I’m on a flight to Minneapolis right now writing this blog post. On a very lazy level, I wish I didn’t need to do this right now. I’d be happier to kick back, order a crisp pilsner, eat the tiniest possible bag of cheez-its, and watch Hustlers. And I know that you might be thinking “Lucas, you don’t have to do this—no one is making you write blog posts. No one is even asking you to!”

Well, sassy reader (who is actually my own inner monologue), I didn’t say I HAVE to do this, I said I NEED to do this. You should really read my blog more carefully. The distinction here is that saying I “have” to do something implies a responsibility coming from somewhere outside of myself— I have to go to work, I have to file my taxes, I have to wear pants in public. But I don’t actually need to do any of those things. A need is something that emanates from inside myself, directing me to something that will nourish my body and soul. I need to eat, I need to sleep, and I need express myself. This little blog and these little songs are how I get to express myself right now.

But I actually don’t want to do this right now. And it is more than mere laziness at play. I don’t want to do this because I think I don’t have anything nice and easy to write, and I don’t have any nice and easy music to share.

Truthfully, I had a pretty hard week, and I’m not feeling all that cheery. Both on a completely personal level, and on issues that I view from afar, this week sucked. A fond coworker of mine told me that, astrologically speaking, we’re currently in the “shadow” period gearing up for a coming “Mercury Retrograde.” This period of “Retroshade” (amazing band name) is apt to bring about things like breakups, dangerous exes reaching out, and even corruptions of democracy.

Actually I don’t know if that third one is on the list of things that usually happen during retroshade, but I do know that that is something that happened this week when one of our political parties decided to further enable an aspiring tyrant by acquitting him of his crimes.

But I digress. I’m certain I’m not alone in having a bad week. I don’t need astrology to assure me that some people are having a hard time. Many people are having a far worse time than I am, and I would never dream of being able to offer any kind of blanket solution to solve anyone else’s difficulties. What I would like to offer, is something that I need to remind myself from time to time: It’s ok to be sad. It’s ok to feel your feelings. And it is good to find a way to express them.

Ok, I feel like I’m doing a bad Mr. Rogers impression right now and I don’t like it. I’d just like to share how I captured my uglier feelings this week: I wrote a piece of music that begins somewhat sweetly, grows a more and more strange throughout, culminates in a terrifying crescendo, and ends up being mostly ok.

Such is life.

 

Happy Super Bowl Sunday everyone!

Let me say at the outset of this post that I think the Chiefs are going to win. Pat Mahomes came to me in a dream last night and the man was looking real confident. I’m not saying this because I put any actual faith in my football dream predictions, but rather because in order for that prediction to carry any weight, it means I need to get this posted before the Super Bowl starts. I’m just putting a little time-pressure on myself to go ahead and get this done and then go about my day.

I will remind you readers, however, that back in November of 2018 I successfully predicted that the Raptors would win the 2019 NBA finals. So if you are looking to trust someone’s sports betting hunch, I think you can go ahead and trust mine. I’m probably a sports-psychic after all. If this whole producer/blogger/musician racket doesn’t work out, look for me to setup an outpost on Fremont Street offering my services.

And now that I’ve hooked you, America, with my insightful and necessary sport-psychic chatter, I’d like to talk to you about Instagram filters. We’ve all seen em; we all use them. Just took a picture of that cool brownstone across the street? Want to make it look like you took that picture in the 1970s? Slap a Gingham on it. Looking for a classy, timeless black and white approach? Look no further than Inkwell. Just want it to look more better? Try Hudson!  You’ve got instant, professional-grade photography at your fingertips.

Now I’m sure that any actual professional photographers or graphic designers would scoff at the previous sentence, and they would be right to. There is most certainly a world of difference between the work of a true craftsperson who takes time to dial in the exact saturation, contrast, and brightness appropriate for a particular picture, and a rube like me who just picked a good filter. By the way, I don’t even know what saturation is—I just saw it on instagram. However, when I choose a particular instagram filter that makes my picture “pop” in that perfect way, even I am seduced into momentarily thinking that I’ve done something special.

The truth is that I couldn’t be less special in this moment. I’ve done something that literally millions of people are doing every hour. But the results don’t lie, most of these filtered pictures do look pretty good. The frightening prospect to me is that in art, music, and culture we may be headed towards a ubiquitous “pretty good” rather than a wildly varying array of things awful to great.

Before you write that last sentence off as esoteric aesthetic paranoia, let me try to flesh out my dystopian worries. The fact is that we are outsourcing more and more artistic decisions to technology. Whether it is instagram or photoshop for pictures, final cut pro for video, or Logic for music, any software meant for the creation or editing of audio/visual media contains presets, layout choices, and biases that lead you towards certain creative decisions.

Sure, it might be me, a human, who is operating the software, and in theory I can be as creative as I want to be with the choices I make. But truthfully I’m often more apt to go ahead and pick a preset than take the time to dial in a sound using my ears, training, and instincts. Say I just recorded a bass line for instance, and I know that I want this bass to sound nice and punchy. Oh wow, look at that, there’s a compression+EQ preset called “nice punchy bass.” The temptation is too strong; I’m going to use that preset. Oooh, that’s nice. And punchy.

But herein lies the same problem that I experienced when I posted that picture on instagram. It feels like I’ve done something special, but I’ve simply chosen the same pretty good preset that millions of other people have access to. The same phenomenon occurs with digital instruments and sample packs. From Alchemy, to Reason, to Kontakt, to Spitfire, to Splice—we music creators have more access to more good sounds than ever before. The problem is, this is potentially leading us all towards a pretty-good homogeneity, rather than an inspiring and varied originality.

Indeed these are the mad, professorial ravings of an aesthetically paranoid man. So what is the point? What is there to do?

Well, what I did to ease my troubled mind this week was to record some cups.

If everyone is using the same presets, the same digital instruments, and the same instagram filters, I needed to do something at least a little different. I recorded a simple track with real guitar, real bass, real Wurlitzer, programmed drums, and a “pretty good” digital vibraphone instrument. Despite all the realness, it still was feeling somewhat uninspired. So I poured some water in some glasses, tuned them to some notes, and replaced that “pretty good” vibraphone sound with some pretty great cup sounds if I do say so myself.

I’m not saying I did anything artistically ground-breaking. I’m certain that someone has recorded cups before. But I may have done something personally ground-breaking. I proved to myself once again that it is more satisfying to create something real and original, than to rely on the presets and paths already taken.

Here’s a short video of the cups in question:

And here’s the final track. Enjoy!

I was sitting down in my local coffee shop, getting ready to write a pretty arcane blogpost about technology and aesthetics, when I learned that Kobe Bryant, his daughter, and unidentified others died in a helicopter crash. Suddenly I didn’t feel like writing that post.

Like many of you, I feel deeply shocked, sad, and confused. My heart aches for him and his family. Yet, what feels truly strange—considering that I obviously didn’t know this man personally at all—is that I also feel a sense of personal loss.

Many of you who know me, know that I am a huge NBA fan. I don’t have a team I love—I simply love the rhythm of the game, the tension of close competition, and the players who bring their own unique spirit and skill to the sport. I’m that meme of Rob Lowe in the NFL hat, only for basketball. I just a fan of the game.

Kobe Bryant never qualified as my favorite player. That title has been reserved for Reggie Miller in the late 90s, Jason “white chocolate” Williams in the early 2000s, Tracy McGrady that one game he scored 13 points on the Spurs in 33 seconds, Steve Nash in the late 2000s, and LeBron James during the 2010s. Yet during the entire duration of my NBA watching life, Kobe Bryant has been constant presence. He was a force of nature on the court, and remained visibly close and meaningful to the game after his retirement in 2016. I literally do not know the game of basketball without Kobe Bryant in it.

He was the epitome of strength, skill, and confidence. He was the consummate alpha male on and off the court. He never flinched, never shied away from a challenge, and never succumbed to any weakness. He seemed to have a supernatural power—he seemed to be more than human. He was Kobe—a spirit you can channel on any court in the world. “Kobe!” Swish.

And this is why it is utterly shocking and mind-bending that he is gone. The person that seemed beyond human, went and did the most human and vulnerable thing possible.

He died.

I don’t think that there is much of a silver lining to be gleaned in any of this. Pardon my french, but sometimes things are just completely fucked up.

What can be gleaned, however, is inspiration and truth. The truth is, Kobe Bryant was not super-human. He was a man who worked incredibly hard to become great at the thing he loved doing. And while most of us could never dream of reaching the heights that Kobe did, we can all find peace and pleasure in following his lead, and working hard at the art, craft, or skill that we love.

I had planned to post the song that I recorded this week, but considering the moment, I think it is fitting to post a different song of mine. A song about loss:

 

 

 

I took the train home last night from Flatbush to the Upper West Side. It’s a ride that takes about an hour at the hour I was doing it (midnight), so I had ample time to enjoy my favorite subway activity—listening to podcasts. Fresh off of a recommendation from my friend Max, I was listening to the podcast Song Exploder, which I would highly recommend to anyone who engages in the creation of music (as well as any non-musicians who want a peek behind the musical curtain).

It‘s a podcast in which musical artists explain everything that went in to the creation of a particular song of theirs, from the emotions/experiences behind the lyrics, to the discovery of a cool riff, to the musicians who helped record it, to the idea behind the mix, and more. Its sometimes deeply personal, sometimes highly technical, and often very insightful.

I was particularly moved by the episode featuring the singer, songwriter, and producer Héloïse Adelaïde Letissier (aka Christine and the Queens), who talked about her 2018 song Doesn’t matter. On the surface, it just sounds like a slick, well produced, kind of tough, good pop song. But when you really listen to her lyrics and tone, you see that the song is brimming with existential despair. And when you listen to the podcast, you see that every musical choice she made was either directly or obliquely related to capturing this sense of desperation.

The end result is a beautiful catharsis. In the podcast she describes catharsis not as something that feels good when you’re doing it, but as just a natural and necessary release. This song allowed her to feel and express her emotions in a direct way, free from over-analysis or shame.

This week, in the course of writing my song, I too tried to capture a more direct and emotional relationship with the sounds I was creating. I spend so much time in front of a computer screen manipulating the minutiae of the sounds, that I can sometimes forget the fact that for essentially all of the 200,000 years of human existence, music only existed in our minds, hearts, bodies, and instruments. If you wanted to make music, you had to get off your ass and make it happen live!

I realized this week that I’ve been missing the “get off your ass” portion of the music making process as of late. As a cure, I spent a lot more time in the recording booth with this song than I did with last week’s song. I’m not saying that this makes this a better song, but I will say that it was a lot more satisfying to create.

Sitting in front of the computer screen with Logic Pro X pulled up can sometimes give you the illusion that your music can and should be “perfect.” But here’s a secret—most people don’t want to hear perfect—they want to hear real. And more importantly, it is just way more fun and satisfying to record a wacky vocal line than it is to digitally iron out all the warts and wrinkles in your song.

I was improvising some spoken words to this song, and while I ultimately ended up scrapping all of them, I did discover a line that I think sums up the spirit of this song, and something I need to remind myself from time to time:

You’ve got to find a way to be an animal.

That is to say, I sometimes practice the very “human” art of overthinking things. I’d be better served by just moving my body and making some noise.

Speaking of noise, here’s my song.

I recorded some of my music this week. While this might seem like no real surprise, considering, ya know, I’m a musician, it actually feels like a pretty large feat. While I do indeed have a musical day job that I love, the truth is that nowhere in my current job description are the words “writes and records original music.”

However those are words that I need to be part of my life in order to feel complete. These are activities that have been dear to me since I was about 15 years old, and yet the further away from 15 I get, the harder it is to find the time and courage to do them. 

But luckily we’ve just crossed the threshold of a new year (a new decade even!) and I’m a man who gets motivated by ridiculously ambitious resolutions. So here goes.

Lucas Murray’s bold 2020 resolution:

I will write, record, and release a piece of music every week.

Lucas Murray’s very important addendum to his 2020 resolution:

The music can be absolutely any length or quality-level, and I’m also allowed up to 4 weeks off.

This feels exciting, daunting, and easy all at once. The ease comes from there being no true standards set on the quality of the music. The difficulty comes from the sheer number of necessary works, as well as the ability to let go of my own internal standards. The excitement comes from thinking about a year in which I created 48 pieces art for art’s sake. L’art pour l’art! 

Here’s the first — See you next week!

I contradict myself a lot in this blog. I doubt anyone has noticed or cared about it. I’ve noticed, but I don’t care about it. You see, I’m of the Emersonian mindset. He once wrote that…

Ok, wait—before I quote Emerson, I just have to say that I’m completely distracted right now. I’m journaling a draft of this blog post in Central Park, sitting on the rocks by The Lake, and there are a group of rowdy, shirtless teens across the pond who are cheering loudly every time someone rows a boat by them. All of these poor, pond-ridden tourists are limply rowing by at a snail’s pace while these teenagers cheer them on like its the Olympics. It is incredible. I want to go join them, but that would not be cool. I’m not a teen anymore, even though sometimes I still feel like one…

And I’m going to pretend that was a smooth segue into the topic of teens—the source of my blog’s most recent contradiction. The contradiction occurred when I made this statement a few weeks ago:

“The difference between 19 year old me, and me now, is I’m right and he’s wrong. I’ll go out on a limb and say unless you’ve developed a drug habit, this is true in almost any discrepancy between one’s 19 year old self, and one’s 30 year old self.”

That was a pretty good line. And I suppose I stand by it. But the problem is that literally one week prior I was sincerely arguing that we all need to be acting more like freshmen in college. Lucas, Lucas, Lucas, Lucas…you can’t have it both ways, bro.

Except yes I can. You see, I’m of the Emersonian mindset. He once wrote that…

Wait! Hold the phone—you know what? I don’t have to quote Emerson to justify my contradictions. I can contradict myself because this is a hobby-blog—a hoblogby, if you will—and I can do whatever the hell I want. Proof: click this LINK! See? I can do whatever I want.

Yet, there is something even more important than my inalienable right to hoblogby-freedom that allows me to be so confident in my contradictions and rogue hyperlinks. It is the idea that something doesn’t have to be factual to be true. You can contradict yourself and still be telling the truth both times. Please note that this reasoning will not hold up in a court of law, and my lawyer friends do not appreciate me invoking their profession for clickbait purposes. However, I’m not a lawyer. I’m an artist, and this reasoning will hold up in the court of good art.

May it please the Court (of Good Art) to submit for the record, exhibit A:

“Art is a lie that makes us realize truth.”

-Pablo Picasso

Woooohooooohooooooooh, that’s a strong argument for the defense. I rest my case.

Now before I go on and celebrate my recent court victory, I just want to note that you can use quotes by Picasso in the Court of Good Art, but the same cannot be said about the Court of Good Behavior.

And now for the celebration. Woop woop! We did it! We won! Beauty is truth, and truth is beauty, and that’s all y’all need to know!

Anyway, having freed itself from the need for facts and consistency, art becomes both easier and more difficult than that other great search for truth: Science. It is easier because the initial bar for creating art is very low. Look, here’s some art. That was really easy to make and bad art is still art. However, the bar for creating good art is much harder to find.

Conversely, in science the initial bar is much harder to clear. There is a more vigorous and demanding method to follow. Perhaps you’ve heard of it? However, once you are conducting replicable experiments with accurate measurements, you’ve pretty much hit your mark for doing good science. Interestingly enough, if you are conducting bad science (i.e. not following the scientific method), that’s not actually science! It’s actually closer to bad art. So congratulations! You’re an artist!

I actually used to think I wanted to be a scientist—an astrophysicist, to be precise. But I realize now that I was more interested in the spiritual and aesthetic implications of certain theories of the universe than I was in actually doing a bunch of advanced calculus. Like, the multiverse? Great premise for a science fiction film. Or like, the big bang+big crunch? That’s just the universe breathing in and out. I know—like, far out, man.

It is pretty clear to me now that I was way more interested in being a bad artist than a good scientist. So I’m happy I chose the path I did. Rather than constantly trying to fit a scientific peg into an artsy hole, I’m free to just arrange those pegs into a model of a pterodactyl, string some rubber-bands across that hole, and start strummin’ a pterodactyl tune. Or, like I said earlier, I can do whatever the hell I want!

Now, I recognize that I still haven’t really talked about what it takes to make good art. And I don’t necessarily think that doing whatever the hell you want is always the right path to get you there. Frankly, there is no one right path. However, I do believe that in art (and in life), ridding yourself of useless hang-ups is vitally important if you are going to find a path that is right for you. So if fear of contradiction happens to be your personal impediment, congratulations my child—you are free. Please imagine me making some vaguely religious gesture with my hands as you read that last sentence.

Postscript:

Did I really have an Emerson quote to share? Well I had one in mind, but I actually could’t find it. But here’s one by Walt Whitman that basically says the same thing:

“Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large. I contain multitudes.)”

Hi my name is Lucas and I’m a music producer. Don’t believe me just watch. 

If you made it :08s in to that video you probably you heard me give a nice little soundbite. You see, Philadelphians are clamoring for my nice little soundbites, because I recently co-produced the new music for Philadelphia’s oldest news radio station (one of the oldest news radio stations in the world in fact), KYW Newsradio 1060. In fact if you turn your internet radio dial right now to this station, you’ll probably hear some music I produced within five minutes of listening— I’m talking headlines, I’m talking weather, I’m talking sports, I’m talking traffic… you got a news segment? I can produce the music for it! Or more accurately, we (at Man Made Music) can produce the music for it.

Quick sidenote: If you made it to :54s in that video you heard me give a not-so-nice soundbite. I mean the sentiment is nice, but the delivery? Oof. I don’t like it. Basically I was just riffing, and I came across this phrase “This piece has got soul to it, because Philadelphia has soul!” And I guess I didn’t say it cleanly, or clearly enough the first time, so they made me say it again, and then I got all self-conscious, and it felt like I was acting, and frankly, I’m a bad actor. So I delivered it all weird and self-consciously. But they kept it in anyway. Look people, don’t make me repeat myself. I’m good at improvising and saying things spontaneously, but I am not good at delivering lines. Maybe I should take some acting classes? That sounds fun…


Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah. I’m a music producer! But what the heck is a music producer? Well, broadly speaking, a music producer is someone who helps facilitate the creation of recorded music. This helping facilitate can encompass a wide range of different activities. It can be a primarily directorial role — with a producer coaching singers and musicians during the recording process to achieve their best performances. It can also be more of a project manager position —  with the producer planning and budgeting for the entire process of writing, hiring musicians, recording, mixing, mastering, registering, and releasing music. A producer may also be the writer or co-writer of a piece of music. In fact Webster’s dictionary defines a producer as… just kidding.

It is a big catch-all term, and there are as many different approaches to it as there are producers. You might be a Rick Rubin, who, among other things, acts in part as a meditation coach for the artists he is producing. Or you might be a Timbaland, who, among other things, creates tracks from scratch for artists to sing or rap over. Or you might be a Lucas Murray, who, among other things, flies by the seat of his pants, communicates with composers, sends emails to clients, arranges recording sessions, books musicians, records guitar parts, edits the music, and ultimately gives clunky soundbites to Philadelphia radio stations. That’s how you know the project is coming to a close— when you’re in that clunky soundbite stage.

Here’s a soundbite (or textbite?) for all you armchair philosophers out there: You can’t possibly know what era you are living in. This is true in any field. Its up to historians to define your era long after you and all your friends have died (easy on the looming mortality talk Lucas! Jeez!). Beethoven wasn’t writing his fifth symphony, all smug, thinking to himself “I truly am ushering in the romantic era.” But music historians often point to that symphony as the inflection point for a new era in music (or was it Beethoven’s 3rd? It’s been a while since I took a music history class. Look it up, dear readers, because you have a lazy writer who doesn’t care to fact check himself). The point is, I don’t know what musical age we are living in, but if I were a betting man, I’d put my money on this being the age of the producer.

This is a vain proclamation. Its pretty convenient that right when I become a music producer I take to my blog and tell my tens of readers that we’re living in the age of the producer, isn’t it? If someone had asked 19 year old Lucas what era we are living in, he’d probably be all like “the age of guitar, man!” Luckily no one ever asked me that. Plus the difference between 19 year old me, and me now, is I’m right and he’s wrong. I’ll go out on a limb and say unless you’ve developed a drug habit, this is true in almost any discrepancy between one’s 19 year old self, and one’s 30 year old self.

Quick side-note: I’ll look forward to my 50 year old self treating my 30 year old self with this same flippant dismissal.

Anyway, instead of just dunking on him and walking away, let me go back in time and try to prove to little 19 year old me that this is the age of the producer. Ok, so, 19 year old Lucas (I’m going to call you young Luc— obviously that’s pronounced “Luke” — read it that way). Young Luc, I’m going to ask you to do something you’ve probably never intentionally done in your life. I want you to listen to the Spice Girls’ hit song “Wannabe.” Now I know everyone overdosed on this song back in the late 90s, but they did so for good reason. This song is pure ear candy from front to back and take my word for it that it still sounds great in 2019. But why? The melody, harmony, and form are good, but there’s nothing revolutionary there. The incredibly energetic performance from the girls in this song also shouldn’t be understated. But the special sauce is the production. It is the result of people paying attention at all levels (from performance, to recording, to mixing to mastering) to the sound of the sounds.

Let me get a little professorial on you young Luc. Pull up a chair.

For almost the entire musical history of mankind, how music sounded boiled down to some pretty simple questions:

  • who is playing it?
  • what instruments are they using?
  • what piece of music are they playing?
  • where are they playing it?

Correct me if I’m missing something, but that’s pretty much it. Then with the invention and continued advancement of recording technology, the influences on the sound of music have expanded exponentially. In addition to the questions above, we now must ask: what kind of microphones we’re using, are we recording digitally or analog, are we replacing or augmenting any sounds, do we use auto-tune, how are we going to equalize this, how much compression do we use on each instrument, are we using any samples, how much and what kind of reverb do we use, are we adding effects and which ones, does this need any editing, etc… etc… etc… Oh and who is going to do all of this? Well, young luc, the producer is the one who is going to at least need to have a vision for all of this, if not outright do it herself.

Now I’m not ready to say that production is unequivocally the most important influence in making a song great. Called me old-fashioned, but I still believe you need to write a good song (ya know, one with a good melody, good harmony, good form, good groove, and good lyrics). However, I believe that most if not all of the musical elements that are new in our era, fall broadly under the domain and responsibility of the producer. And that is why this is the Age of the Producer. What do you think about that young Luc?

He’s speechless.