Daily posts #8 – Prince

Greetings from Coachella! There’s a lull in the activity so I wanted to update. 

We got in to tent city around 2am. My traveling companions are expert campers and had the site set up quickly. 

We were all shocked by the news of Prince’s death. He was just in Atlanta playing and blowing minds as usual. But now he’s gone. 57?! It doesn’t make sense.

For me Prince represents the ultimate in being a musician, inspiration, songwriter, virtuoso, artist, and a unique voice. He said and lived what he believed. We never doubted his authenticity for a moment. His mythology was immense. It always will be. 

I’m writing this on my iPhone. I had a few daily posts written but I didn’t get them finished or posted in time to keep the streak going. That’s okay. I’m going to keep up the writing because I want to meet the resistance and break through. 

Time For FAWM

Every year since 2013, I’ve signed up, and completed, the February Album Writing Month (FAWM) challenge. FAWM is a global songwriting challenge to write 14 songs in 28 days during the month of February. Nothing is written before February 1st.

In 2008 I did the NaNoWriMo challenge to write a novel of 50,000 words during November. I previously wrote about the early bird yoga challenge. I love creative challenges. They give me accountability, a deadline, and a real impetus to follow through.

Through FAWM I’ve learned so much about mixing, recording, production, and editing on the fly. However, the biggest lessons I’ve learned are in songwriting. The challenge forces me to move fast and make quick decisions. There’s no time to debate and question. I have to turn off the inner editor and critic, or else I’ll lose valuable time. I have to go with what I’ve written and figure out some way to make it work.

Sure, I end up writing some real stinkers, but I always get a few gems too. It’s all about the process, and ultimately, it’s about finishing. When it’s over I can go back and polish the good songs and make them better.

FAWM also gives me insight into how I live my life. Each year I see how much time I waste on social media, watching movies and shows, and thinking about myself. It shows me how much I accomplish when I’m focused and determined.

Even with all those worthwhile benefits I’ve mentioned, my favorite thing about FAWM is the global community. Everyone is positive and encouraging. Folks take the time to listen to your songs and give constructive feedback. I’ve had several great collaborations with a lyricist (Hey Kim!) and a rapper (Whassup GSlade?!), which I’ve never met in person. I’ve connected with songwriters all over the world. I’ve made a friend in North Carolina, the UK, and one in South Africa. It’s inspiring to hear all the songs being written during this time and it’s fulfilling to encourage all the creative energy. FAWM is a wonderful celebration of creativity and music.

Next Monday it begins. I’m eager to get started and I’m excited to see what happens.

You can follow my progress on my FAWM profile:
http://fawm.org/fawmers/jamesstaubes/

Bowie

I read the news today and exclaimed, “No!”

Scanning through the Facebook posts and seeing Bowie trending I thought, “No, no Bowie can’t be dead. His birthday was just last week. No.” Turns out Bowie was mortal, he was human. He just didn’t seem like it.

Odd how losing someone I never met, or even came close to meeting, could make me feel so sad. Yet, I’m feeling it. His music meant so much to me and so many.

Growing up on AOR radio Bowie ruled those airwaves, as a kid I knew his songs: Jean Genie, Ziggy Stardust, Heroes, Space Oddity, Rebel Rebel, Suffragette City. He dominated the music video artform in the 80’s. MTV was the perfect medium for his unique blend of visuals and his unique voice.

He never stopped creating or being interesting. He found a way to stay relevant, even up to his brand new record last week.

“China Girl,” has always been one of my favorites. Co-wrote with his friend Iggy Pop and produced by Nile Rodgers, it featured guitars from then unknown Stevie Ray Vaughn. Bowie helped break Vaughn. For me this track is quintessential Bowie.

Bowie was a true artist. He did what he wanted. He bended genres and sexuality. He made the art he wanted to make, on his own terms.

So goodbye Jareth. Goodbye Thin White Duke. Goodbye Ziggy Stardust. Thank you for all that you gave us.

10 Things I’ve Learned Studying With Buzz Amato

I studied classical piano from ages 6 to 13 and I got pretty good at piano during that time. I’m grateful my parents pushed me to take lessons because much of what I learned then still serves me today. Being a teenager at that time I wanted to play Van Halen and Rush, as well as jazz like Dave Brubeck and Ellis Marsalis. This culminated in a battle of wills between me, my teacher, and my mom, resulting in me essentially giving up piano and taking up rock guitar. So while I gained expertise at another instrument, my piano playing and sight reading skills went by the wayside.

As an adult I’ve taken drum lessons and voice lessons, but I’d always wanted to get back to my first instrument, the piano. Finally in June of 2012 I set out on that goal and began studying with the exceptional Buzz Amato. I’ve been fortunate to study with a musician and teacher who has a vast knowledge of theory, live performance, composition, arrangement, as well as insights into pop and jazz music. My playing and songwriting has grown immensely as a result of my studies.

When I told Buzz I was writing 10 things I learned from him he joked, “Oh, you could come up with 10?” That’s Buzz’s humor, a joke with multiple levels, self-deprecating while indirectly challenging me as well.

Let’s get to it, here are 10 lessons, among many, that I’ve learned from Buzz:

1. Be Gentle With Yourself

Perfectionism, excellence, and being exceptional at whatever I’ve set out to do, has plagued me my whole life. I say plague because perfectionism allows excuses, self-doubt, and procrastination to insidiously work its way into eventual inaction and frustration. Buzz saw this in me right from the beginning and would often repeat, “Be gentle with yourself.” All of this ridicule and pressure I put on myself was unnecessary. After all, I wasn’t preparing for a command performance at Lincoln Center in front of the president. Maybe that’ll happen someday but that’s not the current reality. I’ve learned that grace, patience, and love opens a better path to real learning and growth. No one is perfect, because…

2. Every Musician Makes Mistakes

I revere players like Chilly Gonzales, Herbie Hancock, Glenn Gould, and Prince. They’re virtuosos and while they seem to never make a mistake, they’re human and they do. The difference is, they’re able to disguise their mistakes, even using the mistake to find something new.

Miles Davis famously said, “Do not fear mistakes – there are none.” It took me a while to get over my fear of making mistakes, especially playing live. When I had gigs where I fell on my face, I left the stage crestfallen and embarrassed. Buzz got me past all that. Buzz says everyone makes mistakes and really the difference between me and Chilly, or Herbie, is how they use the mistake. Buzz says, “If you play it twice, it’s not a mistake.” So mistakes are okay, after all…

3. It’s Just Music

Buzz reminds me that we “play” music. There aren’t many other aspects of life where we are playing, other than sports, recreation, or acting. Music is powerful. It heals and brings unity to humanity. It offers joy and catharsis. It gives us deeper understanding of ourselves and others through artistic expression. However music is not brain surgery, aeronautical engineering, or law enforcement. I’m not saying music isn’t important, but playing music doesn’t have the same stakes as surgery.

4. Set A Goal or Intention When Practicing

I’ve noticed when I set a goal or intention for my practice time, I practice with more focus and tend to accomplish more. These are simple and specific goals such as, learn the next measure of this piece, or work out fingering for this passage, or….

5. Record Yourself

We’re fortunate to have easy access to recording with computers, phones, and cameras. When I record myself and play it back, I’m able to analyze my playing from a different perspective. I can objectively critique and notice what needs to be practiced, what’s working and what’s not, if my tempo wavers, or if the piece is ready for performance. Recording also applies what is known as the “red light syndrome” to my practicing. This pressure helps relax me when I am finally playing in front of an audience, since I’ve worked out those jitters by recording.

6. Play Relaxed

I know I should play relaxed, but it takes a lot of control, practice, and skill to get there. When I am learning certain passages in a piece they can torment me! Buzz teaches that it’s best to slow the tempo down until I can play the music relaxed. Playing with too much tension in the forearms, hands and fingers leads to more mistakes and fumbles but ultimately, it just sounds bad.

7. Know Your Limitations

While I don’t see a lot of limitations in Buzz’s playing, he references them a lot. He’ll say, “I will substitute in a passage so I’m not using my 4th and 5th fingers, because they are weak.” He then proceeds to run and up and down the keyboard with ease. For me, I know that singing in the key of Eb is not good a key for me.

8. Know Your Strengths

Buzz knows he’s great with arrangement and harmony. He’s got lots of stories where folks complimented him on his use of harmony. I know I can write music quickly when there’s a deadline. For the past 3  years, I’ve completed the February Album Writing Month challenge, writing 14 songs in 28 days. I also know I’m good with Logic and making interesting guitar tones with effects.

9. Unlearn What You Have Learned

We talked about this one yesterday. Buzz tells the story of talking to guitarist Pat Martino who remarked the point of learning music is to learn all the rules, then forget them. The idea is to free the mind from the mechanics, theory, technique, and thinking, and simply play the music. When I allow music to flow from me without filters, rules, or thought, I’m able to truly express the purest form of the music.

10. Mix At Lower Volumes

For many years, I loved listening to music and mixing music at loud volumes. Fortunately a recent hearing test revealed my hearing is normal and I haven’t suffered any noticeable loss. Buzz showed me mixing at lower volumes allows me to hear more details and nuances. Sure, it’s fine to crank up a mix for a minute to gauge where it sits. However, every mixing engineer will tell you, mixing at lower volumes causes less ear fatigue and ultimately gives you a better mix.

If you’re interested in contacting Buzz about piano or music production lessons you can hit him up through his site at buzzamato.com.

20 Songs I Loved In 2015

I started with 10 songs but I had to share more. There was so much great music in 2015.

There’s a lot of Top 40 mainstream pop music here. I unabashedly love pop music and don’t believe in “music shaming” or having to qualify the music I enjoy as a “guilty pleasure.” I wholeheartedly agree with Dave Grohl on this matter.

This list also features a lot of songs Max Martin worked on, five to be exact. I’m a huge Max Martin fan.

I prefer sharing songs rather than whole albums. The days of records with numerous hits  and substantial overall quality are over, and yes, there are exceptions. Recommending an entire album feels heavy and burdensome. That said, I must recommend The Bird and The Bee’s Recreational Love and Susanne Sundfør’s Ten Love Songs.

Now let’s get to it! Here are 20 songs I had on repeat in 2015:

1. The Bird and the Bee – Will You Dance?

My favorite record of 2015. Greg Kurstin and Inara George are immensely talented musical geniuses.

2. Susanne Sundør – Fade Away

If I was ranking records, Ten Love Songs would be in the number two spot. Amazing record from this brilliant Norwegian artist.

3. Major Lazer & DJ Snake – Lean On (feat. MØ)

This song will soon have 1 billion plays on YouTube for good reason, it’s amazing! This tune forged a magical amalgamation of EDM and trap, while using modern production and unique sounds. The solo section using vocal samples makes this song so special.

4. The Weeknd – Can’t Feel My Face

The one standout track from an otherwise lackluster record. Oh yeh, Max Martin strikes again.

5. Death Cab For Cutie – The Ghosts Of Beverly Drive

The first half of Kintsugi starts strong but loses steam and focus at the halfway mark. This song though, so good.

6. Jason Derulo – Want To Want Me

This was the song of the summer, for me.

7. Demi Lovato – Cool For The Summer

Another Max Martin hit.

8. Father John Misty – Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins)

I Love You, Honeybear was not as strong as Fear Fun. While still a good record, the slow spots made Honeybear a duller and less remarkable experience.

9. Disclosure – Jaded

The vocals and keys on this tune from the British brothers kept me coming back.

10. Craig Wedren – Higher and Higher from Wet Hot American Summer

Craig Wedren flexes his musical genius on this soundtrack.

11. Lana Del Rey – Terrence Loves You

She’s brilliant. Honeymoon, while strong, didn’t pack the same punch that Ultraviolence did. Honeymoon was a more relaxed excursion into experimentation, depth, and space. The production on LDR’s records continues getting wider and deeper, with a remarkable and tasteful use of reverb and delay on her vocals.

12. Ariana Grande – Focus

Feels like Max Martin doing Prince.

13. Dawes – Things Happen

Dawes is truly a live band. Their studio recordings don’t always convey the excitement and energy they generate playing live.

14. Ryan Adams – Bad Blood

I liked this version more than the original. Another gem from Max Martin.

15. Ellie Goulding – On My Mind

One of my favorite songs of the year. Another Max Martin hit nodding to The Police.

16. Chilly Gonzales & The Kaiser Quartett – Advantage Points

This year Chilly dropped “the musical genius” moniker and told us why. He also dropped two full-length records, one with the Kaiser Quartett and one with Boys Noize. This song was my favorite from Chambers.

17. Vulfpeck – 1612

I’ve been following this inspiring band since their Sleepify debacle. This song, and particularly this performance, got many repeats in 2015.

18. White Reaper – Sheila

Spotify’s New Music Friday playlist can help break a band nowadays. That’s how I found this fun band from Kentucky.

19. Brandi Carlile – The Eye

The harmonies. Brilliant.

20. Peaches – Close Up

Peaches is not for the faint of heart. After watching this informative and inspiring interview with Dave Pensado and Peaches, I had a lot of anticipation for this record. I was not disappointed.

Have you heard all of these? What were some of your favorite songs from 2015?

10 90’s Bands You Forgot About (Or Probably Never Knew)

The 90’s were a truly great time for music. I consider myself lucky to have gone to college in the early 90’s, and DJ at the University of Georgia’s college radio station, WUOG. I was exposed to so much music there. In high school I religiously watched a show on MTV called 120 Minutes, which turned me on to so much great music too. Here are some great bands I love from that era, that you may have missed.

Blake Babies

Before Juliana Hatfield made it big time as a solo artist, she was in Blake Babies. The guitar hook on this song is stunning.

Walt Mink

A band I discovered from 120 Minutes. What a great show that was. I loved how Walt Mink fused progressive rock and virtuosity into tight 3 minute songs. Drummer Joey Waronker went on to be a mainstay in Beck’s band.

Big Chief

A band I discovered from rotation at WUOG. Mack Avenue Skullgame was a theme record from Ann Arbor’s Big Chief, made as a soundtrack to a movie which didn’t exist. This record covered everything from funk, blues to rock.

Hoodoo Gurus

This band may not be as obscure as some of these other bands listed. Also a find from 120 Minutes, my first garage band covered the Guru’s songs often. Hoodoo Gurus wrote tight pop/rock songs with great hooks and a lot of tongue in cheek humor.

The Ocean Blue

The Ocean Blue dominated the alternative rock scene in the 90’s with several solid records. The bridge on this song, it’s resplendent. The guitar solo on this tune is excellent. What I love is that it’s a song about how art can provoke awe inspiring feelings and contemplative questions.

Screaming Trees

Another 120 Minutes find. Chris Cornell produced this record for fellow Seattleites. I remember hearing this song and loving it immediately for the reverb on Mark Lanegan’s vocals.

Dag

It’s ridiculous how good these guys were. Did you watch the video? I implore you! I beseech you! Watch that video! That is live! Amazing. I remember people were surprised these guys were white because they were so funky. Got to see them at the Cotton Club back when it was on Peachtree. These guys should’ve been huge.

Versus

I think my brother introduced me to Versus. He and I got to see them several times during the 90’s. Two Cents Plus Tax was my favorite record from this NYC rock band.

Mary’s Danish

Another discovery from WUOG rotation. It took me an hour to remember this band’s name the other day. This song rocks so much.

TPOH or The Pursuit of Happiness

This Canadian band had a hit with the song, “I’m An Adult Now,” which played on my hometown radio station. I’ll never forget seeing them down on River Street on St. Patrick’s Day in 1989. They blew me away. Their stellar 1993 release, The Downward Road, was a favorite of mine and many of my friends. It rocks from top to bottom. Then Beavis & Butthead featured this song in a show and TPOH got big for a minute. Unfortunately that small moment was the biggest they’d get.

Do you remember any of these bands? What are some other obscure 90’s bands you liked?