At the very end of November, I released my first ever album. (It’s called “Small Talk” and you can listen to it for free on Bandcamp.) This blog has been a good place for me to collect my thoughts and spit them out after doing or experiencing anything significant, and I definitely need that closure with this album so here we are.
Since 1999, a project called National Novel Writing Month has taken place every year. Its goal is to get participating writers to break free of never getting anything done under the constant oppression of that almighty personal dictator, Perfection. This is accomplished by setting a timeframe of just one month to write an entire >50,000-word novel. With such a short amount of time to write something that large, you cannot afford to take the time to make every word and phrase perfect…you just have to start writing, and not stop. And if life has taught me anything, it’s that looming deadlines are the ultimate motivator.
Although I do love writing and aspire to write a novel someday, I am not exactly well-equipped with zero novel-writing experience to participate in NaNoWriMo. However, in recent years a musical equivalent called National Solo Album Month has gained popularity, and as it was inspired by the novel-writing challenge it has much of the same ideals. The NaSoAlMo website explains it perfectly:
NaSoAlMo favors enthusiasm, creativity, and perseverance, rather than perfectionism. It encourages musicians and would-be songwriters to silence their inner critic for thirty days in order to inspire and maximize productivity. The albums are likely to be hastily written, off-time, and out of tune, and that’s okay! The main objective is to just do it.
There are a couple of other similar challenges during the month of February, but NaSoAlMo has my favorite set of guidelines (and 30 days instead of 28 or 29). I’ve meant to participate for a few years now, but this year I decided I was going to commit to it. I had a light schedule throughout November and all the tools I needed to record. However, based on previous years I was still unsure if I would have the motivation necessary to finish, so I told several of my close friends about the challenge and asked if they would be interested in making an attempt as well, so we could be more motivated with our friends at our side. In the end I ended up surmounting the challenge by myself, but the thought of others potentially doing it with me helped me actually start and commit.
One of the guidelines set by the challenge is that you can’t use pre-existing material. Everything has to be done in November, including the earliest stages of songwriting. So, in the few days before November 1st, I prepared by organizing synth sounds and getting my recording setup in order. Once November arrived, I hit the ground running. For the rest of the month, I worked on the album with every ounce of free time I had (except for Sundays, so really I finished the album in 26 days). The result, obviously, is that I successfully made an album from start to finish in under one month.
So what did I learn?
First and foremost, I learned that the paralysis of perfection is a bigger problem for me than I had thought. I knew it was a problem, but I didn’t realize the extent until I began working on this album. The second I started, deliberately trying to avoid perfection and just crank material out, I was insanely productive. The first eight days of November I finished almost all of the rhythm section tracks for the entire album, including coming up with the initial ideas for nothing, figuring out chord progressions and form, and deciding on specific sounds. That means about one song a day – all that was left was to put vocals and horns on top. How crazy is that? I was completely shocked and bewildered at my own productivity.
The rest of the month was a bit slower because I got busier, but I was still able to knock things out quickly. And – crucially – everything I had been creating (regardless of how quickly) was good. Not just passable or “okay”. Every song on the album came from the first idea I had while messing around on a synth, which I just ran with once I had it. I only needed one tiny spark of an idea to blossom into a full song skeleton within hours. How this was possible I couldn’t fathom, but when the time came to write the horn and vocal parts on top of the base I had, it all became clear.
When I was getting my master’s degree at Indiana University, I worked as the horn coach for the IU Soul Revue. A big part of that job was composing horn parts for the horn section to play for songs that had none. I got extremely fast at it, especially because I discovered that my very first idea for a line was almost always the best one. I could write new horn parts for a full song in as little as 15 minutes by singing ideas along with the song and immediately inputting them into my notation software, orchestrating them and then making the parts look good. When I was done I had new horn parts that I legitimately loved and was excited about without having to so much as entertain a second listen of the song for other ideas.
The same thing happened with the horn parts on this album, and I realized then that the same thing had happened with the songs themselves earlier. I took my first idea and ran with it, and it turned into something I was excited about every time. As far as composition goes, I think that’s one of my greatest gifts, second only to another one which I also used in this album.
My greatest compositional gift (in my opinion) is the ability to subconsciously have the music’s existing melodies and motifs influence what I write at all times. And when I say subconsciously, I really do mean that. When I compose, whether it’s classical or jazz or the songs on this album, I almost never think about thematic continuity but go back to discover that it exists in beautiful ways anyway. I didn’t even realize it had happened on this album until I was in the shower thinking about one of the songs (the title track). I sang through one of the verses and then the disco section at the end, and had a eureka moment where I realized the vocal melodies in these two sections, which are very different in feel, chords, and texture, have exactly the same rhythms and contour. I wrote the ending disco melody long after I wrote the verses, on a different day and without listening to the verses first. Yet I still wrote a melody that perfectly mirrored what already existed in the song. This is a phenomenon that I have noticed after the fact all over every piece I’ve ever written, but it’s mind-blowing to me every time.
One of the hardest parts of the album was writing lyrics. Apart from a few words here and there that never went anywhere, I had never written lyrics before in my life. How was I supposed to do it now, in a time constraint? I had to take extra time to listen over and over again and try to think of words to go with the music, but I did end up with lyrics I was very happy with. I notably always wrote the melody first and added lyrics to that, rather than writing the melody to the lyrics. As a brass player first, it worked much better that way for me. The only downside, which I only discovered when trying to record the vocals, was that a lot of the melodies were not very easy to sing! I was still in my horn section frame of mind and that made the vocal recording take quite a lot of time. I’m not a vocalist by any means, so I having to coax my voice into navigating these hard melodies I had written for myself was no easy task.
The other hard part of the album was attempting to mix it. Just as I’m not a vocalist, I’m also not a sound engineer, and apart from adjusting balance and panning on some of my brass multitracks, I had never tried to legitimately mix anything. That took a lot of time, and although the result is far from a professional mix, I have been pleasantly surprised at how the balance and quality of the initial mix has held up on phone speakers and other sub-standard sound systems. These songs definitely deserve to be professionally mixed and mastered, and I am positive that I’ll pay to get that done eventually, at which point I can think about physical releases and things like that. That said, I’m very glad I did it by myself because this album was intended to be a learning experience and I definitely know a lot more about production and mixing than I did before.
The craziest thing to me about this album is how many parts of it I had never done before, despite being an experienced musician. To recap, making this album is the first time I have ever:
- Sang lead vocals
- Written lyrics
- Finished a song
- Attempted to mix and produce
- Made an album
…all within 30 days. With all that considered I’m enormously proud of what I’ve created. Looking forward, I definitely plan to do more time-restricted albums, but I want to change it up. I’d like to make my own restrictions rather than participating in the February challenges with their inferior rulesets or just sticking to the NaSoAlMo guidelines. I’d like to have friends play on songs rather than do everything alone. I’d like to experiment with different lengths of time like two months or six weeks. I’d like to try different genres to explore more of my influences. But most importantly, I’d like to keep doing it because I’m learning and improving so much, and that’s the point.
Well, there is one other important point.
Possibly the best thing about this album, as told to me by close friends and colleagues, is that I did it for me. I didn’t do it because someone else asked me to, or because I’m getting paid to, or because I needed to. I did it because I wanted to. I did it for fun, and to learn. As someone with a career as a sideman playing other people’s music (and I wouldn’t have it any other way, mind you), to make something entirely because I want to and not because I have to or was hired to is pretty significant. At the end of the day, music is still what I’m passionate about and I’m happy to fill up my whole life with it.
Still gotta make another Christmas Multitrack though…