If you, or someone you know would like to be featured in the Visiting Artists Series, and undergo my rigorous questioning (it’s fun! no, really it is!), please email me at betterinrealife at gmail dot com.
On facebook one day a high school friend gave a shout out to her friend, Oliver, who was rounding the final stretch of his kickstarter campaign to make an awesome record. So, I checked it out, totally adored him and his brave campaign to finance his passion, and got in touch with him about speaking here.
These are the things I wish I was good at and am really really not:
- in-line skating
- playing a rock n’roll instrument
- art, the drawing/painting kind
- running long distances
And it turns out that Oliver is pretty excellent at two of those things. Which means I immediately fell in love with him and wanted him to tell me all of his secrets. Would you like to get some insight into who and what and why an independent vocalist and guitarist is and does? The how of it all? Keep reading.
I was an instrumentalist long before I started singing. Part of me had always wanted to sing, but it didn’t really come naturally to me. Drums were my first instrument, beyond picking out one-handed melodies on the family piano when no one was around. I started when I was 11 years old and took lessons until age 14. I took to it fairly quickly, and in fact I think I was a notably skilled drummer for a middle-schooler. However, my school (Washington Middle School in Seattle) was blessed with a legendary music program and there were a couple of absolute drum prodigies, kids who had been playing since they were 4 years old and just sounded like absolute professionals. So I didn’t stand out as much as I might have at any other school, and it was hard to be second of third best because I was a prideful little guy, and the competition was not exactly gracious. They were the best and had no problem letting you know it.
I don’t begrudge them that at all, and in fact I think it was a blessing because when I found guitar there was no competition there at all. I just learned songs and riffs on my own at home, without a teacher telling me I was doing anything wrong, without someone better than me making me feel less than good enough when I was still in the formative phase with my instrument. So it was mine all mine, and I was much happier, and it turned out to be a much better instrument for me anyhow. Drums are great, but I think that I had a need for melodic and harmonic expression which they simply didn’t allow for. Drums quickly became secondary, and I spent a great deal of time and energy on becoming a good guitarist.
As I continued to develop as a musician, what I wanted most was to write my own music and to have it heard. This was more important to me than being really good at any instrument. I wanted to create structured sound that was both pleasing and challenging. Songwriting and composition became my main priority, and this is where my need to sing came to the fore. I never was very confident in my voice, but I wanted so badly to have my songs heard and no one else was going to play them for me! So I just started doing it. I’ve been taking voice lessons and I absolutely love it. Singing well gives me great joy. Conversely, now that it has become so important to me, on ‘bad vocal days’ when things just aren’t working right I have a hard time not getting down on myself. A lesson I have had to learn a million times is how to keep going; how to be firm with myself about my dedication to my craft without tearing myself down when things aren’t coming easily!
Either in spite of or because of its difficulty, singing well, and singing my own material well, has become an immense priority and a source of happiness for me. I still have a long way to go before I have the voice I want, but I know that I’ve made strides already and that the work is all worth it.
When people ask me what I do, I tell them that I’m a musician, that I write my own music, that I’ve been in a couple of mildly successful bands but am focusing on the solo thing for now. They invariably ask “What kind of music do you play?” I’m really bad at answering that question! I’m sure that someone other than myself could give a genre heading to what I do, but I like to think my music doesn’t have a box that fits it.
Practice, writing and performance are the three different branches of what I do, all satisfying in their own way, all mutually reliant on each other. Being an artist defines how I schedule my weeks and structure my days. I have to practice to feel good. If a few days go by and I haven’t practiced or written at all, I just don’t feel like myself. I have noticed in myself the tendency to be overly defensive of my time, sometimes to the point where I find that I’m deprioritizing time spent with friends. I always catch myself and things tend to balance out. It’s definitely a learning process.
Performance brings me a lot of happiness. I’ve only done about 7 solo performances since my former band broke up, but each one has been really fun for me. I have several hundred shows under my belt with former bands, but being alone onstage is still new and fresh and pleasantly intimidating!
Right now I am focused on preparing for this album, so writing has taken a back seat to practice, practice, writing emails, fundraising, and more practice. I look so forward to making the album, but will be equally happy to have this batch of songs satisfactorily recorded so that I can move into new territory! I have a bunch of unfinished tunes, and the thought of getting back to tending that garden is very exciting to me.
I made a decision a while ago that my music would be the central fact of my life, along with maintaining a sense of spiritual connectedness and a healthy relationship with the woman I love. Those are the pillars of my life and I’m happy about it. One day I’ll have a day job that’s in line with those things rather than auxiliary to them, but I feel that in the meantime as long as I remain committed to those three things the rest will play itself out.
I do most of my writing and practicing in the common spaces of my shared house. My roommates are very patient. The upstairs living room is where my piano lives. It’s got high ceilings and hardwood floors, making for a really nice acoustic space. It’s much more inspiring to play in a live room rather than a space that’s carpeted and dead. There are skylights and tall windows, allowing in a lot of natural light which brings a good energy to the room. Vibe is key! I think you should be able to write anywhere, but it’s necessary to minimize distractions.
My normal routine is brief meditation to clear my head and focus myself, stretching to help limber up my body (this is especially useful for singing), then a long vocal warmup. I need to have my voice ready to go before I try to do anything with it, whether that’s writing or rehearsing. My warmup usually takes about a half hour. I play some scales on guitar to get my fingers ready, and then begin.
If I have a show coming up, I draw up a rough draft of a setlist with that show in mind. (What will fit that room? What is the journey I want to take? Are there songs that wouldn’t fit the vibe?) Then I pick out an easy song to sing first, something to establish my confidence that my voice is there for the harder tunes. Then I work on something that needs work, sometimes running a particular passage over and over again if it’s not working and trying to figure out what I need to do differently with my voice to make it work. Sometimes I will leave that passage without having made any detectable progress with it, only to come back to it the following day to find that somehow it’s right there! I think your brain keeps working even when the body stops, and sometimes it just takes a while to ‘download’ all the new information you threw at it, and translate that information into technique.
If I’m feeling pretty good with all the material, sometimes I’ll run the whole set all the way through to get a feeling for how it flows from song to song. Do the quieter songs come at the right moments? Is it fluid? If it’s a jerky shift in mood from one song to the next, is that jerkiness warranted? Sometimes the answer is yes, and sometimes it just feels like a distraction. I record these run-throughs and listen to them. How are the songs feeling? Do I believe myself when I hear me singing, or does it just sound like rote? Are there vocal problem spots that I wasn’t aware of? Deal with it!
I always like to have my computer running when I’m playing at home, because there’s always the chance that an idea will come to me and I want to be able to record it. I’ve lost enough ideas, having been confident that they’d be there later, that I never leave it to chance if I can help it.
Writing is different every time. Sometimes I’ll sit down and say “it’s time to write”, and I’ll give myself a quota. One page or two of poetry. Go. This might yield a verse or two, or even just one line that isn’t just mental garbage, but it gets the juices flowing. “Write one riff that you would want to listen to”. It can take a while to open up that valve in your brain, that place where ideas come from, or sometimes they just can’t wait to get out! You have to be intentional, either way. I no longer believe that inspiration is where it’s at, though I’m always of course very grateful when it does stop by! I was very taken by hearing the master Leonard Cohen say in the documentary I’m Your Man, “You have to go to work every day”. Artwork is WORK! Get to know it, get to love it!
I have a filing system for my songs on my computer, whether they’re in the baby stages or I’ve been performing them for years. Each song has a file, in which I keep lyrical drafts and scratch recordings with dates on them. A song is never entirely finished if it’s any good, you can hear it differently years down the road it it’ll make you want to play it differently, or you’ll hear one word that you’ll realize was never quite right. You can’t be too perfectionist about waiting for them to be fully grown and “ready” before you perform them, because if they’re any good they’re a living thing. They just have to be able to walk on their own. I also have a file just called “sketches”, where I might have an idea or an improvisation that I liked at one time and want to come back to and develop upon. Songs have sometimes come of these, and that’s always exciting!
One of the most challenging aspects of pursuing music for me is self-doubt. Every now and then that overworked evil spirit that comes to all musicians and artists comes by to me and whispers some variation “You should have gone to business school, loser!” I don’t like to admit it, but I would really like to live more comfortably. I would like to be able to buy a less-old car, have health insurance again. If I’m telling people that I am pursuing music as a career, my own music, I would like to be able to point to some tangible, societally agreed-upon emblem of success that I have reaped for my current work. But it doesn’t happen overnight. I have to remind myself that I am in the process of doing exactly what I want to do. I am writing my own music. I wait tables, with which I am at times frankly totally fed up. But it allows me the flexibility and the time to write, record, perform, build something of my own. I’ve gotten pretty good at telling the negative voices to shove it. You have to learn how to replace it with positivity and gratitude, and I don’t care if that sounds touchy-feely, it’s the truth. I have to transform self-doubt into another kind of energy. Sometimes all I can do on a given day is keep going to spite my doubt! If that’s what it takes, that’s what it takes.
But that’s the exception. I know that I am happiest when I am committed to music-making, though I’ve tried to deny myself that. There’s nothing I love more, and I feel immensely blessed to have had so much support and affirmation from my family, friends and community in doing this since I was very young.
So much of the hard work and the passion that Oliver describes, the self doubt and the work ethic, all of it – it crosses all art boundaries. It’s the universal truth of wanting something so badly it hurts. It can be isolating, invigorating, fulfilling, and devastating all at the same time, all within the same week, day, hour. And there is absolutely nothing to cure the manicness but to keep going, keep pushing ahead. If you would like to support Oliver in the Seattle community please check out his facebook page for further updates!