Six Songs Before Breakfast

My Norwegian drummer Skjit-Lars only half-jokingly exclaimed once that I write six songs before breakfast. I religiously send him all the material I am working on, so if any chap was attuned to my working habits it would be him.

The arc of my prolific creative side bears some scrutiny as I have, through inventive and ruthless prioritizing, let my creative life take over my actual life.

Systems I've set up over the years to ease my process of being productive have taken on their own life. I started home-taping in 1983 and periodically I either like one way of doing things and improve on that or am frustrated and rethink how I can fix or eliminate what troubles me.

I think it was in the 1990's when I finally said "oh my god why is my studio giving me a backache? Must it be so uncomfortably situated?" From this developed one of my earliest fixes to my creative environment. Earlier that decade I had tackled as best I could roadblocks to putting out as many releases as I was inspired to.

My label had grown so big and so quickly the administrative burden of putting out tapes throttled my creativity in the early 1990's. Setting up systems, processes and standards for the label was a non-creative task that greatly benefited my mindset about making lots of tapes.

Begun as a solo spin-off of my duo Grandbrother from the late 1980's my project Bodycocktail was one of many active projects rolling at the time. I'd spent ten years doing experimental works and felt the need for a musical project at last.

I'm a classically trained violinist having spent years playing second violin in orchestras since grade school. Since I entered college I had been running away from all I knew about that to explore and experiment with new sonic worlds opened up by emerging technologies. Getting back to music had two advantages. One I could have musical tapes to trade with people who had limited interest in experimental work. And secondly I could bounce experimental notions around the field of music.

Back and forth I allowed my musical and non-musical discoveries cross-pollinate. It wasn't any time at all that I started using poetry of others, namely Wallace Stevens, whose book of collected poems Minóy, a home-taping comrade of mine, had given me with an inscription to the effect of "behold the most exquisite words woven in the English language" and Charlie Newman.

Newman and I go way back to mid-80's home taping trades and he became, after moving to Louisville the #1 Grandbrother fan. A biographical highlight of Newman will touch on growing up in the 1950's in Newark, New Jersey, his social-worker job in NYC in the 1970's, his Nashville punk band Dead Seals from the end of that decade, and his electronic project of the next decade Minimalogic and finally his job since then doing advertising copywriting. Can't describe the humor, terror and passion of Newman's poetry, his language assassination, the cat and mouse games without knowing his muse rolls from Beatnick to Beat, from punk to industrial – the music, the life, the human condition all conspire to poetry of the widest ranging nature.

The early years I could take a poem of his or Wallace Stevens and quickly use them as lyrics. Soon I decided that it was best to use poems of someone I knew who both gave me permission and feedback. No sooner had I made this decision when his poetry started going off-the-rails.

Frankly it was great material and a masterful skill for him to turn a corner with such intensity metaphorical seat belts were necessary to keep the brain in check. But no longer could his poems be made instantly to lyrics after his book Millennial Rags (one poem a day in the year 2000) came out. I set each poem of that book to a song, but his subsequent work was dense, black cubes of full justified text blotting out the white of a page.

My first few years of Bodycocktail I played live shows but this stopped for perhaps ten years until 2007 when I played a few live shows in Spain. I was using my Zanstones city-specific sonic gathering project for live shows in Europe thinking this is what people wanted from me. The next year I played in Galicia for the first time and Bodycocktail was such a hit I slammed the breaks on Zanstones and mashed the accelerator on Bodycocktail.

The feedback loop in Galicia was near-perfect and the better my work was the more vivacious the audiences became. It was in this era two creative systems came into being. Seeing that Charlie Newman poems had everything I need for lyrics but had become to chaotic to use intact I was led to the conclusion that I was now responsible for order out of chaos.

Better knowing what songs need after 15 years or so of doing songs and with the Galicia feedback loop I got serious. There's a fault-line been fun and serious that's audible to listeners and too much of either is where most listeners give up and become distracted. What I felt held things together for me in a live song was a convincing vocal part.

I was with a fellow vocalist friend in Louisville as a chatty girl asked us how we write lyrics. I like the person much more than his vocals and was charmed to hear him say something so beautifully obvious it has never occurred to me until that point. "You've got to write things that you're not embarrassed to sing." he pointed out deftly.

There's something so awkward about writing my own lyrics that I rarely do it. Inevitably I will pen substandard material so it fits easier into a song. And I write so many instrumentals this could be hazardous over time. So I take a whole years worth of Charlie Newman poems and for around a year they will be my lyrical dictionary.

Before I describe my technique it's best to talk of my second innovation and how I can record six songs before breakfast. Having done recordings for decades, and at last made a comfortable creative environment, I asked myself "What do I need to do so that I will have the patience to stay in the studio doing work as long as possible once I'm inspired to be there?"

I realized that part of the tedium of making new songs is spending time exclusively working on a song until you were happy with it. Inevitably half way to your goal the song will start to get on your nerves with repeated playbacks. It's all-too-likely to kill a good song by overthinking it and working it to death in a single session. And after two or three new songs you've wiped out from the process.

To eliminate this crisis I came up with what I like to call an "improvised pop" song-cycle. Rhythm always comes first otherwise things drift and become wonky. So on a multitrack recorder I make drum parts for four to eight pieces. Next comes the part whose simple harmonic structure the piece is built on. I call it the bass part regardless the instrumental used. One by one I make baselines for all the drum parts.

Here's the best part of this system: when I return to the first piece its fresh in my ears. I've distracted myself with three or more other songs and I'm excited to return to this new song again. I will add two or three more layers to each piece in a similar cycle. I push myself to do whatever seems the first good idea to come to my head for each part and I will rarely redo a new part. Round and round I will go until I know the right amount of complexity is achieved.

I determined that complexity through layers instead of through the virtuosity of any given part was best. Once again, your mileage may vary, but this is how the results I liked in the end were achieved. I could wake up excited to head into the studio and emerge with four to eight pieces before my hunger for breakfast compelled me to take a break.

I like to have a lot of instrumentals ready before I set myself into the entirely different spirit of doing vocals. Almost never are vocals in my mind when writing songs. It's as if I just turn off my need to have them so I can fixate on making a new song realized. When it's time for vocals I break out a stack of Charlie Newman poems and go to work.

At this point I may or may not come up with notes or patter as broad brush strokes in how I think a song could best go. One of the key qualities of Newman poems is the patter, the ticking of time with words, the rattle and rhythm of syllable play is genius for folding into music. This is my serious time. Time for discipline. And to that end a rule established itself almost organically: one poem per song. Only words in the poem are admissible.

In this way each poem is my lyric dictionary. I flip through poems as I listen back to an instrumental and wait for something to click. Once it clicks the work begins. Knowing his poetry so well I find myself doing Newman tricks to his own poems. He has games he will play, like breaking words into parts that make them other words, and I apply these to poems he's not doing them in.

Here's a rare look at this in process. This one has been nicely transcribed from a page bulging with parts still in process. Lately I'm obsessed with hooks and writing as many songs that I can perform live as possible.

Until 2012 when I stopped my 27 year label/audio mission each song would end up on a 30 minute release and I would choose at the end if I felt the song could be performed live. Working with Mike Foster helped me clarify a few notions about the song process. A delightful realization was studio and live versions of a song could differ especially by simplification for sake of impact in live songs.

Mike would also ask me about the emotional needs of the song I was working on. All these were things that didn't merit consideration when I wasn't so serious about being awesome. The better my work became the more excited I was about how to do my best work. And it was from here I made the crucial decision that awesome was the real metric I was reaching to achieve as much as possible.

Perfection is boring and easy to disagree about, but it's clear when people think things are terrific. So the final touch that my best songs receive is ownership. That car you love so much is sad when it's dirty and unkempt. When it's shiny and clean even people who don't share your taste see that your pride of ownership shows. So I take my own songs to heart and ask myself what little things I can do to invest them with passion only I can feel for my dear creation.

And so when I talk about being serious, I'm taking about being in love, in time and in tune with my art. And hitting that point puts me on better footing with the world and my life. It's a pride of making something work out in a world where things have no predilection one way or another to make us happy.

Composed in my penthouse apartment in the sky.
Cabo de Cruz
Concello Boiro
Provincia A Coruña


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