If I Had A Hammer…


One of the many smells I love most in the world: cut wood.

The lumber I ordered yesterday just arrived this morning and is now piled up in my garage, awaiting me to begin building a modest, semi-sound-proof recording studio.  Yes indeed friends, when I start to make a new album, it takes more than just songs and guitar strings ~ it takes a saw, hammer, nails and good ‘ol fashioned sweat.

A few years ago, while living in Pakistan and working on my Picnic of Poems book/CD I began wondering on why many musicians these days feel they must surround themselves with excessive entourages of support staff.   In simpler times, a few friends with instruments would meet up in somebody’s tool shed, basement, bed-sit or barn and just “sing”.  We would create refrains inspired by experiences, books we had read, films we had seen, journals we had kept or people we had met.   We would build songs like temples ~ constructing their foundations, crafting their arrangements, embellishing them with ornaments of sound the way we decorated the bedrooms in our parent’s houses with posters of our musical heroes or memorabilia of our individual lives.

These days however, I make appointments to meet young artists eager for advice and inevitably greet the budding singers, shielded behind three or four “associates” ~ introducing themselves as mangers, agents, representatives or by some other administrative title.   Often before ever having the experiences of learning how to play an instrument or working with other players to create actual music, many of these per-professional performers with raw talent are ushered into quests for stardom by supportive friends, family or financial backers… their “backing bands” being comprised of iPad drumming or Blackberry  strumming business men, singing the praises of their prodigy in three part harmony.     The artists themselves have no bassist, percussionist or pianist to embellish their expression or marry feeling to their self-penned poetry… they are only accompanied by the endless droning of their worker bees hyping them up, feeding them sappy lyrical lines to sing, fashioning them in stylish hats and with weak waxen wings.  God forbid they soar too near the sun like Icarus.

Indeed, it seems that many of these 21st century musicians sadly underestimate their own creative potential and feel they are without artistic validity if they are not being carried to fame by writers, PR reps, studio engineers, producers, web designers, make-up crews, hair stylists or clothing sponsors.  They underestimate the power and devotion of a loving and supportive audience, drawn to them for their honesty, individuality and dedication to the craft of good song-writing.

Pondering the reasons for and dangers of these peculiar trends, I assessed how I too had even succumb to such production hoop-la in my own “career” over the years ~ becoming dependent, from time to time, on financial backers, the opinions of producers, session players and label representatives.    I set to work on my Picnic of Poems songs by taking a step back in my own life to a simpler time when I would simply plug in a mic and record my performance.    (It is interesting to note that the most lucrative and furthest reaching recordings I have ever made have been the ones I did completely on my own from soup to nuts, for budgets that are simply laughable by today’s music industry standards.)

The entire collection of thirty tracks was written and recorded in my own home studio with nothing more than a laptop, basic multi-track software, a microphone, an on-line sound-effects library, a basic rhythm loop library and a phenomenal number of diverse percussion instruments.

After two years of work, I emerged from my musical laboratory, much the way an exhausted sculptor, potter or painter would step out of the dust and debris of their studio with a moist new canvas, chiseled bust or glazed urn ~ presenting it to my audience for their pleasure and approval as an independent gift of my heart and product of my calloused hands, saying, “Here is my offering, take it or leave it.”

The experience was life-changing.  It simultaneously broke me down emotionally and built me up creatively, empowering me to push even more introspectively toward deeper wells of creatively still untapped even after two decades making music.

Since that time, between travels and miscellaneous smaller recording projects, I have been eager to begin work on another full album of original material for adult audiences (my last being the 2007 CD “Out Seeing The Fields”.)   Sifting through hundreds and hundreds of song scraps that have been piling up since the days when I had shoulder length hair and baby smooth, beardless cheeks, I was able to decide upon a good selection of material to demo earlier this month.   Listening and re-listening to the rough recordings and doing lengthy re-writes has made me very anxious now to develop the audio sketches into polished songs.

As destiny would decree, the new place my family and I moved into several months ago has a huge garage out back.   Huge is an understatement.  Picture the biggest garage you could imagine in your mind…then triple it in size and you may come close to understanding how big our garage is.     The previous occupants had built the structure to house their bus sized recreational vehicle during the winter and as my family and I only have a small jeep, three bicycles, one tricycle, two foot scooters, a wagon, a manual push lawn-mower and a wheel-barrow, you can assure we have a lot of extra space to play with.  The facility has thus become a workshop for tools and a creative place for fixing, painting, puttering and preparing frames for the bee hives.

Now, with my shipment of lumber asleep for the night and anticipating the arrival of my hammer and I tomorrow morning, the garage will also house an intimate recording studio.

Young songwriters who may want advice from an old man like myself on how to get started in the music business:   Lock yourself in a workshop and learn to use a hammer.   (Build a dog-house, bird-house, tree-house, go-kart or chicken coupe ~ whatever you wish)   Practice the aim of holding the hammer by the lower end of the handle and using it to strike a thin nail into a board.   Practice the skill of avoiding your fingers as the hammer falls and hits the nail on it’s proverbial head.   Don’t pound with the tool as if you are trying to swipe at a moth ~ focus, aim and let the tool do the work for you, but guide it with your intuition and care ~ don’t waste your energy.   Listen to the echo of the sound, the chime of steel on steel and find it’s pitch.  Embrace the meter it makes.   Count with it’s strikes.    Breathe with it’s rhythm.   Sing out loudly in accompaniment with it’s percussion and the ring of it’s musical key.    Master the craft of building something you are proud of ~ that represents your time, skill and craftsmanship ~ and then replace the hammer with a pen and the wood with paper.     Now repeat the process as you plan and construct a good song, strong voice and honed sense of timing.

Tomorrow I will begin my new CD and it will commence with rhythms of screwdrivers, nails and saw teeth through 2 x 4s…you can be sure I’ll be singing along in time.

Categories: Functional Art, Personal Philosophy, Simple Living, The Artist's Workshop, Uncategorized

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