Q&A about “dots and dashes”

1) How did this album come about?
Like many independent musicians, I’ve been at this for awhile, saving, investing in new gear as I’ve been able, and writing/recording whenever the opportunity arises. In this case, I knew I had some vacation time coming up, and I just cleared my calendar, put my head down, and put in the hours in the studio. Got up early, made coffee, and went in to see what the writing/recording gods had in store. For me, no matter how exhausting, challenging, and sometimes frustrating the creative process can be, it’s always worth it in the end.

2) Tell us about your gear.
I run a PRS Custom 24 through a Mesa Boogie Mark V combo. The PRS is stock, except for the addition of a Tremol-No system I had installed, because I really wish it was a hardtail. But other than that, I love my PRS. It’s a ’96, and it plays like a dream. I also have an original CA (Composite Acoustics) Guitars “Legend” acoustic, from before the company was bought by Peavey.

My preamp is a FocusRite Saffire Pro 40, and I’m running Logic. I’ve basically been doing what I can to copy my heroes… Jim Matheos and Kevin Moore are two musicians I really look up to, so I’ve taken bits and pieces from their studios and gone with that. I’m very happy with the results.

3) I understand you got an endorsement deal with CA Guitars for the Legend?
Yes, that’s true. I was doing some work with Lance Keltner at his studio in Austin back in the early 90’s. He was on the phone with the guys from CA Guitars that particular morning, so I had to wait awhile. Of course, there I was, sitting in the studio of one of my heroes, playing his acoustic while he was in the other room. I was happy as could be. I would have gladly sat there all day.

I guess he was impressed that I didn’t cop an attitude… but honestly, how could I have? I was grinning from ear to ear, looking around, taking mental notes, and just trying to soak in the whole vibe while it lasted. He was incredibly down to earth, friendly, and patient. One thing led to another, and the CA Guitars folks were interested in supporting the arts-based diversity work I was doing at the time.

4) Let’s talk about the album. The song “dots and dashes” is 16:09… what inspired that, and what was your writing process for that song?
Well, I never actually planned to write a song that was so long. It just sort of unfolded. I guess I had a lot of pent-up creative energy, and I’ve just been bursting at the seams for the chance to have the time and space to focus completely on writing and recording.

This particular song just kept happening in little sections. I was sitting on the couch with my acoustic and a little hand-held digital voice recorder, capturing ideas. The night before, while walking into the dining room to eat supper, I had a brainstorm, and I told my wife I’d be just a few minutes while I jotted down some ideas. Next thing I knew, I’d written all the lyrics to “dots and dashes”, and it was an hour later. Thankfully, as a musician herself, she’s very understanding. She knows what it’s like when inspiration strikes.

So I was reading through the lyrics and just goofing around with different ideas and recording them in little bits and pieces as they came out. I would read a phrase from the lyrics and matching music would present itself. Later, I pieced it all together, recording it in sections since the instrumentation was so different between certain sections.

5) That song alone jumps from genre to genre, and everything from blues rock to prog metal to jazz is found on this album. When people ask you what genre of music you play, what do you tell them?

I’ve given up trying to fit myself into a box. When I first got some decent recording equipment and started getting serious about writing and recording, I was just in heaven, exploring all kinds of sounds and not worrying about genres or marketing or anything. Then, as I started to get a few albums done, I heard people tell me that in order to market myself properly, I had to have a target audience, choose a genre and stick with it, etc. And I tried to do that. But as time went on, I felt like I was trying to squeeze myself into a smaller and smaller box.

Finally, with this album, I just decided to forget all that and go back to what I love doing, which is writing and recording and exploring the endless world of sound. That’s why you’ll find so many different styles of music on this album. Things have come full circle, and I’m digging deep and setting aside the inner critic that likes to say, “Uh oh, you shouldn’t do that… it won’t be well received.” Maybe not. But I’m happy.

The biggest catch-22 I’ve run into is figuring out who I’m writing for. I’ve heard musicians getting criticized for being self-indulgent in their writing, like having obscure lyrics, or stories that aren’t readily understood by everyone. Steely Dan, one of my favorite bands, is a great example. On the other hand, you can write something very accessible and that can be seen as pandering to your audience. After awhile, I finally realized that no matter WHAT I did, there was no way to please everyone. So now I write what I love and roll with it.

6) I see that some of the songs on this album are brand new, and others are from 2004. How did that come about?
I have quite a back log of songs I’ve written over the past decade, but back then my equipment was comparatively crude, and the recordings I have from back then reflect that. Initially when I started this album, I set out to write new material and only record that. Then a dear friend happened to ask me about re-recording an old song from back in the day that he loved. I decided to go for it, just to see how it would sound, and I was really pleased with how it turned out. At that point I realized that I have a lot of really good songs that could finally receive the proper treatment they’ve deserved all this time. Bringing those songs back to life has been enormously rewarding.

7) Do you have fun recording?
Like Jim Matheos said in a recent interview, “‘fun’ is a strong word.” Writing and recording can be a very rewarding and satisfying journey, but it’s certainly not without its frustrations. Some of the most beautiful music I’ve ever made has been the result of days, weeks, sometimes months of effort to get things just right.

8) How long does it take you to record a song, once it’s written?
I’ve been following this pretty closely over the past six years, and the average for me is about two hours worth of recording time for each minute of music. The song “dots and dashes” is 16:09, and I can tell you that, yes, it did, quite literally, take me 32 to 35 hours to record and mix that song. Basically, four or five days straight of nothing but working on that song, for 8-10 hours at a time. Draining, but very satisfying in the end.

9) What is your dream?
I’m living my dream. I’m writing and recording my own music, on my own terms. I’m surrounded by people I love, I have food, clothing, and shelter… I have everything I need. Compared to so many people in the world who struggle just to eat every day, I’m the richest man in the world.

10) Any advice for musicians just getting started, or looking for their “big break”?
Just do what you love, and do it for the joy of it. Another one of my heroes, producer Ken Scott, says that if you do it for the money and you don’t get the money, you’ll be unhappy. But if you love what you’re doing, you’ll be happy either way. I agree with him. Whether I’m cutting a guitar solo or cutting the grass, if I’m doing it for the joy of it, then I’ve already won.

Check out “dots and dashes” and all of Tim’s music for free at www.timbirchard.bandcamp.com

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Filed under Living a joyful life, Writing & recording original music

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