I grew up musical; my parents played in an informal folk group when I was young, my dad a bassist and my mom a campfire guitarist and off-and-on music minister in whatever Catholic church we were attending at any given point. We had a piano in the house that I started playing with around age seven or eight, plinking out Chopsticks and Heart And Soul and Stand By Me with my sister Candace.
My only formal instrumental training was on the clarinet: I took band class from the fifth through the eight grade on a not-great family instrument handed down from Candace’s band days, never getting particularly accomplished at either clarinet technique or sightreading.
Most of the pleasure I got from band in the latter couple years of middle school was gotten on the sly: I would ignore my written (and often dull) 2nd- or 3rd-chair clarinet parts and play by ear a patchwork of other instruments’ more harmonically interesting sections; I would sit in on bass drum when the regular kid was absent; in the eighth grade I talked the band teacher into letting me play bass on the school’s Yamaha keyboard, despite my great difficulties reading bass clef and playing the black keys, just because I wanted an excuse to play on the keyboard during off hours.
I dropped the clarinet, and band in general, after middle school; I wasn’t enjoying the formal structure, I didn’t have the self-discipline to practice, and I never got to the point of enjoying playing the clarinet for its own sake in any case. Beyond that, though, I think I was frustrated by the lack of harmonic possibilities with that kind of instrument; having slowly but steadily improved my keyboard playing over the years, I was firmly in love with polyphony and harmony by the time I hit high school.
The summer before my freshman year of high school, I spent a week or so laid up at a lakeside cabin in Montana with a splinter in my heel, and managed to take a real interest in guitar playing. When it was time to head home, my biological father Pat sent the guitar I’d been playing, his own old acoustic, home with me. It’s still my only acoustic, a cheap, rattly thing with a cracked neck that I love to death.
By the tail end of my freshman year of high school in early-mid 1994, I had gotten decent enough at rhythm guitar to start writing my own songs; at a lunchtime meeting of the school’s tiny Creative Writing Club, I shuddered through my first nervous performance of my first real composition, Amateur, for a dozen fellow word-nerd types and the jolly, bald poet-cum-teacher who ran the club. It was a terrifying and exhilarating experience.
I spent a year writing abortive dreck in an effort to replicate Amateur’s rudimentary functional success and find the most basic footing as a songwriter, managing finally to start cranking out songs in 1995 and 1996. Much of the better output I had in those early high school years is collected on my noisy home-recorded Bedroom Demo from summer 1997 and on my first album, Seams, from the summer after.
I had, late in high school, purchased a pair of aging, overbuilt cassette decks at garage sales, and along with basic one-mic, one-take recordings of guitar-and-vocals songs I began to experiment with bounced overdubs, laying multiple takes together by recording the first take onto one deck and then playing it back into the second deck while recording a new vocal and/or guitar part as well. Home recording at its very lowest fidelity, but I was excited by that new ability to make more complex compositions than I was able to perform live.
In college, I took some music theory courses that gave me at long last a standard vocabulary for, and systematic approach to, many of the until-then vague music-theoretical ideas I had been mulling and developing internally over the last several years. And while my aspirations for formal music study steadily decayed from “Second Major in Music” to “Minor in Music” to, finally, “take some interesting music classes” over the first half of my undergraduate education in Computer Science, I enjoyed the hell out of most of the courses I did end up taking; specifically, Prof. Fred Bianchi offered a fascinating suite of technology-and-music classes focusing on different aspects of recording and production and musical science and history.
This was my introduction to digital multitrack recording, and it was eye-opening. I found myself sneaking time in the school’s secondary production lab, a long, thin closet with four Digidesign DAWs, and bumbling at odd hours through early attempts at software-based multi-track arrangement and recording.
(Near the end of my sophomore year, I put several weeks of frantic writing and recording into an ambitious attempt to create a concept-album soundtrack to The Wizard of Oz that would, intentionally and unambiguously, create the much-debated sync-up effect famously attributed to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. A hard-drive crash on the workstation I was using to record lost me several weeks of recording work, however, and I never managed to get behind starting over.)
In the mean time, buoyed by the excitement of new surroundings and new friends, motivated by the big-fish-small-pond effect of being one of the few active performing musicians on a smallish, tech-centric college campus, and brimming with emotional fodder from among other things a high-school-sweetheart breakup right at the start of my freshman year, I dug into song-writing and developed my voice as a songwriter considerably over the next few years. Some of what I wrote and performed appears in my solo coffeehouse show from 1999 and on an end-of-college compilation called Booze Defenestrates Reason. I wrote other songs and made other recordings in that time as well, but between data loss and general poor planning I’ve unfortunately lost a lot of that material; I don’t even currently recall (or to my knowledge have notes anywhere about) the song I performed at my graduating class’ Baccalaureate service, for example.
After college, I found myself without access to a well-funded recording facility and owning essentially no recording equipment of my own; I still had the old Unidyne mic I’d been recording with in my bedroom back in high school, and a consumer-grade sound card and some rudimentary recording software, but that was it. The remainder of 2001 and 2002 was a lax period for songwriting and recording for a number of reasons, but that sudden deprecation in my production environment didn’t help.
In 2003, with post-college life stabilizing, I began to get focused about music again; my home recording became a steadier habit, I worked on my songwriting, and I began playing in my first band, Heat Lorraine. Over the next couple years my guitar playing improved considerably and, influenced by the work I was doing with my bandmates, my production and arrangement sensibilities broadened and matured. While there are exceptions from earlier in my musical career, it’s around this period form 2003 to 2005 that I began to produce on a fairly consistent basis songs that I remain basically satisfied with today.
My recordings, specifically, started improving as well during that time but remained comparatively rough through 2005 or 2006, when I finally purchased some decent basic recording equipment — a workable $100 condenser mic, a small Yamaha mixing board, and an M-Audio Fast Track USB audio interface. Working for the first time with a mic that wasn’t a noise machine, pre-amps that would give that mic a chance to function properly, and a soundcard that had a decent noise floor and wasn’t wired to (and constantly producing extraneous buzzing noises related to the functioning of) my motherboard, I was able to start making recordings of my own that were, if I was careful, fairly high quality.
(Compare for example the overall sound quality of 2004′s Say What You Mean and 2005′s Stain On The Sheets. Not particularly different in terms of quality or kind of writing or in terms of production ambitions, but the execution of the latter is far cleaner thanks in part to the improved quality of my gear.)
In 2004 I began playing regularly with synth software, particularly Propellerhead’s Reason, and many of my recordings over the next two or three years featured for the first time electronic sounds and occasional drum tracks layered in via tracking keyboard. The additional textural possibilities this provided me beyond what I could produce with the stringed instruments I already owned was particularly useful for my next big project.
In 2006, with my musical energy no longer tied up with a band, I started into a project called The Aural Times, and spent the next six months churning out short news-related songs two or three times a week after work. I wrote, arranged, recorded and mixed about seventy songs in that period. The steady pace of recordings and the frantic production process (usually just one to two hours total per song) was tremendously educational, if exhausting, and I came out the other side feeling much more confident about my production skills than I had before.
When February 2007 rolled around, I signed up for the RPM Challenge, an album-in-a-month event that had started in Rhode Island the previous year. My output for that month was a ten-track album titled Manifests, written and recorded entirely between Feb 1 and Feb 28. It was my first cohesive album of music since Seams back in college, and the first time I’d taken the (ironically constrained) time to try and produce a self-consistent set of polished recordings as a unit.
Also, from late 2006, I began playing with both The Man So Cool and The Harvey Girls, something that taught me among other things that I don’t have the energy to be in two bands at once, though I got a lot out of both experiences. My work with The Man So Cool rejuvenated my interest in the piano, which has (as evidenced on Manifests and recordings I’ve made since) opened up some more avenues for my own solo work; likewise I played a great deal of banjo with The Harvey Girls and showed some improvement there that I hadn’t seen on that instrument in a while.
In 2008, I began playing piano at occasional shows with friend and former-bandmate Brian Rozendal, culminating in the production in early 2009 of his first release, a seven-song EP titled Lean recorded in large part at my home. I’m very proud of it as a recording, especially given the extremely spartan production process we used to create it.
In February 2010, I put together the album Inchoatery, my first solo album since 2007′s Manifests and easily the most musically ambitious cohesive solo recording/engineering project I’ve undertaken so far.