Now where did we leave off during our last story time, children? Troll under the bridge? Lost in the woods? Lets go with lost in the woods, which wouldn't be altogether inaccurate. I spent the remainder of the week leading up to Valentine's day mostly locked away in the cabin, writing songs and trying like a madman to raise some cash for the Kickstarter campaign. I spent a little time with my friend, but most of my days and nights were spent pacing around, occasionally picking up a guitar to strum a few wayward parts, and scribbling down the good bits of the torrential downpour of words that were flash flooding my mind. I was rewarded for my efforts with not one but TWO good and completed songs, which I've been playing in various situations over the past few weeks and have decided that they're both tunes I'll continue to play. I doubt either will make it onto the new record, but it's good to know there's a few waiting in the wings, all dressed up and fancy and ready to take the stage. The days I spent alone at Rio's cabin were magical and I've been fortunate enough to spend more time there since. I'm still amazed at the increase in productivity that physical isolation and a little time out to shoot tortillas with a bb gun can provide.
|Ira taking aim at a tennis ball or a golden bell hanging in the trees below the Songwriter Compound|
Wednesday of that week, I left the isolation of the Songwriter's Compound and headed down to Austin for a day's worth of pre-production tracking at David Abeyta's place in Austin. The residence is positively gorgeous and possesses one of the most fantastic front porch views I've ever seen in Texas. We drank some coffee and tracked vocal and acoustic guitar parts for most of my tunes that are going on the new record. I'm laying down a few by some of my good friends and fellow songwriters, including this John Moreland tune called Nobody Gives a Damn About Songs Anymore and Oklahoma Blue by my pal Buffalo Rogers. When we finished working, I was able to take a half hour, drink some fine bourbon, and get to know a little more about Dave. Not only is his career impressive as hell, he's also a super down to earth guy whose sense of humor is as sick and twisted as our own. He has a musical sensibility that reminds me a little bit of Jeff Lynn, just great hooky parts with substance that accentuate the song instead of drowning it out in one way or another. I spent a little time getting to know his wife and boy and I headed on back towards New Braunfels. I proceeded to toss back a few Jagerbombs at Billy's due to some frustration over current events and made my way safely back to the compound and passed out until the next day, when it was highway time again.
Thursday night was an early but rockin' show at good old Fat Daddy's in Mansfield, TX. Fat Daddy's was the site of our first appearance on the Justin Frazell Texas Red Dirt Roads show, but this night was simply for us to set up and do our thing. We plugged the Kickstarter like mad, ate some fantastic food, drank a few cold beers, and rocked our way through a 90 minute set in no time. After we got done, I took off for my old pal and cigarette savior Uncle Steve Warner's house to throw some darts. If you've been to many Quail shows around the Fort Worth metro area, chances are you've either seen or met Uncle Steve. He's the badass with the straw hat, tinted aviator shades, and an open button down shirt, usually handing one of us a cigarette eight or nine times during a set. There's a reason for this, and that reason will become clear to you after your peepers drop down a line and read the ridiculously entertaining yarn that I'm about to spin for you. I mean, not just you. There are other people that read this blog, you know, possibly even at this exact same moment in time that you're reading it. Maybe one of those people has his or her own blog about an impending space alien robopocalypse or some such cool shit like that, and you're missing out on it by reading about our adventures with Uncle Steve.
I'm just kidding. If someone DID have such a blog, I would already have read and shared the bejeesus out of it by now. Story...
The precedent was set many many moons ago (probably four years give or take) when myself, Gabriel Marshall, Adam "Biggie" Rittenberry, and my sister KierstonWhite loaded our instruments and implements of destruction into a piece of shit white GMC Safari, our first touring vehicle which we affectionately named Dan the Van, and took off towards the Regency Folk Festival at Alton and Sue Watsons place right around the corner from the Regency Suspension bridge. If you've never been to Regency, Texas, I am not at all surprised. There's really no town to speak of, just the bridge and a few cabins and the Watson homestead. If you ever find yourself fifty miles from the middle of nowhere and you're near the San Saba river, it's a place that's worth checking out. The township is populated by Alton, Sue, and their pack of ten or twelve wolves (not all of them are complete wolf, but all of them are definitely some wolf) which Alton has established and maintained dominance over by physically fighting one or more of them on an almost daily basis. Because of Alton's necessary and nigh constant struggle to maintain his alpha male status within the social strata of the pack, I can (and often do) honestly say that, on one occasion during my thirty two years and seven or so months of sucking air on this planet, I have actually witnessed a graying, long haired hippie ball up his hand into a fyst, haul back, and punch a fucking wolf in the face. It was quite surreal, so much so that I had to confer with Biggie to ensure that what I had just witnessed had actually happened, and that the mystery cocktail in my Styrofoam cup had not implanted some kind of absolutely believable and totally kick ass hallucination in my mind just to keep things interesting and fresh up there in my brain parts. Alton is such a badass that this isn't really a problem for him, more like a game or something that he plays with his life EVERY SINGLE DAY.
The festival is a three day ordeal that hosts some of the great singer/songwriters of the south Texas scene, and this particular year I recall Mark Allan Atwood, Bill Lewis, Joel Melton, Susan Herndon, the impeccable Tiny Tom Skinner, and a few other noteworthy types in attendance. Being the unprepared and essentially useless musician type human beings that we were (and essentially still are) none of us thought it prudent to buy a few extra packs of smokes to ensure we at least made it through the second damn afternoon of a three day festival. Since our foresight failed us, we were out of smokes by about noon on Saturday. Our set was moved around a little bit as Tiny Tom Skinner (who also happened to be placing a cigarette order for us at our behest) was running late, meaning he wouldn't arrive until the very end of our set if he arrived before we'd finished at all. This would simply not do as the Quails are known for our predisposition towards smoking and playing music at the same time and we were outside with no Non-Smoking laws to get in the way of our habit. Finally, we take the stage sans cigarettes and begin the arduous task of playing an outdoor gig without a pack of smokes. After some bitching about our situation and the fact that we could do nothing about it, before us appeared a man, nay, a warrior of unbending intent holding a fresh pack of Marlboro Special light cigarettes and offering them to us free of charge. He may have lived to regret that as I still tend to bum a smoke or two from Steve every time he's around, and I know for a fact that he gave us at least a few pack's worth during the festival. Every since that day, I've been running into Uncle Steve once every few months when we get near his place out in Decatur. We smoke, we drink, we throw darts.
Uncle Steve story complete. Now I feel like you know the man less than half as well as I do, but your'e well on your way to being able to pick him out of a lineup or crowd at a gig and listening to the incredible stories and tales that come randomly flying out of his mouth. Stories are the currency of the constant traveler and a most viable commodity to songwriters since we get to take bits and pieces of them and sprinkle them around the work like pixie dust. People ask me questions about songwriting from time to time, and I am most definitely willing and somewhat able to speak on the process as it pertains to my own writing. I'm considering hammering out a series of posts on the subject, but I've attempted a few in the past that I never could quite seem to bring together in a cohesive and entertaining manner, but maybe I've done growed up some since then.
I am by no means an expert, and in fact hover somewhere barely over the line between "amateur that has some good words and knows how to put them together" and "not quite professional but good enough to make a slim living on the words that come out of my own brain", but I feel like I've spent enough time around people whom I consider to be masterful songwriters that I've picked up at least a tidbit of something from each one of them. As far as age and years of experience goes, I'm still just a puppy, wagging his tail and playing fetch in the shadows of guys like Rick Reiley, Tom Skinner, Bob Childers, Ellis Paul, Don Conoscenti, and Bob Moore. I've heard all of them perform, owned all of their records I could get my hands on, but most importantly, I've listened to them all tell stories out back of venues or in smoke choked parked cars. My songwriting forefathers grew up in a time before all of the technological advancements that the younger generations have all grown absolutely dependent upon for survival. I was lucky enough to experience high school without all the internet and social media overload that exists today. My first cellphone was a Nokia brick that I didn't get until I was eighteen years old, and even then I only turned it on when I needed to make a call. There was no one getting upset if I didn't immediately answer it, and text messaging was positively the last method of contact you used to get in touch with someone. Instead of watching some drunken asshat pummel themselves in the nuts on youtube or making up Gary Busey meme captions at the bar, you either put a quarter (yes, an actual metal quarter that played an actual copy of an actual record housed within the box, and if the song you wanted to hear wasn't on a disc or a record inside that box, you were actually fucked) in the juke and asked a pretty girl to dance or you bought someone a beer and listened to them fucking talk. Nine times out of ten, if you ply someone with a single alcoholic beverage and a pleasant and friendly disposition, the person you're talking to will tell you some shit that you've never heard before in your life. Nowadays, its getting tougher to even get people to open up and share those tiny tidbits of hilarity with a total stranger. It's easier to bury your head in a glowing square and play Candy Fuckabout or Angry Pricks than it is to exchange a few words with a bar mate about the proper regional pronunciation of the word pecan and how or why you say it the way you do. Songwriters want to find the oddest, most world weary soul in the room and try and get some kind of inkling as to the events and experiences that landed them on that stool. Very rarely will you get an entire song out of it, and sometimes you don't get anything out of it except a few minutes of killed time between soundcheck and downbeat, but you would be amazed at the tidbits and phrases that your subconscious mind holds onto. Sometimes these little jewels make their way out of the end of a pen onto your paper, becoming lyrical mainstays that knock around in your catalog forever. Give it a shot sometime, you might just meet your own Uncle Steve and end up digging out a well of brand new stories that arise from the crazy shit you end up getting into together. Maybe your Uncle Steve will have a notebook full of excuses written by the various characters that frequent his Dart Palace, which may be one of the funniest collections of folkways and colloquialisms ever written and collected in a place in which darts are thrown. Mine does.
Social media and technology have entirely changed the face of the entertainment business over the past few decades, and I'm not trying to knock what is arguably the most important business tool in the belt of budding entertainers trying to make a little money doing what they love. Staying connected and being available is totally essential to attain any kind of success in the modern era, and its a huge part of my job to keep folks like you in the know about shows and news and the erratic happenings of my daily routine. That being said, you can have all the electronic prowess in the world and a billion people on social media ready to hang on your every word, but none of that means diddly squat if you don't have a solid catalog of your own songs that you're confident in. I spent over a decade playing with a few different bands, everything from searingly fast punk rock to soft and sad folk ballads to two step-inspiring honkeytonk music, and when I look back on the songs I wrote in the early years of my career, there's quite a bit of cringing over this line or that line or a poor choice in melody or meter or blah blah blahv. From the chair I'm sitting in now, some of my words and phrasings seem childish and choppy and my subject matter feels unoriginal and cliche. At the time, though, I spent weeks and months working my ass off to mold and craft the best song I possibly could. My tool belt was substantially lighter in those days because I simply hadn't done enough living to accumulate the implements required to say what I wanted to say in the manner in which I wanted to say it. Regardless of how I feel about my early material from where I sit today, at the time I was confident enough in those songs to record and perform them, which led to more performances, more drunken tale spinning with strangers, and eventually, better songs. There is something to be said for natural talent, but the only way to get better at writing songs is to write more songs. Over time, words start coming together more naturally and your vision gets a little more cohesive and clear with every tune you tackle.
Writing has always been the most effective outlet for dealing with my emotions, but it also caused me a great deal of frustration for a lot of years. The physical act of putting pen to paper and pulling words out of thin blue air is far more effective at calming my internal strife than any anti-depressant or barbiturate I've ever ingested. Before I ever thought about making any kind of living off of my words, writing was something I did solely for myself and the preservation of my own sanity. After I realized that there were people in the world that actually got paid cash money to play songs they made up themselves, I was sold and certain that songwriter would one day become my sole occupation. At the very instant that certainty turned into a goal, writing songs changed forever. Once I made the decision and to use songs as the core and basis of my professional (and mostly personal) life, then I stared to realize that people would eventually hear those songs, and hopefully they would hear them over and over and over and over, which inherently forces you to put more thought into the work you're doing. The frustration stems from a disconnect between knowing precisely what you're trying to convey in your mind and not being able to get that feeling across in a way that doesn't royally suck.
Cheesy lyrics imparting child like misconceptions about love that's never truly been experienced do not a good song make. For some reason, that seems like all you can do for the first year or two, occasionally augmented by an angry rock and roll song about being angry...probably over some chick. You write them, you throw them away or work them out until they're the best you can do, and you move on to the next one. Before long, you'll notice a line or two that really seems to work well, and you start to see a few smiles and chuckles when that line comes out of your mouth. Those are the great lines, the ones people can't help but sing along to and have a noticeable emotional response so deep that it's written all over their faces. You start to recognize those lines and where they fit within the rise and fall of the tune, and how you can lead up to and away from them with subtlety and grace. The power of a great line can be stripped of its glory like Superman wearing krypton jockey shorts if the lines around it are sub par. Words have to serve the phrases they make up, phrases serve the lines, lines serve the verses, verses serve the chorus, and the bridge ties the room together like a good, soft area rug.
The more comfortable you get with songwriting, the frustrations over your inadequacies start to become excitement at overcoming them, and you start to look for challenges to keep yourself on your toes. I even made a game out of it complete with a points and rewards system. If I can jam a six syllable word into a space where it has no business fitting, and I can do it without sounding like I'm trying to work a miracle, I give myself 100 points and take a pull off the Malibu rum while I pat myself on the back. Interesting rhyme schemes fetch anywhere from 75 to 300 points depending on difficulty of the rhyme and overall weirdness. There's a song of mine we're putting on the album called "Faster Than You'd Think" in which I managed to write all the pieces of the chessboard into the bridge section. That earned me 400 points and a Cuban cigar I found in my trunk. Stupid things like that make me a better writer and keep me attached to and more personally vested in the songs I'm working on. It's not something that most people are even going to notice, let alone be impressed by, but if one of my songwriter friends that I respect gets a kick out of one of my stupid challenges, it makes the whole thing worthwhile to me.
Where was I? You know, I don't rightly recall. So much has happened since I started this particular entry that there seems like a whirlwind of information that I need to catch you all up on. I've been doing my best to maintain a sort of chronological ebb and flow to this blog, but being in the studio is creatively exhausting and makes it difficult to want to sit down and write more words after a long day of making a kick ass record out of the words you've already written. At the time I'm finishing this entry, we've actually completed all of our and are now just waiting for the mixes to start rolling in so we can get artwork and physical production started. It's only going to be a few more months before this album is mastered, packaged, and on its way to your front door. My next post will be a recap of the studio madness that's been going on with plenty of pics and visual aids to keep your little blog reading minds limber and active. Thanks a ton for reading this bullshit, I look at the stats and feel I should say hello to some of you folks out there in the international community. I'm not sure who our one fan in China is, but I hope the things I say either make some form of sense in Chinese or are exceptionally funny to read. Looks like quite a bit of traffic from Russia, France, even a few from the Phillipines and Qatar as well, so howdy to all you folks from across the big ocean. If you out of town types ever make it down to south Texas, I'll buy the first round of beers at Gruene Hall and practice some cross cultural bonding over some cold oat sodas and the fine company of a pretty beer slinger. Comments are enabled, so sound off and let me know how you came across this blog. Catch you on down the road.