Thursday, September 18, 2014

"What do you actually DO, man?"

   So, people always ask me: "What do you actually DO, man? I mean, what does your week look like? Are you making music, are you in the studio? What do you actually do?"
   Let's take, say, last week, the past week of September 8th, 2014. Among other things, I will: host studio rehearsal sessions for some of the most amazing musicians I know. I'll arrange, produce and perform a song for the Phoenix Theatre. I'll finish up a short film score for producer David Yosha.  And, I'll prep for a two-hour acoustic performance of songs I've written through the years with my collaborator David Rheins.
   The week starts busy hosting Jazz Fest/Josh Kaufman rehearsals at my studio, Hit City Recording, located at 54th and College in Indianapolis, the heart of the now-you-can't-find-a-parking-space "Sobro" neighborhood. You probably all know the story by now: local bad-ass singer-songwriter Josh Kaufman actually wins the big NBC vocal competition show "The Voice" this spring. So the Indy Jazz Fest puts together a big, all-star band to back him up at at a concert this past Saturday night at the Old National Center. They gotta rehearse, so my old pal - and Josh's music director for this - Rob Dixon books the studio for a handful of rehearsals.
   So Monday morning I'm scrambling around the studio: vacuuming (turns out, not enough: news anchor Andrea Morehead from NBC affiliate WTHR-13 shows up to tape an interview and some rehearsal. No-one told me; I would have vacuumed more), a lot of setting up to do, it's a big band. Two drummers, two bassists (not at the same time, silly) two keyboard players (yes at the same time, and one of them is my old buddy Kevin Anker - man, I love hearing him play and laughing with him on breaks), guitar, vibes, FIVE horns, THREE background singers. Oh yeah, and Josh singing. Imagine a slamming 16-piece band kicking it in your living room. Yeah, so it was pretty cool. They're gonna rehearse Tuesday and Wednesday, too.
   After the Monday Josh rehearsal, it's off to meet the one and only Tom Alvarez (TV personality, arts critic) at a cocktail party he's co-hosting welcoming Joey Amato, the publisher of Unite Magazine, to Indianapolis. (Unite is a high-quality, glossy LGBT-centric magazine that just launched here, their third market, I believe.) I get to talk TV with producer Terry Lingner, and theatre with Frank and Katrina Basile.
   Oh yeah, theatre. Damn, I remember I have to get to work on a piece for the Phoenix. (I'm on creative staff there, composer/sound designer-in-residence). The 32nd year (!?!) of the Phoenix is opening THIS WEEK with a new play, a dark modern comedy titled "Clark Gable Slept Here". Bryan Fonseca, Phoenix Producing Director, is also directing the show and being able to work and hang out with him is one of the joys of my life. He's so freaking good at what he does, and he does it all with heart and guts and joy. So...he wants to end the show with a moody snippet of some "show-biz" song. He's got a version of "No Business Like Show Business" by the great cabaret singer Susannah McCorkle rattling around in his head, but he wants me to come up with something, maybe "Hooray For Hollywood"?
   Time to research some songs, one of my favorite things. Turns out I like "Hooray For Hollywood" way better; first off, it's a Johnny Mercer lyric, so of course I'm going to like it better. (No offense, Irving Berlin fans). It's off to the Central Library to get the sheet music. (Yeah, I could have bought it online, but I like the library.) Turns out the music for "Hooray", written by Richard Whiting, is deceptively complex: it seems like such a simple little song, but it's full of interesting melodic choices against seemingly-mundane chords, it has a unique, non-cookie cutter structure. It's tough, so I'm going to have to learn it slow, measure by measure, for a few days until I get it properly into this thick skull o' mine. (It's really the way you should learn all songs - slowly - but who has the time? And the Internet makes it so easy to play something NOW.)
   OK, so for the next few days I will be taking little breaks to work on learning "Hooray", which is due by Saturday at the latest. Saturday, Saturday.....wasn't there something else due Saturday? Oh yeah, the short film that David Yosha asked me to work on has to be submitted to the Sundance Festival by Saturday. It's called "Unspeakable", and it's an 8-minute suspense/"magical realism"-type short written and directed by Darren Dean, a friend of my friend David. David's an incredibly talented cinematographer/filmmaker and runs his Magnet Films production facility in Broad Ripple. I've known and worked with and dug David since the early years of Hit City, back in the '80's when we'd score the occasional TV spot when he was with Cinema Associates.
   But I haven't done a film score in awhile. I've done them through the years, but seriously, it's been ages. Must say: it sure is easier here in the future. I mean, my whole career has pretty much been a battle of wits and will: how can I acquire the resources and skills needed to create what I am so apparently driven to create? In these days of more powerful computing - and software synthesis and plug-ins and digital video - it's never been easier for a composer to create a film score on his own.
   But it's still really hard to make it not suck.
   I've been working on it - off and on - for months. David would stop in periodically, shake his head and give me notes, and I'd get back to work. Finally, I realized I was trying to hard to go against convention: the film is basically a condensed neo-episode of "The Twilight Zone", so go with that, dude. Build suspense when needed, find all the transition points between current time and flashbacks, find some subtle musical motifs for the main characters. All the basics. The obvious is obvious because, um, it's normally the right choice. So finally it's getting there. But I'm having so much fun with all the little sound design things: finding a perfect truck sound to go by in the background of the pick-up truck scene, finding just the right "crickets-at-night" sound level. At some point, though, you have to be done. As Oscar Wilde once said: work is never completed, it's abandoned.
   And besides, I gotta get back to work on "Hooray For Hollywood", where was i? Oh yeah, "that screwy, bally-hooey Hollywood". Johnny Mercer, wow.
  The week cruises on. On Wednesday, I get some not-so-great news: my long-time client, Chateau Thomas Wineries, are suspending their live music efforts for the time being. Including Friday's big outdoor gig with my rock band, the Bleeding Hearts, in Plainfield. The indefinite hiatus may or may not be about publishing fees live venues have to pay to the major performing rights societies (ASCAP, BMI, SESAC). In any event, I have to call the band and break the news, but first I talk to Dr. Thomas, a really inspiring guy, and get to thank him for all the nights of wine and song - and try to sell him on maybe presenting all-original music?
   Original music. Why is that ringing a bell? Oh yeah, Saturday night I'm playing an all-original show at this new, fabulous off-the-beaten-path restaurant in Bargersville, Bistro 226.  I saw my songwriter buddy Frank Dean had a gig down there a month ago singing with LuAnn Lancton, so I went down to a Thursday open stage and just had a blast. Fantastic music-loving staff. it's just such a great place, a cool vibe, you know what I mean? My sister Catherine would say it's the kind of place where you walk in, look around and go "My people!". Stand-alone building, gravel parking lot, atmospheric rustic back patio with exposed beams and a cool little barn-like stage, a great dining room and cozy little bar. And the food is so good I saw the owners of the hippest new restaurant in Indy dining there.
   And they let you play your own music. In fact, they encourage it. Time to brush up on some of our songs. David Rheins and I have been writing together since high-school and we've never really stopped, even though he's a little busy now entrepreneuring in Seattle. (After a career primarily in magazine publishing - Rolling Stone, Spin, Time-AOL - he has formed the MJBA, which is quickly becoming the Chamber of Commerce for the legal Cannabis industry there.) Over a hundred songs we've written, probably. I've put two albums of them out through the years, have been working on another off-and-on - so I'm going through those songs, new ones, old ones left behind. It's fun to revisit them. They exist on their own. It feels good to sing and play them.
   So, how did the week all shake out?
   The Josh K. concert, I'm told, went great. Some pesky early sound problems, but they got sorted out and it was a great show. The Andrea Morehead interview ran on the Friday news before the show and the ol' studio looked pretty good. I finished "Hooray For Hollywood" on Thursday but the snippet we chose was too long; it ended up 1:30 and needed to be more like a minute. So I have to re-edit, re-record (swapping acoustic guitar for my trusty Gibson L-125 jazz model, adding in a little vibraphone and strings at the end) and Bryan is happy. ("Clark Gable" opens Thursday night and runs for a month, please go see it!) The film score got done, the film submitted. And the all-original gig went so good at Bistro 226 that they invited me back to fill an opening this Saturday night, 9.20. (Music starts at 8pm, looks like it's going to be a beautiful warm Fall night on the patio...)
   So, that's what I do, man.

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