When I was a kid, I grew up listening to the Beatles. My sister Denise, older and wiser, exposed me to a lot of classic rock, but the Beatles were, by far, the toppermost of the poppermost. I found I loved the middle period the most — A Hard Day’s Night and Help! through Sgt. Pepper. When I taught myself to play guitar, it was with a Beatles songbook that I’d found at a neighborhood yard sale. Seven chords unlocked a full third of the Beatles’ entire recorded output — what a thrill! Pete Townshend and Billy Joel offered even more polished songwriting examples; I particularly liked 1982’s The Nylon Curtain, which wears its Beatles influence on its record sleeve. Side dishes of novelty acts like Spike Jones, “Weird Al” Yankovic, and Tom Lehrer (in that order, from grade school through high school) gave my musical outlook a funny spin.
College brought Kat, and Kat brought Barenaked Ladies. This was the first potent mix of my influences — funny pop culture and brilliant pop songcraft. Every time I heard a song like “If I Had $1,000,000” or “Grade 9,” I said “I wish I’d written that.” I didn’t necessarily think I could; I just wished I had. Most people found BNL through “One Week” but I’d been following the band for almost 10 years by that point; that was the least of their accomplishments to me. Meanwhile, I finally got to play live with a band of friends, doing covers at backyard parties.
California brought Andy, who shared my love for the clever pop songwriting in bands like Toy Matinee (another of my sister’s recommendations) and Fountains of Wayne (which I didn’t take to right away, but Andy got immediately). And more and more, I found myself thinking, “God, I wish I could write that.” And I realized I had not only a dusty four-track, but a folder full of half-written songs, half-baked ideas, and half-clever turns of phrase. And there it sat, because I was afraid of it.
Soon it became a question — or rather, an excuse — of gear. “Oh, I can’ t write my own stuff because not only will it suck, but this four-track is nasty! I don’t have a good microphone! I need a mixer! I don’t have a good way to record my guitar!” So I made that last as long as I could, and extended it even further by focusing on Fast Times — a gigging cover band with good shows and enough additional income to feed the gear addiction. As a cover band, FT gave me everything I wanted.
I joined Fast Times to prove to myself that I could do it. I lost confidence in my voice after high school and didn’t get it back until I started screwing around with karaoke. Could I sing in a gigging band? With enough practice and the right people, the answer turned out to be yes. And it turned out to be yes a long time ago. In fact, I left the band about three years ago in a life panic, then came back 10 months later when invited to return. (It got comfortable enough that Jude and I spun off another cover project, Palette-Swap Ninja, which I still find creatively rewarding.) All told it’s been four or five years.
In that time, I’ve heard even more Fountains of Wayne, plus Me First and the Gimme Gimmes, OK Go, Jonathan Coulton…power pop, pop-punk, clever songwriters. More talented people I wanted to be, more inspiring songs I wish I had written. And that includes creative personal friends like Chris Mitra and Joe Iadanza, both of whom I made music with casually and socially, and both of whom sat down and did exactly what I have always wanted — but been too comfortable, distracted, or simply afraid — to do.
So I guess it’s time to try. I’m stepping out of Fast Times because I do not want to be buried with a folder of ideas; I want to be buried with a CD of them. I proved what I set out to prove to myself with FT and I feel like it’s just time to prove something else. As my gaming friends will understand best: I finished the campaign and I got all the Achievements I think I’m going to get. It’s a great game; I just would like to play some other ones now. I’ll let you know when my last full-time gig is, and I’ve been invited to sub with the band when they need a male vocalist, which sounds good to me.
I have a good eight or nine song concepts that are ready to go without even digging through the scraps in the folder; I have all the gear I need (and then some); and now I will have the time — and more importantly, the mental space — to make my own music.
I don’t really care right now if other people like the songs I wind up writing. I just want them to exist.