song writing

Experience, learn, always laugh, sometimes cry, repeat. by Nick Bullock

week 6 Experience, learn, always laugh, sometimes cry, repeat.

Some people love to say how difficult their chosen "career" can be. They complain. Sometimes it comes in the form of a joke, sometimes their words and actions straight up drip with venom, and sometimes its a subtle comment of desperation and frustration.

It's usually easy to imagine, feel, honor, glorify and visualize our next grand accomplishment in the career of our dreams. But that's not all there is to it. What does it mean to follow your career path? It means if it's true, it will be hard. If its TRUTH, it will be the hardest. Follow your instinct, follow your gut, follow your dreams and they are guaranteed to lead to hard times. But if they are really your truth, you don't have a choice anyways. So, if we choose to go the hard way and follow our truth, then we do it intentionally with the knowledge that we are not going to have a breezy stroll down career street. We can, however, learn to discipline our minds and hearts over time. We can learn how to honor our feelings of self doubt and frustration, but not live in them. We can start to take command of our subconscious. And slowly over time, we get really good at what other people might call having a thick skin, or "no worries". Its really just the ability to deal with in a healthy manner, all the negative bullshit that surrounds following your truth.

So, experience, learn, always laugh, sometimes cry and repeat.

ps: for week 6 of 52 in 52 go to https://soundcloud.com/nickbullock/grand-design

Working IN your business, Working ON your business: the difference by Nick Bullock

week2 There is a big difference between working on and working in… both are important. I know for me, when I get myself organized about which is which, it helps me to prioritize, and get clearer about my goals as an artist and a business owner.

Working in your business, for me is practicing my instrument, playing gigs, recording, mixing, producing, writing songs, song writing sessions, and a host of other fun "artistic-y" things. I generally spend more time doing these things because I'm a firm believer in if you want to be know for doing great things, then you need to practice, and practice often. By working in my business, I get better, learn more, and generally have the feeling that I am progressing in my "studies".

Working on the business is doing all the managerial and administrative things. It's taking the time each week to write out my roles and priorities. Scheduling meetings, making coffee dates, scheduling recording sessions, booking gigs, scheduling rehearsals and in general reaching out to anyone I find fascinating, inspiring,and with whom I might work well with and want to meet. I still keep an old school date book/organizer to help me run my schedule (and business). Working for my business basically keeps me in check so that I am consciously taking the time for working in my business (my art), and making sure I have time with my family. Pretty boring stuff right? Well, it's not as sexy as practicing my sweep picking, or getting the perfect take from a vocalist i'm working with, but it sure does make my life breathable, and it makes sure I get all the time I want and need doing the things I love.

Of course both of these things combined make the whole, the yin and yang. And sometimes life chooses which you are going to spend more time doing, "working in" or "working on". It's a balancing act that has its own flow and zen to it. In the end, I meditate, I laugh as much as I can, I fall deeper in love with my wife everyday, I remind myself that I am a blessed dude for getting to work with creative and talented artists here in music city (one of the greatest cities in the country/world) and I get to do that for a living! I try to be as kind as I can, I try to bring out the best in the people I surround myself with, and I surround myself with people who encourage me and challenge me to be my best, and grow… And of, course i play my guitar and write songs.

So I guess there is working on, working in, and then just being… what ever it is we want to be.

Week Number 2 of #52in52:

"Nervous"

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to stream this weeks song, go to: https://soundcloud.com/nickbullock/nervous

Victoria Banks: 5 Questions With a Great Songwriter by Nick Bullock

I met Victoria Banks shortly after I moved here to Nashville. Right off the bat, she was warm, inviting, informative, and very  willing to help a newbie in town.
Victoria is getting ready to release a new record this Fall (October 7th), with pre order sales starting today. You can go here to pre order: https://itunes.apple.com/ca/album/indigo/id911603123
and here to check out her new single: http://www.reverbnation.com/victoriabanks/song/21654835-ruined?1336410755
You can find out more about Victoria Banks by going to her brand spanking new web site too: http://www.victoriabanks.net
As always, Victoria gave really thoughtful answers to my questions. I hope you enjoy!
Vic1
Q: Do you write differently when you write for you the artist, versus when you write with the purpose of getting an album cut?
A: I can't say that I ever specifically try to write for myself as an artist.  As a staff songwriter, I'm in the office with co-writers 5 days a week writing for other people.  Sometimes I write with artists, in which case I listen to their material ahead of time to understand their style, vocal range, and the perspectives they like to sing from lyrically, so I can try and throw a pitch they can hit, to put it in baseball terms!  Sometimes, I'm writing for an artist who is listed on the "pitch sheet" my publisher provides; they have imminent recording dates scheduled with a producer and are often looking for a certain kind of song (for example, uptempo positive story song, or rangy midtempo life song not about love).  But on most days, my cowriters and I are just trying to write the best song we can write on that day regardless of who might sing it.  Some of those songs will stand out, feel right with my vocal range, and resonate with me emotionally, and those are the ones I end up recording on my own records.
On those days when my cowriters and I are not writing for a specific assignment, we often start off by going through our stockpiled lists of potential titles and "throwing out hooks" into the room to see if anything inspires us to write a song around it.  Or we listen through our collected melody snippets we have saved in our phone voice recorders to see if anything catches our fancy.  It's funny, but sometimes a title or a melodic/lyric phrase that previously didn't seem like anything special suddenly comes to life and takes on a new and inspiring energy when it's shared with the right collaborators on the right day.  The trick is to find that seed that wants to grow - and that grows easily - into a song.  You know you're really onto something when a song just falls out of you.
For me, the song that wants to be written today also often appears to me in the car on the way to a co-write.  Maybe I'm thinking about who my collaborators are…maybe I'm somehow plugged into their wavelength spiritually already…I don't know what it is!  But many times, I've had an entire first verse, entire chorus, or some significant chunk of a song pop into my head en route to the appointment.  I sing it to my cowriters when I arrive, and that's almost always what we end up writing for the day.
Q: Do you always try to write a hit song? Is there a difference between a great song and a hit song?
A: There is not always a difference between a great song and a hit song, but sometimes there is.  There can be a moment in the writing room when you find yourself at a crossroads.  Nashville writers have a running joke that one path leads to the radio, and the other path leads to the Bluebird Cafe.  You basically have to decide what your priority is.  If I think I can make a song commercial enough to cut, and still do the hook/melody justice, then that's always where I want to go with it!  After all, I'm being paid to write for the radio, and the long term future of my career as a songwriter depends on my ability to have hits.
Sometimes, it's the choice of making a hook positive or negative.  I recently wrote a song called "Ruined", and with a title like that, you'd think it would be a sad ballad about being destroyed by love.  But we turned the hook positive, and made it into a fun, groovy uptempo: "you're like a bottle of the best champagne and nothing's quite the same once you've tasted that/if I ever lose you, what am I supposed to do/I'm so ruined by you!"  That's going to be the first radio single off my new CD, and it's really getting a great response…maybe because of the positive twist on what you'd think would be a negative lyrical hook.  Radio likes positivity, so to raise your chances of a cut, you should make it positive.  However…there's also nothing better than a really well-written sad song…a "House that Built Me".  When those become hits, they become "song of the year" kind of hits.  But if you're gonna make it sad, it should only be a) because you're gonna record it yourself, or b) because it's going to be GREAT enough to get cut despite being sad.  Otherwise, it will collect dust on the shelf and never get recorded.
The choice of tempo is also a crossroads that you face in the writing process.  For radio, fast tempos are in demand.  When you think about it, artists might have one or two ballads on an entire record.  Most radio singles are uptempo or at least fast midtempos. So if a title will work as a more uptempo song, I usually lean that way.  However, when a lyric falls out of my brain attached to a slower tempo with a great melody or a smart lyrical twist, I'm not afraid to pursue that direction too.
I just did a writing retreat with Lori McKenna, who is a consummate ballad writer.  She can just slay you with a negative ballad.  But, those songs aren't getting cut much, so she likes to collaborate with co-writers who pull her into a more commercial vein.  There were times in the room with her when I could see both directions laid out at the crossroads, and as much as I would have LOVED to have gone down the negative ballad road to see where it led, we went the other way.  And then the combination of her lyrical bluntness with a commercial tempo/melody/positivity has made the songs we wrote really stand out in pitch meetings!
Vic3
Q: How has Nashville songwriting changed over the last 5-10 years?
A: I've been a professional staff songwriter in Nashville for (gulp!) 17 years now, and a LOT has changed.  In the mid 90s, there was a lot of pressure to steer away from writing alone, so I learned to collaborate so that I could widen the number of people pitching the songs to include my cowriters' publishers too.  In the late 90s, record sales were falling off because of Napster and other illegal downloading websites, so "writing with the artist" became the thing to do.  (Record labels and publishers were realizing that by having the artist co-write the songs, they could tap into the publishing income stream and recover some of the revenues they were losing to downloading.)  When that happened, I had to learn how to a) write a song very quickly - usually within about 2 hours - to fill a specific need for a specific slot on a specific record, b) dare to suck and not be freaked out by the fact that I was in the room with someone famous…or egocentric…or ADHD, and c) pull an idea from the artist's own experience in order to tap into an emotion that they're currently feeling so they will relate to the song and feel invested in it.  In addition, I have often written with artists who are NOT songwriters, who don't play instruments, who may have never written before and who may not even contribute at all to the song.  The trick is to try and pull something out of them, and sometimes to write the song DESPITE their presence and somehow still make them feel like they're contributing to what's going on.  You're half songwriter and half psychologist in those situations!  But your chances of getting a cut on records these days is way higher if the artist's name is on the song.  In the best case, that means having the opportunity to work with a talented visionary who knows what they want to say and you just tap into that.  In the worst case, you're sticking someone's name on the song you wrote…but that's the way the game is played.
Since 2001, radio has gone the direction of the testosterone-driven "bro country" thing.  Even more so, lately, with artists like Florida Georgia Line and Luke Bryan.  So that has changed the writing process too.  Now, I collaborate with "track builders" who often don't write the song, but sit in the room and build a kickass sounding demo while the song is being written.  By capturing the magic of the energy that's in the room, and by putting their own touch on it to bring it into a somewhat programmed sounding, somewhat pop-emulating production, they're often putting the song over the edge sonically so that it will grab the attention of artists and A&R people to get it cut.  Therefore, Nashville is starting to go the direction that L.A. went a long time ago in including the track builder as a writer.  Also, it's rare for me to write with just female collaborators anymore.  With so many males dominating the airwaves, it helps my odds to write songs that are pitchable to men…and that's a little easier to do when there's a guy in the room with me, even if it's just to say "nah, a man wouldn't say that" or "nah, that melody is too girly".
Q: What are some ways that you push yourself to be a better songwriter?
A: You know, I wish I could say that I have targeted specific exercises for myself to push myself to be a better writer, but I don't do anything like that.  I think to me, writing is just a way of life.  It's not a career.  It's an eat, sleep, breathe thing.  So I can't help but always be striving to be better.  I'm in it wholeheartedly, 5 days a week, in the chair at the office, writing a new song every day (sometimes two).  Listening to other people's music helps…going to other people's shows helps…doing your prep work to bring ideas into the cowriting room helps...going for long drives with my voice recorder helps…and keeping those antennae tuned for the next idea to be inspired by an overheard conversation or a TV show plot line is part of it too.  But ultimately, when you've written a couple thousand songs and you've still scheduled yourself yet again to show up and write another song today, you can't help but push yourself to make it better than all the others.  Otherwise, what are you still doing it for?  And the dopamine rush when you write a truly great song…that's an amazing feeling.  There's nothing better than that feeling.  Because you are going to live and die, but that song is going to live forever.  You've created something that can't be un-created.  You've created art!  That's what it's all about.
Vic2
Q: What are you looking forward to most about your latest release? What was the most exciting part during the recording process? What else would you like to mention about the release?
A: My new record, “Indigo”, is coming out this fall.  I made this record differently than my last two, which I also love like my own children, but for different reasons!  My previous records were collections of my favorite songs I had written, but they were entirely geared towards country radio.  There’s a very specific sound, and a very specific kind of song, that fits into that box.  For this project, I just had a burning desire to make the record I wanted to make…not just a record of singles, but a record I wanted to listen to over and over again in my living room or in my car.  So there are ballads on it…there are sad songs on it…there are imperfections on it…and it’s produced in a way that doesn’t make you feel like each track is punching you across the face with compressed sound.  I worked with co-producer Park Chisolm to build each track from scratch, and many of them are based on my basic guitar and/or piano skeleton tracks I recorded in my home studio.  I’ve always aimed to combine emotional impact with an intellectual side in my lyrics; in the metaphors and turns of phrase.  I feel like this record is right up that alley.  And a few industry folks who previewed the record told me they think it will attract intelligent listeners who are fans of The Civil Wars, so hopefully listeners will feel the same when it hits iTunes!
What Nashville artist, band or songwriter should I interview next?

Fame vs Great by Nick Bullock

I'm on vacation. I'm staring at wave after wave crashing onto the sandy beach. I'm a lucky guy to be able to witness the millions of little happenings, lets call them experiments, that have over a long period of time brought about this particular sandy beach, ocean tide and sun shine into one masterful experience. I wasn't going to write a blog this week, but then I started reading The Rise by Sarah Lewis. I love vacations for lots of reasons, but at the top of my list, it allows me to kick back and enjoy catching up on reading and writing. Last time I had a couple of days of vacation I gave myself a challenge to finish three songs by the end of my four days off, this time, I'm being a little more relaxed about it all, not searching for perfection, but enjoying the process, and trusting it. photo-9

The Rise, at least so far, seems to be about the gifts that mistakes can bring to an artist or creative person as they develop. How mistakes, one by one, get us closer to achieving our goals as creatives. And that without them, we are worse off. Maybe a better way of saying that is it's not about the destination, it's about the journey (that old cliche!). I, as some may know, am not always a patient person when it comes to my career/creativity/destination vs journey... I'm not always patient with my own course of development.

photo-8

We as creative American citizens/artists/entrepreneurs can and should be pushing every envelope we are given. We should be striving for excellence, and fumbling on the way. We should not expect the world to stop for our genius, we should instead seek to never stop ourselves from striving to discover our own genius. It is not about fame or money, it is about mastery. Perfection is a concept that is unachievable, and mastery is a noun, that brings forth memories of actions taken. Mastery is born from the ability to make mistakes and learn from them, again and again and again. I'm reminded of The Gap, an idea that was first brought to my attention by Ira Glass (http://vimeo.com/85040589). The Gap is the space between our current abilities and what we see our true selves being capable of, to put it simply.

I never knew that Michelangelo was famous for leaving works unfinished. But it makes sense. If completion is the objective then what is an artist to do once the job is done, cease being an artist? I know that with every song that I have written and recorded I am only giving it up to be released or to be put down on tape because I am ready to say goodbye and walk away from an imperfect and incomplete idea or concept. No song is ever finished really. I could and sometimes do drive myself crazy with nitpicking my work to death. Sometimes, more often than not, I am needing to move on, so the song is "done". This is how I track my idea of mastery, this is how I grow. And really, my ultimate goal is not to write a hit song, or produce a hit record, it is to be a master of my craft, a master of my tools. That is what really turns me on, and what gets me going.

photo-7

And when I'm able to remember that I really do what I do (write, play, and produce music) because I love the inevitable discovery process that comes with wanting to master such crafts, I am able to take a deep breath, trust the process, enjoy the waves, breath, enjoy my book, and look forward with excitement to the good work that I am going to continue when I get back in my studio.

When I moved to Nashville, it wasn't so I could be a star, I moved there because that was where the biggest musical masters were from. So yes by all means, follow your dreams, start a business, start a band, paint a picture, try out for The Voice, move to NYC or Nashville, be an athlete. But do so for the love of the work, not to seek fortune and fame. Those things are fleeting. Do the world a favor, and seek to be a master. That is where greatness truly lies. That is what inspires people to change their lives and the lives of others for the better. The world needs more masters, maybe now more than ever.

The American Dream: Just Do it (Happy 4th of July) by Nick Bullock

4th of July

Sometimes as a musician-artist, knowing what to do next can be a struggle. Questions like "How do we build our team? Who can help us get where we want to go? Where are our cheerleaders? How can I get a pub deal or record deal?" etc. These were all questions that to one extent or another, I used to ask myself all the time when I was in a full time band. And sometimes I still do. The bad news is that no two music success stories are truly the same. The good news, however, is that every one of those success stories have the same DNA, the same essence. People say you should do A to get to B, which gets you to C, then to D etc... that is all great, and you should absolutely check out what the experts say and do, after all, they're experts!

But you must remember, the best idea to get your band signed, or get that publishing deal, is always going to come from you. You have to do it, and the good news here is that you are very capable. You will need to think better and more creatively than you ever have before, and you will be tried and tested like never before. It will not be easy. I'll say it again, you already know what to do. You have all the cool, crazy and unique ideas that you will ever need, you just need to fish them out.

It's a business, and you must really understand that, even as an artist. Respect the business side of it, know that people are out there doing it so they can feed their families, know that people are out there busting their ass so they can put a roof over their head. You will need to be one of those people busting your ass. But you already know this. The most important thing is that you do it, start it, what ever it is for you. Start recording all the time, start uploading your videos, start working with smart people... what ever it is, do it. That is the only way that you will ever accomplish anything. Don't wait, do it.

Happy 4th of July. Three cheers for the american dream, all of them.

 

 

A Case Study: The War on Drugs, Red Eyes by Nick Bullock

My wife and I started a new tradition this past week, our date night has become a weekly record listening party for two. We'll go to the local record store (last week was Grimey's, on 8th Ave here in Nashville), pick out a vinyl, and go back home. We'll lay a blanket on the living room floor, picnic style, set up the speakers so we're in the sweet spot, and dig in. Last week was my turn to pick, and I grabbed a record that I have been meaning to listen to since March. We were swept away. WOD1

I saw The War on Drugs about three years ago maybe, back when I lived in Ithaca, and I fell in love with them. I know I'm in love because whenever I do fall, I always walk away with a sense of "That is what I want to do", and that is exactly what happened three years ago. And, it is with that in mind that I chose this song for my next case study... here we go :)

Intro: super cool, I love the synth sound, and instantly you get a pulse for the song, the drums enter with the bass, the bari sax, and a guitar playing some pentatonic tastiness... then the vs starts...

I'm not sure what exactly he is talking about here, but it doesn't matter. That is one of the things I love about rock n roll, yes you tell a story, but it is just as much an audio story as it is a lyrical one. What I mean by that is the music serves the lyrics, and vice versa... they make sense together. It's not about one, its about them both, together.

"Where are we This everything On my knees To beat it down To get to my soul I guessed my way Anyone can tell it's you coming But baby, don't mind Leave it on a lie Leave it your own way"

At this point its obvious that the acoustic guitar and drums are really serving as the back bone, pushing the song along at a nice pace, cruising, accompanied by their big brother the bass, and happy for the company. They are there, watching the spectacle of lights that the synths, and the guitars create, and making sure no one gets hurt.

The piano is nice in the verse too... buried a little bit in the mix, but it's there...  a nice texture.

The verse has a cool 2/4 to 4/4 meter rotation... kind if spinning on itself, you can certainly count it all in 4, but it's more fun to throw some 2's in there, I think :)

And I love the sound that he got on his voice... nice reverb/delay etc. I like how the vocals really sit nicely.

Then you have some interlude material that is pretty much the same as the intro. Is that a leslie effect on the three note guitar lick?? It happens too quick.

The 2nd verse pretty much maintains the pace of the 1st verse, with a nicely added guitar that doubles the vocal and synth line in there for a real quick second...

Which leads to my favorite part! This isn't so much a solo as it is a "lets get really excited for a minute"... they are pulling at us, teasing us, saying you know you love the momentary intensity here, and you know you love it because it's fleeting... nice guitar playing, brief though it be. All over the same chords as the vs:

2/4 I | 4/4 IV | IV | vi- V | 2/4 I | IV | IV || for those of you who care... then the breakdown.

WOD2

It's nice, swelling organ, really great sound... and still the drums, at first without the acoustic strumming its reassurances, then it builds. The acoustic shows up again. The bari sax is back, did it ever leave? Man, that organ sounds so good. I miss being in a band with an organ player. There might be some percussion back there in the mix too, can't tell. The singing starts again, and we are jolted into another solo section, which repeats the themes from the earlier... almost feels like a chorus really, on this second repeat of it... I guess it really isn't a real solo section after all... more of a chorus. And the piano returns!!! All the while, he sings for us. It's an intimate kind of vocal performance, very familiar... I think I can relate to the feeling in his voice... it's part conversational.

It's amazing to me how good all this sounds. Like really, really good. The drums are clear, the piano doesn't sound too tin-y... the vocals... This song really just transported me away. I can't think of a better song to listen to while laying down on the floor with the lights low and closing your eyes.

For me, it's just magic. And it as I write this I have three thoughts: 1. That is what I want to do. 2. I love my wife for having such an awesome idea for our weekly date night (yes, that was her idea!) and 3. I have a studio, and it is calling my name... inspiration indeed!!!

 

What song should I do next?