewis scream over some riffy guitar. Lisa Umbarger’s fine bass work stands out here, from “Push the Hand” and “Motivational”, where it really drives the song… to tracks where it is just as important to me, but maybe a bit more subtle, like “You’ll Come Down” and “Pressed Against the Sky”.  Have a listen to the title track and it’s very gospel-sounding outro… this is a song that has been a huge influence on my own songwriting. It’s also nice that this band has some love for Dayton, being clear fans of Kim Deal’s work… and they are on record stating their admiration for Brainiac as well. 

I still love these songs, and every time I hear them, I think about driving on 70, 35, 33, or 71, on my way to a party, a jam session, or a concert, looking forward to seeing my friends and having this record playing at an unsafe volume in the car.  I also think about Pete, gone way too soon.

New Album Beginning 

Yesterday I took 24 songs with me to Reel Love Recording Studio and laid them at the feet of engineer par excellence Patrick Himes.  Two of these songs were co-written with a friend from Ipswich. (The one in Suffolk, not the one in Massachusetts.) One of them was co-written with a fine gentleman by the name of Greg Owens, and you should really check out his work here: https://www.gregowensmusic.com/.  One of them is an anagram;  well, many of them are probably anagrams, but one of them is intentionally an anagram.  (Here’s a random thought: “Anna Graham” would be a pretty cool character name for a book.)  One of them has a French title, but English lyrics. One of them has a Spanish title with Spanish lyrics.  None of them have any reference to opera, Manitoba, apricots, or Tuvok. 

In addition to Mister Himes, I invited some talented local musicians and songwriters to talk through the songs with me.  I found their input and experience to be very valuable. You see, this was a pre-production session. The idea here was to have a plan of attack for how to approach recording these songs in order to squeeze the very best out of them.  Now, for the most part, I handle the arrangement at home shortly after writing a song… I also plan out the instrumentation and personnel that I might wish to use. However, this was an opportunity to get outside opinions on these decisions, and since most of the time I write on my own, it was nice to put these songs in front of other folks. 

Today I head back to Reel Love to begin tracking my second album.  Yesterday and today… these are the first two steps on a long journey.  I will probably write this next line several times over the next year or so, but that’s only because it’s true: I feel like some of these songs are the best I have ever written.  I can’t draw.  I can’t paint. I can’t sculpt.  I am a very un-talented photographer.  I don’t knit or crochet. I don’t know how to create anything with my hands out of wood… or metal… or ceramic.  I write songs. This is my art.  This is what I create with my hands, either by clumsily mashing some keys, or by caressing my Fender Jazz bass.  Instead of creating a picture or a statue or a scarf or a bookshelf, I create recordings, with the kind assistance of others.  This is how I share my art. 

I believe in these songs.  I want to share them with you.  I want to share them with everyone.  Yesterday and today… these are the first two steps.  It will be a long trip. It will be an adventure. There probably won’t be any peril.  Come with me. 

To quote my dad’s favorite band, “Only the beginning / Only just the start”.

Let’s Go Weekly… 

I haven’t been very regular in keeping this blog updated, so it’s time to start a new habit. I am going to do this weekly. That’s right folks, I plan to post every Monday morning going forward. This will be a challenge at times… vacation, business trips, and other general life distractions may very well get in the way… but I’m going to try to stick to it.

Why in the world the sudden focus on regularity? I can think of three main reasons.

1. I always wanted to be a writer. No, really. From the time I was in elementary school, I was always interested in writing. If you look at my Twitter bio (https://twitter.com/mbankheadmusic), you’ll see that I’ve had the phrase “aspiring writer” in there from the beginning. The problem here is that I don’t have a good brain for fiction. I enjoy reading fiction, particularly science fiction… but am not that kind of creative. Ok, so a novel isn’t going to happen, let’s do this instead.

2. It’s probably good from a music business standpoint. Think about the musicians that you enjoy listening to… isn’t it interesting to get a little peek into their thought process and their life? I hope to give everyone an authentic look at my personality here, the kind of access that social media doesn’t quite reach due to its brevity. Also, maybe what I write here will help people to understand my music better, and don’t all artists really just want to be understood?

3. It will help with my mental health. Did you know I had a blog years ago? I’m not going to give the link here, but if someone were really interested, they could probably find it. This was in my early twenties. I wrote about some interesting things, I wrote about some mundane things… some of these posts were awful, and some of these posts might have been inspiring. In any case, I truly believe that writing a blog helped me to work through some of my issues at the time. Looking back with the additional experience of years of life, I see that I was probably anxious and depressed then as well. Now, I am indeed taking medication for this now, and if I can stop procrastinating, I’ll go to therapy too… but listening to and especially making music helps. It’s like a very talented Dayton musician sings, “that’s the solace that we keep”. So, just like songwriting, keeping this blog will probably help keep me on the saner side of deranged.

I know what you’re thinking… “Nobody wants to read this”. You know, you’re probably right. I’m probably talking to the Internet ether… but you know what? That’s just like making music. I make art that I’m proud of, and it’s hard to get anyone to listen to it. That’s ok, “l’art pour l’art, right?

The weekly journey begins this coming Monday 18th February. You’re invited.

About lyrics 

This is going to give everyone a good idea about my age, but when I was first getting into discovering music on my own, I loved opening the cassette and pulling out the folded up liner notes.  I would read the lyrics without the music playing, I would read the lyrics with the music playing, I would read the lyrics and sing along.  When cassettes got replaced by compact discs, I would do the same thing... in fact, I would be disappointed if I bought an album that didn't have the lyrics included.

Fast forward to now, where music lives mostly in digital form.  It feels like modern music listeners may not be as concerned or interested in the lyrics as I was in my youth.  My intent here is not to sound curmudgeonly, nor to yell "get off my lawn" at folks younger than me... they love their music, but with the decline of music as a physical thing, it seems to be a bit harder to find the lyrics.

With that in mind, I have added a lyric page to my website.  If you wanted to know how to spell all of those French words in "Le soldat" or you were curious as to what exactly I am saying in "North of Sixteen", or if you didn't know whether I am saying "write away" or "right away" in "Soul of an Ode"... well, head on over to the lyric page and read away.  Please sing along.

September news - songwriting 

Echo in the Crevices has been out for one year and two months.  I have been working on songs for the next album.  Some are complete, but many remain in pieces... it is up to me to pick up the pieces and put them together.

Recently, I've been working with a cowriter for the first time.  I had a song that was complete, but it wasn't good enough... I didn't like the melody, the chords, or the lyrics in the verse... but I thought I had something with the chorus.  I discarded the verses entirely and asked a talented songwriter for help.  What we have at this point is not yet finished, but it's already much better than the version I had written on my own.  I am looking forward to sharing it with the world.