Monthly Archives: May 2012

The Perils of Exposing Oneself… and Whoopie Pies!

I love playing live, but I’ve been realizing more and more that it’s a mixed blessing to have several shows in quick succession.  Sure, the only way a performer gets exposure is by, ahem, exposing himself.  Too much exposure, though, leads to saturation, which dilutes the audience base and causes fewer people to come out to see you.  So you have to ride that thin line between playing too often and having people not want to see you, and playing too infrequently and having people have no idea who you are.

I’ll be the first to admit that I do not have this balance figured out yet.  At the beginning of April, I booked myself for 4 shows across the next two months.  Right after I finished booking the last one, I realized that I might have made a mistake.  Not only had I potentially saturated the market, but the venues themselves had some potential problems.

Venue 1 is an ideal space to play in: a coffee shop with no cover charge.  I’d be playing for tips, but I had done rather well there in the past, and there was a lot of foot traffic.  I also had 3 hours to do my thing, so I’d get to be a little more experimental, which would make the show memorable.  On the other hand, it’s 25 miles from Philadelphia, so I couldn’t depend on my usual cadre of fans to come out.

Venue 2 is a great space in Philly with a fantastic sound system, good reputation, and spacious room.  There’s a significant cover charge, and I’d only get paid if a certain number of people show up.  The downside is that I’d only have a 20 minute set.  For my fans to come and pay a chunk of change for a ticket, I feel bad that I’ll only be on stage for that short of a time.  Also, I found the last time that I played there that a large number of people preferred to talk loudly at the bar than to listen to the performers, which is demoralizing.

Venue 3 (and 4) is a newer space in Philly with a big room and lots of potential.  There’s a cover charge and once again, I’d only get paid if I brought in a certain number of people.  Since it’s a newer venue, they’re still working out the kinks in the sound system and the lighting.  Unfortunately, many of my fans came while they were still working things out, and as a result, they have negative association with the venue.

Still wanting to expose myself as frequently as possible (does that joke ever get old?), I knew I needed to create an incentive for people to come to my shows.  I came up with the Neon and Shy Punchcard game, in which I put the 4 shows on a small card and handed them out at the shows I was playing.  For each show attended across the 2 months, I would stamp the card.  Depending on how many a person went to, fabulous prizes could be won:

  1. A pat on the back
  2. A homemade whoopie pie
  3. A private concert in the backseat of your car for you and up to 2 friends
  4. A free copy of my cd (when it comes out)

I liked the idea of making it fun and whimsical.  I also thought the prize for three attendances was hilarious.

So how did it work out?  I’m not sure how well it worked as an incentive.  The people who were into it thought it was really fun, but I get the sense that they would have come to see my show anyway.  Tonight I have my last show on the card, and the only prize that anyone will be winning is a whoopie pie.  So I don’t even get to give the private concert.  I’m glad I tried it out though, in my continuing quest to figure out how to market myself.  At the very least, it gives me an excuse to bake whoopie pies.

Speaking of which, I really enjoy baking.  I’ve always enjoyed the process of following a baking recipe, though these days I’m willing to improvise a bit more.  It’s neat to see how small changes affect the outcome.  I’m told I’m quite good at it, but I attribute that almost exclusively to the oven in my house, which heats very evenly.  I also use real butter.  Lots of butter.  Unsalted European butter.  Plugra in the gold wrapper, to be specific.  I think that also makes a huge difference.

This morning and afternoon, I’ll be baking whoopie pies for the two-show attendees, using a recipe I found at the Whoopie Pie Historical Society.

Inexplicably, this recipe calls for shortening for both the cake and the filling.  The filling is supposed to be a buttercream.  Shortening is unacceptable (as I unfortunately found out once), so it’s Plugra all the way for me.  I’ll leave you with my changes to the recipe.

New England Whoopie Pie Recipe

Yields: 9 large whoopie pies
Prep time: 30 min
Cook time: 15 min

Whoopie Pie

Whoopie!

Ingredients:

1/2 cup butter
1 cup firmly-packed brown sugar
1 egg
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 cup milk
Whoopie Pie Filling (see recipe below)

Preparation:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Lightly grease baking sheets (I use silpats).

In a large bowl, cream together butter, sugar, and egg.

In another bowl, combine cocoa, flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.

In a small bowl, stir the vanilla extract into the milk. Add the dry ingredients to the butter mixture, alternating with the milk mixture; beating until smooth.

Drop batter by the 1/4 cup (to make 18 cakes) onto prepared baking sheets. With the back of a spoon spread batter into 4-inch circles, leaving approximately 2 inches between each cake.

Bake 15 minutes or until they are firm to the touch. Remove from oven and let cool completely on a wire rack.

Make Whoopie Pie Filling. When the cakes are completely cool, spread the flat side (bottom) of one chocolate cake with a generous amount of filling. Top with another cake, pressing down gently to distribute the filling evenly. Repeat with all cookies to make 9 pies. Let finished whoopie pies completely cool before wrapping. Wrap whoopie pies individually in plastic wrap, or place them in a single layer on a platter (do not stack them, as they tend to stick).

To freeze, wrap each whoopie pie in plastic wrap. Loosely pack them in a plastic freezer container and cover. To serve, defrost the wrapped whoopie pies in the refrigerator.

Makes 9 large whoopie pies.

Whoopie Pie Filling:

1 cup butter (yes, that’s 2 sticks!)
1 1/2 cups powdered (confectioner’s) sugar
2 cups Marshmallow Fluff**
1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

** Marshmallow Creme may be substituted.

In a medium bow, beat together butter, sugar, and Marshmallow fluff; stir in vanilla extract until well blended.

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Creative Projects, Constraints, and Bokononism

Every few years, I like to challenge myself with an extended creative project.  My most recent one has been my recording project in 2011.  Each month in 2011, I recorded one song of mine in my home studio.  By setting up the artificial deadline of one song per month, I was able to get recording done that would have otherwise fallen by the wayside.  I also was forced to write a few new songs (I didn’t have 12 songs ready to go).  While it was stressful, and there were several times across the process I thought I’d have to give it up, the impetus I gave myself and the constraints I provided helped me to finish.  It was overwhelmingly satisfying to see the number of songs tick upward each month.  When I got to twelve, I was blown away that I was able to accomplish so much.  I’m currently in the process of turning them into a cd, though you can hear the rough results of the project here.

In 2007, after just having taken a job that allowed me to commute via train, I decided that doing the crossword puzzles, while entertaining, was not ultimately fulfilling.  So on my birthday, I began bringing a sheet of paper with me on the train, and each workday for a full year I wrote a poem.   I gave myself two constraints for the project:

Constraint #1 was that I had to write every day I rode the train.  Giving myself leeway here meant allowing myself to just give up the project; it’s too easy to just start taking days off.  Here it was important to give myself realistic timelines to accomplish what I wanted to do.  It wasn’t like I was doing anything else super important while I was riding the train.

Constraint #2 was that the poem should be started no earlier than when I arrived at the Wissahickon train station, and finished no later than when I arrived at work.  That’s three stops on the [Septa Regional Rail line formerly known as] R6, generally lasting between 12 and 15 minutes.  Sometimes I put the finishing touches on a poem while walking to my office or when I sat down at my desk, but most times it was done by the time I left the train.

Dan on the train

SEPTA after the apocalypse 

Photo by Hilary Woodward

Within the first week or two of the project, I noticed that 15 minutes was not always enough time to create something of value.  I was starting to write some seriously bad poetry.  Rather than being demoralizing, though, this became liberating.  If I wasn’t obligated to come up with something poignant, charming, or groundbreaking, I had freedom to create without judgment.  In Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, there is a fictional religion called Bokononism filled with its own customs and rituals.  When a follower of Bokononism meets someone shy (not neon…), their customary greeting is “it is not possible to make a mistake.”  In addition to being a delightful way to put someone at ease, this phrase works very well as an approach to forced writing.  I was allowed to experiment, and while some ideas did not come to fruition, many did.  I found that the constraint was helpful in lifting my judgment; by forcing myself to be done within 15 minutes, finishing became a priority over quality.

The result was about 225 poems compiled in a notebook, many of which are so bad that they will never see the light of day.  However, I found many of the remaining ones moving and inspiring.  At the end of the year, I learned the basics of bookbinding and compiled about 25 of my favorites into a homemade book.  I made about 12 and gave them out as Christmas presents.  Several of the poems have gone on to be made into songs, some of which ended up on my 2011 song project.

My friend Samantha has taken a similar idea to create one illustration each month this year, which you can check out at her blog.  Samantha is an accomplished artist and designer as well as a talented “createur,” and still she finds new ways to challenge herself and her abilities.

So if you’re looking to inspire yourself, I can’t recommend enough assigning yourself a project, even if it’s just arbitrary.  Set up a clear goal (I want to create X thingies), apply constraints (each one has to be begun and finished within Y periods of time), and shed your judgment (if I make a bad thingie, that’s not only acceptable, but an expected part of the process).  You’ll be surprised how much you can create and how much hidden talent you possess.

All the Ladies I Loved Love Ladies Now

Recently I’ve been analyzing my songwriting process, exploring the method in which I write and looking for ways I can help other people write songs.  So today I’ll be breaking down one of my songs and walking through the thought process of its creation.  There’s something inherently self-indulgent about analyzing this on a blog, so forgive me if I get squeamish.

So first, for reference, here’s the song:

Usually, a song starts out as a single concept or statement that I find interesting.  In this case, “what does it feel like to find out that someone you loved now no longer is interested in dating in your gender?”  As an aside, this song falls into the category of somewhat true.  A number of women I’ve dated have later entered into relationships with women.

There are plenty of cultural tropes that play on this theme:  “You must have been a pretty crappy lover to turn her off of men,” or “what did I do to make her gay?”  They’re the low-hanging fruit in this case, since not only are they common, but queer studies indicate that they’re not really relevant.  Being gay is not a choice; it’s part of your identity.  As good or bad as you are as a lover, you can’t “make” someone gay.  In fact, it’s downright arrogant to think that your behaviors have fundamentally affected the other person’s sexual identity.  As I was mulling over the different directions this theme takes, I kept coming back to feeling hurt and snubbed and trying to understand why.

That’s when I realized that exploring the feeling of rejection based on sexual preference was much more interesting than the simple fact that I dated women who later discovered that they were gay.  When you put the two ideas together, you get a song that’s funny on the surface (“Why am I so unlucky that I keep dating women that want other women?  Wah wah waaaaah…”), but also introspective (“How am I supposed to feel after learning you don’t like men anymore?”).

And thus you get the chorus:

All the ladies I loved love ladies now
Which you could argue they would have anyhow
I know it wasn’t a choice
That turned you off of the boys
And it’s more hubris than I can allow
But all the ladies I loved love ladies, ladies now

I wrote the first line of this while swimming one day, which is where all my good ideas seem to come.  I’m a sucker for alliteration and palindromes, and that first line has them both.  From there it was just finding a rhythmic structure that worked, and setting up interesting rhymes that maintained the theme.  Since it turned out to be catchy (the hook, if you will), it became a good candidate for the chorus of the song.

Family and Partner

The stalked Facebook profile in question

This meant that I’d have one verse to set up the exposition.  I’d have to explain that there were women I dated and later found out that they changed (or discovered) their sexual identity.  In real life, I found this by the fine art of Facebook stalking, so I worked it into the song.  Seeing the “photo of you embracing your girl,” and “your interests listed as your family and partner,” both are implicitly results of stalking the social media network of your choice.

At this point I had begun to play around with the music.  I’m a very chordal songwriter, in that I tend to come up with a harmonic structure first, then craft a melody that fits the words and the chords.  I found a little descending harmonic line I liked, and worked it into the verse.  For the chorus, I found a pattern and then reversed part of it:

G C em D
G D em C

Here’s the earliest demo recording I made, so I wouldn’t forget what I had done so far:

The lyrics for most of the rest of the song teeter between confusion and anger.  If I was the person who turned you off of men, what’s so bad about me?  And if I didn’t, was I really that insignificant in your life?  But I’d like to think the persona is coming to peace with these self-esteem punches in the gut.

My good friend Carmaig de Forest once told me that the bridge of the song should approach the themes of the song from a different perspective and also have a different harmonic structure.  So the bridge is the angry exasperation, the basest impulse, followed by a plea for leniency in judgment:

Did you gag when I disrobed?
Flick the switch on your left lobe
Please don’t tell me I’m a homophobe

I jump from G to the key of E-flat here which is a bit jarring, but that’s the point.  After a brief solo, I come back to the pre-chorus to continue the mixed feelings:

You weren’t so fine
But you were mine
I don’t know how

Then for the outro, I jump briefly back to E-flat leading up to the final chord in G.  The “superman” progression so to speak.

The whole writing process took me about a week or so, in thinking of the words, tying them to chords and melodies, and coming up with an arrangement.  It probably was a total of 3 or so hours of physical work with a lot of thinking in between.  But that’s the process that works for me.  I’m curious if other songwriters out there identify with my way of doing it, and if there are parts that are totally alien.

Thanks for listening!

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