Truth in music

Last night I was watching Marina Zettl here in Vienna with her band. They have a jazz background and make pop influenced music in that direction (I can recommend giving them a listen)

As you can imagine for 3 jazz-trained folks, their technical abilities on their respective instruments (vox/keys, drums/vox and guitar/vox) were really impressive. In musical situations like this my first reaction is always joy at seeing such technical skill followed by nagging insecurity at all the things I am not able to do on my instrument.

I have spoken to other musicians and people who have started learning to play an instrument and given up and I know that feelings like this are not rare.

It is easy to start to doubt the validity of what you are doing by thinking about all the tricks that you don’t know.

Then I started thinking back to the first post I wrote about communication with music and started to feel a little better.

Even a brief look at the history of popular music shows us that technical skills that take years of hard study to master are not at all necessary to produce a compelling performance.

Punk is of course the most extreme example of this. Most of the early hardcore punk bands didn’t even have the most basic skills and sounding nice was not the intention of many. (I heard a story about a bassist from an unnamed band having to have 3 of the strings taken of his guitar to be able to record his track in the studio, 4 were far too many to think about!)

But also early rap, some blues music and grunge all had pretty low technical requirements and yet are still regarded as extremely important by music fans all over the world.

So what do these “simple” musical forms all have in common?

Truth.

They are expressing something authentic and real that no lack of technical ability or inferior recording techniques can disguise. As I said in my first post, it is the power of this communication that overcomes all other obstacles. If what you have to say is true and real (and you can make others believe it with your performance) then you have already succeeded and the rest is just decoration.

It could be argued that digital audio production has done much to democratise the music making process. Artists (like myself) can now produce and distribute their own material from home, weakening the power of the gatekeepers who decide what becomes popular.

The downside of this is the move towards machine-like perfection. Tuning singers precisely and quantising all the tiny imperfections out of a groove in post production all serve to place an artificial barrier between the performer and their audience.

The good news is that there are plenty of artists bucking this trend with great success. Jack White is a great example of a man who expresses his truth above all else, with all the dirt, spit and blood that comes along with it. A less extreme example would be Lana Del Ray, who almost always sings slightly flat. In my opinion even the folks without the ears to spot this are attracted to this sound because it is the backlash against the heavily processed lies that digital audio make possible.

Don’t get me wrong, I like the occasional entertaining lie myself and there’s nothing wrong with that in moderation but simple truths touch us in a way that entertaining lies never can which is why this type of music keeps coming back onto the scene and in my opinion will never be displaced even after the inevitable rise of our robot overlords.

So don’t give up that instrument you are struggling with, just use it to make something authentic and the skills will come on their own.

What simple songs or music speak to you? Who did I forget to mention?

Share your thoughts in the comments section.

Till next time!

Charlywood out.

charlywood in bavaria edit 06

Reading between the notes

Learning to make music starts with mechanics. A piano is just a load of buttons, to start with everyone simply learns which order and combinations to press them in. All instruments (including the voice) can be thought of in these terms and many people never make it past this stage, which is fine. Like a juggler or a fast touch typist they have developed a motor skill that gives them satisfaction and is often very impressive to watch (like those guitarists on youtube that can play 10 notes a second).

But in my opinion they are not truly making music. Making music is about a communal experience, it is a form of communication and true musicians are always expressing something.

This may be the solo artist communicating with their audience or something more complex like a band. Making music as a group requires the musician to listen to the other members and respond appropriately to express whatever the song has to say.

Many young ambitious musicians want to learn how to play everything there is to play on their instrument, to master every technique. Their true musicianship arrives when they learn when not to play, it is the silence between the notes that really allow the message to be heard (try telling that to a lead guitarist in middle of a noodling session though)

Obviously this is a skill that comes in very handy in non musical communication as well, conversations normally don’t go so well if everyone talks at the same time!

But the wonderful thing about music is that it can be used to express something that it is impossible to put into words. We are an animal that has prospered by living and working together and I think that music taps into that need that we have for communal experiences, it is a really deep part of what we are. Music offers itself brilliantly for this purpose because it can circumvent language, gender, race, culture and any of the other things that separate us.

And so to the question for this post: what did music teach you, give you, or allow you to do or overcome?

I look forward to reading your responses!

Till next time

Andy

You can learn more about us and our music here

Testing it live

How to write a song

Ok you got me, I just wrote that title to intrigue you and get you in here. The truth is no one can tell you how to write a song but I thought some folks might be interested as to how the process goes here at camp Charlywood.

I have never sat down to write a song, they just sneak up on me when I’m not looking. Very often when I am falling asleep or waking up I will hear part of a song and I hum it straight into my phone complete with beatboxed drums and guitar effects simulated with my vocals. Movement also seems to stimulate the muse because I also think of a lot of music while walking or cycling, I guess it must be the rhythm of it…

Then I follow the procedure I learnt from m’colleague Will Vaughan AKA Stairs to Korea and do NOT touch any instruments for as long as possible. I just play the song in my head over and over until the next bit becomes clear. The reason that I don’t touch any instruments is this runs the risk of doing what you can already do (on the guitar for example) rather than figuring out how to play what you have composed in your head. Licks are all very well and good for when you are learning the guitar or knocking out a quick solo at a jam session but they carry the risk of being habit forming and this can make everything you play sound derivative (you can even end up being derivative of yourself if you’re not careful, or is that a playing style? I hope you know what I am getting at :-p) So keeping instruments out of the way as long as possible lets the song become the song that it is rather than ending being a variation of something I can already do.

For the first EPs it was just me and Fabian (drums) and everything I couldn’t play but could hear in my head I had to teach myself to play on the guitar (being a bassist originally those two extra string gave me a bit of trouble to start with!) Then Fabian and I would rehearse and change the song until the text presented itself and the best structure somehow got worked out. The first two records are entirely homemade; we recorded the drum track and guide guitar with borrowed mics and a mixing desk and I then mixed it at home adding lead guitar, backing vocals and other decoration to finish it off which meant weeks of sitting alone at home fiddling about on the computer. I also got a couple of talented friends to play other instruments if I wasn’t happy with what I had come up with.

These days it is all a lot less lonely since we have Lina (bass) and Fabian (lead guitar) to work everything through with. I just hum and beatbox what I have to the other band members. We then develop (or sometimes completely change) what I come up with but somehow major creative arguments never arise, we always try it both ways and can agree on what sounds best. We have the songs for the album all ready, see if you can hear the difference once we get her recorded!

Lyrics are without doubt the hardest part and there is always a huge amount of feverish pencil sucking before the final text emerges. I don’t judge people who go for the easy rhymes “baby, maybe, save me” (ok I sometimes wince a little bit at the blackeyed peas) but I have real trouble just knocking out some meaningless nonsense to get the song finished fast. You can read all the lyrics on our bandcamp page and see if all that stationary died in vain. They are very much my words and either come from personal experience or interesting conversations with people I meet.

So there you go, hope that wasn’t too technical for the casual reader, any songwriters who are reading and who want to add their top tips in the comments please feel free!

Charlywood out

Testing it live

Band battles….. NOPE!

When I decided to put Charlywood together Fabian was the first drummer who answered the ad. We started talking about music and our attitude towards it as performers. One of the things that came up in that conversation was a statement that we both immediately agreed on: “Band battles are bullsh*t”

Let me just clarify, having a night with lots of bands playing a short set is a great idea and allows new bands much needed stage time but there is something about picking a “winner” from these types of shows that doesn’t add up.

Scenario one

Lets just say that there is an “expert” jury of music industry bigwigs (which there normally never are) The opinion of such a panel would carry a lot of weight. But these are people who become successful by carrying one question in mind: “how much money can we make from this music?” The winner would therefore be picked based on this measurement of worth. I read somewhere that Mumford and sons were passed around a number of major record labels before one finally had the nerve the release their first album. Hardly any of the labels were convinced that they could make money with this type of music and therefore no one wanted to touch them.

So selecting a band based on their similarity to bands that have made lots of money before is obviously not a sure-fire system……. But then comes the obvious question: is the ability to generate cash even a good way of applying worth to music?

Scenario two

So what if the jury is made up of musicians? Surely they must be in a position to pass judgement on another band?!…………. NOPE!

Just because I don’t enjoy a band or a set that they played, and all my learned beard-stroking colleagues took their pipes out of their mouths to agree with me, doesn’t mean that hundreds of thousands of people all over the world wouldn’t have a major life changing experience if they got this music all up inside their earholes.

You either like music or you don’t. But it is arrogant and conceited to think that your opinion is FACT when it comes to music. And by the same rationale no one is qualified to tell you what music is “good” or “bad” unless you decide to give them that power because you tend to agree with their opinion on a lot of music.

Scenario three

The audience choose the winner with the volume of their applause. This instantly makes the whole competition into a social networking exercise whereby the band that manages to get the most people to the venue wins. Venue owners LOVE this one because it means that the bar is full and they can rake in their precious monies. But again, just because a large crowd of your friends agree that your band is way better than all the others playing that night, doesn’t make it a fact, just a popular opinion in that room which may turn out totally differently in front of a crowd of strangers who are really into Russian chansons or Epic doom metal.

So there you go, it may be a good time for the audience and bands but that is where it should end. Drawing any sort of conclusions about the value of bands based on the results of band battles is clearly daft, to put it politely.

Write your experiences of ludicrous or unlikely band battle results below, WAS THEY ROBBED!!!??

Charlywood out.

See if we win the band battle between your ears (the only one that really matters) www.charlywood.com/music

Gathering our strength

Guilty Pleasures

The first proper Charlywood blog is dedicated to a topic that most of us have to deal with throughout our lives. The compartmentalisation of people based on their music taste and even worse, the restriction of our musical taste based on who we think we are (or who we want to be) as people.

For most of us our musical taste begins in our pre-teen years and it is an important part of the vital process of identifying ourselves as separate individuals to our parents. We start to choose the music that touches us and that we identify with and for most people (especially musicians) it is a big part of what makes us who we are as adults.

However, there is a dark and disadvantageous side to this. Somewhere during this process we start to use the music that people enjoy to label each other, many people I knew as a teenager even went so far as to instantly reject people as potential friends based on their musical taste.

I always thought of this as a bit of a shame but I guess that this is just another aspect of this process of finding out who you are, humans need to feel like they belong to groups and music is a very convenient way of doing this.

Then adulthood dawns (or punches you in the teeth as the case may be) and music becomes less central to most peoples lives (unless they are musos) as responsibilities and other demands take their attention to other things. However, this teenage process leaves us slightly crippled as adults when it comes to the kinds of music that we allow ourselves to experience.

I can use my musical history to illustrate what I mean:

My critical teenage years were spent listening to (and sometimes playing) Nirvana, the Foo fighters, Mud honey, Dinosaur junior, Pearl jam, Sound garden, NIN and the like. I had the appropriate haircut and dressed in tattered flannel shirts. You could have pigeon-holed me into the “grunge” category.

A person with a similar musical history may then identify with certain attitudes and emotions and even after peer pressure has lessened in adult life they will not let themselves enjoy certain types of music because there is an attitude as to what it is cool and acceptable to like. Maybe you secretly enjoy something but keep quiet about it because other people might judge you for it. These are the guilty pleasures.

The major problem I have with this phenomenon is that calling them guilty pleasures suggests that there is something bad about this music. It’s not like allowing certain types of music into our ears will give us lung cancer or make us clinically obese (unlike the guilty pleasures of smoking or over-eating) Music is just a collection of organised sounds that touch us emotionally or physically or not. End of story.

It is something we experience subjectively and we really shouldn’t deny ourselves the potential pleasure it can bring to our lives just because we think it doesn’t fit with our own construction of who we are, or worse, who we want others to THINK we are (lies and deception!!!!).

There plenty of things in life that it may be useful to feel guilty about because we will may get some health benefits from changing them but music certainly isn’t one of them! Just open your ears and your mind and if you like it let it happen.

I will finish with a quote from Dave Grohl, who has this to say about guilty pleasures in an interview with Marc Maron:

“I don’t believe in guilty pleasures, if you f*cking like something, LIKE IT! (…) don’t f*cking think it’s not cool to like Britney Spear’s “Toxic”, it is f*cking cool to like Britney Spears Toxic, why not!?”

So what do you say internet? Are there any pieces of music that you love but you know that you are not “supposed” to? Let me know in the comments below.

 

Charlywood out

The Grohl inteview in full can be heard here

Listen to the music that Charlywood make here

Charlywood

Skiing about artichokes

To rougly paraphrase a music quote that I read somewhere online: “writing about music is like skiing about artichokes” but here goes…….

This is the inaugural post for the indie pop rock 4-piece Charlywood and despite the fact that it is in-arguably better to experience music directly, I (Andy the frontman) have decided that it might nevertheless be worth throwing out the odd blog about our progress.

You can expect some descriptions of the creative process, things that we are doing to bring the music to the people, successes, failures (if you never fail you are not going about things correctly) tips and tricks and the odd bit of philosophising.

Just to give you an idea of progress so far: The band has existed in its current lineup for less than a year we have self-released two EPs and a single and played a fair number of gigs here in Vienna and done a tour of the UK (my homeland) We are also in contact with a couple of record labels about making an album. All the songs are written, we are just looking at financing the bugger, SO many options…..

Right, that’ll do for the first one. Please use the comments section to suggest any topics that you would be particularly interested in reading about. If not I shall just think of something.

Laters!

Andy

Charlywood