On Sadness And Pain In My Music

I just re-read an email I received from a friend who listened to my first printed album A Tide Rising. It’s such an accurate appraisal of my music that I wanted to post it here with my response — I think it’s a good articulation of how my music can come off to a lot of people and how I think about and approach my music. This was about 7 years ago that these emails were exchanged, so keep that in mind.

First of all, you are extreemly talented. I am a notoriously harsh musical critic, especially for your genre. But the creativity and dynamics of the music, and the quality of your voice have obvious worth. The progression of the Intro, though not amazingly complex, certifies, as I think, your ability in musical arrangement. “Fading”, I would say, is the obvious best on the CD. Your lyrical skill lies both in good control of imagery and felicitous choice of rythym and enunciation.

My criticism is mostly subsumed under one general observation. There is a wholly pervasive attitude of pathetic sorriness about it. This quality is common to your genre (as I perceive it) and is the reason that I don’t listen to much of it, but I expected much better from a Christian young man. The most frequently occurring words are identifiable at a glance: cry, hurt, pain, heart, ashes, etc. I, as a poet myself, understand the melancholic urge to be most moved by tragic beauty. But this is really, I think, cheap food for art. Indeed, by the time I’m listening to “Praying for Rain”, the very word rejoice comes as an oasis in the desert. And the same with the music. The really whiny, heavy piano bits stand out against the general, as I said before, dynamics and creativity as being redundant and undisciplined. (As a side note, I think there are more eloquent ways you could show emotion with your voice.) The parts I most enjoyed were the ones like “I wouldn’t change a moment, or take back a thing”, and the parts I least enjoyed were ones like “all I know is that it hurts inside”. I mean, seriously, are your days at the C– really so dark? I don’t see the Gospel applied to the pain and troubles which your music encounters. Especially the approach to relationships seems pretty whimpy. You’ve failed? Confess your sins and get going again. “For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death.” (2 Cor. 7) One predominating sentiment that I came I away from your music with was that you could make great songs about things like holding hands and walking down the street. I hope the suggestion doesn’t offend your sensibilities too badly; I realize that to listen to such advice might feel to the artist like some low kind of “catering to the audience”.

So, these were my thoughts, and you can take them or leave them as seems good to you. Thanks a lot for sharing your music with us!

and my response:

R–, thank you so much for your feedback! M– forwarded me your email, and you’re quite right in that I desire feedback. I wanted to say a few words in response. (looking back now that I’m done writing this it looks more than a few words…. Oh well, I waxed wordy, what can I say, I’m a romantic… ;P )

You stated as your main objection that “There is a wholly pervasive attitude of pathetic sorriness about it.”
It surprises me sometimes the variety of feedback I receive on this point… I hear many people say something to that extent. Something like “Your music is so… sad…” I certainly don’t deny there is a pervading sense of melancholy about the album. It is my observation that my genre is mostly consumed with self pity, self hatred, broken love relationships, and general hopelessness. I do admit that these figure largely as influences in my lyrical writing. My hope in writing my music is to express pain, but not in a hopeless way. Because to be quite honest, as far as I can tell from their reports to me, most people feel pain, and they feel it quite often in life. It is a part of what we feel as fallen humans, but I don’t think that it’s bad in itself. If it leads to self-pity and apathetic stagnancy, it’s bad and will drag us away from God. If it leads us to look heavenwards and cry out for mercy, then I believe it to be a necessary thing. But it can be very hope-giving to me when I hear music that expresses something I can relate to, because then I feel like I’m not alone; I feel like I can express what I’m feeling precisely and powerfully through what I’m listening to. So I hope to give something to people with which they can empathize. 
 
When I am inspired to write music, it is always by pain. I couldn’t tell you why. Music is my way of taking pain and expressing it but not letting it bury me in self-pity and apathetic stagnancy. At the same time, I desire to create something beautiful, and to share it with other people. What I attempt to do is to have an attitude towards pain in my songs that is not self-hating, not apathetic, not angry, and to be able to try and give an example of a Christian way of saying in essence “This hurts.” I know I fail to do that on occasion, but I don’t want to be dishonest either. I certainly don’t claim to be a perfect person, and my music is a reflection of that. Can’t Come Undone, for examples, as you can probably tell from the music, is I think the shallowest song on the album. It was just me sitting around feeling litterally up tight, so I wrote a song about it, and decided I wanted to try making a catchy poppy auto-tune type song. It’s more of a musical experiment than a deep insight into anything interesting, lol. 
 
And, now M– just forwarded me your second email. lol. No worries at all, I actually really did appreciate your criticisms. My album would not be half as good as it is with the criticisms that my friend J– makes. It always helps me to think about things and change my music. And you make a good point, as Christians, we should not be consumed with sorrow, but with joy. My music, believe it or not, (I’ve been composing songs for about two years, some 40 or 50 of them thus far), has gotten *significantly* less dark and depressing from it’s beginnings. Hard to believe, right? lol. So it’s definitely a work in progress, and I’ve been feeling that as a Christian I need to work towards being more joyful and peaceful in my music. As I’m sure you know being a poet yourself, it is all too hard to do so without being sappy. But you affirm my desire to move in that direction. Oh, and btw, none of those songs were written at the C–. My days at the C– are decidedly NOT that dark. lol. Those were all written back at home over the summer and the year before. 🙂 

Phantastes Audio Book — Chapter 1

I’ve decided that I’m going to begin a side project: an audio book recording of Phantastes. What I’d really like to do is have a bunch of voice actors for the different parts, but as that seems to complicated at the moment, I’m just going to shoot for doing it myself. It will be fully un-abridged, with a sprinkling of sound effects and music. It will be a bit of a longer project, so at the moment I’m planning on releasing the chapters as I finish them on the blog.

Check out the first chapter here.

The Lighthouse

For those of you who are not familiar with my old song The Lighthouse, well, you can now be familiar with the re-recording I did on Saturday. I must warn you; most of my old songs have very sad and angsty lyrics. This particular song was written and recorded in its original form many years ago, I believe 7 or 8 years ago. If you are interested in listening to the original recording, you can find it on my personal blog. I’ll put a link at the bottom of this post. Again, I must warn you that the singing on the old version is terrible, especially on the bridge. It may be painful enough for you not to finish the song. However whiny my singing, off-beat my guitar playing, and terrible the equipment I had available, I think the song is somewhat charming. Perhaps charming isn’t the right word. It’s nostalgic to me. It’s actually a rather interesting song musically speaking (and somewhat poetic, if immaturely so, lyrically speaking), and I decided it worthy of investing a day into so that it can now be what I envisioned and wished it to be all those years ago. If you want to read the lyrics, they are typed up in the link below to my personal blog. Now that I have done what I can to brace for some depressing emo music, I present my re-recording of the lighthouse.

 

New Recording

Download

Original Recording + Lyrics

http://www.hostilelegacy.com/the-lighthouse/

Remember, sign up for my email list in the sidebar if you haven’t to receive my weekly updates on my Phantastes album. You can sign up to receive these posts as emails as well.

Album Update 2

I thought I’d post the email I just sent out to the list here and remind anyone not subscribed to the email list (which is different from receiving the blog posts by email) to do so. Just follow the link in the sidebar to the right in order to do so.

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It’s been a pretty productive week in the basement this time around.

1) I practiced a lot of violin on my new violin which arrived on Wednesday. Hoping to squeeze some of my violin playing in on this album, but we’ll see if my playing is up to snuff in time for some very simple violin parts. I’ve been listening a lot to the Schindler’s List soundtrack with Itzhak Perlman — some gorgeous violin on that soundtrack.

2) I became obsessed with gypsy flamenco music, practiced a lot of flamenco guitar, and wrote a flamenco inspired song on the story of the giants that Anodos and his two friends the princes fight. The verses and chorus are written and recorded for the music and the lyrics are about a third of the way there. I’m loving the soundtrack flamenco music from the indie film Vengo which I’m trying to get a-hold of to watch… a harder task than it might at first sound.

3) I finished (I think?) recording the first track ‘Enter Faery’ which has an orchestra and a choir of me singing. It’s super epic. I’m tempted to release it to this email list as a sneak peak to the album. We’ll see.

4) I wrote most of the maid of the alder song and will be sending a rough draft off to Amy to record her vocal parts tomorrow (hopefully). It’s turning out pretty cool I think, and it will be a much more successful attempt at EDM than Death Be Not Proud, this time inspired by the genre of vocal trance as opposed to dubstep.

5) I continue to be stumped by my song ‘Rusted Armor’ sung from the perspective of the knight when Anodos first meets him. I have the lyrics and acoustic guitar written for it, but I can’t get instrumentation to the song to my liking. I like the song a lot as I’m playing it on my acoustic guitar, but getting it into a recorded song is proving quite difficult. Hopefully this week I’ll be able to get it down to my satisfaction.

Looks like I’ve successfully conqured my inherent lazy tendencies for another week and sent out an update. Until next week, cheers! (and thanks for subscribing)

The Phantastes Project

This is by far the most ambitious project I’ve taken on musically. I realize that more clearly 4 weeks into the composition and recording process. I had the idea quite a long time ago, and it’s been stewing in the back of my mind for a while now. I wrote the bridge to the song of the Beech tree shortly after reading the book for the first time, and then decided that I wanted to do a concept album on the book shortly thereafter. Whenever I had the opportunity to do another album, which happens to be now. Phantastes is an absolutely magical book, and I was completely enthralled the first time I read it (and the times thereafter). To me it is one of the most beautiful pieces of literature that I’ve ever read — the imagery, feelings, moods, characters that MacDonald evokes do nothing less than get me high on pure beauty.

It’s certainly a challenge to capture the magic that I get from reading MacDonald in music and poetry, though he makes the task easier by being so poetic in his writing. I’ve encouraged a number of friends to read the book, and oddly enough many have been baffled by the book. Maybe on deeper thought it’s not so puzzling that the book would not appeal to many, because MacDonald I will admit is not the best of writers in terms of style outright. But the underlying current of the river! On the surface it may not be much to look at, but the power with which it flows is to me amazing. One of my hopes is to make the book a tad more accessible by presenting some of the things that I see in it — interpreting MacDonald with a modern sensibility.

Writing an album inspired by a piece of literature has been quite different from my normal practice of introspective philosophizing, and there are parts that are both harder and easier about it. On the one hand, I don’t sit around for several days trying to pin down the theme or topic for a song, on the other hand, I have to try and craft the songs to match the story and fit the music into a semi-predefined structure. On the whole I think it’s a bit easier, as I can always go back to the book for inspiration, which I find helpful. I think the scope of the project has lent an epic sort of tinge to the music, which I find quite pleasing. I’m trying my hand for the first time at a pretty orchestral arrangement for the intro, and I am quite pleased with the results. Starhymn from Somewhere Along the Way was one of the most popular songs (along with Till We Have Faces) and I think the intro here takes a queue from the really big spacious feel of Starhymn. Except on steroids. Which is pretty awesome if you ask me. The choral part for the intro is turning out superbly epic and I think will do fair justice to introduce MacDonald’s story. In general I am loving the sort of orchestral approach to composition, and look forward to delving deeper into it in the future. I’m not sure how much more room I’ll have on this album to work it in, but at least for the ending as well as the intro.

Choosing the styles and genres of music to bring in for different parts of the story has been rather fun as well. I’ve always enjoyed synthesizing different styles of music into mine and this time around I’ve got a pretty great Delta Blues song, a pretty jazzy song (with a lot of cool major 7 voicings on the piano xD), an alternative rock song, and an electronic pop / vocal trance inspired song thus far on the tracklist. I’m trying to pull in a little bit of a middle eastern sound at some point, and I’m shooting for a prog / art rock Tool-inspired rock song for the Ash. There are also three songs with guest singers that I’m in the process of getting worked out. All in all, an experimental mish-mash per my usual.

I’ve also been seriously considering making this album into one track for a while. Not as much because I think my album should be listened to as a whole (though I certainly do think that), but because I feel that people are inclined to listen to music on a song-by-song basis. And to me that destroys ones ability to appreciate a truly great record. Albums in general should be listened to as a whole. You should take the time to sit down and carefully listen to a collection of music that an artist has compiled, because otherwise it just becomes background noise. And don’t get me wrong, I use music as background noise a lot, and I think there’s a place for that, but one should also take the time to sit down and appreciate music as art. And in order to do that you need to sit down and listen through an entire album as an experience. So, not as a statement not so much about my music in particular, but about a lot of artists music in general, I’ve been contemplating making my album into one track so that it’s not as easy to just listen to a few songs here and there. There are, of course, many downsides to this decision, and lately I’ve been leaning more towards going the traditional route of dividing the album into individual songs (which is the way it’s written). But on still torn on the matter. I guess I’ll leave that decision until I finish the album and I have to make a choice in order to get the thing printed. Ah well.

Well, there you have nearly a thousand words of me rambling on. I don’t suspect anyone will ever read this anyways (unless I become famous… but that will never happen because I don’t write popular worthy music), but there you have it.

On My Style and Current Project

I think that writing helps my creative process in writing this album, so I’m going to try and write a few blog posts to get some ideas out of my head and onto paper.

I had a lot of thoughts coming into this album project which I’ve been working on for 3 or 4 weeks now. First of all, recording albums (a process which includes writing most of the music and lyrics) are some of my favorite times in life. It’s not often that I get to devote all of my time and mind to a project which I’m in love with, and there’s something very satisfying about spending the whole day locked away writing music and lyrics, playing with mixing tools and ideas, learning new drum, piano, singing and guitar playing techniques, and all the other things that come along with this process. I find this single minded focus very fulfilling. It’s certainly not all roses, and there are days when I feel lethargic and uncreative, and it’s a struggle to get just a few lyric lines written. This time around I’ve been trying to figure out what affects my feeling creative, without much success so far.

One thing that’s been great about this process is that it’s given me the ability to listen carefully and critically to music again. I’ve found that in the past few years my ability to really listen to music has gone down hill quite a bit. But now that I’m in the creative process, everything I listen to gets picked apart in terms of mixing (what is that synthesizer they’re using in this song? Did they use a plate, spring or hall reverb? What sort of compressor(s) was used on these vocals?) and composition / orchestration (can I take something from this chord progression? Any interesting harmony going on? Maybe I can take that type of drum sound for the chorus I’m working on…).

In the past number of years since my last album (4 1/2 ish I think by now?) I’ve broadened my listening horizons significantly, and it’s showing in my composition. I’ve decided that when people ask me what genre of music I write from now on I’m going to say Experimental Pop. I came up with the term myself, but upon writing it here I checked wikipedia and lo and behold, there’s an article on experimental pop. After skimming it just now it actually sounds exactly how I was thinking of the term. What do you know, I discovered the genre of my music while writing a blog post about it. The reason I coined the (apparently) unoriginal term experimental pop is because my music at it’s core is indeed pop music. By pop music I don’t mean radio music — I use the term a bit more precisely and broadly to mean popular music in general, which would include much rock, radio music, rap, contemporary folk, certain electronic music, etc. Though I’m currently trying to move into the complex and intricate, my music has always been more or less simple and melodic. I’ve always tried to push my boundaries when it comes to drawing musical ideas from different genres, and that’s where the experimental part comes into my music. It’s highly experimental in that I’m always listening to different types of music and trying to bring their stylistic devices into my own composition.

(sidenote: So, while writing this I’m listening to some of the artists listed on the wikipedia page for experimental pop, and I’m not sure I would sound much like most of these artists, however, I still really like the term experimental pop and will from now on label myself that way)

I think that my attitude towards music in this way is a reflection of my general attitude towards a lot of things. I try to be as broad-minded as I can, always expanding my intellectual horizons and leaving room for questions. I don’t like to crystallize truth because I feel like my understanding of truth is something that should always be growing and maturing. Life isn’t crystal after all, but fluid. That doesn’t mean that my understanding of reality is always fundamentally shifting, but I hope that it’s growing in nuance and detail.

 I think I’ll write a separate post on the conceptual ideas I’m tossing around for this Phantastes album that I’m working on now, just had to get some rambling out of my system first.