Friday, January 20, 2017

Polar Vortex Songwriting Game #4: Nasty Woman

Polar Vortex Songwriting Game Demo #4: Nasty Woman. This track is intended to support the brave folks marching on Washington and across the country to protest the incoming administration.




Nasty Woman
Spencer Michaud

C7 F7

Verse 1:

I got a suitcase, a great big sign
A little magic marker, and a lot on my mind
Kissin' my baby, but it's a short goodbye
I got a greyhound ticket, gotta be on time

Chorus:

I'm a nasty woman
And I'm on the attack
Keep your hands off my pussy
Cause the pussy bites back

Verse 2:

We got a long trip, come and share my seat
Tell me bout the struggle, & your hopes & your dreams
It's been a hard road, our history
But we're gonna send a message to the powers that be

Chorus:

I'm a nasty woman
And I'm on the attack
Keep your hands off my pussy
Cause the pussy bites back

Verse 3:

L.G.B.T
Whatever your race, religion or creed
Mothers & Brothers & Sisters & Cousins
We gotta join hands, march with me

Chorus:

I'm a nasty woman
And I'm on the attack
Keep your hands off my pussy
Cause the pussy bites back

I'm a nasty woman
And I'm on the attack
Keep your hands off my pussy
Cause the pussy bites back

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Songwriting 101: A Tale of Two Songs - PVSG #2 & #3

As the winter months continue to trudge along, I am still wrestling my muse into committing to write a song & post it every two weeks. This years Polar Vortex Songwriting Game is quite an exercise in mental discipline & a lesson in learning to pace yourself. These past few weeks,  I have experienced two distinct sides of the creative coin and would like to share my process and what I've learned from both approaches.

Approach #1: The Creative Binge meets the Perfectionist

Burn You Empire Down - PVSG#2



One of my habits thus far as an artist, has been to go for long stretches without creating anything & then just completely binging on the process. I'll get so obsessed with an idea or a song, that it will be very difficult for me to sleep, eat or concentrate on anything else. I gorge myself on the music and wake up a few days later completely spent and disorientated. Sometimes there is a wonderful song laying next to me, but often times it is surrounded by collateral life damage. This process is often painful and can make it difficult to rouse yourself for the next go around. I will admit there is a certain joy in losing your sense of time & space in your art, but it doesn't come with out consequences.

For the PVSG challenge #2, I suggested that we write a song based on the Lydian mode. Which I won't go too far into here, but basically Lydian is: a mode of the major scale based on shifting the tonal center to the fourth note. Basically you reorder the scale and start with the fourth note, while keeping the same notes. This allows you hear a different "color" to the major scale. You can also think of Lydian mode as having a sharped 4th note in comparison to it's parallel major scale. So for example if you had a C major scale: C D E F G A B C, it's fourth mode is F Lydian which starts on F: F G A B C D E F. Same notes, different tonal center. In comparison to an F Major (Ionian) you have a sharped 4th note: F Major: F G A Bb C D E F. The C Lydian scale, (which is parallel to C Major) is C D E F# G A B C. See how the 4th note is raised a half step?

Anyway...needless to say, this was not your run of the mill challenge.  We often start with a lyric phrase & this time we started with a musical constraint. I ended up writing a song that started out in Lydian, but I think it ended up in the Mixolydian mode, which is a mode based on shifting the tonal center to the 5th note in the scale. Still with me? Lol. I think my take away here with out getting into another huge theory lesson is this:

*Sometimes you can start with one idea and it morphs into another one*

That is perfectly ok when writing a song. The prompts are just there to get your juices flowing, or in this case to shake you out of a comfort zone. The lyrics in this case were inspired by recent frustrations with current events:

F# E

Camera obscura
Reverse reality
Look through the pin-hole
See what you want to see
Stick your head in the ground
Cover up your ears until there's no sound


D E F#

But,
We are going to burn your empire down
We are going to burn your empire down


F# E

White wash the rainbows
Sanitize the screams
Muzzle the newsmen
So your echo will agree
Wear the hat on your head
Crimson fashioned from the dead


D E F#

But,
We are going to burn your empire down
We are going to burn your empire down


D E C#m D | D E Bm (x2)

Give me your tired
Give me your poor
Your huddled masses
Yearning to breathe free

The wretched refuse
Of your teeming shore
Send these the homeless
Tempest-tossed to me


F# E

Tear gas the sacred
Firehouse the free
Bulldoze the brilliant
Laugh at liberty
Take a good look around
Cause we're coming for your
Scarecrow's crown


D E F#

And,
We are going to burn your empire down
We are going to burn your empire down

We will lift our lamp beside the golden door
We will lift our lamp beside the golden door


The bridge actually is the sonnet that is written on the Statue of Liberty, which I thought created a nice contrast to the darkness of the verses. A little contrast in a song can go a long way! One concept I am working with lately is that of "Song Seeds". I learned this from a Berklee songwriting book by Mark Simos called; "Songwriting Strategies: A 360 degree Approach".




The idea in essence is to "capture" small snippets of inspiration in their rawest form without adding unnecessary filler.  In this song the "seed" was a quote I had heard somewhere about seeing life through a pin-hole camera. I wrote it down and left it alone until inspiration hit. Later I was able to form that lyric idea into a concept about the current state of things.

The recording process I used for this song was interesting as well. I'm in pretty deep with Apple products at this point, but they are coming out with some pretty good tools for songwriters. I just down loaded the new Music Memos App for iOS and have been enjoying hearing my tracks with simple drums and bass added to it by the program. For this track, I recorded the initial guitar track into Music Memos, kept the bass track it generated and then exported all of that to Garageband. Initially this was working fine, but I found that I needed some of the advanced features of Logic Pro and upgraded to it's new X version.

Now Garageband works great if you are looking for a streamlined process, the new "smart drummer" feature is incredible for songwriters.  It basically will take fully adjustable prerecorded samples from a number of real drummers and match them to your track, tempo and all. Pretty cool:


If want the "supercharged" version of this with more adjustable features, try Logic Pro X.  For Burn Your Empire Down, I used a prerecorded drummer named Logan, basically a classic rock type of sound. I then rerecorded my guitar track into Logic, recorded an electric part & then recorded a vocal take over top of all of that. For the outro, I had my daughter and my lady record multiple takes singing the same line for a large chorus effect.

All in all this was recorded very intensively over the course of three days. A lot for what was intended to be a simple demo. I am by no means a sound engineer and this is where I usually get tripped up, trying to "mix" without really knowing what I'm doing. I will say that Youtube is an amazing reference for figuring things out though, pretty much any question you have with programs like this have been answered at some point on the site.

While I am happy experimenting with new tools and sounds, the creative "binge" left me drained and leery of doing it again in another week. Which brings us to:

Approach #2: The John Lennon "Instant Karma" Method

A Very Long Year -PVSG#3



One of my favorite music documentaries is the Classic Albums series that originally aired on VH1. My ultimate favorite one might be the John Lennon - Plastic Ono Band episode. In it, they reveal all of the inspiration and studio techniques that went into the now seminal recording. By the time John Lennon had left the Beatles, he had tired of the endless studio revisions that the late-Beatles were known for doing in the studio process. While that might have produced some amazing work, it seemed like the creative binge had worn John out and left him looking for a more immediate experience in the studio. 

In a story about the recording of "Instant Karma" they tell of John going in, recording a take or two, getting a "quick mix" and then taking that as the master & leaving...no long hours in the studio mixing to death, no mastering engineer, just a "quick mix" released to the world....instant karma, instant song:



For this past weeks song challenge, I took the John Lennon approach. After the holidays & my previous creative binge, I didn't have the time or the energy to engage with the process the same way again. We were given the prompt: The Vanishing Note. I had a concept seed about paying tribute to all the creative heroes that passed in 2016, but it sat dormant until a day before the deadline. At that point, my impending guilt about not doing it kicked in and I banged out a tune:

A Very Long Year

G D Em C

One day my facebook feed
Started to bleed
As a black star
Fell from the sky

All my hero raised hands
To form heavens band
A hallelujah and then a goodbye


G B7 Am C | G D C G | C G D7

When Earth, Wind & Fire all volunteer
Their voices get higher and harder to hear
The vanishing notes get stuck in my throat
It's been a very long year


G D Em C

Sometimes life floats like a butterfly
Sometimes it stings like a bee
Sometimes it cops your golden ticket
To the chocolate factory

But you were such a naughty monkey
When you stole the purple rain
Unplugged the jukebox
And sentenced my faith


G B7 Am C | G D C G | C G D7

When Earth, Wind & Fire all volunteer
Their voices get higher and harder to hear
The vanishing notes get stuck in my throat
It's been a very long year


B7 C C#dim D7

Every eagle flies free
Every mockingbird dies
Every Starman returns to the sky


G D Em C

So toast an Arnold Palmer
To the growing pains
Cause I'll still rebel
Without a princess to save


G B7 Em C | G D C G | C G

But if Earth, Wind & Fire ask me to volunteer
Will my voice get higher and harder to hear
Will my vanishing notes get stuck in your throat
It's been a very long year


Having no time to be a perfectionist about it, I sat down, got out Music Memos on my phone & recorded it in one take. No revisions, no overdubs, just the raw experience of it. I dumped that into Logic, gave it a quick EQ tweak and off it went. The whole recording process took about an hour as opposed to the three day endeavor with the previous song.

Which method is the "right" one? Hard to say. It's going to vary for each individual and even for each song. Each method gets you in touch with a different facet of your own personal creativity. I think in the end, balance is the key. The right answer is somewhere in the middle. Pace yourself. Show up for your art. Keep making it, give yourself more and more opportunities to hit the mark. I will leave you with on of my favorite quotes by Ira Glass:

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

<3 

-Spencer





Thursday, December 8, 2016

Songwriting 101: The Streetfighter vs. The Kung Fu Master - The Case for Learning Music Theory

Imagine you are walking down a dark ally.  Suddenly, you are attacked from some unseen foe in the shadows. A right, then a left, blows are coming seemingly from everywhere. You try to make out the shapes, but your vision is hazy. Swinging wildly, you flail in your assailants general direction, you land a punch or two, but eventually fatigue takes over and you fall, bruised and battered, face down on the unforgiving pavement.


The Dark Alley of the Mind


Sometimes songwriting can be like a street fight. Ideas come from shadowy places, the depths of our subconscious rise up and demand attention. Your intuition and ear can help you land a few hay makers here and there, but more often than not, we inevitably come to a point of exhaustion & stagnation. That one chord just doesn't seem right, we search for just the right note to express a complex feeling, but it keep eluding us; enter music theory.


Music Theory: Tools of the Master

Like Bruce Lee, or any master of Kung Fu, every movement, every action has purpose. Theory and practice become the tools by which you train your intuition into becoming more efficient. Instead of flailing around trying to find your next chord / note / line / rhythm, you can draw upon your accumulated conscious knowledge to help you move through the block & express your emotional idea faster, smarter and more accurately. Ultimately even a small amount of theory knowledge can lead to less creative burn out and more productivity. Do you have to leave your intuition behind? Absolutely not. Great songwriters find balance between making concepts conscious & exploring the mystery.

Another way of thinking about it is the concept of The Mid-Wife & The Sculptor.  Sensitive artists, to birth a great song, must be like a mid-wife. We must be an open channel, able to receive inspiration from our intuition & from the world around us. Once we have received the unrefined inspiration, Music Theory and technique then become the tools by which we can sculpt that raw material into a great work of art. Both approaches are necessary and it can be quite a delicate balancing act moving from intuition to consciousness.

So, where do you start? Well, in my college songwriting classes I have tried to simplify basic harmonic music theory into what I find the most useful. To me it breaks down like this:

Intervals -> Scales -> Chords -> Progressions

Intervals are the defined as the distance between notes, basically the building blocks of western music. We can measure these distances in steps or tones.

Half Step = Semitone (1 fret on the guitar)
Whole Step = Whole Tone (2 frets on the guitar)

Here is what Whole Tones & Semitones look like on a piano:


When we arranges these Intervals into certain patterns we get Scales. In western music, whether it be classical or pop, the major scale is the foundation upon which everything else is built. It's pattern goes like this:

W W H W W W H 

In our scale, the W's are whole steps or whole tones & the H's are half steps or semitones.

Here's how it works if you start with C:




The first note in the scale is called the Root or the Tonic and the last note is called the Octave. Scales go in alphabetical order using just the letters A -> G. Basically if you get to G, you start over again on A. 

I would be remiss if I didn't explain another essential factor when creating a scale; accidentals. An accidental is a way of adjusting a note by a half step up or down:




Say you have a C and you want to raise it a half step, well you would add a sharp (#) to it to get C#, if you wanted to continue on and raise the note another half step, you would get D. If you put two half steps together you a whole step:

C h C# h D
\            /
W


This concept is essential to creating scales, as it determines which tones are used within the various keys.  One thing to keep in mind is that there are two musical letters that only have a half step between them, they are:

B h C & E h F

You can see this phenomenon represented on the piano with the absence of two black keys:


A little mnemonic device to help you remember this rule:

Why is there only a half step between B & C / E & F?

Because Cats - Eat Fish 

Once we understand how scales are created, we can move on to harmonizing the scale into chords or playing 2 or more notes together. The most useful type of chord for songwriting is called a Triad. A triad is basically 3 notes, usually from a parent scale, played at the same time.  Triads are built from the combination of two intervals called Thirds. It's important to distinguish between these very similar sounding words:

Thirds = Intervals

Triads = Chords 
  

There are two basic types of Thirds that we use to build chords and four basic Triads that we see often in Diatonic Harmony, which is defined as building chords using only notes from the corresponding scale. Here are the two basic thirds:

Major Third = 2 Whole Steps  (W W)

Minor Third = 1.5 Steps (W h)

If we reference our C Major scale above, we can see that the interval distance between the first (C) & third (E) note in the scale is 2 whole steps or a Major Third. There are thirds through out the major scale. For instance the distance between the third (E) & fifth (G) note of the C Major scale is 1.5 Steps or a Minor Third.

Here are all the thirds in the Key of C Major:


Thirds are the building blocks for Triads.


Here's where it really starts to get interesting from a songwriting point of view. One of the most useful techniques you can use for writing songs is learning how to harmonize a major scale into Triads. The basic idea is that you can build a 3 note chord starting on any note in the scale not just the first note. Here is a C Major scale harmonized into Triads using Thirds:


The Triads (chords) are most often represented with roman numerals, with Major Triads being upper case & the minor triads being lower case. The diminished chord that is created from the seventh note in the scale has a little degree symbol next to lower case letters. 

The cool thing about Diatonic chords (built only with notes from the scale) is that the quality of each chord stays the same no matter what the key is as long as it has the same function (roman numeral). For example, the I chord is always Major, and the ii chord is always minor. Here is a short cut for every Major key:


So how do you use this knowledge? Well,  musicians use specific language to  help them communicate musical ideas. For instance, if we wanted to communicate what chords to play we could communicate with roman numerals:

I vi IV V

Which in the key of C Major would be the chord progression I: C vi: Am IV: F V: G. If you were to switch to a different key, say D Major, the I chord along with all the other roman numerals would shift: I: D vi: Bm IV: G V: A.  This is called Transposing. Transposing a chord progression into a different key can be extremely helpful if you like the way the chords sound together, but needed to adjust the range of the song to fit your voice. 

Here is a chart of all the basic diatonic triads in all of the major keys:


You can spend a lifetime properly exploring music theory, but even a moderate amount of basic knowledge can take your songwriting skills to the next level. Stop throwing punches in the dark and start down the path towards mastery. What are you waiting for?

: )

-Spencer
 




Sunday, December 4, 2016

Polar Vortex Songwriting Game #1: Alone - (Inspired by Edgar Allen Poe)

Two years ago, my friend & fellow Ann Arbor songwriter Mike Vial started, in the middle of a most heinous winter, what he dubbed the "Polar Vortex Songwriting Game". Basically a group of songwriters getting together online & writing a song from a shared prompt each week. Well, we are back at it this winter and the new rules are a song every two weeks.

The first assignment was to write a poem inspired by Edgar Allen Poe's poem "Alone",  a dark meditation on the struggles of feeling like an outcast among the mainstream of society. For my entry into this weeks game, I took a fairly literal approach to using the poem. I changed the "I's" to "We" in an attempt to make the song more universal & tap into the shared anxiety I and others have expressed over the current state of things.




The song starts on a C#m chord and vacillates between an Aeolian and Dorian-style melody. I wanted to have some open strings ringing out to give an expansiveness to the song.

I stuck faithfully to the Poe poem except for the chorus that I added. I have Mike Vial to thank for the "gaslight" line, as he had been kicking that word around for a few weeks in our political musings. : )

For you aspiring songwriters out there, this song is a compilation of song "seeds" I had been catching for about two weeks. That can be a melody, a line, a chord progression or even just a concept. The idea is to try and "capture it" in it's purest form without feeling the need to develop it right away. That gives the seed time to mature in your subconscious and ensures that you are not adding unnecessary filler that you'd have to sift through later. Once you have let it percolate for a spell, you'll be itching to start adding to it, planting it in the fertile ground of your imagination & using the conscious tools like music theory to help it take shape and blossom.

Alone

(Verse 1)

C#m F#

From Childhood's hour
We have not been
As others were
We have not seen
As others saw
We could not bring

A E F#

Our passions
From a common spring

(Chorus 1)

A E F#

Pay a coin to chaos
Cross the screams that made us
Ferry me to waters calm

Through the gaslight
We're the satellites
Orbiting the world alone

(Verse 2)

From the same source
We have not taken
Our sorrow
We could not awaken
Our heart to joy
At the same tone

And all we lov'd
We lov'd alone

(Chorus 2)

Pay a coin to chaos
Cross the screams that made us
Ferry me to waters calm

Through the gaslight
We're the satellites
Orbiting the world alone

C#m D#m E | F#m E B

(Bridge)

In our
childhood, In the dawn
Of a stormy life was drawn
Every
depth of good and ill
The mystery binds us still
From the torrent, or the fountain
From the red cliff of the mountain
From the sun that round us rolled
In it's autumn tint of gold

(Outro Chorus)

A E F#

From the the lightning in the sky
As it pass'd us flying by
From the thunder and the storm
And the cloud that took the form

When the rest of heaven blue
Of a demon in our view

Friday, December 2, 2016

Live on Tree Town Sound 107.1FM

A few weeks ago I was a last minute special guest on Tree Town Sound w/ host Matthew Altruda on Ann Arbor's 107.1FM. Tree Town Sound is a local music show on Sunday nights that highlights all things musical going on in the Washtenaw County region & is a big supporter of Michigan music.

I reflected my recent trip to Chicago for the 19th Annual Jeff Buckley Tribute Concert, performed my song The Spy as well as Instant Karma by John Lennon live on air in addition to making up a song about Jim Harbaugh! Witty banter ensued. : ) lol Check it out here:

9:00 Jim Harbaugh Song
10:46 The Spy
17:59 Instant Karma



Here is a video of my cover of John Lennon's "Instant Karma":

19th Annual Jeff Buckley Tribute Concert

This past November, I was fortunate enough to once again be asked to perform at the 19th Annual Jeff Buckley Tribute Concert held at Uncommon Ground in Chicago, IL.  This year would have marked Jeff's 50th birthday and his mother Mary Guibert made a special effort to fly out the show!  Fellow Ann Arbor artist Mike Vial and I shared the adventure together and we had a wonderful time meeting all the incredibly talented artists paying tribute & making new memories. : )

Here is a video of my set:

1:03 Mojo Pin
7:59 Last Goodbye
15:34 I Want Someone Badly


 





A photo posted by Spencer Michaud (@spencermichaud) on

Monday, August 22, 2016

Fall 2016: Shows & Classes

Hi Friends!

I have a number of upcoming shows & classes for the fall that I am happy to share with you!

This Tuesday 8/23, I will be playing at the Downtown Ypsilanti Farmers Market on 16 S. Washington St. from 4-6pm.



These shows are brought to you with the generous support of the Ann Arbor Area Spirit of Woodstock Fund, a donor advised fund at the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation, with the goal of increasing community engagement in participatory democracy. This show is part a three month residency with once a month Tuesday shows from 4-6pm on:

8/23
9/13
10/11

Come out and support the local food economy and remember to vote! : )

http://www.aaacf.org/about-aaacf/aaacf-funds/aaacf-donor-advised-funds/ann-arbor-spirit-woodstock-fund

http://www.growinghope.net/

On Sat. 8/26, I will be performing in the Cabin at Hollerfest 2016, which takes place at the beautiful Frog Holler Farm in Brooklyn, MI. My set starts at 6:30pm. You can get more info & tickets here:

http://hollerfest.com/


On Thursday Sept. 8th, I will once again be performing at the Pittsfield Township Farmers Market from 4-6pm. Join me for some tunes & help support another great local food establishment. : )

http://mifma.org/farmers-markets/pittsfield-township-farmers-market/

In addition to my musical performances, I will have a full menu of classes to choose from this fall if you are interested in furthering your own musical adventure!

There is still time to sign up for this semester's MUS 146: Songwriting Class at Washtenaw Community College! But don't delay, classes start Mon. 8/29!

Let's explore what makes a song great. Together we'll build the skills and confidence necessary to turn your ideas into finished and fully realized songs. In addition to learning the basic concepts of lyric, melody, harmony and rhythm, we will explore song structure, write using all five of our senses and learn how to craft memorable melodies. If you're new to songwriting, this class will help you build your skills from the very beginning. If you're already experienced, it's a safe space to create and an excellent opportunity to add to your creative portfolio in the presence of supportive accountability partners! Follow the link below to sign up:

http://www.wccnet.edu/academics/classes/information/view/class/MUS%20146/

Internet registration has also just opened for my Beginning Guitar class at Ann Arbor Rec & Ed:

Grades 9-Adult. BEGINNING Calling all aspiring guitarists. Whether you are a future rock god, jazz cat or campfire strummer, basic fundamentals and a strong foundation in technique is essential. Gain the beginning skills you need to launch your musical dream. Learn chord shapes, strumming patterns and basic music theory that can be applied to almost any style of music. Bring your own guitar. Instructor modifies the class according to the group so the class can be repeated. Instructor: Spencer Michaud is an experienced songwriter, performer and teacher. 8 weeks. Sep 19, 2016 to Nov 7, 2016 - Each Mon. - 6pm to 7pm - Pioneer HS

https://apm.activecommunities.com/aareced/Activity_Search/guitar-instruction-beginning/42906

Feel free to contact me if you are looking for private Guitar, Voice or Songwriting lessons as well if you feel more comfortable in a one on one setting. Hope to see you all soon somewhere along the path! : )

-Spencer