Song and Me

I’m getting all the boring singer/songwriter patter out of the way here, where it’s easy to ignore, so I won’t bore everyone at this Sunday’s gig. If you want, just skip to the end of this post for a peek at Sunday’s set list. Don’t forget the details: this March 22, 2009, Yu Yin Tang, 1731 Yan’an Xi Lu (near Kaixuan Lu), 8pm, 30 RMB, opening for 10!

I’ve been writing pop songs since about 6th grade. That would be around 1986, when I was about 11. My first song was called “Blue Eyes,” co-written with fellow missionary kid Andy Laesch. We had a band we called Center of the Earth, which we, as pious MK’s, eventually decided had infernal undertones, so we renamed our duo Outer Space. We wrote a bunch of songs of which I could still hum a few bars, with titles like “Electricity” and “Midnight Spooks,” and we recorded them into a little boom box, doubling up on vocal duties, with me accompanying on the little Casiotone keyboard I got for my 9th birthday, shortly after my family moved to Liberia.

I saw it one day—blue eyes
I knew it right away—blue eyes
So clear from the start—blue eyes
It brought love to my heart—blue eyes

Oh, oh, blue eyes
Oh, oh, blue eyes
Blue eyes

Even before that, I remember putting together an instrumental, auto-chord extravaganza, featuring such titles as, “Just Noise???” now lost to the ages.

I kept writing songs in junior high and high school, while attending the International Christian Academy in Bouaké, Côte d’Ivoire, switching to Christian themes, along the lines of the Petra, Michael W. Smith, Steve Taylor, Benny Hester, Steve Camp, White Heart, and Randy Stonehill cassettes I was listening to at the time. By far the standout hit of those boarding school years was “Rainbow,” co-written with “Guitar Man” Dan Pinkston (who now has a DMA in music and teaches at Simpson College). We performed this snappy tune with our band The Utensils (which at times also included staff members Kurt Werner and Brad Trosen on bass) around our school campus, in chapel, or just for pals.

My songwriting hit a new apex with “Epilogue,” mostly composed on the plane trip from Africa back to the US in the summer of 1990, following my 10th grade year. I spent my last two years of high school in Seward, NE, and I would often play my little songs on my friend Kathryn’s piano (much more often, in fact, than I actually had a willing audience). “Epilogue” was generally the most warmly received (unless I tossed in some Richard Marx).

I got my first synthesizer in the summer of 1990, the mighty Roland D-20 workstation (with a built-in 8 track sequencer + drum machine), and I set about sequencing synth-pop arrangements of my tunes, producing the better part of two “albums” in these two years. You will never hear them. The first, Nine Generic Love Songs, included “Epilogue” and was written during my junior year for the girl for whom I yet pined back at boarding school. The second was pulled together during my sophomore year of college and was eventually entitled Titled Untitled, comprising 17 songs mostly written during my senior year of high school, although two songs dated from my boarding school years (including a synth-pop version of “Rainbow”), and a few newer tunes also slipped in. While working on the first master in January 1994, I felt embarrassed that I was spending so much time on such ancient material, and that my college girlfriend was unrepresented, so I added the track “I Tell Her Everything,” by far the best thing on the album.

I did some really wacky stuff in high school, digging deep into the synthesis potential of my Roland D-20 and experimenting with odd meters, sudden harmonic shifts to distantly related key areas, microtonality, polytonality, even random procedures, a sign of things to come, I guess, as in the instrumental track “Genevieve” (the middle name of a girl I smooched at show choir camp), which dates from late 1991. The percussion tracks were recorded as a series of overdubs with the volume turned off, so I didn’t know where I was playing in relation to the beat or previous takes, an idea I think I got from a Keyboard magazine article.

At first I recorded my sequences and overdubs on a little cassette 4-track I borrowed from my high school band teacher. Later in college I bought a second-hand Tascam 238 Syncaset 8-track tape recorder and made new recordings; I continued to remix and rerecord these songs for quite a while, eventually bolstering Nine Generic Love Songs with four thematically related “outtakes,” and finally producing a digital master after moving to Seattle in 1996. Good practice, I guess.

I continued to write songs after commencing studies at St. Olaf College, but as a composition major, I was also starting to branch out into other kinds of writing. I would often try to slip some of the new ideas I was learning in music theory class into my songs, such as a German augmented sixth chord in “One-sided” (written as a homework assignment) and common tone modulation by way of an augmented chord in “The Verge of a Girlfriend.” The instrumental track “Jim/James” was the result of a homework assignment to write a minuet and trio (co-written by classmate JP Moninger, my partner on the assignment), and also snuck onto Titled Untitled. Most of my new songs were for my college sweetheart, with a few exceptions. I once wrote a grunge song for the cover band in which I played, Dirty Bath, entitled “Kill Fred,” a hateful diatribe against an incompetent sound engineer we had at one gig.

Put a gun to his head
Kill Fred
Make him bleed; it’s so red
Kill Fred

It was actually kind of a funny song (in Phrygian mode, which we had recently been studying).

After college, I moved to Seattle, and I kept writing songs, almost exclusively, and perhaps somewhat neurotically, about the college girlfriend who broke my heart in the end. Eventually I started to write about other people, but almost invariably the subjects would revolve around my striking out with girls, though I tried to maintain a modicum of wit about it. One happy exception was “First Dance,” composed for the wedding of Cheryl (my former French teacher from boarding school) and James Cloyd.

At any point since high school, if you had asked me what my next album was going to be called, I would have been able to tell you. After Titled Untitled, I had planned a sprawling quadruple album entitled Our Unique Culture, which would bring me totally up to date with everything worthwhile I’d ever written, or even started to write. In college, I was working on an album called Whatever, which later became Stark Originality. I’m sure there were others album titles I’ve forgotten. At one point I planned a rock album. Then in the early Seattle years, it was a 12-song concept album about the aforementioned college sweetheart entitled, I’ll Never Make the Same Mistake Twice Again (hmmm, bitter much?). Then I thought I’d better just sweep everything I had into one collection and move on to something new; at first I was going to polish and rerecord everything and call the compilation Jot Down a Quick Note, later shortened to Jot Quicky. But in the end, I just burned CD-R’s of whatever half-baked demos I had laying around for friends, christening the 15-song compilation Dumb Songs and Demos.

After a while, somewhere around 2000, I just stopped writing songs. I’d gotten busy composing the string quartet soundtrack to the computer game Arcanum (2001), which took me most of 2000 to complete. I was also writing a lot of choral music for the church choir I was in. I’d continue to have ideas for songs, but I’d never flesh them out or record them. At the time I felt demoralized by indifference, but in retrospect, I was doing almost nothing to get my songs heard by anyone outside the circle of my immediate acquaintances. The last song I wrote in Seattle was “Kiss Locally,” sparked by the way my pal Mike was able to breathe new life into some of my older tunes with killer rock arrangements. (And these arrangements are finally seeing the light of day as 3 Heart-Shaped Cookies, available now!)

In retrospect, my last year or two in Seattle was ripe for a pop renaissance. I had finally assembled a perfect little computer-based home studio, my longstanding goal since moving to Seattle, rounded out by the acquisition of the Roland JP-8000 and JV-2080 that I was able to retain from my studio at Sierra when they finally shuttered their Bellevue office. And I was starting to perform regularly in a new band, Subpoenaed Lemur, at the instigation of my dear pal Korby; I don’t know if I can truthfully say we were garnering a following, but we were playing around town quite a bit and having a blast. But at the same time I was in the throes of my master’s degree in composition at UW, while continuing to work full time in the games biz, leaving little time for pop dalliances. It’s an irony of history that just as the last pieces of my home studio fell into place, I had shifted focus almost entirely to doing computer music in Max/MSP. And to this day I feel shame that I never pulled my weight in the band; continued respect to Korby for doing all the booking, preparing all our backing tracks, and running all the rehearsals.

When I decided to move to China in 2004, I had to figure out what to do with my studio gear, and each option seemed like a losing proposition. I could sell it all and lose money and regret it later; I could pay to store it as its value steadily declined; or I could pay to ship everything over to China. In the end I brought it all with me to Shanghai, where it languished in unopened boxes for about 3 years, as I continued to focus on computer music.

I guess what got me writing songs again was a trip to Vietnam with Jutta in October 2007. It sounds silly and cliché, but it was a time of intense emotion, and I didn’t know how else to express what I was feeling than in a song. By the time we returned to Shanghai, “My Heart is a River in Flood” was pretty much sketched out, though it took a few more months to work out some harmonic details and record it. In the meantime I had started writing “EndWar,” which despite its commercial provenance was genuinely the result of good, old fashioned passion and inspiration (working on one game for 3.5 years will do that to you). And “Jessica’s Scissors” ensued shortly from a brazen bar boast; our friend Jessica, an instructor at the Vidal Sassoon academy, was celebrating her birthday at Logo, and I offered to write her a song in exchange for a free haircut, perhaps not the best bargain I’ve ever struck. All of this was enough to finally pull my studio gear out of mothballs and wire everything up.

And so pop songwriting has once again finally come to the fore. I’ve had this idea of doing an album about my experience living in Shanghai ever since I got here, but it’s languished on the back burner for years. But now I’m committed to finishing it in 2009; once I’m back from setting up this installation in Beijing next month, I will be all about Shanghai Travelogue. All the new songs I’ve been writing recently (two are already lined up and ready to record) are going towards that release.

Despite this long history of pop songcraft, I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve performed a set of my pop songs in public (excluding the songs we did with Subpoenaed Lemur: “Love on TV,” “Kiss Locally,” “Late Life,” and “Our Newfound Skill”). I did a short ½ hour set on some festival line-up in college, a few tunes at another open mic night in college, 3 more at an open mic night shortly after moving to Seattle at the Art Bar on 2nd…maybe that’s it? (After the Art Bar performance, the host, who I think may have been Ted Narcotic, afterwards commented, “Hmm, you’ve got kind of a Tiny Tim/John Tesh thing going on there, don’t you?”)

So perhaps this Sunday will be my first full gig of original pop songs ever. Took me long enough!

Here’s the set list, with approximate dates of composition. If a song title is highlighted, click on it to listen!

Love on TV* (1997)
Our Newfound Skill (1998)
Late Life* (~1999)
I Tell Her Everything (1994)
Like Vaseline (~1999)
Kiss Locally* (2003)
Cold (2009)
I and My Neurosis (~1999)
First Dance (~1998)
My Heart is a River in Flood (2007)
I’m Not Drinking Alone (When I’m Thinking of You) (~1997)
Jessica’s Scissors (2008)
EndWar (2008)

* included in the brand new rock’n’roll EP 3 Heart-Shaped Cookies

This show will be “quasi-acoustic,” meaning that I’ll be singing and accompanying myself on a keyboard with no computer trickery. It would have been fully acoustic if Yu Yin Tang had a piano. Later this year I’m planning to make the leap to full-fledged synth-pop performances. I always felt ashamed to be performing alone with only sequenced accompaniment (despite the fact that Depeche Mode and Nine Inch Nails have made quite profitable careers based on this approach). Now that I’ve witnessed the “electronica” revolution of 1999, followed by my discovery of China’s karaoke culture, I think it’s time for me to overcome those old reservations.

Wow, what a long, boring post. Thank you very much for listening. Good night. Enjoy your steak.