musician

Shades of Gray

“I haven’t heard anything from you in awhile,” she said, her voice trailing off towards the end of her sentence like an invitation to respond. And, when I didn’t: “Things slowing down over there?” I let the white noise of our phones fill the air for what seemed like long enough, until I exhaled – inhaled:


People think of progress as a straight line – that progressing is just taking a big step to the next cobblestone on the path, and once you’re there, you can rejoice because now you’ve made it, and everyone can see. You are no longer where you once were, and now, everyone can see.  Because, really, that’s the gauge of progress – that metric which decides if we get an A+ on our weekly, monthly, yearly report, turned in and recited to whomever it is we report. I want the A+, so I’ll mention the concrete – the things that I can refer to and say, “Here’s my project, it’s forecast, and possible return on investment,” accompanied by a timeline of when I believe these so-called returns might be taking place, so that whoever is grading me can say, “Oh, that sounds promising.” Then we shake hands and sign off: I get the approval that I think I need, and the other walks away with the belief that time wasn’t wasted and he or she can rest easy knowing that I’m making a real effort.

And, that is how it works in a lot of cases when there are quantifiable factors at play that blink in red when they fall below a certain value. But, unfortunately (in some instances, and fortunately in others), a creative doesn’t have a blinking red light to tell him, “This is leading nowhere – invest in alternative strategies,” or, “Try something else because this won’t resonate.” Sure, there are market trends to analyze, methodologies that people swear by, and pieces of tangible evidence to measure success, but when it comes to the art itself, the black and white of numbers and graphs tends to blur into a swirling mass of gray. And, that’s what an artist deals in – different shades of gray that come together and hopefully convey what he or she intended. It’s a craft that takes time to improve – to realize which shades of gray are your favorite, which complement each other effectively, which are best for the art that you create, and so on.

That’s the progress that’s difficult to document and the progress that goes unreported when striving for that sought-after A+ on your report card. That’s the progress made on a song you’ll never hear because I’ll never release it. That’s the progress made in the hours of perfecting a minor detail that only I’ll notice. That’s the progress made when you may not hear something from me for a while because that’s the progress that symbolizes growth, and that’s the progress that matters.


I started listing the things I’d done in the past month that I thought would have some value to her: “I wrote a song with [insert name she may have heard of] who wrote [insert song she may have heard of] and worked with [insert name of big artist she may have heard of], and I think it’s got a good chance to get picked up by a major artist. We’ll see what happens,” letting my voice trail off and crossing my fingers for the A+. “Oh, that sounds promising,” she said, and I went on with my recital.

Stay Tuned

“Maybe if you just had a few more followers you could get their attention because I hear they look at that first before they even listen to the music. There’s a lot of ways to build it up. Search a few hashtags, like a couple photos, even follow and unfollow if you have to,” she said with a smirk. I pulled out my phone: 919 followers on Instagram, 654 likes on Facebook, 219 followers on Twitter.

Slacking.

In my line of work, there are standards of operation, one of them being social media – the constant production of content for an audience with which to interact, engage, and ultimately (if you’re lucky) “like.” And, there’s no definition of what that content has to be: selfies count, covers count, this blog even counts, and it’s entirely with the intention of building a brand and staying in the focus of people who scroll through a timeline – at least from the artist's perspective.

It’s an amazing tool if you think about it. Connection and capacity for communication are at an all-time high and the degree of separation between strangers is just one DM, but does it become a bad thing when I begin to feel guilty if I didn’t capture a moment that I think my Instagram followers would have enjoyed? Does it become a detriment to my own person when I start to think in terms of likes and follows, retweets and favorites, whatever it is that quantifies an artist’s success these days? Does it become a negative when validation as an artist comes from something that, in many ways, is disconnected from the actual art itself?

Did you know that pictures with faces in them, on average, get more likes that those without? That a little bit of desaturation typically gets better engagement than its more intense counterpart? Well, I do – or at least, I do now because I have to. Now, because I’m forced to care if I get over 100 likes on a picture, I adjust it before I let the world see – add a little contrast, dim it just a bit, crop out that person I don’t like. I make sure that whatever the viewer sees at least looks better than it probably was because the only thing that matters is how it’s perceived, not how it was experienced – in a lackluster reality and all.

It’s starts to be laughably ironic that, as a singer/songwriter – where literally one of the only prerequisites to the craft is honesty – we’re expected to display ourselves in a glamorous spotlight that makes it seem as though all is well when, you know, maybe it’s not. Maybe that selfie that we’re asked to post at least three or four times a week is hollow, and that smile we’re asked to wear is something we put on for validation because well, if everyone else thinks things are going well, they must be (but that’s another blog post entirely).

And, I don’t mean to bash it and those who use it because I’m not. I mean, after writing this, I’ll post it online in a few days, on every platform I just named. Like I said, it’s an amazing tool for artists, friends, single folks and all, but I think it needs to be viewed in that light – as a tool – and this tool can be abused just as much as a gun or a prescription drug. Of course, I haven’t mastered its use from a professional standpoint, as I’m sure those who follow me know (I think the last thing I posted was a few weeks ago). But, I am learning: Sure, I’m learning what filters work, but I’m also realizing the difference between artificial and genuine content, along with the consequences of developing a superficial following and an organic one.

It’s not the first thing on my mind as an artist – to be honest, social media is one of the last. And sure, I understand that that could hurt me, but I also know that I would never vomit something out because I feel like I need some sort of engagement. So, for those wonderful people of you who follow me and my career on these apps, thanks for your patience. Know that I am actually doing things in Nashville, my career is moving forward, and I will have content to show for it soon. So stay tuned.

P.S. I’m sure I’ll post a selfie about it soon. ;)

 

We Came for the Groove

As most of you know – and for those of you who don’t – we’ve been in the process of producing another record for the past few months now, and because I’ll be on my own and living the musical dream soon, having professionally recorded original songs (kind of like what The Weight was plus the professional part) is crucial to keeping that dream alive. From getting into the doors of venues to getting into people’s ears, being able to direct listeners to original music is a must. So, I rallied the troops, and we packed our overnight bags for Nashville, Tennessee, where the music is plenty and the traffic is apparently awful. Little did I know, the address that Ryan – my friend and producer – sent held little more than an unimposing four-bedroom home with a column on the front porch that simply read, “4115.” 


Forty-One Fifteen, Gallatin Pike doesn’t look like much: I have to admit, when I first drove up to its unremarkable driveway and really took in what seemed to be a literal home studio, I couldn’t help but ask, “Is this really where I’m paying by the hour to be?” I mean, you’ve really got to look hard for it. In between its psychic palm reader and chiropractor neighbors, it stands unnoticeably unexpected as a residential building along a strip of commercial ones, and it does next to nothing to advertise itself to anyone who might be passing through. But fortunately, Google Maps is a thing, and we made our way there without a single detour, knocking on a door with the fear that a mother of two might come to the front.

Well, I’m happy to say: books and their covers have never been more misleading. What welcomed us upon our initial steps into the studio was nothing short of a musical amusement park – you know, after you make it through the kitchen. The first room is small, where a previous owner may have placed a dining room table for family meals. But now, it’s essentially a piano/keys haven of tone. From glockenspiels to baby grands, this room had the means to fill the whim of any musician who came in saying, “You know, I really think a(n) [insert obscure musical instrument here] would be great for this record.” But, besides shock value, keys weren’t really the reason we came to Nashville for an entire weekend.

We came for the groove, of course. Bass and drums were the focus of February 19th through the 21st, and man, did we conquer. From personnel to environment, Forty-One Fifteen offered everything a musician could ask for: vibes, character, and even the same brand of coffee I drink back home. Though it was probably just a coincidence of luck – because I drank it like water this weekend – and great taste in coffee, who’s to say it wasn’t meant to be? Don’t get me wrong: Saturday and Sunday were long – especially Sunday since our drive back to Clemson started at 8 o’clock Nashville time – but that’s the beauty of doing what you love. It doesn’t feel like work, even when you start with the sun and end with the moon.


These songs are like my children right now. I know what I sound like when I say that, but there’s really no better analogy. You start with an idea – an image of what could be with a thousand different ways of getting there – and you begin. You set its morals and give it value through lyricism, offering a foundation to start speaking for itself. You dress it up each time in what you think looks good, until it develops its own style and its own way of looking back at the world. You make sure it tries everything because you never want it took look back and say, “What if?” or, “I wish.” And finally, when you’ve done all you can to raise it and make it into the beautiful thing it is, you send it out into the world to make its mark – to fly or fail. I know it’s a stretch, but this weekend, my babies started speaking, and that’s a wonderful, amazing thing because its one step closer to that final image. They aren’t ready to take the world by storm just yet: they’re still crawling around or asking for piggyback rides. But with the right parental figures and all their daily vitamins and nutrients, I know they’ll grow up to be something great. Just you wait.

To Begin...

I was born and raised in Easley, SC, your typical small town where everyone's always talking about getting out: whether it's the social norm for residents of blips on a map or just that feeling of restlessness that comes from staying one place for too long, I've always known that Easley always was – and only would be – a childhood home. 

Don't get me wrong. Easley was an ideal place for my parents to set their, and inherently my own, roots. If I could describe it in one sentence, I'd say, "It was in the middle of a lot of things, but never really part of anything.” At a university now just half an hour from Easley, I'll tell friends of my hometown, and the classic response is, "Oh, yeah. I drove through there on my way to [insert more exciting destination here]." And that's just fine with me because there's no real connotation – positive or negative – that comes with being from Easley. You have to write your own story.


Unfortunately for the reader, however, mine growing up in Easley is relatively bleak and full of suburban clichés without leaving much to the imagination. So, I’ll try to make an 18-year-long story short and cut to the good stuff.

Few things are particularly noteworthy about my upbringing: the first is a nearly perfect set of parents. I realize to say the word “perfect” is usually quite long stretch, but if you know Chuck and Kathy, you kind of get what I mean. Humbly loving, generously giving, and stern where it counts, they set the bar high for my sister and me. For now, I’ll leave it at that because I’m sure we’ll touch more on them later on in this series.

Next on the list is a friend who has become a brother over the course of my life. Since preschool, Paul has proven himself to be exceedingly loyal at every stage of life: from backing me when the school bully wouldn’t return our basketball, to following me to Nashville, he’s the best friend I’ve had or could hope for, and it all started in Easley. But again, I’m sure this series will touch on him more as it continues.

Last – and really more of a recipe than a single event or person – I was brought up in an environment that rewarded curiosity and the pursuit of personal achievement. There was never a skill or challenge, in sports, academics, or the arts, that I thought was insurmountable, and whether it was of my own or my parents’ will, I was always being put in a position to explore. For example, I’d claim that few first-graders sign themselves up for church choir, but those early vocal lessons served as my first exposure to training and nurturing a talent that, at the time, seemed unnecessary.  Fast-forward nine years or so to my first year of high school, and I’m writing poetry about the philosophical pitfalls of mankind or the vicious nature of love lost – concepts far-beyond a ninth-graders pay-grade or scope of reason, but I at least thought I was getting somewhere. Fortunately for me and those reading what I wrote, those poems eventually developed into songs, which eventually needed musical accompaniment, which eventually transitioned from piano to guitar, which eventually nurtured the passion for creating and playing music that I have today.

And that’s what my time in Easley gave me. Like I said, nothing particular to the city itself, but rather the people who were there that have – and will continue to – set me up to pursue what I love, and really, I think that’s all you can ask for from a hometown.


So that was a bit about me then, and here’s a bit about me now and why I’m starting this public journal: music is a process. It’s a skill that’s developed over time. It’s a creative work that’s formed, broken down, and re-formed again. But most of all it’s a journey. It could be a three-and-a-half minute long walk through your favorite song that you may or may not cry to on occasion. It could be an entire album that takes you back to that time in your life when those verses were the only thing that could make you feel like everything would be alright. It could be a semester-long cycle of rehearsals and recording sessions after you’ve put yourself on paper and wonder if people have been through the same thing. And, for the lucky few, it could be a lifetime – where music provides, so you can make more of it. 

So, why am I here talking about it? To document the process. To ask questions and leave them answered, to talk about why it’s come to this and inform those who care, to explain to those who say, “I don’t get it,” and to make an attempt at answering with words, “What does music mean to me?” But I think the last one is most important – even if no one ever reads these things – to answer for myself. As a last-semester student at Clemson University with a degree in bioengineering who’s going to follow his dreams in the world of music, my justification to that question will be constantly tested because the golden handcuffs will start to look nicer and nicer as my bank account gets lower and lower.

I know. What I plan to do is ill advised to some and, in the very least, unconventional to most, but that’s just how it’s got to be for me. The music is too big, and the time is now.