To quote one of my songs from last year, “here we go again….” For the last couple of years, and this one was no exception, I tried to talk myself into starting my writing on January 31. I typically write in the evenings, normally finishing and posting my track in the early hours of the morning. 2:00 AM is routine.
The problem is twofold. First, and this is just a bit of ego, people have missed a lot of my tracks because they don’t show up until the next day. While having other people listen to the music isn’t a primary reason to engage in this madness, it is a huge motivator.
The second, and far more important reason to try and shift ahead is that every year I feel like I’m behind schedule, even though I’m producing a song every day. The stress of it, especially when I’ve been sitting in the studio for hours without producing a thing, can be detrimental instead of the usual kick in the butt a deadline gives me. There’s also a minor benefit of having a tiny bit of slack in the schedule, just in case I have to write off a day for some reason, creative or otherwise.
- Agnostic Prophet Ray Toler 4:20
There’s a fun term from the novel writing world to describe authors who write without any kind of plan or outline: pantsing. Writing by the seat of one’s pants. I generally have three methods of writing. The first, Completely Planned, is the rarest, and normally is accompanied by a specific scope: I’m writing for a film or have some other pre-planned use case. It also happens sometimes when the entire song materializes in my head and it’s now a race to record everything before I forget. These are some of my favorite moments.
The second method, assembly, is the most common. I’ll have a thematic or lyrical idea (or stumble across one while noodling), but no strong direction for it. I probably have a rough sense of one or more of structure, melody, arrangement, hook, or sound, but nothing’s set in stone and it’s more about sculpting. As the old joke goes, “sculpting an elephant is easy – just chip away everything that isn’t an elephant.” In a similar sense, assembly for me is chipping away at everything in the silence that isn’t the song. That sounds weird, but it’s a reasonable analog for how I write in this mode. It’s normally the least stressful because I’m normally going with the flow of whatever’s happening.
The third method, though, is pantsing. I have no idea what I’m doing and am just throwing things together until something shows up. I don’t know what the end result is going to be until I decide that it’s probably done. This isn’t a very common mode for me, though I’m unsurprisingly in it a lot more during Song-A-Day than any other time. There definitely was a lot of this last year.
None of these processes are bulletproof, and all of them can produce something amazing or completely awful, but pantsing is the riskiest of the methods. However, like many risky things, also has the potential for huge reward, especially in the form of creating something that isn’t my typical sound or style. I find that most of what I write this way is either really good or completely awful. Probably the most successful example of this approach is I Get No Sleep from 2016, but then there are also tracks like last year’s A Completely Successful Exercise in Planning and Self-Restraint.
Don’t get me wrong, I like that track, but it’s… not good. It served its purpose, and I have fun listening to it, but it’s not something I would play for others unless they already liked similar things. It’s not even a B-Side. It’s a track you save for that 8-disc collector’s edition box set, and still bury on the disc named “Rarities and Oddities.”
Overthinking and New Pressure
I listen to my own music. A lot. More than most other artists I listen to, in fact. I’m my own biggest fan. That’s not too difficult, though, as I’m not sure I even have other fans, other than people who are required to be through blood-ties or marriage contracts. But I listen to my Song-A-Day “albums” all the time. For the last six years, I’ve somehow managed to write something decent on the first day, which is, of course, the first track on the new album. The first thing that plays when I get in the car or select it on my phone.
That has turned into a new kind of pressure. I want the first song to set a tone, and to be decent enough that I’m not going to be skipping it every time I start playing that year’s tracks. Looking back over the years, the majority of my opening tracks have been slower and darker. Initially I had a song in mind, and it may show up later this month, but it was going nowhere and I changed course at about 10 pm.
I decided that I wanted something a little more uptempo. Phobos was the first thing I opened up, and I found the primary beat after a couple of randomization clicks. Now it’s time to put on some pants!
There’s no memory of what happened when. It was just me moving all over the track adding things, playing with sounds, rearranging things, and trying to count in multiples of eight. As far as a pants track, I rate this one as competent. It’s good driving music, and will definitely create a different opening feel for 2022 in future listens. There are some things I want to fix, notably the low end, which is full of mud and hidden energy. Also, the hard turn at the 3:00 mark sounds more like a bridge or breakdown than the end of a song.
This was the first track that I’ve “mastered” without Ozone for several years. There will almost certainly be a rant about iZotope some time this month, but for now, I’ll just summarize that I feel entirely unqualified with my new tools, and it’s going to take a lot of practice to get even basic mastering done. Just getting the loudness into the right range was challenging. I definitely relied on the automated EQ and compression setting in Ozone, and I’ll be doing a lot of RTFM in the coming days.
Will this track ever get revisited and reworked? Maybe. It definitely has potential – but it may just end up being another private practice sketch that eventually informs a really good track. I do like it, though, and my journey of 28 songs has started.
- Synths: Pigments, OP-X Pro-II, Omnisphere
- Strings: Symphonic Destruction
- Drums: Phobos
- Percussion: Rhythmus
- Effects: Valhalla Delay, Soundtoys PanMan, Gullfoss, FabFilter Pro-L 2