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Andrew Dubber on Why All Musicians Need a Blog

April 14th, 2008 · Comments Off on Andrew Dubber on Why All Musicians Need a Blog

Andrew Dubber over at New Music Strategies has just posted a fantastic blog post – Do I Really Have To Blog?.

His answer (initially, ‘yes of course’ but much longer and in detail) is just about the best list of reasons I’ve ever read for musicians blogging.

I’ll add just one thing to it – a blog is what you do with your fans once they’ve heard of you.

Getting people to visit a website is not that hard. There are a series of mechanisms for generating web traffic, from adding friends on myspace to using stumbleupon, digg, facebook etc to drive people towards your ‘stuff’. But what then? As I’ve sited a number of times, people just don’t spend loads of their time re-visiting a static page to read again about how amazing you are. As David Jennings points out in his excellent book Net, Blogs And Rock ‘n’ Roll, your audiences spend the vast majority of their online time NOT looking at your site. Even to your biggest fans, you are but a small part of their online life. Unless you have some uber-fan-forum that commands hours a day of the time of your ardent followers, you are fighting to increase the fragments of one percent of the time that the vast majority of your audience spend looking at your stuff online.

And that is your blog – you write so there’s a reason for connecting with them. Yes, you’re a musician, so the music is paramount, but to suggest that all you’re sending people to is a page with MP3 and CD sales is woefully short-sighted. That’s not how you use the web, it’s not how you discover music, and it’s not how anybody else does either.

Andrew Dubber writes brilliantly about the connection your blog gives your fans to you, the context behind your musical expression. Here’s an excerpt:

A smart friend of mine once said that the best music in the world is the sound of someone’s insides on the outside (yes, he was an old punk – how did you know?). His point was one about self-expression. That music, at its best, is something we can identify with on a human level. And we tend to like music we can relate to, because it expresses something of ourselves.

And because music is self-expressive, we are more positively inclined towards music by people we know and like – because if we like them, we’re likely to appreciate expressions of their ‘self’.

So by logical extension – removing the curtain, engaging with your audience and actually letting them in on your day to day life will allow people to feel that they are getting to know you (in a ‘managed’ way), and will therefore be increasingly inclined to appreciate your music on that basis.

Now, go and read the whole post (and subscribe to the NMS feed – it’s all good stuff on there) and GET BLOGGING.

Tags: New Music Strategies · tips for musicians · website recommendations

The Musical Mechanics of 'Feeling': Wordless Story Telling

April 5th, 2008 · 1 Comment

Right, here’s a blog post I promised on Twitter at the beginning of the week, but have only just got round to writing. Here were my original ‘tweets’ –

solobasssteve “Blog post idea – the musical mechanics of ‘feeling’: ambiguity, journey, wordless story-telling and narrative/soundtrack quality…”
solobasssteve “Gifted singers routinely sing like they’re still discovering the unfolding tale of the song. Instrumentalists rarely play like that…”

One of the things I work most hard on in my music is developing the relationship between phrasing and feeling. Learning how to play a tune as though it has words and is telling a story. For that reason, most of my biggest influences are singers; the musicians I try and emulate are those whose music strikes me on an emotional, feeling level rather than a technical, heady one.

I often find myself left cold by instrumental music that on the surface I’m impressed by, but which doesn’t seem to soundtrack any part of my life, does reflect anything about the way I think or see the world. And I think I know why…

The big problem with most of what gets lumped together as ‘fusion’ or ‘electric jazz’ is that the way the music is played makes it sound like the artist has all the answers. Like there’s no search, no journey, just an arrival point. And that arrival point is one of dexterity and chops, with the compositions often stemming from a similar place. Or even with the compositions actually being pretty deep, but still being played from a position of having it all sown up before the tune starts.

Great singers never do that. They tell stories, the adopt characters, they emote according to the narrative. They often sing like they are discovering for the first time the unfolding tale of the song. It’s way more important to communicate than it is to show of their wikkid skillz. Having a big range in your voice is part of the singers emotional palette, and is rarely used for shredding (Maria/Celine etc. aside…)

So it’s no coincidence that my favourite instrumentalists also play like that. Bill Frisell is a fantastic case in point – a phenomenally gifted guitar player, who has leant his wide ranging guitar skills to a whole load of different projects, but who always digs deep emotionally. He plays guitar like a world-weary country singer, or a heart-broken torch singer. He does the full range of emotions, rather than sticking with the slightly smug, self-satisfied gymnastic displays of many instrumentalists.

Nels Cline is the same – he can be sad, angry, playful, child-like, inquisitive, tearful, tender… all in the same solo.

And of course there’s John Coltrane, the Godfather of story telling improvisors, unfolding the story of his spiritual quest on the stage each night via his sax. Phenomenal technical skill, completely at the service of the music, or the story, and always stretching, searching, telling stories as they occured to him, risking the blind allies, crying and screaming through his music when it was required.

Q – “So how do I as a bassist head in that direction? What are the mechanics of feeling? How do I move away from dextrous but lifeless technical cleverness and start telling stories?”

The start point is listening and a little analysis. Take a singer you love, a singer that moves you, a singer that connects – what are they ACTUALLY doing? What’s happening in terms of dynamics and phrasing? Where do the notes sit on the beat? Take 16 bars that you really like and learn them. Start by singing them, then play what you sing. Not just the notes, but the dynamics, phrasing, articulation. The whole works. As close as you can get. How far is that from how you usually play?

Here are a few musical elements that aid us in sounding a little more ambiguous, discursive, narrative:

  • stop playing everything on the beat: Bassists are the worst for this, but a lot of jazzers too – we end up drawing a metric grid in our minds and stick to it. Divide the bar into 8/16/32 and play those subdivisions. Go and have a listen to Joni Mitchell and tell me how often she’s on the beat. How often her phrasing is metric. Pretty much never.
  • Start using dynamics: I’m amazed at how few melody players in jazz – particularly guitarists and bassists – rarely vary the dynamics of what they do.Have a listen to this Bartok solo sonata for violin – hear what’s being done with the phrasing and dynamics? It’s incredible.

    Alternatively, have a listen to Sinatra, to the way he pulled the melodies around, and used his amazing control of dynamics. Remarkable stuff. In the rock world, check out Doug Pinnick’s vocals with King’s X. He’s closer to singing in time, but exploits the variation in being ahead of or behind the beat beautifully to spell out the emotion of a song.

  • Vary your technique – again, very few singers sing in one ‘tone’ through everything. Those that do usually get tiresome pretty quick. Most of them use tonal variety the way we do when we talk. Getting louder will vary the tone automatically. Same with your instrument. The number of bassists who play with their thumb planted on top of the pickup, using their first two fingers in strict alternation even for playing tunes is bizarre. Bassmonkeys, Your right hand is your primary tone control – forget EQing, and work with the source, where the subtle variations are from note to note. moment to moment, phrase to phrase. Experiment, keeping in mind what you’re trying to do – tell a story!
  • Play less notes – At NAMM every year, I get other bassists – often pretty famous ones – coming up and asking me how I play so ‘soulfully’, or so ‘deeply’ or whatever. Admittedly, their reaction to what I do is going to be exaggerated by the lunacy of all the shredding going on, but the simplest answer is often that I play less notes than most of what they are used to listenin to. Again, it’s a singer-thing. Very few of my favourite vocal melodies are technically hard to play. Some have some pretty big intervals in them (Jonatha Brooke, one of my favourite singer/songwriters on the planet, writes some of the most amazing melodies, and has an incredible way of delivering them. She uses really unusual intervals but never sounds like the cleverness of the tune is getting in the way of what’s being said…) So just learn some vocal tunes. Actually, not just ‘some’, learn loads! Get deep into what singers do. Take songs and listen closely to how the tune develops from one verse to the next. Again, great story tellers adapt the phrasing to the emotion of the story, they don’t feel the need to add more and more notes as it goes on…
  • Play simply… even the super fast stuff! – the genius of Coltrane was that he very rarely sounded like he was struggling with his sax. He was wrestling with music, and emotion through his sax, he was digging deep to find the soundtrack to his inner journey, but his horn was at the service of that journey, not directing it in a ‘check out this clever shit’ way. Dexterity is a wonderful thing. There’s nothing at all wrong with being able to sing or play really fast. It’s just that it’s not an end in and of itself. Some things sound fantastic when you play them really fast. There are tracks by Michael Manring and Matthew Garrison that have an incredible energy rush to them because of the pace. They wouldn’t have that if they were slower. But neither player sounds like the tunes are a vehicle for a load of mindless shredding. Im always looking to improve my technique by deepening it. Speed is definitely part of that. But it’s just one aspect of control. And control is the key.

I find it really odd when I hear musicians that site Miles Davis as a big influence and then proceed to play like the entire story of the tune was set in stone years ago. Like there’s nothing to add, nowhere new to go, no need to dig deep. Miles is the Yin to Coltrane’s Yang. Miles was a pretty good be-bop trumpeter in the late 40s/early 50s, but he didn’t really have the chops of Dizzie or Chet Baker. And yet he had a quality to his playing, even on crazy-fast bebop stuff, that drew you in, that took you with him… That got deeper and deeper as his life went on. With a cracked and broken sound, he told stories, and wrung out old melodies to find new tales. He also never went backwards, constantly searching for new things in music. The narrative of each solo was reflected in the meta-narrative of the arc of his career. No resting on laurels, lots of progressive work, and not a few false starts along the way. But he was integral to just about every new thing that happened in jazz from the early 50s onwards.

We need to dig deep to find this stuff. It’s not something you just do. Its not something easy, it’s not a lick you can learn and regurgitate, or a solo by such and such a player that you can transcribe. It’s a desire and a search and a longing to tell stories that comes out in our playing, that shapes the way we practice, the kind of musicians we choose to work with, and the risks we take. If you want some inspiration, try looking up some of the following on last.fm:

Guitarists: Bill Frisell, Nels Cline, David Torn, Mark Ribot
Bassists: Michael Manring, Matthew Garrison, Gary Peacock, Charlie Haden
Pianists: Keith Jarrett, Herbie Hancock, Jez Carr, Alan Pasqua
Singer/songwriters: Joni Mitchell, Tom Waits, Paul Simon, Gillian Welch, Jonatha Brooke, Lobelia, David Sylvian, Kelly Joe Phelps, Robert Smith (The Cure), Frank Black (The Pixies)

Music is about way more than impressing other musicians. There’s nothing wrong with musicians being impressed by what you do, any more than there’s anything wrong with people thinking you’ve got a cute accent when you talk… but what you say is what will sustain the value in the long run… Dig deep.

Tags: bass ideas · cool links · Musing on Music · tips for musicians

Bruce Cockburn interview from Nov '99

March 25th, 2008 · Comments Off on Bruce Cockburn interview from Nov '99

Back when I was writing for Bassist magazine in the late 90s, I mainly used interviews as a chance to meet up with my musical heroes. The bass ones were easy to sort out, but on a couple of occasions I used the magazine connection to interview my guitar playing heroes as well, and did this interview for Guitarist magazine. Given that Bruce Cockburn is my favourite musician of all time, and probably the songwriter whose songs have had the most real-world impact on my day to day life, it was always going to be a little hagiographic, but I think I’ve kept the ‘you’re amazing, tell me about being amazing’ type questions to a minimum.

This is my original transcript of the interview, which is a fair bit longer than what actually got printed, I seem to remember. It was just after Breakfast In New Orleans, Dinner In Timbuktu had come out, and was conducted in the restaurant of some hotel in Ealing, I think. Bruce was a fantastic interviewee, and this is one of my favourite interviews to read back. A couple of my questions are a little crassly put, but it was 9 years ago, so I’ll cut myself some slack. I’ve met him a few times since, and he’s always been a very friendly, funny person to meet…

Bruce Cockburn Interview
(Reproduced from the November 99 issue of Guitarist Magazine)

Impossible to pigeon-hole, but equally brilliant whether finger-picking ragtime instrumentals or giving it what-for on a distorted electric, Bruce Cockburn’s artistry continues to climb 30 years into his career.

Once described by Melody Maker as ‘Canada’s best kept secret’, singer/songwriter Bruce Cockburn has, over the course of 25 albums, built up a substantial following world-wide and is a bit of a superstar in his native Canada. He’s had 20 gold and platinum records, won 10 Junos (the Canadian version of Grammies), and does seriously big tours, but remains a cult act in the UK (albeit a cult act capable of playing the Queen Elizabeth Hall on London’s South Bank last time he visited these shores!)

Bruce’s body of work ranges from lilting country folk to the dark brooding punk and reggae influenced political ranting of his eighties albums. His recent move to the Rykodisc label has been accompanied by a shift back to the jazzier acoustic sound of his late seventies albums. Always focused, Bruce is one of very few singer/songwriters to last 30 years with no embarrassing period whatsoever.

Initially inspired by Scotty Moore and Buddy Holly, followed soon after by Chet Atkins and Les Paul, his guitar playing encompasses a huge range of styles, taking in ragtime and blues influences but combining them with jazz, country, rock and avant-garde in a unique melange that perfectly supports his heart-felt prose.

– When did you start playing

I started playing when I was 14 which was 1959.

– Why?

Scott Moore – the early Elvis records. Buddy Holly… well, the sound of the Crickets – I didn’t really associate it with particular people it was just music. That’s what got me excited about music. I started taking guitar lessons at the age of 14 and was very quickly introduced to other kinds of music. The teacher I had was into country swing like Les Paul and Chet Atkins, and all the tunes that were on Willy Nelson’s ‘Stardust’ album were the tunes that I learned to read music on the guitar with, to learn chords and all that stuff. The first tune I can remember actually working out off a record was ‘Walk Don’t Run’ by the Ventures. It just kinda moved on from there – I got interested in jazz pretty quickly, and through that moved into folk-blues. By the time I got out of high school I was doing some rudimentary finger-picking and was starting to compose music, and dabbled in writing poetry. I went to Berkley for three semesters out of a four year course, and did what all honourable Berkley students that are any good do – drop out! Last year they gave me an honorary Doctorate so I finally got my degree. When I was at Berkley I was shown by John Lennon and Bob Dylan that you could actually put poetry and music together and make something.

– So Dylan was the catalyst?

That’s what interested me about it. I had no interest in imitating the songs I liked – old Elvis songs, ragtime tunes – those were the product of a time and place and an experience that I had no part of so it made no sense to try and write those songs. It was OK for me to sing them, that made sense, but not trying to write anything like it. But it hadn’t occurred to me that you could do anything else until Dylan came along, and it was like ‘Oh wow, you can actually say stuff.’ So I started writing songs. When I left Berkley I joined a rock ‘n’ roll band in Ottawa where I had grown up, made up of a bunch of folkies that I knew, and we all were writing songs at that point, and that’s when I really started taking it seriously. It kinda grew from there’

– So that was the beginning of the solo career?

Yeah, except I did it with my wife at the time. At first I wasn’t really on the road – we were on such a small circuit, that it didn’t qualify as on the road. There were clubs in Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal that I could play and the occasional folk festival, and in the early says that’s what I did. I was in bands for the second half of the sixties but had started to do solo stuff in the latter part of the 60s. ’69 was a fairly busy year for me as a solo artist, and that’s when the first solo album was recorded. In the spring of ’70, I bought my first truck, I was started to get paid for gigs so I had some money. It cost three thousand dollars, which was a big deal at the time. And we put a camper on the back of it, and spent the next five years driving back and forth across the country, staying with my in-laws or my parents during the winter and hitting the road again as soon as it warmed up. So for 7 or 8 months out of each year we’d be on the road.

– Was there a sense of the emerging Canadian sound?

There WAS an emerging Canadian sound, but there wasn’t really a sense of it. People started thinking about it after the fact.

– It must have really pissed off the Americans.

That Canada had all the best song writers? I don’t think anyone thought about it – in those days you didn’t say you were from Canada – most Canadians were embarrassed about Canada. Most Canadians didn’t know that Joni Mitchell was Canadian, or that Neil Young was Canadian. You’d say it to people and they’d go ‘What? Nah, that’s bullshit!’ It’s like ‘Can any good thing come out of Nazareth???’ Same thing.

There were a lot of us around that time who thought this was a bad thing who were right behind Joni, Neil and Gordon Lightfoot, who was the first to opt to stay in Canada rather than to move to the US. It was a cliche of Canadian culture that in order to be accepted by Canadians you had to prove yourself somewhere else first – you could do it in England or the US, but not in Canada.

But there was kind of a wave of nationalism that we were all affected by at the time that said it shouldn’t be that way, so I just thought I’m going to build up whatever audience I can in Canada before I think about going anywhere else, and then we’ll see where it goes. Over the next ten years – it took about that long to build a strong national audience, but by the end of the 70s I did have that, and I was also starting to work outside of Canada, a little. But hardly in the states at all – it was Italy and Japan at first. The states did really start to get interested in me until ’83 when Stealing Fire came out, when we started to do national tours.

– Didn’t you get some adverse press for Rocket Launcher?

No, it got no adverse press, it got nothing but positive response – it blew my mind! The Religious Right to my mind said nothing about it. I got the odd letter from somebody who were disappointed in it. One woman I remembered writing saying how could I write an anti-American song like this – her husband was a jet pilot and didn’t I know what awful things the Russians were doing in Afghanistan? Well yeah I do, but it doesn’t excuse what you guys are doing in Guatemala, and it’s not your husband who’s guilty, it’s other people.

I got the occasional letter like that, but what I also got was a huge amount of air-play for that song, which I hadn’t really had before – the one exception being Wondering Where The Lions Are which got played in the US as well as Canada. WWTLA was the first song I’d had that got big time national air-play in Canada and it got on the Billboard chart in the US. But whereas it was the start of something in the Canada, in the sense that the next few records I put out also got a lot of air-play, in the States that didn’t happen, so with Rocket Launcher it was like starting all over again. And that time it did take, and it’s been progressively better since then.

– How did your music develop through the 70s?

The finger-picking that I’d learned to do was based on Mississippi John Hurt and Manse Lipscomb, mainly, and other old blues guys like that, but I’d also learned how to play more complex chords. When I went to Berkley I went majoring in composition, with guitar as my instrument and I had this notion that I’d be a jazz musician – I hadn’t thought about it one way or the other, but that seemed like the thing you do when you went to Berkley! And then I realised part way along that I wasn’t prepared to do the amount of work, and I wasn’t interested enough in jazz harmonies per se to pursue it the way they were teaching it. But I still loved jazz and continue to love jazz, and whenever there’s an opportunity jazz creeps into the music – more now than ever, partly to do with increasing command of the instrument over the years, and partly to do with exploring options as a writer.

– Did you continue to study?

I didn’t study formally in anyway – I taught myself this and that. But I listened to a lot of stuff – you mentioned the world music thing – through the late 60s and into the 70s I was listening to music of every culture that I could get my hands on. I was particularly infatuated with European Medieval and Renaissance music – you can hear that in the records. I was also listening to African records, Tibetan Ritual music. I guess I got started on that track at Berkley because a lot of the jazz players were interested in Arabic music. That interest in Eastern music was prevailing in the jazz scene at the time and I got totally captivated by it.

So the guitar style was partly having started with a blues style that featured alternating bass with a melody over the top or a droning bass with licks over the top, the melodies and the licks got more complicated, and the harmonies never were as simple as blues harmonies so. So on top of that would be a song like Joy Will Find A Way, where the guitar part is an attempt at duplicating an Ethiopian thumb harp piece that I had on a record – it’s not the same notes, but an attempt to get that feel into it. I found that a lot of African folk music suited adaptation to finger picking guitar, which wasn’t lost on the Africans either, but I hadn’t heard African guitar music then. It was obvious to me that you could take these complimentary drum and xylophone type instruments and translate that music onto the guitar, and that became part of the style and then everything I heard that I like really.

And then in the 70s I discovered Reggae and then Punk came along and revitalised rock ‘n’ roll for me and so then I started getting those elements in there to.

– Was electric guitar an anathema – with prog rock etc.?

I used it a bit – all through the 70s there was also the Stones, don’t forget, so there was goo guitar around of the sort that I related to as roots based. And there was good jazz guitar, although there was a period in there where I didn’t listen to much rock or jazz – I completely missed David Bowie, for instance, until Heroes in the late 70s, then I went back and discovered the rest of what he’d done. Then I started to look into rock music again. Yeah, I missed a lot, but I also gained something in the freedom I had from that influence at that particular time. When the influence came around it was affecting me as a more developed artist.

– So the addition of electric stuff happened around Humans, or Inner City Front…?

Inner City Front was really the big one. There’s electric guitar on many of the earlier albums, but it didn’t start to take over until I was playing with heavier bands with more drums and more emphasis on rhythm, and then it was an irresistible pressure to pick up the electric guitar – to hear myself on stage for one thing – but also to keep up in intensity with the other guys. There was a big learning process in there. on Inner City Front I got away with it, but there a lot of learning in front of people going on. I was applying the same techniques to the electric as I used on the acoustic, but there’s a big difference in touch and it took some time to kind of get the feel for it.

– Was there a parallel between the music and lyrics in that development?

The earliest album that has a real noticeable amount of electric guitar on it is Night Vision, which is also a dark kind of record and I hadn’t thought about it but I guess that’s true, it does contribute to it, though unconsciously – I must contribute to what I was doing. The choice wasn’t unconscious the connection was’

The tone of the albums really changes with Humans, which also coincides with my divorce, and the end of a decade and a point in my life that was partly triggered by the divorce and partly not where I spent a lot of time looking at how my inner being related to the big picture, the cosmic picture, and it was time to include other people in that search for an understanding of relationship. To put it in simple terms, as a christian if you’re gonna love your fellow mankind you gotta know who they are, you can’t love them in the abstract. So it was time to kind of be among humans. It started with the album humans and the songs there come from those first travels in Japan, and Italy – the first ventures outside of North America, and the greater understanding of human interaction on mass which translates into politics, and that carried through into inner city front, and all through the 80s.

– Your one of the few artists who was around in the 80s, when all the world’s singer songwriters went electric, who has no embarrassing period…

I was pretty careful, but I look back on certain of those things with a little embarrassment, but only a little – more the live gigs that the records cos there were more chances taken on stage than in the studios.

– Influences –

The Clash, Bob Marley that whole new wave thing had a broad non-specific effect but I remember thinking on Trouble With Normal, on Tropic Moon, and I could figure out how to get the right feel, so I remember thinking, ‘what would the Clash do with this?’ so I did what the Clash would’ve done with it, that was a conscious decision in the studio – it doesn’t sound very much like the Clash at all, but you can hear that mental process’ Bob Dylan was still an influence – Blood On The Tracks – he hadn’t had much of an influence on me for years and then Blood On The Tracks came out and that was a big album for me. Life in general – at that point I was starting to write life and looking outward’

– But there’s a musical sophistication that goes beyond those influences, more of a Peter Gabriel kind of vibe –

That has partly to do with the producers on that album, although I listened to a little Peter Gabriel, though I don’t think it was as much Peter Gabriel as listening to the same things that he was listening to and translating them. The producers, John Goldsmith and Kerry Crawford, who worked on World Of Wonders and Big Circumstance – their understanding of album production was bigger in scope than I was used to working with, and that’s one of the reasons why I was interested in them. So they got bigger sounds, and used more instruments and tried out more ideas, the music lent itself to that. At that point I’d been in Central America, and been to the Caribbean a bunch of times and I had more direct influence from those cultures – see how I miss you, down here tonight, world of wonders – on that song the imagery is all European, but the music is Afro-Caribbean.

– Influence of the Stick?

That had something to do with it as well. That was the thing that interested to me about the Stick. I was excited when I discovered that I knew someone who played it. With Hugh Marsh I’d explored the possibilities with Violin and Guitar, then Hugh’s brother Ferg (Fergus Jemison Marsh), turned out to be this incredible Stick player who was very Tony Levin influenced with the bass strings, but added on all this treble stuff that you don’t hear Tony Levin doing, and it seemed to me that there would be incredible textural possibilities with that part of the stick and guitar. So that became a big deal.

During the period that I was writing the material for Stealing Fire, I’d rented a little office space that I’d go to to practice and or write each day, and I had a little drum machine so I’d set up drum rhythms, and I have the lyrics and I’d be pulling at the lyric and the rhythms and that would spawn the guitar parts, and I got Ferg coming over and work on Stick parts that would go with the guitar parts, and then I’d modify the guitar parts if he had something better than I did. So the presence of the stick was in there early on in the process of building up to ‘Stealing Fire’.

– There are strong polyrhythmic possibilities with the Stick –

and then when you start adding drums to that the trick is to get people to start leaving things out because you can get so many things going at once.

– Guitars – who were you listening to?

I don’t think I was really listening to guitar players much through there. Since about 1960 I haven’t really tried to learn anything off a record in a ‘OK, how he’s doing this’ kind of way. I get influenced by the feel of things and I sort of take what my ear will grasp and then I mess with it, so the learning process has been slow, but also kind of less conspicuously influenced by any one person that it might other wise has been.

– And that helped to maintain originality?

It has had that effect, I don’t think I did it on purpose that was, it’s just my nature to do things that way. I would hear things I like, and any time I heard one I’d either find a way to do it my way or it would just become a kind of general influence – there were lots of people, Mark Knopfler was the most conspicuous fingerstyle electric player around, but I was always sort of slightly uncomfortable with that, even though I really liked his records, everyone would be telling me that I played like Mark Knopfler, once I started playing electric guitar, and it kind of was a little irritating, so I made a conscious effort where possible not to sound like Mark Knopfler – there was already one of him and we didn’t need another one.

– You started fingerpicking on the electric before Knoplfer, what lead to that? Naïvité’?

There was no question in my mind of ever picking up a pick – there was no reason to. I’d played electric guitar when I was in rock bands in the 60s, and I’d had lots of experience playing electric guitar with a pick. But through the 70s I’d developed enough facility with the guitar that it just seemed like OK now how do I apply this to this other instrument, and by the end of the 80s I’d sort of almost learned how to do it!!

– It gave you a unique sound, and a continuity between the electric and acoustic.

They’re not polls apart

– sometimes it’s pretty hard to tell which you’re playing.

yeah, depending on which guitar I’m using – the National Resophonic that I’ve got is an electric guitar but I’ve got it strung with acoustic gauge strings and it has this chunky sound that has much of the attack of an acoustic.

– What electrics were you using in the 80s?

I had a couple of Strats, and a couple of hand made flying Vs, made by Emory Deyong, in Canada. They were really nice guitars, with humbucking pickups, but I’ve always had a problem playing Gibson style electrics cos the necks are to flexible and I’d always bend them out of tune, I grab them too hard, whereas Fenders, or anything with a Fender feel didn’t present that problem so I tended to lean that way. Also the attack on Fenders in more finger friendly, more like the acoustic.

– A kind of natural compression to the sound?

yeah, so it suited’ it easy to overplay an electric guitar when you’re used to an acoustic, whether it’s fingers or a pick. One of the most flagrant historic examples of that is Django Reinhard – when you listen to his records on electric guitar they sound horrible next to the genius tone, not to mention the content of his acoustic playing. He’s whacking the shit out of the electric and it hurts! And I did the same thing -everybody that switches, has to overcome that same tendency which was made easier on certain guitars than on others.

– After the darkness of Big Circumstance, you came back with a far more commercial album in Nothing But A Burning – a shift to new country?

The term new country got invented after we made that album, but the conscious effort made in those songs was definitely a shift. I’d had this big dry spell and at the end of the 80s, from the middle of 88 to the end of 89 I didn’t write anything,

– was that scary?

It was very scary, it was sort of like well OK, either I’ve got to think of some drastic thing to do or I’ve got to go and learn a new trade! So I decided to declare myself on sabbatical, I was gonna take 1990 off, which I did, and I just announced to the world that I was going to have no public involvement with anything, and I more or less did that. And within a week of having started on my sabbatical I started writing, and I wrote Child Of the Wind, and the songs started coming that ended up making up ‘Nothing But a Burning Light’.

But there’d been this big clearing of the slate before that, like the whole 80s was cancelled. The thing that I’d realised during that dry period was that I’d be looking around at songs and I noticed that I had no virtually no songs that someone who was an untrained guitar player could sit down and make work, and I thought that was kind of a lack, so I deliberately made an effort to write songs that you didn’t have to play like I do to make them sound good, you could just strum the chords and they’d still work. So Child of the Wind was like that, and most of the other song on NBABL fit that description. That was on purpose, that had the effect that it wasn’t an attempt to make the songs commercial, it was to make the accessible to someone that wanted to have fun playing them. And that kind of carried over into Dart to the Heart, and then I kinda dropped it – I got bored with that!

– Any label pressure?

No – well, record companies like radio air-play – but nothing that affected the content of the songs, or even really the way we recorded them. The choice of T-Bone Burnett to produce those records was a process that involved the record company, but we had a list of people and he was on everybody’s list. The sound of those records owes everything to T-Bone, and to the particular to the writing of the songs that set that up.

– Burning Light is an amazing sounding album

Nothing But A Burning Light came out really well. Dart To The Heart we didn’t get as lucky on, although there’s still a lot that I really like about that. But NBABL was one of those instances where everything falls together exactly right. It was such a great band on there – Keltner and Michael Been, Edgar Meyer and Booker T.

– Two albums with T-Bone on the major.

..and the Christmas album which was done sort of in between, which I produced though I owe a lot to T-Bone for that, for the inspiration of his attitude towards production more than any of the technical stuff. I guess it was the same as my process of learning from guitar players, I didn’t study what he did, but I picked up an understanding from him of how to focus on the essence of a song without screwing it up in the process of adding instruments to it. there are many many ways that you can mess with a song in the studio so there’s something very important about uncovering that essence and keeping it in the forefront.

– Was that a chance to re-indulge your love of folk music?

Well, in a way.. circumstantially I guess’ The Christmas album was something I’d wanted to do for 20 years because I’d loved that music and thought I could do something with it, but it took that long to get somebody to pay for it. We were doing these radio shows out of New York, we did 5 in the end, which became the Columbia Records Radio Hour, which became a monthly show that they did, I ended up doing all the Christmas ones.

– And you duetted with Lou Reed on Cry Of A Tiny Babe????

I know, it amazes me too – you should have been there when it happened. We’d rehearsed it but he was reading the lyrics off. There we were playing the song, and it came time for his verse and that’s what he did, and I just started laughing as you can probably hear on the ensuing chorus.

– New York was a favourite of yours?

Yeah that was a great album – I don’t really know the body of Lou’s work’ you know who else I really liked through that period was Laurie Anderson, or course they’re now a pair which is pretty interesting. She did some marvellous stuff. I don’t go to many shows, especially big shows, but I remember going to see her at Massey Hall in Toronto and it was maybe the best show I’ve ever seen, for sheer entertainment and content’

– now your on Rykodisc – it sounds like your back in a love affair with the guitar…

It’s what came out of the experiment – it starts with Dart, or maybe even Burning Light. It’s like I said, but the end of the 80s I’d finally learned what to do with an electric guitar, and you can start to hear that on the records, and it continues, I’m still learning all the time – the more I learn, the more I want to do with it, though the new album doesn’t feature that much electric, there’s a couple of prominent bits, but the Charity of Night features some extended leads and stuff. It’s the first time I’ve felt confident enough to allow myself to do the jazz part of the record – I’d always imported other people to do that, you get John Goldsmith on keyboards, or Hugh Marsh on violin adding the jazz into it, but as of the Charity of Night it was time for me to try and do some of it myself, though on the new album it’s not so much on the electric but the two instrumentals have a lot of improvising in them. I’m just letting myself play – we’ll see what happens when we put the band together to tour’

– And live? At Greenbelt the guitar playing was really front and centre…

That’s always been part of the live shows – Dialogue With The Devil, although I’m playing different thing in the solo part of it, it’s basically the same way I was doing it in 1974. To some extent those little lead things have always been in the shows, more so than on any of the records, and with the band shows there’s always been more electric guitar leads, until now when it seems to be evening out a bit. It’s fun to play, you know? It’s partly getting older and allowing myself more freedom. I’ve always had this built in limitation of things supposed to be a certain way, I’ve a limited concept of how things can be and how stretchy you can make things, and over the years that’s gotten a lot looser.

– The record sounds unfettered. Fun, passionate and full of energy.

There wasn’t much restraint – the restraints on me are my technical ability more than anything, and I suppose ones technical ability limits to some degree what you can imagine, at least in my case it does! It doesn’t stop at the same place, but you hear things projected from what you know how to do.

– your guitar now is a Linda Manzer, right?

I had a Larivee – I had the first cutaway guitar that Larivee ever made. Larivee was the first Canadian guitar maker to work with steel string guitars, and he developed a whole style of guitar making that owed nothing to Martin or Gibson, having a different concept of bracing, ‘n’ all that. And Linda along with a couple of other people was one of Larivee’s apprentices for a while – there were three of four of them who were spawns of the original Larivee thing, only Larivee has moved into more a shop thing, with helpers – not a factory as such, but more like that than it was. Linda continued to make guitars on her own.

I had two Larivee guitars, and a David Wren, who was another Larivee apprentice. I had two Wrens, one got destroyed in a fire, at a rehearsal space, which was right before one of the tours of Italy, so I had to play electric guitar – my telecaster was all I had left, and the Italians were really pissed at that, and were yelling out ‘acoustica, acoustica!!’ They didn’t want to hear me playing electric at all, and didn’t believe that my guitar had been burnt – they thought I was putting one over on them.

Anyway, I ended up moving from that to a Manzer. I’d experimented with a few commercial guitars that people were trying to get me to use, and I didn’t like any of them – that was in 86/87. The guitar that Linda made me then I had until the beginning of this year and I traded it back to her for a new one with slightly different characteristics. It was a particularly deep bodied guitar with a cedar top, slightly wider than average neck to make room for finger-picking. When I got it that’s what I wanted, but over the years as I started switching back and forth between electric and acoustic more often, I started wanting my acoustic strings to be closer together so it wasn’t such an adjustment moving back and forth. I found to that I developed a problem over the Charity of Night tour I started getting a problem with my right hand fingers, and what had happened is that because of the extra body depth – we’re only talking about a 1/2 inch but with a guitar that’s significant – the top corner of the guitar was pressing in the nerves in my forearm and over the 10 years that I’d played the guitar it had started to cause problems with the nerves in my arm. So I approached Linda about getting another one from her and she makes a kind of guitar that’s sort of wedge shaped – narrower on the bass side. You sacrifice some bottom end tone, acoustically, but no-one listens to guitars acoustically any more live anyway – very few people even know how to mic one anymore’ The wedge shaped one is not extra deep, mainly because survival is more important than the bass end! That’s what I used at Greenbelt – it’s slight, and not really noticeable to the casual observer, but it does have enough of a slope that it doesn’t put pressure on that particular spot. I knew this from playing the Dobro which has a very thin body and I wasn’t having any trouble playing that so duh! Make the connection, it’s obvious! But so ended up with the new Manzer, which I really love. As I said, it sacrifices a slight amount of bass tone acoustically, electrically, with the fishman pickup that’s in it, it sounds as good as any other guitar with a Fishman. Just the latest generation of piezo. It’s got a really nice neck – it’s a beautiful guitar to play.

– Mic and line in the studio?

Normally I would just mic it – we probably did some of it plugged in, but we never used it, it’s kind of more for safety – if we get a little noise on the mic, or we have to punch in…

But I don’t really like the sound of it plugged in when you don’t have to have it – it’s there live because there’s no other way, but the new Manzer is not what appears on the new album – that’s a Collings that I have that I’ve had for three years. It’s the one that like D28, big body. You hear that on the Charity of Night and on Breakfast in New Orleans, Dinner in Timbuktu, because the new Manzer was still too green – it hadn’t opened up yet’

– Electrics on the album?

On Blueberry Hill, it’s a black and cheesy Charvel Surfcaster, And a Strat that a friend gave me that she’d had lying around is doing a lot of the leads of the album.

– which artists have you seen recently that class as ‘ones to watch’?

Ani Defranco well enough known at this point that she’s not really one to watch unless you haven’t heard her yet in which case you’d better! But she’s to me the best thing happening now, in terms of acoustic style songwriters. And Kelly Joe Phelps is running right up there behind her. They’re both completely original really interesting players playing very different styles of music, but very distinctive in their approaches. For guitar players, Bill Frisell – he’s somebody that I would go out of my way to see live, and Marc Ribot – the Cubanos Postisos Record – that’s an incredible record. I saw him play in New York at one of those weird avant garde gigs and he was excellent – those are the kind of things that interest me. James Blood Ulmer is someone else that interests me greatly, and has done since the 80s.

– are you influenced by the avante garde?

I like stuff that’s out on the edge, I’ve always liked that. I’ve never seen myself as being there, but I’ve always wanted to be.

– Any plans to work with Jonatha Brooke again?

I’d love to, but there’s no plans to at the moment’ She’s a fantastic writer and singer and a great person. She’s someone who uses a lot of different tunings but really uses them interestingly and doesn’t just play the same thing from tuning to tuning. She’s got a great sense of sonority.

Tags: journalism

Managing Information Streams Pt 6 – information flow and task management software.

March 23rd, 2008 · 2 Comments

I’ve spent a lot of time considering how to filter information, get good information, and cut back on pointless information, but haven’t thus far said (or thought) all that much about what we do with it once we get it.

And that is clearly key. Information requires processing as well as ‘managing’ – it might require an action, it might require dissemination, responding to or it might change the way we’re already doing something. So finding a way of processing it is vital.

I’ve already commented that To-Do Lists are the bain of my life, and I’m constantly on a quest for better ways of processing the information that comes in via whatever stream, be it email or twitter, conversation or SMS, spontaneous idea or blog post.

What I want to be able to do with information can summed up in a four step process – record, process, disseminate, respond.

  • I want to record the idea, if it’s not recorded already, or just extract the bit of a larger document that I need to remember.
  • I then want to process it somehow – file it under a category, assign it to a task list, put a date on it…
  • It’s highly likely that I want to let other people know about it too – either people with whom it’s a shared task, or if it’s just general helpful information, to share it with anyone else who wants it.
  • And finally, I want to perform whatever action I need to in response to it – the task I assigned to it in the ‘process’ stage.

This is heavily influenced by the David Allen’s GTD system system, but in a second hand way. I’ve only just read what his system is – Collect, Process, Organize, Review, Do – even though I’ve been using software designed to help you do this for a while. I’ve combined his ‘process’ and ‘organise’ into process, and added disseminate, as I see that as a distinct and different action from the responses that require me to do anything else… but that’s just me. :o)

His system is tried and tested, so you may want to read more about it.

Anyway, the key to all of this is finding a way of doing those steps that dovetails with how we live. I did a straw poll on twitter a while back, asking twittists what they use for their ‘to do lists’ – the most popular was, perhaps unsurprisingly, a paper notebook. I’ve tried various things, from the to-do list parts of mail.app, to-do lists on iGoogle, paper, mobile phone, iCal and a GTD app called Thinking Rock. Thinking Rock seemed promising, but just took way too much setting up for my liking.

So I started to use Twitter – just as a simple way of posting a daily to-do list publically, and getting feedback from people. That seems to work really well.

But clearly, it doesn’t help me process more complex tasks or arrange projects. That’s where Things comes in. It’s a task management app, using GTD ideas, but seems pretty simple to set up, easy to follow, and so far I’m finding it pretty useful when I remember to check it – I’m looking into ways of getting the alerts from it to interrupt my usual daily faffing to remind me what I really ought to be doing. If I can get it to do that, it’ll be a life saver.

So Things is how I do the recording and processing part of my ‘to do list’ and inspiration-type information management. The bits that are more article/blog/news-based, I manage using three web services – Google Reader, del.icio.us and Twitter.

Google Reader I use to ‘star’ things for myself to read later and to ‘share’ items with anyone who reads my shared items (or looks at the front page on my blog at the list on there. I might also cut phrases from that and drop them into Things for later processing.

Twitter I use to post links if I want some instant discussion about a topic, or just to flag it up for people who follow me on there, in case they’re interested. It’s a way of throwing it out there and not having to work too hard to monitor the response.

and Del.icio.us I use if I want to save a link with a comment, add it to the links page on my website, or tag it for someone specific that I want to send the page to, if they’re on my friends list.

So with that lot, I manage to perform my four tasks – record, process, disseminate, respond. Feel free to give this some thought, and to check out GTD a little deeper. It’s clear that David Allen’s GTD system is a hell of a lot more clearly and deeply thought out than mine. I just have the kind of brain that likes to personalise systems and processes before implementing them. So this is my version. :o)

Tags: Geek · Gig stuff · Managing Information Streams · tips for musicians

Managing Information Streams Pt 2 – Twitter!

March 10th, 2008 · 15 Comments

Thanks so much for all the comments and feedback about the first Managing Information Streams post. Some GREAT stuff in the comments there.

I want to follow that up with what is fast becoming my favourite web-filter, and will hopefully become my primary interface with my network – Twitter.

The tech media has been full of articles about Twitter for the last couple of months, ranging from declaring it to be the saviour of the web to it being the scourge if humanity. Both are exaggerations, and as usual, ignore the range of ways to interact with a particular technology.

So first up, a ‘what is twitter?’ answer, StevieStyle – Twitter is a combination of microblog, status-update, public IM, SMS client, link-blog, mini-email, brain-storm-tool, twitterpedia and for me (I’ve not seen anyone else doing this yet, but I’m sure I’m not the first) a responsive public to-do list.

All of that in an IM-window style interface, portable to my cellphone, followable on the web and scannable at a glance.

So what’s great about it? Let’s undo everything I said it was at first –

Firstly, it’s not email – I’m getting increasingly sick of email, particularly email that isn’t addressed to me. It’s just not a quick enough or malleable enough way to get information, to difficult to filter for quality and the group stuff just makes it harder to deal with the stuff that is to me. So I’ve been unsubbing from groups and mailing lists like crazy, trying to reduce the volume of non-direct email. A lot of the things I might have used email or email lists for, I now do on Twitter. How does that help? Well, I know the answer is going to be either a) very short or b) very short with a link to a properly written explanation. If you have to post the longer answer on a public blog, you’re more likely to think about it, than if you just write bollocks to a mailing list.

Secondly It’s not IM – IM sucks my time. IM is a very demanding thing to have running. It can be very useful and a great way to get quick responses, and also to deal with more personal things, but for the most part the big problem with IM is that you sit WAITING FOR A REPLY, and the other person is doing the same. So you don’t get on with your stuff, you ‘do IM’ for whole chunks of time. I NEVER do that with Twitter. Even if I post 5 or 6 posts in a couple of minutes, in between I’m working, I’m blogging, I’m searching, I’m answering the good emails, I’m deleting the crap ones, I’m cooking, brushing my teeth, on the bus… whatever, it’s all going on, and Twitter can fit to that. I never get tweets that say ‘are you still there? hello? where’ve you gone, you bastard??’ like on IM.

It also means that there’s a public record of a process if you’re planning something. This is what happened when Jeff Schmidt and I planned our podcast. I think Jeff sent me one direct message on twitter about it, and the rest was public. Perhaps as a result, the podcast had the highest first day or two’s downloads of ANYTHING Jeff has podcasted. And he’s done some great podcasts (search in iTunes for his name, for more – really good stuff.)

Thirdly it’s not facebook – if I go into facebook and check people’s status updates, there are a million other distractions – photos, scrabblez, groups, event invites, etc. I set up Facebook as a separate app using FluidApp just so I can open it, do it, and go. Twitter is the status update with the option to reply, and without the distractions. That’s a good thing. Facebook can be so addictive.

Fourthly it’s not this blog – blogging here takes a lot of time and effort. It’s also very much an interactive archive of my public writing. Twitter is immediate, and then gone. Sure you can find or favourite tweets, but it’s largely about NOW. I try to keep my blog archive manageable by not posting quick ‘check this out’ blogs – that’s what twitter does REALLY well. I can also, crucially, start rumours on there about what I’m up to, talk about things that might happen but might not, in a way that would come back and bite me on the arse if I did it on here…

Fifthly it’s not Google – if I use twitter for a question, I’m not searching the internet for prewritten answers, I’m asking the minds of my fellow twittists. I’m asking people who know me, or at least know about me, and I can follow up. And all of it in 140 characters. I’m not demanding much from peoples, but I can get top quality info. And it’s filtered by who I CHOOSE to interact with. No spammers, no trolls… The traffic isn’t public enough to attract disgruntled losers shouting at windmills.

Sixthly, it’s not a to-do list – to-do lists are currently the bane of my life. I never know where to write things down to remember them. Twitter means that my to-dos can become discussion, friends can remind me, hassle me, and I feel a compulsion to update, and therefor a drive to get something done so as not to embarrass myself by saying ‘did fuck-all today’… So I post a list, I post options and court responses, and on some things, I can collaborate. I can even ask my flatmate to pick up milk or washing-up liquid on the way home. Last night, my landlord used twitter to find out if anyone was home in order to access a document in the flat – THAT is the magique of the Twittosphere!

Seventhly, and this is a small but significant one it’s not regular SMS – how? a) it’s free to send, and b) I can type it, not key it in on my phone. HURRAH!!!! That should be enough to get everyone in the world signed up…

So what’s unique about it, that isn’t so negatively defined? OK, there’s the asynchronous nature of ‘following’ – if someone clicks to follow me, I can choose to follow them or not. I can also follow people who don’t follow me. I can follow people for the conversation, or the inspiration, I can post in the same way – conversation or open ended thoughts. And people can choose to read or ignore. No-one is wasting time they don’t want to waste just to see if the info is good or not. Glance, engage, revert. It’s easy.

Two, it provides interactive news. On the scene ‘buzz’ about events. Right now, SXSW is going on in Austin. Last week was TED – the precis of ideas on twitter is a GREAT way to find out what’s hot and what’s not, what are the salient parts of an hour-long talk, what’s going to be rocking the tech-world in a few months time. Choose a different set of people to follow and you’ll get the same from glastonbury or the protest movement, or parliament, or probably even the countryside alliance *shudder*… you choose, you filter, you edit, you follow/unfollow, and form a group of twittettes who entertain and inform, interact and educate.

Thus far the signal to noise ratio on my group of feeds is extremely positive, and the stuff that’s come out of it is amazing. Lately, that’s been all about Seesmic, the video-blog site. But that deserves a post of it’s own, because it’s f’ing amazing.

So maybe now you can see why I’m hoping to make my twitter account my main web interaction. Sign up for twitter at twitter.com, add me, and if you’re a bass-head, add Jeff, Trip and search around for some others. Consider this my TwitterFesto :o) .

I’ll post some more stuff about it soon, but suffice to say, if you want to get in touch with me quick, twitter beats anything besides just calling me up on the phone (we need to get back into phones – our modernist technolust has relegated phones to a last resort. that’s got to change…) Email is great for longer more involved information, IM is good if your life is falling apart and you want my help or support, Facebook is good if you’ve got silly photos from your stag night, and Google is good if you want a URL to send to someone. Otherwise, TwitMe!

(addendum – I’ve tagged this as ‘future of music’, because twitter is something that bands and artists HAVE to get a handle on. It’s where so much web communication is heading. So read this, and I’ll post more about music specific application in the very near future)

(addendum #2 – massive credit must be given to Hugh MacLeod for his thinking on twitter, much of this was informed by his twitterings and bloggings. Follow him at twitter.com/gapingvoid)

Tags: cool links · Geek · Managing Information Streams · New Music Strategies · tips for musicians · website recommendations

Managing information streams (Pt 1)

March 7th, 2008 · 7 Comments

This will (I think) be the first in a series of posts about this, mainly because it’s an ongoing struggle and area of conceptual development.

So, I’ll start by saying where my problem lies – a lot of the stuff online about being overwhelmed by email starts by talking about spam. Apart from when I’ve had my domain-name spoofed by spammers and suddenly had 3000 ‘user not known’ replies, spam has never been a big problem for me. If you’ve got your email on a dedicated server, then there are various very effective and ‘teachable’ spam filters out there. the Gmail one seems pretty damned good too. (if you’re still using Hotmail as your primary email interface, you’re probably sorting through spam now and not reading this…)

So, what is my problem with email? it’s largely two fold – one, it’s filtering the mass of information I get on a subject so that I get only the best information, and two, it’s how to process info as it comes in.

I’m on a few different email discussion lists, which are seeming increasingly anachronistic as a way of doing group interaction. With the web forums I read, I tend to browse via keywords in the search box on the really busy ones, and glance at the recent posts every few days on the less busy ones. That doesn’t take long, and means I can track where the things I’m interested in are being mentioned. I also have google alerts, and technorati alerts for certain words cropping up in other places. But the email ones still take time to filter.

I get a fair bit of info that relates to gigs and teaching that tends to get lost as I put it to one side while I consider what to do with it, or juggle my diary so I can fit it all in… then someone emails me and says ‘are we still on for tomorrow’s lesson?’ and I panic as I try to make it all fit… so I need a new system there, for sure. the Search box in Macmail helps a lot, as I can just do a search for ‘lessons’ or ‘tuition’ to find all the bass lesson related stuff… Maybe I should try the ‘smart mailbox’ thing.

My other big problem with email is that replying quickly creates an expectation that this is your norm, so people use email for things that are urgent. I REALLY need to get away from that… Tim Ferris has written some really useful stuff on this topic here

Anyway, I’ve not got very far with managing my information, have I (though I did just go and unsub from a couple of lists I receive but never read, so that’s good…) – as my friend Karen would say ‘Land the plane, Steve!!’

It’s about filtering. I’ve written about this WRT music recently, but it applies equally to information – the problem isn’t a lack of it, it’s a lack of quality control. If I want to keep track of what’s happening in the bass-world, I could spend all day every day reading stuff on forums, blogs, email lists, digests…. And even for an info-geek like me, less than 3 or 4% of it is useful or even particularly interesting. So I need to be able to target my info. Here are a couple of suggestions for how WE can do it.

#1 – collaborate – if you want filters, be a filter. Google shared items is such an amazing way to get someone else to filter for you. I’ve read SO many great stories that I’d have missed thanks to following Jeff Schmidt and Jyoti Mishra‘s shared items. Some of the blogs I them subscribe to, often I just leave it to them to filter them for me.

Same goes for futuremusictalk.com – a GENIUS filter for stuff about the future of the industry. Not all the info, just most of the best info. And it gets better every time sarda tweaks it. He’s a genius, and lovely, and very busy, not surprisingly.

So using ready-made filters (here are my shared items for those of you who want them) – let others do the legwork.

If you have a very specific search criteria, use Google Blogsearch – put the searc term in, then grab the feed. Google rules. Technorati provide a similar service, but it’s hopelessly flakey…

So, get google reader, and start sharing – let me know when you do, and I’ll watch what you’re linking to… and then…

#2 – be ruthless. If you subscribe to a feed that you find yourself continually paging down past, delete it. Don’t clutter your reader. get rid of it, and let the google blog or news search watch it for you for keywords. (note to self, must see if google blogsearch can handle boolean commands). Don’t put up with duplicate feeds – if you subscribe to a feed that is fed straight into futuremusictalk.com, delete the feed (with some blogs, including mine, only certain posts are cross-posted. With others more specific blogs, everything is aggregated there). I did this recently with news feeds – the beeb cross post a lot of articles to world and UK news, so I deleted one of them. Same with the guardian. strip it back, get the info you need, don’t sweat about missing some stuff – if it’s that good, someone else will share it anyway (thanks Jyoti for the political filter stuff – you rule!)

#3 – set limits. This is the bit I’m worst at, and the bit that from next week is going to get experimental. Have set times for this stuff, then click ‘all read’ – use the starring thing in google reader (do you get the idea that I think Google Reader ROCKS??) to come back to things at a later date, or share it then go read your own feed… But stick to them. I’m definitely writing this for myself now, I’m terrible at this. One thing I’ve started to do is not have feeds loading in the background. Using FluidApp.com I’ve turned Google Reader into it’s own application. I read, then close it, so its not giving me alerts all the time. I read it like a newspaper in the morning or evening. I also set my email to only check once every 30 mins, so I do it in batches. Soon, I’m hoping to switch to twice a day email too… we’ll see if that works.

And here’s the clincher, and the link to the next post (later) – I’m using twitter to do a lot of my filtering. Twitter deserves its own post, but so far my online presence has gone through the roof as a result of using it (even with a fairly modest number of followers) but I actually spend LESS time on that than I used to on forums, IM and email… next post will explain how and why.

I hope that lot helps – PLEASE post suggestions – I’m still working this one out. Blog about it, and post a link in the comments, ask questions if I’m using geek terms you don’t get. This shit is important because it threatens to swamp our time to be human, creative and alive. Help me out here…

Tags: cool links · Geek · Managing Information Streams · New Music Strategies · Random Catchup · tips for musicians · website recommendations

the ecosystem is wrong… why facebook for music still doesn't beat Myspace…

March 1st, 2008 · 3 Comments

Jeff Schmidt just linked to this article via his Google Shared Items (find them in the side bar on his blog and grab the RSS feed) –

Facebook Music Rocks, in which the author waxes lyrical about how functional the Facebook music pages are. Which is true, they are, functionally, kicking the ass of MySpace, with the option to embed lots of stuff, and present it in a facebook profile-like way, so the target audience understand it.

We know that, I’ve blogged about that before (click the ‘facebook’ tag at the bottom of this post for all the stuff I’ve written about facebook… grab the feed for that tag too, if all you’re interested in are facebook stories… :o) – the problem is about ecosystems, and facebook is about connecting with people you already know. Facebook doesn’t have anything like the internal friend-adding currency that Myspace has. If I see someone with 1000+ facebook friends, I assume they’re a bit of a tool.

I, and the vast majority of the people I talk to, use facebook to keep up with friends news, whereabouts, photos and to play scrabulous. I deny almost all the event and application requests I get, I only put stuff on my page that says something about me, and have never that I can remember added f’ing pirates or vampires or werewolves or whatever other nonsense is on there… I don’t even use it for sanctimonious bragging about how green I am to my friends (despite that being my conversation-of-choice in most circumstances… ;o) – it’s about real world connections played out in web-time, and less-so, about finding out about online friends you have from elsewhere. I think I have maybe 3 friends that I first met on facebook, through other friends.

So, what of the musician pages? Worth having? definitely. Especially for indie musicians. Here’s why – your friends are a really important part of your audience. Look, we all know that having a stranger buy your CD or download is way more impressive and thrilling than your mum buying copies for the family for Christmas, but money is money, audience is audience, and your friends are predisposed to give you a fairer hearing than most. And – here’s the facebook catch – they have social currency to gain by telling their friends about their connection to you – almost every artist I am a fan of on Facebook is one I know personally. They are people I’m proud to know, regard as friends and want to help out.

So use facebook music, now, to mobilise friends. It may well be – in fact, it’s likely – that the facebook ecosystem will shift, and more people will embrace the idea of finding music there, of searching for great music etc. At which time you HAVE to have your ‘ducks in a row’ – your page set up, your core base of REAL WORLD FRIENDS (and family members) on there using it, and spreading the word.

Make the most of your friends as a fan-base and defacto street-team. That’s where facebook works REALLY well right now.

click here to go to my musician page on facebook
and here for To The Left Of The Mainstream

(oh, and grab my google reader shared items from the side bar on the front page here while you’re at it – there’s some great stuff there…)

Tags: cool links · Geek · New Music Strategies · tips for musicians · website recommendations

Critical, pragmatic, self-belief – an artist's life-blood…

February 27th, 2008 · 4 Comments

Had a lovely morning giving a lecture/masterclass at the ACM today. It was extra-fun because I was given a topic I hadn’t spoken on before, but was given it at too short notice to have time to prepare so I had to wing it. And it went great, at least from where I was stood (which as we’ll discover, is the best place to judge it from…)

I was asked to talk about putting together a set list, and preparing ‘programme notes’ or promotional material… we didn’t spend much time on the last bit, as I got really into the theme of the first bit.

The first thing I highlighted was the danger of mechanistic formulae for ‘how things work’ – in any creative pursuit, following the tried-and-tested paths to the letter is a recipe for mediocrity, for blending in, disappearing into the general morass of non-descript music. This doesn’t mean that learning about those formulae was a bad thing, just that there is no ‘if you do this, then you’ll be great’ about any creative pursuit. Everybody wants the ‘one piece of advice‘ that’s going to send you over the edge – as I mentioned in the Bull-Schmidt podcast I once heard a kid ask John Scofield what kind of things he’d play over a Dmin7 chord, obviously hoping for some magical one line key to unlock sounding like Sco… clearly, that’s bollocks. It doesn’t mean that you couldn’t find within Sco’s phrasiology some repeated ideas that are common to the way he plays over min7 chords, it just means that those aren’t what makes his playing connect… Using the 9th a lot isn’t a formula for sounding great, even if it is what a particular soloist does a lot…

So where do we start? Well we start with a guiding principle, but instead of it being one to lock things up and give us a tidy outcome, it’s wildly open ended, and ultimately a call to being mindful of every bit of music or performance you come into contact with… The principle is one of ultimately trusting your instinct, your gut, your own taste.

Why? Why trust your own taste? Primarily because it’s pretty much all you’ve got. There are so few people in the world who can successfully and repeatedly second-guess the taste of a particular music buying audience, that it’s fairly safe to assume that you’re not one of them. And, as Jeff Schmidt pointed out here, so much of it is completely random anway… So, your own taste – why go with it? Because unless you’re the kind of person who gets off on the sound of the fridge door opening and closing, the chances are there’s something pretty standard, broad and interesting about the music that excites you. It probably won’t be completely ‘mainstream’ (serious musicians with completely mainstream taste scare me) but will probably feature an appreciation of some stuff that your more snobbish listening-only friends would dismiss as ‘too pop’…

So you embrace your own taste, you reconise that there’s a reason why you like the things you do, there’s a way they make you feel, there’s a way that the music you choose to put on soundtracks your world (here comes the pay-off) – and you attempt to write and perform music that makes you feel the way that music makes you fee. That’s a very different thing from trying to sound like someone else. Soundalikes are generally compared unfavorably to their primary influence. You might convince some short-termist record company goon that you’re worth a punt because the band you’re ripping off are successful. You might even sell millions of records. But it’s phenomenally unlikely, and not really a good bet, given that your stake is ‘every waking hour’…

No, if you go with your taste, and aim to write and perform music that soundtracks your life in the way that the music you love does, you’ll be writing music you love, but music that tells your story. You’ll be combining the emotional imprint of the different things that inspire you, and building up a range of emotions and stories and feelings to soundtrack.

However (there’s always an however), what needs to happen then is to critique your own taste and filters. To critique your perception of what you do. Because as well as being most in touch with your own taste, you’re also the one most likely to be seduced by the idea of what you’re doing do the point where you mis-judge your own execution of that idea.

And that, dear bloglings, is a life long process of refinement. Of listening, playing, resting, listening, of being surprised and disappointed, restless, enthralled, of peaks and troughs and plateaus. And advice.

The advice bit is a real headache. Why? Because everyone will want to give you their opinion on what you do and most of them will be a waste of oxygen. Again you ask, why? Because precious few people will take the time to try and understand what you’re trying to do, to offer advice that helps you reach for your goals. So few people realise that their taste has pretty much nothing to do with whether what you do is ‘right’ or ‘good enough’ or whatever.

It’s why posting your music on a web forum and asking ‘what do you think?’ can be a very effective promotional method, but is worse than useless as part of the critical process. It just provides taste-based opinions entirely without context and as we’ve said many times before context is everything. It’s quite possible for people to say that great music is great for all the wrong reasons. It’s possible for positive feedback to be deeply unhelpful.

The interwebs are full of people who will tell you why they don’t like what you do, what you’re doing wrong, why your songs are too fast/slow/ repetitive/poppy/ rocky/obscure/ bassy/trebly/ spikey/dull/complex… the list is endless, and the ascii-rendered brain-vomit that they produce is pointless.

What you should really be trying to build is a council of referencea group of people who have demonstrated beyond doubt that they get what you’re trying to do, who are sympathetic to your approach, desires, inspiration and goals, and who want to help. A few groups of people are immediately disqualified –

  • anyone with a dispensation towards jealousy when they hear other great music, *anyone who’s on your pay-roll (if they feel their job is at risk if they piss you off, no-one’s going to tell you you need to work harder),
  • people who are always telling you how other people should be doing their thing.

Finding those people who have a desire to help, to support encourage and to push you to be the best you can be is a rare rare treasure. Hold onto them. And perhaps even more importantly – both in terms of the learning exercise and the karmic fall-out – BE THAT PERSON TO THOSE WHOSE MUSIC YOU HOLD DEAR.

What does all this have to do with putting a set list together? Everything. Getting, as our ‘merkin friends say, your ‘ducks in a row’ is vital before starting to decide things like this. Guiding principles are vital because our thoughts need guiding.

When you’re thinking about what the first song in your set should be, there are loads of things to consider. Firstly, who your audience is – do they know who you are? Do you have a reputation to them that is bigger in their minds than their actual knowledge of what you do? Are they already onside? Is it a genre-specific event? From those and other related questions, you can deduce an approach, based on whether you want to confirm or confound those expectations. Do you want to ease in gently, or lay your cards on the table?

Gigging to a new or new-ish audience is the art of seduction, you’re trying to draw people in, get them interested, get them feeling positive about what you do, and expectant for what’s coming next. You can lay out a manifesto in your first song, or just put them at ease. You can be confrontational in a ‘this is us, screw you if you don’t get it’ kind of way, or your can say ‘come on in, the water’s lovely’ and invite people to join you in your soundtracked smiley world.

And from thence the journey continues – how long is the set? do you have a long time to do the slow build, or do you only have four songs to wow them? is there a ballad or two that you want to fit in. Where do you fit the freaky song in? do you want to throw in a curve ball, and do a song just bass, spoons and four part harmonies, even though you’re a screamo band?

It can all work, there are no hard and fast rules, and for every formula there’s a breath-takingly great band that have printed out said formula and wiped their arses with it.

Do what works, but constantly critique what it is that you think works. The key to keeping a balance (and well done if you’ve read this far!) is a principle I apply to just about everything, that of ‘pragmatic self-assurance’ – I assume I’m right and operate as though I am, whilst being constantly open to the possibility that I’m wrong. Any criticism that has context, that is shared by someone who wants you to grow not fail, who has proven they understand your goals and wants to help you towards them, is to be cherished and heeded. Reviews in fanzines and critiques from muppets on web-forums and email-lists, who write to belittle what you do for whatever odd pointless reasons are to be avoided. Don’t even read them. Go elsewhere for the critique you need, to a deeper place.

And never stop learning. (this’ll be my last point in this hugely overly-long blog post) – for any music student, it’s catastrophic for you to study music with the idea that there is some kind of difference between what you’re trying to do and what your teachers or other pro musicians should be doing. We’re all trying to play the best music we can, and to communicate it as best we can to an audience. Passing exams is neither here nor there. It’s not a bad thing, but it’s also no indicator of whether you’re going to be ‘successful’ at what you do. It can provide a useful framework for learning, I’m not suggesting that formalised education is a bad thing, but it has to be about you as a musician growing, learning and more fully realising who you already are. I didn’t stop studying when I left college, and I didn’t start being a creative musician when I ‘turned pro’ – whatever that means. All that changed was how the bills got paid. On an epistemological level, I’m doing the same thing now as I did when I first picked up a bass and started whacking the strings with a thumb pick. I’m trying to develop the control and awareness I need to make music that soundtracks the world around me.

It’s simple in concept, and lifelong in execution. Enjoy the journey.

Tags: journalism · Rant - Politics, Spirituality, etc. · tips for musicians

To The Left Of The Mainstream – new music recommendations

February 25th, 2008 · 4 Comments

I’ve written before about the need for filtering in the online music world – there’s just too much music and not enough time to leave it all to chance. As Jeff Schmidt just expressed it on twitter – “curation is vital”.

Which is why I’ve just started To The Left Of The Mainstream – a twitter-based music recommendation feed. I’ll post at least once a day, sometimes more, with links to great artists, with the proviso that all the sites will provide full track on demand streaming tracks or downloads. They’ll mainly be from Myspace, last.fm and Reverb Nation

So if you’re on twitter (you should be), you can ‘follow’ TTLOTM on there, or just click the link and then grab the RSS feed to follow it in google reader or safari or wherever. I’m sure you’ll find loads of great new music through it.

Stylistically, it’ll run the gamut from singer/songwriters to ambient music, rock bands to chamber works, electronica to nu-jazz. All the kinds of things I love. There’ll be no ‘buy-ons’, as it’s only going to be of any value at all if the sole criteria is quality…

That doesn’t mean I’m not taking recommendations – make those in the comments below please (rule #325, you can’t recommend yourself! ;o)

Tags: cool links · Geek · New Music Strategies · tips for musicians · website recommendations

Billy Bragg/KT Tunstall at HMV – the value of screwing it up…

February 19th, 2008 · 2 Comments

I went to a fabulous lunchtime gig yesterday – Billy Bragg and KT Tunstall at HMV on Oxford Street. I had no idea why they were doing it before I went – I assumed it was as promo for the iTunes festival that’s coming up, where both of them are on a bill with the wonderful Leo Abrahams.

As it turned out it was as promo for Q magazine’s top 100 greatest british pop/rock albums or some such bollocks. Q magazine used to be good, but is now, sadly, largely unreadable shit. Endless top lists of either journo picked or reader-submitted stuff, rehashing the tired and nonsensical line that they greatest bands in the history of music are Radiohead, Oasis and Nirvana (nothing against those three in particular, though I not a big fan of any of them, just that it’s pretty pointless saying it in every other issue…).

Anyway, what it meant for the gig was that Billy and KT did a whole slew of great cover versions, most of which neither of them knew particularly well. Peppered in amongst more polished versions of songs like ‘Every Day Is Like Sunday’ (KT, complete with looped vocal harmonies), ‘Ever Falling In Love With Someone (Billy’s Buzzcocks tribute) and ‘The Drugs Don’t Work’ (both of them together) were really ropey versions of ‘Don’t You Want Me Baby’ and ‘I Predict A Riot’.

But here’s the thing (as Trip might say), the rubbish performances were at least as affecting, engaging and entertaining as the ones that ‘worked’ – there’s something really magical about seeing musicians over-stretch themselves and not take it too seriously, not getting to precious. Billy Bragg has long been not just one of my favourite songwriters and guitarists (he is, as I’ve said before, a guitar genius, IMO) but one of my most favouritest performers, speakers, writers… he’s just great, and his sense of adventure in trying songs that he doesn’t know the right chords to etc. is just wonderful.

And KT Tunstall was always utterly mis-labelled as part of the Blunt/Morrison etc. crowd – she’s been playing live for over 10 years, playing folk clubs, coffee shops, festivals, learning her craft, and no doubt spending night after night playing requests that she barely knows and getting away with it. That Sony manage to strip away all the energy, vibe and magic from her performance on her records is both sad and a testament to her strength of character that they still manage to be far better records that the rest of the ‘nu-acoustic’ crowd can come up with, but in a situation like this she really shines. She has fun on stage, she reaches for things, she’s willing to look a bit of a muppet and as such draws everyone in.

Here are some pics that Sarda took of the gig – damn, he’s getting good at this photography business!

Anyway, the lesson is – take risks, have fun, and don’t be afraid to look a bit of a berk on stage, it’ll make you look far more human, engaging and funny to your audience…

For reference, you might want to watch mine and Lo’s version of ‘Love Is A Battlefield’ –

(and here’s a link to one of the songs they did – Don’t You Want Me Baby – but be warned the quality is REALLY bad.

Tags: music reviews · Musing on Music