TLDR: I finally finished an album of music and I’m ready to share it with you. It drops for real next Friday (2.1) on Bandcamp, and the following Friday (2.8) everywhere else (Spotify, Apple Music, and wherever else people find music). For a sneak preview, check out the first track “Belong 2” here.
This one’s weird, but also exciting, for a bunch of reasons:
About half of it was produced, and most of it was mixed & mastered, on an iPad Pro. It was the first time I worked on a collection of songs with a ton of restrictions in my gear setup, mostly because I was living in Berlin on expat assignment when most of it came together. I’ll write more about the production details later.
As a result of my limited access to gear & instruments, much of it is piano- and beat-driven, and quite sparse in places. This was an interesting change of pace for me, since much of my older music was quite dense to the point where my voice was (likely intentionally) drowned out in the mix behind all sorts of guitars and synths and stuff. Here, my vocals are pretty right up front.
The songs themselves are from all over the place. “Sun Loop” came from a looped guitar sample I recorded in 2009 (weirdly recorded at an apartment down the street from the place I finished the song in). “Old Lady Mary Esther” is a cover of an amazing song my friend Mary wrote, and I had the fortune of performing with her, back in Brooklyn in 2014. “Forget” is a mix of lyrics I wrote while playing in a little stoner rock band in 2012, with some piano riffs I wrote while in college, and this killer beat I found a few months ago. “Totem/Trinket” uses another piano riff from that same period, but is mostly inspired by the creativity I found in Berlin juxtaposed with the relentless consumerism I felt returning to the States. It’s amazing to me how random, disparate ideas can sometimes come together.
Much of this came out of me watching my wife struggle with autoimmune disease. That will become pretty apparent by track 2 or 3.
I really hope folks enjoy this. It’s the most confident I’ve felt in my songwriting and self-production.
Moving out of the US has forced me to evaluate the gear I use to optimize for portability — but I am still an unabashed fan of the gear I own. Here is the gear I’m currently using to make things.
Most of the time I’m doing things on an iPad Pro 10.5″ (256GB) or an iPhone 7 Plus in Slate Black (also 256GB). Heavy music production, code tinkering and design gets done on a late 2013 MacBook Pro with retina display, which I share with my wife. I also wear an Apple Watch Series 3 (GPS only, suckers).
I listen to audio with Apple AirPods or a pair of Sony MDR-7506s. I sometimes still play piano, and when I do it’s on a Korg nanoKEY 61 MIDI controller; on the go, I might bring along a Novation Launchkey 25.
Vocals used to be recorded in a padded closet with a Shure SM-58 fed into an Apogee Duet v3. But now, since my best-available recording space is a closet on the opposite side of my apartment from any reasonable workspace, I opt for a Samson Meteor USB mic, fed directly into my iPad Pro for tracking in GarageBand.
Virtually everything that involves text starts in Drafts 5, and then usually ends up in either Things 3, MindNode 5, Apple Notes, Google Docs or a text file edited in Pretext. I publish to the web using WordPress, and sometimes tinker with my websites using Transmit (RIP), Coda or Kodex.
Most of my music is recorded using Logic Pro X or (when mobile, GarageBand for iOS). It’s all then backed up via Splice. Occasionally I’ll pull some samples or soft synths from Reason 9. My favorite piano sound is the SONiVOX Eighty Eight, and my vocals sound much better thanks to iZotope Nectar 2 and Stereo Imager.
Instead of doing a bunch more experimenting-with-iPad posts, I was asked to do a write-up on using iPad in a bunch of creative contexts, and this is what resulted. I’m having a lot more fun lately writing and tinkering on my iPad, and now that I’ve moved to a new place with some nice scenery, I’ll probably be spending less spare time at a desk and more out in nature — for which the iPad is perfect.
Prince died a week ago. I’m really bummed about it. I’ve had some really good friends rave about how life-changing his shows are, and I kept convincing myself that I’d actually go to one. That can’t happen anymore, and it reminds me to take advantage of what exists in the now as much as I can.What I have now is his entire discography, pulled together from various sources since I started listening to Prince regularly in my adult life.[¹] This past week I’ve been listening almost exclusively to all the Prince music I’ve collected, while also occasionally reading the reflective writing that has been published about the Artist. Much of that writing has been focused around his early-era, groundbreaking synth pop work: Purple Rain, working with The Revolution, the song “1999”. An occasional word about his tenuous relationship Warner Bros. Records. This great piece about the underrated & sometimes bizarre 1981 release Controversy.
I want to talk about one Prince song in particular that fundamentally changed how I think about recorded music: “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker.”
I didn’t like Purple Rain the first time I heard it in full. That was back in 2009 or so.[²] It was so 80s. So many synth sounds. It didn’t really hit me that “When Doves Cry” had no bassline, and what that meant for music at the time, until I read about it in some retrospective a year or two later.The album that sucked me into the Artist’s oeuvre was instead Sign O’ The Times, which a close friend of mine recommended in 2010 or so. It’s also considered one of his classics, but it’s a weird one: it’s a double album, and while all of Prince’s albums meld all sorts of genres together, this one frequently put wildly contrasting material against itself, back-to-back, almost forcing the listener to fundamentally change listening habits every few minutes. Take “Slow Love” and “Hot Thing,” both on disc 1 — the former is a great albeit typical sexy Prince slow jam, the latter almost a new standard for extreme pop minimalism. The entire first two minutes of “Hot Thing” pretty much center around F# and a drum machine and don’t change until a bizarre (for Prince) sax solo and frenetic scat-like vocals dominate the mix.”The Ballad of Dorothy Parker” sits at the end of the first side of disc 1 of Sign O’ The Times, as sort of an ominous closer to a side full of likely hits. The title track was an actual hit; “Play In The Sunshine” is one of the most uplifting and energetic songs released in the 80s; “Housequake” is, despite its strange pitch-shifted lead vocal, an undeniably funky party jam. “Dorothy Parker” almost serves as the hangover after the housequake — it’s barely a ballad, with its frenetic beats and brisk tempo, but it paints a hazy, bleak picture of Prince’s after-party vulnerability.
Susan Rogers, Prince’s sound engineer during this period, recalled in a wonderfully detailed interview that a new recording console at Paisley Park (Prince’s recording studio complex) was not wired up properly when he impulsively decided to begin recording “Dorothy Parker”, and noticed that everything he recorded was coming out dull — no high end, no typical sheen. Prince noticed instantly, but decided he loved it given the fact that he conceived the whole song in a dream, and the dull sound complemented that dream-like quality of the lyrics he wrote.
How does the dream begin? Fuzzy and abruptly, as many do. “Dorothy Parker,” the recording, kicks off instantly with a sped-up drum fill, then silence, then an ambiguous 7th chord that takes a few seconds to resolve to E minor. In fact, every section of the song begins in suspension — when it’s not pivoting to a different tonal space entirely, Prince relies on A7s and F9s to leave you needing resolution.
What I love about the “Dorothy Parker” recording is how dirty it sounds throughout. Not dirty in the typically-sexy way that Prince usually injects into all his work — but tarnished, ugly, weak in repair. The 3 drum machine rhythms that drive the song forward constantly interrupt each other; the bass is hard to identify as synthesized or performed; the chords performed through a weak-sounding tremolo. Every element of the music sounds like it’s falling apart, pushing up against each other, fucking up left and right, and Prince is trying to corral all the pieces together via his story to tell.The story, by the way, is also brilliantly ugly in its detail: Dorothy was a waitress on the promenade, working the night shift for a lotta tips. She hooks up with Prince in the form of a shared bath after ordering a fruit cocktail (who does that?) because he ain’t too hungry. There are numerous references to clothes being wet (which is uncomfortable for anyone), keeping his pants on (almost a first for Prince), a violent room. In the climax Dorothy comforts the Artist with Joni Mitchell so he can return to said room. It’s a song about vulnerability in every respect: being uncomfortable, revealing yourself, letting someone in. That’s all a stumbling mess most of the time in reality — not unlike this song’s rhythm section — it takes a lot to say “cool” to a new face, and it’s weirdly specific to ask to keep your pants on in a presumably sexual encounter. Perhaps this was Prince telling us that he wasn’t this perfect sexual being he portrayed in the rest of his material. Who knows.
Prince apparently didn’t know at the time he wrote “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker” that she was also a writer; to me, that discrepancy only adds to the confusing dream the song puts forth. Are these the same women? Is Dorothy a waitress who moonlights as a writer? Does she become a writer after being inspired by the Artist’s violent room experience? Who is this girl, really? In the way that Breaking Bad fans clamored to learn more about the ugly, tragic story of Walter White, I get wrapped up in the story of Prince and Dorothy every time I play this track. If this song taught me anything, it’s that a song does not need to sound polished in order to be great.[³]
The production value (or lack thereof?) gives the song its identity, no doubt. Of course, however, it’s not as easy to replicate that sound in a live setting — while I hadn’t seen Prince perform live during his life, I’ve seen only one video of him performing “Dorothy Parker” with his band. I think it was on the Arsenio Hall show. In the live setting, the song transforms into a Latin-infused mid-tempo R&B jam; a salsa-esque saxophone hook brings a sense of direction more than anything in the recording. As great as this live performance is, the emotional center of the song is fundamentally different than its recorded counterpart. Dorothy is still a waitress, but Prince talks to her with a more confident strut.
Perhaps my own social awkwardness is why I identify with the recorded “Dorothy Parker” so much; I would never approach someone with that confidence in public. The bleakness of the recording resembles the murky reality of meeting new people: everyone has their baggage, and it’s really uncomfortable and sometimes requires a vulnerability you’re not used to bearing. That vulnerability is lost in most popular music; some artists might explore it in their lyrics, but there are few examples where the music and its production take the listener to a place beyond the words themselves. Few examples in pop are this ugly.
Let’s hope for more songs like “Dorothy Parker.”
[¹]: Hopefully his estate will start to release more archived material and live footage so the world can experience more of his purple majesty, but considering he apparently never had a will, who knows what will happen.[²]: Yeah, I’m late to the game. Sorry, super fans.[³]: This is probably the same underlying reason for my affinity for punk music, which I think lines up with my love for Prince.
There’s something I keep having to remind myself: no matter how little time I have to put into art, I’m still an artist.
Still an artist, still making art. Music’s my medium of choice. Finding time to work on it is hard though, between wedding planning, an increasingly-demanding day job, other side projects — when can I play or write some music, dammit?
Short, obvious answer: block my time like nobody’s business. That at least gets me time dedicated to working on the things I want to be working on. Once I’m there, how can I explore purely creative ideas and save them when my brain is full of all this other stuff? Equally short, equally obvious answer: technology helps me. But how?
I used to think that Evernote should be my catch-all for organizing my stuff to stay focused: important notes, snippets, ideas, lyrics, receipts, anything possibly necessary to retrieve in the future. Tagging and shortcuts, stacks o’ notebooks, so much control. I tried storing my lyrics, song ideas, high level album cycle plans, even task lists and reminders in there — but, as others have noted, I ended up overwhelmed anytime I even attempted to find something in the depths of Evernote’s robust (to a fault) categorization system. I had access to too many things all the time — I had to remember which tags corresponded to what in my bizarre system of organization, not to mention the hours blown trying to establish the system in the first place.
Then I tried 2Do for a while — I figured that if I could abstract my tasks out of their various places into a single, meticulously organized place, I could get to all the other pertinent content via links. 2Do’s various features are great — but again I felt overwhelmed, like I was spending more time organizing my ideas than actually executing on them.
I realized that these approaches contradicted my way of thinking through my various blurbs of information when I need them.
So I worked out a new system. Here’s what my core criteria was for this:
I cannot put all my things in one place, due to the sheer overwhelming of having to parse through it all each time.
Centralize the blurbs in the app best for those blurbs. For instance, the app that gets me quickest to my notes is the best one for the most important or most frequently used notes.
More abstract ideas that require gestation and iteration don’t require as quick access, but I need the flexibility to adjust, merge, rearrange those notes as my ideas come to fruition.
Markdown is amazing, but some ideas may require sketching, images, etc. so I can’t limit myself to just text.
I need this system to play nice with day-job work and creative work.
Turns out I was able to devise a system that works for me quite well — and it’s not far off from what others have written about recently. Here’s a shortlist of the apps I use in this system:
Reminders.app: my high-level starting point
Apple’s stock Reminders is what holds all my shit together. I tried using so many different task management apps and realized that the overcomplexity of these apps was what caused all my wasted time and lost focus in the first place. With iOS 9 and El Capitan, I can now save virtually anything to a Reminders list and have direct access to that thing, regardless of where it lives. I can even dump tasks straight into a list thanks to 3D Touch.
Disclaimer: A big reason why I went with Reminders was due to iOS Exchange integration. We use Exchange at my work, whose Tasks feature I rely on to organize to-dos each day. Having access to them on my phone is invaluable, and while I loved 2Do for my personal projects, I haven’t found a great iOS task manager that handles Exchange tasks.
I have a few key lists I rely on:
I created an “Inbox” list that functions as my collector of tasks. I rely on Siri and share extensions to put everything into this list, and I sort out as needed later.
I have a list for each major focus area: Wayfair (via Exchange), Sophomores, wedding planning, writing topics (for the blogs I contribute to), etc. I also have a generic “big goals” list for personal bucket-list items (starting a podcast, writing a book, etc.)
I also have a few lists for other things to reference: stuff to buy (Shopping), stuff to watch/listen (Media), stuff to take care of around the house (the Family list I share with Alicia).
I rely on Smart Reminders to link to the given Note, Trello board, Ulysses sheet, or whatever else is pertinent to the given task. These were pretty problematic for the first few revisions of iOS 9, but the 6th beta of iOS 9.3 seems to have fixed most of the problems I’ve had.
The default “Reminders” list itself is used for everything I need to do on a particular day, but I don’t care about until that day. Recurring tasks reside here, like laundry, taking out the trash or renewing my driver’s license.
My one gripe with Reminders is a simple limitation on iOS: only manual sorting. The OS X Reminders app lets me sort easily by priority or due date, but I can only manually sort on iOS. If Apple adds a sorting feature to Reminders (like they’re doing with Notes), Reminders will finally be an app you might not scoff at.
Notes.app: for all quick note access & entry
Apple’s surprisingly pretty (to me — sorry, haters) and nimble Notes is my go-to for quick essentials: important links, high-level project plans and lists, account numbers (thanks, password lock!), stuff like that. I also use it as a less technical Drafts clone, for quick note-taking (thanks 3D Touch!) for sharing to other apps when needed. The goal here is to get to important things quickly and start writing quickly.
I’ve started to find Notes really useful for quick lists at a lower level than Reminders — for example, production & mix notes. I listen back to my demos constantly while on-the-go, and I’m constantly writing down ideas and feedback for them. I don’t want to create a single Reminders list for each song or album I’m working on — that feels too heavy — but I can create a note for the songs I’m working on, and then create a Smart Reminder about them so I don’t forget to review those notes next time I’m in the home studio.
Ulysses: for all creative / open-ended writing
Ulysses has become my ultimately creative scratchpad. Lyric ideas, blog post topics, sketches for a book I may write. The beauty of Ulysses is that it allows for endless organization, reorganization, merging, splitting and impeccable Markdown formatting of text.
In my workflow, this app (and how I use it) is especially important because it ONLY contains creative writing: blog drafts, lyrics, ideas for novel or album concepts, etc. I don’t get distracted by other life stuff when I have Ulysses open full-screen on my Mac or iPhone (like right now as I write this!), so I can actually focus on finishing that song or
Ulysses’ new iPhone app is totally invaluable, too, so I can do any of the above on the go. I didn’t at first value this since I typically need a keyboard for writing lots of text quickly — but now I can easily review my writing and rework snippets of it anywhere I like, without having to wait.
Trello: for all collaborative work
Trello is everything collaborative. Now that Trello’s iOS app is just as solid as it’s beautiful web interface (and I can jump across either via Handoff) I can easily share ideas with my collaborators or comment on theirs. I rely on this for mixing/mastering my music with my friend James, planning trips with Alicia and building apps with some of my NYC friends.
Thanks to Smart Reminders, I can also reference any board or card on a Reminders list and quickly jump back to it later. For instance, if James sends me a new mix via Trello comment, I can pull it up via push notification and then immediately tell Siri to remind me about it next time I can give it a serious listen.
Pause: for focus-switching and relaxation
Pause is one of those mindfulness apps, and I’m experimenting with it in my creative workflow. It’s allowing me to clear my head of the other life noise by just relaxing my motor functions before jumping into a recording session, new blog post or brain dump. I usually use it for a few seconds before jumping straight into a new context.
I used to think that over-organizing my life was necessary in order to achieve what I wanted to do creatively — but all I ended up with was tasks on tasks on tasks, multi-tier prioritization systems and even a literal Gantt chart at one point. All I needed was an easy way to see what was most important at any given time for a particular context, be able to act on it easily and without distraction, and discipline myself to switch contexts mindfully. This system seems to be working out well for me — let’s see how it works out over time.