It took almost 20 years, but I finally barfed out a solo release: the ambient, bass-heavy Rotten Miracles E.P. (2015).
Good designers will tell you that they don’t make art; they solve problems. They will think creatively and often apply artistic principles, but their goal isn’t artistic self-expression. Many artists don’t last long in design, but I think my songwriting hobby helped me adjust. In my experience, songwriting is also problem-solving: what words fit the music’s mood? How many lyric verses will tell the story? What’s the hook? If I make a demo, what will I play? Those weren’t abstract questions for me when I chose to finally record and release a solo project, the Rotten Miracles E.P. Unlike previous recording projects, the problem was less “what can I make with these tools and these people in this place?” and more “what can I make with the tools and skills I have within the time available?”
Good designers will also tell you to never begin with a blank canvas. I’d already done a semi-solo project (the Weapon of Young Gods book soundtrack) so I knew what sounds I could create by myself: ambient, bass-heavy, and sparse. However, between career and volunteer commitments I didn’t have an open-ended deadline, so instead of another huge instrumental album I shot for a simple E.P. Lyrics weren’t a problem; I’ve always kept notes, and between January 2013 and July 2015 I’d finished seven new pieces, all interpretations of my twelve-year career on the professional creative carousel. That topic isn’t unusual, but for me design and music had been a one-way street: an album (or poster or website) would need artwork, and I’d design it. When my previous jobs intruded on lyrics (“Fatal Flaws,” “Mercy Rule”), they were punching bags I could rant about and dismiss. My creative career got a good lashing on Honey White’s “Dilemma by Design” in 2011, but I doubted it would be a sustainable topic; I do design work all day, so why let it interfere with my hobbies? Well, within two years I’d leave one creative firm for another and then assume a leadership role with the local AIGA chapter, so stray thoughts on the biz and my place in it had plenty of time to fester into lyric-worthy material.
Give Me the Sixty-five, I’m On the Job
I wrote each Rotten Miracles song lyrics-first on a tablet, reversing my previous process. In the past, I’d get inspired by a tune, either one of mine or (more often) my bandmates’, and write lyrics in a paper notebook. This time, I tried to circumvent musical arrangements and tell a story. That yielded both regular-structured, verse-chorus-bridge numbers (“Rotten Miracles,” “Each Sold Separately,” “New Home Town”) and irregular free-for-alls (the two “Making Your Move” songs, “Keeping Score,” and “Creation Myths”). The music was deliberately minimalist: bass guitar (often with effects), limited percussion (shakers, bells, tambourine), and various effects for some (but not too much) depth and space. Simple rhythm pieces to go with gravelly, whispered vocals—a different singing style than anything I’d done before. The final mix had all the imperfections of a low-fi, home-made demo, but that was all I needed to convey what I wanted.
Thematically, everything hangs together well in only twenty-two minutes. My professional life has been a gradual (maybe too gradual) accumulation of knowledge and control—with lots of frustration at the beginning and a payoff well worth the effort. Rotten Miracles has a rigid song sequence, but it works well because the story begins at a low point: the title track. Like my old Honey White song “Unprofessional,” “Rotten Miracles” is in F-sharp, but that key’s power gets inverted here into nasty, crushing deadline pressure and the inevitable procrastination that bleeds out of it. The narrator gripes, argues, and whines about everything except the task at hand. It’s a litany that starts globally, blaming culture, the industry, human relationships, and even death before finally resigning itself to the banal inevitable: returning to work the next day.
Your First Story Was Better
The mood gets worse before it gets better. “Making Your Move, Part 1” is welded to “Rotten Miracles,” growing out of its percussive heartbeat, but kept emotionally static and stunted by a repetitive non-arrangement that starkly highlights its selfish, irresponsible projection. “Each Sold Separately” is pure cartoon fiction, and could almost be a bouncy pop-rock song if one of my bands took it on. It’s also a conventional lyric arrangement, but it goes straight for the dumb-pulp lizard brain lurking beneath the marketing industry’s manufactured authenticity. “Keeping Score” tries to tackle multiple inanities—judgmental scenesters, grasping ambition, inside jokes, exclusionism, and more—with relentless questions, but no chorus. It may not completely puncture pretentious creativity, but it’s not playing nice, despite the mellow echo-bass backdrop. When it finishes, listen close and you just might hear fragments of the unfinished lyric “Aim Low” close out Side One in a garbled, muted mess.
Three epics by Bob Dylan, Nick Cave, and Meshell Ndegeocello inspired “New Home Town,” a bizarro-world, spoken-word snapshot of burbling echo-bass and after-midnight malaise. It’s the album’s nadir, but at five minutes it’s also the centerpiece, powered by broad strokes of fiction and a dash of truth. After that, there’s nowhere to go but up, so the album pivots with “Making Your Move, Part 2,” the steady, shimmering sound of the rising sun. It’s one of my favorites because it’s where the mood turns from defeated to determined. It’s still irregular—no chorus or hooks—but it has all the confidence and direction that “Part 1” lacks, topped off by little sonic booms for each tiny revelation of wisdom. “Creation Myths” takes that newfound resolve and runs with it, accelerating down the home stretch with two chords of high, pulsing echo-bass and my only full-voice singing on the album. Rapid-fire truisms dissolve into a warm bath of monolithic ambient feedback and within two minutes, it’s all over.
Chocolate Coating Makes It Go Down Easier
When I finished tracking in August 2015, I mixed and mastered everything in a laughably unprofessional, low-fi way. All the songs were insular (within the narrators’ heads as much as mine) so I mixed the album that way too—on headphones. I’d pore over minute details and then check if they mattered or not when blasting it full-volume on my commutes to and from work (usually long enough to play all seven songs twice). After about a week, it was as done as it would ever be, since I had other things to do once September began—but I still had enough time to design the album artwork. I created a series of simple, three-color digital illustrations for each song plus the front and back covers, starring the two guitars I used: a Fender modern player Jazz bass and a Fender Jaguar bass. I uploaded it to CD Baby, Bandcamp, and Soundcloud, previewed each song with its own artwork in the week before the September 4 release date, and then let it go be itself in the world outside of my head.
My goal for Rotten Miracles was simply to complete and release it—just to prove to myself that I could. I realized long ago that my main creative impulse is to purge—I make stuff so I don’t have to think about it when it’s done. After more than a year, though, I’m still happy with it. I still listen to it and I think it holds up well against all the other musical projects I’ve been part of during the past two decades. If I had to stop here, I could accept that—but I’ve already got two-thirds of a new lyric completed and creativity always finds ways to express itself. I don’t know what’s next, but if the past is any indicator it won’t be boring.
Play this album: