Hey, it’s 2020 now! Cue things about resolutions and intentions and bettering selves. This year I intend to drive for more clarity and intentionality with what I put out to the world and how I spend my time doing it.
At work, most of us try to optimize how we spend our working time using a tool called Clockwise. It enables you to set preferences for how & when you like to work, automatically scans everyone’s calendars for meetings, and automatically reschedules those meetings to give each participant as much “focus time” based on their own preferences. On the surface, it’s wonderful for creating meeting block periods without having to think about arranging my day, and some of my colleagues thrive in long periods of deep focus.
But I barely use the focus time as Clockwise probably intends. Being at home, even in a relatively bare spare room / office space, I’m constantly distracted by my personal life: my wife, our things, my new puppy, my Nintendo Switch, my Apple Music library, Wikipedia, trees, cars driving by, a lightning strike of an idea, snacks.
For a while this frustrated me. I had thought working from home was the ultimate path to deep focus and productivity: no commute, no distractions by coworkers, no proverbial watercooler to seek out gossip (though I do enjoy my kitchen), no weird internal IT rules that prevent me from running my work computer the way I want. But I still find myself distracted, often by my own bullshit, which results in a very fits-and-starts style of work through much of the workday. Twenty minutes of deeply focused writing or backlog admin might be suddenly interrupted by my own desire to update my near-perfect playlist to cook to. Alicia might suddenly be having an awful symptom flare-up and I now suddenly need to make lunch and find her medication. Having a puppy isn’t quite like having children, but it’s certainly tested my ability to context switch on a dime to avoid pee stains all over the house.
I’ve very recently learned to accept this reality of working. It’s okay to get distracted by life. It’s okay to feel a little bored trying to improve how teams design products after hammering away at a product requirements document for a bit. It’s okay to stop and cuddle with my wife or a dog because that provides me so much more joy and fulfillment than how much time I can put into staring at a laptop screen.
I can still be quite intentional even if I’m bouncing between the many things in my life in fits & starts. An optimally-placed three hour block of time to write a song or a strategy document won’t solve for me being clear in what I’m looking to do and why; I can be comfortable working ten minutes here, ten minutes there, as long as I know why I’m doing it.
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.
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.
What do you do when you stop caring about something you used to love?
I moved to Salem, MA and basically stopped actively seeking live music. I still see live music — say, when my girlfriend and I go out to brunch and a jazz band happens to be performing there, or when a once-in-a-lifetime performance in the city happens — but for years I would spend hundreds of dollars almost every month trying to see as many bands as possible. There were so many possibilities, even in “our music scene is dying” Boston — I would frequent Great Scott and Harper’s Ferry/Brighton Music Hall and The Middle East and (begrudgingly) TT the Bear’s (just kidding, RIP).
I don’t think it’s because I’m getting older. I don’t think it’s even because bands aren’t impressing me anymore. I still listen to recorded music constantly and find new bands via blogs and Apple Music and friends’ posts.
I do think saturation has something to do with it. Software is eating the world and the Internet is eating media, and both of these things are eating our ability to be surprised. The barrier to entry for anyone to become a musician is virtually gone, and it’s really easy for anyone with a slight ego to fight for your attention. The barrier to entry to start a blog or generate commentary on said music is also gone, so with every million bands that form, there are 100 million people ready to comment on said bands.
So you have tons of musicians out there, striving to outdo each other with better performances and more inventive production in order to satisfy the even more so-called critics. The caliber of the average musician is so much higher as a result — and every musician is looking to surprise you, the listener-critic, constantly. Every night holds hundreds of amazing shows competing for your time & attention — secret exclusive shows, bizarre live rigs, intense theatrics, warm acoustic sets — all of which are constantly trying to compete for your interest. It’s all amazing…until it’s all the same to you.
And so I’ve become desensitized to the ability to be surprised by live music.
I’ve been meaning to write about being a musician on the North Shore of MA and how live performance here is different than, say, Brooklyn or Cambridge or other major cities with credible music scenes. I wanted to write about the fact that there is a small but lively group of musicians hopping up and down the shore, playing long & extremely entertaining sets in front of small, passionate North Shore crowds at quaint restaurants and bars. I wanted to write about the scene being smaller, thus allowing me to have a shot of regularly performing with a tight-knit group of collaborators.
None of that has actually happened, and that’s on me. But when you struggle to be surprised by anyone else performing, how can you expect to be inspired to surprise others with your own performance?
Goal: by April, have a live acoustic/looper set prepared and book a show. Try it out.