Fairly articulate mammal

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

My Path in Songwriting, Part Three

There is a way of thinking about life that, after my educational media songwriting gig in the aughts, might say something like: hey, Jeff, dude, having had some rewarding experiences and even a little monetary success, maybe you should chalk it all up as a win and let go of this whole songwriting thing? To which I say, no thanks.

I’ll concede that (a) creative projects involve hard work and (b) it is great when your creative work generates any kind of external success. So why would you keep doing that work with little expectation of reward? Because it’s also true that exercising your creativity is beneficial in and of itself. The work is worth it, even without acclaim and/or money. It wakes your brain up. Your soul, too. It’s a way of being in the world, and that can be a beautiful thing. If your life is a car engine, doing creative work can be like gunning it on the freeway: it not only feels good, it’s also a way to blow out some of the accumulated gunk and get things running more smoothly.   

So, in recounting my path in songwriting, we’re up to this decade now, and the main things going on for me and my wife Tonie have been balancing our careers (for me that’s corporate writing) with a busy and satisfying (and often challenging) family life. At one point, we had five kids at home, going to five different schools, ranging from elementary school to high school! And yet all that time I was still playing guitar and occasionally writing songs for fun. And then way led on to way, like it do.

We used to camp regularly with my youngest son’s YMCA Adventure Guides group, and I started doing storytelling and campfire song-leading in that context. One of the coolest things about this is that my friend Quentin Thomas-Oliver, violist extraordinaire and evil genius behind Ponytrap, would often add a semi-improvised viola score to the stories, and join in on the songs. This was hugely fun and popular, and provided momentum. I wrote a new campfire-style audience participation song, “Ordinary Day” (maybe one of the best songs ever written about the misadventures of a fire-sneezing pig).  In my little microcosm, it was a hit.

This was all so energizing that it boosted my appetite for more, and we started hosting a lot of musical get-togethers, still a regular and energizing thing. My ability and confidence as a singer and player crossed some threshold, and, here in my fifties, I decided to launch this blog to talk about my creative projects in a broad sense, and began to perform and record my original songs, publishing them on my youtube channel, Jeff’s Next Page. It’s funny to me to have been writing songs all this time, but just now reach the point of doing this. Note to self: you can always access beginners mind and be a rookie at any age. It’s liberating. 

And that brings us up to date. I have tons of songs, written and co-written, for which no recorded versions exist.  I’m chipping away at recording the backlog, while writing new material all the time. And I’m co-writing again with my friend Greg, my first collaborator from way back at the start.
A word on money: I have very talented and skilled friends who are willing to play and sing and design the visuals on my tracks for rates ranging from very reasonable to free. I deeply appreciate and value this, and want to make a point of acknowledging it here. Even so, in terms of economic priority, I can only afford to create a few new recordings at a time, so it is slow going as I’m populating my channel and seeking listeners. I hope to build more audience, to begin pitching some songs to be recorded by other people, maybe even to make a few dollars, someday. And even if I have zero success with my extrinsic goals, I’m okay with that. Exercising my craft and creativity in this way feels good. And when the songs are more personal — whether that’s celebrating the good stuff or making sense of life through writing about the hard stuff — that’s better than good; it’s an amazing feeling. 

As a friend says (hey George, I’m totally stealing the line you already stole): if you don’t want to be ripe and rotting, you’d better be green and growing.  Stay tuned, y’all.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

My Path in Songwriting, Part Two

I’d been doing some freelance writing and editing, and managed to land a scriptwriting job with a startup company that wanted to make educational multimedia curriculum. This was a huge thing for me on any number of levels—it revitalized my professional and economic life, forced me to more deeply embrace digital media, and introduced me to more friends and collaborators.  

For my purposes in this essay, though, the biggest thing about the job was that it included songwriting. The courses included Schoolhouse-Rock-type songs in a variety of musical styles. We had other writers who contributed lyrics, but on balance, for most of the time I was there, I was the main lyrics songwriter, as well as a sometimes-contributor of musical ideas. I’d write lyrics for a song that would teach whatever concept the new module needed to cover, and then either send it to a freelance producer or an in-house musician/producer, who would turn it into a finished audio track. Or, sometimes I’d make a demo with a basic musical idea, and in those cases that’s what would go to the producer. 

Either way, and this is still amazing to me all these years later:  I was regularly writing songs as part of a salaried job, while earning a middle-class income. This was another period of creative growth and opportunity.

The cast of characters changed over the years, but I got to work on songs with a number of really cool musicians and writers, and the discipline of writing songs to length, on assignment, was an ongoing fun challenge. And we did some cool work. Such as? Glad you asked!

Here are a couple of samples:

--Here’s a bluegrass song on the basics of the water cycle.

--Here's a pop song reviewing how place value works with decimal numbers, and introducing the concept of the thousandth place and the ten thousandths place to the right of the decimal.

Sounds riveting, right?  It is, in fact pretty catchy. I'm proud of the work we did.   

I worked in that capacity for over nine years, until the company finally became stretched too thin on resources to keep making new content, and I was laid off. At that point, I moved into a more lucrative (but less creative) corporate writing job. Other than occasionally playing guitar or writing songs for fun, music took and back seat for the next several years. 

Monday, March 5, 2018

My Path in Songwriting, Part One

Author's note: This is long, because (a) I'm old and (b) songwriting has been part of my life since I was 19. Some of the timing is fudged, because real life doesn't unfold in all that neat of a sequence. This is offered in the spirit of one writer's experience, and especially with a feeling of gratitude toward people I've worked with and generosity toward younger writers who might not ever make much or any money from doing this, but could still find it a rewarding part of life. If that's you, I hope you'll take this as encouragement.

I started writing song lyrics as a college student in Chapel Hill. I was in my late teens, imitating — pretty badly — the songwriters I admired for their artful and memorable turns of phrase. I was probably more interested in trying to write a cool line than I was in anything else. The main thing, looking back at it, is that I started. I actually wrote some things, and then was brave enough to show some people what I’d written. That's a hard thing to do, the first hundred or so times. Greg Lee, a musician friend I’d grown up with, set some of these lyrics to music. To hear something I’d written being played and performed as a finished song was a powerful and formative experience. He'd say the same, I'm pretty sure, about having original lyrics to shape into a song.

In my early twenties, I started learning to play guitar and trying to sing. This was slow going, really bad, I’m sure very tough on anybody I could get to listen. It did get a little better, and by my mid-twenties, having moved to L.A. to go to graduate school, I would sometimes get together with a professor and friend of mine, a really accomplished songwriter named Peter Marston. We’d play and sing for fun, and would talk a lot about songs and about writing. He was deeply generous in this, and I remain humbled by the way he encouraged me and helped me believe I could improve my weaknesses and build my strengths, that I could get good at this. By direct help and by his example, he fostered my improvement as a writer, player, and singer, and — just as important — he helped me develop as a thinker-about-writing, bringing to articulated awareness some things I’d previously only sort-of intuited. He and I wrote a few songs together, at least one of which I still think is pretty good (it's called "Barn Burning," based on the William Faulkner short story, and is on my list to eventually record). The song was included as part of a story-adaptation theater production I directed at California State University, Northridge.  [Peter, by the way, remains active as a musician and has a catchy and beautiful 2015 album you could download or listen to through several platforms. It's titled The Invisible Girl, and it's on CD Baby here, and also on Spotify].

By my late twenties, I’d come to Austin for (yet more) grad school, and I played and sang and wrote with several different people I met here. A couple of them had professional ambitions, which kind of wowed me. I don't know if the collaborations led to more than a decent song or two, and in any case these folks moved on to do their own thing and those collaborations wound down. Still, they were people to play with, they were mostly encouraging, and I was putting in my time working at my craft. I got braver. I played some open mics. And, a big deal to me at that time, I went to regular guitar hangouts that a couple of my professors would host.

One of my fellow grad students, a guy named Dan Modaff, was (and is) really good as a player and singer. He was the immediate star at those get-togethers. Also, a good thing for my purposes, I thought his style would suit my material. [Dan, by the way, continues to make music, and here he is, still doing his thing.]

By this time, my wife and I had a baby on the way, and I was inspired to write a bunch of kid-friendly songs. I recruited Dan to learn and perform these songs, because I still wasn’t good enough (or brave enough) to do my own material outside of an open mic or social setting. We booked a studio, recorded the songs, and self-released a cassette tape, Fun Just Like Today. We had a release party at a cool old-Austin bookstore called Toad Hall, got a little press attention, got favorably reviewed here and there, sold a surprising number of tapes, and were even played on KGSR’s “Daily Demo” feature once.

You can listen to one of the songs from that project in this video, which Dan released as part of a 2009 fundraising effort that helped his son Caden acquire a service dog. And, just by the way, that's the late great Austin multi-instrumental legend Champ Hood on mandolin. Ultimately, though, we didn’t have budget enough, or industry knowledge enough, or connections enough, to keep the project going.

And so I moved back into a development and improvement phase. Couldn't get a project going. I’d occasionally write or co-write a song, and I was slowly improving as a player and singer. I read songwriter interviews all the time. I still love hearing masters of the craft as they talk about their life and work. I got some paid writing work for the Austin Chronicle, reviewing concerts and records. I played at open mics sometimes. Songwriting was just a thing I did, part of my sense of self, a way to build creativity muscles, and a way I processed my life. But I wasn’t promoting my songs, wasn't putting them out there in any even slightly professional way. It's particularly hard to get your songs out in the world if you're not an excellent singer and player, and I was neither. And I was having an up-and-down time of it on several fronts, with big life changes (kids arriving, career struggles, the painful end of a marriage, and a sometimes-draining caregiving role due to illness in my family).  And then I found poetry.

I’d never written poetry in a sustained way until I was thirty, but over several years, I got into it, got good at it, got published here and there. I started doing spoken word with music, collaborating with other musicians and even performing a few gigs, first as the Jeff Knight Trio, then under the name Blue Haiku. I graduated from being a newbie at the open mics to being one of the good poets in town, a sometimes-winner in a strong local poetry slam scene. I met some of my closest friends while I was in that world (particularly my friends Hilary and Ernie), who could not have been more perfect amigos through a hard rebuilding phase of my life. Given the fuel of this fantastically competitive and supportive scene, and given the encouragement I was getting, my creative energy started burning hotter and brighter. I started writing fiction, and did a staged reading of one of my stories. I wrote poems all the time. I kept writing songs. Somewhere near the end of this chapter, I fell in love with a recently-single girl I’d known way back in grad school (yes, I am referring here to my wife Tonie). As new romance sometimes does, this revved the creative engines even more (hers too, but that’s another story).

And then came Ignitelearning, and an honest-to-Jah professional gig where I was making real money as a writer and songwriter, so ... stay tuned for part two.