Thursday, March 25, 2010

Sad Songs

Yesterday, I got an email letting me know that "Sad Songs," one of the songs off the album Boy Meets Girl, is going to be played at the end of the 6th inning on May 6, 2010, at PNC Park. I don't know if they're playing the full song or not, but they're putting my name, the title, and a link to my site on the huge screen, and that makes me smile.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Confessions of a Tasteless Hack (Bill WIthers, Touch)

"My real life was when I was just a working guy. You know, it's OK to head out for Wonderful. But on your way to Wonderful, you're gonna have to pass through All Right. And when you get to All Right, take a good look around, and get used to it, because that may be as far as you're gonna go."
- Bill Withers.

When I first started doing the singer-songwriter 'thing,' and entertaining it as a life, my parents tried the scare tactic of having a guy over who had been through the rigamarole of the music business. He brought a guitar with his old band's name stenciled onto the case, played me a perfectly crafted song in an alternate tuning, and told me failure was a near-certainty.

I'm absolutely certain my parents expected this to dissuade me from my pursuit -- instead, it galvanized my desire to prove to them that this can happen. My biggest regret is that by the time I was 21, I was so gung-ho about achieving unassailable success that I had lost sight of the work. I was obsessed with words like "springboard," trying to find ways to vault myself to fame and fortune -- I should have just been doing the work.

Yesterday, I stumbled across the trailer for "Still Bill," the new documentary on Bill Withers' autumnal years (still going, btw), and that quote up there was in it, and blew my mind whole. I can't imagine what it would be like to live in this guy's world, to have him around to give advice. Does he always talk like that? Is the secret to his amazing frank lyrical style just that when he opens his mouth, he says fantastic, profound shit, by using little words that say giant things? I think it may be.

I have to confess that the reason I'm obsessing about Bill Withers, also, is that up until a few days ago, I didn't have a single Bill Withers album. Having bought the Greatest Hits, I think it's still arguable that I don't. So many of these songs have been such ubiquitous fixtures in the world, it's weird to think they have a context -- how did no one sit me down when I was wearing new grooves into that Club Nouveau version of "Lean On Me" and say, "OK -- Here is where we blow your mind with how great this stuff can be," and lock me in a room with the real thing?

My musical awakening was slow and churning. My parents turned me on to the Beatles, and popular folk, mainly. My father was big on folk groups -- Peter, Paul and Mary, Chad Mitchell Trio, The Brothers Four -- and Dionne Warwick, which really meant that he was big on Bacharach, I think, because the R&B started and stopped in his collection with her. My parents also led a folk choir at St. John's Student Parish in East Lansing, and the swingier hymns used to get my attention (before I hit puberty, I would sing along with my mother's harmony parts, which is probably why I've always been good at background vocals).

Frustrated with my limited tastes, my sister locked me in her room with a Top 40 station one day, and I started accepting that stuff as the Real Stuff. Today, I can enjoy Survivor's "The Search Is Over" with a healthy level of irony, loving it for how truly limp it is, but back then, I was of the belief that THAT was the pinnacle of songwriting. Well, that and Paul Young's version of Daryl Hall(who?)'s "Everytime You Go Away," which I was only OK with once someone explained to me that she wasn't taking actual limbs with her.

The Eurythmics, though, were the first band that stuck out for me as true artists -- the smoothness of Annie Lennox, the jerkiness of Dave Stewart, the ineffable (for a 9-year-old) clash of the analog and the digital -- so when my mother asked me what album I would like (she was on her way to buy Michael Jackson's Thriller), I asked for whatever was the newest one of theirs. "Touch" became my first LP.

Look at that cover. Would you let a 9-year-old have that? If you were my mother, you would. I wish I could say that from there, I embarked on a voyage of alternative discovery -- that I experienced Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Cure, the Smiths, all of that stuff, while it happened, but I can't. Somehow, I just kept letting the radio tell me what to listen to, even though I adored "Touch," and memorized every bleep-bloop, and loved the songs that didn't get on the radio way more than the songs that did (I could never process that "Cool Blue" wasn't a hit, and that chorus still freaks me out).

I've since bought it in all other formats, each time rediscovering the material and finding new things to love about it, but I still have that copy of that record -- even when I got rid of all my albums (unwise, but I move around a lot), I kept that one around.

That was fun -- maybe I'll do more of these.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Winegasm Tuesdays

Do you live in Astoria? If not, do you like Astoria? If not, how do you know you don't like Astoria? I mean, have you been there? Well, don't you think you should try it out before you knock it? Good! Then do that on this or any every Tuesday, by stopping out to Winegasm, a pleasant eatery/winebar in Astoria on 37th and Broadway, at which I play every Thursday night from 8 to 11 pm.

Your ears will thank you!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Wednesday Night Song Club

Last night, after a co-write session and a few stops off at clubs to inquire about future bookings, I hopped the F-train to Bergen St, and a pub called Ceol, where on Wednesday nights, Niall Connolly hosts the Wednesday Night Song Club.

Niall was one of the first dudes I met on my way out to NYC, and our first exchange yielded a bevy of fresh opportunities for us both, as I gave him the straight deal on booking in Pittsburgh and he, to me, on New York. He also did me the kindness of taking me around to a few of the places he was playing on the monthly and letting me do a few songs to impress club owners. Thanks to Niall, I had my first month booked before I even got here.

The WNSC is Niall's brainchild -- a "closed mic" situation, in which you are allowed to play three songs (more if you are that night's feature act), but only if you have been invited, or vouched for by one of the night's trusted friends. I was with him from the humble start of it, and have guest-hosted a few times while he was out of the country, and followed him gladly to Ceol in Brooklyn when he moved it from the West Village.

I haven't been able to make it for about 4 months because I've been doing sound at a comedy open mic on the Upper West Side, so it was a treat to come back to the show. I forgot how amazing it actually was.

Niall is a friendly, affable guy, and if you give him your best, he'll give you his -- he's the perfect host. It's only natural that he would attract such incredible talent as to make everyone in the room look at each other and go, "Wow, (s)he's good. I should QUIT. Just get out of their way and QUIT." The result? We all go home and write better songs and come back the next week in the hopes of holding our heads up at the end of the night. What we rarely address is that we all feel that way, intimidated by each other's ability to nail that piece of sentiment that eludes each of us.

What the showcase does lack, however, is audience members, and that is a crying shame. If we're moving each other this much, while we silently study each other's form and method, dissecting song after song, chord by chord, imagine how much you'll love it when you're just having a beer and some awesome pub grub (their bangers and mash is not to be missed.)

If you're ever looking for something to do on a Wednesday night, the WNSC kicks off at 8:00 and goes 'til midnight, and caters to many and often all tastes. Please support this worthy pursuit. Take the F or G to Bergen St and look around -- Ceol's the green awning.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Open Mics

As I type this, I'm sitting on a vinyl-coated bench at the tiny-yet-spaciously-intriguing Root Hill Cafe in Park Slope. It took me an hour to get here from Astoria by train, but that hour is well spent on the pursuit of a boundless opportunity -- a new open mic.

Open mics are a huge part of my lifestyle out here. It's how I make new performing friends, and it's key to the process of finding new venues and opening them up to my music. When I first moved here, I was taking the approach of bringing my Big Dang Album around, passing copies of it and my business card over countless coffeeshop and beer joint counters, only to find it scaring them off of me, because they thought I'd be either bringing the Big Dang Band with me, or that I wouldn't hold up as a solo performer -- in retrospect, I wish we had put some acoustic-only songs on it.

That makes it sound like I hate my album. I don't -- and I don't think my fans do -- but the next thing is going to be much more sparing in the bells-and-whistles department. I can't think of many artists out there that don't switch up their process each time.

I have a few policies when going to a new open mic, and they've served me well. So here's some tips:

1. Show up early. The first time I go to any open mic, I show up an hour before sign-up, to get used to the room, and to ensure that I get a slot. I don't usually sign up for the first slot, as I want to get to know the regular performers in the room, as well, but it's nice to have your options open. Having run an open mic or two, I can't tell you how annoying it is when someone shows up after the slots are filled and starts grousing that there isn't more availability. If you're not there when the list comes out, you're just not trying hard enough. So, until I know exactly how the rhythm of the sign-up for each place works, I err on the side of caution -- and I have never been turned away from an open mic.

2. Don't be a spaz. The worst thing you can do in this environment is to come off as a tryhard. I'm pretty ambitious and outgoing, so this is the rule I almost always break. In fact, I just broke it, because the second track from L.E.O's "Alpacas Orgling" just came on the store's iPod, and that never happens, so I just Spazzed about that to the owner.

3. Be a participant. When you're not playing, you are an audience member. This means talking is minimal, and that can be tricky when you've just played and people want to talk to you about it. The next person deserves the same attention you got, though, and you need to give them that. It's not hard to keep answers short and polite -- over the years I've gotten very good at getting email addresses and selling CDs with minimal gestures and conversation.

4. Play the 'hits.' I have a song called "Right On" that doesn't fail, ever, as long as I sing it well. Every open mic I play for the first time, I play that song, because I feel that it's owed to the room to at least give them one indication of my act at its best. For comedians, it seems like their rule of thumb is to exclusively try out new material and either tank it or watch it sail. I wish more of them would bring their 'A' game for the first minute or so. After that I can do whatever. (Tonight the backup number was a newer song called "Wonderful Lie" that is proving itself to be a pretty sturdy player.)

5. Banter light, banter quick, and get the eff off the stage when you're done. This should always be your behavior, but especially the first time. Load it up, load it off, and be quick about it. I have seen people show up to open mics with some of the most convoluted setups you can imagine, and it never goes well. If you have 8 minutes to play, and you spend 5 of those minutes getting your loop pedals to work in sync, guess what? 3 minutes.

6. Never, EVER ask when your spot is coming. I know I talked about this in the soundguy post, but seriously. Just don't. There's an open mic in the Village where if you ask the soundguy when your slot is, he will stare lasers into you and you will feel them, and I totally side with that guy.

and lastly:

7. Buy a drink. You're not rich -- you're doing open mics. Sure. But you are using a space that is opening its doors to you for the furthering of your career. Pay your rent -- buy a drink. Coffee, Soda, beer, I don't care, but buy something. Otherwise, you'll see the venue close, or you'll find yourself being received with much less grace as time goes on.

Rock it like you stole it,