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Jay’s Music Exchange™: Singer/Songwriter Mark Brown and RedShadeBlue

December 14, 2009

In Part The First of a two-part series, TBTS’s Jay St. Orts sits down with RedShadeBlue’s Mark Brown to talk about songwriting, recording at Abbey Road vs. Your Basement, and the only downside to becoming a new father: no time for any of these things.

Welcome to Jay’s Music Exchange, where yours truly invites musicians of all skill and decibel levels to talk about the tools of the trade, dish dirt, swap tunes, and–most important of all–share some of the highs and lows of making and listening to that great soother of savage breasts — music.

Q: You have been a solo performer, and now you write and play for RedShadeBlue. Do songs come relatively easily to you, or is it like drawing water from a stone (like for yours truly)? Do you get melodies or words first? How do you deal with writer’s block? Let us laypeople in on your songwriting process, if you’ll oblige.

A:  Some are easily written, some difficult, and some both!  My favorite kind of creativity is when I can ignore the internal “Editor” who lives in my head and criticizes each little idea that arrives.  Maybe that Editor is the Left Brain, or whatever, but it must be silenced if I’m to make it beyond the first step.  Usually, it’s very active; right now, it’s checking each word in this response to your questions.  But when I want to make a song, what works is if I just launch some idea, follow it through, stupid or overdone as it may be, catch it so I don’t forget it, then let the Editor check it out later.

Melodies and words usually fall in mysteriously at the same time.  The sounds of words are just a little more important to me than their meanings, so I’ll often let nonsense have its way.  Maybe the Editor fills in some gaps later.

Writer’s block is when my mental Editor says, “You have to make up something awesome, or you’re wasting time.”  Getting over that, to me, is like a leap of faith à la Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade– the invisible bridge scene.  I have to believe, with all my heart, that whatever I’m about to create is just a stupid song that nobody is going to care about, or even listen to.  Sometimes, then, my reward for that leap is something I might be proud of.

Q: Do you record in a traditional studio or a home studio? Given how easy it is to get quality recordings from relatively inexpensive computers and widely available hardware, anyone with a modicum of inspiration and a spare bedroom or basement can create near-professional (or better…or worse) music at their convenience, free from the demands of meddling producers or the prospect of paying out the arse for “traditional” studio time. If you want to be a musician, you can give it a shot more cheaply and with more access to resources than ever. There are all kinds of places on the Internet to find tutorials for using software, instrument lessons, and many–many–opinions on what to buy if you want to record anything from demos to finished tracks at home. What kind of equipment do you use? Any tips for the budding recording engineer or musician in need of advice? Any pitfalls to warn us about? Sites/books/videos to recommend?

A:  I recorded a bunch of songs in a really nice studio back in 2001, owned and operated by one Paul Petersen, an outstanding musician and all-around audio master who lived in Bowling Green, KY.  That album is called “In Vacuo.”  I love the sound that Paul was able to catch.  I was still pretty green as a performer, and knew almost nothing about recording, so after that I was motivated to learn about home recording so I could do it in my own time and space.

My first bit of “gear” was a Tascam PortaStudio (4-track cassette).  I danced around it for about two years before I began to feel comfortable with it.  This was the pitfall – I wanted to understand everything I could about recording before I tried it.  I read a lot, but learned very little.  It was something like reading the manual for Adobe Photoshop without ever simply opening the program and playing around.

So I would set up mics in my bedroom, ready to record a guitar/vocal take, and get just as nervous as I once was in the “real” studio.  Seriously, I stood there alone, checked the meters, got stressed out, and sweated a lot.  Eventually, I began to record stuff just to hear what it sounded like.  I learned a lot more once I relaxed and had some fun with it.   Now I use a Fostex digital 8-track for recording at home.  Some years of playing with these devices, combined with reading, have enabled me to better understand the language of full-fledged recording geeks whom I admire.

As resources go, I highly recommend getting a free subscription to TapeOp magazine.  You can also get anthologies of back issues and articles.  The editor, Larry Crane, promotes the idea of not worrying about acquiring the perfect gear, but just to record with what you have.  This MacGyver approach encourages creativity in the recording process, which I think you agree is itself an art form.  Amen.

Q: As I’ve gotten more involved in the recording and mixing process myself, I find myself drawn to interviews of producers such as Jim Dickinson and Alan Parsons (he of the frilly poet shirt in the youtube video to which I’ve linked below), among others, and enjoy those as much as watching the instrumentalists. Don’t get me wrong: the mixing board is an instrument; mixing was an art in and of itself, back before automation. If you don’t believe me, listen to Parsons and Dave Gilmour describe all-hands-on-deck mixing sessions for Dark Side of the Moon on the Pink Floyd edition of the Classic Albums series (electronic musicians in the house will “prick their ears up” around the 4-minute mark [when the Synthi A appears], sound engineers at 7:15, and guitarists at 9:20). Do you have any studio heroes? Either particular engineers/producers/etc. or studios themselves (Sun, Abbey Road, etc.), if famous for producing a particular “sound”?

A:  George Martin and Geoff Emerick would have to be on my list of studio heroes.  Their work on Beatles records kind of formed a reference to which I compare everything I hear.  Emerick’s book Here, There, and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Beatles is a nice read for anyone, recording geek or non-.

I visited Sun in Memphis as a teenager, but I didn’t know what I was looking at.  I’m not sure if I can acutely perceive the sounds of rooms that I like; those kinds of studios are another world to me.  However, I enjoy it when unconventional spaces are recorded and recontextualized.  Like some of Tom Wait’s tracks recorded at Sunset or God-knows-where, that sound like field recordings.  Sometimes you can hear the dust shaking off the walls.

The late Elliott Smith was my recording hero as well as an all-around musical hero.  He had a talent for getting inside his listeners’ heads like no one else I’ve heard.  I’m thankful to a good friend who turned me on to his albums in the 90s.  Without that discovery, I would probably be that guy at the party who plays starts playing some power chords while everyone quietly mosies out to another room.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that guy.  A wise person once told me two ways to end a party – 1) get out a guitar, or 2) turn out the lights and put in the movie Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan.

Q: You’ve been an active musician for many years. You’ve recorded several albums; which kind of environment do you prefer? Compare/contrast. What are some favorite memories or least favorites? A favorite/cherished instrument, lost takes, gaffes, etc.?

A:  I prefer recording at home in my bedroom, basement, stairwell, bathroom…. It’s not that I strive for lo-fi, but the performance means more to me on playback if there is some familiar, psycho-acoustic feel there.  I value it more because it’s a document of that place and time.  Sometimes a mistake, either in performance or recording setup, can become a favorite take.  More than once, I’ve recorded dozens of takes of a song only to go back and use the first one.

One more book recommendation I have is The Frustrated Songwriter’s Handbook.  The guys who wrote it invented this game that helps write and record songs quickly.  It’s called the “20 Song Game,” or the “Day Session.”  The idea is to decide on a day with a friend, or several friends, during which you will spend 12 straight hours attempting to write, record, and mix 20 songs.  All songs must start from scratch.  Sounds painful, but it’s actually lots of fun, because you tap into the same game-playing energy that enables some people to play a game for 12 hours straight, such as a video game or maybe Axis and Allies.  You can phone each other throughout the day to share one another’s progress, or some smack-talk.  The result is an urgent creativity that’s both efficient and fun.  And even if you only make 7 or 8 crappy songs, that’s 8 crappy songs you didn’t have before.

So far, I’ve only played this game with my friend Nate.  However, we’d like to try it with more players so, Dear Readers, holler if you’re interested.

Q: That sounds like a hell of a good time, and possibly the kind of pressure I need to stay motivated. I might even join in these reindeer games one day, if you’ll have me.

How do you approach distributing your music once it’s recorded and mixed (and probably obsessed over, as with anything I do)? Where have you seen success? What could be better about your business or marketing model, if anything? The industry? Will collecting payment for online sales improve and become more equitable in the future? Too large a worm-can?

A:  This is the toughest part, for me.  I have had to learn that, no matter how delighted I am with a recording, most people are not going to care about it, or even have time to listen to it.  So I’m pleasantly surprised when someone is.  I might sell a few CDs at gigs.  I have sold a few CDs and mp3s through, a site that’s made distribution easy for indie musicians.

Recently I took down some of my “serious” home recordings from my individual myspace page, and posted Day Session songs to see if anyone checks them out.

I’ll have to start thinking about distribution again soon.  My pal Nate, a talented recording artist, has recorded many songs by my band, and is mixing those now into a couple of future releases.  More band talk in the next interview, right?

Q: Absolutely. In fact, I’ll be sure to bring this up in the second part of this series, when I meet up with the full RSB contingent.

Now, onto gladder tidings yet: you and your wife recently welcomed your first child into this wild world. Congrats from me and all of us here at TBTS!  Has fatherhood had an effect on your music or songwriting? How do you balance your musical inclinations with your other obligations? It might be too early to ask that kind of question, but it is certainly pertinent to most of the musicians I know these days. Anything to share with those of us who are similarly blessed as we wrap up this first Exchange?

A:  Thanks for the warm wishes!  It’s certainly the most important thing I’ll ever do.  My band still practices regularly, but I don’t play or record at home as much as I used to.  On the other hand, I make up more songs now.  These include impromptu lullabies and ditties about stuffed animals, accompanied by some percussion on a nearby rattle.  I suppose I am trying to set an example in hopes that my progeny will give music a try in the future, or at least be a music-lover.

Thanks for your interest, Jay and Jay’s Music Exchange readers!  I look forward to chatting again.

* * *

Knowing how precious his time has become, TBTS would like to thank Mark and RedShadeBlue for spending some of it with us. It should also be said that I anxiously await the arrival of son Dashel’s virtuosic debut Rock-a-bye Baby: Songs for the Electric Rattle.

Stay tuned for Part The Second, coming soon to a screen near you!

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