What kind of music theory background do you have? When you write a song do you think "This will be Mixolydian and modulate to the third of the scale for the bridge" or do you plunk around and find some chords that sound nice?

March 30th, 2011

It’s my first impulse when I hear something in a song that makes my head turn, to figure out what happened and then to try to incorporate that “trick” into my own writing. And for me that’s about figuring out the theory behind it. It’s often helpful to have a technical hook on which to hang a song - minor key, 3/4 time, Lydian mode - because it puts me into interesting predicaments, like dropping a survivalist into the jungle with a machete and a power bar.

I was a music major in college, and I love to think about music theory. When I write, sometimes I noodle around until I find something and then say “what is that?” Big Bad World One was like that, I’m still not entirely sure I understand what is the tonal center of that song and how it modulates. But other times I actually decide “this one is going to modulate smoothly down a whole step, like Penny Lane” and then figure out how to make it do that. (Or fail to figure out how to do that, I’ve been working on that one for a long time.) Lately I’ve been kind of obsessed with the minor third modulation, like the kind that happens in Still Alive. I actually had to force myself to stop using it in the songs on this new record, because it was becoming a habit.

Now that you’re working with a "legitimate" "big-time" producer (John F.) and "real" "paid" musicians, is your approach to distributing your music going to change? Are the "salad" "days" of "free" "music" coming to an end?

March 30th, 2011

Yeah, because I have a way of keeping people from downloading mp3s. That’s the thing: it doesn’t matter what I think. Free music is here to stay if you want it, whether I want it or not.

But to answer your question more directly, I’m still trying to figure out how this record gets released. Might be all me, might have some label involvement, might be my own label-like team cobbled together a la carte, don’t really know yet. There are a lot of things I don’t do well on the business side of things, and I’m trying to figure out the smartest way to fill those gaps with people who do.

That said, I would be crazy (anyone would) to deny the reality that a lot of people are going to get this for free. The best I can do is hope that those people will like it, and consume it in such a way that eventually brings me some kind of compensation - by coming to a show, by buying a Tshirt, by turning their friends onto me, by handing me $20 at a video game convention. I still believe that file sharing has a positive effect on my bottom line, though I will continue my strategy of leading with the “buy this music” concept and letting the free happen in the background. Because the other thing I can do is make it easy for people to buy it - make it available in all sorts of forms physical and digital, put it in the places where people are used to getting their music and then STAY OUT OF THE WAY so they can get it. That’s the strategy that evolved over the course of Thing a Week, and I see no need to change the fundamentals of it at this point.

Hey JoCo, I love writing poems and short stories, but my real passion is music, and I want to start writing songs, but I don’t even know where to start. Every attempt at writing a song has turned out as a poem basically, I am lost on the process of writing proper verses and especially choruses. I feel like once I start practicing I might get out of the’poetry mindset’, but starting seems to be impossible. I am a little worried because I don’t play guitar or piano, I play bass and drums; obviously the rhythm instruments not being useful for songwriting. Do you have any advice on how I should get started with writing my first songs, based off your experiences?

March 30th, 2011

You can write a song on the bass, I did it just the other day. It helps to play some instrument that has notes, I don’t know how far you’ll get writing with drums. But if you want to know what it feels like to write a song, a good way to start is to steal. Pick a song you like and use it as a template. Play the bass line into a recorder, and then spend an hour singing nonsense on top of it. Find a melody you like, a phrase that catches your interest, and then build from there. Use the same form and chords as the song so you won’t have to think about how long the chorus should be or where it should go next. That’s stage two of the process for me anyway, it’s just that the song template I’m working with is one I made up. But to make it less of a mystery, skip that step and use a ready-made template.

In today’s TAWRedux you said, "Here was where it started to feel like my software career suicide at least had not been a terrible mistake." This is the first time I’ve seen you use the word "suicide" to describe the end of your software career, and it makes me wonder about whether there was a breaking point where you sort of snapped and said "fuck this, I’m working full time on the music" and quit soon after. Did it happen like that or did you undertake Thing a Week after a careful planning period? Did you try to keep bridges intact, and how much did you think about the possibility of returning to the ranks of the code monkeys?

March 30th, 2011

Even when I started the software job I told myself it was only temporary, and that I was soon going to leave and do music full time. Nine years later I was still telling myself that. If there was a single moment, it came at the end of my time at home after my daughter was born. I took three weeks off and was just at home with my new family. When it was time to go back to work I had a real resistance to it - not just wah wah I don’t want to go back to work, because truthfully it was kind of awful at home with the sleep deprivation and the standard new parent insanity. It was deeper than that. I remember thinking how it just didn’t make sense: here was this new person and I had three weeks with her and then zip zap, I was going to go back to the office EVERY DAY FOR THE REST OF MY LIFE? This is OK with everyone, this is how we do things?

Of course I did it, but I had already started planning. My entry to music was not a complete free fall. At this point I was having some success in writing and performing for audiences, tagging along with Hodgman on his Fame Adventure. I felt talented, I was pretty sure that if I worked at it I could make SOMETHING happen eventually, figure out some way to make money from music. At the very least I knew we wouldn’t starve. My wife went back to work full time eventually, and I figured worst case scenario I’d bum around for a year and then just go out and get another software job. On the day that I left I still felt like that was a distinct possibility, and really I LIKED writing software and querying databases. I was hopeful that I would find another way, but I was certainly open to the idea that Thing a Week would ultimately become a brief interruption in my software career.

What difference did you notice in the process and experience of songwriting after you left your day job, compared to writing while you were working? Was it better or easier or faster when you had more time?

March 30th, 2011

It has never been, and will never be easy. The one thing I have learned about songwriting in all this is that it is always difficult and frequently painful. The difference is that when I was working full time it was easy to avoid the painful stuff - I could float happily through my software life and if some idea came to me that wrote itself, I could follow it through. Or not. I’m sure a lot of great songs went unwritten because I wasn’t there to receive the muse when she showed up.

That changed a little when I started writing songs for John Hodgman’s Little Gray Books reading series. Those were deadlines and assigned topics, so it actually meant sitting down and working sometimes. It was easier because there was less pressure - it wasn’t my JOB. But some of them were really hard, some of them were actual work, and some of them came out not so good but I had to go with them anyway.

Thing a Week was a more distilled version of this. Adding to the pressure was the fact that I had declared it my job and I was doing it in a pretty public way. So there was no question about me sitting down every day to work on something, and there was no way for me to avoid the songs that just made me want to run away and not write them.

Roger Ebert tweeted the other day about how the muse arrives during the act of creation, not before, which means that you usually have to start without her. This is why starting is the most difficult part - you know you’re going to be alone out there in the wilderness for some period of time, and it’s going to hurt.