DAVE SMALLEN : DESOLATION  HAPPINESS  LISTEN  READ  WATCH  SEE  BUY/SUPPORT  SING/PLAY  UNDERSTAND/CONNECT



Feel

Mon, 06 Aug 2012 01:30:00 +0000

My new record, Desolation, will be released tomorrow and I figure I should tell you a few things about it:

After producing Happiness myself with a cohort of good friends, I was eager to dive into another album and put everything that I’d just learned to use.  The batch of songs I had ready were all a little darker, a little more strange than usual and I felt like it would be a satisfying challenge to attempt the project by myself, to play all the instruments, record it, mix it, lock myself away with it, and see what would happen.

This approach worked really well for me.  Because my skills at certain things (mixing, for instance) are brand new, it’s definitely quite imperfect. There are times when it feels really raw, distorted or unbalanced.  This was a major battle between my authentic self and the perfectionist in me (that I’ve been slowly trying to kill), and I think that the imperfection of these tracks totally serves the spirit of the songs, probably my most vulnerable batch yet.  They gasp. They wriggle and moan. They explode.

I wanted it to be accurate to the shape and structure of certain feelings that have been mentioned in my lyrics that I’m not sure I’ve been able to touch with the production of my last two records.  I especially wanted to do my best to paint the sensations of anxiety/panic, grief, anger, worthlessness, nostalgia, regret (and hint at a little hope and peace as well). I think I did pretty well with that.  I mean, I feel like this album really is terrified of itself, really hates itself, feels sorry for itself, longs with its whole being for something it doesn’t understand...

- - -

Why so much focus on these places inside of me that seethe and swarm?

Because, though my music and art has allowed me to inch closer and closer in the last decade, I’ve still spent my whole life running away from them.  And every time I flee, they tighten their grip and gain more power.  By honoring their existence, by meeting them face to face and allowing them to be seen, heard, and understood, I find that they do eventually stop screaming and lay down to rest for a while.  The process of making this album has helped me to ease in beside them (with a little affection even), to fall asleep with these heaps of fangs and claws slumbering at the foot of my bed.

I recorded it throughout winter and spring of 2012 in my bedroom on the east side of LA.  I also spent a couple rainy weeks with it in Oakland, in the house I grew up in, just myself and a german shepherd.  I allowed these hard sensations to rise as recording sessions spilled from day into night and back into day.  I felt the solitude, the regret, the injustice and shame and I let it all stay. I let it pull me down over the canyon rim, down into the darkness, down into cold river that carved everything out in the first place.  And because I played every instrument on the album, the whole thing had to flow through me, through these difficult emotions, through my fingers and vocal chords, onto the guitar strings and piano keys, into the microphones...

- - -

The abstract painting I’ve been doing these days influenced the production as well. My process with abstract pieces is usually just an in-the-moment negotiation, a series of changes, then reactions to those changes, and so on...  I rarely plan anything out.  I instead feel my way though the piece, allowing it to evolve without any pressure, and when I get a sense that it is finally “working,” I put down the brush. I followed this approach as I layered instruments and vocal parts onto these tracks.  It was liberating, and a much more enjoyable process than sketching everything out and forcing it into shape.

Finally, it’s been resonating with me recently how our emotions are, in certain ways, much more real than our thoughts. Though our plans, strategies, daydreams, worries, etc, are fundamentally necessary and allow us to survive and evolve, to navigate our lives, to write books, build cities and feed billions, they still are only fantasies, ethereal mists filling the dark space of our unknown futures until the moment of truth crashes in with structure and closure. So often we follow our thoughts as if they are real experiences, so often I’m confused and stressed to exhaustion as I chase these illusions. We carry the burden of our thoughts as a deer carries his antlers - a weight on our heads, a strain on our necks.  The flow of our feelings, though, is no fantasy, no projection to another world and time.  Our feelings are there, real and tangible in each moment, constantly informing us, advising us, rising and passing through our here and now.  They are the mouthpiece of the unconscious.  They are the voice of Nature herself.

In this way, I think that my focus on feel has made this one of the more genuine pieces of art that I’ve produced.  During those long days of recording, I imagined you listening to it alone as well.  I pictured you on a dark highway late at night with the windows down to a vast warm plain, or with flakes of snow closing in on you forever and ever. 

I do hope you find a good piece of solitude to hear it in.  And I hope, of course, that you find it to be of some good use.

All my love,
Dave


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Where We Connect / Desolation

Fri, 27 Apr 2012 22:09:00 +0000

I’ve told this story before.

It was Summer 2004. I was nineteen and traveling as a roadie, changing guitar strings for The Matches on Warped Tour and picking up slots on little side stages when bands wouldn’t show.  We’d driven all night, like most nights, to an amphitheater outside of Chicago. I got my prep work done early that day because I knew that one of my heroes would be joining the tour - Lars Frederiksen from Rancid. 

He was there with The Bastards and I watched them alone from the side of the stage, a sea of people stretching out beyond and a massive pit whirlpooling in front of him.  They hit ten enormous chords to end the set and as he stormed by me down the ramp, I asked if I could talk to him. 

“Give me 5 minutes, man!” he said.  But I was already late for work. “I have to go,” I said, “but I just wanted to say, thanks.”

I started to leave, and he called out behind me, “Wait!”

I turned around and he motioned for me to come into the side-stage trailer.  I walked to where he was standing and he put his hands on my shoulders, stuck his sweaty tattooed face right down in front of mine and said, “You got something to say to me?”

Tremblingly I went off, spilling about how in the years prior, when happiness had felt like an impossibility, his music helped me through.  I stood there with this guy, on the verge of breakdown, and when I stopped talking he was just silent for a long time, eyes blaring into mine beneath this huge mess of spiked hair, until finally, with those heavy hands pressing down into my shoulders, he asked my name...

“Dave,” he said, “You saying that... That saves me... That saves me...” 

As much as that meant to hear, part of me thought he was sort of bullshitting me at the time, that it was just some old fashion punk rock solidarity. I mean, it was almost too intense, and he was the guy that wrote the songs that pulled me through... What could I do for him?  Though I couldn’t imagine it then, looking back today I know for a fact that he was sincere.  I know this because when I hear from someone that the things I’ve created have resonated, that something I’ve shared has been there with them on a dark path, it does save me. It saves me every single time.

Somehow it always happens at just the right moment too.  Just when I need it most, there’s a courageous message in my inbox or someone magically recognizes me somewhere.  And there’s one consistent piece of feedback that comes with almost every interaction:

“Don’t Stop.”

And I promise that I won’t.  I won’t stop writing songs.  And I’m so grateful that I have you to share them with.  Making music gives me the faith in myself to push through each hard time, and if life has taught me anything, it’s that a lot of us are facing hard times a lot of the time.  I have this Holden Caulfield-esque tendency to want to protect everyone from that cliff’s edge.  And I’ve only been realizing recently though, that racing along that precipice, that stumbling and taking the plunge now and then, is fundamental to the anatomy of everyone’s life.  Protecting someone from that pain is like chopping a limb from their body, like depriving them of one of their senses. No, we can’t fully protect one another and I’m not sure that we should.  But we can be there to help each other along, to dress mutual wounds on the valley floor, to lead one another back up that cliff’s face once again.  My battles are your battles, are everyone’s battles.  It’s strange, but I’m kind of grateful for the suffering that life slaps us with. I’m grateful because far too often, suffering is the place where we connect.

---

The past year has been an unintended time of reflection for me.  I’ve spent a lot of it alone, working on music and art, wandering through Los Angeles, hiking in the mountains, thinking, reading, working odd jobs...  Extroversion has been sort of a challenge and only has come easily in intense bursts.  Performing hasn’t made sense in this time and hustling to agents and trying to fill rooms with people, driving all night and constantly having to prove myself to someone new, has especially not fit with the way I’ve been feeling.  I find that the deeper I get into my own creative pursuits, the less interested I am in the entertainment business, in this world behind what we used to sort of depend on as musicians, this labyrinth that I spent the first half of my twenties inexorably tangled in. I have just been able to climb free... And I find that the more I come to understand myself, the more comfortable I am with who I really am, the less interested I am in proving anything to the world.  The the more risks I’m taking with my art, the less I seem to care about taking risks to capitalize on it. 

This is at odds with continuing to make a living with my music and I’m still unsure with what to do about this.  Far from any spotlight, I’ve been able to be prolific and inspired, to break boundaries again and again in my own artistic process - here in my little work-space - but getting paid enough to survive as an artist these days still usually hinges on being marketed and being well-known and all of that.  I’m not certain where I’m headed now, though for the most part, I’m okay with the mystery. I’m curious to see what happens.

---

I try to look at life as a story that’s being told to me from moment to moment.  The more self aware I become, the more often I can step back and just witness myself, just experience how I act and what I feel in each new situation.  I pay attention to how I respond, how I function, how I treat myself, how I treat others.  The less judgmental I am towards myself, towards my actions and inactions, my conscious and unconscious choices, the more I can just watch this drama/comedy/tragedy/horror/feel-good-flick unfold before my eyes.  I can even sort of enjoy it when it’s painful.  I get myself into messes, I make mistakes, there’s conflict, there’s beauty, there’s love, longing, joy, tension, sorrow, anger, adventure, heartbreak, death... Shit, every now and then I even get the girl!  It’s a fucking fantastic story, the fundamental human story that we all get to live. 

Making music has always helped me to cultivate this observational awareness, to allow me to make sense of my world by turning the abstract within into something concrete that lives in the external world. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have this tool and it’s cool to watch it evolve over time, to pick it apart.

For instance, I was on a walk today and I was thinking about what exactly it is that I do. I decided that there are three main things that I’m interested in.  First, I like to construct things via the connections of ideas, sensations, stories, concepts, language, color, texture, music etc... Secondly, I’m interested in telling my story, in being heard and understood.  And finally, I’m interested in truth, which to me is this fascinating lens that gives you a different perspective depending on the angle in which you’re looking through it.  The sensation of something “feeling” true is exhilarating to me.  Sincerity - that simple, subjective, intuitive, human truth - that’s the secret ingredient to any great piece of art.

Within that, emotional accuracy is my current obsession.  I’ve pretty much ditched any concept of how I should be feeling for a general fascination with what I’m actually feeling and an examination of it.  The album I am currently recording is all about this, product of some anxiety-fueled and heartbroken periods that occurred in patches over the last few years.  I mean, my life isn’t all debilitating panic attacks and crushing sorrow, there’s a been a ton of joy and love and happiness (duh) that I’m grateful to have experienced within these times, but I had an albums worth of songs in this realm completed and this has been the appropriate time to collect them together.  It’ll be called Desolation, a word that’s always struck me with a beautiful austerity.  I’ve been recording it all on my own in my bedroom, so it should be pretty raw, kind of low-fi, kinda clunky, pretty different than anything I’ve done before. I’m excited with how it’s been turning out though and I’m wondering how you all will interact with it.  We’ll just have to wait and see.

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Late Night Walk

Sat, 31 Mar 2012 05:24:00 +0000

It doesn’t hit me that it’s an odd place to cry until the barista gives me a second side-glance.  Maybe I’ve been choosing the wrong topics to read about in public - dying, addiction, poverty.  I used to feel like I was on the sidelines wherever I’d go, but on nights like tonight I’m not even in the stadium.

Change is slow.  The flower unfolding, closing shut. You don’t perceive it until that single instant when the bloom fills your gaze - but there’s a crescendoing process that leads you there, an unconscious ocean weathering the rocks into these monuments of our lives.  Acceptance isn’t a celebration, it’s a weary release.  I spent the last few years swimming against the current, until one day my legs refused to kick. It took forever to burn out, one thing at a time, but eventually I found myself living in a ruin, in a life without walls, and these chains began to spill off of me.  These chains I had never felt or seen until they were clinking down into piles at my feet.  I thought I would just fight forever, but something had been shifting below...

I leave the cafe and walk slow, staring into the closing stores and restaurants, chairs on tables, focused servers counting out tips, winged folds of perfect napkins rising from tea cups, dormant til the morning.  The little glints of light on everything glass, ceramic, on glossed lips, the flashing strap of a spiked heel, in the eyes of lonely magazine browsers, on shimmering faces folded over sweaty hands.

The thing is, our great men and women aren’t the ones battling for that publicity.  The great ones are walking among us, are spending their resources, their energy, to provide their families, their communities, and their own bodies and minds and souls with what is actually needed for human lives to thrive.  For the most part, they aren’t dancing through the thoughts of people they don’t know. Yet we raise our admiration to he who tries to fill his insatiable void in the most stylish way, she who suppresses her truest feelings with the freshest attitude, to whoever does the sexiest backflip off the canyon rim. There’s this pain beneath the big personalities. Look at the edges, the white around the iris. There’s this desperation. It is as if you have to earn your acceptance, your worthiness of love, in some elaborate display.  Why must we work so hard? How would the world be if these things were thrown free into the bundle with each human life?  Could our lives be propelled by genuine purpose? Or allowed to roam free without one?

Passing the long sidewalk window of another cafe, there’s a couple who had been sitting by me while I was reading.  Faces break into silent laughter across the pane as they catch me noticing them on another station of a obvious first or second date, the positive surge from their mutual risk of heart is practically burning the place down. 

Great love doesn’t need to throw a six figure wedding, doesn’t lean on the weeping violins of a Hollywood score.  Great love has dirty hands, is callused from the garden, is all courage and hard work and integrity and a whole lot of reward.  These big performances aren’t required.  What’s good inside is apparent in your actions and in the peaceful rests between notes.  Why the grand display?  And that hipster irony of the past decade, the great scoff at sincerity that foams from the mouth of post-modernism - these are acts of violence.  It’s the hyping and promoting and selling of an empty space where compassion should dwell, it is a torch to the ingredients of love. 

I cross the street too slow and the light changes on me.  I jog out of the headlights.  A lone car revs past me and the street is quiet again.

I’ll probably always have to live with a little voice telling me I need more, telling me I’ve failed, telling me to go back, to buy into it all again...  But a long time ago I started feeling gross selling my music, selling myself, in any way that felt disingenuous.  I stopped being able to fully participate in a machine that I no longer believed in, that had left me in harms way again and again until finally I couldn’t get back up and do it again.  What do you do as a musician who refuses to go as a musician is supposed to go?  Eventually actions like yours might innovate and shift the culture, but most likely they just cause you to slip through the cracks.  It’s worth it though, to do what seems right, to brave the path I believe in, even if I keep finding myself further from the crowd, further into the dark and unknown. 

A woman speeds up as she walks by me, holding her gaze on the sidewalk.  An alley opens to a courtyard of vacant tables and chairs, to a lone waitress sweeping up.  She gives me a glance that holds on too long, makes me wonder if it's something interesting, or something aversive...

Really, I just want to tell you about how I feel and share some of my stories and convictions.  When I do it in the form of a song, it has this extra power to resonate.  I’m not going to stop doing that, maybe ever, but I’m going to have to start sending up my flares from a different island.  I’ve had my adventures and now I need to figure out how to take care of my life in a way that I deserve, so I can be there emotionally and physically for those I love - including myself.  A lot of the dissatisfaction I’ve felt in this line of work has come from my own bullets ricocheting back at me.  And I understand why my brothers and sisters die at this age. I’m so tired, but I’m climbing out from beneath the pressure, beneath this boulder field, and it’s hard to imagine someone doing so with the added chains of fame and hardcore addiction slinking around their neck.  We live in a society that doesn’t accept that emotional trauma is just as damaging as physical pain, a society that claims insult a separate act to injury.  We raise up our tortured youth to watch them writhe on the pedestal.  We nurture a mainstream culture that circles around and around the suffering until death arrives, then swoops down to monetize the sorrow. 

A pen falls from my pocket as I get my keys out.  Its click against the sidewalk offers a salute to the silence, to the rhythm of streetlights looping red and green forever into a lonesome vanishing point.  I’ve probably wandered closing-time streets more than anyone I know. It’s hard to twist words around what calls me to these nights, what pulls me through sidewalk crowds or snowy darkness, what drives me up the winding mansion-lined lanes or down to the rags of skid row.  I can tell you that its shape is in exact opposition to a massive crater I see blasted across the heart of humanity. I can tell you that it reels me in from the realm of the unconditional, from somewhere so safe and accepting, so encouraging of trust, so overflowing with honesty and compassion and vulnerability that it couldn’t possibly exist in this world - in this era.  I keep searching though.  I keep searching because some part of me demands that it be unearthed, because something tells me it’s the only answer, the only way out.

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Final Metaphors For 2011

Fri, 30 Dec 2011 22:26:00 +0000

You have to pull all the weeds, clear away the rubble and the trash that came in on the wind. 

To pull a weed, you have to know which ones are weeds.  When clearing away the decaying piles, you have to know what to keep, what rusted engine part might come in handy one day.  You don’t know all of these things perfectly.  You do know them better with experience, with study.
Your garden will not grow all at once and not every sapling survives winter.  Not every bud will blossom.  You’ll probably want a foundation for your house, and it would be wise to draw up some plans before you begin construction.  In reality, you probably can’t build it alone, and you might have to fire your contractor along the way.
Everyone you know is a fucking asshole.  No one understands you, and you are completely alone.  Also, everyone is kind. They get it, and they are totally there for you. You have to filter though the advice and opinions.  You have to listen for your own voice beneath the static of the chanting pundit or the caring friend.  You must own up to who you are, not just accepting the shelves you can’t reach, but acknowledging your ability to climb up onto the counter.
You have to find the boundaries of your time and energy, play your cards tactfully (“yes” - “no”), knowing nothing is black and white (“yes, but...” - “no, though...”).  You have to see what kind of fuel is in your tank.  Loneliness burns fast in a crowded bar.  Running too long on anger will start a fire.  And you have to figure out how to be easy on yourself when you break down.  You will break down.  And you will break down again and again and again.  
You are fortunate.  Your whines are the whines of the sheltered and well-fed, with potable water from a fashionable pipe in your kitchen and all of the information recorded by mankind in a device in your pocket.  Also you are shattered, suffering, alienated, confused and lost and hopelessly in need.  Your “feelings” are physical firings within your body.  You are literally in pain, literally panicking and you usually have no idea why. That guilt for your existence is a burden for the nations, a burden for the gods.  You do your part. You have my permission to feel like shit if shit is how you feel.
You are being manipulated.  You are being used.  The subversive thoughts that crack these massive chains need not be violent.  Self-awareness is subversive.  Love is subversive when not a fairy-tale or some abstract vibe. Shock is just a great way to make a million dollars. A riot is a great way to kill your neighbor. We have to change within us before we’ll see a changed world.  We have to see past the guilt, the denial, that keeps us in an abusive relationship.  We have to see corruption beyond a war on terror, grief beyond a door we’re not certain we locked.  These things are in the open now.  Let’s keep them there.  Let’s go deeper.
You’re going to have to stop thinking only of what is wrong.  You’ll have to take that wrong and flip it, figure out its opposite, turn a not-thing into a thing.  And when you’ve searched for and decided on the antitheses of that cozy object of loathing, you must break it apart.  You have to map out its components, the individual pieces that are necessary for that good machine to run.  Which ones are broken now?  What is worn out?  What is stuck?  What is clogged? Where can you find replacement parts?  What can you sharpen or solder yourself?  Where do they do repairs?  
And when you’ve changed, your surroundings will treat you differently.  You’ll drive right past that old bar on Saturday night and circle aimlessly around a city that suddenly holds nothing for you.  You’ll spray us with tears as you release the hand of that beloved and drowning friend that is only going to pull you under.  
What I mean is, you’ll probably find yourself camping out alone on a vast and snowy plain.  You might be on your own to lay that foundation.  You may have no one to comment to on the palette of your garden in the vibrations of that first Spring.  You’ve made space and space is nothing.  It is very cold and the walls around it are coated with dust.  It is a shitty companion.  But you’re building something. Something honest, something that will be appreciated.  It’s just gonna take more patience, more hard work.   
So in the meantime, Thank you 2011.  Thanks for the laughter and pain. 
Let’s crack this new one open and see what’s inside.  
All my love,
Dave

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Vastness/Stillness

Mon, 03 Oct 2011 22:50:00 +0000

I leave dinner in Hollywood and start to drive home.  I don’t want to be home though.  I’m restless and I’m listening to mixes for the new record.  I get off at my exit, but keep driving past my house, up and over the hill, right back onto the freeway...
I drive until it transitions to a four lane road, then two lanes.  I wind upwards from the outskirts of the last suburban neighborhood, past the make-out-spots lined with cars, past where the streetlights cease and the forest takes over.
Twisting into the mountains, around granite faces cast blue beneath the full moon, I pass a mountain biker pedaling with solitary purpose along the late-night highway, his outline black in my review mirror against the orange circuitry of the city below.   
The last of the mixes settles with a final cymbal swell and I roll down my dirty windows.  Every time I’m confronted with a crossroads I take the path that pushes me higher up into the mountains, until the glow of Los Angeles is blocked by miles of shadow, until I’m slowing down and craning my neck to look over the guardrail, over cliff edges.  Then I stop the car.

Everything is warm and still as I step out and climb up onto the rocks at the edge of the turn-out.  Looking over the rim, I’m slammed by a sheer drop to the tips of pine trees rising far below.  Vertigo hands thrust to my throat, yanking me down and down by my shirt collar.  I hold my ground and gaze up into infinity, into the legion of stars - cold currents flashing from my head to my knees.  Across the wide valley, mountains beyond mountains fade into the fringes of moonlight.  And everything that unfurls below - the spreading wilderness, the jutting cliffs, the rigid wildfire-scorched manzanitas - all of it is illuminated into crystal blue clarity. 
My car engine ticks.  Something rustles on the hill above.  In all the miles of road that I can see, there are no headlights, and I can feel no wind.  Trees arch over, dangling frozen fists of silhouetted leaves against the mountain faces.  I just stand there, heart hammering in terror.  Everything in my body wants me away from that cliff’s edge, back in my car, back into the city, back into safety, while a chorus of 10,000 crickets lifts from the valley depths to my ears.
I know I won’t fall, but I can’t keep my thoughts from pulling me away from this moment. And it hits me: it’s the vastness, the stillness, and in the midst of that, the solitude that I hardly can take.  How humbling, below the vivid extremes of space, to look downward and outward and upward at such a distance - especially when that unending breadth is only mirroring the extent of what’s within.  
I think about the deceptive tranquility thrown across it all, every creature scurrying across the forrest floor, every rock tumbling down a mountainside.  I stare at the sky and imagine exploding suns, meteors colliding, ice and ore spraying into oblivion.  I wonder at all that stirs in the shadows of my consciousness, the entire world at work in every cell, vast systems of the mind twisting to the fingertips.
Nature doesn’t judge you.  Nature doesn’t punish you in abstract ways, doesn’t care about the shape of your clothes or your beliefs.  Nature takes you at your reflex, the weight you can carry, the certainty of your step, your tolerance to the elements.  It rewards you for your awareness, for your ability to see - to really see, to really hear.  I stare into the face of a mountain until its unique anatomy starts to show in ridges and rockslides and clusters of dark forest.  Power is a whole different phenomenon out here.
Finally I allow myself to be dragged away from the edge and back into the car, back onto that long road home.  Somewhere down the mountain I pass that biker again, his back to the city, still pedaling deeper into the night.  I wonder if there is anywhere he’s headed or anything he’s escaping.  And I envy him as I plunge back into the familiar hum of the city sprawl.

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Wrought

Mon, 12 Sep 2011 20:07:00 +0000

You start a project and you’re in control, making the decisions, directing the piece, doing some uncommitted experimentation - but somewhere there’s a shift and gradually your art begins to control you, to dictate your days, how and where you spend them.  At first it is just a vision, a little dream you’re tossing around, but as it expands and inflates and ropes other people in, as it rises and rears its head to block out the sun, you begin to treat it differently.  You make your marks tentatively, you don’t want to disrupt some balance, ruin whatever it is that makes it “work.”  And when it’s all finally over and collapsed into a finished heap, you look around and see the damage it has done, all of the people it has labored, and all of you that it has used up.
I’m almost done with my new album.  I want to say that this record has not been wrought, but fuck it - along with being exciting and fascinating and a joy to make, it has been fucking wrought.  
I didn’t expect that I would produce this album myself.  In 2011 a self-production is becoming the standard, but back where I come from, you write the songs and bring your voice and your guitar and your band and someone else records, gives you feedback down to the minute details, collaborates on a game-plan, maybe even writes and plays some piano parts, books the studios, makes everyone take a break when it isn’t flowing...  I’ve had to do all this for myself - out of interest in the challenge, sure, but largely out of a sort of accidental necessity.  It’s been an incredible exercise in learning how to understand when I’ve gone too far, to calm myself under pressure, to make myself slow down, figure out when it’s time to be done, when it’s time to ask for help.  These things I’ve been learning by trial and (mostly) error.
I’ve become so close to these songs, these recordings, that I have to trust my close group of musician friends for their reactions - and they’ve come through for me with their saintly guitars and voices, with their outside ears...
I lost August to this album.  I didn’t want that to happen, but it did.  I had mixing days booked.  A sudden deadline.  I had to get it all tracked just-so by a certain date.  I lost myself, I don’t know where I went, and waking up now that mixing is done, I feel the void, the loss.  My roommates say that the culture of the house changed, they joked that I was preparing for some semester-culminating finals week and then kept their distance as I trudged soldierly through my tests like drifts of snow.
When you’re dealing with something so subjective as music, there is no right and no wrong.  This can be an excruciating freedom: you can do whatever you want, but when you get down into the heart of it, when you’re looking upwards through the bone and sinew and planks and scaffolding and you’re exhausted and alone, nothing is clear.  The recordings changed to the point where the initial vision was long thrown overboard and I just laid there, wondering: “Is this good?  What is ‘good’ anyway?  Will I be able to pay rent?”
There are two major ways in which I become anxious in this moment, and the combination of both sends me into a tailspin.  First, I get concerned with being true to myself, having my own voice, sounding like I really sound.  And second, I become a perfectionist, become concerned with having a perfect voice, perfect guitar performances, sounding like things I’ve heard before that “worked.” These two stresses oppose one another.
To me, being yourself, or even more, knowing and being aware of yourself, having a self, being a self, is the most important thing.  Otherwise you’re a preprogrammed  drone drifting unconsciously through a haze of a life, adorning your malaise with sparkly inanities.  But getting down into the pit of yourself and pushing and pulling until you’ve turned inside-out and shown something of it to the world.  I think that is fucking virtuous.
I also think it is one of the most frightening things ever.
And that’s where perfectionism swoops in, out of the fear of your true colors - but perfection is death.  Perfection is a denial of your existence, of your humanity.  Perfection is an assembly-line of clones, of automatons.  Perfection is the mall.  (Your work is going to come out of the oven fucked up in some way every time, I promise. But it is home-cooked, man!)  Perfection is reckless safety.  Perfection is birthed in lack of faith in what you are, by ignorance of yourself, by shame.  Perfection is blending so well into some standard, some trend or norm, to the point that no one can distinguish you (and thus criticize you...).  Perfection is becoming the little insect too small for the naked eye to see... it’s there, though never being swatted, just invisible, outside of our consciousness, making no mark on human life.  I flail in the riptide of perfection, gleaming there with all its secrets concealed - the scar under makeup, the murder weapon buried, that island of trash drifting way way out there in the middle of the Pacific.
The shattered part of you brings on this perfectionism.  Ghastly sensations of abandonment, of humiliation, annihilation.  Every producer must deal with young artists they’re working with collapsing under the weight of all of it, spinning between these two opposing poles, balling up with headaches on the control room couch.  And me, I’ve been in my room, collapsing again and again.  Sometimes in utter fucking joyous astonishment, as when the first mix for my song “Happiness” came through my headphones after three long years... And other times in an overwhelmed, fatigued, stupor, often culminating in physical blows.
So you shudder with this, with your vision, with your own reactions to your own art as you wander about the twisting halls, the intricate anatomy of this thing you’ve created, that you once played with so casually before it grew so tall, became so fierce, and you got lost in it, started to fear it, to serve it, to give in to its demands...  This is all part of the process I allowed to occur, and the process is most important.  If I have learned anything in making this album it is that when envisioning a project, you must envision a process too. You must design moments that you can enjoy, that you can thrive in, and of course be challenged by, maybe even suffer within, but fully experience... 

Your completed piece is a fly trapped in amber, frozen in a gesture which is only one of infinite possibilities, embalmed in one of a million forms it has taken on throughout its life.  The final product will never be what you imagined, and you can’t live inside of your finished work.  You cannot avoid though, living inside of the process, inside of that fly while it is still buzzing and darting around the room, trying fruitlessly to glide through that clear and solid window pane.
I live in Los Angeles these days and I hear a lot of conversations about “making it” with your art, but very few conversations about making art.  Sure, you can throw your work out on the market, use it to barter for money or fame or whatever you might think you need, but don’t forget about the time you spend creating.   Don’t forget to make room to really live that time, because that is your life - your limited limited life!  That is real, that is all that is real, all that you get.  Do your work, and do it well, but find a way to be alive as you do it.... Find a process in which you may thrive.  Find a process in which you may thrive.  Find a process in which you may thrive.  And find it for yourself.

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Black Widows, Mixing

Tue, 02 Aug 2011 09:34:00 +0000

There are black widows in the courtyard. There is one in particular, that in the darkest part of dusk crawls through the woven mouth of the drainpipe and hangs in threads spun from leg to leg of a dusty plastic patio chair.


I have a certain appreciation for the thing as I watch her from my room right now, suspended there, a black dot, blacker than the shadows behind, rounded and angled in that perfect stylized black widow way. Certain.


Any day I can climb into a combustible metal shell and allow myself to be projected across some distracted Los Angeles freeway, with all the other cars speeding alongside me, and I won’t think to be afraid. Yesterday though, I got close enough to photograph her, and with a sudden lurch of just an inch in my direction, she had me retreating back against the wall. I couldn’t spend ten minutes consciously sitting within inches of a spider like that, the way I can sit comfortably for a day with 35,000 feet between myself and the earth. It makes me wonder if the fears that should arise from technology aren’t yet woven into us through natural selection, and therefore we’re granted this unnatural tolerance...


I’ve been within mauling distance of a grizzly bear, have stood on a rocking canoe within a few feet of an anaconda, and spiders are always there. I feel like these creatures, however aloof, deliver a hush of awe and fear hatched deeper in the blood, cast back into millennia beyond the curtain of humanity, in something more primal, deeper down in the pit of evolution. They command the respect of their lethal potentialities and the uncertainty of their intentions. I mean, who wants to fuck with a woman that once devoured her mate?


In the immunity of daylight I could destroy her little silk cathedral, but somehow I like watching this thing hang in all her arachnid glory as I write, as the opposing window fills with a final hot orange glow. She tells me to stop and breathe, to come back to my actual life, to all that time that’s slowly being used up, diminishing to an uncertain end. She makes me revel in the sunset that comes with each vanishing day. She reminds me that there’s a black widow suspended beside us wherever we go, however we go, and we must honor it.


* * *


Mixing a song is like walking through this courtyard of black widows. The anxieties awoken in the process of setting the malleable into stone are rooted somewhere in survival. I know what it feels like to be eaten by a metaphoric pack of wolves - the spiteful fingers of harsh critics tapping on keyboards. You can’t please everyone, and some will punish you for it - directly, or worse, by neglect. With each shift in the mix, that second guess flutters through the window. Will this kill me? In preparing the track to be submitted to the mixer, I began to hear things that weren’t there, those phantom spider legs marching up between my jeans and my skin. No longer could I tell if the instruments were even playing in time, in the same key. I had to surrender. I had to trust myself that I had recorded what I intended, had kept the takes that I connected to, that what I was turning in was somehow ready enough to be immortalized.


The mix came back and I’m really happy with it. The anxiety is no longer that something is somehow wrong and will lead to my destruction, but that I have to figure out how to do it again with all I’ve just learned. I’m proud, and I’m lining up someone to master it - then I’ll put it on the internet so you can hear it and have it. No publicity push. I don’t want to enter back into that dynamic now. Why beg a hostile wolf pack for their scraps? I loved making this song - some of you are going to find it useful. It will be ours to share.


I’ll be mixing the rest of the album in a few weeks. I’ll keep you posted.


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Dreams, Dropping Out, Recovery

Tue, 26 Jul 2011 21:04:00 +0000

Everything from that time feels distant, distorted, as if I read it all in a book, or saw it flash by in a movie.


I would sit in the garage of that house my sophomore year, everyone else gone to bed, there on the dusty concrete, singing soft with my guitar, writing my songs, in catharsis, beating those melodies out of the angst of the day. Then after laying awake for hours, trying to crack the codes of lyrics, of the indomitable musical hierarchy, to my roommate’s incessant breathing, I’d finally get back up, mind rushing, and walk out onto the deck to look up into the gaps between the clouds, into the stars, bare feet on splintery wood. Lonesome.


I hadn’t wanted to go to college. I hadn’t put in much effort. All my effort went to making music and going to shows and playing shows and handing out fliers outside of shows at Slims or The Fillmore or at The Oakland Arena. I went to school where my brother went, where it was convenient, and because I felt like it was the right thing to do. I never figured out a major. I mostly took classes that seemed like they could help my music career in one way or another. I wanted that time to disappear into something more meaningful. I hardly allowed it to exist.


On weekends I would drive back to Oakland, the cold little Toyata Tercel that my cousin sold me rattling over the twisting mountain pass. I would go to shows and play shows, and hang out with my friends in bands who understood.


My friend talks about the difference between schooling and education. We both quit but continued to try to be educated in any way we could, to find the lesson in an experience, to be open to being taken to new territories of knowledge and perspective by others. Each of us had trouble being schooled though, being molded by an institutional hand.


The personal statement in my college application had begun, “Music saved my life...” - That was true, but I didn’t know that music was eventually going to try to take my life as well. I’m glad I dropped out and found my own way. But in a sense I want to curse the world for telling us to follow our dreams without giving us a disclaimer: If you’re a troubled person, you’ll still be troubled when you’re holding your wildest dreams.


For a while all of those things I’d hoped for began to light up on cue. On paper, we seemed to be executing what we believed we wanted. Attention, travel, status, excitement, sex, drugs, the high of performance, the all night drives, the label and managers and handlers with all their pressures, the bewilderment of getting paid just to play music. I’ll tell all of those stories eventually.


But I was also there beside the backstage door in Philadelphia, holding a trembling fist of snow to the hives on my face. There, pacing around an abandoned lot in Salt Lake City, stressing on the phone with my lawyer over the details of the contracts that replaced my relationships with old friends. There, my hand clenched by a screaming woman, little more than a stranger, in a Chicago emergency room. There, slamming my fists against a hotel wall, against the steering wheel on the highway, against the side of the van, into my own chest and stomach, terrorizing my bandmates. And I was there, listening to my manager’s answering machine again and again as I paced around that empty Brooklyn apartment, ice caked on the windows, angry and afraid and exhausted and alone for a thousand miles. That’s the spot where I couldn’t resuscitate my dreams, where protecting my own self finally took precedent, where I would have been fully shattered if I hadn’t. That’s when I climbed back down and slowly began to dig through the rubble, to understand where those dreams flared up from in the first place. I haven’t really been able to want it bad enough since then. I haven’t quite been able to re-convince myself that anything beyond the song is that important.


All of those things were bound to happen - if not in that context, then in some other. All of that came from within. Your wishes are the ones that should be careful, before you stagger in with all your baggage and track mud across their clean carpets. My early twenties were spent in this frenzy. I think my late twenties are about recovering and making sense of it all so I can be a real person for the rest of my life.


Some mornings I wake up as the sky is beginning to brighten. I might scrawl something in my notebook if the moon is bright enough to write to, then open my door to the yard and make my way down the concrete path, between the side of the house and the retaining wall. Beyond the darkened blooms of the neighbor’s bougainvillea I’ll see those stars fading over silhouettes of hills and the skyscrapers downtown. I guess I’m young still, but so much has happened since I careened frantically through the hopes of a lonely kid in the middle of a Santa Cruz night. A lifetime has passed, and now everything kind of feels like a dream.


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The Cemetery

Wed, 13 Jul 2011 21:06:00 +0000

I’m walking through the cemetery, through gravestone rows, feet sinking into soft turf, into the earth below, toward the bodies returning, having been returned.


I wish these gravestones told me more. The rhetoric of love and heaven hardly makes an argument. I’m curious about the life that lay shrouded behind the name. I want to know more than the dates that bordered each existence. A life is such an ocean of feeling, such a frenzy of events. What were these people passionate about? What was it like to be in a room with them? How were they kind? How did they hurt people?


I could spend an hour a day here then, taking in these histories.


I watch an airplane rise into the sky. I see it tilt and turn southward, shrinking into the distance. I follow carefully as it withers to a tiny glimmer on endless blue, until I can’t hold it any longer, until I suddenly blink and my eyes open to an empty sky.


There are sections here of stones marking where children have been buried - infants - two or three day winks of consciousness. Most of these slight flashes into the universe occurred more than fifty years ago, yet there are flowers set before several graves. I can picture a mother, now very old, still carrying with her that void, that aching space her lost baby left her. I imagine her knelt there in late morning, alone, alone for acres, alone for light-years, for millennia - her long skirt flapping in hot quiet wind.


The sun hammers on blazing car roofs, inching through traffic in the distance. Trucks rattle by, landscaping equipment in tow, metal teeth gnashing. A funeral procession comes with the buzzing of motorcycle cops. I lower my head and lift my gaze from time to time, caught in the eyes of those driving past.


I descend a steep hill, careful, slow, overcome with the reality of this place, with awareness of death, of all the mourning yet to come.


I try to feel the ground as I walk. When you start breaking away your defense mechanisms, you feel the internal weather system all the time. You can’t fight a storm, you can only wait it out, then inspect the damage and from what damage it came.


I think about the emotions that burn. Anger, Anxiety, Anguish, Grief, Fear, Shame, and on and on... Each of these flares up differently, on different latitudes of our bodies. For me, Grief smolders. Grief sends smoke upwards on each side of the spine, it burns quiet like the embers of a campfire on a vast, dark, lonely, plain.


These fires are raging across our planet, spreading from city to city, nation to nation, person to person, moment to moment, era to era. I stand here in the cemetery and this is all I can think about. We are a species ablaze. We are a world engulfed in flames.

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Some Thoughts On Writing Songs

Thu, 07 Jul 2011 17:28:00 +0000

An old friend of mine wrote and asked me about my process and approach to songwriting. I thought I'd share my response here as well:

You have this vast reservoir of artistic intention that you need to somehow express, and it is being held back by a giant dam, allowing just a little water through at any moment. Most of the time this massive block functions to funnel that excess of feeling down into a slow trickle so you can perceive everything as it passes by and choose what you want to work with. Sometimes though, the dam may be constructed with negativity: fear, perfectionism, self-imposed or society-imposed ideals of what a song should be, laziness, self-destruction, self-sabotage... Keep an eye on it. The better you know yourself, the better you will understand the limitations of your creativity.

Most of my songs happen in this slow trickling process. I’ll often spend a year on a song, tossing around lyrical ideas, trying to fill in the gaps. Sometimes I look at the process as an attempt to solve a puzzle - some songs feel as though they have already been written in some mysterious way, and I simply have to go searching for the pieces. Being patient and allowing for the right element to come to you is an approach that works well for me, as does writing drafts and editing.

Sometimes though, there’s a flood. You’ll feel compelled to pick up your guitar and it will suddenly all rush out at once. A lot of times I’ll find that these sorts of moments happen around subject matter that I hadn’t intended to write about -Things that had been waiting in the shadows, needing to be expressed. Other times I just yank a lucky stone from the dam and the whole thing crumbles as one thought leads to the next. Knowing what you’re writing about helps with this, as does finding a theme or a hook that you can follow through the song, though that’s not always necessary.

* * *

When people ask me how I write my songs I tell them that I don't have a singular method, but it usually forms from a seed that grows into the final product. The seed could be a lyric I've been thinking of, a concept or insight I feel like I should express, a story I want to tell, an experience I’ve had, a chord progression or guitar lick that I'd like to build around, a melody that feels good, a beat, a new instrument that I want to try to write with, and on and on... Sometimes I'll have an emotional charge that I want to express - I'll want to yell, so I write a song that tears apart my vocal chords to get to that feeling. In the past I've had songwriting assignments, where I’ve been asked to attempt to write something for movies or commercials, and I like those challenges as they provide a framework and motivation that I wouldn’t have been able to impose on myself - though too much constraint can sometimes suffocate your work. Whatever the seed is that you plant, you have to cultivate your song, pay attention to what it needs and what you need from it.

To build around that initial seed, I usually begin by trying some random chords and singing nonsense over them, which will eventually evolve into a structure of rhythm and melody and rhyme. The attitude and speed of the song will start to show as well. Then I’ll have a constrained space to write lyrics in: a part of the process that, for me, tends to happen on a drive or a walk or in a conversation with a friend as often as it happens while sitting with my guitar. I don’t usually write lyrics down, they come together slow enough that I remember the good ones, and the rest just get filtered away.

You will inevitably end up with a heap of scrap parts: verses with no choruses, choruses with no verses, random scattered lyrics and music... There isn’t a need to force those unique parts into a full song right at this moment. Keep them around, revisit them, and you’ll find places for many to live - their counterparts simply have not been born yet. Often times I’ll realize that I haven't been able to finish a song because I haven’t yet lived through the conclusion, had a realization that led to the core message, or my skill at a certain musical element hadn’t yet been strong enough. It takes some faith in the song to see it through at such a glacial pace. It takes a lot of trial and error.

* * *

You’ll probably begin with writing in a sort of conversation with the whole canon of music that has come before you. It’s great to be influenced and inspired by other artists, but make sure to look for the things that are really “you” and showcase those, develop them with time. Dropping musical references in your songs can get a bit like dropping names - it might open some doors for you, but not from a genuine place, so it might not remain satisfying for long. I’d always advise someone to keep their song from being one more echo of a fleeting trend. Be you, even if it isn’t cool right now.

* * *

Songs are an interesting intersection of so many things, of rhythm, of melody, of poetic rhyme and meter, of performance, of concept, story, arrangement, etc... Musicians are an interesting crowd because, even though everyone has all of these abilities available to them, everyone has refined their skills in different ways and to different degrees. Some musicians are athletes who can play with record breaking speed and precision or sing on perfect pitch, some are mathematicians who can conceive the angles of a symphony on a bar napkin, some are actors who must show you and perform for you the meaning of what they are saying, and of course there are poets, there are comedians, marketers, party promoters, thieves, revolutionaries, prophets... Everyone has a different approach and passion and belief about what's important. That's how so many songs can exist together, uniquely, in the world.

Any of these separate elements can be endlessly refined on their own. There is an infinite amount of searching to do within the assemblage of words, from their meaning to the quality they have on the tongue. There is an infinite amount of work you can do on scales, on timing, and on breaking out of the rules of those techniques that have arbitrarily been built up around us. You must explore these infinities as you grow, but you need not become a master of any domain to write a great song. That whole 10,000 hours of practice thing - that's an interesting observation on what it takes to have opportunities and excel in a competitive landscape at this point in time in our society as far as technical skill goes, but art is not the same as skill and technique. I believe that you can make great art right now while you’re developing your craft.

This leads me to a quick side-note on competition: it’s a trap. You are in a process, you are on your own path and you need not wrestle to move forward. It takes discipline, not violence. Don't compete with yourself, and especially don't compete with others. Our society judges art as a commodity, on economic markets - virtue in art is too often measured in sales, or perceived monetary value, or status through fame or fleeting hype. It seems like we can only fully appreciate something in this culture if we've turned it into a product, if it gets love from professional critics, if enough people click a button that says they "like" it, if it can be judged on a scale, can have power over something else... Stay away from that if you can, even if you're making your living from your songs. It will only be an excuse to hurt yourself and hurt others. Everyone's taste in music is different, and everyone's taste is right. No one wins. Write for you, because you love music, love expressing yourself, love the challenge, love yourself - and be proud as you grow. All of this I’ve learned the hard way.

Art happens inside of you, in your mind and heart and perceptions, and you can refine different tools (technique, skill, craft) to turn all of that abstract feeling and vision into something concrete. I think that one of the most important elements of songwriting is being able to feel for those piercing moments, for when something mysteriously plucks a heart string or gets the blood pumping. There is no recipe for that, that’s the art of it, and over time you’ll know how to encourage those moments to blossom, to explode. You know what gets you, what lyrics, what melodies, what rhythms and textures give you chills. Recognize when you’re delivering those feelings.

* * *

Write all the time, from every approach that you can. Take it slow, let it unravel at its own pace. Have faith in yourself and the song. Don't force it, and try not to be hard on yourself. Enjoy it. If it isn't coming together in one moment, set it aside before you get frustrated and come back to it later. I probably am able to finish one in every couple dozen songs that I begin - not every one of them makes it to the surface. Be patient, allow the seed to sprout and take root before it grows too tall - take the time to examine each individual branch and leaf. Then eventually, share your song and experience it as it is experienced by others.

And that of course would lead us into another discussion...

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Worlds

Tue, 28 Jun 2011 05:27:00 +0000

While we wish to change the world for the better, often neglecting ourselves on some frenzy toward martyrdom or power, I think it's important to remember that there is a world inside of me, inside of you, and these worlds can actually be changed. If there is such thing as a better world, then I imagine it to be the sum of these individual changes. Every day, six billion times over.

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Look At How Far You've Come

Thu, 23 Jun 2011 20:50:00 +0000


Sometimes you don’t realize how dark it got until you turn around and look at the ascent you’ve made to rise out of it.


Every challenge, every destructive pattern that was ripped from its foundations, every stumble that led to knowledge, every sleepless night that culminated in a flash of understanding, every encounter with the painful truth - All of these things are single steps that added up to the climb.


The mountain metaphor has been serving me well in framing my own process of overcoming a couple years of anxiety and doubt and anger, a couple years in the shadows, in the valleys, in the lands lower than I knew. The only problem with the image of the mountain is that it peaks. I realize that there is no summit that we can hope to attain, only more inclines into thinner air.


On the solstice, I stumbled on my roommate and our friend performing a ritual, burning two candles for that transitional day. One candle burned for all they hoped to gain within themselves, and one burned for all they hoped to leave behind. They asked me if I’d like to join them, and I did.


A couple years ago I would have dismissed this invitation and left them to their own devices, but getting that deep into some canyon wilderness opens you up to all kinds of things as you try to locate your trailhead. I can see it simply as an exercise, and I can take from it what I need and filter what doesn’t connect.


We talked a lot about losing fear, or more, actions from fear, actions from loneliness, actions from unhealthy ambitions, greed, dependency, weakness, a need to control. We talked a lot about opening up to courage, to faith in ourselves, to action from love (in all of its complexity and misinterpretation), action of kindness: to ourselves and those around us, actions of knowledge and strength.


After the candles were lit, my friends were elated, they said that they felt like a weight had been lifted. I told them that I felt a burden. They tried to help, they asked me about it and I explained it with the mountain metaphor. I told them that I felt like I just arrived at a false-summit, that I suddenly caught my first glimpse of the next ascent, steeper than before, rising higher into the clouds. “The challenge of love?! the challenge of courage?! The sort of discipline that real kindness demands?! This is going to take everything I’ve got, and then some...”


My roommate told me to turn around. She said, “Take a minute, and look back down at how far you’ve come.”


* * *


Sometimes I feel like a pessimist, but outwardly, people often comment on my optimism. My good friend who passed through town on tour the other day asked how someone who tends to wear all black, has naturally black hair, can exude so much light. Damn, that meant a lot. Maybe I’ve been mourning something. Maybe I was born mourning something, but every moment gives you a choice between wallowing and hope. My whole life I’ve spent wishing, always longing for something, but I always believed I could get it, maybe even if I didn’t understand how. I used to want very material things. I wanted the spotlight, and power over people, despite my drive to understand things, to know people, to know the world, to be open, to talk. We’re conditioned to want all that empty stuff. I think deep down we feel that it will somehow break that vast separation between us, dissolve that universal loneliness, if only we get a little more - but it only pulls us further apart.


Now I just want to be calm. I want to not fly so high and drop so low on my ups and downs. I want to create, and have much less interest in reaping the spoils of my creations on any economic market, or up on some stage. I believe that we can be kind to each other, to understand our world and ourselves. I believe in patience and in process. I believe in the action of love, as complicated and difficult as loving can be - and I’m not talking about some mystical innate romanticized force of hollywood love. I believe that we can be friends, that we can let down our walls, be peaceful, be reasonable, resolve things. I believe we can find value in our passing moments and not in the hollow goals that pull us from them. I value beauty - real beauty - in nature, in art, in all our hearts, in the sunset that comes with each waning day. I believe in hard work towards genuine ends, that we can learn to share, that unjust power will always crumble, that we can never be perfect, but always be “perfecting.”


I don’t know what it says about our times to be called an optimist for spouting this stuff. These aren’t things that were meant to be strived for. These are things that we’re all entitled to. Why does our system shove them away? How far into the darkness are we when it seems like only the hopelessly hopeful, the deluded, the guru, the therapist, the rambling artist, can speak of any of this stuff genuinely and openly and not face a cold shoulder or a dismissive joke?


And then I start to wonder: in which direction are we heading from here?


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Some Thoughts On My Approach

Tue, 14 Jun 2011 18:29:00 +0000


I’m learning to paint. It has been a long time coming, but somehow up until now I’ve spent little time with a brush in my hands. I’ve noticed that I think about a painting in a similar way to how I think about a recording - I approach the balance of colors and textures with a similar mindset. Recording is also feeling a lot like sculpture. This has made me reflect on the way I make music, on the way that I take abstract thoughts and feelings and moments and mold them into something tangible. It has made me think about why my music process differs from my process with visual art.


Learning how to paint is easier than learning other things because I’ve become more skilled now at learning new skills - and I’ve already put a short lifetime behind my approach to creative endeavors. That’s not to say that I can make the brush do everything I want it to do (hardly!). I just finally know how to be patient with myself, I know that with time and the right effort, it will get there. I know that when I start learning something it will seem simple and I’ll have some semi-conscious fantasy that I’ll be a natural, and know all the moves instinctually. I’ll want to do it my own way, but eventually I’ll make mistakes and learn why the masters of that skill share certain techniques in common. I’ll work to learn the rules, and then I’ll encourage myself to break them. I’ll find myself humbled by the infinite ways to approach the medium. And I’ll do whatever it is, a lot, and over the course of years find my place within it.


I’ve been painting as much as I can. I have a better handle on the brush, on the feel of paint, the way it mixes, and I’ve had multiple pieces to show to people further down the path than me, who can offer a few constructive words in response that break the task wide open for me again. The more you do it, the more confident you become. The more you respond to a piece in a way that only you could respond to it, the more that your pieces start to be recognizable as “yours.”


The way that the system supporting music has been set up really stunts the art-making potential of musicians. We aren’t often encouraged to treat ourselves as “artists,” as far as the process is concerned. The album cycle, the idea that you refine and record a dozen songs and then go on an insane journey to market that material greatly inhibits creative growth. Being signed with a major label allowed me to see the priorities of the system from within. It’s a business. They finance a product and use all the channels they have to sell as much of it as possible. Indie labels do this. Independent artists do this as well. It's standard twentieth century American procedure. The scary thing is that when I talk with musician friends, our conversations usually turn to matters of business, as that’s how we’ve come to gauge success. Things are of course changing as this system crumbles away, but I don’t want to expend my limited moments of life worrying about how much my music sells or who I get to open a show for or what some executive says they think.


As far as creating great artistic material is concerned, though, there are relatively few musicians that have been able to produce enough material to have their own voice start to shine through. Your starting point as a young artist is most always going to be the work of others that moves you or entertains you or challenges you, so it makes sense that so much of the new music we get pushed at us is a collage of references to other people’s works and style from the past.


As much of an adventure as I’ve had creating and releasing two full length albums, I feel that I have held myself back in a lot of ways. I’ve probably started more than a thousand songs in the last ten years, but seen only a couple dozen through to a polished, recorded, state. Recently, learning to record myself has been empowering. I now am less dependent on engineers and producers and studios and someone to finance those great costs. I also have a direct connection with the medium, when before, as a performer, I brought the concept and the paint, but someone else with a different skill set was doing the painting. As my own producer and engineer, I have control over the brush, and of so many new colors to mix in. I can paint on so many surfaces now. This has made songwriting and recording fresh and exciting again. There is so much new potential to aspire to, a new medium in which to find my voice, in which to make new shapes, to say the things I need to say.


A few months ago, when Lucinda Williams released a new album and I was blown away by the continued growth in her songwriting, even in her late fifties, I began to ask people why is it that most musicians do their most compelling work so young in life and sputter out instead of grow? Shouldn’t artists like her be the rule, not the exception?


This question obviously gave way to tons of other questions, and I had a lot of great discussions, but one answer that rang true to me is that musicians have the freedom and motivation as amateurs to create provocative work, but in entering their professional career, the call of the day often becomes entertainment and marketing - selling the product. As professional entertainers, the art becomes secondary (it feels pretentious to even be calling it art!), growth is stunted by tour schedules and the details of photo shoots and agents and managers. You are as a young artist, more often than not, critiqued on such abstract grounds as trends and fashion and who you associate with, that it is easy to become more insecure with success, to shoot towards the safe middle instead of finding your edge. If creative work was only a vehicle to enter into the spotlight, then once in the spotlight, different priorities might emerge in order to stay there. That is a totally separate issue.


I don’t want my creative process to suffer, to never develop to its full potential because I’m driving to the ends of the earth to market it. With Street To Nowhere we worked on our one album for three years, and toured on it and marketed it for almost two years. The experience was incredibly interesting, and I wouldn’t change it, but it still shocks me how much time was spent on eleven of my songs. I think of my favorite painters and how much work they produced. I can’t picture any of them going around the world for a couple years to promote their paintings, painting the same image again, night after night. They experimented freely, took risks, and just their finished pieces fill thick reference books. I’m becoming more interested in their approach, in those creative priorities. I’d rather share with you more songs, straight from my head and heart, even if that means they are less polished, even if some experiments yield freaks of nature. I’d like to expend my energy to further find my voice, and refine my skills, even if that means my work reaches less people. I don’t need to be Starbucks. I’m happy being a neighborhood coffee shop.


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My Work Space

Wed, 08 Jun 2011 16:52:00 +0000













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Trembling In A Room

Tue, 07 Jun 2011 19:54:00 +0000

You can't predict when it will happen again.


You step into a room and it grabs hold. Jostling you, one arm around your throat, the other taut around your chest. Your breath is inconsistent and your words tumble like rocks yanked loose from the mountainside. Unexpected, heavy, and conspicuous - crashing below. You want to let the force pull you into the shadows. You want to let it drag you back into your car, its hand guiding yours as you turn the key. You want the engine to rumble, to feel the car reverse down the street, flow silent and surging backwards into the river of headlights. You want to let it shove you back through your front door, slam you down hard on your bed.


It isn’t humility when you find yourself suddenly kneeling unintended at the presence of others. It isn’t the awe of staring upwards into the branches of a massive redwood or of being swept into the stratosphere by a string of music. The feeling is humiliation. It is a sudden thick shadow shooting out from you, saturating the world around you. You handed away your power, let your anxieties seduce you. How did it happen? You don't want this.


You simmer in this silent injustice and fury. In this quiet, uncontrollable, unintended, dehumanization.


Some will take advantage of it and perform their invisible rituals on you, manipulate you, exploit you, experiment with push and pull and gifts and insult. Some will try to save you to save themselves, to lift you, to frantically convince you of the virtue that you have inside - and some, will allow you to just exist as that whisper of a person, casting their gaze to the floor as you drift by.


There are others though, that will stick with you at a healthy distance, allow you to navigate your own ascent into understanding, to ride your own wave of strength and weakness, and expect you to soothe them when they fall. Because this shocked and shaken creature isn’t you. It happens. it’s a symptom of something that is in you, but you’re bigger than it is, and you’re losing it - you’re way too hard on yourself. There is no way you must act with these friends, these companions. The effect of the mixture was predetermined. It is chemistry. There is a way things will go because of the ingredients involved. You may react oddly when another element is thrown in, but some things are just more conducive to one-another than others.


So fuck it. Go out into the world and be the conflation of elements that you are, see how the world around you reacts, hold on when you feel something dragging you away, and look for an opportunity to grow and for those that will grow beside you. Be fascinated as one moment and one feeling slip into the next.

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New Apartment Recording

Fri, 03 Jun 2011 02:38:00 +0000

Today I took a break from the obsessive process of recording my next album, and made a new APARTMENT RECORDING. The song is called "While Another Day Drew Near" - click to listen and download


Apartment Recordings are quick recordings of songs that I don't want to slip through the cracks. I track them in my bedroom and try to counterbalance my more detail-obsessive projects by doing only a few takes of everything, even if the songs themselves have been refined and edited for weeks or years, and releasing them that same day. I hope to catch the sound of my space and the character of my voice in a particular moment on a given day.

Each volume builds over time so come back in a little while and there will be more to hear.

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Love

Mon, 30 May 2011 09:03:00 +0000

I would say that the thing to focus on is love, but that word has been dragged through so many shopping malls and abusive homes that I'm not certain it articulates my point. So instead I'll say, the thing to focus is on is how we treat one another and how we treat ourselves.

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Emptied

Sun, 29 May 2011 09:13:00 +0000

Sometimes you share so much that you drain yourself. I feel that way after I sing. After I really sing. When my throat is all chopped up and things are hazy and sort of out of reception. I could just burrow somewhere and hibernate. When I really rear back and sing, when I’m not thinking about what I’m singing, how I’m singing, it’s redemption, it’s a gap in time, a space that couldn’t comprehend anxiety or fear. I could command a sudden army, or break a stable of horses. And after, there is this space where everything feels numb - the house is burned down - there isn’t hardly an everything to feel.


A lot of today was like that. Today I shared my history and walked through the halls of another’s. We saw other people’s lives pasted up on massive walls and deconstructed into flashes of paint, into torn-out images wrenchingly arranged. Days like that are fascinating and cathartic and you can feel your darkest chasms taking on light, but as I drove away my heart wanted to nod off like a little kid on in the back seat on the long ride home. My heart had partied too hard.


A lot of tonight was like that too. I was confronted with a taste of my own history, in the back of a tour van with an old friend in the driveway of a beaten down house with a party swarming around us. And we were playing songs, writing songs, and I was fucking wailing. This was like we used to do. He used to pick me up in his band’s van when we both had some new songs, and we’d idle on some deserted corner, or find a picnic table in an empty park, and with whispered restraint, share the best of what we’d been creating. We’d give each other notes. These were our own little songwriting workshops. I’d get his approval, which I’d learned to trust, and then I’d be ready to sing for the world.


Now I don’t have much restraint. People kept climbing into the van. They were there, and they weren’t. I can sing loud over anything, anywhere, and it no longer phases me. I’m stronger within myself. I have a better idea if something I’ve written is ready - there's no such thing as ready. I don’t need his approval as much, or I should say, I now value my own approval so much more.


You don’t need to turn the stereo on when you head home from a day like that. You’re a shell, or some discarded bones, a light on a distant radio tower flashing on and off against the horizon. All of the longing that goes into a day, all of the need to connect, and to give, and have your isolated existence be recognized and understood in that of another - all of that is washed away. There is nothing to be accomplished. It’s time to rest.

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Songs About Songs

Fri, 27 May 2011 17:53:00 +0000

Poets writing poems about writing poetry.


Sometimes the process swallows up everything around it, and then there is only the process. Days drift by unnoticed. Goals arise, are sliced open, hastily performed, forgotten. Somehow the need to get up and go to work, to put something down on the page, becomes more urgent than the job itself. What if you just didn’t show up? Where do you trip the wire of consequence? What is the bottom line to survival? Is there anywhere you have to be?


Everyone needs to tell their story. Sometimes when you start to tell it back, you can only talk about the telling. It might be time to wake up in the woods then, and find your way home.


Birds sing in the middle of the night here and I can see stars from my bed. In the morning, the shade from the wall keeps the concrete cool in the back yard. I have a routine suddenly, where I stand with that first cup of coffee and see if I can find the observatory in the distance. Today I recognized the sensation of a summer morning, a thread of cool air trembling in the heat. People have climbed to the top of the hill across the way. Below it is an empty college campus. Graduation came and went. It’s quiet now - just joggers and kids from the neighborhood. I’m living in a dining room with curtains separating it from the kitchen. I keep the sliding glass door open to the patio all day.


A couple years ago I reached the point where I was writing songs about my life as a musician. That was the case, because being a musician was my entire life. I had a lot of pain to exorcise, a lot of appreciation to express. You’ll hear. Then everything shifted. A part of me got ripped out, and I’ve been filling it in with something else. I didn’t know how to relate it as it went by, or if it was important to do so. It was mostly happening internally. Now I’m not sure I care much about being anything. What I do know is that I’m getting home. Getting to a new home. I can feel it coming - and it is not a song about writing songs.

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Pulled Apart

Wed, 25 May 2011 19:16:00 +0000

How our anxieties pull us apart. How I escape from conversations I want to be in. How I talk myself out of talking to those I wish to speak to. How I sell myself short to those I want to impress. How I disappear from the sight of those I’ve connected with. How you apologize to me for being yourself. How we protect one another from the painful truth that we need to hear. How I feel guilty for speaking my mind. How you smile and nod while you’re really spinning in your thoughts. How we talk around and around what we’re really talking about. How I start believing that you want this conversation to be over. How I shift my weight from leg to leg. How I rip the label from beer. How I burn as I walk away.

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Photos From The Last Few Months

Mon, 23 May 2011 06:53:00 +0000

2011-01-06_16-45-35_537
2011-01-06_16-46-04_617
2011-01-07_21-01-33_768
2011-01-08_16-04-06_803
2011-01-20_16-45-25_875
2011-01-23_17-33-27_554
2011-01-26_17-45-08_20
2011-01-30_16-43-04_776
2011-01-30_17-15-59_74
2011-01-30_17-17-39_939
2011-01-30_17-25-05_742
2011-01-30_17-26-39_448
2011-02-01_19-37-08_835
2011-02-01_23-46-10_969
2011-04-09_14-52-35_304
2011-04-13_14-57-20_65
2011-04-15_23-52-11_917
2011-04-16_00-51-15_436
2011-04-16_18-56-37_564
2011-04-21_21-10-37_318
2011-04-24_14-25-34_859
2011-04-26_17-15-43_49
2011-04-26_17-32-51_801
2011-04-30_12-13-18_1
2011-04-30_12-21-00_891
2011-04-30_20-19-51_859
2011-04-30_21-06-27_310
2011-04-30_23-59-21_30
2011-05-01_11-51-36_739
2011-05-04_21-06-27_280
2011-05-04_22-32-20_640
2011-05-04_23-06-22_630
2011-05-04_23-06-41_469
2011-05-04_23-09-06_675
2011-05-04_23-09-33_140
2011-05-04_23-11-55_233
2011-05-04_23-14-04_335
2011-05-04_23-18-15_139
2011-05-04_23-19-43_951
2011-05-04_23-19-55_914
2011-05-04_23-21-45_614
2011-05-04_23-23-00_265
2011-05-11_10-49-20_704
2011-05-18_15-55-40_419
2011-05-18_19-25-44_314
2011-05-20_12-06-39_55
2011-02-05_15-31-25_816
2011-02-05_15-33-23_890
2011-02-05_15-34-27_693
2011-02-05_16-04-05_502
2011-02-05_16-40-22_955
2011-02-11_15-28-44_663
2011-02-11_15-29-17_188
2011-02-11_15-34-26_188
2011-02-11_15-35-22_676
2011-02-11_15-35-46_238
2011-02-11_15-36-24_530
2011-02-11_15-36-50_945
2011-02-12_23-54-49_786
2011-02-12_23-55-09_367
2011-02-23_15-47-20_505
2011-02-23_15-53-47_522
2011-02-23_15-56-01_133
2011-02-23_15-57-08_30
2011-02-27_15-43-15_701
2011-03-02_15-57-14_801
2011-03-02_16-03-22_263
2011-03-02_16-15-07_425
2011-03-02_17-08-43_326
2011-03-05_01-18-45_290
2011-03-10_23-54-17_257
2011-03-12_10-03-41_396
2011-03-13_16-23-10_908

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Days

Thu, 19 May 2011 17:05:00 +0000

Why does the positive have to add up to the negative - cancel it out, outweigh it?


Why is it that we make judgements on blocks of 24 hours and label them “good” or “bad?”


My day yesterday was so many things. I sat down and started to work, and within an hour was flooded with anger at myself, impatience at the process, helplessness, loneliness. I went to a museum and saw giant abstract paintings, watched a light rain fall in the sunshine on a pond in the sculpture garden, the drops illuminating like sparks as they hit the water. Time stopped. I spent an hour on hold with some corporate bureaucracy. I worked on a painting. I had a medium sized panic attack. I drank a cup of tea and stared, content, up at the hillside and the sky. I made dinner and snuck onto the balcony off of one of my roommate’s rooms to catch the tail end of the sunset. I watched a buddy I toured with almost five years ago perform an open-hearted set of his always poignant songs at a quiet venue and had a flashback to twenty-two. I drank a couple beers. I laid in bed trying to shake the uneasy rage that resurfaced from the morning, frustrated that I understood why it was there, why it was useless, but still couldn’t cut it loose.


That wasn’t nearly all negative. It was mostly interesting. It wasn’t all good. Some moments were painful. Some were contradictory, or overlapping, or oddly complimentary: Beauty and sadness, anger and understanding, fear and loneliness, happiness despite physical discomfort. I guess I could call it good, but why worry whether it was good or bad, if my life is exciting enough, or happy enough, or if I’m appreciating it enough. You’re not present with thoughts like that. You’re not savoring any moment. And what’s the measurement for any of this? Other peoples lives?! Who knows what they’re experiencing! You can’t touch their reality. You can’t get in there and feel it.


All I can say is - good or bad, yesterday happened.


And now it’s today.

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Recording This Album

Wed, 18 May 2011 03:16:00 +0000

Right now I’m taking a break from comping vocals. For me, in the process of recording this record, this means that I spent a good chunk of the day today singing my song “Something You Could Say” into a microphone in my kitchen, and now I’m going through the takes (there’s about 25 of them), slicing them up, pulling out the best parts, then pasting them together as the performance that you’ll hear. Yesterday I did this with electric guitar, tomorrow maybe I'll sing again if my voice feels up for it.


One of the best things about making art is that it lives in a world that, if you allow it to, functions without ethics. Almost anything can be art if you treat it as art, and I’m always fascinated by the multitude of definitions people scrape up for the word, the action, the state of mind. That fundamental lack of right and wrong, though, makes a task like the one I’m currently getting some space from, a challenge. How can you know if you’re on the right path when there is no trail to follow! Sure, there are some rules, like pitch and meter, but sometimes the best performance is a little out of key, a little off the beat - and that’s okay, that may even be what somehow makes it great, but you have to be strong enough to allow yourself to break those abstract rules (theory, training, genre, the politics of what’s “cool”) that have been hammered into us. Having a producer helps on a project like this, an outside ear, another vote, but I’m at it alone this time.


One of the goals for this recording is to use it to further refine my ability to know what I like and don’t like, to execute on what I'm stoked on and follow through without second guessing myself too much. This includes knowing when to stop, when to take a break, when to give myself a pep talk, when to go take a hike, or meet a friend for a drink, or take a few days off. I’m working on this in all aspects of my life. There really isn’t ever a reason to be hard on yourself, or work harder than you have to. You can never be “perfect,” but you can always be “perfecting,” and a bad attitude won’t do you any good with that - though it will often try to convince you not to shake it. Better to step away for a while and enjoy the world outside, keep the balance.


When I was tracking in Sacramento two weeks ago with a bassist and drummer, we recorded some songs together in the same room, completely live. This means that we didn’t isolate our instruments, that all of the microphones in the room were picking up sound from everyone... You can hear my vocals on the drum microphones, and the drums cut through on the mic that’s pointing at my acoustic guitar, and so on... This is great because you have to live with what everyone played on each take, and there is no worry about “what’s best,” only “what happened.” I always think that the emotion gets across better on recordings like this as well - you’re all there together, feeling it.


This leads me to another of my themes for this project: Documentation. Music is obsessed right now with mining the past for all its resources. So many bands start off by deciding who they will be influenced by, or what genre they will be in, and weighing each decision against the canon of American pop culture from the last eighty years. I’ve done this. I do this. It’s hard not to. But I’m interested this time in just documenting what the process of this album sounds like, instead of trying to force it into some sonic state that's come before. I’ve been pushing myself to simply capture what my friends and I sound like playing in a room, how my voice echos off my kitchen walls... my guitar, the upright piano at my parent's house in Oakland, the strange old Sears, Roebuck & Co organ that an ex-roommate left in the garage here... It will certainly sound like other records that have come before it, but I think it will also have a sound of it’s own, of the houses and studios it was recorded in. And however the final product, I know that I will have grown through the process - every day I'm learning something new, having fun with it, taking it slow, and staying curious as to what will happen next...

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There Is No Destination

Mon, 09 May 2011 21:26:00 +0000

When I was sixteen I started jamming with a friend in his parent’s basement, where he had his drums set up. I would bring my Strat and my little Fender amp over, and we’d play the songs I was writing. We’d have a blast. He encouraged me with my songs, and we decided to start a band. We brought a friend of ours in on bass, and a kid in our class started recording us. We started playing out, at community centers, at this odd warehouse venue where The Locals, an Oakland band I was crazy about, threw shows. That may have been the most fun I’ve ever had. It was magic. I suddenly had the confidence to talk to girls, kids at school apologized for having ignored me or put me down before. The world was full of hope and importance. Music was this vehicle for us to be heard, this force that was going to bring us out of the clamped jaws of high school angst, a very real depression for me, and into the arms of acceptance, of happiness.


From there ambition took a hold. We all went off to college, but the real goal was to be professionals, and as time went on, the incredible moments of music and performing began to fall into the shadows of the desired destination. New goals would form before old ones were attained, so I began to appreciate the achievement of them less and less. I dropped out of college. I put in the work, I played the shows, I wrote the songs, I made the record, I signed to Capitol Records, I went on tour, opened for big bands, played shows to thousands of people, and though I feel like I sucked all of those experiences dry and appreciated them as much as I could, I still wanted more. I had so many nervous breakdowns that anxiety became the norm. And through that process I lost all of those old friends, including that drummer and our friend that recorded us. In a way, they were casualties of managers and lawyers and the opinions of other people, but also largely of my own ambition, of their ambition, of the abstract destination, the etherial solution that lay in front of us somewhere. Only recently did I begin to ask what I was looking to solve in the first place.


I made decisions to distance myself from my past. I chose a team of business-people that I knew deep down didn’t care for me as much as status and money and I impressed upon them my old patterns. I was accepted by the world now in so many ways, but I continued to find people who wouldn’t accept me for who I am, and would eventually only let me down.


Capitol had a merger and fell apart before our record got promoted. The band broke up. I made a new album on my own, and I still had the drive, I still had the energy to push and push. When I finished the album and had downtime, I helped run the Oakland office for the Obama campaign, and when the economy had collapsed, when no labels were clearly interested in even listening to my new record, one of my managers had an idea. I should move to New York, where she was based, and get my name out over there. She would be there to work with me, to find me opportunities.


When I made the decision to pack my Honda Accord and drive across the United States through the ice and snow, I knew I was following the advice of a woman who would openly berate me to a state of tears, and I wouldn’t fight back. But I still felt that I had to try. I had to get to that place, that place I’d been longing to get since those days in my buddy’s basement. I got to New York, slept on couches, and sloshed through the snowy gutters in Brooklyn to find a place to live. I stretched duct tape over the broken windows in my vandalized car, and I tried to get a hold of my manager.


She wouldn’t pick up her phone. I’d sometimes get a quick text back, and when I’d try to schedule a time to meet, she would disappear form the conversation. When my first show came, I stared at the door in the back of the room as I played, but the set ended and she had never walked in.


When I’d called the head of the company angrily, when I’d confronted her via email, we finally got coffee. I was shaking. I was afraid to show my anxiety around her because she’d always used it against me. I addressed what was happening in as calm a tone as I could, and she responded indignantly, “You’re not making me any money!”


She was on salary, and the company had seen a really nice chunk of cash from my old band’s record deal...


When they asked to work with me, I was told that it was because they loved my music and believed in me, but at the same time I had a major label bidding war, and of course this was what it was all about. And there I was spending my own savings to live in the ghetto in Brooklyn, risking my life and my mental health (whatever was left of it...) to make these epic drives alone in the middle of winter, often in the middle of the night, and I had no support. These business-people, that I had been trying to believe were invested in me and my music, became so transparent.


I tried to switch to a different manager within the company, and I waited in my apartment, in the cold, depressed, alone, for an answer. I started releasing my album online, song by song, I played a lot of guitar, I wrote a lot, read a lot of books, tried to get out to some museums, but I was in so much pain and so tired of the cold. I didn't want to be there except to further my career. I’d go up to the roof of the building and look out at the city stretching to the horizon on all sides. No one gave a fuck about me. No one would care if I was splattered on the sidewalk below.


After days and weeks I still had no answer. Every few days I’d call again and the receptionist at the office in San Francisco would tell me that the head of the management company was “In a meeting” or “on a conference call” or “just stepped out,” and I’d never hear back. The shows they had helped me book had run out so I put together some gigs for myself, but they usually didn’t pay, and I was playing a lot of the time for just the sound man.


After almost two months of this, I flew back to San Francisco for a couple shows and managed to pin down the head guy for a meeting. I knew what was coming. The company dropped me. I had so much of my life invested in my relationship with them, so much of my self worth came from knowing I was being handled by the same people that handled these famous bands that I looked up to so much, a reality that is difficult to look back at. I left the meeting with hug and a “thank you.” Sometimes, laying awake at night, I wish I had flipped a desk over, smashed some windows, but what difference would it have made? That wouldn’t have changed all the pain I had already been through.


Back in New York, the city was still iced over. I waited another two months for my girlfriend to graduate from college so I wouldn’t have to drive back to California alone. When we finally made the drive, a rainstorm lifted as we passed through Reno. And as we crossed the border into my home state, a flood of sunshine broke through the drenched pines. I felt tears of relief streaming down my face.


That experience broke me. I’ve stuttered again and again in the last two years trying to keep my music career going, but I’ve hardly been treading water. I’m barely afloat financially, and I'm struggling to stay at all interested in the business aspects of it - which are a necessary evil, I guess. But this is largely because I’ve spent a great bulk of my time getting to the bottom of the illusions that led me to believe that pushing to the ends of the earth for some surface ambition was going to get me anywhere I really wanted to be. I’d been so many places, but always brought with me all of the baggage that had always weighed me down. This period in my life has been such a fulfilling endeavor. I’ve spent the time getting to know myself, my history, my family’s history, and the way my body and my mind work, the way our society, our world, works. Now I understand what happened. I’m just glad to be alive.


Last night I picked up my drummer friend from the airport. We’ve reconnected after all these years, and he was flying home from a European tour. After telling me about performing for these massive crowds over there and talking about all of the various projects he has his hands in now that he’s home, we started talking about real life.


He and I had already been incredibly successful at sixteen: we were having fun and expressing ourselves to the best of our ability. And we still do that, which is the best part! Everything else that has happened since then has been about other, more deeply rooted, desires and issues.


We agreed that we are in a similar place, that we’ve seen enough to know that the best of what life has to offer is there for you in any simple moment, that all of the eyes of the world staring at you with admiration would still feel like shit if you have no love for yourself.
Ambition is good in moderation. It gets you out of bed, allows you to survive, to do the things you want, but it can be compulsive just like anything else. We agreed that there is no destination anymore, there is only now, and if you can’t appreciate your ‘now’ - you need to figure out why that is.


I’m working on a new record, and a lot of the lyrical content is driven by this experience. I still make music because I love to write songs and sing them, because they help me to put my life and my feelings into some sort of structure and hear them played back. I write because I have something to say, and because the creativity keeps me challenged in a healthy manner. This has always been true, but it was submerged under so much desperation, such an irrational need to be accepted by the world, when the reality was, I was never accepted by my own self.


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Tue, 12 Apr 2011 19:32:00 +0000

When you compliment me by putting yourself down, you insult us both.

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Some Thoughts On Arguments And Belief

Sun, 10 Apr 2011 21:45:00 +0000

I never want to have an argument again. I’m done letting my wires get tripped in the heat of discussion and feeling the sour chemicals of frustration stream out. I never again want to find myself in a feedback loop, shutting someone down, being shut down, shutting someone down, being shut down - walls of memory banks crumbling, old feelings, old behaviors, rolling out into open air.


Beliefs.


Beliefs are heavy, burdensome things. I’ve tried to shake the beliefs of my friends and family, but a belief is something big and rooted. A belief is a house with foundations laid deep. It can have many levels with many rooms and so many things hung in its closets. It can be hard to grasp in the moment, but there’s someone living their life inside of that belief, just as you go to bed each night in yours.


How often is it worth it to bring in a wrecking crew to try to dismantle someone’s convictions, someone’s perspective on the world? For them to watch the shelter they dwelled in be destroyed, to have all of their belongings strewn about? How high should the stakes be for us to make our loved ones rummage through the pieces in embarrassment, to try to construct some sort of roof to raise above themselves while they figure out what’s right? Especially if they’re getting along fine, if they aren’t harming themselves or others, the way we all stumble along with our ever-imperfect situations. Why put someone down? Why tell them they are wrong? If they are, they will probably learn it in a more effective way (the hard way).


Often, I think, we’re trying to be kind. If we see something that we think could be better in this world, we want to make it so - or we at least want to point it out. But conversely, for so many reasons, we also want to control others, want to have our statements and feelings validated - whatever they may be. But what good is validation from someone whose throat you’re holding a knife to?


People need to believe different things at different moments in different places in their lives. We’ll never be all on the same page. Right and wrong as I see it is a spectrum, an art-form. It’s a chess game, and we must address the intricacies of each move with fresh tact. It’s a skill we should always be honing.


But then there’s bigotry, there are cults, there are harmful notions that cut through our culture at all discernible levels. These beliefs can become towering high-rises, and constantly being under attack, their foundations get dug deeper and deeper every time they are defended. They tend to be eclipsing something buried, something someone carries around with shame. We know that an argument is touchy, and that there are slow and effective ways to address these issues, to stand up to them, but they are often more risky and more complicated than blasting our own fiery convictions back into someone’s face. Maybe there is a right time to let the anger flow when it comes to addressing dangerous ideals, but I really think you need a steady hand to cut ties so tightly bound.


Of course, I know I’ll find myself in arguments again. I’ll wake up in a heated debate over something inane and watch it roll right over the edge into battle. But I want to remember in those moments that what is happening is no longer about the content of the discussion, it is about something deeper and unique in each of us. The way someone behaves in a conflict shows their true colors, gives you a glimpse of the actual home they were once helpless in. It seems to me that once we enter into an argument, we begin to work out our issues on one another - our needs for control, our needs to be accepted and validated and praised and loved, our needs to be understood. We start to vent these feelings from the past - the grief, the anger, the sensations of being victimized - all the things we’ve never had a place for and never were able to throw out. We start to hurl rocks at each-other's houses, forgetting why we got so heated in the first place.


I want to always be honing my craft. To get better at taking that deep breath, making the pact to disagree, and disbelieving the part of me that thinks I was being insulted. I want to be able to make a clean move to the next string of moments. I want to be open, and stay strong, to know what needs to be defended, and what needs to be shrugged away.

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Inexplicable Shifts

Mon, 04 Apr 2011 22:27:00 +0000


Sometimes you’re solid. You get it. Whatever life throws your way you take with optimism, with tact and rationality. You’re aware of yourself, certain, excited to take risks for pure enjoyment. You smile at strangers, make small talk. You’re calm and sympathetic. People are drawn to you. There’s nothing you need, and no one can push or pull you out of your element. You’re in control, modest and powerful simply for being you. Life is easy despite any inconvenience, any challenge, and it’s going to stay this way forever.


Then for no clear reason, something shifts within you. You spring a leak and begin to take on all of the doubt, the self-loathing. Every action requires a great effort, if only to take a breath, to keep your spirits above the surface.


Clenched teeth. Stiff Joints. There is this glare to everything, like you’re looking perpetually through some dusty late-afternoon window. Your headache pulses to the beat of everything.


And you’re going to fail, and all you’ve left behind you on that hard road are epic and complete failures. You’re fucked. And your friends don’t understand, and their advice proves that, and they don’t answer their phones anyway cause they probably don’t even like you. But you need their advice. You need someone to tell you how to get through this. The walls are fucking sheer in this pit, someone has got to throw you goddamned rope. There must be answers, but you can't quiet your anxieties long enough to actually think.


Of course, it’s hard to sleep. And when you do sleep, if you get to dream, you dream of conflict. You fight hard and you lose brutally. You’re confined. You’re stranded at great heights. You’re tortured. And any sense of hope is an illusion. If you come up, you’re going to fall, and fall hard, and wake in that sudden flash of sweat.


Has it always been like this? Have you ever felt your neck and back unclenched? Whose fault is this? You play back the long list of wrongs done to you as you stare into the darkness. You’re the victim here. Someone has to pay.


But then, one morning, with no singular shimmering cause, with no clarity you can discern from Freud or your friends, you wake up, and the day feels easy. You’re rested. And you notice that the morning is constructed of all these incredible little details: shapes of sun across the wall, hints of singing birds. You savour them.


And the past rolls off easy, the future dangles before you in pleasant mystery. And every moment, every thought, everything, has the quality of a secret joke, a punch line you couldn’t possibly explain. But why would you need to?


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Curious Processes

Sat, 02 Apr 2011 00:39:00 +0000

I’ve been thinking about this album for almost three years.


Laying half-asleep one morning in summer 2008, when I was putting the finishing touches on Everything Changes And Nothing Changes, I became aware of a melody in my head. Being only semi-conscious, I stayed helpless in that state while the song built up in a feedback loop, forming around a sort of embarrassing interaction from the previous night. When I finally lifted from sleep, I grabbed my guitar, and sitting in bed began to sing the chorus to “I Know That You Don’t Want To Be My Girl.”


I used to think that I was consciously responsible for the things I create. But the more music and art that I make, the more I’ve found that I am hardly ever in the drivers seat. I used to think that there were artists I looked up to that must have fully conceived their work before hand and executed it from there, but now I’m beginning to recognize that the artistic process (and this feels true for so many processes in life) is more of a meandering conversation. When you are inside of a project, you are constantly reacting to the elements that you have completed, and then reacting again, and again, until your reaction is to stop. That morning I was responding to something my subconscious had stirred up, and I molded it from there, but I was hardly in control of the outcome.


Deciding what the end result will be and sticking militantly to that fantasy is an easy trap to fall into. You often wind up forcing your way through rocky terrain, pass up potentially interesting pathways because they don’t fit your mold, miss out on the spoils of curiosity, all of the happy accidents, and your enjoyment of the present moment. I also think it demeans the individuality of a work, as it is easy to envision a new take on something that has been done before, but I think the really unique moments happen when you just dive in with an open mind and see what’s down there. I had a ton of reference tracks that I’ve been collecting in the last couple years, recordings that for one reason or another had an essence I could envision a song of mine sharing, and these were a nice starting point, but on the first day of recording I left all of those references behind.


I have no idea what this album will sound like when it’s completed. Hell, I have no idea how long it will take to finish and who else may be helping me with it along the way. I am simply getting up each morning and going to work on it, curious to find out where it takes me next.


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Recording, so far...

Sat, 26 Mar 2011 17:55:00 +0000











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Famous Blue Raincoat Cover

Sat, 19 Feb 2011 05:34:00 +0000

A long overdue bedroom recording of Leonard Cohen's "Famous Blue Raincoat" -

Famous Blue Raincoat (Leonard Cohen Cover) by DaveSmallen read more


New Cover Song: Smog's "I Break Horses"

Fri, 04 Feb 2011 20:38:00 +0000

(a home-recorded cover)

I Break Horses (Smog Cover) by DaveSmallen read more


Coldest Winter

Fri, 28 Jan 2011 03:16:00 +0000

Here's a little bedroom recording of myself covering
Kanye West's "Coldest Winter" --> Coldest Winter (Kanye West Cover) by DaveSmallen
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Everything Changes: Pay-What-You-Want

Fri, 14 Jan 2011 23:26:00 +0000

My last album, "Everything Changes And Nothing Changes," is now available for 'name-your-own-price' (that means you can enter: $0.00!)


Take it with you on your iPod.


Share it with your friends.

CLICK: http://davesmallen.bandcamp.com/album/everything-changes-and-nothing-changes



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Photos From The Last Few Months

Wed, 05 Jan 2011 04:26:00 +0000





































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Say Thank You

Fri, 20 Aug 2010 21:45:00 +0000

<a href="http://davesmallen.bandcamp.com/track/say-thank-you">Say Thank You by Dave Smallen</a>

NEW APT RCRDNG! read more


Complete blog archive