Writing a Song (without touching an instrument)

I like to consider myself a songwriter, although the creative spurts come and go through the years (during one three-year stretch, I was writing three to four songs every month). Many of my songs go forward to my band, The Sofa Kings. However, many songs don’t go much farther than the sun room of my house where I often compose.

This week, I started to tinker with a site called JamStudio and composed two songs: one for the band and one for my young son, who was playing in the room as I was writing the song and he asked me (in his three year old voice) if I would write the song for him. So I did. Yet, it felt very strange to be writing a song without having my guitar in my hands (I wrote this in one of my first Tweets, too) and I am am wondering how authentic an experience this really is as a musician and a composer.

I took the instrumentation from JamStudio and brought it into Audacity, where I then recorded my voice. Then, I used Creative Common photos from Flickr to create this little photo (with Photostory3). I converted the video to Shockwave, uploaded it to a video account I have and then moved it into my blog. One of the reasons is to keep getting practice with this process.

Anyway, here is the song and video, called In You:

[kml_flashembed movie="http://dc15.4shared.com/download/37411478/420c01f2/In_you__rowans_song_.swf" width="400" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

Peace (in love and children),
Kevin

Twittering Around on 2008-02-10

  • I am just now starting to Twitter. A true Twitter newbie. #
  • Composing (?) a new song on Jamstudio — thinking how different a writing process it is without guitar in hand — is it authentic or not? #
  • @drg: Not far east of you in WesternMass — snow and whiteness all around. But ready for spring. #
  • Good lord — the wind is ripping outside my house right now. I feel sort of like Dorothy. I hope that witch doesn’t float by on her bike. #

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Rock On, Dan Kennedy

I just read the book Rock On by Dan Kennedy, which is a humorous and scathing look at the music industry from inside (Kennedy worked for a major music company as a mid-level manager). It is a fun read and full of interesting bits and pieces of humor writing (such as top lists, such as Ineffective Names for a Hardcore Death Metal Bank — ie, Light Tropical Storm). He includes his email address at the end, so I wrote and sent him this letter:

Feb. 8, 2008

Dear Dan,

Thanks for writing the book, Rock On. It made me laugh until I realized that what I was laughing about was the complete commercialization and destruction of the music industry that was my lifeline as a kid. Like you, I remember sitting on the floor with my old vinyl albums on the Radio Shack stereo, looking over every last bit of the cover and even reading the names in fine print at the lower right hand corner. Photographer, engineer, snack-man, whatever. I read them all as the tunes were blasting. Imagine seeing your name like that on a Led Zep album? Even if you were a water carrier, it would still be a thrill. Today, there wouldn’t be room for those names and if the names were there, they would be so friggin’ small in print that you would need to steal your grannie’s eyeglasses just to read it. And let’s face it – no one bothers to read the fine print on anything anymore anyway. I don’t consider myself a craggy old dude but I do miss that feeling of discovering rock and roll. I know there is still great music out there but it is not in the halls of the office building where you found yourself working for those 18 months, that’s for sure.

You know, it amazed me that you put your email address in your book. How many people have written to you? And do you write back? I ask this because I read through John Hodgeman’s book, The Areas of My Expertise, and he gave out an email. When I wrote him a letter (I was arguing that his name and my name are close and that maybe we were related somehow — not really, but, you know, all in fun) and I never heard a peep out of him. Maybe he thought I was just another nut job (I proclaim: I am not a nut job).

Back to your book: I was really struck by two images. The first is the entire Iggy Pop show. Man. That must have been something and I got great joy out of visualizing that madman stomping into the corporate seats and just going crazy on them and then leaving such chaos and wreckage in his midst. There was a ferocious energy about him that you captured in your writing. (Don’t you wish you were on the stage, with your camera, for that one, Dan? Instead, you were stuck with the spandex boys). And then there was the ending, with Jimmy Page, walking in a suit and his helpful assistant carrying his guitars. I agree that we expect our heroes to stay the same and never change. Reality is different. Still, it was a symbol for the industry. Like you, I remember watching every note in The Song Remains the Same movie (in a smoky movie theater, at the midnight showing) and thinking, these guitar soloes are like a symphony in itself. And you are right, Dan. Page would never be allowed to let rip such solos these days. Crap, his solos are longer than most songs (not that I am against short songs — Elvis Costello did it magnificently).

I really loved your final email that you never sent and I kind of wished you did send it (don’t you? Why not send it? Were you still hoping to make your way back into the business?). You bluntly put the difficulty of the entire industry on the place where it belongs — in the upper management of the big companies. You know they are desperate when they start paying people to be “cool barometers” in the world. Cripes. Maybe they should just kick back with a six pack (I would have Sam Adams, but they would prob have wine coolers) and put on some of the crap they are putting out in the world and get numbed over like the rest of us. The radio sucks, doesn’t it? It’s like strip malls — every suburb you go to looks exactly the same. And every radio station in big markets seem to sound exactly the same. (Thank god for smaller stations in smaller markets). I am thinking of this as I hear yet another commercial for the Grammy Awards, which have to be one of the biggest crocks of crap to ever infect our ears. Sure, a few artists who are really musicians slip through now and then, but the Grammy is not even on my musical radar. I see it for what it is — another shilling of product by the corporate entities (notice, I didn’t use the word “people” there).

Anyway, I will keep an eye out for your byline in the various McSweeney family publications (sounds like a mob, doesn’t it) and I wish you best with whatever venture comes your way.

My top five list for why the current music scene completely sucks:

  • DRM (digital rights management)
  • Are you telling me it costs a company $18 to produce a little metallic circle of data? Please.
  • Producers who put together bands based on marketability and not musicability
  • No patience to allow a band to build a following — it’s “get a hit” or “hit the road” and not much in-between
  • Artists who don’t write their own songs

My top five reasons why good music will still survive:

  • Low cost of recording software and music publishing
  • Pirate radio stations
  • The need of kids everywhere to hate the expected and rage against the machine
  • Friends talking to each other (yep, it still is the most effective marketing)
  • Ability of musicians to collaborate on the Web

Thanks for reading my letter, Dan.

Sincerely,

Kevin

PS — the book group questions at the end were a nice touch.

So I send the email last night and Dan Kennedy (give him credit for replying at all) sent me back this reply via email:

Kevin — what a great note to get, I’m damn glad I put my email address in the back of my book. I

I also have to tip my hat to you for using the word “cripes” in your note; it made me feel like maybe we grew up in the same damn family.

At any rate, glad as all hell that you got something out of Rock On. Thanks for your time spent reading it and glad it was worth it.

Goodbye from a damn internet cafe thatch hut thing off the coast of Honduras, where I’m writing something new amidst a thick school of sunburned and leathery desperados next to bon fires and the whole thing feels like every Steely Dan song I’ve ever heard.

OK-

My response back to Dan:

Hi Dan
Thanks for the reply.
Instead of hearing Steely Dan in my head, for some reasons, I had the Eagles. That happens every time I hear or read the word Deperadoes. (not really my favorite song, either, but it gets stuck like velcro).
It’s nice to know that your writing is taking you to some different places other than NYC (on vacation? or on a book tour? either way, have fun) and I will be sure to pass along the praise for your book to friends.
Peace,
Kevin

Peace (in music and in writers who make themselves accessible to their readers),
Kevin

Books in the Bare Minimum

I hope this site is tongue-in-cheek (it seems to be). But if you want to read all of the Classics and then some in, well, about an hour, then you might want to head tot the Book-A-Minute Classics site. They explain it this way:

We’ve taken all kinds of great works of literature and boiled them down to their essence, extracting all the filler (and believe me, there’s a lot of it sometimes). In just one minute, you can read entire books and learn everything your teachers will expect you to know.”

Book-A-Minute Classics

Here are a few that popped out at me and reminded me of how much I loved these books when I first experienced them:

Hemmingway’s A Farewell to Arms

Frederic Henry

I’m separated from my true love in World War I Italy.

Catherine Barkley

Here I am. Let’s hide in Switzerland, whoops, (dies).

Frederic Henry

War has made me cynical.

— the end

The Collected Works of Virginia Woolf

Life is beautiful and tragic. Let’s put flowers in a vase.

— the end

One Flew Over the Cookoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

Nurse Ratched

I destroy my patients psychologically so I can have power and control.

Randall P. McMurphy

But freedom and happiness are good things.

Nurse Ratched

Lobotomy time for you, buster.

(McMurphy DIES but inspires HOPE so OTHERS may LIVE.)

— the end

Peace (in concise words),
Kevin

PS — I see a companion site, too, called Movie in a Minute.

Ben Hosts Day in a Sentence

The Day in a Sentence is on the move again!

Day in Sentence IconThis week, Ben B. is your host and he is accepting your thoughts and ideas on how your week, or a day in your week, is going — all written in a nice sentence. He will then collect the sentences and compile them and release them to the world over the weekend.

So, please, join me in hyperlinking over to Ben’s Blog — On the Tenure Track — and add your words.

Peace (in collaboration),
Kevin

Giving Students Political Voice

I teach writing to 11 year olds but that doesn’t stop me from injecting some political current events into our activities. I remind them that they need to pay attention to the world, as it is their world that is being developed right now. The political season in the US provides us teachers with an opportunity to talk about leadership and the ways of our government and I sure hope that teachers are using this opportunity.

Yesterday, our state held its primary election (Hillary Clinton won). Last week, I had a long discussion with all of my students about the differences of a primary and a caucus, and what those results mean.

I decided that I wanted to give my students some voice and so we held a modified “Mock Election” using Survey Monkey to allow my 80 students to cast a vote for major candidates in both parties and to answer some questions about the state of our country and the priorities facing our nation.

First of all, the voting:

They are really struck by the youthfulness of Barack Obama and that appeals to them. It also is a surprise to them that we have never had a woman run for president. Or maybe it is shock. The girls, in particular, seem to connect with the concept of Clinton and it makes me wonder, regardless of her politics and chances of winning, if she isn’t making a substantial impact on young women right now just by being in the race and having a powerful voice.

McCain has appeal because of his time in the military and they know that he was a POW and they believe that gives him some fortitude in leadership.

I then asked them to consider which issues are most important to them:

I thought for sure that the environment was going to win but the war continues to be a focus. We live near an Air Force Base and there are a number of families with relatives in Iraq, so the war and its impact is very close to home for many of my students.

Then, I wondered if they thought they should have the right to vote.

I guess the graph says it all.

Peace (in politics),
Kevin

PowerPoint as Movie

In the spring, my students will once again be creating digital picture books, using Powerpoint as a platform for creation. In the past, I have grappled with how best to present the final products in multiple forms — as a slideshow, as a PDF and on paper. I wanted to make them into videos, too, but couldn’t quite figure it out.

I took the plunge this weekend and purchased some software from Wondershare that does take Powerpoint and converts it into a video, complete with animation and voice left in. It’s not so bad and I am thinking of how I can try to experiment with this in my classroom before the picture book unit rolls around.

Here is a book that I made last year:

[kml_flashembed movie="http://video.google.com/googleplayer.swf?docid=-8690927707479293668" width="400" height="326" wmode="transparent" /]

Here are a few of the stories from students from last year:

[kml_flashembed movie="http://video.google.com/googleplayer.swf?docid=6898363634712354140" width="400" height="326" wmode="transparent" /]

[kml_flashembed movie="http://video.google.com/googleplayer.swf?docid=-1300180233155542124" width="400" height="326" wmode="transparent" /]

I wish the audio were better quality but PP does a terrible job with audio, I have found.

Peace (in PP),
Kevin

The Giants Win!

Some of you know that I am a die-hard New York Giants fan and they won the Superbowl last night in an amazing game all around (as the underdogs trying to keep the Patriots from securing a spot as completely undefeated).

http://atlantafalcons.contentquake.com/files/2007/10/giants-helmet.jpg

Funny school story: I live in Patriots territory and on Friday, the Student Council hosted a fundraiser spirit day to support your favorite sports team. I, of course, wore my New York Giants tie but I was surrounded by Patriots fans.

In the middle of a lesson, a fifth grade teacher marches his entire class into my room, with a megaphone, and they begin chanting “P A T R I O T S” as loud as they can. The kids are all armed with balloons and then they pop them, and drop them on the ground, and march right back out. It was a nice laugh (I’ll remember those faces for next year, I am thinking)

Then, at the end of the day, a preschool teacher walks in and gives me a Giants helium balloon. Apparently, they had a Patriots and a Giants balloon and NOT ONE KID wanted to take home the Giants balloon. So they decided to give it to me (my kids have had great fun with it).

So, today will be sort of a fun day. I need to buy a few New York Posts and festoon the fifth grade teachers door with some good headlines. (all in fun)

Peace (in the Superbowl),
Kevin