My Recipe For a Great Music Session

Every musician I know has their own recipe for a successful session whether that’s songwriting, recording, or rehearsing. I thought I’d share mine with you.

Have Something in Mind That You Want to Accomplish.

This sounds obvious, right? But how many times have I sat down to work only to be frustrated by not knowing what I actually wanted to do? I’m not talking about those times when I feel like playing to entertain or soothe myself, I mean when I want—or need—to get to work. Sometimes I’m lucky. I’ll be sitting there strumming or picking some vacant little rhythm or pattern and an idea for a song will strike, but usually it doesn’t work that way for me.

I keep extensive checklists and notes in Excel because I learned long ago that scraps of paper and paper bar napkins can get lost, saturated with wine stains, or look like ancient hieroglyphics the next day. Sure, sometimes an idea hits me when I’m away from home, so I’ll make a note to myself on my phone’s Voice Memos app or scribble out a note on a napkin or the back of a grocery receipt. This is fine for those unbidden light bulb moments, but not for the long haul. On those occasions when I must use the app or the handwritten note, I transcribe my ideas into Notepad as soon as I can and save them in a folder called, “Song Ideas.”

Anyway, when you want to work, make sure you know what it is you want to work on, and have all your notes and ideas where you can access them.

Get Your Shit Together.

Look, not all of us can afford, or have the room, to create a dedicated music workspace like in this photo. Most of the time I work in my bedroom sitting on a four-legged stool with the bed serving as my desk. You have to use what you have, but wherever you work, make sure everything you need is handy and right in front of you. Instruments, picks, capo, tuner, lyric and chord sheets, charts, laptop, DAW, mics, gear, whatever. If you have to get up to hunt down something you need, the interruption can ruin all your intents. And if you can, have a place to work where you know you won’t be interrupted. Put your phone on silent and leave it in the other room. If you use your laptop as a music tool like I do, turn off the sounds and put it on airplane mode. The idea here is to surrender yourself to the music and only the music. She’s a jealous mistress so if you want a good session don’t take her for granted. And if you can’t afford a dedicated music space just remember back when you sat on your bed writing music all those years ago. Grow where you’re planted.

How About a Nice Cup of Tea?

About an hour before I set to work I brew myself a large cup of lemon and ginger tea (I get the Twinings tea bags) with a little honey. Then I sit back, go over my notes and relax to get myself out of the “normal” of the day. Sometimes I’ll meditate for 15 minutes after the tea if I find I’m having a hard time letting go of things that want to keep me distracted. No TV, no music, no phone, no internet. Just a little quiet time. This also is the time that I begin to adopt a take charge attitude. This is my music, my creativity, my outcome. I’m not here to please others or to conform to expectations set by the business, the charts, or even family and friends. This is about music and I strive to become a channel for the mystery and magic to flow through. Do NOT drink iced drinks, dairy products, or orange juice right before singing. These create all kinds of unwanted problems like tight vocal cords, phlegm, and gas, and who needs that?

Adopt a Tude.

No!
Yes!

A positive, commanding attitude isn’t just in the mind you know. It starts with the physical. Sit up straight, pull back those shoulders and hold your head up. Your body is like a stand up bass. Can you imagine what kind of sound that instrument would make if its neck was bent forward, its headstock facing down, and its body turned in on itself? Yeah. None! Help out your vocal cords by straightening your neck. Holding your head up opens up the acoustics of that mouth of yours, and sitting up straight and squaring your shoulders creates resonance, breath control, and support of your diaphragm. Your body is a musical instrument so learn to play it correctly.

Everyone’s different. After all, it’s called in-di-vid-u-al-i-ty for a reason and what works for one person may not work for another. This is my method. Hope it helps a little!

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What It All Means

I first encountered Bob Dylan in 1964 when I was asked to perform Blowin’ In The Wind at an Elks dinner in Ballard, California. I was a tender 12 at the time and I’d actually been asked to perform two songs that night. The other was If I Had A Hammer. I’d heard that song the year before on the popular TV show, Hootenanny! but I’d never heard Blowin’. I loved that show. I’d watched Sing Along With Mitch and played albums by Joe and Eddie, the Kingston TrioOdetta and many others since I was a kid so when Hootenanny! aired, I was hooked. It was in fact the popular single, Walk Right In by the Rooftop Singers that fired my obsession with the 12-string guitar so I guess you can say I’m a folkie from way back.

Someone pointed me to Bob Dylan so that I could learn Blowin’ In The Wind for that gig, but I think I learned it from the cover by Peter, Paul & Mary. I liked the song. I thought it was pretty, but it was the lyrics that grabbed me. It sounded like an anthem. It was saying something important, a message I’d heard many times before, but this time it was delivered in a way that was like a bullet in the brain. I had to find the original recording.

When I brought home The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan and tore off the cellophane wrapping, I had no idea my life was about to change and that it would continue to change and evolve for the entire time I’d walk this planet. I think I’d been prepared, though. I think all of those folksingers before had been leading me up that path, some gently—the Kingston Trio, for instance—and some not so gently, like Odetta. On that afternoon Dylan became a lifelong mentor. Oh, he doesn’t know that. He doesn’t even know I exist, but his work affected me like it has affected so many other songwriters. It’s safe to say I don’t where the hell I’d be musically if he hadn’t happened. I don’t know where music would be.

This Photoshopped image, taken from Dylan’s 1965 Subterranean Homesick Blues video, has always pissed me off. How many people have I spoken to about Dylan whose first reaction was, “He can’t sing”? There are a lot of popular artists—always have been—who can’t sing. Most popular music through the years hasn’t been moored to an ability to croon like Sinatra or Caruso so why have these people assigned Dylan as their poster child?

Something else threatens them. It’s not that he can’t sing, it’s that they don’t understand what he’s singing about and why he sings like he does, and they don’t want to investigate, even passively, by simply listening. Taking time to understand anything is nothing but work for lazy thinkers. When they run into something they don’t get any deeper than the surface level, instead of exploring it, they attack it. They mock and ridicule because it’s easy. At a very young age I learned that when someone made fun of something or someone, they were only revealing their lack of curiosity. And if intelligence is anything, it’s curiosity. If they sat down, turned off their phones and listened to Dylan they’d discover he was performing rap back when their grandparents were dancing to the music of Motown, Surf, and the British Invasion.

This being said, I already know that many of you won’t take the time to listen to the video below. That’s ok. I’m not trying to make converts, I’m sharing something with the curious, the active thinkers, the people who like to understand things. Even those of you who stay might be tempted to stop listening when Dylan starts talking about Moby Dick, but I urge to you hang in there. It’s a trip worth taking and in true Dylan fashion, his voice with its unique rhythms and meters becomes almost hypnotic. Please, please, turn off the TV, silence your phone and get rid of possible distractions. This is not background, this is not passive listening. You will have to listen and think.

P.S. The title of this post will mean nothing to you unless you listen to the video.

Many thanks to Wade Johnson and Pat Flynn for introducing me to this.

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50 Summers Of Love

To make your reservation click this image, or use the email form on the Contact page.

I know myself. In fact, I’ve conducted decades of research on myself and I know that if I don’t just set a date and work toward a thing I’ll never do it. Or maybe I’ll do it, but it’ll take a lot longer. Problem is, at my age there’s an overwhelming sense that there’s no time to fiddle-fart around. Oh, I’m not talking about how many years I have until I shuffle off my mortal coil. It’s not that esoteric. It’s about how many more years I’ll still have command of my voice. Because I didn’t really use it much from 1985 to 2015, my voice sounds almost exactly as it did when I was in my early thirties. A little fuller and lower, but basically the same. I can’t help but wonder, though, how many more years I can milk that so I’ve finally set a date for my “come back” house concert. Man, I hate using the “come back” phrase, but what can you do? The truth is, I miss performing. I miss singing for people and if this is the last concert I’ll ever perform in this life, I’m OK with that.

I wanted to wait until this concert could serve as a CD release party, but work on my album is going slowly due to ongoing health/energy, recording equipment, and guest musician issues. I’ve in fact half-decided to blow it all off and just make a stripped down CD, just me and my instruments. If I do this, it won’t be the album I envisioned, but at least it’ll be out there. The jury is still out.

So here are the facts concerning my concert, in case you’re in the area and would like to attend.

  • This will be an exclusive concert. There is seating space for just around 25 guests  and standing room for about 10 more. I ask that younger people, who can do so, elect to sit on the floor directly in front of the staging area. There will be two 45-minute sets with a 15-minute intermission so if you don’t want to stand the entire time, you’ll need to reserve early. I suggest reserving early anyway, because I’m already hearing from people. If you don’t reserve a space and show up anyway, you’ll probably have to sit out on the front porch or back step. Just a little side note: if you do make a reservation, but do not show up by showtime (8:30), your seat will be forfeited to an SRO guest.
  • The good news is, this is a FREE concert—my birthday gift to you—and because it’s a house concert/birthday party, I ask that, in lieu of gifts, you simply bring something for the bar or the fridge. Munchies will be supplied.
  • Because this is a listening experience, I humbly ask that you bring no children, please.
  • Location: Bookends Cottage, Stillwater, OK. You will be given the address when you make your reservation, if you need it.
  • Date & Time: Saturday September 23, 2017 at 7:30 pm.

As the title of the concert suggests, I’ll be performing not only some of my own songs, but covers from the late Sixties and early Seventies, including Bob Dylan, Donovan, Joni Mitchell, John Sebastian, and others. I’m really looking forward to taking you back in time!

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