Fridays with Wayne

As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, my goal for this moon cycle is to write, record, and release four new songs. And the next logical question is “how the hell do I do that?” If anybody has a good answer to that question, please let me know. I’ll be sitting in my room watching Girls (the HBO show, not the gender) until I figure it out. Ok bye!

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But seriously folks, most of the modest number of songs that I’ve written, have been a product of pure inspiration. The music flows out naturally and easily, and the lyrics come fully formed as if written in stone. However, this makes for a very inefficient songwriting process. Although my songs have mostly been snapshots of inspired moments, these moments are are few and far between. Using this process of “inspired songwriting,” it has sometimes taken me years to finish a song. It is a very different approach to say “inspiration be damned, I’m going to write and record four songs this month no matter what!” Unfortunately that is exactly what I’ve set out to do, and thus I’ve got to figure out a way to write these songs!

Lucky for me, I am surrounded by brilliant musical minds at NYU and am paying top dollar to be able to ask them asinine questions like “how do I write a good song?” During a show a few weeks ago at the 55 bar, the great guitarist and NYU professor Wayne Krantz told the audience “all you need in a song are two things and an ending.” Like everyone else in the audience, I was amused that someone who plays such creatively advanced music would propose such a simple equation for composition. Yet unlike everyone else in the audience, I get to pick Wayne’s brain every Friday at 3 o’clock (yes i’m bragging) and can unpack his approach to songwriting.

Few would accuse Wayne Krantz of being a pop musician, and yet he claims that he approaches his songs like a pop musician in that everything is either a verse or a chorus. He comes up with a musical idea that he likes and decides if it is a chorus part or a verse part (“is it the comin’ home part, or the storytelling part?”). After he has built either a verse or chorus part, he then uses contrast to create the other part. For example, if the verse part contains mostly short notes, he may change to long notes for the chorus; or if the chorus part is loud and rocking, he might make the verse sound softer and more relaxing; or if the verse part is using mostly one or two notes at a time, he might switch to full chords for the chorus; or any combination of these and other contrasts.

This all seemed simple enough after he explained it to me, so I decided to use this method to write one of my songs. Indeed, one could certainly use this method to write a song, but after I brought in my song for feedback from Wayne, I discovered that he has some other principles he uses to write a good song. In my song the verse material was funky, syncopated, and used just one or two notes at a time. I contrasted this with a more flowing chorus of full, lush chords. Wayne liked it, but one of the things he pointed out was that during my verse section (the storytelling part), I had this two-note chord thing happening which could be heard has a melody, but more would likely would just come off as a vaguely cool guitar thing. He said that most people really just want to listen to a singer, and if they can’t have a singer, they’d like to have a saxophone player playing the singer’s part— it’s a much smaller percentage of people who just want to hear some vaguely cool guitar thing. Thus, as guitarists, we would be wise to play some kind of melody that at least sounds like it could be sung.

The second bit of advice he gave me was to write an ending. I had simply recycled my intro to the song and used it as my ending. He told me that he thinks “the audience kind of appreciates it when you do the extra work— when you’ve put in a little extra detail.” It doesn’t have to be long or intricate, but it is worth it to put in an extra bit of effort and create a definite ending. He told me that when he was in high school, the guys in Steely Dan were considered some of the supreme arbiters of good taste. Thus, years later when Wayne was hired to play guitar for Steely Dan he asked Donald Fagen “what makes something good?” Fagen paused, thought about it, and replied: “the amount of detail that it has in it.” Wayne advising me to write an ending to my song is also him pointing to the larger goal of simply crafting something with a lot of detail.

I am using the Wayne method and his insightful feedback to help me write these four songs, and I am certainly getting a lot of great ideas by sharing my work with him. Yet the usefulness to me of Wayne’s method is not due to the fact that it is the ultimate right way to write a song, but simply by virtue that it is a way to write a song. It is simply far easier to create something if you have rules, principles, and guidelines for creation. Wayne has been developing these ideas for forty years, and thus I am happy to stand on his shoulders and use them for my purposes— it makes my life easier. And yet, embedded in all of his great advice is a nugget of wisdom he shared that destroys all the others: “The more answers that you accept from others, then the less creative your thing is by definition.” Ultimately yes, I would like to plumb the depths of my own tastes, tendencies, and experiences and come up with my won set of rules and guidelines for creation, yet for now, I’m just trying to write four songs. No reason to reinvent the wheel just yet.

some of my current thoughts on musical things

Three months ago, I told myself and the public that I would release one blog post and one song every week for nine months. So far I’ve been able to stick to my guns because, as I’ve stated before, this project is not about quality— it is simply about quantity. It is a personal quest to get better at the crafts of blog writing, songwriting, and recording simply by putting in some work. However, I’ve run into a problem this week. I had a song to record, and have been working on it all week, but I had no idea what I would write my blog-post about. I casually assumed that I would eventually think of something to write and would be able to knock it out in time, yet each day passed, and I still had no idea what I would write. Even today, the day that I will post this entry, and even now as I am writing this sentence, I still don’t fully know what I am going to write in this blog post.

Yet I’ve got a start. I took a creative writing class my freshman year of college in which we had to write poetry, and my professor told the class that if you don’t have an idea for a full poem, just use fragments of other poems. I was the only one in class who took his advice and I got an A on the poem. It pays to listen to your teachers kids. Well there are no teachers to grade this, but I am hoping that if I just piece together some of my current thoughts on musical things (the phrase “some of my current thoughts on musical things” is best read with a southern accent), it will make for a passable blog post, and we’ll all feel good about Lucas continuing his outpouring of quantity work. Let’s begin with some confessions.

These are my confessions:

  • I haven’t listened to Beyonce’s Lemonade. Why not?! No reason, I just haven’t gotten around to it yet. I’ve been told it’s “a masterpiece,” that it’s full of juicy references to Beyonce and Jay-Z’s marital turmoil, that it’s the “best album of the last two years,” and that she’s not only going to win the Grammy for best album this year, but the Grammy committee is also going to go back in time and give her Beck’s Grammy from 2015 as Kanye tried to do at the time. But yeah, I just haven’t gotten around to it. Perhaps I’ll celebrate the fourth of July with some Lemonade.
  • I’m fairly certain I started playing guitar to impress girls. Now, granted my memory is hazy on this. I’ve always loved music, and I took piano lessons from age 8 to 10, but right around the time I became aware of girls, I insisted on switching from piano to guitar. Coincidence? I think not. I know that by the time I was in high school, I definitely thought it would help me “get girls.” It didn’t, but I stubbornly continued to play, and practice until, by the time college rolled around, I just fell in love with learning the instrument. I’m now (mostly) free from my early ulterior motive, but if it weren’t for my naive misconception that girls would automatically fall in love with me because I played guitar, I might not be the guitarist you see today.
  • Guitar is not my favorite instrument to listen to. When I listen to music, I tend to prefer the timbres of the voice, or an organ, or a horn section, or a nice flute, or even the humble oboe. I play guitar simply because it is the instrument that feels the most natural and comfortable to me. If I am going to contribute to the creation of beautiful music, it’s going to be with a guitar. I do love the guitar, I just like the sound of some other instruments a bit more.

Brief announcements:

  • I have a couple of Rev Room shows coming up soon. The first is with Jamaal Lee on July 3rd for the Drummers in the House event. I don’t know why, but I’m pretty sure Little Rock has the highest dope drummers per capita of anywhere in the world. This Sunday is a showcase of some of these guys including Paul Campbell, Jonathan Burks, Stephen Bailey, and Jamaal Lee, with whom I am playing a short set. I don’t want to give anything away, but we are going to play a song that is going to make you say out loud “what the duck just happened?!” Except remove that auto correct from the word duck. The second show is July 9th, with Big Piph and Tomorrow Maybe for The Legacy Project release show. It’s going to Blow. Your. Mind.
  • I’m going to go in the studio and record an album at the end of July with some of the best songs I’ve written during these past few months. There, I said it. Now I have to do it.

The last album I listened to in full was:

Mr. wonderful by Action Bronson. I got this recommendation yesterday from a special someone— thank you, you know who you are! This album is so incredibly enjoyable. The samples are amazing, the production is great, and Action Bronson’s voice is perfect for his humorous, feel good, braggadocious lyrics. Any album that open’s up with a Billy Joel sample and ends with someone riding “the harley into the sunset” is alright with me.

Something Deep:

Throughout the inevitable ups and downs of a long life, it helps an individual to be at peace and content if he or she is connected to an eternal principle. I am comforted that I get to play, teach, learn and listen to music, because Music is eternal. I’m not talking about any one piece of music, I’m talking about the big, abstract, capital “M” Music that holds all of the various musical works and activities throughout the universe in its embrace. Music is forever waiting and willing for us to touch it’s surface, and is always open to letting us pry it’s depths.

Next time you listen to something, don’t think “I’m listening to Taylor Swift.” Just turn something on, and think “I’m listening to Music,” and then stop thinking, and just let it hit you. As much as we like to glorify our favorite artists, they are not the point— the point is Music itself. No one invented Music, we’re all just channeling it.

Something Shallow:

It helps to be hot.

BeyonceyoungelvisNow listen to my new song. Peace!